Deadlocked

I’m standing on the other side of the door, trying to reason with my mind, which always seems to have at least half a dozen reasons why it won’t do what I want it to do.  I want my mind to grant me access (It’s my mind!  Come on, already!) so I spend considerable time arguing with it, constructing logical arguments, and building creative keys from scratch so that I can barge my way in.  Most keys only seem to work once; winning a debate usually results in ominous silence.

I imagine my mind’s part of the conversation is something along the lines of:

What’s that?  You want to actually write something?  Well, that’s too bad.  Haven’t you heard you’re closed for construction?  Why?  We had to replace the lock after the last time you broke in.  Oh, and did I mention that tomorrow I’m taking a mental health day?

Curse you, brain.  I’m not a victim of a writer’s block, not really.  The logical part of me knows that if I sit down and write something, even if it’s crap, eventually the crap will get better.  I’m a victim of myself and my perfectionism, complete with constant questioning and self-doubt.  Being a victim of myself seems silly, but there it is.  Why can’t I just kick myself in the pants?

I think about writing all the time, but lately I haven’t been doing any.  I could whinge on about being sick, or all the things I keep trying to do instead, because they are, after all, really important, doncha know?  My old self wouldn’t have bought it; heck, my old self wouldn’t even be in this mess.  Old me would have ignored the pile up of dishes and trash, if not the paying of bills.  She would have told Mr. Wonderful she needed half the evenings in the week just to write and that he’d have to find his own something to do, would have called off sick even though she wasn’t just to get a writing day, and would have a notepad or laptop with her anytime she could have been writing while doing something else—and then she would have forgotten what the other thing she was doing was.  Now I go outside for a cigarette and rehash the same plot points in my head, search hopelessly for a meaningful blog post.  I don’t write a word, and if I do manage to sit down and start something, I wind up scrapping it for one of the following reasons: incoherent, stupid, potentially offensive, boring, and where is this going anyway?

At some point, I confess, I became disgusted with old me.  It’s not that she was a bad person, but she was a little arrogant, at least when it came to writing.  Old me would never have plotted or outlined or researched something she wrote or even recognized that those things could have utility or apply to her.  When old me wrote, she would look back and be reasonably satisfied with what she wrote, maybe even elated.  A few days later old me would decide she could do better, oh yes, but she hadn’t found something loathsome in every word she wrote, sometimes even before it spilled on to the page.  Old me thought she could figure everything out on her own, and blast advice and planning.  She had a story to tell, and she was going to tell it.

I loved that story too much to continue destroying my storytelling through hubris, but I curtailed my pride so sharply that I let my perfectionism take control to the point of inaction.  I’m so afraid of failing my story and characters that I can’t even toss out a sentence, but if I don’t write, won’t I be failing them in the worst way of all?

At least this blog post is something…about not doing something.  Heh.

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Hysterical Reading

If only these women used their energy for household chores, childbearing, and pleasing their husbands, they wouldn’t be in this mess…or so the experts of the age would have said. Some pursuits, such as reading, were blamed for exciting the fragility of the female mind and driving the afflicted mad.  By the way: SOME OF THE THINGS IN THIS BLOG POST ARE NOT RATED PG OR MIGHT BE OFFENSIVE TO SOME.

Remember when “the experts” said that reading and intellectual pursuits gave women hysteria?*  Or that fairy tales and those “dreadful” fantasy stories led to a weakened mind, incapable of coping with reality and the day to day minutiae of life?

Thankfully, I don’t.  Not those exact things at least; although, once long ago in a health class, I stumbled across similar thoughts in a textbook that claimed obsessive readers were blocking out their problems and refusing to cope with them and that said act led to depression and social isolation.

What a load of hogwash!   That was my first thought, because I was very fond of my 2-4 book a day habit.  Besides, at this point (middle-school) I was still trying to read through my school’s library before I finished high school, and that’s a lot of books, which equals, as you can probably guess, a semi-truck or four of reading material.  Of course it wasn’t a very realistic goal, but I was rabid about it at the time despite the heckling of my peerage, at least until I ran across Piers Anthony**.  After slogging through the first two of his books, and looking despondently at the two shelves full of them to come next, I decided certain revisions to the goal were in order.  At least Ad, as in Douglas Adams, came before An.  That made the entire project worthwhile.  I think there were a few more of Joan Aiken’s books on those shelves, too, but I’d already had the joy of discovering her.

Speaking of Joan Aiken, Dido Twite’s chronicles were recently reprinted. Here’s one I’ve long been especially fond of.  I was originally attracted to the author because I couldn’t resist a title like “The Stolen Lake”.  How do you steal a lake, anyway?  Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

When the British author Douglas Adams first expressed a desire to combine humor with Sci-Fi, others were quick to express their doubts that anyone would embrace or want to buy such an unheard of thing. The Hitchhiker’s Guide and the other books, which I believe started out as a radio show, have since been reproduced in multiple media formats, and they’re endearingly popular. British Sci-Fi has never taken itself too seriously since.

Not unlike the present day, however, at the time I was besieged with unpleasant obsessions, and desperate for any small clue as to how to best avert these disturbing thoughts and feelings.  Eventually I gave, I’m ashamed to say, a trial effort to this silly advice.  After all, I thought, maybe I did read too much.  Surely I could afford to cut down to a book, or only half a book, per day.  Or even less…

A world without words is a shallow comfort, and without a well spun tale, I, at least, find myself without armor, as I have learned to my detriment.  I am seeking solace in books once again, even if I no longer have the same number of hours to expend in the effort.  My one vice (besides smoking), these last few years, has been the indulgence of purchasing coffee on my weekend at a nearby bookstore, and unsurprisingly, perhaps, while waiting for my coffee to be brewed, I engaged in compulsive fits of spendthrift upon seeing all the books I would read “someday”.  I can assuredly say that my library now numbers more books that I have not read than books I have, and it has occurred to me, now that I am in need of diversion, that I might as well make “someday” today.

