Empty Hands Part Five – Oh Lord Stuck in Samsara Again . . .
Thinking you hold the root,
you hold only a branch,
a stem – why not let your hand
become a hand again
empty as the root you seek
– Peter Levitt
So, well . . .
The old hard drive crashed.
Choked. Froze. Crumpled in the corner, mouthing empty words like a goldfish in a bowl, just before you find it floating belly up and have to decide whether to confess to your kid what happened, or sneak off to the store before he/she gets home and buy a new one, hoping with desperately crossed-fingers that you can pull off the switcheroo.
No note, no final soliloquy, just . . .
A fine word, by the way. It comes from capot, meaning "trickless", or "zero score"—a French term from the 16th Century card game Piquet. During the Hundred Years War, the Germans picked up the game from their enemies, and it quickly became en vogue among La Boche. Capot became kaput, and eventually, the term seeped into the culture and took on a more universal meaning. Something dark and final, with the slightest edge of “fuck it." The Germans always did have a knack for words that encompass grand epistemological concepts, even when they didn't exactly invent them.
Andre Gide, the Nobel Prize-winning French writer, once wrote that as a child, upon hearing his family's German maid shout up the stairs to her daughter to come gather the wash, that he thought some unspeakable violence was about to occur. "Why does the German language, when shouted, always sound like it is expressing anger?" he wondered. That was more than a hundred years ago. Today, if that question really needed answering (and I don't think it really does,) with just a few minutes of Triumph of the Will playing in the background, I suppose it could be easily done.
The point is, a rather large chunk of my digitized life is gone.
An English word (also of French origin) that I imagine has more than one meaning for a certain boy wizard.
Unsurprisingly, I am not the disciplined type who regularly backs up his files in case of just such an occasion. I am the one who waits until catastrophe strikes and then with the help of strong drink and Ativan, suppresses all urges to hurl the treacherous motherfucker against the wall.
An Italian plea to the Virgin Mother—which on recent re-viewings of The Sopranos, sounds a lot like Marone, and which has sparked some linguistic debates among certain non-Italian-speaking people in the room. The matter, as of press time, is still unresolved—though I know I'm right.
And no, since you ask, even if you held a gun to my head, I could not tell you exactly how much money is in my bank account. Actually, probably not even close. We'd just have to go to the ATM and I'd hold my breath the same way I do when I'm getting money out for myself, ready for the machine to beep its refusal and for that whispered millisecond of life remaining before the bullet pierces my brain.
Both my brother and mother are excellent, reliable computer-fixer type people, but even they could not resuscitate the poor thing. All of it is gone.
It's a strange feeling.
Helpless, violent relief.
I was actually on a pretty good roll, writing-wise. Usually, I am pretty consistent about printing out hard copies, as I often can't stand editing straight on the computer. In recent years, I have stubbornly edged into the inevitable digital world, but I still require being able to sit outside with the work, amidst wind and grasshoppers and the humming twilight, and put actual bloody ink to the paper.
I did not, however, print a single copy of the recent installment of Empty Hands, which was originally subtitled "Nirvana By Any Other Name"—a good fifteen pages of writing, notes and quotes, all sucked wholesale into the ether. I had originally conceived a sprawling end to this series, an episode in two parts, like the final season of a certain Best Mob Show of All Time. Or, if you wish, a certain, well . . . Best Mind-Numbingly Ubiquitous, Bespectacled Boy Wizard Franchise of All Time…
Which suddenly begs the absolutely digressive question: Was that annoying little fuck Annakin considered a boy wizard? If so, how did he ever become as cool as Darth Vader? Which (okay, here we go, now I’m really digressing horribly and thankful I’m not a neurosurgeon or something that requires actual focus for more than three seconds), reminds me of the time way back in 2000 (In the year 2000!) I was attempting against very steep odds to fathom the appeal of Dumbass Fuckface the Second and his diabolical cronies, well before his actual . . . ahem . . . "election," and all the ensuing wreckage, and I posed to a group of friends, in admittedly one of my all-time nerdiest moments, the question: “Think about it, if you had to vote for no-nonsense Darth Vader (who you'd definitely rather have a beer with, right?) or that whiny little bitch Luke Skywalker, you'd vote for Vader, wouldn't you?”
