Thursday, November 30, 2006

I Quit

Last night I finally found my old copy of Confessions of Zeno. I'd spent the whole day uselessly staring at my computer, failing to get much work done, failing to not smoke, failing to do much of anything short of exchange a few emails with a favorite writer, learn that he's in a rough spot despite four published books under his belt. I then consider the prospect of driving a truck for a living.

At least it was warm out.

So anyway, there I am with my copy of Confessions of Zeno. I've read it three times already and ripped it off a billion times in conversation and writing. And I remembered why I loved Zeno so much. He can't stop quitting. He smokes, he quits. He starts again. He checks into frigging rehab to stop smoking, and he starts again.

I have been on the patch, zyban, the gum and cold hard will. I binge smoke so that I wake up with my temples throbbing and my eyes rimmed red. This is aversion therapy, I believe. I smoke I don't smoke. I wash my face and brush my teeth and take a shower and change my clothes before going to my girlfriend's house. I know she wants me to quit. She kisses me, tastes the tell-tale Listerine and says, "John McCloskey you've been smoking."

I'm not fooling anyone, but I'm trying I swear.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tom Tom and Pancake Batter

I made pancakes a lot when I was kid. Along with grilled cheese sandwiches, oatmeal and eggs, pancakes are something a kid can actually cook, as opposed to merely defrost or toast or nuke in the microwave. So on a typical Saturday morning, I would take down the box of Bisquick, pull some eggs and milk out and start cooking. When I first started doing it, I was in a thrall to directions and instructions as much as I enjoyed the responsibility of cooking my own massive breakfast. You know, there's that chart on the back of the box and it tells you to use one egg and 1 1/4 cups of milk for 12 pancakes or whatever. I followed the instructions to the letter. But after a few Saturdays I learned that the instructions are wrong. They're always wrong. If you follow the instructions exactly you will make shitty pancakes every time. They may be shitty in a novel way, every time you make them. One batch will be too thin, and another will be too thick. One dry, one pasty.

Eventually I stopped following the directions. I'd concoct the batter based on the principle of just making it look right. Winging it, an eight year old in front of a hot stove. Fantastic freedom. Perfect pancakes.

This may be a leap, but one popular Christmas gift puts me in the mind of pancake-making: the car-bound Global Positioning Systems made by Garmin. I hate the very idea of these things. Last year I was working a job that frequently required me to take a car service to a printing plant in New Jersey. The drivers lived and died by the GPS. They never had any idea where they were. A computer told them what to do. The computer was often right in generalities, but always wrong on specifics. Streets that it thought were two-way, were one-way. Exits didn't exist, or the merge off the highway went left instead of right. I planned for a longer car ride than it should have taken.

Now I've said before that if a machine can do a job better than a human, then the machine should do the job. But we need to understand what the job is. Knowing where you are is a metaphysical issue. You can't boil it down to longitude, latitude, minutes and seconds. Knowing where you are in space and time means that you know how your immediate surroundings relate to the time and space that surrounds your surroundings. Rats can be trained to turn right or left when running through a maze at the command of a tone, just like humans can turn off the highway because Tom Tom told them to. But the rat doesn't know where he is, and if you use a GPS, neither do you.

I have only been truly lost a handful of times in my life. My definition of lost is this: you have no idea where you are, how you got there, or how you can get to the other place you had in mind when you left your point of origin. Once I was in a foreign city. It was late, I was drunk. All the riot gates on the stores had been pulled down. So the narrow streets which in the daytime were lined with distinct, recognizable shops, were now grey walls marked with the heiroglyphic scrawl of graffiti I couldn't read.

I couldn't speak the language to ask directions, and there was no one to ask anyway. It's a sickening feeling. It is also absolutely necessary.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Word of the Month


Sunday, November 19, 2006

My Vietnam

I once heard a recording of Lyndon Johnson discussing the elemental tactical problems of the Vietnam war. The Vietcong, in Johnson's estimation, could lay in a muddy ditch for days waiting for an American platoon to pass by before ambushing them. American soldiers could not mimick the tactic because after a few minutes, "they'll want a cigarette or something."

