The march of progress

I’m a smoker, and a heavy one at that. I roll my own “since the Soviet Union still existed,” as I say when I feel the need to provide emphasis to that point.

For the first time, I’m making an effort to give a complete explanation of why I (inexplicably) started, and why I keep at it in spite of having so many reasons to quit.

I’d originally intended to write about this yesterday, of course, but the math-idiocy issue was raised by a friend in IM and I promised him that I would write about that without delay.

The occasion for this entry is yesterday’s entry into force of a ban in the state of Kansas on smoking in public accommodations. Apart from the ten-foot provision — which is a pain in the ass for making the alleys the only places in downtown Lawrence where one can expect to light up without risking a citation — I support the law.

I even concede the point to the ten-foot provision. I said it was a pain in the ass, not an injustice.

I don’t believe that my sidestream smoke really ought to be anyone else’s business, and I don’t mind paying the price of a little discomfort to uphold that belief (even if I do feel a tiny bit of nostalgia for the way things used to be).

Starting with a clean slate, more or less

When I moved in with Dad at fifteen, I was in admirable shape. I was able to hold a forte note on my horn for fifteen seconds and run a six-minute mile. My caliper body fat measurement had to be estimated because testers couldn't get a grip on my thighs. I managed all of this in spite of the fact that Mom was an even heavier smoker than I am now.

That musical statisstic is more impressive than it sounds. Blow a note through a ¼″ mouthpiece attachment and fifteen feet of backwards-pointing brass tubing so that it can be heard clearly in the farthest reaches of the balcony of a middling-sized auditorium, and let me know how long you were able to hold out.

The first slide I owed to Missouri weather.

Oregon is the perfect place to do outdoor cardio, but Missouri? Not so much. I went from wet winters and dry summers to the reverse, and the yearly temperature range leapt by thirty degrees before the wind-chill factor. In point of fact, I gave up.

Actually… that leads to a good piece of advice. If you do outdoor cardio and need to relocate like I did, join a gym for a month and do 20 weekly minutes of calisthenics in their steam sauna. …And no, I’m not kidding. What made you think that?

At the end of my first year in Missouri, my 2400m time had jumped by two minutes, and my recovery time had doubled. Dad — who three years later would suffer a major heart attack requiring an emergency triple bypass — was not even remotely interested in encouraging me to keep up my old habits, and I wasn’t terribly interested in making him feel bad in the comparison.

As it turned out, I was only partway through the slide.

Summer 1990

The summer between my last two years of high school had its victories — like the approval of my application to graduate a year early on credit, and my discovery that I could work myself to the bone if the necessity arose — but there were a lot of defeats.

The most significant of those defeats came ultimately at the hands of a family acquaintance.

On the morning of August 17th, I eased into the passenger seat of my stepfather’s Honda, grateful to be going elsewhere.

What follows is unpleasant, not for everybody’s taste, and may offend for diverse reasons. To those who flinch, I apologize in advance, because offense is not my intent. However, what you might be about to read is shared in more detail, structure, and clarity than I’ve attempted with any audience since the weekend after it happened… almost twenty years ago.

My stepdad couldn’t see that I was covered with scrapes, bruises, and chigger bites down the length of my body below the neck. I could not yet tell him that six hours earlier, I would have leapt at the chance to haul ass home, naked and barefoot over more than three miles of gravel roads — the kind graded with big, jagged basaltic rocks, not the nicely crushed limestone you get east of the Rockies.

I had been dissuaded by the clearly credible threat of being run over, and figured that however tempted I might feel to run, however certain I felt I was to die, I certainly wasn’t going to raise my chances of being mangled to death.

…By the same drunk reject-from-the-military who had two hours before that ordered me to strip naked and kept a revolver pointed at me until I complied, thence to spend most of the rest of the night dragging, choking, shoving, and punching me, all while the temperature inched toward fifty degrees.

