The start of a new year brings out in almost all of us an urge for self-improvement. But not in me. I, you see, accomplished the mother-of-all-self-improvement projects over thirty years ago. And yes, I am still resting on those laurels because that self improvement project continues to pay dividends for my continued health and well-being. What, you might ask, was that grand accomplishment? That was when I quit smoking cigarettes for good.
My father smoked. For as long as I could remember, I hated it. He smoked in the house, smoked in his car, smoked everywhere. A pack of Tareytons was probably never more than five feet away from him at any time. The worst was when we were staying in a motel room. Dad did not sleep well in a strange bed, so he would invariably wake up in the middle of the night. And then I would wake up, assaulted by the acrid smell of his cigarette.
So naturally I started smoking in college. It had been by accident, really. Well the cigarette part. My best friend Dan was my freshman roommate. The very first thing we did when the parents left after unpacking up was to walk to a drugstore where we bought a box of fifty cheap cigars. White Owl New Yorkers. We smoked them up much quicker than you might think was possible. Then we bought more. I still have that first box, where it has served as a place for index cards with recipes written on them. We got through that first year as cigar smokers, but because there was no inhaling of the thick cigar smoke, there was no nicotine addiction.
Then I had a summer job where everyone smoked, but cigars were not allowed. “They smell too bad” was the reason that was given. Which I found hard to fathom, because nothing smelled worse than cigarette smoke. One day I came upon a pack of cigs that someone had left sitting around because he had bought the wrong brand by mistake. I smoked one. And then another. And, well, you can figure out the rest.
I started smoking Kents – I don’t know why, except maybe because I remembered that was what Dad smoked before the Tareytons. I also tried some of the classics like Luckies, Camels and Pall Mall. I thought the image of a guy smoking old school filterless cigarettes was my kind of counter-cultural, but I hated picking little bits of tobacco from my tongue. I settled on Viceroy, mainly because I didn’t know anyone else who bought them and I thought the name was cool.
I remember the day when I finally came out as a smoker to my father. I was helping him on a project for his office when it developed that he had forgotten his lighter in his car. He was dying for a cigarette. And so was I. I held out for a bit, then finally pulled my trusty Zippo from my pocket and said something like “Here – no sense in both of us being miserable”. I still remember the look of surprise on his face. Followed by his relief at being able to light up (a relief which I shared).
Not too long after that, I felt like a member of the club when I sat one summer afternoon with Dad on the pontoon boat at his lake cottage. As we smoked cigarettes together he said “I’ll never quit. I’ve tried many times, but I have to be honest and say that it will never happen.”
And then later that summer he suffered his first heart attack. He was 46. And he stopped smoking. I, however, did not. A year or so later I recall being a little annoyed when we were in a car together. I was driving and he asked if I could crack a window because the smoke was getting to him. I wondered if he was struck by the irony. If so, he did not let on, and I cracked the window.
Three years after the heart attack the doctors discovered a spot on one of his lungs. It was cancer. He was 49 and had not had a cigarette for three years. He had one lung taken out. That was finally it for me and I quit in my second year of law school. For five years. It was not easy, but I finally had to admit that for every 90 year old still smoking with no apparent ill effects, there was someone like Dad. And I knew that the genes I had inherited came from my father, not from that hypothetical 90 year old still-healthy smoker.
Then one day a friend visited and forgot his cigarettes when he left. I called him and he said he would get them the next day. I was out of school and living alone by then, and I vividly recall thinking to myself “I can smoke one of these just for fun. I’m not addicted any more. Nobody will ever know.” And so I did. A Marlboro. About an hour later I did the same thing. “Nobody will ever know” I thought. Again.
By the middle of the next day two things were clear. I owed my buddy a fresh pack of Marlboros, and I was a smoker again. I spent the next two years quitting smoking at least every three weeks. This time it was Marlboros. I didn’t buy into the “Marlboro Man” image, but I decided that I liked them better than I had liked my Viceroys.
By now I was living in own house and at least resolved that I would not smoke indoors. This was the late 1980s and “nonsmoking” was just beginning to be a thing in places. Like my office. But there were still some places where it was allowed, like in the entry corridor or in the furnace room in the basement. One of my first jury trials is memorable because there were ashtrays on the counsel tables in the courtroom. Every time the jury went out My clients would light up, I would light up, the opposing parties would light up and the judge would light up in his robe on the bench.
My next trial I had to go into the court office to smoke. The one after that I had to go outside the back door of the courthouse. I realized then, as I tried to avoid raindrops under a tiny overhang outside of a back door, that my smoking was going to become a real problem in my line of work.
Then I met the future Mrs. JPC. She was not a smoker but her mother was. I remember being thrilled the first time I went to thanksgiving at her mother’s house where the entire extended family was in attendance. I walked in and was suddenly transported back to 1966 from the probably 8 or 10 people smoking away in the house. I flicked my Zippo and added one more. Being a smoker among other smokers was, more than ever, like being in a club.
But I was still trying to quit. Everyone said you needed to really change your life to make it stick. I saw no bigger life-change on the horizon than my upcoming wedding. So I did it. May 5, 1990 is notable for two major events in my life. I got married and I had my last cigarette.
This time it took for good. I have proved to myself that I can have an occasional cigar and not want another for maybe a year or two. It was the same with a pipe. But I also know from hard-won experience that one cigarette would be a disaster. Which is why the occasional dreams I still have about smoking are so panic-inducing to me. I woke up from one such dream recently. In that dream I was frantically searching for my cigarettes. I could not recall when I had last smoked one, though I certainly had earlier in the day. I remember being upset at myself for allowing myself to fall back into an old addiction, but I was saved from this regret (and from the search for my pack of cigarettes) by waking up. The sense of relief was incredible.
I am going to admit that there are still times when I would love to hear the “clink” of the lid flipping up on the old Zippo (the best cigarette lighter in the history of the world) and then to take that first, satisfying drag on a cigarette. But I dare not. I also miss having something to keep my hands occupied in idle moments. The act of smoking was really enjoyable. But the side effects – like social friction and (especially) the physical addiction that had me looking for ashtrays or the almost-panicky need for an excuse to go outside for five minutes before the cravings drove me mad.
Now I look at the price of cigarettes in stores and wonder how anyone can afford the habit. I’m a lawyer and I can’t afford it. Or at least I have plenty of other things I would rather spend those kinds of dollars on.
I wrote here last year that I miss smelling pipes smoked by old men. I do not, however, miss the smell of cigarettes. And my ability to avoid the habit is the reason I still have a smug, self-satisfied attitude around the first of the year when everyone else starts out on some kind of exercise or diet plan. Those are not for me – I accomplished The Big One, and one such massive personal improvement is all that should be expected of anyone. So yes, I believe I will have a slice of that pie, thank you.