This is where I'm at with the mice. They know the traps. They know the bait. They know I'm here. I never know if they are here or not, lurking in the corners or off in another building on my block. As soon as I think the mice are gone, they attack, screaming in their little mouse language, hurling home-made grenades at me and blasting away with tiny kalishnikovs. I should take a forty-five in my hand like Forrest Gump and crawl into the mouse network of tunnels, confronting them on their own territory, but on my terms.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mice Revisited.

I posted earlier about what I shall now call Mice War II. In mentioning the new mouse insurgency, I wrote that one canny little bastard traced his way around a glue trap, obviously aware that treading upon it meant a sticky death. By implication you might have assumed that his predecessors from the summer weren’t so bright. This would be an incorrect assumption.

The mice that infested my house late this spring were very smart. I first discovered those mice when I found a plastic bag of Pepperidge Farms stuffing that had been torn open, its contents scattered around my cabinet. Little black squiggles of mouse crap peppered the floor of the cabinet. I immediately did the sensible thing. I swept up, cleaned the inside of the cabinet and left a spring trap baited with peanut butter. A few weeks passed. The trap snapped the necks of no mice. I figured that it had been a fluke. The mouse responsible for the scattered stuffing had been a ranger-mouse, charged with taking the vanguard in search of food and shelter for his breathren. When I cleaned up the food, the gang decided to deploy elsewhere.

Then one night I was up late working. A grey blur flashed in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw a mouse. Uh oh. They’re still here, I thought. The next day I went to a 99 cent store and bought some glue traps and some more spring traps. I baited all of them with dried cubes of stuffing, figuring that the mice were accustomed to eating it, so they’d take the bait. I got one mouse the next night. And that was it.

Reluctantly, I hoped that it was just the one. I went back to my normal routine. The other traps remained set, just in case. They captured no mice for weeks. Then one day, I found another bag of food-stuffs scattered in my cabinet. This one was a bag of Cajun soup mix that my mom had sent me. The gauge of the plastic was much thicker than normal packaged food plastic. The bag was vacuum sealed, and had been undisturbed for over a year. The traps had not been touched.

Then it occurred to me. These mice know that food in plastic bags is safe to eat! What’s more, they know that plastic bags often contain that food.

How do they know this? According to Wikipedia, the life-span of a mouse only reaches 2 years in laboratory captivity. In the wild they don’t live much longer than 3 months. It took me seven years, as a human, to learn to tie my shoes, with multiple instructors. Do other mice communicate this information to them? Are there mouse survival seminars?

It reminded me of an incident that I witnessed once on the 14th street L train platform. For those who don’t live in New York City, the L train is the crappy subway that runs between North Brooklyn and the East Village in Manhattan. For most of the past several years the MTA has been “upgrading” it. What this meant was that almost every night after 10, train service was cut in half. Rather than run trains on two tracks, in each direction, train service went to one track exclusively at that hour. One night I reached the subway station a few minutes after it had gone to single-track service. And so I was stuck waiting a half hour for my train.

At the First Ave station you can look across the tracks to the opposite platform. That evening, someone had dropped a large order of McDonald’s French fries on the platform just before it went to single track service. The fries, their red cardboard container and the ketchup sat there directly opposite from where I stood. Because it was a variance in the environment, my eye naturally fell on the pile of fries while I stared into space. Then a rat popped out of the drain hole on the wall behind the fries. I watched it.

The rat meandered around the platform a bit, then homed-in on the fries. It gathered up a bundle of them and crawled back into the drain hole. A few moments later, it popped out of the hole and collected some more fries. I imagined that it was bringing food home to a little rat family. Somehow this was a nice, warm image, like a Norman Rockwell picture, but with rats. The rat made this trip several times, until it had gathered all the fries. I continued staring into space. That’s when the frightening thing happened.

The rat came back for the ketchup.

It emerged from the hole and picked up the sealed plastic envelope of ketchup. Then it tried to re-enter the hole, but because the envelope was sealed, it would not collapse to a width that would fit in the hole. The rat dropped the envelope, and then picked it up again, trying to force the envelope cross-ways into the hole. I turned to the man standing next to me.

“Are you seeing this?” I said.

He looked straight ahead. “Yeah, I am. It’s kinda scary.”

