My New Year's Resolution is to stop a certain behavior--a habit so disgusting that I've kept it secret lo, these many years.
The revolting fact is that I chew Red Man, "America's Best Chew." I've done it off and on for a decade, to relax.
If you don't know, Red Man is a dark, gummy tobacco product. You stick a bunch in your mouth and work it into a spit-soaked wad. Then you park it between a row of teeth and a cheek.
Soon, your mouth fills with thick fluid called "tobacco juice." You swish this around and get a nicotine "rush." With the saliva glands on overdrive a small difficulty quickly presents itself.
You need to spit.
Great minds have pondered this problem. Baseball players Just Do It, in front of everyone. In the U.S. Senate, it's rumored, antique spittoons are still used by at least one member. My daughter Willow recalls how, in college, guys came to class with empty Coke cans and slowly filled them with brown drool.
In Clemson, S.C., the Los Angeles Times reports, Bill Barrioz won last year's Spittoono festival by projecting a glob of Red Man-generated juice more than 20 feet. (His wife doesn't object to the habit, he says, "because it makes me less attractive to other women.")
Me, I hawk into a coffee cup while perusing the paper. It doesn't pay to forget which cup is which. My pal Bill absent-mindedly swallowed a gob of chewing tobacco once. "Everything was all right for about 150 seconds," he reports. "Then it was very decidedly not all right."
He never chewed again.
Why, you wonder, would I resolve to give up Red Man with all its obvious benefits?
It's embarrassing, for one thing. I was up the ladder cleaning the gutters the other day--spitting cheerfully, a big wet wad in my cheek--when neighbor Ellen came over to talk.
I was trapped! I'd slipped the wad from mouth to jeans pocket, but desperately needed to spit. "I was wondering if you'd be one of my sponsors in the Avon Breast Cancer 60-mile walk in May?" Ellen was saying. I grunted and smiled, a lake of tobacco juice building in my mouth.
Finally, as she turned to put her flyer in my mailbox, I secretly let go with a gob the size of California.
In any case, Ellen got me thinking about cancer. "WARNING," it says on Red Man packages, "THIS PRODUCT MAY CAUSE MOUTH CANCER."
To learn more, I visited CancerNet on the National Cancer Institute's Web site, http://www.nci.nih.gov. Phrases like "remove the tongue and the voicebox (larynx)," "remove part of the jawbone," and "remove the lymph nodes in the neck" kept popping up.
"A patient may need plastic surgery," the site advised, "or help learning to eat and speak if a large part of the lip or mouth is taken out."
By chewing, I realized, I was inviting lip cancer, tongue cancer, cancer of the buccal mucosa (the inside lining of cheeks and lips), floor-of-the-mouth cancer, lower gum cancer, retromolar trigone (the small space behind the wisdom teeth) cancer, and upper gum or hard palate cancer.
I called my dentist, Judy Penski.
"The scary thing about oral cancer," she said, "is that it doesn't have just one look." Judy knows. She's constantly scanning for it as she works. "Sometimes it's white and leathery, and sometimes it looks red. Sometimes the gums recede, and so you just never know what you're looking at."
In my case, she hasn't yet noticed anything out of line--a good time to quit.
Remy Blanchaert, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in Baltimore whose grandfather was a Missouri tobacco farmer, is one of the talented knife jocks who may be called on to carve out chunks of my face and head should I develop Red Man cancer.
"The worst thing is," he said, "chewing tobacco is sitting on the jawbone, and when you have to remove the jawbone, you also remove the muscles that are attached to it which provide stabilization for the tongue. That's why people have trouble speaking well, or swallowing."
The good news, he said, is that mouth, head and neck reconstructive techniques have come a long way, so that--after surgery--I might not have to hide out, faceless.
"One encouraging thing," Remy added about my quitting, "is that many of the cellular changes are reversible--especially in kids, say, who dip during baseball season. If they can stop, most of the problems can go away."
To get a handle on the addictive side of my habit, I called Steve Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health and a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.
Steve explained how drugs like tobacco "hijack brain circuits" in certain vulnerable people, "fooling" part of the brain "in a perverse and extremely powerful way" into thinking the drug is necessary.
"Let me tell you, these are survival circuits" that get chemically subverted, he said, "and the cold voice of reason seems very, very dim by comparison. . . . You're smart, you know better, but the habit is like Super Glue."
Yet there's hope.
"Don't get into a fatalistic dilemma," Steve suggested. "Your brain contains many circuits, and even though one circuit critical in making survival choices has been hijacked, other parts of you, other brain circuits having to do with personal responsibility, remain engageable. Your whole brain is not gone. The cerebral cortex is still there."
This is good news.
I asked Steve if he had any addictions and he said no. Then: "Maybe I'm a workaholic. My kids say I need to work less."
I'd also asked Remy Blanchaert, the oral surgeon, if he'd ever chewed tobacco. "Naw," he'd laughed. "I chew gum."
That got me to thinking, maybe I could chew gum instead of Red Man.
And save face.