Even though every book I’ve read in the last month ended with some note of sadness, they have buoyed me up, granting me a pleasant diversion from the normal tone and subject-matter of my thoughts.  Still, I found it a bit odd that every book I read ended with some melancholy, not only because that is the very thing I am trying to get away from, but because I often hear complaints that books seem to end “happily ever after” along with the belief that it would be a great novelty if someone actually wrote something with an unsatisfactory conclusion once in a while.   The most important thing, however, is that the books have been stimulating.  I wish I had written down some of the better quotes for everyone else when I had the chance; now I’d have to reread each book in entirety to catch them again.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith happened to be the first book on the shelves that I hadn’t yet read.  I was given this book as a parting gift ten years ago by someone who said they’d enjoyed it immensely and thought I’d find it engrossing, too.  In the years following, while I tirelessly re-read every Patricia McKillip novel I own and many other favorites, someone actually took it upon themselves to make a movie, which is reasonably faithful even if it is, by necessity, unfortunately divested of the author’s charming prose and some of her best insights on writing, procrastinating writing, and writer’s block.   I’d probably be most likely to recommend this book to young women who like writing and are suffering from the pangs of unrequited first love, but the eccentricities of the characters, quick wit, and a daughter who locks her father in the crumbling ruins of a tower dungeon when his inability to write destroys the family’s chances and fortune could broaden a potential audience’s scope immensely.  The protagonist holds Jane Austen in high regard, and parallels could be easily drawn.  I must confess, however, that despite all of the book’s charms, my favorite part was how it smelled.***

Patricia McKillip’s prose, when dissected, seems simple, but her mastery of metaphor and description, and her ability to show instead of tell, are superb. Every line is magical and poetic. I hold her work in the highest esteem (read: with breathless awe). If you’ve never had the pleasure, try Alphabet of Thorn. The cover above (Song for the Basilisk), like so many of her more recent works, was illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft, and for once, it is possible to judge a book by it’s cover!

Apparently J.K. Rowling approves, too.

Next up was Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) and why I have never read it before, I can scarcely begin to guess.  I meant to, I really**** did, but other books kept calling to me.  One of the best reasons for this trilogy’s success, besides it’s fantastic flights of fancy (armored polar bears, charming animal sidekicks linked to one’s soul and personality, warring angels, a journey to the world of the dead, and a knife that cuts portals into parallel worlds), is the way philosophy about our origins, consciousness, and beliefs (and the age old skirmish between science and religion) twines throughout the books and changes with culture and experience.  I prefer to think of the book as a fantasy story, with an interesting philosophical take, but some religious persons have denounced it as heretical (which perhaps Philip Pullman might have meant; he is, supposedly, an avowed atheist).  Sometimes, I’ll allow, the dialogue got a bit clunky, but the orchestration of the plot, and creative devices make the books well worth the effort despite any small shortcomings.

An image for “The Golden Compass” movie. See? Armored polar bears, just like I said.

The last two books I read were classics.  For many of you, they probably need no introduction or synopsis, for The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott are commonly available and cited fare.  The Scarlet Letter, of course, concerns a young woman forced to bear an A on her bosom after being charged with adultery when she gives birth to a child that cannot be her husband’s and the different routes through which she, her lover, and spouse find penance and ultimately resolution.  Ivanhoe is the tale of two parted lovers who reunite by the virtue of chivalrous duels and other deeds of valor in restless old England, where Normans and Saxons are still at violent odds, the Jewish are viciously persecuted and loathed, and the Templars are at their full might.  Neither book is historically accurate, and they both borrow from the tales, mythos, and superstitions of the time, for Ivanhoe doesn’t hesitate to craft firm characters of Robin Hood and King Richard, and The Scarlet Letter makes much of  “the black man” placing his mark on witches as they make nightly vigils into the forest depths.  I’ve always been charmed by classical writing, although it seems a dying form; it seems that few authors, nowadays, are given the liberty to wax poetically for pages on end, no matter how pretty their prose or form.  Perhaps this is desirable; few people I know seem willing nowadays to slog through a book that does not get to the quick of the action or a point quickly, no matter how worthwhile the final effort.  If you’ve made it this far, you can probably tell that I’m not adverse to the long-winded approach.  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of those rare modern instances I’ve chanced upon where a book reminiscent of classical prose and it’s cousin verbosity managed to not only get published, but thrive.  Perhaps there is some hope left despite the current obsession with instant gratification.

I’m not surprised that the novel took a decade to write; I’m surprised that an agent didn’t pronounce it too difficult to sell by modern standards. I can only assume she had an astoundingly well crafted query letter and synopsis, or that modern readers have more moxie than we’ve been given credit for. The book is excellent, but it might take, oh, one or two hundred pages before it really starts to grab you.