50°F. is really fucking cold when you’re not in the habit of being naked anywhere but in the shower. Just sayin’.

The perp wore a feral grin the whole time. I’ve never seen that expression anywhere else, anytime else, and hope I never do. I might well kill whoever’s wearing it, if I have the chance.

For my own part, I wonder how I made it through the night without being raped. Was he too chickenshit, or not drunk enough? I suppose I’ll never know, but to be honest I’ll be just as glad never to find out.

This would be a good time to point out that there’s a clutch of recurring nightmares that I still occasionally get, and certain reactions to be being touched in certain places, that leave me under the impression that the events I just described were moderate in severity against the corpus of my life experience. I don’t place much stock in the notion of suppressing memories, but I know from other, painful experiences that it’s possible, and that I’m capable of it.

The bruises, the humiliation, and the despair have always remained firmly in my past. They were not what condemned my faith.

The damning part is that I was left in that situation. On purpose. Over my objections. So that Mom could get laid. I even put up an argument before I left — made it clear that I didn’t feel safe — and I was still left. At 11:30 on the night before, I was a contemporary Cassandra. That knowledge is what always stops my stream of consciousness in an instant.

I held in my fury for almost three days, and then went completely off my hinges during Sunday supper at my grandparents’ house. We were eating outside, and my aunt was trying to say nice things about the perp. I wasn’t having it, and I only stopped raging when my grandfather slapped me fully across the face. I ran upstairs to the bedroom Grandma had made up for me and sobbed alone; after about twenty minutes Grandpa came upstairs and I explained what had happened, leaving out the Cassandra part.

Several days later I was informed that the perp had been told by his father to leave the county and never come back again. My stepdad further reported that the perp’d also attempted to steal my stepdad’s firearms and that if he ever set foot on the property again, my stepdad would shoot first and then worry about the consequences.

…But with respect to my capacity for trust, the damage was done, particularly since Mom made a point of never speaking about the incident again, not even once, in shamed spite of her own life experience, even until she died.

The first taste

One week and one Wednesday later, I went back to Columbia. I cried in my seat on the plane as it climbed to altitude out of PDX, because I was still wanting for closure and acutely aware at that moment that I was clinging desperately to the dwindling capacity for love and trust I had left.

Understand that the events of the preceding weeks, and the silence that accompanied their aftermath, had pushed me past my limit. That took sixteen years of being repeatedly ignored, put aside, lied to, ordered around for others’ mere convenience, and declared a broken disappointment at the hands of my thoroughly uptight family. That makes me weak next to many of my friends, and strong next to others; I make no excuses.

Dad took me to my new domicile, an efficiency in East Campus. It was shared with three other guys, all MU students, who’d taken out the place together. They informed me gratefully that no matter how crazy or out of touch I was, I was still an improvement on the guy who’d bailed on the original arrangement.

Before I’d left for Portland earlier that summer, my stepmother and I had nearly come to blows after a battle of wills that had escalated out of control, and she stood firm that I wasn’t going to be living under her roof when school started. When I consider her perspective, it’s hard to find fault with her attitude. I was a real pain in the ass in high school, and my temper was still a worrisome problem even if I had finally managed to control it at school.

That Friday — the first on MU’s fall semester calendar, and the last of the CPS summer vacation — I was out on the back porch of the apartment with the others and a couple of their friends. I was just taking it in and listening for want of anything better to do; they were for the most part drinking preparatory to finding a party. One of them got it in his head to convince me to smoke a cigarette.

Given the state of fitness I’d been in so recently, I wasn’t too keen on the idea. I let him argue with me though, instead of going back inside. We volleyed several pleases and nos, and eventually the other side of my internal dialogue chimed in with “it is a rollie. You’ll smoke it, get dramatically sick, and never do it again.” So I gave in.

I couldn’t’ve been more wrong. Two seconds after the first drag, I felt like I was as many inches off the ground. It was, in a word, glorious.

