Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Armageddon cigarettes

I fell off the cigarette wagon on Wednesday, July 2, the day Big Sur went into mandatory evacuation. Yep, I'm a closet smoker, have been for years. I quit, with much ceremony, 6 months ago, saving that final butt in a Veuve Cliquot matchbox, tucked into my jewelry box.

But when the flames were coming down the mountains, I bought a pack of American Spirits (the good cigarettes) and proceeded to smoke like a fiend, air quality be damned. Then I gave away the pack, keeping a few in my glove box as my "Armageddon cigarettes," you know, the ones you smoke when the world is coming to an end, or your world is anyway.

If only it wasn't so bad for you. When I'm smoking it's usually just a couple a day, but there is no really sane justification for the act of inhaling tobacco. I began while a college student in Madrid, and so smoking reminds me of black coffee in cafés, train rides, and coyly asking the nearest attractive man for a light. "Tienes fuego?" "Do you have fire?"

Both my parents smoked when I was a kid, but quit. I succumbed to peer pressure because, hanging out in nightclubs and cafés in Spain I looked even more Californian /American as a non-smoker. I remember people proffering cigarettes from their packs like sticks of gum while standing around, drinking "copas." I had a lover who smoked "el tabaco negro." He was from Cataluña, and is probably dead now, or very sick, he smoked so damn much.

So, smoking recalls my mis-spent youth. I imagine it confers an erotic elegance to my persona, and is my comfort when the old hand to mouth thing kicks in when I'm sad or nervous. I should have kept sucking my thumb instead. Then there's that subversive urge to say, the hell with it, who wants to live a long time anyway? Old movies were also my downfall. Watching them now I marvel at the complete abandon the actors have in smoking (and drinking.) Lucky sods. Until they got old and had to breathe out of a tube.

In Japan, it seems the population's longevity adversely impacts the universal health care system. Hence, the amusing tobacco warning on packs there—"Please, try not to smoke too much." Long, lonely drives in my car were always a problem, the siren call of the cigarette louder than usual. Plus I have probably risked my life digging about in my purse (while driving) for a mint or a stick of gum immediately after smoking, to "cleanse my palate" so to speak.

I'm of the tobacco smoke screen school, using it to shut down feelings, and gather my thoughts instead. Like any addiction, it's being intimate with a habit instead of with myself or other human beings. Having a smoke is just so much damn easier than that.

Sometimes I take tiny cocktail straws, those itty bitty ones, and breathe through them, since someone once told me the experience mimics emphysema. OK, OK, so I'm quitting again, this is the point of this post, to really "grow up," bust myself on this nasty, secret habit and come clean for good.

Let's take a poll: Will I succeed this time? What will the last cigarette be like? Will I have a ritual and burn that last pack, or ask a friend (again) to store it in her kitchen drawer, 40 miles away from me? Will I lament losing my sense of immortality? Will I keep one or two hidden ones back, to enjoy without guilt when I find them weeks later? I've given up on my Birthday, and on New Year's many times over. I've pondered that last cigarette, infusing it with all kinds of meaning. I will remember everything in that moment. I'll be like the Indian (on the American Spirit package!) smoking my peace pipe one last time.

I'll tell you a secret: what works for me now is not concern for my lungs, but for the skin on my face. I love my face, and as I approach (finally) maturity (the half-century mark is looming) it is falling, just a bit. Smoking....get this...causes WRINKLES. This cannot be. I will fight crow's feet (which I can see) harder than polluted lungs (which I cannot.)

I smoked my last cigarette last night on Highway One, driving home after enjoying a cocktail with a girlfriend in Monterey. When I pulled over to heed nature's call (hey, it's something we Big Sur girls do discreetly outdoors, one of life's lesser known pleasures) I looked up to see something I haven't seen since before the fire: the glorious Milky Way. YES! The Moon and the Milky Way, the real reasons I live on this coast.

