Monday, August 30, 2010

About Cake, About Cigarettes

A recent Facebook thread rekindled one of my favorite meditations, thinking about the saying, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Dylan, in one of his more lascivious moods, used sexual innuendo to deflate the paradox inherent in this proverb, but other than Lay Lady Lay, the paradox remains. Cake as metaphor in this eternal truism contains a hidden wisdom about the difficult, usually no-win, choice we face between having and doing.

If you do eat the cake, you will not have the cake. But what good is cake, if it is not eaten. Once eaten, it’s gone. It can’t be eaten twice. The circle is complete and continues to spin.

If you unpack this concept you see that both possibilities while losses—you lose the cake, or you lose the purpose of cake—are worthwhile. Eating cake is more pleasurable—likely a better use of cake—than merely possessing the cake, but possessing it has undeniable advantages, such as the satisfaction of ownership and the certainty that cake will not be absent in your life. The saying is as much about the paradox as it is about your ability to appreciate cake no matter if you decide to eat it or to have it. By thinking about the cake, you can actually eliminate the circle and transcend the contradiction.

It’s almost a year since I quit smoking. I smoked for about 25 years, started in college. I went to Europe after school, and I remember quitting for about a day. That was the only time I ever bothered. I loved smoking cigarettes. I lit up within an hour of waking. I smoked every chance I could. Smoking was one of my favorite things to do.

I had a minor heart attack on September 26th. My last cigarette was in the emergency room parking lot of the hospital. I flicked the smoldering butt into the night, exhaling smoke as the glass doors slid open. As last cigarettes go, I consider this being a shoe-in for the Smoking Hall of Fame. Three days later, I was let out of the hospital, wearing a nicotine patch. Two new stents in the arteries, and for the bonus prize: I was informed I also had diabetes. Smoke again and you’ll be back here. Intensive Care is no musical comedy. I always said I would rather die than quit, but when that specific amendment hit the floor for an up or down vote, I underwent a complete policy reversal.

I miss smoking very much. I know all the downsides of the habit and quitting was the probably hardest thing I ever did. But let me just say, here and now, I will never be Anti-Smoking. Except for the potential health risks, it is a fantastic vice. Tobacco tastes great, it is fun to inhale and exhale, whether it be a puff or long drag. Besides the flavor, it reduces stress and anxiety and enhances memory and concentration. We are still kindred, fellow smokers. Quit if you want, quit if you have to, or spark up that cigarette, cigar or pipe. I support any of those decisions you make, my brethren. Self Righteousness is a sin, I hate hypocrisy, and I love freedom body and soul!

About a year may have passed, but I am and always will be, a smoker. I admit I am helpless to the cigarette: one is too many and two packs are not enough. It took at least three months before I felt nicotine free, about five until I realized that my breathing drastically improved.

How did I quit, you ask? I was on the patch for about two weeks, weaned myself off it, and switched to flavored tooth picks, the Australian Chewing Sticks you get in health food stores. I increased my exercise regimen and made a sweeping change in my diet—all recommended by my cardiologist. I actually lost weight. I hate clichés and refused to become the obese ex-smoker. Basically, I thought about cigarettes—about not smoking them mainly—every second of every waking hour for about three to four months. At night, I dreamt of smoking. After that period of time, basically you think of cigarettes about every minute not every second, and the dreams are more weekly than nightly.

It is tough. After the first two months, it gets slightly (slightly: micron by micron) less tougher every day. I’m not patting myself on my back, but truth be told, it is not as impossible as I thought it would be. However, much more often than not, the sailing is the opposite of smooth. You lurch from squall to storm. Like this one time, this couple waited behind me as I pushed crumpled bills into an uncooperative metrorocard machine. I heard their tongues click against the roofs of their mouths. I turned and shouted at the top of my now tar free lungs, “Like you never had trouble with these machines. I had to wait on line too just like you! Can’t you see this machine isn’t accepting the bills?” Their eyes widen with fear as they apologized. I probably remained a conversation topic for them the entire night. There were a few incidents like that. Let’s just say, I had some testy moments.

I still love the smell of cigarette smoke. I fully support smokers rights. Dammit, I swear I still think it looks sexy—damn sexy—when a woman lights up. I still love smoking as much as ever; yet I don’t smoke. What’s weird is that, while I (knock on wood) will never light up again, I’ve never actually felt like lighting up. Amazing the willpower a brush with death can inspire, and I think three days in the hospital, forced to be without a cigarette, paid off in massive dividends quitting wise. Hospitalization gave me a head start on smoking cessation. I have never felt tempted to have just one, or even a puff. I would never tempt fate of course and test my will power. It is a substance abuse issue; ex-addicts are still addicts. I accept that and live day by day.

I still have an unopened pack of parliaments in the apartment. I will bet anyone that they will remain unopened. Opening them and smoking just one has never crossed my mind, and yes I just paused to knock wood after typing that statement. I’m even knocking wood again. See, it seems like bad luck to throw out my last pack. It was the spare pack I always kept in the apartment, it was the one that was there when I went to the emergency room (the opened and unopened pack I had with me when I went to the hospital I threw out before I was discharged, to the applause of the wonderful nurses and staff on the ward). I would like to be buried with the pack, in my shirt pocket, which carried my dear deadly friends for so many years. Once I was home from the heart attack, I still craved cigarettes, but I lacked all urge to smoke. Cravings are a lot easier to combat than urges. Now, the cravings are weaker but the urges have never reappeared.