The answer from the group was emphatically: “Um . . . No.”
Okay, so I admit it was a stretch. There probably is no actual method for understanding why Americans are so fucking stupid and gullible and are consistently duped into fighting against their own self-interest. But it is hard to just quit trying altogether.
Anyway, I had planned, after winding through subjects such as Kurt Cobain, Paris, Ethan Hawke, baseball, PJ Harvey, Mishima, and Leonard Cohen, to have the whole thing just snap off right in the middle of the last sentence, with a certain Journey song cranking full blast in the backgr . . .
But the day I pressed the Power button and was met with only a black screen, my creative spirit immediately shrunk down to a tiny white blip, and disappeared. The basic functions of this machine were quickly restored by my brother, who makes it seem easy, though I still try not to ask for help too often. (His favorite T-shirt says “No, I Will Not Fix Your Computer.”) Yet I couldn't even bring myself to open up WordPad (I lost Word in the crash, for which until recently, I had no replacement), without getting a little nauseous. How to start over? It felt degrading to even attempt recapturing what I had already written. So it sat there festering. Weeks went by. I watched all twenty-something hours of Ken Burns’ Baseball and then all of Breaking Bad as well as Manhattan and Trainspotting and Goodfellas for the millionth time; read magazines instead of books. Stared at the wall. Slept badly. No writing.
Then finally one sunny fall day, in the twisting throes of creative guilt, I recalled the opening chapter of the book City Dharma, by Arthur Jeon. In it, he explained how he had written almost the entire manuscript for the book, which he intended as a “gritty and informal” exploration of spirituality in relation to the modern urban lifestyle, when his apartment was burglarized and his computer was stolen. One month away from his deadline, and like me, he had not sufficiently backed up his files, and the hard copies were way out of date. After the initial shock and dealing with police and insurance companies, venting to friends, tearing his hair out, being paralyzed by anger and regret, he finally recognized it for the opportunity it was.
“[T]o lose or be denied everything I desired is to be offered the… spiritual lesson that nothing is necessary for happiness . . . What is here is right now.”
The acceptance of this reality did not come easily. At first he could only grasp it intellectually, but with time it became an actual relief, “a final shedding” and a chance to start over.
It made me realize that this entire series began as a meditation on loss and living without the things that had seemingly disappeared from my life.
Hemingway famously lost nearly all of his earliest stories in one fell swoop. Or rather his wife Hadley did, when she left the suitcase containing them unattended in the Gare de Lyon, on her way to meet him in Switzerland. Oh those bumbling broads! Can’t trust them with anything important, can you Hem? He wrote to Pound, shortly after: “I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia [sic]? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”
Pound himself, who was rather verbose at times, as well an avid supporter of the even more verbose T.S. Eliot, was famous for “inventing” Imagism with his poem In a Station of the Metro, which he pared down from thirty words to just fourteen, rendered in just two lines. Of course, he didn’t so much invent anything as much as basically co-opt the ancient haiku form, but that is another story. Either way, it is probably true that he said “Good, etc.” when he got the news of his protégé’s loss.
Well, ol’ Hemingstein (his joke by the way), reached the mood eventually. Didn't really have a choice, I suppose, if he still wanted to be a writer. So, he started over from scratch and wrote some of the most influential prose in the English language. Who knows if doing so is exactly what propelled his revolutionary genius. At the very least, he got a good chapter out of the debacle for A Moveable Feast, a beautifully prosaic and somewhat vicious slagfest aimed at many of the people that had surrounded him in his early Paris days. Oh, and at the very most, he won a frickin' Nobel Prize.
T.E. Lawrence (aka "Lawrence of Arabia") lost the thousand-page manuscript for Seven Pillars of Wisdom, also in a train station (writers avoid trains!). Even after re-writing it entirely from memory, he still always maintained that he preferred the original. “It was shorter, snappier, and more truthful than the present version,” he claimed.
