Lacking All Conviction

things fall apart; the center cannot hold

Category: Uncategorized

Hey, man. Got a light?

by spastictactician

I thought I would always be a smoker. For very nearly 20 years, I sucked back over a pack a day and, honestly, I enjoyed most of them. I loved the lung pinch, the head rush, the instant stress relief, the distinct smell of the first drag, the familiar flick-tap knocking the ash. Most of all, I loved the social lubricant smoking provides. The instant camaraderie with other smokers. Even the disdain heaped on by non-smokers gave me something to puff up and fight against.

I also loved the time smoking gives you: The 8 minute break every hour or so that I used so often to gather my thoughts, to calm down, to work shit out. There are even micro breaks. Those moments in a conversation where you need just a couple seconds. Take a few moments to light up, to take a drag, to stub it out…whatever. Those little breaks helped me hide just how socially awkward I really am. They let me sift through what I had heard and formulate a response that wasn’t weird or dumb or creepy. Every person I have successfully conversed with in a smoky bar, break room or bus stop owes the cigarettes a debt for ensuring that they left the conversation without thinking “Damn, what a tool.”

I envy the people I know who still get to smoke. I miss it. I need it still, and it’s been very close to 8 months since my last smoke. Once or twice a day, I absent-mindedly start a smoking ritual. I get up from my chair and start drifting toward an old smoking spot. I roll down my car window as soon as I get in. I reach for my pocket when I walk out of a building. Occasionally, when I stop myself, I have a moment where I can smell that first drag. I can taste it, too. That first one is more acrid than the rest. When this happens, I get a craving that sits in the bottom tips of my lungs. It begs for the pinch. That rolling sting that billows down the front of the lungs and pours into the bottom, forcing that small, lovely spasm. I exhale long and strong when this happens. The kind of deep exhale that pushes from the deepest section of the chest. Up the backs of the lungs, richly through the throat and funneled gently up the back of the nose. Out the nostrils as my head pushes back, neck arching, eyes closed. I even get the beginning of the head rush, only to have it stop short, replaced by a sense of disappointment so acute that I just bit my lip now as I wrote about it.

My fingertips are twitching like crazy. My lips itch, missing the dangling filter.

I’m not even close to convinced that I’ll ever get over all the addiction symptoms. I don’t imagine I’ll ever find anything else as effective at supporting me in the specific ways I require. I don’t get angry more often than I did when I smoked, but I have discarded the only way I knew guaranteed to take the edge off, to begin the calming process. I don’t stew in stress constantly, but I do waste more time using inferior relief methods. I don’t totally botch every conversation, but I don’t leave the good impressions I used to.

Three years ago, a friend of mine invited me on a short, uphill hike. My wife, my 1 year old son, my friend, and I set out on a hot, late July day through a dappled mixed cedar/bamboo forest. We crossed a small creek and, at that point began a relatively steep climb. There were steps carved into the trail in steeper areas and plenty of handy, graspable trees for support. Within a minute, I was dripping sweat, but so was everybody. Within another minute, I was wheezing.

I’ve always prided myself on being able to keep going despite physical discomfort. I’m a really fat man and, at that time, I was the kind of guy who never went anywhere without my current pack and a backup pack of smokes. Despite these impediments, I had never really been unable to get where I wanted to go under my own power. This day was no different. I got up that fucking hill. When I got to the top, however, I thumped down on my ass and gasped as I fumbled to get a smoke lit. My head was throbbing so hard, my vision was trembling with each pulse. My eyes were being punched from behind. My teeth felt like they were gonna fall out. The smoke helped, but it was ten minutes before I could get to my feet again.

The hike lasted another 90 minutes, and I made it alive, on my own two feet. My friend carried my son, though. I needed everyone to stop for me three more times while I recovered with more smokes. When we got back to the parking lot, I swore I’d never even consider it again.

8 months ago, I was diagnosed with bronchial asthma (for the second time). I was pretty much constantly choking and coughing up slime. I started on inhaled steroids and quit smoking. I didn’t *decide* to quit, I just couldn’t physically smoke. My body took the choice away from me.

