Happy First Friday of 2012! Victorian Chick and Town and Country’s Nina Griscom on the Pleasures and Psychology of Smoking

Ed. Note: I rewrote this blog on August 27th, 2014. I am now a happy vaper who prefers e-cigarettes (specifically my Kangertech set-up with a Vision spinner battery and mini-pro tank) to real cigarettes. I probably smoke a pack a month when not charged, but I have essentially–and effortlessly–quit. I stand by all I wrote 2.5 years ago, however, re the ANTZ (Anti-Nicotine and Tobacco Zealots). 

Heading to LAX for New York

Heading to LAX for New York

I agree with every sentence of Nina Griscom’s defiant defense of smoking in the January Town and Country. While I switched from Marlboro Lights 100s to American Spirit Yellow (lights) after my summer trip to the city–becoming one of those insufferably pretentious American Spirit snobs I swore I never would–and I would rather clean a toilet than smoke a Marlboro Red (Griscom’s brand of choice), I too am an unrepentant late-in-life smoker.

I began to smoke, just two packs a week to start, in March of 2008 after a personal crisis which was in truth the beginning of my emergence from over a decade of depression. The preciptitaing events do not matter for the purpose of this blog, but this March, I will have been a smoker for four years. I was therefore delighted to read Griscom’s witty and tough take on an activity which is now in this country roughly equivalent to the recreational slaughter of kittens.

If Griscom thinks the Upper East Side is bad, she ought to visit Santa Barbara, Brentwood or Pacific Palisades. I often joke that were one to whip out a line in the middle of dinner, it would be less frowned upon than lighting up as one’s coffee and dessert arrived at the table.

Santa Barbara is full of  New Age or Woo Woo crunchy granola pot smokers and surfers, not to mention nosy parkers who call the County Planning office to report meaningless zoning violations. If my boyfriend lived in Houston–which I recently learned has no zoning at all–a large part of his business would disappear. Thankfully, he lives in the People’s Republic of Santa Barbara and his land use consulting business (Vanguard Planning) is doing just fine.

J and I went to the Deadmau5 concert a couple months ago. I asked several ushers why people were smoking pot, but not cigarettes, in the seats themselves. I also reported what a nice hispanic man with his little sister–both in their 20s–told me: “You can smoke weed but if you try to smoke a cigarette, they’ll fucking haul your ass to jail.” Something is wrong with this picture. They had no good answer.

As the girlfriend of a man with a lung cancer specialist/pulmonologist for a father and allergist and asthma specialistt for a mother, I’m not unaware of the perils of tobacco. I get it. It’s bad and I know that lung cancer is one of the most unpleasant ways to go. I realize, too, that it increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. But when an illegal substance like pot is more acceptable at a concert than a legal one like tobacco, we have clearly entered a kind of PC twilight zone.

In affluent areas of WLA, it’s less about a surfer, pot, or yoga mentality than class. My last boyfriend, a New Yorker in his mid-50s from one of the “big 5″ New England boarding schools, couldn’t believe I smoked and told me it was an activity for trailer trash chicks or attendees of monster truck rallies. He’s not wrong that smoking, except for a sliver of entertainment and finance professionals, is no longer an upper class pastime. In all my pre-college life at two elite WLA private schools, I knew only 2 parents who smoked. It just wasn’t done in West LA.

So I was all the more delighted to read about this Upper East Sider’s attachment to smoking. A former Ford model who attended boarding school in Switzerland at 12–where she began to smoke–and then Miss Porter’s (which gives you some sense the kind of life this woman has led), she has been a hardcore smoker for some 30 years. One agent even told her never to quit as her voice was “gravelly gold.” I don’t like that smoker’s voice as a rule, but if she just means a sexy, husky voice like Demi Moore, I understand.

March, 2012 in Georgetown outside nail salon. A gorgeous day for early March.

Griscom’s husband rarely lets her smoke indoors. If you live in LA, it’s not the end of the world to go outside to smoke. In the snow or driving rain, it’s a bit of a hassle. Hostesses who allow guests to smoke are few and far between but “even in friendly quarters, a request is generally followed by a theatrical display, as the hosts search for their lone ashtray, a relic from a bygone era.” Most of the time, she is “relegated to fire escapes, sent down to the street and given length lectures about [her] habit.” She notes that in the Herman Cain ad which caused such a fuss, she felt that Bob Schieffer was yelling at her!

