Saturday, January 20, 2007

Man, With Cigarette (Still Life)

Our compadre Banjo Jones ushered in the New Year by giving up cigarettes. Instead of subjecting regular readers of his Brazosport News to the days and works of his quest, he’s launched a whole new blog, Stop Smoking with Banjo Jones, which we have added to our list of must-reads and suggest you do, too (if we could be so bold).

This is a subject that interests us--- the subject of Banjo foreswearing the cigs---not just because we’re big fans of The Brazosport News but because we once worked with Banjo at a since-discontinued publication out on the freeway and thus inhaled second-hand smoke from his cigarettes, and he from ours. Kind of a bonding experience.

We were surprised to learn from his blog that Banjo did not start smoking until the relatively advanced age of 27. From what we remember, Banjo was a natural with a cigarette---he wielded the butts with a certain authority and athletic grace, and that, of course, is at least half of what smoking is about (the other half being the health benefits and the sweet nicotine fragrance a smoker exudes). Banjo smoked like he rolled out of the womb with one hanging off of his lip.

Banjo’s new micro-blog naturally got us thinking about one of our favorite subjects: us (and our constituent parts---me, myself and I) and our own heroic struggle to shed the cigateen habit. This was not a subject we had considered for many years, although at one time we did actually devote at least a few of our waking minutes (or seconds, more accurately) to the questions of 1.) Why we smoked and 2.) Why we couldn’t stop.

We actually managed to quit the habit when we were at above-mentioned publication, after several stops and re-starts and a prolonged to habituation to other nicotine products (not recommended) as well as the incessant chewing of tooth picks (yum) and gum. We deployed these crutches, and still may, but basically we gave up smoking the same way we’ve given up other habits, bad and so-so: by erecting a steel wall in our mind against it.

In other words, by sheer exertion of Bush-like willpower (which is good for giving up stuff like booze and cigarettes, not so good for running a pointless, false-premised war in the Middle East). Not that we’re strutting on the flight deck under a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

We don’t remember our last cigarette, but we do remember when we decided to quit, once and for all: We were at a state Democratic convention being held at the then-new George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston (when these events were considered “newsworthy,” which they aren’t), puffing hard and mindlessly tapping away one of those primordial Radio Shack “Trash 80” laptops that we never could seem to get to work right, when we suddenly felt light-headed. We looked up and around the little area that had been cordoned off for the press and for some reason were moved to take inventory.

Of the 21 people we counted in the area, 19 were smoking at that moment, including us. We zeroed in on one of them, a guy who worked at one of the Dallas newspapers (when there were two), a funny and generous presence who died a few years ago of cancer, and for just a moment he appeared to be a cadaverous X-ray as sucked on his cig. It was one of those moments of heightened awareness we’ve very rarely experienced while in a mostly natural state, and the whole Pavlovian nature of the smoking racket was writ large before us.

“Man, we gotta quit this shit as soon as possible---this is weakness,” we said in a memo to our self.*

It took a while but we eventually had our last one (thus far) and can honestly say we haven’t missed it physically, although over the years at several points when things weren’t going our way (which, as with you, is most of the time, right?) we would conjure a mental image of our self sitting in the back yard on cool, crisp evening, drawing hard on one under a full moon. But this was just a self-mocking distraction---tempting our self with the mere notion of tempting our self. It’s easy for us to imagine how smoking would actually make us feel, and it passes. We tend our garden, watch the birds, take a long walk down a well-beaten path, hum the chorus to I Am the Japanese Sandman.

Smoking isn’t genetically encoded, we presume, but we’re pretty sure a person with a certain genetic make-up is more disposed to smoke than others (as well as take up other habits to vent anxiety, relieve boredom, look cool or whatever it is that drives people to reflexive behaviors). A few years ago we were looking at separate pictures of our grandfathers from the late 1940s and spotted something we hadn’t previously noticed: In the photos, informal family shots, each old man appears to be trying to place out of view a smoked-down cigarette lodged between the index and middle fingers.

Our mama smoked for a good 40 years, stopping cold turkey after our daddy, who never smoked, had bypass surgery in the mid-1980s. Sometime after that, she told us that she never inhaled, ever. Drew it up the nose and blew it out. We laughed our ass off but she swore it was true and basically challenged us to disprove it.

One reason we laughed is that although she might not have inhaled we certainly did, on those many nights we’d sit at the kitchen table eating supper or doing homework and she’d be across the way, grading papers and rounding off her days with a steady intake of Salems and the two Falstaffs she allowed herself. We didn’t like it, and sometimes we’d complain and she’d stub one out or blow the smoke away from us, but somehow our discomfort did not work as aversion therapy and we smoked our first one about the same time Eric Burdon did, gradually but inexorably advancing from puke-sick-every-time to teen smoker. Later, drink, employment, women, asshole buddies and just plain assholes all worked to reinforce our reliance on the coffin nails (and we’re incapable of imagining a bar without smoking---it seems against the natural order).

Our mother is an obstinate little woman with an iron will and undertook no crutch---no gum, no patch, no tooth picks, etc.---when she put the habit behind her. But for most of us it’s hard to quit without some substitution, and blogging would seem to be an excellent way to stave off the cravings, especially since blogging and smoking are similarly compulsive behaviors.

As Banjo shows, there’s a rich vein to mine through a smoking/not smoking blog, from the financial considerations---how do people of modest means afford ’em now?---to the vast body of folklore about smoking, such as the valuable advice we received as a young person that lighting up a mentholated cigarette first thing on waking was a guaranteed cure for constipation, which it was and probably still is (we’ve moved on to prunes and Grape Nuts).

Then there’s the exorcism angle. Back in the '70s, maybe the '80s (it all runs together from this vantage), there was the preacher we used to see on TV whose name was Jack Van Impe. In between healing congregants of cancers and tumors Van Impe would turn his powers on less severe afflictions: Some forlorn, broken-down looking sort would stand in front of the preacher and Van Impe would wind up and slap him upside the forehead, knocking him on his ass while hollering, “Out, foul nicotine demon!”

Who are we to say it didn’t work?

* All internal dialogue guaranteed verbatim.