Friday, August 18, 2017

Clove Cigarettes

I've taken the horrible habit of smoking again for no good reason - clove cigarettes, though. I don't like the taste or smell of regular tobacco, and cloves bring back certain memories for me.

I first smoked a pack my first semester in college. I left my community college and drove north 40 miles to a four-year college - SUNY Oswego - to see about getting in there for spring semester. I did not like the community college and wanted a change of major and view.

I stopped at the Panhandler on Old Liverpool Road in Liverpool, NY on the way up. They sold cloves, and I knew this because of a guitar player I admired. He got them there. His name was Greg something. Nice guy.

It was a sunny, fall day and as I drove my 1971 Super Beetle past Fulton to Oswego, I played my mix tapes of 80s new wave and enjoyed one or two of the cigarettes. They were Jakarta brand kreteks. I decided that day I wanted to go to Oswego instead, and the smell of cloves takes me to that day, sometimes.

I didn't smoke them much back then. It was until much later that I took up the habit for a solid five years around the time I got divorced. More on that, later.

When I graduated I went to work for IBM where we developed an operating system called TPF. TPF is used by many major airlines and a some coworker friends of mine often traveled to customer sites in faraway places like Jakarta, Indonesia. I asked Bill Supon to bring me back some kreteks and he did - several different kinds, like Sampoerna and Djarum. I kept them in my freezer and smoked them rarely, when I had a shot of Wild Turkey in the backyard of a home I would leave years later when both habits got wildly out of control.

Before that would happen I had had many a memorable road trip with my best friend, Arfie. A visit to Wellfleet, MA, to see a Ween concert and the next day in Provincetown and Hyannis enjoying cloves comes to mind. A tolerably hot summer weekend before things got out of control. But fun and memorable nonetheless.

Despite the pain of the divorce and the alcoholism and smoking that reached its apex shortly thereafter, I have fond memories of the summer it all started. We were building an extension on my house and my family and Arfie came to visit and help frame it, along with some good friends from IBM like Jorge, his wife, and Mark Spies. We played Ween and other good music as we hammered the addition into shape, swinging from rafters and learning from my brother how to make headers. My mother shook her head at my habit, but it was still a memorable and fun time.

Five years later I had to go through rehab and shortly thereafter I quit smoking as well. It was easier to do the alcohol first, and hang out at AA meetings chainsmoking with the other alcoholics. I quit AA after three months, then cigarettes after 7 or so. It was a November day at the Poughkeepsie train station. I was on edge for a week and the taste of clove lingered in my mouth for weeks.

With a new house and a new family, I grew hot peppers and rebuilt another old house and my life. I would add clove to my hot sauce mixes or add it to foods where it made sense. If I tasted it in cookies or candy, my mind wandered to Oswego, or Wellfleet, or that fateful summer I left my wife, home and two acres for the love of my life.

Arfie and I would sneak a pack once in awhile when he visited. Spending a day at Westcott Beach on Henderson Bay of Lake Ontario, we left my son, Arfie's girlfriend and her kids at the beach to drive to Watertown, NY to get a pack. I kept a few the following days after and quit again.

On a visit to a friend and my relatives in Rhode Island, I took a pack with me. I remember the cool air of the ocean on Pete's back porch as I snuck one, and also enjoying some outside Mary Agnes' house. I quit again after that weekend.

Since then my family and I have done regular vacations on Lake Ontario near Henderson. We rent a small house and sit on the beach and do nothing. Arfie has been there every year with us, and for the last three or four, we indulged in some cloves - driving to Watertown to get three more packs despite swearing we'd only smoke the one he brought from Corning, NY.

In the last year, my wife has gone to Pittsburgh several weekends to help stand up a new hotel. I went with her two weekends last fall to help with some things and see a Steelers game. She had taken to going to the roof of her apartment there to enjoy her menthols, so I found a place that sold cloves and joined her. I quit easily after those weekends, too.

As the weekend of my daughter's wedding approached, I decided to get "just one pack" for that event. Arfie was there, too, and we would share one or two each of the three days we were at the venue where the wedding was held. Shortly after that, with another trip to Pittsburgh, the habit took hold again and I've been smoking steadily since. I am embarrassed to have people in my car. My son posted a note on the fridge - Stop Smoking.

Jennifer is still taking trips to Pittsburgh and back, and when I am alone I sit in the dark in my garden enjoying a clove, wondering if she is doing the same on the roof of the now open hotel.

The other day I went to buy a pack in my town of Beacon, NY. I asked for two packs and the proprietor, behind the counter with a clerk, said, "I sold none of these for months, now they are flying off the shelves, is that you?" Before I could answer, the clerk - who had regularly sold me the aged stock - answered, "Yes," with a smug grin.

