Friday, April 30, 2010

On Smoking

The genius of advertising is the way it can sell products to clients who have no practical use for products . One can get a fine example of how successful these geniuses have been with an online exhibit of cigarette advertising here, on a Stanford University web site. It's enough to make one salivate and to buy into the health claims the magazine notices claim for what has to be the most useless and dangerous product introduced into the consumer market. Ouch.I smoked for near thirty years , from the early seventies through 1997, less inspired by the barroom bathos of Bogart nursing his damaged romanticism between sips of bourbon , face obscured by ubiquitous laces of smoke, and more by rock stars, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and the like, odd-haired, angular and faces gaunt as the sides of sheer cliffs, musicians hanging out on the periphery of whatever mainstream their tour buses happened to be passing.

The period was, we know, still somewhat defined by the myth of the counter culture and the notion that things corporate were bad for the planet and yourself as well, but still few of us who grew our hair were willing to grow our own food, and still fewer were willing to forsake their Marlboro 100s or Lucky Strikes for ideological consistency. It was the ironic element of the drug taking of the day that many of us who dabbled in or became overwhelmed by chemicals often times defended our recreational use of illegal materials by citing that nicotine was a drug , it was fatal, and that it was legal, the same being the fact for alcohol.

It was hypocritical, man, and the squares, the man, the establishment had better rethink their pitch when it came to mewling forth about narcotics. Whether the nebulous collective I just named examined their attitudes again is unknown to me, but what I do remember was that the thinking insulated those of us in our denim'd cliques from some harsh facts and amounted to little more for us to flaunt convention and smoke, drink, toke, inject, drop, in all senses, imbibe. We were in the vanguard, weren't we?

In my case, rock stars died, friends got older or died, the music died, corporate marketing absorbed the particular tricks and whistles of all that hippie culture and the lot of us found ourselves in haircuts, with jobs, having our values sold back to us. And at the age of thirty five years old, divorced, fired, broke, I found myself still smoking two packs a day and drinking myself to a near grave. After an intervention in 1987, I went to a famous rehab in California, and smoking was the unifying thing among patients who other wise had nothing in common besides their addictions the resulting tales of wreckage they were attempting to clean up. We'd smoke during the meditation breaks, we'd smoke the five minutes we had between group meals and the next group therapy, we'd smoke on the dorm patio at night after the treatment day and exchange war stories of alcohol and drug fueled degradation while we puffed, exhaled, coughed, and continued with our stories. Deep wells of gasping laughter were had, and I do remember the desert night, talking to voices across from me in the dark, the only light being a full moon and the moving , cherry red tips of several cigarettes scurrying about like fireflies. Oh, smoking was the sacrament, it was the last link to a life I based on trying to imitate what someone else a bad boy was. Man, oh man.

In 1997, nearly ten years sober at the point, I was still smoking, frequently sick with colds that didn't seem to go away. I wasn't enjoying the cigarettes anymore, and was, in fact, tired of trying to be cool in any sense I thought it meant; I was too hold to get away dressing like a junkie guitarist, I wanted to act my age. I was on the bus in December, a rainy day, cold and miserable, and noticed various stores along the route where clerks were in the service entrances, standing in the shower, smoking away. Not unusual to note, of course, but no one looked happy or to be enjoying the drags they took off the cigarettes they lit in the cloud burst; they were smoking because they had to smoke, rain or no, cold or no, five dollars a pack or no, they looked like drug addicts, and quite suddenly I felt like one myself.Addicted to cigarettes. It was the "aha" experience. It was liberating. I quit that month, and haven't had a cigarette since.

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