Anyone who tells you smoking isn’t cool is lying. The clink of a zippo opening, the smoke hovering around that first draw, the way holding a cigarette makes your hand elegant… it is sublime. Or at least, that’s how it can be. Smoking has the same range as sex: sensual or bland, hurried or relaxed, exciting or routine.
My first dalliance was at the age of 19. A freshman named Cody had gathered the guys for a secret ceremony under the cover of darkness on the lawn of our Christian University. We were to memorialize the impending emigration of my roommate, who was failing out. He was smart, but lazy.
Cody hadn’t told us he was bringing cigars, but he was the kind of Southerner whose education was probably paid for with tobacco money, so you couldn’t blame him. Still, I didn’t expect to be offered a cigar since the guys knew I was a goodie two-shoes. When Cody motioned toward me with a cigar, my stomach seized–”me?” Instantly my high school anti-drug training flashed to mind: “just say no.” But despite years of imagining precisely this scenario, I suddenly saw the problem with it: just what was I supposed to say after ‘no’? I couldn’t just leave Cody hanging. Perhaps had the maxim been “just say no, thanks” I would be a healthy non-smoker today. But paralyzed as I was, I had trouble constructing an explanation–a health issue perhaps, my mother’s dying wish, my family dog’s aversion to smoke, something… Too late.
We must have looked ridiculous, had anyone saw us. A bunch of Pentecostal Christian boys in the dark, lighting the wrong ends of cheap cigars, constantly re-lighting, and interrupting each other with coughing fits–all to “solemnize” the occasion.
Our naiveté notwithstanding, my roommate appreciated the gesture and we sent him off with as much dignity as one can have in that situation. But I agonized about having smoked for the next few days. It was no small violation of the honor code I had willingly signed. On the other hand, it was hard to picture Jesus, who saved a wedding with an emergency wine run to heaven, minding the occasional cigar. And we had rules against all kinds of things, anyway–beards, long hair, and not wearing ties to lunch. Jesus would have been kicked out faster than my roommate. And he certainly wouldn’t have endorsed the school’s fight to equate the cultural etiquette of the 1950’s with morality. (And even if he had, smoking was the national pastime of the 1950’s.)
Smoking that cigar was, I told myself, a small act of defiance. A way of registering my protest to the school’s cultural hangover. It was also, of course, me caving to Cody.
My second dalliance with tobacco was years later, in the chilly fall air on my patio in Denver. Again I was huddled, but this time with only a Miller Lite for companionship. Like the tree opposite my patio, my faith had wilted. Faith in God; faith in myself; all of it. I had bought a pack of Swisher Sweets on a whim, maybe for old time’s sake.
It is one thing to lose a girlfriend or a job–both of which I had just lost–but it is another to lose one’s faith in God. For one’s faith in God is really just the faith that things will work out: that in the end, there will be justice; that mortality is an illusion; that there is some purpose to the human project. These questions peered at me like a two year old.
Sitting in a cheap fold up chair on the patio that night, I pondered daily life in light of my newfound mortality. Without an afterlife, we were all doomed to die–really die–yet we still busied ourselves arranging little corners of time and space to our advantage. To what end, exactly? I was reminded of those surreal videos you see of World War II prisoners of war dutifully lining up to be shot. Usually a dozen or so are made to line up–perhaps in alphabetical order–and then they calmly march to a wall, turn and kneel, and a soldier shoots them one by one.
Except sometimes a guy will get up and run. I’ve never seen a video where he gets away; he’s always gunned down. Why does he run? Surely he knows he’s doomed. Maybe there isn’t a good reason except that he’s seized by terror, as I would be. But perhaps there is some logic to it–maybe he thinks “If you’re going to kill me no matter what I do, then I may as well do something other than die in alphabetical order.”
Now, I don’t mean to compare smoking and the death of a prisoner of war directly; obviously the latter is more serious. But what I do mean to point out is that as I sat on that porch, smoking was a way of getting out of alphabetical order. A way of signaling the universe that if it was all going to end anyway, I was willing to flout some rules and take risks on my way out.
Even after my first two dalliances, I was still only an occasional cigar smoker. A year after sitting on my porch pondering mortality, I had experimented with clove cigarettes at a friend’s house, but only as a drunken novelty–and I never inhaled. I very nearly avoided smoking regularly, had it not been for the cleverness of the clove industry. In 2009, the FDA banned their sale since they were a gateway to smoking tobacco. In “up-yours” style, the clove industry simply shuffled their blends slightly and rebranded the cigarettes “cigars.” For some reason that was considered legal. They had the same packaging, the same size, and mostly the same taste.
And the same addictive high. I brought a pack of them to smoke on a road trip through California with my girlfriend. We had rented a bright red Ford Mustang, and it seemed negligent not to smoke while we roared down the sunny coast with the top down. To complete the experience, I made the mistake of inhaling for the first time while driving: the high was so intense I nearly lost control of the vehicle. Every smoker remembers their first high; minus the coughing, it’s sublime. Every pore in your body is satiated in a way you never knew you always needed.
My first dalliances with smoking had been short and mostly about breaking the rules–first the University’s and then the Universe’s. But this was about the good life. Cruising past beaches, inhaling the cool tones of cloves, I felt I owned the world. I decided this would be no dalliance–it would be love. I began to suck down packs of cloves a week, well after my return from California.
But all good things, of course, come to a compromise. After happily smoking cloves for a year, I finally looked into how bad they were for you–twice as bad as cigarettes, apparently. Begrudgingly, I switched to tobacco cigarettes, but not without taking every opportunity to tell friends “I began smoking cigarettes for my health”.
Switching to cigarettes raised a painful question, though: if I was willing to switch to tobacco for my health, why not quit altogether? I was under no illusion, after all, that cigarettes were healthful.
In 1971, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an article for The Journal of Philosophy titled “The Absurd.” To uncover the meaning of absurdity he provides some situational examples, among them my favorite thought experiment in all of philosophy: as you are being knighted, your pants fall down. Picturing the Queen’s face brings me endless joy.
But royal embarrassment aside, Nagel argues that the knighting accident shows us what’s basic to absurdity: “a discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality.” When these two collide, we get absurdity. The dignity and formality of a knighting is rendered absurd when it collides with an obscene, childish gesture. Life, Nagel says, is similar: the seriousness with which we pursue our daily lives is on a collision course with the fact that it will all end before we really even get started.
The remedy, he argues, is not to abandon life or to despair, but to live in a way that acknowledges life’s fragility and smallness–to live with a sense of irony. Smoking, for me, is a symbol of precisely that irony. By tempting my own fate to come a little quicker, I remind myself that I know it’s coming.
Smoking is, of course, a powerful addiction. It beckons me every hour or so to suckle, and I unflinchingly obey. The stories I’ve told above are probably just elaborate justifications concocted by my subconscious to spice up a simple addiction. Perhaps they should be ignored.
One thing gives me pause, though–I’ve never tried to quit. Not even when I’ve been sick of cigarettes, or too sick to smoke cigarettes. Maybe that just means I’m really addicted. But I think it’s more than that: whoever I play any given day–rebel, mortal, adventurer, philosopher–cigarettes are my symbol. To quit would be to tear down my flag and go home. Anymore, I can’t imagine facing life without a roll of tobacco between my fingertips.