Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A loathsome habit

Someone asked me yesterday why I dislike smoking so much. He had been to Las Vegas, and I remarked that I didn't think I would enjoy a place with so much cigarette smoke. I have never visited Las Vegas, but I have hated Reno, especially because of all the smoke.

I am not allergic (though I have claimed to be), but cigarette smoke makes me gag in any measure and at almost any distance. It is remarkable how much space a tiny cigarette can pollute. Smokers are often surprised at the distances at which their smoke repulses me, which can be three cars over or fifty feet away. I think their senses are deadened by the smoke.

It is not simply that I cannot stand the smoke. I also cannot stand what cigarettes do to my friends who smoke. First, it makes them addicts. I have watched as otherwise intelligent people shuffled outside at 1am, exhausted and in pajamas, simply to smoke. I have watched as they huddled under overhangs out in the cold and pouring rain, weather nobody else braves except to dash to their cars. These are not actions of reason but addiction. Otherwise bold, independent people become slaves of the drug.

Of course, smoking has its physical effects on the body, as well. Smoke has been used for centuries to dry and preserve meat. If you're making beef jerky to take backpacking, this process slows decay and adds flavor. In the lungs of a living, breathing (or trying to) human being, the same drying and hardening of flesh is a disaster.

Smoking transforms beautiful voices into grotesque, squeaky crackles. It makes the lungs clog themselves up with phlegm, in an effort to expel the contaminants. It yellows and embrittles the skin and the hair, just as it yellows the furnishings of those who smoke. I have never seen skin with quite such an unnatural cast as that of one of the heavy smokers in my office, and I can only imagine how his insides must look.

I have two more reasons, still, to abhor smoking as much as I do. First, my mother quit smoking shortly after I was born (and I am eternally grateful to her for finding the willpower). Of course, I do not remember it, but by all accounts I was an extremely fussy, loud baby. A relation, whom I may have single-handedly inspired never to have children of her own, dubbed me "Screecho" the night she tried to sleep at my parents' house. I grew into a calm quiet child in a couple of years. In the meantime, I was kicking nicotine.

Now, I realize this next item is not a scientific sample. It is, rather, a personal one. Two of my grandparents, who never smoked, are eight-five and still going strong after over sixty years of marriage. They regularly go to the gym, where they are trying rather unsuccessfully to teach a friend of theirs some Greek. They clip articles from the newspaper to save for their children and grandchildren. My grandmother still manages some rental property she owns with her sisters. In short, they are enjoying retirement, family, and friends.

My other grandmother passed away a couple of years ago. She quit smoking before I can remember. She had some trouble with asthma in her later years, but she lived into her eighties. I will always remember her as a dear lady with a sharp (if gentle) wit and a talent for crossword puzzles and knitting (among many other things).

My other grandfather smoked for most of his life and died of lung cancer before I was born. I can only wonder who he might have been. To me, the pattern seems pretty clear.


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