Fresh Air Tonic
When a spell of rapid heartbeat commences, experience has taught me to go into a controlled deep breathing mode, to try to quell it as early as possible. Most of the time that actually works and the spell lasts less than a minute. When the strategy doesn’t work the episode can go on for ten, twenty minutes, or more. Of course, with my chest pounding and my anxiety roiling, this sort of thing can be rather distracting, even scary.
These spells began happening about the time I was turning thirty. Among other things, in those days my marriage was coming unglued and I was chain-smoking Kools. Since then I have gone years at a time without such a spell, but the demon always returns to visit when I’m living with some extra stress.
By way of too long a story to recount now, I’ve learned that long, slow, deep-breathing -- with my stomach muscles held taut -- can usually allay the blood-rush demon. Sometimes, waiting it out is all I can do. Going outside and moving around can help.
When the spell ends, seemingly of its own volition, I always laugh. Always.
Unfortunately, my work has me sitting down, indoors and probably breathing shallowly for too much of most days. So, it’s usually a pleasure to take a break to walk for a short errand. Walks and bike rides frequently improve my disposition.
Pumping fresh air though my body feels good.
Several years ago on one of my walking excursions, it was in late October, an oddball incident provided comic relief for a moment that needed it. As it unfolded, it felt like a scene in a movie. Perhaps that was suggested to me by the fact its setting was a video store -- I was looking over the rack of current releases.
Or, maybe I’ve always thought I was living in a movie.
Reading the film notes on the box for Scorsese’s latest blood bath, I sensed movement behind me. As I had been the only customer in the room, idle curiosity turned me toward the counter. On the other side of a wall-of-videos display rack, I caught sight of a man I thoroughly disliked. Having just come into the store, he purposely handed a plastic bag to one of the two female sales clerks behind the counter. My being obscured by the rack of video boxes was a blessing, as I had good reasons for preferring to avoid interaction with this character.
So, I returned my attention to the movie selections in front of me. When I heard the bells ringing than meant the front door had opened, I glanced up in time to see the aforementioned customer leaving the store.
One of the two young women standing behind the counter burst out laughing in the manner of a likable-but-bad actress playing a scene, as she dumped out the contents of the last customer’s bag. With overstated comic gestures she feigned being troubled by the mystery of what might tumble out.
“What’s tha-at?” said the other girl, throwing up her hands to join the moment’s improvisation.
They had my attention. My curiosity was aroused, so I stepped closer, to see what I could see.
All I saw was ordinary black VHS video tape cassettes. Yet the two young women, who I must say I knew only in that video store context, were going to what seemed to be a lot of bother to avoid touching what appeared to be ordinary stock of that very store with their bare hands.
A spray bottle of Windex was produced; they invited me into their conspiracy with the sparkle of eye contact. Both then busied themselves spraying and wiping off the tapes. It was reminiscent of conspiratorial children removing cooties from objects touched by a someone they don’t like.
Assuming there had to be something peculiar about the movies -- like maybe they were kinky flicks, or who knows what? -- I stepped even closer to see what the titles were. Without looking so hard that it would indicate anything more than a casual interest, I noticed a couple of titles.
Both were mainstream films; one a crisp black comedy I had recently seen and liked. I was somewhat disappointed that the guy had the least bit of good taste in selecting his video rentals. Playing along with their tongue-in-cheek tone I offered, “Do you have to wipe down all the tapes like that?”
“Oh, no,” they chirped. This procedure was special for the customer who had just left the building. They shuddered, having no reason to know it delighted me to see their reaction to that same customer.
Then, it dawned on me the two of them were just doing what bored service workers everywhere in the world do, to kill time. To amuse themselves they were mocking a bad-vibes person, a customer they saw as deserving of ridicule. Unknowingly, they had validated my prejudice against him and cheered me up quite a bit.
Being let in on their harmless goofing around reminded me that the spontaneous sharing of unanticipated, totally unscripted moments of levity is truly one of life’s treasures. Shared laughs that come out of the blue can cut right through bad moods.
My stride for the walk home through the Fan District had an optimistic bounce. I laughed out loud a few times, just replaying the imaginary tape of the scene in the video store.
Fresh air, taken in with gusto, always helps. Every time I take a deep breath I feel a little better. And, laughing is surely a special way of breathing; it seems the best tonic at times.
Laughs can even chase the merciless hounds of doubt and anxiety back to wherever it is they belong.