Thus concludes my recent reading list, although I think my adventures in book-land, rather than being a testament to old theories, have strengthened my sanity and rendered me more fit for worthwhile pursuits rather than weakening my “fragile” constitution.  Depressed?  Listless?  Fatigued?  Or maybe you are feeling as if you’ll start screaming and having fits like a mad-person?  Perhaps you ought to try reading more; there’s nothing quite like a book for drowning out worldly troubles and stimulating new thoughts and discussions.  A person could even get lucky and find the answers they were looking for all along.  I promise the practice won’t make you hysterical, even if some books may make you laugh hysterically.*****

*Did you know?  The term hysteria comes from the Greek hystera meaning “womb”.  The Greeks apparently believed that hysteria was an illness only females came down with due to a mysterious dry-up of those “humours” and a wandering uterus.  Treatment involved fumigating the vagina to lure the uterus back to its rightful place, sex, and making sure that woman had another baby, already.  You know, until she eventually died in childbirth or had so much to do she couldn’t make any more trouble.  Later treatments involved…well, I’ll let you look that up for yourself if you’re really interested, but don’t say I didn’t warn you that the topic isn’t necessarily rated PG.

**Apologies if there are any fans of Piers Anthony out there, and apologies to the author himself.  It’s a personal thing, as in I just find it a little interesting that so many of his books seem to involve 40+ old men in sexual relationships with girls (or women in the bodies of girls) between the ages of 12 and 15, prostitution, and what I can only define as rape scenes that seemed well, bordering more on erotic fantasy or trite simplifications than true consequences for the people involved.  It was a small sample, admittedly, and my memory could be wrong, but as a fourteen year old girl, I found it all a bit repugnant.  Also, author afterwards informing me that the book I just read was written in less than a month don’t tend to increase my favor.  I’m not asking for years or decades necessarily, but a little more care and attention wouldn’t have gone amiss.  If I’d actually found something I liked about the book in question, I might have been impressed by this fact, but instead it only added to my collective distaste.

***Surely I cannot be the only person who ventures into libraries on occasion simply for the smell.  There is something about the paper and bindings of old books, slightly perfumed, somewhat musty, that nearly causes me to forget the original allure of their contents.  I’m sure I look a bit odd wandering about and picking up random books simply so I can inhale them, but the pleasures are worth the confused looks from strangers.  Dear scent-makers of the world, while I’m normally a fragrance free person as of late (Celiac disease can make one frightfully sensitive to added scents and colors over time), I would be overjoyed if someone would bottle this smell.

****In long overdue accolades to Anne of Green Gables, I’m liberally employing italics today.  I received the first of the series from my 4th grade teacher, and was baffled by the frequent shrieks and howls of merriment from my sister and mother when they read it.  I took the novels seriously at that tender age; what could possibly be hilarious about Anne’s language, circumstances, or the occasional tragedy of her situation?  Years later, having finally “got it” Mr. Wonderful  was forced to listen to me read the entire series out loud to him so that he could “get” me (he also found the series amusing).  At ten, I was very much an Anne-type personality; thankfully, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, too.

*****I mentioned Douglas Adams, right?  If it’s laughter you’re after, give The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the other novels of the series a try.

Dichotomy

Although, cheerfully, I am feeling better, the muse that governs blog posts appears to be lacking.  I hope that will change soon, else I shall have to force it.  Oh, all right, I usually force my blog posts, otherwise shyness would prevent me from posting anything.  Perhaps I’m merely feeling lazy?

In the meantime, I found this old poem I wrote for a class assignment when I was fifteen, and because I feel a desperate need to post something I’ll offer it to you now with the age caveat (otherwise I’d probably be too embarrassed to post this, too).  Its never had a name before, but I suppose Dichotomy is appropriate enough.

 

Behold the fiery gold of the past day,

Shining rare and bright along the way.

It bursts from soul and fire and spirit free,

Shines brilliantly out for all to see.

 

There meek and quiet stands its twin

Afraid that just to show itself would be a sin.

Its colors silver grey like the moon

It wishes peace to come all too soon.

 

The silver struggles violently with its soul

As the moon in silence wanes and becomes full.

The fire crackles far and burns new ground

Uncaring of the people it does astound.

 

The gold leaves its ashes far behind

It leaves the fertile soil for others in its mind.

The moon spills stars across a velvet sky

Then shrinks below the horizon with a melancholy sigh.

 

The sun will sink; the moon will rise again,

Rays of light will die and then begin.

Silver beams thrive off the burn of day

Ashes that are often far too grey.

 

And when the two do thrive side by side,

Here there one insulted; the other cried.

Where molten lava poured from ‘neath the ground

The raindrops pour and transform it to a blackened mound.

 

But then when ice does freeze one to the bone

The heat dares to save it all alone,

And so one and both do help to save the cause

To discover that without one ‘twould be a loss.

 

And so despite their troubles and their pains

With each other they would make far more gains.

Their time would be by far the best spent

Adding to one another’s accomplishments.

 

If everyone all the same would be

The world would pass its life in misery,

And same would be if all their time was spent

Trying not to be different.

I’ve Never Heard You Laugh Before

I still don’t understand how I missed it.  It’s plain that everyone around me knew; it was obvious.  People kept asking me, and I kept shaking my head saying, “No.  No.  I would know.  I’ve been there before.  I know what it feels like, what it looks like.  I’m just tired, overworked.  I just need to stay positive.”

Then, on St. Patty’s Day, a friendly acquaintance of two years remarked, “Hey, I’ve never heard you laugh before,” and finally, the denial was washed away.

