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Smoking: A Love Story
I just quit smoking for the fifth time. For me, it's all or nothing. I could never be one of those people — dilettantes! — who are able to smoke socially and then go for indefinite periods of time without a cigarette. I suppose this has to do with physiology, personality, and the times in which I grew up.
In one of my earliest memories, I'm sitting on the living room floor, my dad is smoking a cigar, and sunlight is flooding through the picture window illuminating the variegated blue, gray, and purple layers of smoke. I was mesmerized! These days, we all know just how bad smoking is, but when I was a child everyone did it. My most recent smoking bout parallels the run of Mad Men, and curiously (or not), began with an emotional — some might say brain circuit — response to the imagery of the show.
A few months ago I asked a shaman about my smoking. Should I quit? She told me not to worry too much. Just as human beings hunger for food, South American shamans believe, spirit is nourished by tobacco. I might state the obvious: human beings have cravings for many things. Of smoking and drinking, author Christopher Hitchens wrote, "Whatever enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation is worth it to me." Long recognized as a stimulant, tobacco contains the harmala alkaloids harman and norharman, which are closely related to harmine and harmaline, known hallucinogens. Indeed, it was first cultivated for hallucinogenic purposes in the Peruvian/Ecuadorean Andes between 5000-3000 BC; soon thereafter, ritual use of tobacco became widespread throughout most of South and Central America. Tobacco was introduced to Europe in 1519, when the Spanish expedition lead by Oviedo returned from Mexico. In 1556 Andre Thevet brought seeds from Brazil to France for cultivation. Tobacco use was then exported across Asia by European explorers and traders. From its start in South and Central America, to its eventual circumnavigation of the globe, tobacco use changed from purely ritualistic to mostly recreational — although one could argue that there are certain rituals observed in every recreational activity.
As an American baby boomer, I couldn't escape the influence of Hollywood on my worldview. Black and white film lends itself to dramatic lighting and imagery, and nothing looks better to me than a 1940s interior, Bette Davis in full-blown drama-queen mode, and the smoke from a cigarette. Two films that elevated the act of smoking to high art, To Have and Have Not and Now Voyager, are powerful evocations of a lost and glamorous world. Of course, many iconic movie stars died terrible, smoking-related deaths. Gary Cooper, Betty Grable, and Robert Taylor all succumbed to lung cancer; Humphrey Bogart and Judy Holliday, esophageal cancer; Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, heart attack; Bette Davis, stroke — and the list goes on. Author Kurt Vonnegut, who smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, called his cigarettes "a classy way to commit suicide."
So many artists whose work I admire are smokers. Joni Mitchell started smoking at age 9. Identifying first as a painter, she took up performing music only to pay for her cigarettes. In The Globe and Mail, she says, “I am a smoker. Period.” And then there's Marianne Faithfull. Her love/hate relationship with smoking is familiar to many of us. During a Town Hall concert in New York in 2009, she made an announcement: while she was no longer drinking or using drugs, she had started smoking again to stay slim. Keith Richards refuses to quit smoking. Johnny Depp recently took up smoking again while working on The Rum Diary, and and has acquired a private plane so he can indulge in the habit.
For most of my adult life I have found pleasure in the ritual of cigarette smoking: the hand gestures, the match-strikes, the inhale- and exhalations. I didn't always enjoy the taste, the smell, or how smoking made my body feel. So, for many years I was destined to quit and lapse, quit and lapse. Until now, I hope. Since quitting, I've been using an electronic cigarette. While I understand that they are still somewhat controversial, e-cigs have given me what other cessation aids have not: a close approximation to the act of smoking. And how great is it that I can sit on a New York City park bench with an e-cig and not risk a fine? Life is good!
When you're ready:
Here's a list of items available at the Library to help you quit smoking.
New York City offers help through 311.
New York State has a website with lots of useful information.
This article from The New York Times has useful information/advice for the smoker who wants to review all options before quitting.