Vapid

The smoke encircled his head like a thief.  And not in a saintly way.  I was going to have to rethink this.  You see, the culture of the early morning commute is one where you stand in line with strangers before dawn.  Having grown up a victim of second-hand smoke at home, I can’t stand it now.  Should I go wait in the line (which was growing) where the last guy was smoking, or sit in my car?  Work anxiety always wins out in such situations, so off I trudged.  I discovered, however, that the man in front of me wasn’t smoking after all.  He was vaping.  What was this chemical stew hanging in the air that had just come from his mouth?

I worry about second-hand vape.  How desperate must a person be to smoke a device?  You see, my trust in technology goes only so far.  People are slowly beginning to understand that electronics don’t solve every problem.  Vinyl records are starting to come back, even at Barnes and Noble.  Independent bookstores are returning, despite the rise of Kindle.  I’m still waiting for it, but film cameras may once again appear.  There’s something about the Ding an sich.  The tech of the stereo was invented for the analogue record.  Yes, the MP3 is faster and cheaper, and you can buy just the song you want with the click of a virtual button, but we still have our favorite LPs around.  This isn’t misplaced nostalgia, like those who long for the 1950s.  No, this is simply the recognition that faster isn’t always better.  Some things were meant to linger.

Vaping is, however, an example of how a bad habit becomes a vice with no point.  Initially meant to come to the succor of smokers who couldn’t do it indoors, vaping was also quickly relegated to the outside.  Many people, it seems, don’t want to breathe someone else’s smoke.  Do you develop artificial cancer from artificial nicotine?  Another commuter comes up to the guy in front of me.  Like a couple of kids on a 1970s schoolyard, they exchange vape flavors.  The first guy doubles up with a coughing fit.  Spits off the curb.  The second guy says, somewhat anticlimactically, that this one’s strong stuff.  I have to wonder what future generations, if there’ll be any, will think of our love affair with devices.  The bus pulls in.  I’m the only one on the whole thing who clicks on the over seat light.  I have a physical book to read.

Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.

The Rules of Waiting

Tom Petty must’ve been a commuter.  On a winter’s morning after switching to Daylight Saving Time, waiting is the indeed the hardest part.  For a bus, that is.  In the dark.  The saving grace is that humans are rule-makers.  Before I even began commuting into New York I’d been instructed in the etiquette.  Those who get there first leave some kind of avatar—a briefcase, an umbrella, a lunch box—in their place in line and then sit in their cars.  Being the paranoid sort, and also thinking myself tough, I’ve always just stood at my place as the chill wind finds its way down my collar and then buffets me almost off of my feet.  With the time-change, however, I decided to do like the commuters do.  I walked out to the line of objects to find one widely separated from the others.  Being a law-abider, I put my lunch down after the errant water bottle.

“Hey,” a stranger called me on my way back to my car.  “Somebody just left that water bottle—you should move your bag up next to the backpack.”  Thanking him, I did so.  Not only was this person I didn’t know watching me in the dark, but he was also keeping the rules.  Indeed, when the bus crested the hill and commuters lined up next to their possessions, the water bottle remained unclaimed.  It was still there fourteen hours later when I got off the returning bus.  Now, I’m not a big fan of anarchy, but this incident demonstrates just how inclined we are toward civil behavior.  There’s no bus stop police force to ensure nobody jumps line.  Even at the Port Authority waiting in the queue at the end of the day the rules are mostly self-governing.  Those who don’t obey are scolded by their peers and generally comply.

There’s a natural sort of ethic among those who catch the bus before 5 a.m.  We’ve all been awake earlier than nature would seem to dictate.  We’re in a dark, isolated location outside town.  We look out for one another, realizing that any one of us might easily lose our place in line should the rules break down.  I was struck by the kindness of this caliginous stranger.  Or perhaps it was just his love of order.  Had my representation been out of place, other commuters might’ve grown confused.  The system might’ve broken down.  The last thing anyone wants is chaos before cock-crow.  I decided to interpret it as kindness, however, as I made my way back to my car to put on Tom Petty to face the hardest part.

Care and Keeping of Books

I take good care of books.  It’s my personal goal that after I’ve read a book you won’t be able to tell.  I used to mark books up, but it occurred to me that I want the books to outlast me and if someone else is to get the full benefit of them I shouldn’t be doing such scribbling.  Of course, when a book has to commute with you there’s bound to be some scuffing from being put into a briefcase along with other necessities.  On the days I don’t commute, I try to replicate bus time for reading.  I curl up in a chair with my book and a cup of coffee to warm my fingers, and read.  The other day as I did this, a drop of coffee made its way from my mug onto the open page.  I was aghast.

