YEARS ago, when I had a problem with watery eyes, the examining doctor gave me a choice: an expensive eye solution or a quick exercise to rest eyes strained from staring too long at a computer screen.
I chose the exercise: roll the eyes and stare off at the distance before returning to screen-gazing.
This prescription for dry eyes was a Eureka! moment I try to extend to other spheres.
For instance, I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to become empty. On my computer, there’s a wastebasket icon that fills up with the files I want to trash. I click the icon of overflowing e-trash. There’s a sound of crumpling paper and Eureka! the wastebasket becomes “em p t y. ”
Not so with people. On road trips, I watch people watching the road. They’re not traveling. They’re not waiting for anyone. But for all the seeming inactivity, they don’t strike me as empty.
According to an online dictionary, “eureka” expresses the joy of discovery. The exclamation originates from the early seventeenth-century Greek word, “heureka,” for “I have found it!”
Archimedes reportedly uttered “eureka” when he discovered a way to determine the purity of gold.
For the contemporary person, I hazard that the value of emptiness is more than its weight in gold. Emptiness doesn’t refer here to a lack of meaning or purpose. It’s the mathematical equivalent of having no members or elements inside.
Remember walking inside a room before it contained anything? Imagine being in a room so cluttered and then Eureka! being surrounded by nothing. In human terms, there is no equivalent for the computer function to instantaneously “empty” the self.
However, imagine the possibilities for creating if one could empty oneself at will. For reinvention, healing, erasing, starting anew. Or just for escaping. The moment one gains consciousness is part of a continuum of endless but diminishing discoveries.
In a Nov. 4, 2016 article in The New York Times International Edition, I found one artist’s attempt to empty. Ed Ruscha, 78, paints “the micro and the macro,” according to the director of the Gagosian Gallery in London, where 15 new works of Ruscha were displayed.
Against paintings of skies and mountains, dust and discarded wood are words painted in diminishing order. Ruscha uses a typeface he created: Boy Scout Utility Modern.
For all their randomness, the words resemble the disjointed parts of a message sent intermittently. For instance, the work “Silence With Wrinkles” has this word sequence: “Silence” is printed boldest, followed by, in diminishing order, “Roomtone,” “Whisper,” “Commotion,” and other illegible words.
For the prices his works command (a 1963 painting commanded $30.4 million in a Christie’s auction in November 2014), the artist lives in Los Angeles and drives to a cabin in the California desert every week or so to attend to “‘events of plain living’— fixing a faucet, feeding a bird, watering a neglected t r ee.”
The Gagosian director explained the philosophical preoccupation of the latest Ruscha works as an offshoot of maturity: “He’s also getting older, so he’s starting to think about bigger issues.”
I like better Ruscha’s explanation for his desert retreats: “I like the no-change part of the desert.”
These buttons hit Eureka: a dripping faucet answering the conundrum of time, bird-feeding to locate our place in the universe, and a dying tree as a meditation on mortality.