You know the problem with the "Armageddon cigarette" approach? I always smoke that damn last cigarette before Armageddon, which of course is always just around the corner. But I'm going to make a public commitment here, to really stop. So Mom, if you're reading this, that was my last cigarette at 10:30pm last night, driving over Bixby Bridge. For real.


oakland heidi said...

fingers crossed.

but really... who cares about wrinkles. You laugh far too much to worry about, what my oma called, petina.

We just want you around, and enjoying those final years, and not attached to some god awful machine.

coastroad said...

I quit in '95 during the November smoke out, Great American Smoke Out, so I know it can be done.

I've been reading your blog since seeing the link from the fire.

Hope to meet you sometime,

Jay said...

Yeah, yeah. I believe it when you and Cliff have had a few and neither of you asks the other "do you got a cig?"

Brian said...

I started smoking in college also & was able to quit a few years ago.
It's important to not have any cigarettes ever in your possession. So, throw away that Armageddon cig.
It's not coming anyway.

Dan said...

Dear sweetheart, Linda. I love your face, too! Not because you don't have any wrinkles, though. Those will come, more or less, as we walk the path of time -- lucky enough to live long enough to wear the laugh lines along with the pride of creating them. If you didn't get wrinkles, I'd have to be envious and I abhor envy.

Let me sidle up to you and your love/hate with cigarettes and tell you my own short smoking story. You know when I started smoking tobacco (American Spirits and Drum, hand rolled): with Dara, Lori, Peg, you and the rest of the Delores/Folsom Street crew. They were great, fun, wild days and nights, but filled with some indulgences that became bigger than some of us could handle. There was a lot of love in that group. I have precious memories, many that make my heart ache to this day.

Smoking a cigarette, for us, was communal -- we'd make scissor fingers and whoever had the cigarette would pass it over for a puff or two. That's my recollection. It was reminiscent of why I first enjoyed smoking pot, it was a sharing thing. But, just as you love your face, as you should, I love my voice. And my voice started to suffer. Call it vanity, but I didn't want my baritone to rattle like a snare drum from one form of sharing that I could leave and still have fun with my friends.

So, I quite tobacco and smoke pot or herbs (white sage/mullein) when I get a craving to light up. It also helps me to remember that other indulgences among that group were "secretly" very damaging. The secret is that it's no secret: we know these things are addictive and we flirt with them to pretend we are invincible. That's a dangerous, stupid game.

I could list many reasons, rationales, arguments to dissuade you from ever smoking cigarettes again, and I just might (tough love warning), but... Armageddon? That's biblical bs, baby! Brian's right, it ain't coming. Perhaps you use that reference to highlight how outdated the arguments in favor of smoking (cinematic glamor, we're gonna die anyway, etc.) actually are. The real story is that Amer. Spirits are cigarettes just like Marlboros. White man took the sacred, ceremonial, seasonal puff and packaged it to profit, regardless of the suffering it inflicts. Don't be fooled, my beautiful friend.

I heard the smoke in your voice last time we spoke and it sounded like stress. I am not worried about your beauty -- you'll always be beautiful to me, Linda. I want you to be strong and live long, darlin', free of artificial, commercial killers. Emphysema is extremely nasty and cigarette manufacturers will call their product whatever it takes to make their millions regardless of what it does to your wonderful body. There are other, gentler things to smoke, if you must. There are other, more creative hand/mouth processes you can play with to satisfy that craving.

Mostly, I just don't see you as a cigarette smoker and now is a perfect time to walk away from it for good. We all love your laugh, your beauty, your belly dancing, YOUR spirit. Be free, make yourself happy. We love you.

Linda Rowland-Jones said...

Dan, this comment makes me cry. What a true friend you are. I will take these words and weave them into my grey matter and my soul; I am done with smoking for good. I don't want to miss the possibility of ANY glorious time with you and Nancy in this lifetime...and, as another friend once said, "We are all growing older, together."
All my love to you both.