Monday, December 12, 2005

The Booth

In the 60's, no body gave a damn if you smoked or not as long as you were'nt in diapers. No active resistance to them had yet reached the public sector and there were few places you could not smoke if you wanted too. I bought my first pack, Parliaments, at the small diner across the street from our house, sat down at the counter, ordered a coffee and lit up. I've been lighting up ever since.

Nowadays, I have a nice cut glass bowl filled with kitty litter stabbed with my cigarette butts. The kitty litter works for stale tobbacco odors too. Fortunatly, the mysterious white totems up are enough to keep the kitty away.

This was in the 80's. I drove by a non-descript office building in town that had a shingle proclaiming in no uncertain terms a promise to STOP SMOKING!GUARANTEED! Even though my past liaisons with hypnotists and faith healers and psychics had accomplished nothing more than emptying my wallet leaving me short of cigarette money again, I was determined to become, as they say nowadays, "smoke free". After some careful thought , I turned around at the next light and headed back to the building."Let's see what they got anyway" I thought. Waves of self assuring rationalizations swept over me, assuring me that I had learned my lessons regarding the efficacy of having someone or something quit smoking for me, not to mention being suckered in again. I parked and went in. Let's see what they got.

The salesman explained that his organization used this here aversion therapy with remarkable success in the past treating all sorts of malady's, up to and including the dreaded scourge of alcoholism. Invented by relative of the guy who invented something to do with shaving, maybe a better razor blade, the premise was beguilingly simple. Just do so much of the certain something that you don't want to do no more then eventually you get so sick of it you don't want to do it anymore, period! Why didn't I think of that?

The salesman/therapist went on to explain that in the case of breaking the smoking habit, this modality was called for. Subjects were to be enclosed in a small room, roughly the dimensions of a telephone booth. In front of them was a small window whose only function was to provide some relief from the claustrophobia. Under this, a small shelf held a large bowl filled to the brim with rotting stinking cigarette butts, the effluence of past sessions, and a small electrical conduit that fit over the subjects thumb. Next to all that was a pile of fresh cigarettes, menthol ones at that, just to make the experience even more heinous than it was about to be. The subject entered the booth, sat in front of the bowl and fit the conduit onto his thumb. On cue from the tinny voice coming from the microphone behind him, he was to take one of the fresh cigarettes from the pile and light up. From that point on, everytime he took a drag from the cigarette, a fresh bolt of electricity would course into his thumb, raising him ever so slightly off the seat.
The subject had a set amount of time in the booth, 15 minutes exactly, to finish smoking a set number of cigarettes. That number increased each time he entered the booth so that by the end of the week long therapy some 150 cigarettes had to be choked down within a total of 75 minutes. Clearly any thought of smoking ever again would certainly be banished from the conscious and unconscious mind of a subject. Tough medicine for a tough addiction.

It was a bit tricker with alcoholism. Because alcoholics seem to adopt a somewhat free spirited attitude when in their cups, there penchant for the grape had to be reigned in somehow before they got totally cocked and skew the therapy results beyond repair. So in their case, thirsty volunteers would sit in a faux bar, complete with bartender, dim red lights and the mandatory jukebox crooning sad songs. Every time an a faux patron lifted a drink to his lips, a scientist behind closed curtains would press a button initiating a jolt of electricity to him prompting the drinker to think twice about the next mouthful should he be successful in getting this one
down the hatch. I imagined a bar full of alcoholics, each spitting out drinks every time they tried to raise one up only to get zapped again, the bartender moving up and down the bar dodging each mouthful of Fleishmans as it came hurling towards him.

The salesman/therapist began to speak to me as if I had already signed a contract. He asked me to bring two packs of my favorite cigarettes, and not to buy anymore after that. These last two packs would go into the stockpile of fodder for other subjects to smoke in the booth, then waited for my move. Seemed fair, although I did have a fleeting notion that the tab for the therapy was hefty enough to provide the smokes. No matter. This bit of critical thinking was enough to satisfy my newfound sales resistance and I signed the contract and was set up to begin therapy the coming Monday at 730 pm.

During that weekend before the coming Monday, I smoke with the wild abandon of a person who knows that the end of his smoking world is at hand. Soon I would be a free man, no longer obsessed with yellow teeth, scent challenged breath, clothes and hair, and the whole list of other things feared and loathed about my smoking.

