I sit down to start writing, and, as always, like a baseball player stepping up to bat, I go through my ritual.
I lick my lips. I rat-a-tat my fingers on the desk. I tug my belt. I pull the point of my chin. Once in a while, I gnaw a nail.
But I don't smoke a cigarette.
No, sir. Not any more. Not for two months. Not during the coming New Year. And not, I am creepingly confident, ever again.
It was really not hard to quit. You hardcore hackers out there will find that hard to believe, maybe even funny. I did at first, too.
But this isn't a plot by some gnome in the Surgeon General's office. This isn't jingoistic jive from a self-help group. I used to be one of you, gang. This is the truth from the other side of the wall.
How did I quit?I happened to go through an eight-week program, one of the wellknown, expensive ones. I happened to join it this fall. It happened to work.
I could just as easily have dined on cold turkey, for the decision was really made last New Year's Eve. Amid a roomful of drunks and kazoos, I just up and resolved to quit.
I couldn't quite toss my pack over my shoulder and start walking. I needed mental preparation, I thought. So I gave myself room without giving myself too much. I told myself it had to be sometime during 1978.
By Oct. 31, I was there.
My smoking habit was depressingly classic. I started in high school on a dare -- something about how "cool" I was or wasn't. I was hooked before I knew or cared. In the end, I smoked about a pack a day for 15 years.
Sometimes I bought Camels; sometimes I bought one of those low-tars that taste like chalk. I was never so far gone that I couldn't sit through a double feature without smoking. But once it was over, the hand would creep for the pocket, automatically.
Smoking, I now see, was a crime of opportunity. Whenever I could, I did.
I would nip between innings of softball games. Between phone calls. Yes, dear Lord, even between courses of a meal.
I would be the first to fire one up when the captain turned off the "No Smoking" sign. Igniting the car usually meant igniting something else, too. Getting out of the shower, belting that first sip of morning coffee, waiting for the bus -- all could seldom be imagined without a cigarette.
Nor do I have to lie on a couch to confess this one: On Sunday nights, having run out of money and cigarettes simultaneously as usual, I was not above combing the ashtrays for a "good," resmokable, two-inch butt.
The fact that a New Year's resolution proved so effective for me is surely unusual.
A friend who has spent a career trying to induce people to quit smoking doubts that resolutions are worth the breath they take to utter. January, shmanuary, he says. Most serious puffers quit only when they're frightened into it by someone else's cancer or death.
But if you respond to deadlines, pride yourself on being organized and just adore challenges, you might want to retrace some of the steps I took beginning on Jan. 1, 1978.
I kept serious track of what this little pleasure was costing. Even buying them by the carton, smokes were running $25 a month. That is no longer the difference between eating and starving, not in this economy. But it's still theater tickets.
I forced myself to notice the physical effects, the ones most smokers usually ignore. The correlation was obvious. Two-day colds were lasting two weeks. My sinuses constantly felt parched -- they were. The old throat needed clearing so often that it began to scare me.
I began to notice how many cigarettes I groped for out of reflex, not desire. I noticed that I always lit, smoked, held and extinguished a cigarette in the same way. I realized that I patted my pocket to be sure a pack was there before I patted the other pocket to be sure my wallet was there.
"Hey, face in the mirror," I finally said. "Get in the ball game. Lincoln freed the slaves a long time ago."
It comes down to what the football coaches incessantly say: you've got to want it. After that, you can name your method.
So on Sunday night, I'll hoist one in honor of anyone who cares to join me in the land of Deep Breaths, '79. With my newly free other hand, I'll wave goodbye to all the holes in the shirts and the midnight rides to the 7-Eleven.
No slogans and no slop. It's simple. It's worth it.