I’d forgotten that depression took many forms, that knowing it once, even presumably conquering and surviving it, even a library worth of material on the subject and a degree in psychology did not make me immune or an expert.  My first depression was a soggy, tear-soaked affair that started at the age of 4 and lasted until I was about 16, followed by recurrent aftershocks for the next few years and drenched, much of the time, by an obsession with suicide.  I’d mistakenly decided that depression, for me, meant having an inflated appetite, a love affair with self-harm, and a daily bawl-out.  Not once in those years did I lose interest in, or the ability to do, the things I cared about.

Today is different.  Today I can say I’ve barely cried in years, that the world is covered in a gray, numb pall, tinged with occasional irritation and outbursts of hostility.  The interests I once sought refuge in are all but forsaken.  I can’t remark on the last time I played an instrument, or wrote, painted, or drew regularly.  Video games have all but fallen by the wayside; the sewing projects in my closet have been neglected for nearly a decade.  I don’t know when I last went on a walk, took a hike, went sledding, ice-skating, or swimming, or felt joy over scenery or delight in a pet or other animal’s company.  It is obvious even to the occasional check-out clerk that I’ve become flaky and distracted, incapable of concentrating.  Food is an abhorrent entity; sleep is a blessing I cannot give myself permission to indulge in for long.  Yet I have never, in all the time of the great second depression, thought of harming or killing myself.

Worry not, dear readers, for there is a silver lining to this otherwise, um, depressing story.

I was laughing that day because I had allowed myself the relief of knowing that I am going to quit my job someday soon.  I am going to quit no matter how much I like my coworkers, or how much I love the adrenaline rush of a job well-accomplished under what feels near impossible circumstances, or even how much I feel I need that extra $2-$3 per hour.

It’s not worth it.  I made myself a promise many years ago when the clouds lifted at last that I would never put myself repeatedly in an otherwise avoidable situation that made it difficult to be happy.  Happiness was my first priority, and remains so to this day.  I will not let that change, and I won’t let even a sign of improvement in my workplace erode my resolve.  I will take my time to insure that I’ve found a new, stable place of employment that is right for me.  I will dig out, brush up on, and utilize every one of the techniques that helped me overcome my depression in the past.  I’ll find more if I have to, because I want, and believe I deserve, happiness.

So, stay with me, fellow bloggers, and be assured that I will soon be unveiling a better, happier me.  If you, too, are feeling a little down in the dumps (or stranded down a well somewhere), perhaps we can learn from each other.  I’m confident that together we can and will conquer our depression.

Up In Smoke, Part 2: Assessing the Severity of Addiction

There’s no such thing as a wasted attempt to quit smoking, although in the past I’ve certainly felt ashamed, even humiliated, by my failure to maintain smoking cessation.  The longest I’ve ever managed to quit smoking?  Three weeks.  Still, it is a fact that the vast majority of would be quitters fail in their first attempt to quit smoking, even, alas, their next several attempts.  To some, trying to quit and failing may seem pointless.  At its rosiest, trying to quit and failing is often seen as little better than a few days or cigarettes of less lung damage.  I’d argue that attempts to quit, and the following failures, are necessary for the final achievement.

At least in my case, I didn’t realize the extent of my addiction until I tried to quit.  At any point in the daily cigarette routine, the gentle pull of addiction, the feeling that says “Go out and have another cigarette; wouldn’t that be a nice way to top off that cup of coffee?” feels more like a want than a need, something I could willingly disregard at any time. The first two hours after a cigarette, before the half-life of the chemical expires, where the smoker can still feel the nicotine’s effects to some extent, often go by without a thought.  When a smoker is sick, sleeping, or temporarily engrossed in another activity, they can spend several hours without a cigarette with barely a second thought.  Such moments, unfortunately, are more rare than they might seem.  I find smoking has taken up an almost ritualistic niche in my life, demanding that I pay more service to it than any other activity, no matter how well loved those other activities used to be.  In my first year of smoking, I thought that, come winter, the negative temperatures and howling snowstorms would overcome my desire to smoke.  Instead I began exposing myself to -40 below wind chill and blizzards ten times a day for ten minutes at a time.  I was no longer able to pretend that smoking was a pleasurable diversion, or that I had the sort of control I thought I had.

Conscientious efforts to quit revealed a still bleaker picture.  What felt like a gentle pull after an hour or two, or at first waking, developed into a ravenous hunger, then an all-consuming obsession.  I was not prepared for the pathetic, quibbling excuses my mind concocted to defray my willpower’s rapidly crumbling defenses, or the onslaught of the actual effects of withdrawal.  I’d done my homework first, and laughed at the withdrawal symptoms.  They didn’t seem so bad!

Depending on the type of cigarettes, how many cigarettes one smokes a day, the addicted person’s genetics, and their habits, it’s likely some would-be quitters have it easier than others.  My first attempt, at only five normal cigarettes a day, had manageable withdrawal symptoms.  It wasn’t pleasant, but I could tough it out.  The only problem with the ease with which I quit at that point was the illusion that quitting smoking was easy; I could do this again later any time I wanted, and hey, I kind of wanted a cigarette now.  I relapsed, and at present, I now not only smoke somewhere between 10-14 cigarettes a day, but each cigarette contains 75% more tobacco than the cigarettes I smoked when I started.  In translation, withdrawal symptoms from a ¼ pack are a cakewalk compared to what essentially amounts, with the added tobacco content of my new brand, to an entire pack of cigarettes a day.

I did, however, learn something from my first attempt to quit smoking, and the dozen(s?) of attempts thereafter.  In my latest attempts to quit I’ve barely lasted a day, and at best a few before the withdrawals are too severe to stand.  I could, of course, go out for nicotine replacement theory, because it seems to work so well for some of the other people I know, but quitting smoking seems to be an individual thing, and so far cold turkey seems to be the most effective for me.  I still know that I would require more willpower than I know I have currently to overcome a brain used to a pack of cigarettes a day screaming at me to smoke.