For 6 months, I felt virtually none of the positive physical effects that quitting smoking should bring. I got my medication increased, though, and I now feel like breathing isn’t an issue. I’ve also been walking an average of 4000 steps more a day (according to the pedometer on my phone) than I had been prior to this April.
Today, my 4 year old son, my 2 year old son and I parked in the same lot I’d sworn never to revisit. We set out to reach the first place I collapsed last time. The day was hot and humid, and I still soaked my clothes with sweat in the first minute. No wheezing, though. We destroyed that hike. Up and down in no time, with plenty left in the tank.

This marks the first time I’ve been honestly glad I quit. And the first thing other than my own resolve preventing me from chasing that lung pinch. Knowing, as I do now, that my kids like to hike, I’m gonna need to maintain this whole easy breathing thing.

 

Spastic Tactician

July 25, 2012

Just ask a ninja. He’ll tell ya.

by spastictactician

I attract weirdos.  They must see me as some kind of kindred spirit, or whatever, because they really do seem comfortable interacting with me.

Case in point:

When I first came to Japan, in 2003, I spoke seven words of Japanese (karate, banzai, kamikaze, ninja, samurai, Toyota and ninja again).  My expectations of what Japan was like were comically different than what I encountered when I actually arrived.  I barely saw ANY ninjas and, try as I might to convince myself that this was only because they didn’t *want* me to see them, I had pretty quickly come to the conclusion that this wasn’t going to be a Sho Kosugi movie, after all.

Still reeling with culture shock, and in an absolutely airtight bubble of incomprehension, I stood, one day, on a street corner in a very busy section of Osaka, waiting for my company assigned roommate to show up in order to take me to the city office, so I could register myself as an alien.  It was hot, crowded, confusing and the corner carried just enough familiarity to frustrate me (I was standing next to a Subway sandwich shop, but I couldn’t read any of the menu items, and all the pictures showed items different from those I knew from home.).

Enter the weirdo.  This guy in a white business shirt (no tie) came loping out of the subway (not sandwiches, trains) entrance and into the bright sunshine.  He strolled once around the little square that made up the corner and came to a stop directly in front of me and stood there, expressionless for an uncomfortable amount of time.  Like, right in front of me.

I sputtered something at him.  Probably something like “kochiwachi”, or some other nonsense that I hoped sounded something like a possible Japanese greeting.  For a moment, he did nothing.  Then he spoke a short phrase* in guttural Japanese, finishing with an expectant look.

I had not the faintest idea what he had said.  There were absolutely no gestures or body language of any kind that could help me understand.  I waited for him to catch on that I didn’t understand and, after ten seconds, or so, he did.  He repeated the same phrase, exactly as before, and finished with precisely the same expectant look.  It was not helpful.

After a moment, I merely shrugged and told him, in English, “Sorry.  I don’t understand Japanese.”

Well, you would’ve thought I’d impregnated his sister.

The dude stormed off with a rather impressive scowl.  Not too far, though.  He completed a quick circuit of the square again, and ended up right back in my face.  The scowl had softened slightly, but was still noticeable, as was the growl in his voice.  At this point, I really just wanted to undo whatever damage I’d done and make him happy.  I smiled at him and gave him a look that suggested (I hoped) that I’d be very pleased to try harder this time around, if only he’d do a slightly better job of expressing himself.

Rather than try something different, he repeated the same phrase, only more angrily.

After two more failed attempts to bridge our communication gap, I had grown weary of the shenanigans and kind of pissed off with his presumptuously displayed frustration.  When he once again circled back and stood face to face I didn’t wait for him to start again.  I raised my voice and said that I hadn’t learned the fucking phrase since he’d last foisted it at me, and he could fuck right off rather than try again.  Then I settled my gaze on something distant and waited for him to go away.

Well, you would’ve thought I’d impregnated his other sister and put pictures of her on the internet.

He actually spat.  Hard.  Then, rather than just circle, he moved in really close, backing me nearly into a row of parked bicycles.  He clenched his whole face and forced out a strained “I….am…Japanese….Yakuza!” (Yakuza is, essentially “mafia” in Japanese and was, now that you mention it, the eighth Japanese word I knew.)