We watched the rat struggle awkwardly with the ketchup for a bit. After a few tries he seemed to figure out that the ketchup would fit into the hole if he pushed it in lengthwise, rather than crosswise. Then he disappeared, off to feast on his fries with ketchup.

So this incident was on my mind when I realized that the mice were specifically searching for food safely protected in plastic bags. “What else do they know?” I said to myself.

In the weeks that followed, I outsmarted the mice, just barely. I washed and then rebaited all the spring traps with chocolate, bits of an Easter Bunny that had been in my freezer for moths. The temptation of chocolate was too strong. Eleven mice succumbed to it. Though I left baited traps in place, I captured none and saw none until now. Looking back, many of the mice were clearly young. Perhaps they merely ignored the wisdom of their elders.

Now I am at a loss for what to do next. These new mice obviously know that a taste of chocolate is a death sentence. They surely know that peanut butter is bad news too. Cheese hasn’t worked as mouse bait since 1957. Should I go exotic? Tehini? Vegemite? I guess I’ll have to learn.

Undisciplined Vanity: How to find me

The following Google searches will yeild this blog as the first hit.

John McCloskey Lies
John McCloskey Cigarettes
John McCloskey Kitty
John McCloskey moustache (sort of)

Of all the combinations, I think I'm most proud of kitty.


The mice are back in my apartment. This batch has been properly orientated. They have taken seminars in evasive techniques before their arrival. At three a.m. last night I watched one deftly trace a path around a glue-trap.

I first had an infestation late last spring. In the subsequent killing season I liquidated 11 mice. This, I thought, was the Final Solution. Clearly I was wrong. What follows is a battle of wits.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Juice

It's been more than 12 years since O.J. Simpson decapitated his wife and gutted Ron Goldman like a fish. Now O.J. has surfaced again, doing prepress publicity for his book in which he steps into the shoes of the murderer. In keeping with the underlying (but often ignored) purpose of this site, O.J.'s narrative return to the scene of the crime requires some comment.

O.J.’s disconnect from the truth amazes me. The willingness of publishers and television networks to harvest this disconnect and the murder for cash is also very impressive.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ads on My Blog

This site is equipped with an ad server option. Having chosen this option I will ostensibly earn money if people click on the ads.

What I don't understand is how these ads are chosen. Early on I would see ads for crap that was faintly related to the text of my posts. Then today I saw an ad for this company called "In Line Crowd Control." I clicked it. It's an interesting outfit. Their slogan is "We Keep You In Line."

Here are some of their wares:

Airport-style doo-dads that compel folks to form tidy ques.

An old stand-by.

Metal riot barriers that keep riots where you want them.

And my favorite:

Only the dancer poles make sense in association with this blog.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Quitting Quitting

The only thing I do better than anyone else is roll cigarettes by hand. The cigarettes I roll are of consistent shape and size, firm cylinders of paper encasing a spindle of tobacco. They burn perfectly, always feel right in my hand and taste delicious. They look just like a machine made them.

That level of precision, their likeness to machine-made cigarettes is a bit shameful, but it's the least shameful element of this talent. If a machine can do what you do, then let the machine do it. Humans are intended to do what machines cannot do. I am not about to get into a John Henry-style competition with a cigarette machine. That would be silly. What's truly shameful about this skill is that I have perfected a hand-craft that will kill me. Imagine if knitting caused cancer. Would anyone knit for fun? No.

I started rolling my own cigarettes in earnest several years ago, upon my return to smoking after a two year break. I had dabbled with hand-rolling as a younger kid, in college. My earlier rolling habit was all affect. I wanted to seem hard, more real, though that term didn’t exist at the time. Of course in trying to be more real, I was a monumental phony. Later, when I started rolling smokes in earnest, I was as real as could be. I was cheap, and I wanted to smoke as little as possible.

Before that, I had been dead serious about quitting, and it was a hard thing to do. I asked my doctor for help. He prescribed a drug called Zyban. The chemical in Zyban, bupoprion, is also marketed under the name Wellbutrin. It’s meant to treat depression. No one is exactly sure how it works in treating depression. But a few years after it hit the market as an anti-depressant, doctors began noticing something odd. Their patients who smoked reported that they had spontaneously quit smoking. Depressives smoke at a much greater rate than the rest of the population, so this was a noticeable occurance. A few studies were commissioned, and bingo, the drug’s maker found another market for their pills.

