By approximate count, this is my third column announcing that I have quit smoking. I quit once for six years and once again for a year, and now I've been off the vile and carcinogenic weed for more than a month. Since my intentions regarding smoking should be seen as no different from those of Liz Taylor regarding marriage, I will forgo the usual vow and instead tell you why I've quit. Masculinity.
Yes, indeed. The very thing that caused me to start smoking in the first place -- a desire to be a tough guy, a red-headed Bogart -- is what made me stop. Toward the end, in fact, my smoking had come full circle, and I was sneaking smokes in the bathroom, hiding my habit from my son the way I once had hidden it from my parents. Health was almost incidental to my decision. Real men, I concluded, do not hide in the bathroom.
Of course, I was perfectly aware that smoking increased my chance of dying from just about anything you can name. And also, to tell the truth, this time around smoking had affected me. I had a certain shortness of breath, a permanently scalded tongue and, come morning, a taste in my mouth that would, under a more enlightened administration, have brought the proper federal agency for a look-see. I was also coughing, producing the phenomenon known in medical circles as fear of dying. I suffer greatly from that.
But it was the social pressure that did me in. Very often, I was the only person who smoked. When I went to a dinner party, my apr,es-dinner match would go off like a cannon, and people would stare in horror: He's going to smoke! Things were no better at work. People who smoke in the office are given those little air purifiers so that those nearby do not fall over dead. But the achines are not intended to really clear the air; they are intended to humiliate. They're the scarlet letters of our time.
But the worst, the very worst, was airplanes. When the stewardess announced that smoking was permitted beyond, say, row 22, I knew what she was really saying: "Ladies and Gentlemen, from row 22 on you will find the weak, the addicted, those without the strength to kick a habit that they know will kill them." I would make that long walk back to row 22, feeling the eyes of my fellow passengers on me. I knew what those eyes were saying: Sissy!
This preoccupation with image and masculinity is precisely what prompted me and others like me to start smoking in the first place. Most men did it to enhance their masculinity, to become real men -- by which we meant older men. And it was not easy. In fact, like drinking Scotch, I hated smoking the first couple of hundred times I tried it, and I was forever being accused of not inhaling. Well, I wasn't. But that's because smoking at first i awful. Your eyes tear and your nose runs and you want to cough. I can understand how the first person ate a tomato, even an oyster, but I will never understand how the first person ever smoked. I bet he did it to impress a girl.
Ironically, though, the Marlboro Man still rides off to the roundup and the men in Camel ads still dangle from the sides of mountains. Cigarette ads now parody masculinity in the same way the Virginia Slims ads parody women's liberation. How liberated are you if you are chained to a habit? As for the men in the cigarette ads, all I can think of when I see them is that if these guys were really so tough, they would have quit smoking long ago.
But toughness in some stereotypical cowboy way is really beside the point. The essence of manliness, after all, is control. Without it, strength has no purpose and what smoking says to both others and the smoker himself is that the smoker has lost control over a piece of his life. Maybe this is why cigarette smoking, like obesity, is associated with class. The affluent expect to control their lives, even their health, and the poor do not. As a result, the expectations of both are largely self-fulfilling.
Anyway, this is why I stopped smoking. I had to regain control over this part of my life and prove something to both myself and others. In the end, it was pretty simple. If I was once man enough to smoke, I could be man enough to quit. To paraphrase the old Camel slogan, I'd walk a mile for some respect.