the art of escape

Escapology is the art of escaping from constraints or other traps.  The magicians who practice this mystify and thrill audiences by getting out of situations that most would deem impossible, and that may even be life-threatening.  Some of the constraints that they attempt to free themselves from are handcuffs, straitjackets, cages, barrels, steel boxes, water tanks, and coffins.

There are three types of escape performances.  The first is hidden, which is done behind a curtain, or inside a container, which may be done to protect trade secrets, but at the same time is sure to invite skepticism.  The second type is in full view, so that the audience may witness the magician struggle and writhe to free themselves.  The third kind is escape or die, which gives the performer a fixed time to escape or suffer a very public demise.  If unsuccessful, the magician may either drown, suffocate, or fall to their death.

The most famous escapologist in history is Harry Houdini who began his career breaking out of handcuffs, and went on to perform such famous stunts as escaping from a straitjacket while suspended from a crane, and freeing himself after being planted upside down in the Chinese Water Torture Cell.   One of his closest calls came in Santa Ana, California, in 1915 when he was buried under six feet of earth, and barely managed to claw his way out.  At the sight of a spasmodic hand emerging from the dirt, his assistants had to rush in and pull his unconscious body from what had nearly been his final resting spot.

Many people are fascinated by those who manage to get out of tight spots, because they themselves are in tight spots that they can’t get out of, sometimes physical ones, but more often ones that are situational, environmental, societal, financial, or only in their minds.  As a child, I had no control over what my Dad did or where my family life took me, so the only escape I could find was in reading about fictional characters who did the things I could only dream about.

Later, when I discovered alcohol, I found that my life could become almost as wild and free as one of these fictional characters when I drank.  My friends and I were waging a war against an Empire of Idiots, parents, teachers, coaches, cops, and we could say what we wanted to say and listen to the music we wanted to listen to, and no one could tell us otherwise.  I would go to a party and find myself making out with a girl I’d never even talk to under normal circumstances.  Then the next day it would be like Bill Bixby as the Hulk, waking up in a foreign field, with his clothes all torn up, knowing that something big had gone down, but unable to remember the details.

When I got out of college, I had fifteen thousand dollars in debt, which seemed like a mountain at the time, and when I went out in search of independence discovered that things were absurdly expensive and there was no sanctuary for those who desired an alternative path.  If you didn’t make enough money not only couldn’t you get by, you also had to face the perception that you weren’t working hard enough, or that you were getting what you deserved for not growing up and setting down your childish dreams.

There was no way out of this but to take jobs and work hard, then quit when I’d saved enough money and take whatever freedom I could.   The student loan that I had was a trap it felt like I’d never be free of, but I would take deferments when necessary, and ultimately wound up paying back five times what I’d borrowed. 

Relationships were another trap.  You’d fall in love and want the best.  Then you’d compromise until you discovered that meant neither party was getting what they really wanted.  No one was motivated to see the world like I was.  No one else was prepared to make the sacrifices that would be required to do so, and so I learned to live alone.  I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but no matter how kindly, or with what good intentions, you came into a relationship, someone always seemed to get hurt.

For twenty years I wrote and recorded songs, hoping that they’d be an investment, not that something huge would happen, but that the right thing would.  What I discovered was that no matter how much I put into my music, I simply couldn’t make other people care, and if you can’t do that, what you wind up with is a very expensive hobby.  When I found that out, I was prepared to tear down all the walls, and I did.

I escaped from my job, apartment, city, and even country, and began living out of a suitcase, only teaching contracts when I needed the money, the rest of the time wandering as far away as humanly possible, from the depths of the Caribbean Ocean to the top of the Himalayas.  I did my jobs well, but when they were over, I left.  I was friendly with others, but when it came time to say goodbye, I didn’t miss them.  As long as I had a little money in the bank, I went where my moods took me.   Airplanes, buses, boats, cars, taxis, and motorcycles were a way of life.  If I couldn’t get out of a situation, then I wouldn’t get into it.

Then COVID came along in 2020.  At that point, I was starting to feel a bit doomed anyway, getting older, without a stable base or reliable source of income.  My plan had been to try Hawaii again, where I’d been born and still envisioned a Return to Eden scenario.  After scoping out the Big Island for two weeks, I’d realized that I’d need to have to come up with something lucrative and steady to survive there, and that was nowhere in sight.

When I flew to Vietnam, my back was already against the wall.  I did some job interviews and had gotten a few offers, but the money was barely enough to live on.  The only thing I could think of was to go to China, but that didn’t thrill me either.  The feeling that had been mounting for some time, was that the gig was up.  It’s easy to romanticize doomed poets until you become one.  By then you don’t even care about poetry anymore.

When I had to leave Vietnam because of the pandemic and quarantine in a crack hotel in Buena Park, not far from Houdini’s nearly fatal buried alive stunt in Santa Ana, I knew that there was no way I was getting out of that room alive if I had to stay in there fourteen days in a row.  To stay calm would require enough alcohol to poison an army.  That then had led to a seizure and the loss of my driver’s license.  In a matter of months, I was suddenly in a camper in my Mom’s backyard with no way out and nowhere to go.

When you watch a movie that involves a swordfight, almost inevitably one swordsman will disarm the other and then hold the tip of his sword to his opponent’s throat.  When the vanquished one leans forward, blood starts to trickle over his Adam’s apple, and it will slowly begin to dawn on him that he is trapped, really, truly caught.  At that point, he may still be cocksure enough to wink and congratulate his foe, saying something to the effect of, “Well, you got me, sport!”

That is where I stood, with my back to the wall and a sword tip pressed into my throat.  If I reacted how I normally would, or put up a show of resistance, I’d be finished.  Although I was tired of living, that’s not the way I wanted to go out.

Pinned there like a butterfly, the blood trickling into my shirt collar, the only thing I could do was wink, put on a game smile, and make that valiant concession to life.

“Well, you got me sport.”

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