I feel for the poor bastard. He was probably right. I mean, I guess only he would be able to make that call. But he went ahead and re-wrote it anyway. He did, after all, have a helluva story to tell, and had told it many times already. I'm sure that in the second wash, some parts came out clearer, more refined, with more color. Some turned pink or got bleach spots. Others, like the proverbial sock, just disappeared forever…
* * *
The following story was related to me through a friend in AA, thus the following “God” references that don’t necessarily mean, you know, God—just your own conception of a "Higher Whatever," which is what I think is the actual AA terminology. But I'll use the word here, because that's how it was told to me, and it's a concise and efficient way to express the concept. Names and dates have been changed, not necessarily to protect the innocent, but because I don’t actually know them. They are “anonymous” after all, yes?
So anyway, let's call him Jim—about ten years sober and one of those tanned, tall, silver fox outdoorsy types, who was probably a lacrosse star at Stanford and now has some kind of financial consulting firm that rakes in ridiculous amounts of cash, especially now that he's not blowing it all on coke and pills and single malt scotch. He planned a month long vacation this last summer with his thirteen-year-old son to hike the entire Northwest Trail. He'd never accomplished such a rigorous trek, nor had he ever taken so much time off of work all at once. It was the trip of a lifetime, something he'd always dreamed of, and something he was eager to knock off his bucket list.
Well . . . it absolutely dumped rain the first three days they were there. They slogged through endless troughs of mud at half the pace they'd planned on, couldn't even get a fire going, stared out at bleak, black skies from their tent as fat raindrops relentlessly assaulted the canvas just above their heads. On the evening of the third day, he looked at his son and asked him "Are you having fun?" The son, let's call him Billy, lowered his head and shook it solemnly. They still had twenty-eight days of this. Jim had already opted to miss the first visit of his daughter's fiancée back home, a thousand miles away, in order to make this trip. As it was, he wasn't having fun either.
"All right, Champ. We can fix this. Let's do something else. We've got time. We'll get a hotel and plan another trip. A whole new deal. Whattya think?" His son's face lit up right there like a candle. It was exactly what he wanted to hear. They nodded at each other, laughing as the distant thunder rumbled through the valley and the rain battered down even harder on their tent.
That night at the Holiday Inn, dry and warm and relieved, eating bad Chinese takeout, with Billy playing handheld video games, and CNN bantering away on the TV, Jim made some calls and they arranged to go back to California. They were going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail—another several-hundred-mile journey, which included a trek over Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he wanted this even more than he wanted the Northwest Trail. It was the right thing. It was all falling together.
Being a man of efficiency and execution, even before he had become sober, arrangements were quickly made and the pair were soon at their new destination, humping it sometimes twenty miles a day and traversing their way up the slopes of the 14,500 foot peak. They fished and camped and he soon realized he might be pushing the boy harder than maybe he was comfortable with, but he was sure it would all be good in the long run. Hard work, discipline, accomplishment, and of course, fun. The best part was that he felt a real, lasting bond growing between them, something he had long wished for, and which he hoped could make a dent in the vacuum of those early blotto years, for which he was indefinitely in debt. But it was good. They laughed and told stories and secrets and who knows what else, two men virtually alone together. In the massive swath of wilderness, tens of thousands of square miles, they were perhaps two of maybe fifty people at the most. They ran into a few along their way. Chatted amiably, shared the camps and fishing spots. But for the most part, they were alone.
About a week into the trip, at a pretty high elevation, maybe ten or twelve thousand feet, Jim was reaching over for a fishing lure, and his old sports injury, which he'd guarded so carefully this whole trip, snuck up on him when he least expected it. His entire hip dislocated, and he collapsed to the ground in torturous, agonizing pain. Billy froze at first, not sure at all what to do, and his father was in so much pain he couldn't speak. The boy knew the nature of the injury, and thought he might try to relocate the hip, but he was afraid of making things worse. He took a breath and tried not to panic.
The ranger station was too far, but he remembered the fishing party camped about a mile back down the trail. He told his father he was going for help and came back with two men and their adult sons. By then Jim had found a way to lie so that the pain was somewhat bearable, and he could speak. "Any of you guys a doctor?" he asked, trying to cover his hopefulness with an edge self-deprecation.
"I am," said one of the older men.
A tiny burst of light crackled in Jim's brain. He smiled weakly.
"You wouldn't happen to be an orthopedic surgeon, would you?"
"Yes, in fact I am."
Jim started laughing so hard that his whole body surged with pain. He had to force himself to stop and take long, deep breaths to keep from blacking out. The others looked at each other, aware of the joke, but unsure how to react.