It sounded like a great plan. I would take a pill and that pill would somehow, as if by magic, drain the urge to smoke right out of me. I had always thought of myself as a depressive, so maybe this drug would take care of that too. I mentioned this potential added plus to my doctor. He made an encouraging little punching gesture and said, “This stuff will give you a little oomph.” I nodded. He nodded back at me, and resumed writing the prescription.

After that doctor's appointment I walked down to the banks of the Hudson River. It was February 1999. I was 27 years old and had accomplished nothing. The water on the Hudson that day was like glass. At that time I smoked Camel filters. I must have smoked three or four, sitting on that bench looking out at the undulating black mirror of the Hudson. I remember grieving for my bad habit, for my depression, for the blue cigarette smoke that I loved so much but that I knew would kill me sooner or later. The pill would send it all way. I’d turn over a new leaf. Right? I mashed out the cigarette, turned my back to the water and started walking back towards 72nd street.

My doctor gave me a sheaf of paper with the prescription. It told me what to expect in the coming days as I started taking the drugs and subsequently quit smoking. I wish I still had that paper now. I remember that it told me that I had to ease into the daily dose. That should have been a warning sign right then. For several days I took a quarter of a pill, split in a little pill guilletien at my kitchen table. After that I moved up to a half a pill, and then finally a whole pill. As the treatment went on, I was encouraged to try to quit, but not try too hard. The wording of the sheet, if I recall correctly, suggested that I would just quit.

That is basically what happened. I also became mildly psychotic. Or perhaps sociopathic is the more accurate term. I remember one particular meeting at work during that period. My boss, an obnoxious woman, went on about some nonsense that she didn’t understand and that no one could possibly care about. It’s true I hated her. But at that moment I remember feeling completely dissociated from my physical body, from my moral upbringing and from any sense of goodness I had. While my boss prattled on, I looked at her and thought, “Oh yeah, I could kill her and it wouldn’t bother me a bit. It would be like squashing a slug.”

I called my doctor. He asked if everything was going okay. I said, “Yes, but I want to kill people, joylessly, but without remorse either.” He told me this was normal and that I should continue taking the drug. That particular side effect would ease.

I continued on with the drug for the prescribed 3 month period. I soon realized that it’s primary function seemed to be squashing all emotion, all pleasure, all pain. I was never sad, but I was never happy. When I did try to smoke during this interval cigarettes neither sated an addiction's craving, nor disgusted me. I ate, slept and had sex only because it seemed situationally appropriate, not because I wanted to eat, sleep or fuck. But understand at the same time, it’s not as if I didn’t want to do any of these things. In some sense, it’s as if the Wellbutrin greased the rails of free-will. So I now made decisions on a purely rational Spock-like level. Food? Yes, eat it, or you’ll faint or something, not because it feels good in your mouth or smells tasty. Smokes, no don’t smoke them, or you will die. My other moderately bad consumption habits, coffee and alcohol, I continued only because I thought it would be odd if I forsook all my habits at once under the influence of another drug. But one night I was at Tom and Jerry’s, and I had a pint of Bass Ale in front of me. I drank some of it, but wasn’t much interested in the rest. It still tasted like Bass I suppose, but the overwhelming sensation it gave me was that of mere wetness. Who cared? For the rest of the evening I drank water.

I also recall that evening coming up with a new slogan. Here it is: “Cunt rhymes with Orange.”

Not so good, huh.

Now it would be untruthful to say that the subsequent two years passed without any backsliding. I did smoke from time to time. Usually when I was drinking, I granted myself the indulgence of mooching a smoke off of a fellow drinker. But I only very rarely purchased smokes, and I seemed to be functioning just fine. I still, however, did not accomplish anything of merit.