Griscom is right: “You have to work to smoke cigarettes these days.” NYC banned smoking in the workplace in 2002. I remember occasionally having a social cigarette with Bob Watson, a junior medievalist at Yale. I loved Bob and wonder where he is now. His  Philosophical Chaucer, a tome on which he worked for years, seems never to have been published.

Bob’s wife Becky taught at Quinnipiac Law and they lived together in the top floor of Ezra Stiles, one of the two modern residential colleges at Yale along with Morse. Very ugly of course (as you would expect from 1960s architecture), but the inside of his apartment in the tower was lovely. At the 15th reunion in 2010, I couldn’t figure out why this one man looked so familiar.

It turns out we were in Bob’s Chaucer seminar in the fall of 1992. It was a formative experience which yielded a paper about the House of Fame, one of Chaucer’s early works, a narrative and semi-autobiographical poem (a kind of kunstlroman in prose). I won the John Hubbard Curtis prize for “Hard Materes: Poetry and Knowledge in the House of Fame,” but sadly this was a casualty of my 2006 local move in SB when the movers misunderstood my directions and chucked my Compaq Contura.

It was the only paper at Yale I submitted for an award because I wrote the What Maisie Knew and the Emily Dickinson/Cavell papers–sure winners as they more mature the Chaucer seminar paper–in the spring and thus too late to submit.  In 1993, I won 100 dollars with which I bought a dress I would die both to have–and fit into–now: a sleeveless periwinkle silk dress to midcalf with some 25 mother of pearl-like buttons from top to bottom. It was a whopping 175 and would not have been possible but for the 100 dollar prize.

Bob and I would smoke a Camel Ultra Light while discussing Chaucer’s early narrative poems in his WLH office. I was never happier. In the mid-1990s at UCSB, the late Frank McConnell, a beloved English professor at UCSB who did not take care of himself used to sneak cigarettes in his South Hall office in UCSB.

Leaving Yale for UCSB was beyond depressing of course, but architecturally it was pure hell.  UCSB circa 1996 bears almost no resemblance to UCSB circa 2012. While the ocean is gorgeous, the campus itself was ugly, nothing at all like beautiful UCLA. Going to UCLA from Yale would have been fine. Going to UCSB? Unthinkable on every level. Some of the new science buildings–where the money is of course–are nice and there is one nice, new humanities and social science building (HSSB), but other than that, one wonders how they found so many architects to build so many dull and ugly buildings.

South Hall–which English, philosophy, linguistics and Chicana studies called home– is among the ugliest buildilngs on campus. Having slept at the Psychiatric Health Facility twice in my life, let’s just say there’s far too great a resemblance between it and the loony bin for people with no money.

My only happy memory of South Hall was time spent with a great 18th-century scholar who had been at Yale before getting tenure at UCSB. I have no complaints about the caliber of professors at UCSB. My teachers did graduate work at Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, Yale, and Hopkins.  I mostly liked teaching and really enjoyed some of my students, but it was a grim experience overall. Though I didn’t smoke in graduate school, I always thought smoking in offices would make the place a bit more cheery.

Mom remembers when government offices and private law firms banned smoking. One of her best secretaries in a life of world-class ones was a chain smoker. That was during the 80s, but she says by the early 1990s it was pretty much verboten. I remember smoking sections in NYC restaurants in the late 1980s and early 1990s but not thereafter.

As of 2011, the city has banned smoking even on beaches or in public parks. I smoke in Central and Riverside Parks and no one bothers me, so I think that enforcement is lax.  I guess Mayor Bloomberg is happy to make New Yorkers pay 14 dollars a pack and look the other way when they smoke in the Park.

I agree with Griscom that smoking is a “seductive ritual”: “the allure of having a man light your cigarette, allowing a momentary flicker of sexual tension, even if he’s disgusted by the habit.” Griscom and I are clearly in a different tax brackets (she says she adores her “vintage crocodile cigarette case,” as well as her grandmother’s gold and sapphire beaded case), but my grandmother had a solid gold case which we haven’t yet appraised but it’s probably in the 5K range. Still, it’s not dotted with sapphires, and given my tendency to “go on hiatus” with my material posssessions, I should probably let it sit in the safe deposit box.