Monday. 7:30 pm. Inside the booth, I confidently snugged up the conduit over my left thumb. I lit the first of my last cigrettes and smoked as quickly as I could obeying the commands of the tinny voice behind me. Beyond the surprise of the first one, the electrical shocks soon amounted to nothing more than the nuisance of causing my posterior to raise ever so slightly off the seat, as if the shock was originating there rather than the tip of my thumb. Sticking the butt of it in the large bowl in front of me, I lit up another one using my free hand, obeying the voice. I had no trouble staying the comfprtable rythym of the course- Drag- Zaaaaap!- up-down. 15 minutes and 10 cigarettes later, feeling strong and smelling like the bottom of an ashtray, I left the
office for home. I don't want to smoke. It's working!

Tuesday 8 am. I want a cigarette with my coffee. I want a cigarette with my coffee bad. I want a cigarette all day, but I don't smoke.
Tuesday 7:30 pm. After asking me to slow it down some and stay with the program, I started to relax. After stepping out f the booth, no desire for a cigarette remains. It's working!

Wednesday 8 am. I want a cigarette with my coffee. I want a cigarette with my coffee bad. I want a cigarette all day, but I don't smoke. I think all day about tonight's therapy.

Wednesday 7:30 pm. I arrived at the clinic/office a half hour early and wait for the salesman/therapist/ scientist to show up. Reckoning that this session brings me to something over 45 cigarettes in something under an hour, I swell with pride. I'm quitting smoking. Finally!

Thursday 8 am. I want a cigarette with my coffee. I want a cigarette with my coffee bad. I want a cigarette all day, but I don't smoke. I think all day about tonight's therapy and Salem cigarettes.

Thursday 7:30 pm. I spend the last 4 minutes in the booth not smoking. Having met the quota , the salesman/therapist holds to therapeutic guidelines and asks me to stop smoking. Leaving the booth, I'm downright proud of myself. I'm as good as guitted.

Friday 8 am. I want a cigarette with my coffee. I want a cigarette with my coffee bad. I want a cigarette all day, but I don't smoke. I think all day about tonight's therapy and Salem cigarettes. I think about me smoking in the booth tonight. I want to smoke in the booth now and just imagining being there brings a feeling of relief that is palatable.

Friday 7:30 pm. After the session, sure enough, I don't want to smoke again and we congratulate ourselves on our success. I have not smoked for a full 5 days now, save for the ones in the booth in the evening, which were therapy and don't count. I sign a document attesting to this success and go home a free man.

Monday following the end of therapy: After several calls during the weekend to the salesman/therapist he finally returns my call. I confess that I smoked last Saturday and have been smoking ever since, now more than ever, and may I have my money back please. After sympathetically expressing his regrets in a tone reserved for a kindly parents speaking to their child after the kid has wet the bed, he informs me that, as per the contract, the guarantee is null and void IF the subject lights up without giving the salesmant/therapist an opportunity to invite the recidivist to take the program again, free of charge. After going thru twice more, for free, the subject is entitled to his money back. Otherwise, he would be glad to rerun the therapy at a special rate for the occasional ex subject who breaks the contract.

I light up another cigarette, noticing that my posterior lifts itself of it's own accord ever so lightly up from the seat.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Identity Suicide

When I am furious with myself for some something I want to gather every material possession that I own, open the window and then toss them all out. This way, I imagine that I can start all over and be a completely new person, tricking myself into believing that as the "things" fly out the window, so will all my current distress. Although I have yet to actually carry through with this extreme solution to self hate, it's comforting to a have a contingency plan, should I ever feel I am bad enough to warrant such identity suicide.

I imagine that once I do this house cleaning, I can finally relax. Finally there will be nothing to fill my hours with distraction and sate my urge to keep busy. It's as if things had some magical power over me, leaving me a human doing as opposed to a human being. They do.

This urge to bathe myself in stuff has manifested itself over the years in countless artifacts and books, collected and forgotten, tossed into the corners of unused spaces in my home and head and left there, obsolete, no longer of any interest for me. I'm not sure that I'm unique in this. The things that I collect are symbolic to me as "me", each a tiny component of myself made real and tangible. My guess is that we all need this reassuring confirmation of our reality until we reach such enlightenment wherein we fully accept that reality itself, in particular our own, is an illusion While I can clearly grasp the notion that everything outside of me is, in fact, an illusion, I have yet to understand how it is possible for one illusion, me, to observe another illusion, you.

Actually, I can't get myself to toss or give my stuff away. I can't even come to putting my stuff where the rest of the world does theirs- in the front yard, in spring, next to a tag sale sign.