Reading a marred book page is eternally distracting.  My eye is immediately drawn to the imperfection and I sometimes can’t even make sense of the sentence in which the blemish occurs.  Not because I can’t read it, but because I can’t get beyond the hurt.  Coffee rings are chic, I know, on the cover of a book or a notebook page.  It’s one of the truest clichés of the literary crowd.  Coffee and a good book.  Not coffee in a good book!  I tried to get back into the flow of the narrative.  My eye kept wandering back to the spot I’d unintentionally marred—I’d violated my own principles.  Unintentionally of course—this isn’t Starbucks where the heat is set at a reasonable level and you don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm.  But still.  But still.

After many minutes of feeling like I’d shot a friend, I managed to move on.  I kept turning back to my coffee page to see if the damage was as distracting as I thought it was.  After work that night when I picked my book up again—commuting is a twice a day activity—I turned back to the damaged page and frowned.  Books are, to some of us, friends.  I want to treat them right.  I line them up in order on their shelves, knowing just where to find them when I need them again.  One careless drop of coffee had taken its eternal toll on an innocent tome.  I realize this world lacks perfection; I’m not naive.  Still, this book, which wasn’t cheap, now bears a scar that I dealt it.  Will I ever comprehend what that one page says?  I hope my silent friend will forgive.

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.

The Myth of the Extra Hour

The selling point of an extra hour of sleep is, unfortunately, a myth.  I’m not talking about young people who can sleep on demand, but your average, everyday working body who adheres to a schedule set by the man.  Like many Americans I probably don’t get enough sleep.  Long years of habit are hard to break, and besides, I still have to commute into New York City.  Not every day, but every couple of weeks.  Still, my sleep-deprived brain knows that means awaking early on those days and since getting up extra-early is hard, why not maintain the status quo ante?  Habitual early risers don’t really benefit from setting the clocks back.  You see, you’re never given something without it being taken away again elsewhere.

Humans can’t seem to help themselves from messing with nature.  There’s always something to do on the farm, and other creatures don’t keep clocks.  Interestingly, standardized time (instead of the more natural local time) only came into being with the railroad.  Trains were scarce and to make sure those down the line didn’t miss one, time had to be synchronized.  Even earlier, the process of navigating the oceans required knowing what time it was back home—local time could be determined by the sun—to determine one’s longitude.   With railways, however, the nine-to-five could become the accepted norm so that business could be conducted and time could be divided into profitable and domestic.  And everyone knows which one is more lucrative.

No doubt some will wake this morning well rested.  Others will have stayed up later, knowing they’d have an extra hour this morning.  For the rest of us, biology moves us along the same trajectory it’d been keeping ever since March.  Daylight Saving Time could be instituted all year, you know.  When we set the clocks back in March we could just keep them there.  The slow, steady rhythms of time would adjust.  Yes, the gods of Greenwich would be annoyed, but mean time could mean time that is useable.  The modern commuter lives by the clock.  Work depended on that train or bus or camel.  You don’t want to miss it.  And if you think camels are an odd addition to the list, it could be that the present writer isn’t getting enough sleep.  No matter what longitude, or mass transit schedule, nothing beats a good night’s sleep.  And changing clocks doesn’t help.

Cheaper than Swords

It’s chilly in here.  What with the early onset winter and the uncertainty of being able to afford the heating bills, we keep the thermostat pretty low.  That may not be the problem with our pens, though.  You’ve probably had it happen too.  You’ve got an idea and you need to write it right down.  You snatch up the nearest pen and begin scribbling on whatever’s to hand—a bill, a receipt, the dog—only to find the pen doesn’t write.  You scratch out circles or zigzags, depending on your mood and temperament.  The pen is, however, persistent in its refusal to let any ink flow.  You grab another.  The same thing happens.  Finally—third time’s a charm, right?—the pen writes and you’ve forgotten what you desperately need to put on paper (or parchment).

Despite wanting others to think I’m cool (I don’t see many people) years ago I started carrying a pen in my pocket.  Not just any pen, but one that would write immediately, the first time, without question or complaint.  Such pens don’t come cheap.  Then, of course, I would lose said pen.  The shirt pocket is an invitation to lose things.  You bend over and, depending on the fabric, what’s in the pocket falls out.  When it happens on a bus or plane—and it does!—your writing implement may roll away before you can reach it.  Have you ever tried getting on your hands and knees on a bus to try to squeeze down to look under a seat?  I have.  I don’t recommend it.  It’s like praying to the god of grime.  Still, I need that pen that obediently writes—I reach for it.

Some have gone the way of electronic writing.  Thumbs flying like a ninja they tap out texts so fast Samuel Morse’s eyes would pop out if they hadn’t long ago turned to dust.  I’m not a texter, though.  Those who know me know I prefer email where ten digits can work in concert and spare me sore thumbs and unintentionally brief messages that could easily be misunderstood.  No, better yet, give me a pen.  Any scrap of paper will do, but the pen is crucial.  How many ideas have died prematurely due to the pen that just won’t work?  I found a reliable pen refill.  I saved the package so that I could remember the brand.  Now I have to work out a way to have the pen with me at all times.  If the option for useful bodily modifications ever becomes a reality, a pen in the hand seems like the most practical of all.  Now what was I going to say in this blog post?