Grandma also had a pure gold holder, very Audrey Hepburn, and since I have just inherited a fur and velvet dress which my aunt found, I was thinking of making a pitch to Dad about the holder. Dad and I have domestic harmony the third of the month I live there because we have adopted a DADT policy about my smoking and if I ask him, it will just open up an undesirable can of worms.

Most of all, I agree with Griscom that smokers have an instant camaraderie because we are a stigmatized, dying breed: “Smokers tend to seek each other out like freak animals in the ark. Friendships are built on sidewalks. Odd conversations are struck up, usually beginning with a grumbling comment about being outside to smoke. I have found myself smoking next to a stranger, only to find out that I used to date his father.”

This week I wrote about smoking in a Facebook note while I was working on the Wharton piece for The Weekly Standard.  J took a picture of me working on my New Years blog in his office. On the desk were an American Spirit Yellow pack, wine, coffee and Perrier, prompting a friend to write, “Vic in heaven: ciggs, wine, coffee, Perrier, a computer and a dog and a cat nearby!”

Unlike Griscom, I am not a lifelong smoker. She has tried everything to quit and I have never even attempted to give it up. (I did smoke a bit socially in high school and college but it was extremely occasional.) I have never smoked more than a pack a day (maybe a pack and three cigarettes at the very worst) and since my switch, I am now between half and two-thirds of a pack daily. I made a carton (ten packs for those of you nonsmokers out there) last for 2 weeks in the city.

I can easily get through a flight to New York (including security) without a smoke. Sometimes I have my last smoke at 8 at night and don’t have my breakfast smoke till 8 in the morning. When I am deep in the throes of writing (like Griscom, smoking and writing are for me now inextricably linked), I sometimes go half a day without a smoke break. When I worked a 9 to 5 job at a book company in the spring of 2010, I got to work at 9 and usually didn’t go out to smoke at the 2 acre property in Hope Ranch until 12:30 when I took my one-hour paid lunch break. My bosses, an older couple with doctoral candidacies in economic history and classics from Berkeley in the late 1960s–hilarious given their far-right politics–so nothing prevented me going outside to smoke. But I rarely did.

All this suggests that smoking is not primarily about nicotine for me. Like Denis Leary,  I love to smoke, and for all the reasons Griscom specifies. Would quitting suck? Absolutely. But those hooked on nicotine chew gum or use the patch if they can’t smoke for eight hours. I just deal.

I love waking up in the morning and taking our lab out to go potty before my coffee and first smoke of the day as much as I love my bedtime smoke. I love smoking and driving with my favorite CDs blasting down the coast or on the freeway to LA. Drinking and smoking are of course very pleasurable and yes, after a swim, I do enjoy my smoke as a reward. Also, I get a kick out of smoking in the parking lot of SBAC and seeing which members are cool and which are not. And love an after dance smoke at Luigi on W. 68th.

On 48 W. 68th Street in December outside Luigi Jazz Dance for a post-class smoke.

On 48 W. 68th Street in December outside Luigi Jazz Dance for a post-class smoke.

I was smoking this week around 7:30 AM when Mom was getting ready to leave for work. She said that if she smoked, she would do so in the backyard by the pool so that no one would see her. Ha! In front of her own house bought in 1974. I told her it gives me a kick to smoke in the Palisades Village just to see who glares at me. Griscom, too, loves to flaunt her habit.

I do intend to quit but not just yet. I think I will experience an emotional dislocation because smoking ushered in my happiness (though things weren’t really better until Christmas 2009). I fear that not smoking will remind me of pre-2008 life. But I don’t think I will get fat. For one thing, I’ve never been heavier in my life! I’m a 4 to 6 rather than a 2 (except in tops where I am a 2/4) and in 2008 I was still 118 to 120.

My fear is far more epistemological than physiological or emotional, though for me the structuring of reality has always been intensely emotional. My first analysis revolved around my intellectual system and the way in which I needed to disentangle that from my father’s intellectual system. My breakdown after my first term at Yale during the 1990 Christmas break were fundamentally epistemological (which was why writing papers became so threatening).

So I do not underestimate the void I am likely to feel on the level of personal identity when I quit. I do not judge parents who smoke, but I wouldn’t smoke if I had a kid. I don’t have a kid and I’m not responsible for anyone but myself. I don’t have dependents; I am a dependent.

I will leave it there and wish all of you a wonderful first weekend of 2012!

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