I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in Kauai, a fact which will likely lessen the depth of pity you feel for me when you hear my sad story. At the end of this post, you may even find yourself wishing that the “bad” luck I encountered while traveling had found you instead.
My good friend Amy West just turned 40, and we joined her and her family in Kauai to celebrate, and to enjoy some of the most stunningly beautiful natural vistas this planet has to offer. It was my second trip to Hawaii’s northernmost island; my first visit was right out of high school. Twenty three years ago, my friend Dan Baron and I walked out of the Lihue airport with only our backpacks and a little cash, and spent weeks living a lifestyle somewhere in between nomadic vagabond and homeless hippie. We hiked the treacherous 11 mile Na Pali coastal trail, and camped (illegally) at Kalalau Beach alongside the long-term hippie residents (also camping illegally). The only one whose name I remember is Ron. He’d been a New York City cab driver in a previous incarnation — now he spent his time wandering nude through the forest, making bamboo flutes, and eating green papaya soup.
We camped at Kalalau until we ran out of food. Dan and I hiked back in one day, sharing our last packet of ramen noodles for lunch. We arrived at the trailhead exhausted, sun-baked, and dehydrated, and hiked/hitch-hiked our way back to Hanalei. I remember making myself something to eat, that evening, near a bench in the Hanalei Shopping Center. An older white lady approached me — a New Age type — and gave me a thorough scolding for hanging out at the mall, when I was surrounded by the beauty of nature. I didn’t have the strength to tell her that I’d already absorbed about as much Nature as was humanly possible. Nature, in the form of the Kalalau Trail, had chewed me up and spat me out.
Six weeks later, Dan and I made it back to California, notably thinner but alive and happy. Now, over two decades later, here I was again, back on the island — this time with my wife and daughter. This trip would be more conventional. We stayed in a cottage on Anini road (north shore, in Kilauea). We rented a white Jeep, and observed the speed limits. No illegal camping, no vagabonding.
We took trips to the beach, ate laulau and poke (with ice-cream or shave ice for desert), and drove over bridges that curved through treetops, half-expecting a dinosaur to poke its head from the dense jungle foliage (Jurassic Park was filmed in Kauai, and the flora does have a distinct prehistoric look). One day I hiked the first part of the Kalalau Trail — my old nemesis. On the way back, a young man passed me, practically falling down the steep path. He was thin, brown from the sun, carried camping gear on his back, and had a thousand yard stare in his eyes. It’s the Kalalau Trail-in-one-day look — I remember it well.
I collected my family from the beach and we drove back to our cottage. As we drove up I noticed the door was open. I remembered closing it — was someone cleaning the place? I walked in and called out hello. No answer. A draft. The bedroom window is shattered — shards of glass cover the floor and bedspread. My Macbook Pro is missing, along with my favorite pair of headphones. Burgled!
The Five Stages of Fuck My Laptop Has Been Stolen
The crime is an anomaly — we learn that nobody in this neighborhood even bothers to lock their doors most of the time. The thief grabbed and ran, missing my wife’s laptop, her nice camera, and some jewelry. It could have been much worse. Still, I’m in shock. I’m angry at myself — my laptop was out of sight but my power supply had been left out, visible to anyone walking up on the porch. Maybe it was stupid even to bring a laptop on vacation. I’m also furious with the wretched lowlife who nicked my favorite gear. We file a police report with a very nice Kauai police officer. The owner of our house quickly arranges a nearby place for us to stay that night. Within an hour the situation is basically handled, and I’m left to stew with my thoughts and my empty laptop bag.
I had Prey installed, so I check Kia’s laptop to see if the thief has gone online. They haven’t. It’s likely they didn’t get past my login password, though they could have easily used the guest account. I know I have a recent backup at home, and I guess that insurance will cover most of the loss, but still I feel bummed out. After shock and anger comes sadness at the state of humanity, self-pity for my own misfortune, and finally irritation at the inconvenience of not actually having a laptop.
Turning It Around
I’m still on vacation, and I’m determined to do some mental Akido so that this singular event doesn’t define and ruin my experience. I start by drinking some rum and reading a few chapters of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. That helps a little. Kia and Tesla Rose give me lots of hugs and that brings me up a notch. Next I resolve to attempt to forgive the nincompoop bastard who stole my shit. I meditate, and fill my heart with compassion. It helps, a lot. I’ll still try to track the fucker down with my stealth hunter-killer software, but there’s no reason to do that with rancor in my heart. I will seek justice, not vengeance, and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.
Finally, around a day later, I manage to entirely reframe the experience. Naming is important. We think in words, and the words we choose determine the emotional tenor of our thoughts. I begin to call the experience my “complimentary computer upgrade service.” As I browse blazingly fast 2011 Macbook Pros on apple.com (to be paid for with my anticipated insurance reimbursement check), Kia looks at her un-stolen 2008 workhorse and starts to wonder if she got the better end of the deal or not.
Now I’m home, typing this post on my old 15″ Powerbook G4. The stolen machine still hasn’t shown up on Prey — either the thief is sophisticated and immediately did a clean wipe (in which case I don’t have to worry about the privacy of my data), or they’re just using the guest account offline. Or maybe Prey just isn’t working. Or maybe they decided the password-protected laptop was useless, and tossed in the trash. I have no idea, and will likely never find out.
My data loss was minimal — mostly just some notes that I was easily able to reconstruct. I’m looking forward to buying a new machine. Emotionally, it doesn’t sting anymore to think or talk about the event. In fact, I’m pretty happy with my Kauai vacation. My mental Akido worked — I’ve successfully turned my back luck into good luck.
Would my techniques (support from family and friends, forgiveness, and reframing) work with any degree of disaster? I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. As disasters go, this one was pretty mild, and I’m grateful for that. I do think that when we find ourselves down, we can choose to climb up or keep digging. I’m glad, in this case, I didn’t lose myself to self-pity, rage, or grumpiness.
Spin usually refers to political spin. Spin doctors interpret events to put them in a more favorable light, leading to situations where both sides declare victory. In our personal lives, there’s no reason we can’t do the same thing. We can spin all events so that they favor us. When luck deals us a low card, we can change the game to low-ball. Essentially, we can cheat. Instead of “accepting our fate,” we can focus on the positive, and spin the negative so that it becomes positive as well. When life gives you lemons …
Why does this work? Who is the audience inside of us that responds to reframing, to internal spin-doctoring? Are we, as individuals, in fact made up of communities of sub-agents that are looking for direction from a higher executive function? I think we are, and that forms the basis of our ability to metaprogram ourselves.
I suppose there’s a risk that over-relying on mental reframing could make us passive. We shouldn’t try to fix every situation with an attitude shift — if we can change reality to our advantage (and the advantage of others), then that’s the better course. Still, there’s plenty of shit that happens that we can’t change. We can’t change the past. We can’t change what other people think about us or feel towards us. We can’t change some aspects of our physical appearance, or deeply imprinted psychological tendencies.
What we can do is change the game, load the dice, and twist our luck so that we always end up on top and are never victimized. Try it — it’s fun.