A few weeks back I was sent to Nagoya for ten or eleven days, filling in for a sick teacher at an all-women's university in Japan. (They still have those here.) I caught the shinkansen, or 'bullet train', there and back, and on my return to Yokohama, after settling into my seat, I soon realized that everybody around me was smoking.
Exactly how and why I stumbled into the smoking-car of the shinkansen remains a mystery. (They still have those here -- places set aside for smokers.) And I was too whipped to walk to another car and find another seat. (My ticket was for a non-reserved seat, so technically I was well within my rights as a tax-paying American to sit up and stand up and find another place to rest my body. And actually I'm not a tax-paying American, just a Canadian in Japan, but it sounds better the first way, because nobody ever talks about their rights as Canadians, let alone a Canadian's rights in Japan, so it would kind of stupid to just, like, put it out there, that phrase, so it sounds more natural, more confident, to consider myself a tax-paying American.) So I sat there and let the smoke settle around me in gray-purple clouds of condensed ash.
I started to wonder about the smoke itself -- the particles and atoms and molecules and all that sort of stuff. What if they were conscious? I don't think they are, because nobody's ever proved that atmos and nuclei have a thinking, beating brain within their structures. (Which makes me think: Are atoms made up of atoms? Are cells made up of smaller cells? And where do quarks fit in with everything? Isn't everything essential unstable and separate on the sub-atomic molecular level? If that's so, how could the train remain solid, hovering above the tracks, when way down deep we're all somewhat sliding in that mysterious ether of life?)
Still. It's entirely possible that the tiny particles that make up smoke are, in fact, alive and alert. A strange existence, that would be. Pumped out into the air after being sucked through a tube and into someone's mouth. Hurtling around left and right, back and forth, your ultimate destination a cosmological crapshoot. Of course, if they were alive, these atoms, I'm sure they'd be small, so tiny that their brains would barely register as brains, but still -- they might be able to feel something, regardless of their size. I've read somewhere that mosquitoes only live for like a day, so maybe the lives of smoke particles are the same, and maybe their receptivity towards pain is roughly equivalent to that of a mosquito's.
And then I suddenly realized that my existence was not so different from these tiny bubbles of smoke. There I was, stuck in a train, rocketing through time and space. If I were an atom of smoke in somebody's mouth, expelled into the atmosphere, I'm sure the experience would be roughly equivalent to me as a full-sized human, sitting comfortably in a bullet-train. The only difference being that I knew my end point. I knew where I was supposed to finish. The atoms in the smoke were shit out of luck, in that regard, and as the train belted through the dark Japanese night, past silent towns and indifferent mountains, I made a conscious decision not to curse the smoke or the smokers surrounding me. Everybody's got it a bit rough.