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Black Lamb


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True Confession

November 1st, 2006


Okay, I confess it. I’m one of those annoying people who starts coughing when the cigarette smoke drifts over from the cage where the nicotine addicts have been forced to cluster, and am also one of those who says “just water, thanks” and so lets the waiter know that the tab and tip will be smaller than expected. We abstemious types can put a real damper on things, I understand, but what are you going to do?

It wasn’t until my junior year in college that people realized that seminar rooms full of smoke might not be a good idea, might even be more closely connected to my chronic need to clear my throat than the fact that a fellow student was blathering on and on. Allergies ensued. I know it pisses people off to be reminded that their comfy little addiction causes distress to bystanders. I understand how hard it is for them to quit, sympathize with the way a legal industry pushed one of the most addictive substances on the planet and made millions from the fact that escape is so hard. I’m living with a smoker right now, have watched three different failed attempts to break free. She can’t afford the habit, financially or in terms of health, but our life hasn’t offered many windows of calm which would allow her to cope with the intense stress of withdrawal. The patch seemed to be working for a while, until we realized she was allergic and would soon be entirely covered with big red spots. It’s a drag, and I sympathize, and do my best not to lapse into self-righteousness.

It’s just that sucking smoke into your lungs is so weird. The practice got started among native tribes who lived in smoke-filled lodges, so I guess they didn’t see it as a big leap. When the weed crossed the Atlantic, European fireplaces were still pretty smoky, too, and of course by the late nineteenth century most big cities had so much soot in the air from coal that smoke inhalation and breathing were one and the same. It’s a similar story with alcoholic drinks, which came in when clean drinking water was hard to ensure. By the time I was born the water had chlorine, and coal no longer heated houses, but smoking and drinking were so imbedded in the culture that you really needed a reason not to take them up.

Luckily, I’m a contrary cuss. That’s the closest I can come to an explanation of why I dodged all the guilty pleasures the society of my childhood spent so much time promoting. The tobacco lobby had over a decade to convince me that ultimate coolness would be mine with a Marlboro, Winston, or Lucky Strike smoldering at my lips. Instead, at age six I burned myself on the hand-off when a cigarette was offered me by a slightly older cousin, and the ensuing fiasco when he almost burned down my grandmother’s garage cemented my impression that smoking was for dumbasses. It didn’t hurt that I was there for the first great wave of anti-smoking public service ads, including the one by the guy who played the hapless prosecutor Perry Mason defeated week after week, who confessed that his habit had led to another losing battle with lung cancer. I didn’t know then about the time the cops came to his door and found him naked with a joint in his hand, or I’d have been even sadder about the news. Having sidestepped the habit of inhaling smoke into my lungs — or at least more than was suspended in Houston’s murky air — it was easier to shrug away offers of the more sophisticated smokes that became available by my high school years, and I certainly had no urge to try the heroin that had killed Lenny Bruce and half a generation of jazz musicians.

This was also the era when the middle-class mores laid much stress on cocktail parties and the perfect martini, but my family was working class, pretty much fixed on beer and bourbon, neither of which tasted good to me. You need more of social life than I had to have problems with peer pressure, which in my case would have been of the reverse sort, surrrounded as I was by earnest young Baptists, and even their sanctimonious opposition couldn’t impell me to take up a habit that seemed to offer nothing much besides sour tastes and painful mornings after. Eventually I learned to enjoy good wines, but when you’ve never developed the habit of an alcoholic accompaniment to dinner or conversation it’s easy to avoid the expensive snare of connoisseurship. I could appreciate the pleasures of becoming a wine snob, but it seemed far more enticing to spend that time and money on books and records.

I’m not a complete abstainer. If a host offers wine, I have a window between the first and third glass when I apparently become relaxed and more witty than usual. But midway through the third glass I start losing coordination, and the uneasy sensation of a swaying head tells me I’ve passed my limit. I suppose it beats the “Stop” sign my father had, which didn’t kick in quite so early. According to the charts in the magazines his drinking was “heavy,” but I never saw him drunk, at least with any of the symptoms people people act out on TV. He just reached a certain point and then had to throw up.

The greatest addiction of the 1950s, surpassing cigarettes and alcohol combined in long-lasting harm to American society and the world at large, was the internal combustion engine in the private automobile, and again I found myself oddly determined to resist the call of the road. While the metastasizing freeway system was spawning sterile suburbs and strangling the cities, I found myself insisting that I really didn’t want command of a ton of metal hurling along at high speed, with only my snap judgement to fend off death and destruction. Having stepped aside enough to see that cars aren’t actual necessities — except when idiots “design” cities like Houston so you can’t live without them — it becomes easier see the absurdity of the laws that make a license available to almost anyone who really wants one. Why shouldn’t driver’s licenses be as rare and hard to attain as pilot’s licenses? Bad drivers kill people by the thousands. At the very least why not address the problem of teens who drink and drive by allowing them a license to do one or the other, but not both? I say, let them drink as soon as they want, but cut them off from cars until they’re twenty-five, with another five years lopped on for every alcohol-related offense they commit before that age. Won’t happen, of course, because we’ve defined drinking as a vice and driving as a necessity. Vietnam was seen as a great tragedy for America, because wars are conspicuous and seem, in theory, avoidable, but we kill roughly as many Americans every year on our roadways as died in that war.

Maybe it takes a bigger disaster than that to get people’s attention, something like the planet turning into a giant pressure cooker. It’s amazing now to watch movies from the 1940s and see how universal the lit cigarette was then, how inexplicable must have seemed the idea that something so commonplace should be banned from public places as a health menace. Maybe someday, after Venice joins New Orleans beneath the waves, all those shots of carefree youth roaring down the road in their convertibles will seem equally bizarre.

But it doesn’t do to go on about these things. Could be it’s too late anyway, that the planet is already doomed to to join Venus in the “too-hot-for-human-life-thanks-to-CO2” club. At least the others who poach alongside me will go down with warm memories of roaring down the open road while taking a deep drag on a Camel, a bottle of open Scotch within easy reach. In that case it will be clear that there’s been entirely too much time wasted on nagging drunks and smokers to clean up their acts while our oil addiction was the greater evil.

In my experience people are uncomfortable, a bit guilty even, when they realize I don’t drive, and I don’t do anything but upset them if I lecture about how many tons of carbon I’ve avoided sending into our air. People have to come around to these things in their own time. I’ve lived without a car or cigarettes and could face an alcohol-free planet without the slightest wince, but that doesn’t mean it would be helpful for me to try and impose my tastes on my fellow citizens. As it says in G. B. Shaw’s Maxims for Revolutionists: “Do not do unto others as you would that they do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” Or more pointedly still, the reproach to the tight-ass Malvolio, in Twelfth Night: “Dost though think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” •

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


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