Right now I’m withdrawing.  My brain, used to the fuel of at least ten of my current brand of cigarettes, is being forced to make do with two and a half, in half cigarette increments instead of full cigarettes at a time.  While I wish that I’d managed to make it through today without a single cigarette, I know that my throbbing headache would be a migraine.  My stuffy nose, sore throat, and hacking cough would be the worst cold I’d ever had.  I would not be able to see my screen to type this.  I shouldn’t have driven anywhere today as is, because my vision is quite fuzzy enough.  My lungs feel as if they’ve been stuffed with rocks.  I’m sore all over, cranky, irritable, and if I didn’t know it was withdrawals, I’d be certain I’m coming down with the flu.  All that, and all I had to do was cut a cigarette a day.

As much as I whine about the withdrawals, I’m mostly shocked that I’m having them at all, and disturbed by just how dependent on stable, high levels of nicotine my body really is.

And yet…

Suddenly, I can taste my cigarettes again, and they taste terrible, of course.  I haven’t enjoyed a single drag, and I’m smoking comparatively little enough that there isn’t a positive abatement in the withdrawal symptoms when I do.  Every foray outside (I refuse to smoke inside or in a vehicle) is unpleasant.  I expected to have to fight to reduce my cigarette consumption, but instead the very act of reducing the number of cigarettes I smoke is sensitizing me to just how abhorrent they really are.  I’m finally washing the jacket I always smoke in because I can no longer stand the smell.  It’s progress.

Up In Smoke, Part 1: Excuses, How it Began, and, Um, I Quit, I Think…

I never thought that I would be a smoker, even though every male in my family generations previous to mine smoked or still do.  I loathed the habit when I was young, was held siege by the fear of what the people I loved were doing to themselves.  My uncles and father started smoking around the age of ten, stealing cigarettes, I’m told, from their aunt, but up until my early to mid twenties, I was still revolted by the practice.  Few were happier than I when my father finally gave up the practice after fifty years.

I thought I would lose him to his addiction and its deleterious effects.  I told my friends that he sounded like Darth Vader, which was true enough; I always knew to hide whatever book I was secretly reading instead of doing my school work when I heard his labored, whistling breaths accumulating in frequency as he passed through the rooms of the house towards mine.

I knew that quitting smoking was difficult, sometimes, it seemed insurmountably, because after attitudes towards smoking began to shift, and we’d begun boycotting more than a few restaurants because they had switched to smoke free environments, and friends and coworkers began making comments, my father would occasionally buckle to social pressure and try to quit again.  I can’t count the number of those attempts; the efforts were often accompanied by medication, literature, tips and techniques for trying to abandon the practice, but still, they remained largely unsuccessful.  I had been married for two weeks when my mother told me that he had finally quit the month previous.  It had taken her a week or two to notice that she no longer had to clean his ashtray, perhaps longer to actually ask him about it and confirm.  There was an unwritten rule in our family by that point: don’t harass the smoker, don’t add to the stress, don’t nag him about the practice or make him feel worse when he already feels lousy about it to begin with.

Now I’ve read in numerous places that an addiction to cigarettes is harder to quit than cocaine, heroine, even methamphetamines, or any illicit substance for that matter.  I won’t bother going into the why: certainly it’s more accessible, the places one can do it are more available, and the situations one can be in while high on nicotine are practically infinite, at least in comparison to other social or work situations.  I’ve seen the smokers shivering outside on doorsteps, huddling in corners to keep out of the wind, and being nagged and harassed by the nonsmokers who pass by.  No one likes a smoker anymore, or so it would seem.  Yet people still smoke, in large numbers, even in a country where everyday one is deluged with materials informing them of at least some of smoking’s ill effects: cancer risks, increased to the umpteenth, especially of the sinus, mouth, throat, lung, stomach, and intestinal variety; cosmetic effects such as wrinkles, sagging, yellowed teeth and fingers; emphysema, asthma, and other breathing difficulties; birth defects; financial drain in the cost of cigarettes, increased health care and insurance costs, decreased home and car values; and the social drain from bad breath, clothes and hair that stinks, and the risks to professional, romantic, and familial perceptions.  Did I mention numbness, a sodden gray feeling, depression?

Yes, we still smoke.  That’s what addiction is.  It doesn’t matter that it’s -20 F outside, -40 F with wind chill, or that there’s a blizzard, or that six people, glaring, walked by because they caught a whiff of our second hand and asked us if we know those “things” cause cancer.  We know.  It’s not that those things don’t bother us, or that we’re all suffering from sort of death wish, or that we enjoy being treated like a plague on humanity.  We’re not even deluded enough to think that those negative things won’t happen to us.

It’s not easy to explain addiction to someone who’s never experienced it, and an addiction to one substance isn’t even the same as being addicted to another.  Cigarettes are not only addicting, they’re a habit, forged after every meal, every cup of coffee, a bonding experience with similarly fueled friends or coworkers, an excuse to go outside, to take a break, to think, to kill frustration or stress as they accumulate.  Smoking isn’t just a physical addiction, with withdrawals that are unpleasant enough all on their own, but a mental and emotional one.

