Welcome to the Machine

I’m fond of metaphors. In fact – with apologies to Will Rogers – I never metaphor I didn’t like. Here’s one that seems rather apt to me lately:

Life is a Pachinko machine.

Let me explain. I’ve been getting a bit older recently; this may have been happening to some of you as well. In fact, on April 13th I will be fifty. I was brooding on this disturbing fact a while back, trying to determine what bothers me the most about it. Is it the gradual physical deterioration? No, that’s not it. I do have some problems I didn’t have in 1980 – in particular my knees, after thirty grueling years of Hung Ga kung fu, are getting awfully bad – but generally I’m in good shape, and I’m as strong as an ox. Is it that I’m getting ever closer to death? Not really. Death is always nearby, whether we acknowledge it or not, and as Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death – I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

On balance, things are better than they were in my youth – I have a lovely wife, outstanding offspring, material comforts, and, at last, some understanding of the ways of the world. I’ve made hundreds of records at studios all over the world, and have begun a fascinating second career as well. The turbulence and anger of my early days is gone, replaced by a mellow appreciation of life that may one day grow into actual wisdom. So what’s the problem?

Here’s where the Pachinko machine comes in. I’m sure most of you know what Pachinko is – a game similar to pinball, popular in Japan, in which steel balls are dropped onto the top of a vertical board studded with nails. As the balls fall, they bounce off the nails in random ways, eventually ending up in holes at the bottom. Some holes represent a valuable outcome, but most don’t.

When a Pachinko ball starts its journey, all the way at the top, there’s no telling where it might end up. But each nail is a decision, and each decision reduces the set of possible outcomes. When the ball is close to the bottom, very few options remain.

And that’s what’s different now. When I was a child, anything was possible – my future was maximally indeterminate. But no longer. I have made a lot of choices in my life; I’ve caromed off an awful lot of those little nails. And while the choices I have made have worked out quite well, at fifty I have to face the fact that there a great many things I am simply never going to be or do. Research scientist, surgeon, fighter pilot, rock star, astronaut, gigolo – just to name a few – are all mighty unlikely. And as more time goes by, and fewer of those nails remain below me, the number of available paths will keep getting smaller.

But take heart: the metaphor isn’t perfect. The difference between a Man and a Pachinko ball is that a Man can, if he learns how, have a say in which way he bounces. The problem, though, is that we often don’t see the little nails coming, and in fact we can be so deeply asleep that we are aware of them only after we’ve already bounced off. The answer – so simple, but so very difficult – is to live more consciously, to try to be present in every moment.

But how?

Well, here’s the amazing secret, the Wisdom of the Ages in a nutshell:

All we have to do to be more conscious is to remember to try.

To realize this while one is still at the top of the machine is asking too much; but to come to this understanding at all is a gift, and to own this simple truth while there are still a few rows of nails left can make all the difference.

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