I explained that I've been having a stressful summer and offered my daughter's wedding as an excuse. It was a guy situation and I had to offer guy banter. "What's wrong, you don't like the guy?" I said no, we loved our son-in-law but it was my daughter that drove us crazy. He laughed and pointed to the marijuana paraphenalia across the floor and suggested, "Maybe you need that."

My son-in-law was having a bad week so I told him the story.

We're headed to the lake again, soon. Arfie will be there. I hope that I'll be done with this when that week is over and the hotel is complete. But I will still associate the taste with all these memories. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Fifty-First Dragon

"Lord Frith, I know you've looked after us well, and it's wrong to ask even more of you. But my people are in terrible danger, and so I would like to make a bargain with you. My life in return for theirs." and Frith replied "There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be."

From Watership Down, by Richard Adams

There was a point about ten years ago where I was certain - and for less glorious and noble reasons than Hazel - that my life was worth more dead than alive. More along the lines of Jimmy Stewart in "It's a wonderful life", I was certain the payout from my insurance was a better thing for the world than me being in it. I could not have been more wrong.

The fact of the matter is that with few exceptions we're all better off here. Sure, there are instances where people give their lives to save many others. They're rare, I'm venturing. But though I have used this quote at different times for different inspirational purposes, the meaning is the same: Go, get it done.

It's been a long time since I read the book but I am told this is the last time Frith talks to Hazel - or any of the rabbits, ever again. He's done helping them. What a poignant last message, then. "Here, Hazel, you're in charge. It's all on you."

No pressure!

I went through rehab and was told there are no atheists in rehab. I'm still an atheist and this quote, ironically, is part of the reason. Sitting and asking for favors from an imaginary friend and the books written by countless people who tried to record the myriad and conflicting ideas he offered us to cope in a world he didn't make or understand was going to do me nothing. Asking gods for the rockets to stop, for the pain to go away, for the past to be erased - is pointless.

Instead I reached to a book about a bunch of rabbits who cross England looking for a better place to live. At the climax of the book they are beset by another group of rabbits intent on killing them all when their leader, Hazel, hatches a plan. If Hazel can just make it to where there is a dog, tied up at a nearby farm - if they can chew through his collar and out run him up the hill to where the enemies are gathered and if they can get the dog to attack them - they just might make it.

On his way down to the farm he asks his god for this one favor. Look, is it really that much? I'm in a real bind here... I know you can do this - at least I think you can and it SEEMS like you have before. Can you help a brother out? I'll gladly pay for this with my life. Deal?

No, in short, is the answer. Not much more is needed, really, but what it means is one of the most beautiful things I have ever realized: You got this. Go, get it done.

Hazel had been doing it all along - without help from Frith. Hazel and his lovable musclehead friend Bigwig - who, in any macho-shithead telling of the story would have been the leader - got their warren out of one danger, through many other trials, and finally through this one battle - with Bigwig as lieutenant to Hazel. (Another inspiring moment in the book is when the leader of the attacking warren, Woundwort is aghast at the idea of  Bigwig not being the leader of Hazel' could it be that the physically strongest one is not the leader?).

And here he is, challenged one more time. He's tired. He wants a favor. And in this conversation he realizes all along that they, down there on earth, had been getting it done all along. Frith be damned!

I slayed the fifty-first dragon and lived to tell about it, and that has made all the difference.  Because fifty-two, and fifty-three, and so on, are right behind him.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Searching For Beauty In The Morning

If I leave for work at the right time, I get to see a pretty young woman at a bus stop en route. She dresses smartly, has nice hair and is probably in her early 20s. I get to see her and observe her for a few seconds if the light nearby is red.

Another person waits for the bus with her - a tall man, strong-looking and clean-cut. He may be autistic or otherwise mentally challenged. He works at a local grocery store as a bagger. Seeing them together is what I strive for.

When I first noticed them, I think it was the first time the young lady started catching the bus at the same spot with him. From their body language they seemed strangers to one another. They stood apart, did not interact. I wondered if the young woman felt awkward near him or, worse, felt annoyed by his presence. I judged her at first and thought the latter and that, like many other young women I had know of natural beauty like hers, she felt people like the man were beneath her.

But as time passed and I observed them more, over the course of the last year, I saw that they started talking to one another. Now when I see them they smile as one approaches the other. Sometimes the woman holds her phone out, showing something for him to see. Another time they were just standing together and both beaming with grins. Yet another time they laughed together at something.

I strive to leave at the right time just to see this young lady be kind to him. I've known so many people like him who were made fun of and ostracized. I've known so many pretty young things who were mean to others because they could be. But these two seem to be friends who bring genuine warmth to one another.

It is impressive how something like this can alter my mood in the morning. I could be making this up out of my imagination based on nothing but what I observe. Or it could really be that there are kind people in the world. It could be that if we look, there is beauty in the world. Perhaps it takes some work to find it and enjoy it.