I was 24 when I picked up my first cigarette, not exactly your average smoking statistic.  My reason was foolish. I’d always been a “good” girl, never done drugs or been promiscuous, barely had a few drinks.  To be honest, I’d only been drunk two or three times, and that at home, in the comfort of a small, select group of friends.  I never partied; I got good grades, didn’t swear, used proper grammar, refused to speak of anything “impolite”, paid my bills, held down a job, stayed away from debt, tried to be helpful, loving, accepting, and all of those things one is “supposed” to do if they are going to be a useful, productive member of society.  Oh, I was a rule oriented, Miss Goody Two Shoes.  My classmates would have said “prude”.  I bought into whatever an authority figure told me was appropriate, “right” behavior, and acted accordingly.

I was told I was nice, polite, so very well-behaved, professional, clean, etc.  Gradually I realized that such a list came with a set of assumptions, sometimes worded, sometimes not, depending on the person delivering the opinion.  I learned that the overarching perception was that such a person could not have fun, or understand the trials and tribulations of anyone who had made a mistake, that I was considered likely to react negatively to anything less than perfection.  Such assumptions would have been far from the truth, for even then I was a long way from perfect, and I’d made the sort of mistakes that when told usually are more likely to result in fearful withdrawal than an expression of commonality or empathy.

“Do you do anything?  Drink?  Smoke?” one of my more blunt coworkers demanded of me one evening while we were out on break.   I shrugged and mumbled something vague along the lines of “I do stuff.  Sometimes.”

I’d gotten tired, it seemed, of being careful and prudent and defending myself for good behavior, because stung by the disdainful words of someone who had a felony conviction for drug distribution, and in the company of two other convicted felons, I somehow thought it was a great idea to go home and demand that my husband buy a pack of cigarettes so that we could do something stupid for once.

Of course, I didn’t mean to make a habit out of it, and for several months I was a sporadic once a week or two kind of smoker.  In those several months I discovered that cigarettes killed the pathological emotional mood swings and reduced the stomach and joint aches of a condition I didn’t know existed as of yet, and didn’t have the slightest inkling that I had.

Then summer came, and with it the hail that blocked the storm drains by my little downstairs apartment, and I found myself staring at a broken door and standing knee deep in water while my furniture and belongings floated past me.  The losses weren’t as great as they initially appeared to be, but the stress of the realization that such a thing could happen to me, and relocating and moving three times in the space of a month led to a significant increase in cigarette consumption.  At the same time I switched jobs within the company I work for, and voila, I was a line cook.  The best way to get a break, if one is a cook, is apparently to ask for a cigarette, otherwise one is generally out of luck.  Besides, cooking can be frustrating and harried work.

I’d like to say that I was deluded and that picking up cigarettes didn’t result in a dramatic uptick of offers to hang out, be friends, or extra social situations, but that would be a lie.  I do think that it isn’t so much that one has to smoke or drink, or engage in behaviors that are less on the up and up, as they need to be human and approachable.  Smoking isn’t cool, and I’ve never been under the impression that it has made me so, but picking up a device, an obvious character flaw, has strangely made me more approachable, or at least lifted reservations people had about being friends with someone they feared couldn’t let loose at all, or who they thought might judge them for letting loose themselves.

Now I want to quit.  I have to stop.  Cigarettes may not control me, per say, but I’ve let them hold the reigns, and I’ve abused them to the detriment of many of the things I used to care about.  There’s not enough breathing capacity left to play the flute, or sing in tune, or even finish the phrase of a song, in tune or not.  I write a paragraph and need a cigarette, only to get distracted and move on.  I no longer remember to eat, or drink water; my body’s simplest, most basic and necessary drives, and the cravings that spur a normal human being to take care of such normal functions, are all translated into the desire for a cigarette.  I never used to take breaks at other jobs, now I take them, at least in my opinion, with remarkable excess.  I’m quite certain I’d have at least another hour, if not two or three, in the day to do things I actually care about if I put the cigarettes away for good.  I could probably finish the first draft of my novel in six months if I simply spent the time I spend smoking on writing.

Besides, all of the “benefits” of smoking, the effects smokers enjoy, fade away within the first few months of the habit.  Smoking becomes a regulatory device, a habit to keep the brain chemicals firing at normal levels.  I think, eventually, that it makes everything feel flat and gray.  All emotions are less pronounced, including joy, or enthusiasm.  The emotions die back or are subverted into the cravings for a cigarette.  Cigarettes don’t kill frustration or sadness anymore, they don’t even make a dent.  It wouldn’t matter if they did, because being hooked on anything, needing it to get through day to day life, doesn’t seem like living in a real sense at all, especially when the substance, not living, is the only way to feel.

Yes, I’m tired of this.  Three hours ago, after a week of trying to wean my consumption to a level where the side effects might be less painful, I finished the last cigarette in the pack.  Quitting is going to be unpleasant, but unless I smoke until the day I die (not an option), I’ll have to experience the withdrawal one way or another, and I might as well get it over with.  In the meantime, dear readers, you’ll probably have to suffer through a few blog posts about my efforts to quit, but I promise that I’ll eventually regain my concentration and be capable of writing short stories and poems again.

Shameless Free Advertising

An Edit:  When I wrote this post I was apparently reading too much into one of the contest runner’s comments.  The news is the contest doesn’t actually start until March 10th.  I apologize for any misinformation or confusion.  Now there’s more time to practice, right?

I thought I’d let my fellow writers in on an opportunity.  Tomorrow, probably sometime in the afternoon, NPR will be announcing its Three Minute Fiction Contest (3MF for short), Round 8 on All Things Considered.  You’ll probably have about a week, maybe two after the announcement of the contest to get your entries in.  There is a new challenge each time, and there are rules and guidelines, so pop over to the highlighted link above for details.  If, after reading through the information, you still have questions, pop over to the Facebook page, where your lovely fellow contestants and 3MF will do their best to answer any pressing queries you might have.