If I abstain long enough, I still get a piece of that. It’s still glorious, though not enough to make up for the jones in the meantime.

It was a sordid and inevitable descent for the next two months. That was when I lost my nerve and took the step that turned me into a confirmed smoker.

The most interesting feature of the geography of my senior year of high school is that my apartment was s pleasant stroll from Dad’s Read Hall office, while Hickman stood only a few blocks from the house. Dad and I usually managed to cross paths on our way home, at least once a week. During one of these encounters I sheepishly asked him if he would roll me a cigarette (he had by this time been rolling his own for almost ten years).

I expected Dad to give me a piece of his mind and demand that I stop, but instead the next words out of his mouth were, “so do you want me to start buying you cigarettes?”

Under the circumstances, I took him up on his offer, substituting rolling tobacco for cigarettes.

For the rest of the school year I would make it home around five in the afternoon, roll a cigarette, lie on the bed with my head hanging over its foot, and smoke the cigarette in silence, calm, and more than a little peace. I know few more pleasant feelings.

Siren song

Last August, I was invited to give a (failure of a) presentation on the far side of the KU campus. Since I live at 15th & Kentucky, that meant climbing 14th Street. It being August, the heat index was flirting with 100°F. to one side or the other.

My telephone number’s listed, so I’m not giving up much. The only reason I point out that my number’s on my Facebook info is because that’s easier for most people anymore.

By the time I got to Jawhawk Drive, I was well past the threshold of tachycardia.

So… given that experience, why the fuck won’t I quit?

The notion of quitting scares the hell out of me, actually.

It’s like this — cigarettes never leave you, lie to you, or embarrass you in public without your permission. They enhance cognition. They calm the nerves — an important consideration for people who are prone to anxiety. Best of all, there’s always a ritual associated with their use — some people tap the filter end to pack the tobacco before they light it; others pack the tobacco at purchase, then twist the paper on the end of each stick to keep the tobacco at the end from falling out; nearly everyone who smokes adopts a series of movements from removal to the end of the first pull that never, ever changes.

The Universe can throw any damn thing it pleases at you, at any time… but your smoke of choice is there for you, and for as long as you’re willing to pay for it. Life doesn’t carry many guarantees, and many of the guarantees at hand are unpleasant to contemplate. Not so smoking.

That actually leads to the matter that bothers me most about the parade of tax increases, the public demonization by public health advocates, and the ever-expanding proscriptions against smoking in public: tobacco use is (was, in some places) the only consistently affordable pleasure of the impoverished.

When you’re poor — or when you’ve had life experiences like mine — you can’t imagine sixty. You care about today and tomorrow and, if you’re lucky, next week. Life is an ongoing series of bridges that you cross as you get to them. You have precious little control over any damn thing, while unconscionably wealthy politicians make like they ought to have a bigger share. People are always going out of their way to remind you of what you can’t do and what you don’t know, almost entirely because you’re poor.

…Yet here’s the health police, trying to take away one of the few things that you can control.

That pisses me off everytime I think about it.

Postscript

Some victims of sexual assault, particularly women victims of sexual assault, might be offended by the tone of what I share here. If that describes you, please understand that this narrative is mine; I don’t expect anyone else to accord me any special consideration on account of my experience, and I don’t mean for my narrative to denigrate anyone else’s experience. For those reasons, I ask that you try to respect this for the attempt at closure — and disclosure — that it’s meant to be.

