Monday, July 29, 2013

Top Five Things I Miss About Smoking

I started smoking at the age of 22, and despite quitting for long stretches (sometimes for a year at a time), never gave the habit up completely until about three years ago or so.  I was thinking about this today while reading an article in the Sunday Review of the New York Times of a genre I despise: the "neuroscience explains everything" article.  It is authored by two scientists who claim they have discovered why certain people still smoke: they are willpower deficient weaklings who are incapable of delaying gratification.  Of course, as a historian I scratch my head and recall that many, many more people smoked sixty years ago, and I doubt that the percentage of such folks was so much higher back then.  The authors of the article also seem totally oblivious to the relationship that smokers have with their habit.  When I smoked I knew it was bad for my health, but I also tended to smoke the most at times when my will to live was at its weakest.  I didn't do it because my willpower was weak, I did it because it felt great and I wasn't thinking that living to be 90 was a worthwhile goal.

Since then, my will to live has grown.  (Funny how that happened after I left academia.)  I had cut down my intake to about a pack a week, which left me in the clear as far as lung cancer went, but still meant my heart could explode in an untimely fashion.  That thought got me to finally kick the habit for good.  Unlike other non-smokers, however, I am not some kind of born-again fanatic when it comes to nicotine.  I do not evangelize smokers and urge them to quite, mostly because I know that approach doesn't work.  And, truth be told, there are good things about smoking I miss.  Here'a list of the top five.

1.  The buzz
Of course this is #1.  Smoking feels good, dammit!  Picture this, you wake up groggy and tired, not wanting to start your day, but while you're waiting for the coffee to brew, you light up a cig and wha-bam! you're feeling good.  Drink that coffee while you smoke that cigarette, and the buzz washes over you like a warm wave.  Having a mediocre beer?  Well light up your smoke and sciddly diddly bop, your beer is supercharged!    Tired after a long day?  Shazzam!  Nicotine gives you that nudge you need.  The buzz doesn't outweigh its killer consequences, but all the PSAs in the world cannot change the fact that smoking feels pretty damn fine.

2.  Instant comradeship
When I smoked, I easily made new friends in every corner of the world.  There were people I didn't know who would freely give cigarettes to me, and others whom I would share with without giving it a second thought.  I have struck up innumerable interesting conversations with fascinating strangers simply by standing outside smoking.  (In fact, that's how I met my wife!)  We didn't need small talk or ice breakers, we were smokers, part of a scorned yet tight-knit fraternity.  I miss being in that club sometimes.

3.  Looking cool
Sucking cancerous smoke into your lungs and blowing it out shouldn't look cool, but it does.  It's the reason why smoking stayed prominent in films well after it went down in the real world, despite the protestations of anti-smoking groups.  The golden age of Hollywood is one big advertisement for tobacco.  Could you imagine Humphrey Bogart or Marlene Dietrich without a lit cig?  No way!  I have always been a terminally uncool dude, but when I was about 20, and took a drag from a friend's smoke for a laugh and a cute girl I liked said that it suited me, well, some ideas got in my head.  It was not often that cute girls complimented me, and smoking gave this small-town nerd some needed edge.

4.  Killing boredom
These days the smart phone is the boredom killer par excellence.  Stuck in line at the grocery store or waiting for the next subway train?  Just start scrolling and texting.  Back in olden times when this convenience did not exist, smoking was a pleasurable way to kill time.  Waiting for the bus, as I often had to do when I was a grad student, was the perfect time to light one up and experience a little bit of happiness.  I'd still take that over my Twitter feed if not for the health effects.

5.  Feeling subversive
As I mentioned earlier, I spent my youth as a nerdy outcast in rural Nebraska.  I was thus attracted to outsider culture, reading the Beats and Hunter S. Thompson, but too chickenshit and goody goody to drop acid or go hitchhiking or anything like that.  When I started smoking, however, I found out I was challenging the system without even trying.  This was in the late 90s, remember, right around the time of the huge tobacco settlement with the US government, which consequently unleashed a torrent of anti-smoking propaganda.  I suddenly had what I'd always wanted: a totem to mark myself as a subversive outside of the confines of square society, man.  I loved the fact that I could piss off prissy non-smokers, like the obnoxious person who passed me by one day in downtown Atlanta, making exaggerated, passive aggressive coughing noises.  Here she was, in this horribly polluted city smelling like a Chevy tailpipe, singling me out because I was taking a drag on a Camel.  I felt like I was screaming out a manifesto without saying a word: That's right, asshole, I smoke!  Get used to it!  Tobacco saved the Virginia colony and built America!  And I didn't have to overcome my fear of social confrontation.

I am very glad I quit smoking, especially now that I am a parent.  However, there are a few things about smoking I will defend.  Its use spiked in the mid-20th century, a time of war, economic collapse, death, and general uncertainty.  Why care about your long term health when you won't have money to grow old with, or the atom bomb will likely blow you to smithereens?  In a world like that, if you don't live in the moment, you're a sucker.  Smoking is the ultimate way to live in the moment, the future be damned, and with things going pretty rotten these days, I wonder if smoking isn't ripe for a comeback.

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