Dear readers, you may be wondering why you would bother doing such thing.  For one, the contest is a fun way to challenge oneself and stretch one’s writing muscles.   Writing a short story may take less time than a novel, but there’s the added issue of choosing the appropriate words, dialogue, and squeezing a meaningful message or image into a much smaller space.  In short, writing a short story can be an excellent exercise in pruning superfluous fluff or developing any writing skill one feels might be lacking.  Ah, intrinsic motivation!

Of course, if you’re a finalist, your story will be published on NPR’s website.  If you’re the winner, it will also be read on air, and (this is just a guess from previous rounds) you’ll probably get a copy of the judge’s book and an interview with him.  This time the final judge is purportedly Luis Alberto Urrea.  I know, I know: it’s not exactly cash is it?  When I entered the contest the last round, all I really wanted was to set a goal for myself to write a piece, to a set criteria, edit, hone, and submit it well before the deadline.  Winning wasn’t really a dream of mine; I just wanted to write a short story for once and limit my tendency to ramble on.  I should tell you, though, that despite what I believed initially, a follow up piece on previous winners of the contest revealed that they’d reaped unexpected rewards, including, in at least one case, a reputable agent.

I really do suggest, if you’re looking for a positive, helpful, and enjoyable writing community, that you stop by the Facebook page as well.  I’m very fond of that charming mixed batch of strangers (and no, they don’t mind newcomers or healthy competition), so make sure you’re nice!

Ahem.  I may have gotten a little excited.  I’ve been waiting for this a while, you see, but I do hope to see some of you there.  Hey, I think the contest is open internationally, to published and unpublished authors.  Did I mention that?  Or that I might not be around as much as usual for a week or two while I weep tears of frustration over my keyboard?

Okay.  Shameless free advertising accomplished.  Have a wonderful day, people!

Update: I appear to have been mildly misled or confused.  They do usually announce these things on the weekends, so I’m thinking they meant Saturday afternoon.  I suppose we’ll see, but it’s soon either way.

Poor Excuses for Why I Haven’t Been Blogging

Hello.  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I mean, it’s been a month or so since I posted, and I really ought to fix that.  I’d like to say that I’ve spent my hiatus profitably, churning out chapter after chapter with the efficiency of a printing press, or that at the very least, I wrote a poem or short story or two, but that would be a lie, and we all know what happens to liars, don’t we?

I imagine this condition results in enlarged nostrils, and as such is not recommended. Of course, there are other ways to grow an exceptionally long nose. If you’re a klepto princess who spited some hard working soldiers, for instance, you should be wary of people in disguise offering you pears. Or was it an apple?

Okay.  The truth is I tried to write a few poems, and I spent a lot of time trying to come up with short story ideas.  These efforts were largely unsuccessful.  I even have a few partial and completed blog posts resting on my computer, but I either was unable to finish them or found them too offensive/whiny/depressing for publication.

I might be a wee bit afraid of controversy. You’d think anonymity would free me from this fear, especially since controversy is a great way to attract readers, but it doesn’t. I’m settling for inserting large amounts of pointless pictures instead. I hear people love pictures.

So what have I been doing?  I’m sure my readers want a blow by blow of every tedious aspect of my life in the last month, so I’ll let you in on the joys of my coveted existence.

No, shockingly this image isn't of me. You should be jealous anyway.

I’ve been sick a lot, probably because restaurants, the places that ideally should not have sick people running around infecting the rest of the population, seem to be overrun with them.  There’s never enough labor to go around in a restaurant, and someone usually has something.  Or several somethings.  Or several someones have somethings.  No one’s going home, and no one’s going to work for anyone else, and we’re all tired and run down and catch everything from each other, let it mutate, and then pass it back to the people who infected us.  Also, despite all of the perfectly normal, wonderful customers out there, there’s always someone like this:

Customers like this encourage substance abuse, and alcohol and cigarettes depress your immune system, folks.

As a friendly aside, I recommend that if you’re prone to catching every bug you come into contact with that you avoid restaurants during cold and flu season.  Likewise, if you are sick, maybe you should stay home and have chicken noodle soup or something instead of infecting the rest of us, yeah?  If you’re an entomologist, you shouldn’t be able to catch a bug in a restaurant, anyway; if you can, please call the health department.  ‘Nuff said.

While I was reclining on my couch, feeling thoroughly unmotivated, I thought I’d catch up on some video games.  If a bizarre obsession with saving virtual characters from scrapes made me a “good” person, I’d be an angel by now.

Virtual me: defender of justice!

In the meantime, my house cleaning went from poor to preposterous.  The instant I felt better, I was compelled to clean.  One can only eat so many dishes off of paper plates.

Then my car broke down, and I discovered that it had two leaks in the engine, so I had to have it towed to the dealership so it could be fixed.  I know, dear reader, that you’re probably thinking that having it taken anywhere else would probably be cheaper, but the last time I let someone else work on my car, the consequences were nearly catastrophic.

If I hadn’t taken it in when I did, this would have been the end result. Explosions are fun in the movie theatre, but not when you’re sitting in the vehicle in question.