Music

Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus”
@amazon
@allmusic

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Like a Chimney

Like a Chimney —by Ben Henick, 2 July 2010

All journal entries

  1. Talking About the Weather
  2. To the Rafters?
  3. Coming of Age with Killer Apps
  4. Race to the Bottom
  5. Meditations on Decay
  6. Net Neutrality, or the Lack Thereof
  7. Three Problems
  8. Post Mortem of a Book Project
  9. The Egg and the Chicken
  10. Yellow Dog
  11. Digging Through the Clutter
  12. Lessons from Mom
  13. Being Careful What You Wish For
  14. Out on a Limb
  15. Beliefs, No. 1
  16. Like a Chimney
  17. Does Not Compute
  18. Past Trends, Future Results
  19. Beyond These Four Walls
  20. Competence, Confidence, and Reality
  21. Anesthesia
  22. King of the Mountain
  23. “A Deer in the Headlights”

Disclaimer: This is definitely self-indulgent. If you don’t like it, read somebody else.

This nook of the Internet is my antidote for Twitter. ©2010 Ben Henick, all rights reserved.

Job, or hell?

Yesterday I happened on two links. (Good grief, I love the Web.) The first is an e-mail alideshow of sorts aimed at the guts of some hypocrite named Spencer, the author’s (erstwhile imaginary) boss. The second is an article in Slate discussing the (un-) desirability of low- to mid-level service jobs.

…And then there’s the story of the flight attendant who on Monday found a spectacular way to say “take this job and shove it” after being verbally assaulted at length by a passenger.

All three pieces are a kick. Reading them in rapid succession, as I did yesterday afternoon, is a kick in the guts. The article about jobs-in-general particularly evoked from me a visceral response.

Rich get richer, poor get poorer

The sense of entitlement to profit that I raised a few days ago is evident in every talk about compensation I’ve heard about, or participated in, in the past several years. It seems to me like the vast majority want labor for the cheapest they can possibly obtain, while remaining content to throw handfuls of money at senior management and holders of equity — even ones who, as it turns out, contribute little or nothing.

It always seems like the same old story: hire somebody with the basic minimum of proven ability in order to get away with paying them as little as possible, train them up to the minimum needed by the organization, fire the ones who don’t take comfortably to that scheme at the instant they’re identified, and work the others to the bone until they burn out.

I believe that on some level, most people recognize that this is going on. However, I struggle to understand why. It seems axiomatic to me that people who feel valued will work harder, yet the trend moves toward every possible effort to remind people that they’re replaceable and ought to get the best out of things while they can.

Compassion vs. sociopathy

The only fact that adequately explains this prevailing state of affairs is broad, unwitting subscription to the system cobbled together from the amoral rants of a mildly nutty Russian emigré. On balance that would not be so bad, except that like that ethos’ nemeses — Communism and Christianity — “Objectivism” works a hell of a lot better in theory than in practice.

I see two deep flaws with this ethos, deepening my my confusion. First, we can’t all be Howard Roark; lots of us lack the temperament requisite to that outcome. As much to the point, if we all could have and act upon that power, civilization as we know it would rapidly descend into barbarism. One man’s clear thinker is another’s cold-hearted sonofabitch, and the latter type is awfully good at inducing conflict.

Second, human beings possess and act upon compassion compulsively; the ones who habitually refuse or fail to do so are (rightly) called sociopaths. We all recognize that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and communities tend to raise the minimum when given the chance. Cutting loose that weak link instead… goes a bit far.

Meritocracy

The happy finish of the labor market’s neo-Nietzchean race to the botom can be found in two virtues that are compatible with all of the belief systems in play: honesty and fidelity.

As it stands, the realities of social (im-) mobility leave some with first-class tickets, and consign the rest to steerage barring both outstanding luck and superlative effort. Furthermore, there are no guarantees that anyone who manages to climb their way out of steerage won’t be shoved back down by some vindictive asshole.

Rewarding honesty and fidelity in the workplace — and penalizing those who lie, cheat, and habitually cover their asses — would go a long way toward making the labor market a better place for everybody.

We have the technological capacity to discover and promote out of steerage quickly the ones who’ve earned it, as a matter of course. We can do the reverse for those who feel most inclined to rest on their laurels. Why don’t we?

Music

Hey Lewis & The News, “Workin’ for a Livin’”
@amazon
@allmusic