Here's what stops me from opening the window when I unhappy with some part of me. I am certain that if I toss my "stuff" out the window, then the "I " I wish to go with it WON"T go with it. I'll be treating the symptoms and will accomplish nothing other than creating a empty spaces in my house and mind where new echoes beg for new things to absorb them.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Good Guy, Bad Guy

I remember when I was a boy my brother and I would curl up under a blanket and watch professional wrestling into the wee hours past fridays midnight. As young males, we enjoyed it immensely. Especially when the female wrestlers had a go on the mat. It did'nt matter if the females were midgets. It still was the best show on televison as far as we were concerned. Especially that part. Other than looking at splayed female legs it made absolutly no sense to me that any male would watch and I was then, as I am now, amazed that people, male and female alike, responded to wrestling as if what they were watching was genuine. Could a look of surprise be the only serious damage resulting from having one's face run into a metal pole at the other side of a wrestling ring by their opponent?

So mind you, even as a boy I didnt believe for a minute that what I was watching was real. Even when I started to get a little enthusiastic when the fake blood came out, I still knew that it was rigged. Not only was the whole deal rigged, but it soon became apparent that each bout in this minstral show of muscles followed a predictated pattern, easily discenable to even my dullard of a brother. Surely everyone knew the drill-the good guy comes in bathed in the sustained loud roar of approval from the gleeful audience. HE has arrived. Shortly therafter, always before the crowd has calmed down, but after suitable parading about in the ring by the hero to the approval of the crowd below, a dischelved mutant of an overgrown human being known as the bad guy slithers down the asile and into the ring. EVIL has arrived. The crowds mood goes sour immediatly and the first of the loud substained boos begin. After some arrogant posturing by the bad guy to the crowd in response to these boos a tiny bell rings somewhere. The noise from the crowd goes down a notch. The two join each other in the center of the ring, opposite to each other and glaring past a tiny rather nervous looking male usher looking for all the world as though he regreted choosing this particular nocturnal employemnt to supplement his income. The rules are read and the combatants ordered to engage in combat with an official sweep of the ushers hand, who then follows the sweep well onto the nearest corner.

After the usher has found the maximum distance from the pair of gargatuans, lest he be struck by one or the other flying thru the air, the real beginning of the match was underway. The steely eyed blond good guy held open palmed- finger spread hands into the air challenging the bad guy to take it with his hands in a like manner so that then and there they could get things straight, i.e, who had the strongest grip. This sacramental rite, the invitation to the stare down, was, and still is, equivalent to genuflexing before kneeling to pray, and each and every bout was preceded by it or some variation therof. Apparently thrown off guard at this display of confidence by the blond good guy, the bad guy tentativly raised his hands then lowered them, shook his head, snarled, circled the good guy for a few steps, raised his hands then lowered them, shook his head, snarled, then circled the good guy for a few more steps until the crowd was worked into a fever pitch. Finally, after spitting on the audience in fury for their disrespect of his cowardice, or good judgement, depending on the way one looked at it, the bad guy finally grasped the good guys hand. Big mistake, or so it seemed at first. The obligatory test of strength was on. For a suspenseful minute or two, it looked like the bad guy may have had a chance, as each of them stood in stasis, coiled wires ready to burst. Eventually the good guy brought the bad guy to his knees via superior arm and hand strength. There, on his knees, begging for mercy, shaking his head sideways, no, no, no in a pathetic display of cowardice that only made the crowd boo even louder, the now innocent eyed bad guy implored the good guy to relent.

At this point in ancient Rome, every last thumb would have been down already. And in his goodness, as good guys are won't to do, the good guy released the bad guys hand, perhaps unwilling to risk his hero status by such irretrivably bad form as to head butt a man kneeling before him. This proved to be an error in judgement as the bad guy immediatly punched the good guy well below the belt with his now free right hand, a not too difficult move inasmuch as the bad guy was still on his knees anyway. Simultaneously clutching his crotch and closing his legs while standing, ala Micheal Jackson, the good guy stood there bent over, frozen in his tracks. The bad guy, always the first to see an open window of opportunity, often gave another quick short jab to the midsection for good measure before standing up. Upon standing, the bad guy would grab the now helpless hero by the back of the hair with left hand so that the target of his drawn back fisted right would land accurately on the next window of opportunity that presented itself, the hero's face. Ground zero for the incoming missle of bone and flesh was the hero's nose. The hero, although staggering in place from the mighty blow that produced nothing more than an odd anachronistic slapping noise upon impact despite it's high velocity, remained upright. After a flurry of these strikes, no doubt inconsequential to the good guy in light of the pain in his groin, the bad guy backpedelled to the ropes behind him and in sling shot fashion launched himself towards the good guy standing alone and helpless in the center spotlight of the mat. Hurling forward, the bad guy had his choice of any number of exotic moves known only to wrestlers. Flying off the ropes by the bad guy signalled to the crowd that the good guy, maybe this week, will be dethroned, good guy or not. After it, it's happened before. My favorite off the ropes slingshot move, no matter who performed it, was the clothesline. With one arm outstreatched like, you guessed it, a clothesline, the bad guy caromed off the ropes towards the good guy, positioning the aforementioed horizontal stiff arm so that it would be met by the good guys neck and sure to snap it before the good guys soon be horizontal frame hit the mat below.