I can’t emphasize enough that while I have some pride in not smoking, I am still quitting. No matter how much time has passed since the hospital parking lot cigarette, quitting will always be a work in progress. I will be quitting for the rest of my life.

Nonetheless, the first few months, while difficult, were interesting. I am obsessively punctual, like Broadway Danny Rose (My favorite Woody Allen), I’m five minutes early to everything. With the smoking, I was like fifteen minutes early, because ever since the fascists took over America and banned smoking in all buildings other than your home, I had to give myself time to have a cigarette or two before anything. I would get to the appointment and not know what to do with this new free time. I would stand by a smoker and just inhale the whiffs. An inevitable bit of small talk often arose, and when I confessed I’m smelling your cigarette, that I just quit. They would apologize, hold the cigarette away. No, please, closer, I miss it so. I’m still early for just about everything, but instead of smoking before the appointment, I think about smoking before the appointment.

Thinking about smoking is not as good, or as interesting as smoking. But thinking—really missing—smoking has its merits. I have found that purposely avoiding something you enjoy can be almost as enjoyable as doing the thing you enjoy. Most smokers exclaim my breathing is better, no coughing, blah blah blah. I thought about the many positive things about smoking. I was still fond of the gestures, like putting my two fingers to my lips as I walked the familiar streets of my daily routine. Purposely not doing something is very close to the same experience as doing something. The action is different; but an action that is the negation of another action by definition encompasses the negated action. It’s why atheists spend the same amount of time thinking about God as do believers. You need to have that action in your mind in order to avoid it. Sometimes the avoidance makes you more aware of the action than the action itself, because most actions you don’t think about, you simply perform them. Who thinks about sex when they’re having sex?

Not smoking is as interesting as smoking because an enjoyment takes place within the same context as the cigarette. With enjoyment, you learn things about your self. Your self awareness expands. Isn’t knowledge one of life’s priorities? Why each of us have been put here on this earth?

To help each other. To make life as enjoyable as you can for the people you know. To develop and use what talents you have. And, to gain as much knowledge as you can.

Quitting smoking may have removed cigarettes from my external life, but the act of quitting kept them present in my internal life. Especially during the first few weeks, there was the constant thought, remember this cigarette, remember that cigarette. Accompanying the first cup of tea in the morning, after a meal, shooting the breeze with a smoker friend, standing outside my apartment and lighting up to start my trek to the PATH.

Besides the actual moment of each cigarette, smoking is also a series of pleasing gestures deeply implanted in the subconscious. I began to notice how I would hold the flavored toothpicks that acted as an oral substitute between my index and forefinger. Or that twirl of a cigarette when you hold the filter between your thumb and forefinger—your other fingers up in the air, some European smoking etiquette affectation—I mimicked that with pens, which I inessentiality gnawed the tops of. I need things to flick. You know what that is, it’s the thumb and forefinger again: the filter positioned into the niche formed between the thumb and forefinger, abruptly slide the forefinger up along the thumb, “flinging” the cigarette into the air. I can at least pretend the world was still my ash tray.

One thing worth learning is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. But learning this includes the subtle discovery that the benefits of having versus eating is only one piece of the wisdom. There is the object to contemplate. It’s about cake (or smoking).

The saying is usually meant to support either doing—the experience of eating cake; or the importance of pragmatism—possessing the cake, the saving for a rainy day philosophy. But what about the cake? Isn’t the subject of the saying not just which is morally superior, or in your strategic favor, but the wonder, beauty and glory of cake in your life?

I loved smoking. It may be a deadly habit but as vices go, it’s the gift that keeps on giving, it’s unsurpassed in the pleasure only a vice can give! The lethally delicious fumes in your lungs, exhaling the grey-white plume, the way you reflect, the way you never feel alone. Tobacco is great. The tragedy is that the tobacco companies spent so much energy denying the toxic side-effects of cigarettes instead of developing healthy smoking products. I will never ask anyone to put out their cigarette. In fact, loving cigarettes made it easier—well, a little easier—to quit. This love is not movie cliché love for a child or a captured wild animal: if you love her, let her go. Not smoking was just another side of the love of smoking, thus another of the seemingly infinite iterations of love. Love in all its forms always will be a source of fascination for me. The essence of desire is not so much about how you act on the object of your desire; it’s about the object that inspires desire. Which is another way to say the real truth, it’s really about desire.

Having cake, eating cake—no you can’t do both, but no matter what you choose, cake is still in your life. Thus it was with smoking. I’ve gained a new appreciation—a new love, if you will—for smoking by not smoking. Not smoking was very different from active participation in smoking but it still was related to smoking and the magnificent invention we call cigarettes. The gestures are still a part of my life, and the confidence that comes from my daily struggle with the cravings is another benefit. It is not so much about the choice, to smoke or not to smoke, to have cake or to eat cake, but that you have a choice to make. The choice matters less than your ability to appreciate whatever you apply the cake proverb to.

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