Then came September 11. You may recall that some people crashed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center on that day. It was a pretty big deal at the time. By late afternoon that day, my friends started sorting out their coping strategies. I went to visit my friend John. He lived in a second floor apartment that overlooked the ruin of the McCarren Park pool in Williamsburg. The skyline of the city was visible from a chair in his kitchen, with the spires of the Empire State Builing and the Chrystler Building sticking up most prominently from the island of manhattan. He smoked pot as I sat with him, each of us trading our stories from the day, tracing our personal proximity to the tragedy. He offered me some refer, and I declined. It is unusual for me to decline an intoxicant when I’ve no immediate work or relationship obligations. But in those days I didn’t know what kind of immediate obligations would be foisted on me at any given moment. None of us did. Other folks decided to get drunk or a little high, or, as my girlfriend’s landlord chose to do, have scary loud sex with a hooker while everyone else in the building is forced to listen through the thin walls of the building. I was going crazy myself. I did not want to be intoxicated. I also did not want to take a psychoactive drug as prescribed by a doctor. So I walked to the deli and I bought a package of Drum tobacco. And I smoked.

In the years since then, when I’ve told some people that I began smoking again after September 11, a few of them have said that I was just looking for an excuse to start smoking again. September 11 provided it. These people are universally people who were not in New York City on that day. I have four words for them: Shut the fuck up.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Kitty Cats

For the same reason I was recently traveling with a disco ball, I also recently purchased some realistic looking kitty cats. There are companies that manufacture stuffed, taxidermy-like cats for people who love cat so much that they need an inanimate cat always within reach. Of course these things are not sold at the bodega on Manhattan Avenue, so I found myself talking on the phone to a very nice Minnesotan named Debbie.

The thing is, I purchased these cats for the sole purpose of dismembering them. Some people, somewhere once dismembered some cats. I had been conscripted to help emulate this activity for filming purposes. Of course we could not dismember real cats, though it would have been easier to find and butcher real cats than the fake cats. I like cats. They have dignity which must be honored. But the gig required me to desecrate some fake kitties, and I'm nothing if not a guy who does what he's asked.

I did not tell the nice lady from Minnesota that we planned to chop the kittens into little bits. As we completed the transactionon on the phone, Debbie told me that her website features a page on which customers can display photographs of the settings in which they have placed their fake cats. We planned to decaptitate a cat and impale its head on the top of a beer bottle. Debbie would not appreciate the aesthetic value of this display.

"That's swell Debbie," I said. "I'll be sure to send you some snaps."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

People are Good and I am a Loser

So for reasons that will go unexplained I found myself on the bus today, carrying a disco ball. This was an unusual circumstance. As I sat on the bus, I spoke to my girlfriend on the phone about another couple we know who have just broken up. The young woman half of the couple had just loaned me the disco ball. I stopped by her place of work to get it, moments after she and her boyfriend broke up. That couple had been together for a very long time, 11 years. For almost the entire time that I had known my friend, she was in this relationship. So it upset me to hear that they had called it all off, and I needed to share this information with my girlfriend, if only to get some of the weight of it off my shoulders.

So as I spoke to my girlfriend something was amiss in my pants. I wore a tattered pair of jeans whose right rear pocket had worn through from years of carrying my wallet there. This was the occassion when my wallet decided that it would break free. I should have known. The possibility of losing my wallet in these pants has been on my mind for some time. But I was distracted.

The bus reached my stop and I got off. I did the quick mental check that I do from time to time as I move through the city. Do I have my disco ball? Yep. My backpack? Check. Ipod? Uh huh. Wallet? Wallet. Oh shit. I turned and the bus was pulling away.

This was on a section of roadway in Brooklyn called Park Avenue. I have no idea why it is called Park Avenue. So far as I know, it passes no where near any major or even minor park. It is not verdant. It is hell, hemmed in on one side by rotting warehouses and factory buildings, and collapsing tenemants and rapidly gentrifying brownstowns on the other. Looming above it is the BQE, which is forever losing its battle against entropy. Scaly flakes of rust and concrete rain down from above every time a large truck rumbles past. Through this tableau, I watched the bus (and presumably my wallet) recede into the distance.

I ran.

