By the time this appears in print I will be -- my fingers freeze at the thought of typing the word -- a non-smoker. Someone who doesn't smoke. A smoke-free person. The guy who used to chain at his desk all day but doesn't anymore.
I'm quitting for two reasons. First, I woke up the other day and realized that I've been smoking, heavily, for 17 years. I've had a wonderful time doing it, but it's getting easier to visualize what happens at the end. Second, and more pressing, I can't take the carping anymore.
Last week, at a single political event in New Hampshire, two different people I'd never seen came up to me, pointed at my cigarette, and said, "Don't you know that's bad for you?" After 17 years, of course, I've got a stock response ("You've got to be kidding!" in deadpan mock horror) but I'm sick of using it. Just as I'm sick of being unable to eat in certain restaurants, of being accosted by security guards for lighting up at the baggage claim, of being thrown out of bars in California for violating the state's lunatic anti-smoking laws (only one bar, actually, but it was unpleasant). I no longer have the will to fight the battle. The dark forces of Health have won.
It used to be that anti-substance abuse propaganda only steeled my resolve to pollute myself. When I was in high school there was a much-aired public service ad that opened with two kids sitting on a playground. The older one produces a joint, lights it, and tries to pass it to the younger boy. "Come on, Bobby," he coos in the most sinister possible way, "take a hit." No, says Bobby resolutely, putting up his hand. "Only dopes do dope." The older kid looks disgusted. "I thought you were cool," he snorts.
The moral, I guess, was supposed to be that Bobby did the right thing in the face of peer pressure. The moral I took away from it was: Bobby is a dork.
The last time I quit smoking cigarettes, I did my best to empathize with Bobby. There's nothing cool about hurting your body, I told myself. About two months later, I had to face the horrible truth: The anti-tobacco people are lying. Smoking really is cool. And I'm less cool for not doing it. I might as well mount the StairMaster, start yapping about my tech stocks and cholesterol level, and otherwise join the Yuppie horde. Without Camels, there's not a lot separating me from your average commercial real estate guy with a BMW and a health club membership.
So I started again. Which was probably inevitable. The main problem with quitting is not the physical withdrawal. Even the most addicted smoker stops berating his loved ones after half a year or so. The problem is that unlike, say, a sex-change operation, becoming a non-smoker is reversible. You're always a convenience store away from relapse.
This time around I know I need moral support, someone to face the agony of dorkiness with me. I've turned to my brother, the one who used to do PR for Philip Morris. We're quitting together. My brother may be the only person I know who smokes more than I do. He chains through who-knows-how-many packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day, and he does it with the gusto of a starving man trying to suck a milk-shake through a straw. He loves cigarettes.
And he has an elaborate plan to stop smoking them. Like the New Yorker who goes camping and brings his portable generator, VCR, and pasta maker, my brother doesn't plan to rough it. He's already lined up an entire pharmacy's worth of chemical aids: nicogum, the patch, the nicotine inhaler, and some sort of pill -- "It's not an anti-depressant," he keeps telling me -- that is supposed to make you want cigarettes less. I'm just going with the gum, but I think we have a good shot at succeeding. With two of us quitting, we can keep each other honest.
On the other hand, it occurred to me recently, what if we don't? What if we collude and decide to jump off the wagon together? (We are brothers, after all.) I need something stronger to keep me from smoking, something to blackmail myself into abstinence. What I need, I've decided, is a slightly self-righteous public statement that my children could wave in my face if I ever started again. I'm counting on this to do the trick. My wife is posting it on the refrigerator.