Mmm…fire.  Sorry, what?  Right.  I was telling you, um, stuff.  The day I got my car back, I made the brilliant nutritional choice of having nachos for dinner.  Normally microwaves leave the middle a little undercooked, but my microwave, after making weird whiny sounds for the last month, thought that catching the middle of my nachos on fire was a great idea.  I decided to take that as a sign, so yesterday I bought a new one, and that led to more housecleaning.

It’s really hard to write when one’s house ought to be declared a national disaster area.  Do you think I could use my poor housekeeping as a deduction on my taxes?  No?  Oh, okay, then.

The positive news is that none of these things were really as horrible as they sound and they’re all taken care of now.  Also, I’m going on vacation in less than a month, and I get to see my parents and my grandparents!  Ah, life.  It’s really not so bad, even if I could be more productive.  Maybe while I’m on vacation?

Sherlock Holmes could Guess my Job in an Instant

English: Statue of Conan Doyle's most famous f...

Image via Wikipedia, a statue representation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary character Sherlock Holmes

Ah, Sherlock Holmes.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary cocaine snorting and violin loving sleuth could guess one’s occupation, source of distress, recent activities, hobbies and foibles with an uncanny, marvelous accuracy.  As so many know, his ability is explained by astounding powers of observation, and the knowledge to put the clues to good effect.

Most occupations alter our appearance and behaviors in subtle (sometimes obvious) ways.  Here are a few potential clues one of the greatest fictional detectives of all time might use to souse out what I do for a living.

  1. Shake my hand.  If you turn your hand to the side, so that your thumb is pointing up and the majority of your fingers are almost obscured behind the index finger, the uppermost two joints of the index finger of a cook will be calloused, somewhat ridged, with slightly deeper and darker lines.  This is a result of wear and tear from skillet flipping and the frequent use of spatulas.  During the clasping, shaking, and parting of hands, the tougher skin on these fingers would brush against the potentially softer underside of the other person’s hand.  Also, while I was extending my hand he would have the opportunity to notice that the tips of my fingers and palms are considerably more flushed than the rest of my hands, indicating frequent exposure to heat sources.
  2. Let’s play Hot Potato!  With a real hot potato, the kind wrapped in foil that’s just finished baking in a 400 degree (Fahrenheit) oven for about an hour.  Take the potato out of the oven and hand it to someone (or throw it and hope they’ll catch it).  If your average, sane, person catches the potato, they’ll let it drop almost instantly, right?  Possibly with a cry of horror or outrage.  “Why would you do that?”  Someone who cooks for a living, on the other hand, will probably hold onto it for a little longer, and at best mention that it feels kind of warm.  After about three to six months, anyone playing with hot oil and heating elements on a daily basis develops “kitchen hands”.  The first time a drop of oil from the fryer splashed on my arm, I bit back a hiss and lived with the blisters pooling under my skin for a couple of weeks.  By the time I slipped and dipped my hand up to the wrist in the 350 degree stuff a year later, I was content to yank my arm back out of the fryer and forget about the incident in less than five minutes.  No permanent effects.  Mr. Wonderful shudders a bit when I dip my fingers into boiling water periodically to test if the noodles are done or to submerge that bit of vegetable that’s sticking up and not cooking evenly, but hey, at least I don’t have to wash as many utensils, right?
  3. Check out my forearms.  Slightly less resistant than my hands, one can still find the occasional burn scar here.  More telling: the length of the hair.  Close to the wrist, hair will be slight or nonexistent, but gets gradually longer or more evident towards the elbow.  The reason is linked to ease and speed: it’s much faster, and easier with practice, to flip or swirl the contents of a sauté pan than to mess around with spatulas and spoons.  While I’m flinging pan contents around, hot water and oil will inevitably splash on, and melt, the hair off.  Heat and flame from gas burners and the grill will singe any excess hair away.  Mmmm…special spice (Kidding!  The hair that burns off isn’t suspended above the pan or food…promise).
  4. Observe my clothing and drink choices.  I’m the weird person wearing jeans and a sweatshirt on a ninety degree summer day.  I often order hot coffee or tea, or something with extra spice.  Industrial kitchens regularly exceed 120 degrees, and after one spends enough time in them, their resistance for and tolerance to heat will increase, while their ability to deal with lower temperatures will decrease.  Fluffy blankets, winter pajamas, hot beverages and foods are some of my favorite things now.  When my tolerance for the heat of the kitchen isn’t enough and my coworkers and I find ourselves on the verge of heatstroke, the fastest, longest-lasting way to cool down is to emulate fellow humans who live in consistently warmer climes, and that means eating or drinking hot or spicy food, thus stimulating the sweat reflex.  I used to be annoyed when the Chef walked into the respite of 85 degree mid-winter joy, only to announce with chattering teeth and a great deal of shivering that he was turning on the heater.  Three years later, I’m one of the heater’s greatest patrons.
  5. Check my freezer/cupboards.  Everyone always seems to assume that the home cooked meals of a professional cook must be a glamorous, luxurious affair.  Sometimes they are, but all too often, they’re not.  It’s not that we dislike cooking, but honestly, after 10-18 hours, five days to seven days a week, without the hope of a vacation in sight, the last thing I or my coworkers want to do when we drag ourselves home is whip up a fancy meal.  Most of the people I work with admit readily to their freezer’s contents: frozen pizzas and easy microwave meals, boxes of ready make macaroni and cheese, and stacks of To Go boxes dragged home from banquet leftovers or an employee meal they didn’t have time to eat earlier.  One of my coworkers hasn’t had a working refrigerator, plate or fork in his apartment for well over a year.

 

Is there something you do, hobby, career-or otherwise, that’s left its clues on you?  Share below.