Some people think I'm in good shape. I ride my bike everywhere, when I'm not carrying a disco ball. But urban bicycle commuting is not really aerobic excercise. It just keeps me from becoming grossly overweight. I have smoked about a pack of cigarettes almost every day for the past 12 or 13 years. Still I ran. My shoes started to come loose, as I had tied them loose. The mirror covered disco ball grew heavy in my left hand. My backpack shifted awkwardly on my back. I ran. There were moments when I thought I was lost, that the bus would escape, the rhythm of traffic lights would conspire against me and the bus would race ahead at 35 miles an hour. At those moments I despaired, and I admit, slowed to a broken-hearted walk. But then the red of stoplights would blossom again before me, and I said to myself, "I can catch it." I ran again.

With one last mighty sprint, I caught the bus. I ran that fucker down. Just as I reached the door, the driver began to pick up speed. I pounded on the door. The bus driver cursed me.

I recalled nearly missing the school bus in North Attleboro Massachusets in 1981. We had a driver named Barbara. She had blond hair and a nerve-slashing screech. When a child sprinted for the bus, she would often see him (it was always a boy, often me, or my brother) in the rear-view mirror and she would continue to drive, slowly, for a hundred yards or so. Just to make him run. I thought of this and pounded on the glass. I shouted "I lost my wallet on the bus," facing the driver through the glass. I exagerated the shape of the words on my mouth, so she could read my lips. I prayed that she was a native speaker of English, and that she would recognize the key words "lost" and "wallet." She did. Through the glass I saw her lips form the words, "Oh, you lost your wallet" as she slowed the bus to a stop. She let me on and I thanked her profusely.

I walked back to where I had been seated. There was a woman sitting in the spot where I had been.

I told her, "I think Iost my wallet here."

She started looking around her. She got up. I looked under the seat. I looked behind it and on the floor between the seat and the rear door where I had exited. The woman felt bad for me. She also worried that I thought she might have picked up my wallet. In her hands she had a brown paper lunch sack. She opened it for me, unbidden, to show me a half empty soda bottle and something wrapped in foil.

"I didn't pick it up," she said.

"I know you didn't," I said.

Then she told me that I'd just have to cancel my cards. I began to come to grips with this reality.

There's a sinking feeling of self pity and loathing that overcomes me at moments like this. I knew my wallet would escape these pants sooner or later. I knew I should have had the account numbers of my cards recorded somewhere else. I knew I should have picked up the disco ball two days ago. All these failures of judgement. I felt like a loser, literally and figuratively.

Normally I place my metro card in my wallet immedately after I get on the bus or enter the subway. I do this so I do not lose my metro card. On this occassion, I kept my metro card loose, in my front pocket. I did this because I was on the phone when I entered the bus. Now this, the second time that I had entered this exact bus, the driver did not require me to dip my metro card. But she had continued on her route while I searched. Now I was miles beyond my initial destination. At least I could get off and take the bus in the opposite direction. I would deliver the disco ball and call my card companies. The rest of the day would be a total wash of beurocratic annoyances.

This is all I could think of as I rode the bus back to where my misadventure began. I did not think about my friend who lost her boyfriend of 11 years. I did not think of all the other horrible mistakes I have made in my life. I did not think about the book I am trying to write that was at that moment, officially past due. I thought about customer service reps for Bank of America, and low level functionaries at the New York Department of motor vehicles. Through the slow moving chaos of my life, at least, for this moment, I had clarity.

I also thought about all the bank cards and cell phones I have come across in my life. I thought about how I either returned them, if any information was available that let me return them, or destroyed them (the bank cards) so at least they would not be misused by anyone. I hoped that in doing this, rather than buying a new ipod or calling Kuala Lampur, I had saved up some Karma.

The bus reached my stop. I got off and started walking down the sidewalk. I reached the very spot where I first realized my wallet was gone. For the sake of due dilligence, I intended to search the gutter and the sidewalk, on the off chance that the wallet dislodged as I stepped off the bus. At that moment my phone rang. The caller ID displayed a Brooklyn number that I did not recognize. I answered the phone.

"Did you lose a wallet?" the voice said.

"Yes I did."

The caller then explained to me that he was at the corner of Washington and Park avenue. I too was near the corner of Washington and Park. He said he would come outside in a moment and return my wallet.

And he did. I melted with gratitude for the decency of all man kind. I love you all, each and every one of you.