In cases where the good guy was desperate, a last effort measure such as this was approved of but ordinarily such showboating was destained by the good guys, preferring of course, to fight fair. Unless the bad guy was, heaven forbid, about to win. This drove the crowd absolutly crazy with anger. Another long sustained boo echoed in the televised arena. The bad guy would vainly parade around the ring in defiance of the crowds disaprroval over his crude but effective battle stratgems in the ring. Meanwhile, on the mat below, the good guy desperatly tried to recover from the foul play that brought him to the mat. For a while the good guy would get his ass kicked. Then the bad guy would get his ass kicked.

This went on back and forth, each iteration of rally, falter, rally begat even more spectacular gymnastics from each man. Eventually the use of a steel chair applied quickly to the head of the good guy or some other equally unthinkable behavior on the part of the bad guy signalled the end of the one act pantomine. Soon in the tradition of the best of theater the hero will rally one last time, ironically fueled by the behavior of the bad guy which had finally gone beyond the pale. With blood dramatically staining his golden locks and covering his forehead and a good part of his face, the good guy, in a triumphal display of superhuman strength and endurance, brings to bad guy to justice in a most spectacular fashion. Ordinarily this would be accomplished by raising the bad guy overhead, slamming him to the floor, then jumping on him, usually from the highest point in the ring, the nearest post. Balancing precariously on top of the post the good guy flies down, as if from Heaven, to destroy yet another bad guy. Needless to say, this one man extreme pig pile elicited a very positive response form the crowd, something akin to mass hysteria, In the center of the ring, under the spotlight, the good guy now covers the twitching bad guys body while the ref, who for all we knew went home for dinner during the match, goes to his kness beside them and inspects the good guys hold to confirm for all the legality of whatever the good guy may have been doing to the pile of legs and arms below him. This would later insure that any petty complaints of foul play such as "he was pinching me" by the bad guy would go unheard. The ref begins the count. The crowd rises to their feet. The bad guy has to 3 to get up and get back to wrestling. Each shouted number was underlined by the loud slap of the refs hand on the mat close to the prostrate, interlaced wrestlers. Soon it would be official. 1 SLAAAP! 2 SLAAAP! 3 SLAAAP! DINGDINGDINGDING! Quick loud pure rings of the bell above the screaming crowds signalled the end of the match between good and evil once more.

With variations, this is how professional wrestling has gone since I can remember. By the time I was a freshman in high school, it no longer had any interest for me at all. By then my pre teen aged hopes of a woman wrestler suddenly finding herself topless after a particulalry clumsy move by her opponant had proven to be futile. Logic dictated, finally, that if it had not happened after all of the viewings of the same old monotonous legs flying in the air stuff, then in all probability the swimsuits they were wearing were designed to withstand the shock of an airplane crash. I and an entire generation of like minded over virile, if there is such a thing, young men were wasting time better spent just masturbating and getting it over with so we could get on with our lives.

Now some 40 years later only the style has changed. The content remains the same. It's still a 2 act morality play. Good versus evil in it's most elemental form, consistantly acted out, stripped of any literary or artistic pretence and available to all, young or old. The mesasge is simple- Good prevails despite the best efforts of evil and fate. ACT 1- THE WORLD IS BORN. The hero enters to the acceptance of the society. This acceptance of good bonds society, here represented by the audience, by affirming that WE are good. But good is not the issue. WE is the issue. WE need security for soon evil will enter the arena. Once again the audience bonds together in the unamimous vigorus renunciation of evil therby affirming once again none of us are actually alone. That is a horrifying premise for humans and every opportunity for reaffirmation that we are not alone is taken unconsiously by each of us each moment of our lives. Deep inside each of us is the doubt, the uncertainty of our own reality, and therfore our own "realness". ACT 2- LIFE EVERLASTING. Good versus evil. The same battle raging on the mat above us rages incessantly within each of us every day. The good part of us falters then rallies again and again.

