Today is my one-year anniversary of quitting smoking. I didn’t smoke much, maybe a pack a week at most, if I was smoking at all. Once in a decade, I’d hit two packs a week, then back off. Months or even the better part of a year might go by without cigs. Typically I’d relapse while driving home after a show in another town, and knock out half a pack--really get the groove back in a big way. The butts would sizzle in the dregs of a Diet Coke, a Twizzlers wrapper floating on the draft from a half-open window. I’d crank something loud and rockin’ with the wind rushing and smoke streaming behind me on the highway, thinking of all the ways I’d spend the 19 dollars I made playing some music. In the morning I’d find the hole burned in my shirt from a fallen spark.
Smoking started at college in Iowa City, late at night, when I was working on a paper or a story. Well, no, it started in college, late at night, when I was on an underage bender in a basement bar, veering into deeper rumination and depression, but also loving my pals and having a college good time. Then I took the habit home. I had my own ashtray, the kind you find in a cheap motel. Tres cool. Different things are definitely cool, now. I’d like to teleport back, intervene, and detour around all the stressors and insecurities and personal suffering and the choices I made. People self-medicate for various understandable reasons. But I can only welcome young Hemingway Jones into my life and retrieve lost time that way. Welcome aboard, bud--you’re not the first dreamer to fall off the turnip truck and have your ass kicked by life.
But wait, there’s more. Smoking good tobacco is, literally, a gas, and it’s fun, it’s a kick, it’s naughty--what a buzz. Maybe you should try it. Sexy French actors and actresses in classic art films do it all the time. Intellectuals and statesmen are famous for it, plus cowboys, soldiers in movies; people in prison use cigs as currency because they got nothin’ to lose. I might have one again sometime, if I find myself in an early Louis Malle with Jeanne Moreau, or if the Republicans steal another election and start a new pipeline procurement war. Maybe I’ll snag one just because--sometime. Smoking clears the mind and makes the breath visible for a few fleeting minutes. It’s pretend cool and pretend meditation for English majors. As a habit, it also messes up our brains. And the things are made to be addictive, there’s proof! I.E. old guys who smoke through their tracheotomies when a sympathetic family member smuggles a pack of Dorals into Sacred Heart Hospital.
The quitting moment, if there is such a thing, arrived on December 23, 2010. I had a show with my band and I was sick--a phlegmy, dizzy front guy with a fever and a chest-ripping, spine-bending cough. Plus it was the holidays--stress levels up. I’d been fighting a cold all week, but had continued to light up. On the deck. In the side yard. Behind the garage. Smoking always appeals to me more when it’s cold and damp--a light against the darkness and chill. And smoking appeals to everybody more when they’re stressed. And generates more stress. So I went ahead and smoked myself into the annual bronchitis that hits me between mid-December and mid-January. Since The Willamette Valley is basically the front end of a big cataclysmic dam-break, it’s kind of a soup spoon-shaped holding tank full of fog, pollen, wet, damp, wood smoke, cheap incense, and wised-up former commune members. The indiginous folks called it “the valley of sickness” and tended to live in the hills. Salaries here remain generally low and housing prices high because it’s also “a great place to live.” And it’s a perfect place to catch a winter cold that lasts six weeks, especially if you are a smoker.
Sometimes in life you just have to say fuck it. And sometimes, you have to say fuck this. That night, I stood on stage and decided I was done with this phase of less-than-healthy choices. (Everybody has two or three such phases kind of overlapping, right?) December 23 is also the anniversary of the deaths of two of my heroes: D. Boon and Joe Strummer. I may have even announced this from the stage, after hawking a big green loogie. Since I was about fourteen, I’ve always wanted to be like them, with or without a guitar in my hand. (Only scratching the surface here, of my hero worship of various people--now there’s a habit to break.) Being dead is where I draw the line.
Flaunting death is what makes smoking cool, in some ways. That’s the American Spirit. Mmmm, nothing like a steely, existential cigarette after dinner, or right before an argument with your mate. Let me dance with death for a few minutes here, honey, and then let’s try to have a productive conversation. Quick to anger, prone to brooding and intense introspection? Control issues? Try messing up pretty much every system in your body with mini fight-or-flight episodes, courtesy of a drug that’s supposedly harder to kick than heroin. Not prone to anxiety? Here kid, try one-a these. They go great with Raymond Carver stories.
After quitting in fits and stars for twenty-odd years, this time it wasn’t hard. There were no back and forth battles. I was just fed up with it. Forty-one is just too old to be that dumb; I’ll be dumb in new ways. Isn’t that how it usually goes? Two months later, I laced up a new pair of tennies, and ran three quarters of a mile at Margaret Bailes Johnson track. If most of us have a sleepy, TV-distracted night watchman who monitors our bodily systems until something really weird/scary happens, mine was looking for a lost rolodex that might have the number of someone to call about this odd thing happening--running. “Uh, there’s alot of huffing and puffing coming from section 2, floor 19--men’s sweaters...what should I do?...” (This is the same night watchman who reads Captain America while eating an entire Red Baron pizza retrofit with extra canadien bacon in ten minutes flat. He would be played by Ned Beatty or John Candy.)
The next night I ran a mile. Then I ran too many nights in a row and my left knee hurt. (Alot of people advise against running because it is “hard on your knees and back,” but I’m guessing the negative data for this conclusion comes from folks who are overweight, who ran too much, too soon, and too often.) After learning the hard way that you need to leave some recovery time, I now average about three workouts a week, at 4.5 miles, still going real slow. The other night I ran at 8:30, only an hour after a sizeable plate of chicken, rice, and broccoli. Spinning the new Tommy Keene. It was 33 degrees, foggy, and by the time I was done, I had ice on the cable of my Ipod’s earbuds. The miles took about 15 minutes each. It sucked. No, it sucked--as we used to say in high school--major donkey. (But the slower I went the more I got to listen to the new Tommy Keene.)
I love running--I love listening to music on my Ipod and not having anybody bug me. It’s the workout equivalent of a long anonymous layover in the Denver airport, just you and a good book. When there is soccer, lacrosse, football, ultimate frisbee, or rugby on the field, I just put my hood up like Obi Wan and plod it out, embarassed that people on the field are doing an actual sport while I am running slower than my girlfriend walks. My best miles have been 12 and half minutes. It goes up and down, and I don’t really mind. I wouldn’t have hit the track with a bunch of tar in my lungs, so each lap confirms that I quit and keeps me motivated to stay away from those gross things. Running after smoking would hurt--and I do not like pain. And I run slow because running fast hurts, and parts of me start to bounce independent of my forward motion. Intersecting, hierarchical tiers of pain avoidance, like a schematic from Tron--is that how I quit smoking? Whatever it was, I’m glad to say that on this day one year ago, I QUIT.