I don’t want any of your statistics; I took your whole batch and lit my pipe with it.
“Cigarette smoke contains 4,000 chemicals, and 43 of those carcinogenic,” the young boy pleaded.
John took another drag from his hand rolled cigarette and blew the smoke into the summer air. The little American boy’s face was full of concern for his companion who was nearly seventy years of age, thin and tall, gaunt cheeks and pronounced jaw cleanly shaven with a mane of white hair crowning his head, wearing a well fitting, but worn black wool suit with a white shirt and tie.
“Every cigarette you smoke takes minutes off your life!” Came one final plea.
“Ahhh, Jason, you sound like my grand daughter, don’t worry so much, I’ve been smoking since I was just a few years older than you,” he said with his thick Scottish accent, “and I’m a bit old to worry about it now.”
To the young Jason, who’d been through D.A.R.E. and then numerous health classes that fed him the propaganda (much of it true facts and figures), it seemed quite simple what John should do: quit smoking.
The bus tour had been a great time, but most of all I had enjoyed sitting and talking with the bus driver, John, at each stop while he rolled a cigarette and then enjoyed his smoke break. We’d talk about history (he was a buff like myself), and Scotland, about books he’d lent me, and his childhood during the war. He’d put up with my occasional rant about smoking as I petitioned him to just once skip the cigarette, but to be perfectly honest, I enjoyed the smell of the fresh burning tobacco. I used to stand 20 feet away and talk with him to avoid the dreaded second hand smoke, but eventually gave it up and sat next to him on a park bench or leaned up against a stone wall while he puffed away. Later, when I read Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, Karl von Vollensteen was played by John in my imagination. At the time, I was genuinely concerned for John’s health, my uncompromising young mind couldn’t grasp the no-brainer of quitting smoking. My adult mind better recognizes the compromises we make between sanity, health, morality, finances, relationships, love, and enjoyment, answers that they can’t teach you about in a middle school health class, but you just need to find out and make for yourself. Certainly, we all know those who died early from cancer and hardened arteries after years of chain smoking, and we also know those who live to 90 enjoying their cigarettes defying all studies. Moderation is a wonderful virtue, as is avoiding addiction (I can’t stand being around much less the idea of kissing a heavy smoker), but after listening to their own sense and experiences and reading all the scientific studies, everyone must decide for themselves their level of indulgence in vices. Maybe that one cigarette that John rolled and smoked at each stop gave him that extra sense of priceless peace and added that touch of quiet enjoyment to his day that aggregated was worth losing a few pain stricken months (perhaps years) at the end of his life (if that even really happens, we can argue correlation and causation till we are blue in the face after all). Looking back on it now, it was a magical time to share with him while the other passengers milled about, stretching their legs, running into shops, and taking in the sights.
Of course, years later I took up smoking tobacco myself in high school, not cigarettes, but instead cigars, pipes, and hookah. There is something special about smoking, it is meditative, conscious, it puts the mind in just that right state, it isn’t the over saturated stimulation of a feature film or novel that demands all your attention, but it adds just that extra something to when you are sitting quietly and thinking or conversing with a friend or most any experience really. It can be treated in many ways like a session beer, just something to add to those moments in life. Pipes, I find, are the most contemplative. They need to be carefully cleaned, packed, tamped, lit, drawn, and then puffed carefully to maintain just enough red cherry of a burn to keep the smoke at the right temperature, taste, and fragrance. They are perfect for thinking about those serious problems, questions, and conundrums in life. Cigars still require some attention, selected carefully based on age and humidity, need to be cut and lit, but the puffing requires only a minimum of attention, and the heady effects of the nicotine are often so relaxing you can just melt into your seat and let the thick tendrils of smoke carry you away to a far off place in your dreams, memories, and imagination, or a lighter cigar can heighten a beautiful vista and please the senses. And hookah of course, what better way to stimulate intimate conversation among friends, acquaintances, and lovers than the sharing of the hose, like a friendly kiss, the sweet flavors, the cool smoky haze, and the background of the sizzling coals and bubbling of the water. The monthly to tri-monthly compromise to my health seems worth it to me for these things.
Make no mistake, I’m not here to encourage you to smoke, or to defend my own vice, or to argue statistics. This isn’t a persuasive treatise, just a story to share. Still, I do think we could all use a little more Mark Twain attitude in our lives.