August 8, 2005

Smoking reconsidered

I'm back. Typed too much and had to stop blogging for a while. Now I dictate. So, perversely, for my first entry after a health crisis I will write about why I love smoking.


No one smokes cigarettes just because of cigarettes. The cigarette is a paper tube stuffed with plants, for god's sake.

I smoked my first cigarette the first time I drank. Common story, I hear. This episode involved my best friend and her older brother. Melissa and I were thirteen years old, and after eight shots of sambuca I convinced her bro to bum me a couple.

Until my thirteenth year I had always been outspokenly against any kind of drugs, from marijuana to menstrual pain killers. During my first year of high school however I quit most of my hobbies, made my first real friend (Melissa), stopped listening to Whitney Houston in favor of Megadeth, began doing art really seriously, and was the happiest I had ever been, which isn't saying a lot. So I suppose I wanted to try things that didn't fit the younger self I was leaving behind.

I'm less sure about why I kept trying it. No one likes smoking at first; it ain't easy on the tongue. It takes several cigarettes, even dozens, to develop the taste. All I can figure is that it's like when you're really little, trying to like beer or whiskey, because you know that other people like it and you want to know why they like it. To a kid, the idea of acquired tastes can be irresistible. Also, c'mon, grossing yourself out is fun.

I don't buy that young people are so impressionable that they smoke only because they think it makes them look a certain way or because people that they look up to do it. I think a lot of the time people do bad things because they're curious to understand the attraction it has for other people, and they ignore the risks they are assuming, since, well, risking your life is also fun. (There's a reason why gambling is such a problem.)

In my case, up to the point that I actually started smoking I had never noticed smokers or admired their aesthetic to the point of imitation. Certainly no one of any influence in my life was a smoker, either. I think image and the rest might have played in why I stuck with smoking, though, who knows.

Anyway, after I got hooked, I smoked a fair bit for a few years and finally settled into a habit of about a quarter or half a pack a day. Not a great deal, but I was definitely addicted. Over the sixteen years that I have been smoking I have quit for as much as two years once, eight months another time, another year or two here and there. Why try to quit? I wanted my grandchildren (if I ever had any offspring, that is) to have a grandparent, I was worried about my health, I smelled, stairs were tough.

The point is that I had shitloads of opportunity to be a card carrying nonsmoker. Like many (most?) smokers, I can kick the habit if I want to.

We know the usual suspects to explain away cigarette smoking: stress, relaxation, peer pressure to be thin. The physical addiction. All of these reasons put the smoker him/herself at the center of persecuting influences.

But I think that sometimes people choose their bad habits pretty carefully. Smoking is so useful. Isn't that crazy? An American Music Club song says, "Bad habits make our decisions for us." And it's true. Up to a point. Look, if you're a smoker, even if you're in the middle of a breakup you can take the time to pull out a pack of cigarettes and light a cigarette and take a long drag before you defend yourself. Can you imagine any other delaying tactic working? If you need a break from a boring party, you just say you need to go for a smoke.

Smoking lets you get out of anything, gives you time to think, lets you stop in the middle of the street just to gather your thoughts. Without the cigarette it would be called loitering. People would look at you funny.

Smoking saves you. Breaks up your day into manageable chunks. Otherwise there'd be no reason not to keep working at your desk all day long, you know? Or maybe that's just me.

Smoking also gets you into things, keeps you involved somehow. I've talked to countless strangers outside, after lighters were borrowed or a cigarette bummed, or just to share the nice five minutes together. I'm serious, total strangers on the street. "Nice night, eh?" "Would you look at that moon." It's absolutely amazing how much ground you can cover in 5 minutes, or 10, it you light another one. Smokers are allowed to talk to each other without any other prop but a cigarette, and they're allowed precious time to think during a conversation under the excuse of taking a drag. I have met a lot of interesting people smoking, and I have enjoyed many contemplative smokes watching the world rush by. And I've come to find that often the people who like to go out the most and experience culture (outside of the T.V.) are or were smokers, although that's less and less true, what with high quit rates. (I could take this as an opportunity to rave about how fucked it is that you have to be a smoker to have a good time in this world, but whatever.)

Smoking gets me outside. It's hard for people to get why you'd put on your parka to go outside every couple of hours in the middle of winter. But I like it. I love to get outside, but when I'm not smoking I feel I don't have a good reason to. I know it's senseless, but there you have it.

More sinister, being a smoker means that you have failed. People think you're slowly committing suicide, you loser.

Which opinion can be a relief, frankly. One of the things that I hate the most about social interaction is the initial evaluation stage in any encounter. You have to go for months or years with a lot of people before they just decide that you're OK. And I can't tell you how fucking patronizing it is to meet somebody, anybody, anywhere, and know that they are sitting there evaluating you trying to decide whether you're worth talking to. And I happen to have some things about me that I can drop to make people respect me, hobbies, work I've done.

But it's so bogus. If I quit a job or I quit doing a certain hobby does that instantly lower my ranking? I just don't want people to do that evaluation thing to me. A lot of the time I'd just like people to know that I'm a smoker because then they will write me out of the game entirely.

I also think there's something sort of freakish about people who are on the up and up, super healthy gene bunnies, the right accessories, whatever. I work in the kind of industry that makes other people think you have quote-unquote "made it" but as a smoker I automatically get kicked out of that category. Instead, I'm a real person to other people. Because I "can't quit smoking."

Hell, a lifetime free of vice unnerves me. I think knowing you do something dumb keeps you humble. Keeps mortality close.

Smoking is a reminder that you can die. Plus it tastes seriously good.

Sometimes, when things are bad, having a smoke's been the only time I really breathed in a day. Even doing meditation and yoga you don't get that same lusty inhale.

Anyway, none of this adds up to a defense of smoking in the face of its super-villain killing powers, but it fleshes out the excuses a bit. That was my hope in writing this entry.

So l have stopped trying to quit and now I smoke one or two nights a week. Can I just emphasize my weekly anticipation with a knee-slap, wow.


  1. i was really sad when you stopped posting to your blog because you write such excellent entries and i missed them.

    hell of an entrance for the next round, can't wait to see what's next

    also... i MISS smoking for that VERY reason!

  2. Thanks, Sass!
    Yeah it's so TOUGH. I find I just don't want to try to get everything right but I also want to be really careful about the line between my healthy and unhealthy bits. It's constantly being renegotiated.