I didn’t know much about Yakuza, but, from what I’d seen in movies, they were a lot bigger and tougher looking than this guy.  I didn’t believe him.  Seeing the disbelief in my face, or just reacting to my lack of pants shitting, the guy tore his shirt open, popping the top three buttons off into the street, revealing the deeply, intricately tattooed chest he’d been hiding.

Well.  From what I knew, this tended to indicate that my disbelief had been incorrectly placed.  It looked like he really was a gangster.

I passed through a pretty wide range of emotions, pretty quickly.  I was immediately frightened, then more frightened, then worried, then confused, then kind of pissed off.  He wasn’t doing anything.  Just standing there, in a wrecked shirt, huffing and puffing.  He wasn’t threatening me, or attacking me, or even looking like he might start to do either of those things.

Just as I began to get the feeling that I should just make a cartoonish escape, the guy reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a shiny mobile phone.  He opened it up, pushed one button and held it to his ear.  After a moment, he barked something harsh and spun around to look into the intersection. Just then, a car pulled u-turn and screeched to a halt right in front of him.  He leapt into the back seat, had a very brief conversation with the two men inside, then got out and walked quickly toward me with a huge wad of 10 000 yen notes (at that time 10 000 yen was approximately 100 US dollars.).  He strode up, waved the fortune in my face, croaked “Yakuza” again, with clear malice, then disappeared down the same subway entrance he’d appeared from.

If I had any way to contact the guy I’d met, I’d have taken off for sure.  As it was I had to wait ten minutes for him to show up.  There were no further incidents.  The time waiting allowed me to reflect a little, and I’ve reflected more in the time since.  That guy was clearly gangsterish and had some power, influence and violence to wield at his discretion.  He was a man who could do what he wanted, to whom he wished.  He was, in short, a man to be reckoned with. Why on earth had he chosen to waste all of that on intimidating a random dude on a sidewalk?  Why had he not actually used his power, choosing instead to make what was really a rather feeble display?  What the fuck was his (apparently mild) problem with me?

I don’t know.  He was a weirdo.

 


Now how, you may ask, can I turn that experience into socio-political commentary?  Welp.   Here goes!

Whenever I read anything about a policy, bill, proposition, etc… being championed by a sitting government to the consternation and hair pulling regret of the opposition party (Obamacare.  Perfect example), I think of that weirdo.

At some point, the Republicans, Tea Partiers, Ron Paul supporters… The entire right wing, forgot that they don’t necessarily have to object to every facet of Obama’s health care legislation.  There are enough people in opposition that, if they would just focus their energy and pick an appropriate target (perhaps the constitutional issues with asserting a federal mandate that lines up in opposition to established state mandates), they have enough power at their disposal to make something happen.  Instead, their insistence on just shouting angrily and being all dramatic over every single detail even when there is no reasonable way to oppose certain parts funnels their power into impotent, feeble posturing and ensures that all they do is leave the Democrats thanking their lucky stars that the conservatives didn’t actually get their shit together and do something.  Their combined shrieking amounted to no more than growling and stomping around in incomprehensible circles.

When we don’t have a solid plan of what to do with it, power is mostly useless.  The “Occupy” movement found this out.  The anti-Obamacare folks found this out.  Some random Yakuza weirdo proved it.

I truly hope both the conservatives AND the liberals in positions of power figure this out.  The more we focus on the parts we actually have reason to disagree with, then bring to bear all available influence toward changing those parts, the more chance we’ll have of ending up with better results for us all.  I’m furious at the “leaders” of Occupy for their horrible waste of opportunity.  I’m disappointed with the conservative elements in America for refusing to make the health care proposal as good as it could have been (But relieved that they weren’t able to get the whole thing scrapped).  Its not even like this is a new or difficult concept.  Great leaders have done it consistently throughout history and blazed trails that should be easy to follow.  They figure out what power they have, then use it strategically.

*“It’s hot, isn’t it?” Just in case you were wondering, I did remember the phrase, and was later able to discern its meaning.  If I would’ve just nodded and wiped my brow, all that unpleasantness could’ve been avoided.

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