"How'd you hurt yourself?" the man asked, after waiting until Jim was somewhat coherent. Jim explained the injury as best as he could between hard breaths and occasional groaning.
The man was in fact who he said he was, and immediately sent the two sons to hike the five miles down to the ranger station. Then he and the other man and Billy spent the next hour trying to re-set the hip. They couldn't get it right, however, and the pain was excruciating. They finally gave up and decided the only option was to somehow get Jim to a hospital—the nearest of which was hundreds of miles away. Meanwhile, they would have to just wait for the sons to return with the ranger. All Jim had to keep him semi-comfortable was Ibuprofen.
"I wish I had something stronger," said the doctor," but I don't carry morphine or anything with me up here. Didn't expect to find you here, looking like a wounded soldier on the battlefield."
"I got a bit of bourbon back at the camp," said the other man, but Jim explained he was sober, and even under such extreme circumstances it would be unwise to break his program. Get some booze in him and who knew when he would stop. He'd probably end up crawling off into the wilderness like some wounded animal and dropping off a cliff somewhere.
The sons returned as quickly as they could with the ranger, who had already called in a helicopter, and Jim and his son were soon in the air, with all their gear, on the way to the hospital. Billy, despite all the stress of the day, or perhaps because of it, could not hide his excitement at being in a helicopter for the first time, soaring over the snow-capped mountains. He gaped and pointed and exclaimed at all the sights. Jim couldn't help but take some pleasure in what seemed to be the most fun Billy had had so far on the trip.
So, after all the false starts and a stay in the hospital, Jim found himself back home with more than a week left in his vacation. He was not happy about it. He moped about the house, stewing in his own defeat. He gritted his teeth and fumed when he thought of all the obstacles that had been thrown in his way that he couldn't overcome. His daughter was elated that he'd made it back in time to meet her fiancée, but he was grim and distant, and he felt like something was slipping away from him. Yet he couldn't catch it.
Finally, with only a few days left before his return to work, he stood with his coffee, looking out the window at the rising dawn, and he had a revelation. The first smile in days rose within him, and he suddenly felt content. He went to a meeting that night and told the whole story.
"And after this relentless dream of proving I could conquer these places," he said in closing," after this driving selfish need that came before everything else, it took me some time to realize that God had other plans for me. The harder I pushed, the more I was blinded, and the harder He pushed back. He wanted me to look at things differently. To see that good things can come from all of your expectations being subverted. This trip brought me closer to my son than I ever could have imagined. We've been through something together we'll never forget. And I got to meet my daughter's fiancée, and though I've been a shit about it, I know it's made her happy. I have free time to spend with my wife and my family. You know, there is God in everything. In even the worst, most painful things. Maybe more there than anywhere else. You just have to look for Him and you'll find Him."
Well, I'm not sure if God killed my hard drive. If He did, that actually seems a little petty. But, well, "mysterious ways", as they say.
Hard to tell if this is a hiccup or a whole new direction. Maybe I'll do just what I meant to do in the first place. Who cares if I revealed the ending. There's still some mystery there, right? It'll be like Olivier talking to Hoffman in Marathon Man, telling him exactly what he's doing as he pries at his rotten tooth.
Speaking of that, it reminds me of the famous interaction between those two actors on the set, oft recounted in acting circles. The story is apocryphal, but no less effective. It goes that Hoffman, the quintessential Method actor, stayed up for three nights in order to get into the mindset of the character, who had done the same. When Olivier saw him enter, he was appalled at his appearance. Hoffman explained he was trying to get as close to the state of the character as possible. Olivier's face curled into a mirthful sneer.
"My Dear Boy," he mused, "why don't you just try acting?"
I relayed this story to an acting teacher years ago, in order to impress him with my in depth knowledge of his trade. He was of course familiar with it.
"Thing about that is: Olivier will give me a great Show. But Hoffman . . . Hoffman will take me for a Ride."
Well folks, here's to making it a great Show and a great Ride.
See you in another six months. I'm sure of it.
"Fish die belly-upward and rise to the surface; it is their way of falling"
(NEXT! Part 6 – Only God Knows . . . )
Catch up on earlier editons of Empty Hands here: