Child­hood in New Zealand dished up some for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences that seemed in­con­se­quen­tial but had a rud­der ef­fect last­ing decades. Mu­sic class was com­pul­sory up un­til ju­nior high (or ‘in­ter­me­di­ate,’ as it was re­ferred to down there, back then). A full class­room of 10-year olds war­bling out “El Con­dor Pasa” in qua­ver­ing falsetto, ac­com­pa­nied by ten­ta­tively blown recorder and ner­vously struck glock­en­spiel. A con­flu­ence of dis­cord that came to­gether in some eerie har­mony. “I’d rather be a ham­mer than a nail, yes I would, if I only could, I surely would …”

It’s funny how some things stick in the mind. That lyric, penned by Paul Si­mon and laid onto a score com­posed by Daniel Alo­mia Robles, got lodged in my pre-teen kid brain and resur­faced many years down the line when I threw my­self into a com­pletely un­re­mark­able decade as a spec­tac­u­larly av­er­age ama­teur moun­tain bike racer. I would hum it as I sat on the start line, sing it qui­etly to my­self as an af­fir­ma­tion that when the start gun fired I would be the ham­mer and ev­ery­one else would be the nails. Once every year or two it sorta worked, and I felt like the ham­mer. Most of the time, I was just one of hun­dreds of nails, get­ting pounded flat along with ev­ery­one else ex­cept for that one guy, the big ham­mer at the top of the podium. Rac­ing was never re­ally some­thing I man­aged to think of in terms of per­sonal achieve­ment, or self-im­prove­ment, or rac­ing the clock or the course. I al­ways looked at it in terms of whether I beat ev­ery­one else, or how badly ev­ery­one else beat me. Ham­mer, nail. Like Ricky Bobby said in “Tal­ladega Nights”: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Ad­mit­tedly, that wasn’t a very evolved world­view. Cling­ing to that sim­plis­tic, preda­tory way of think­ing prob­a­bly went a long way to­ward shap­ing the in­evitable burnout that killed my as­pi­ra­tions of ris­ing out of the anony­mous swamp and tran­scend­ing my lim­i­ta­tions to ul­ti­mately be­come a slightly-above-av­er­age-ama­teur moun­tain bike racer. Nev­er­the­less, I dog­mat­i­cally clung to those words, kept singing them to my­self (never in Paul Si­mon’s voice, al­ways in a child’s high reg­is­ter). I would use it as a mantra every spring as I flailed stub­bornly to­ward fit­ness with all the self-aware­ness of an al­li­ga­tor go­ing af­ter a piece of meat. In­ter­vals with no base miles? Sweet! Run­ning hill sprints without warm­ing up? Damn right, stretch­ing just slows your snap! Red-lin­ing the climbs? Car­diac ar­rhyth­mia is fun, es­pe­cially once you hit your 40s! Be the ham­mer! Nails are losers!

At some point re­cently it dawned on me that Paul Si­mon might not have writ­ten that lyric in ex­ul­ta­tion of preda­tory dom­i­nance. Maybe, just maybe, he was re­fer­ring to the el­e­men­tal and in­evitable strug­gle of ex­is­tence. But when you’re 10 years old, you see things in black and white. Of course I would rather be a ham­mer than a nail. Race you to the cor­ner! Sprint! Last one there eats boogers! If you ain’t first, you’re last! Nails are losers!

It took a long time to let go of all that self-pro­gram­ming.

Last weekend, I camped along a creek in the North­ern Sierra. Got up with the sun­rise, and took a long slow climb to Mills Peak. I had a lit­tle over two hours of solid ped­al­ing up that beast of a hill, and most of the time was spent think­ing about the lyrics to “El Con­dor Pasa.” I know that these “Grimy Hand­shakes” this year have been veer­ing into mem­o­ries and rever­ies, but bear with me. Life has been reg­u­larly serv­ing up re­minders of mor­tal­ity and the fi­nite na­ture of ev­ery­thing we know and do, and so I have been pro­cess­ing that through this col­umn. Sorry if it gets repet­i­tive.

Any­way, I climbed, re­sist­ing the old urges to ham­mer my­self into a sweat-stained ghost, try­ing to un­learn the old-dog habits and slow my roll, and thought about the rel­a­tiv­ity of ham­mers and nails. A ham­mer swings, pounds a nail and moves on. It ex­ists to pound nails and noth­ing else. Back in my con­struc­tion grunt days, it took about five swings of a Vaughn 24-ounce fram­ing ham­mer to slam a 16-penny coated sinker into a cou­ple pieces of Dou­glas fir. The older car­pen­ters all swung lighter ham­mers, and us young grunts swag­gered around with heavy ham­mers and sore el­bows. I never gave the nails much thought.

Ham­mer pounds the nail, and moves on. The nail en­dures. The pound­ing, that thing that seemed so pro­found to me once upon a time, is over in an in­stant. The nail holds two pieces of wood to­gether. Thou­sands of them hold a house to­gether. Without the nails, there would be no house. Long af­ter the ham­mer is gone, the nails are still there. The ham­mer is just a ham­mer, a simple tool. The nail, equally simple, is part of some­thing much big­ger.

I thought about this, and re­al­ized fi­nally that I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily rather be a ham­mer than a nail. There’s grace and no­bil­ity in be­ing the nail. I ped­aled smooth, took it easy, reached the top, sat and talked for a while to the dog liv­ing at the fire look­out. The dog didn’t have much to say about ham­mers or nails, but sure did like some jerky treats.

For years, I had won­dered about the wis­dom of teach­ing kids that song—so they’d rather be ham­mers than nails, spar­rows than snails. To my way of think­ing it fos­tered some man­i­fest des­tiny sense of food chain badassery. “There are win­ners and losers, hunters and prey. Don’t be a loser, don’t be prey.” As it turns out, I had for­got­ten some im­por­tant lyrics that bal­ance the whole tune. I started the de­scent, rocks ping­ing and a spin­drift of dust plum­ing from my tires, as a kid’s voice sang:

“I’d rather be a forest than a street, yes I would, if I could, I surely would.

I’d rather feel the earth be­neath my feet, yes I would, if I could, I surely would …”


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