The part that fewer people may consider because we are taught, hopefully, to think "positively", is that so does the evil part of us falter and rally. And it must either falter and rally in response to good or of it's own accord. Take your pick. The first option is far more palatable for most people than it's frightening alternative. On and on the battle rages. Against all cruelty of fate and evil incarnate itself, the hero emerges victorious once again. The morality play before the crowd has guided each of them from birth thru life victoriously in a scant twenty minutes. Leaving the arena with smiling faces and a refreshed calmness we are renewed for another days battle in the arena outside the arena, our own lives.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Church of The Seagull Room

Last night I went to another wedding. Held in a very posh New England Inn way out in the woods somewhere in an equally poshly white upper class village in Connecticut, there were about 50 emissary's from Mars, and an equal number from Venus. Unlike all of the other weddings I had been to in my life this was one was unique. Sort of new agey. They had the actual wedding service in a banquet room off directly off the hallway where they held the cocktail hour that was to come after the exchange of vows but before dinner. It was a combination wedding and reception. A Wedceptioning? An idea whose time had come. Gone was the long hunt for some obscure church, the endless service and the long impatient drive from there to the bar (hopefully open) and a free meal, buffet or otherwise.

The banquet room turned cathedral was decorated in white roses and white streamers. The bride and groom processed in and took their place at a arbor laced with more white roses and streamers. Standing in the middle of the arbor, to the rear so the about to be marrieds would be directly underneath the symbolic protection of the rosey arch, the female pastor read the fine print to the man and woman before her. A good idea since I had no idea what I was doing when I got married and I suspect that neither did they. This would spell it out in no uncertain terms for the two in front of us and remind the audience, most of whom have already tied the knot, and, for the life of them cannot remember why they tied it in the first place. Behind us, a cello and a violin played Pachebels Canon in somewhere near Dm. This lovely dirge was played at my wedding and no doubt, yours.

After the kisses from the bride and groom sealed the deal, the wedding party marched out as solemnly as they had came in, trying to time their exit to the end of the last song of the musicians, something they had been unable to do with the first. The small congregation of the newly formed Church of The Seagull Room filed out efficiently, if not quickly, heading, en masse, for the open bar. Halleluiah!

A small percentage of the total population present in line at the bar were young and unmarried. They were already smiling broadly and laughing amongst each other, as if the previous service had the effect of reminding them that they had managed to miss the equivalent a fateful airplane crash at the last minute. The rest of us, the married ones, stood milling around the open bar, all of not yet lubricated yet to bother to converse with each other, like prisoners in a chow line.

I asked my wife what she would like to drink. "a Topo Gigio" she answered. Translating this as any white wine I nudged my way to the bar where my fellow Martians waited to complete the same mission. I bellied up. "Penoo Greasio, please". Reaching back, he grabbed a bottle of white wine, not Topo Greasio. "This ok"? Knowing that my wife knew nothing about wine and had probably never had a glass of the type she called for, just overheard the exotic sounding name somewhere, I nodded approval then added a "and a diet coke, please". He poured each into those tiny glasses reserved for open bars and I began to make way towards my wife. She and and ex business acquittance were chatting away, in that same awkward pre cocked too enthusiastic cocktail hour chatter that filled the room at the moment.

Meanwhile the young jovial Vesuvian non-marrieds kept flitting thru the older married crowd like wood nymphs, taunting the obedient husbands attention from their wives strangely polite chatter. The married Martians, their own drink firmly in hand now, contented themselves with the dangerous ancient art of undressing one woman while holding a conversation with another, usually their wives.

The young unmarried Martians were not yet sufficiently lubricated to join in with the nubiles that kept skittering by. After a few more Ansel Lights their inhibitions would give way to joining in the frolic. In the meanwhile they all huddled together tightly clutching their beer bottle cum phallus symbol stiffly upright in their hands, elbows bent at the shoulder, looking gravely around the room, mimicking the boredom of the elder Martians but presenting it as their natural poise. Silent guardians. Soon they would be relieved of duty by the alcohol. These same Guardians will soon become boisterous Warriors, each vying with each other for a chance to get laid with any sufficiently willing, or drunk enough, unattached Vesuvian at their table in the next room we were about to be herded into- the reception room. Where the banquet will be held.

Time to eat and drink and openly celebrate another bit of glue that holds society together, marriage, or, in the manner of an Irish wake, mourn another largely unkeepable covenant made by two innocents.