AND OTHER LESSONS BEHIND LIFE’S LYRICS
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 …”