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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All-Smoking & Drinking Issue

Including a plea to remember the pleasure of our vices

November 1st, 2006

BY TERRY ROSS

rosssmokinganddrinking.jpgUnlike Black Lamb contributor Dan Peterson (p. 5), I am not one of the least qualified people on the planet to talk about smoking and drinking. Nor am I as overqualified as Ed Goldberg (p. 3), who began smoking and drinking at a tender age, or as Dan Ferrandino (p. 6), whose drinking got the better of him until he gave it up.

By the same token, I am perhaps better qualified than some of the writers in this All-Smoking & Drinking Issue. Unlike, for example, Gillian Wilce (p. 4), I have smoked to excess, and although I gave up cigarettes some time ago, I still enjoy an occasional pipe or cigar. Unlike Cervine Kauffman (p. 11), I have in my time drunk to excess, and I look forward to occasionally doing so in the future.

I can agree with Alan Albright (p. 5) that smoking is a devilishly hard habit to give up, even given its nauseating effect on others, to which both Toby Tompkins (p. 8) and Andrew Darrel (p. 6) can attest. I never found smoking cigarettes an aid to creativity, as Sage Cohen (p. 9) did for a time in her younger days.

I did, however, recognize it early on as an accoutrement of adulthood. Both my parents smoked when I was a child, although my father gave it up in his thirties. In those days (the Fifties) an open container of cigarettes was as obligatory, when entertaining friends in one’s home, as the availability of alcohol, in the form of cocktails made from spirits, which have lately made a strong comeback after the sudden hegemony (in the U.S., anyway) of wine in the Eighties and Nineties.

When I was a kid, smoking and drinking were what adults did. Those were the days, now long gone, when kids, of whatever age, aspired to adulthood. Just as three-year-olds couldn’t wait to turn four, and ten-year-olds to turn eleven, teenagers were desperate to take on the freedoms and burdens of being grown up, of evolving magically into sophisticated and mysterious members of the adult world. If you hadn’t succumbed to cigarettes in your adolescence, you found it almost impossible to resist when you left home and began living on your own. For college kids in the early Sixties, before more serious drugs became available and then obligatory, the example of Marcello Mastroianni beckoned from the big screen, his handsome features perpetually wreathed in cigarette smoke as he tried like mad (sometimes successfully!) to get into Sophia Loren’s shapely pants. Similarly, drinking seemed anything but harmful as one watched the Thin Man and his wife debonairly chug martinis while effortlessly solving the most mystifying crimes.

Americans who visit, say, Rome or Prague nowadays find the ubiquity of cigarettes amazing, but they forget that once upon a time, and not that long ago, the habit was damned near universal in their own country. Television personalities of the Fifties and Sixties — Dean Martin, Edward R. Murrow, Perry Como, David Brinkley, Johnny Carson — chain-smoked on the air. It wasn’t just the anxiety of The Bomb that caused it, either; it had been going on for decades. Apparently there had always been something — a war, a recession — to worry about.

The twenty-first-century American who views smoking and drinking with nothing but horror makes the same mistake I did, in another context, as an undergraduate reading Hemingway. Asked to comment on the characters in The Sun Also Rises, I proudly pontificated in lit-crit fashion on the decadence of Lady Brett and Mike and Jake, on the evident angst behind their hedonistic lifestyle. At the end of my peroration, the professor had a question for me: “But, Mr. Ross, didn’t you enjoy the book?” I replied that of course I had. “But aren’t you ignoring,” he continued, sarcastically, “the humor and the fun in it? These are, after all, among the reasons we read.” Well, exactly. Chastened and embarrassed, I kept my yap shut the rest of the term. Eventually, as a graduate student, I found that the humor and fun were being systematically drained from literature by scholarly zealots of political correctness, and I gave up academia.

In the same way, we are losing the ability to think of our peccadillos — our vices — as any source of pleasure, and this seems regrettable. A drunken and bookish roommate of mine used to quote, perhaps speciously, Harold Nicholson (or Oscar Wilde?) to the effect that what was worth doing was worth overdoing. He even went so far as to wash clean his alcoholism by proclaiming, “Wretched excess: wretched virtue.”

We needn’t go so far as this in appreciating the liberating effects of smoking (it is relaxing!) and drinking (it does make you feel good), even while recalling the moments in our lives when we went too far, when we drove drunk in the dead of night or inhaled two packs of smokes in one long, convivial evening. Perhaps what’s worth doing is worth overdoing, if only occasionally, to give us perspective.

Happily, in at least some of the essays in this All-Smoking & Drinking Issue, I sense a certain wistfulness — a muted joy — in the writers’ memories of their one-time vices. In these dreadful, fearful times, keeping the humor and fun of Smoking & Drinking in mind seems a healthy point of view, even as we swear off. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Smoking & Drinking Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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