Monday, 1 December 2014

Habits Are Not Just For Monks

This week's theme is choices, or Whatever Floats Your Boat, and I'm going to jump right into dangerous waters here (did you see what I did there?), because this topic, oddly, is more likely to cause offence than any other. You may or may not be surprised to learn then, that in my opinion, the most controversial of these topics is smoking.

I'm choosing all my words very carefully because some of my dearest friends are smokers, and yet I know I will cause offence simply by addressing the topic. In fact the topic is not the topic, as you'll see.

So, I begin by tossing out the usual yada yada about it being bad for you. If you berate a smoker for his lifestyle choice (hold on, I'm coming back to that shortly) on the grounds that it's bad for him, you are most likely a fraud. Probably a reformed ex-smoker. Everyone knows it's not a healthy choice. But there are plenty of those. There are health risks that everyone indulges in on a regular basis, such as driving on highways, operating electrical appliances, and mixing with other human beings during winter.

No, you berate them for other reasons, so please, at least be honest about it.

I don't want my smoker friends to die prematurely either, but they may well outlive me because life is like that. The Gods throw the dice.

And if they should become sick due - absolutely, certainly, no question - to smoking, you will not hear me say anything stupid, because they are saying it to themselves, and it's of no consequence anyway. Life without risk is hardly life at all.

But to discuss it we must treat it simply as it is, because the fact is, there is no comparable habit. You'll hear smokers say "well, people eat bad food". This is not a comparison. People must eat. Their food choices can be deemed relatively good or bad, but it's 2014 folks......and experts with credentials up the wazoo are still arguing about ( = don't know) what is the best human diet. We have a rough idea, we think, but we could be way off. Maybe if we all lived on nothing but parsnips we'd all live to be 200 and have the energy of young lambs, but it's all trial and error. And I fucking hate parsnips.

It isn't food, it isn't nutrition, it isn't necessary. It's not something you take in because you couldn't afford or find the better option. It's separate. So forget that argument.

And it's not a lifestyle choice either, not for long anyway. It's an addiction. Once addicted, choices are very compromised. People try hard to quit smoking and go through hell as a result. That doesn't sound like much of a choice to me.

But plenty don't try to quit. Why? Because they love it. Despite everything, they love it. This is where it becomes absolutely none of my business. Right?

Why did I never start smoking myself? There were three reasons, pick the one most meaningful to you.

1) My father had died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 34. He was a heavy smoker and this was considered to have been a contributing factor. It may not have been at all, but that was ingrained in me as a child. I was a logical child, and so it had a profound effect.

2) I hated the stink. I am hyper sensitive to smells (and therefore tastes too), for some reason, more olfactory nerves maybe, who knows, and there are many smells (and tastes) that I find so unpleasant I cannot really put it into words. It's not allergic reactions, it's disgust reactions. My foodie friends find me a complete puzzle, but, for example, the smell of mint, so pleasant to most people, will have me leaving the room. Its close cousin, wintergreen, is almost nauseating, and my poor husband cannot treat his aches and pains with that stinky rub or I'd leave him.

3) Going back to the logical child (the Smiling Spock) the idea of burning something very expensive seemed like complete madness. Like most of my friends I had a small allowance each week, and it was carefully spent on records, nail polish, earrings, Melody Maker, and Mad. There was none spare for burning.

Another reason often guessed at by others but not quite accurate is lack of rebellion. Wrong on two counts, in fact. Many kids smoke to piss off their parents. I loved my mother very much, we were great friends, and I had zero desire to piss her off, but by hell yes, I was rebellious. I chose to rebel against (dramatic chord, dun dun DUN, and then a bit of echo please) The Establishment. Being a bad consumer, ignoring the tobacco industry and its all pervasive commercials of the time, and the cultural norms that went with it, was, in fact, a terrific rebellion. But let's be honest. I was not sophisticated enough as a teen to clue in to that. It was just a happy accident. All my early attempts to piss off The Establishment were done in other ways. We won't dwell on those, because I'm not quite sure what the British statute of limitations are.

When I got married, I was given several ashtrays as gifts, despite both of us being non-smokers (OK, Martin likes an annual cigar but I throw him out of the house anyway, so he can flick his ash in the flower bed) but at the time you see, that didn't matter. You were expected, as a social nicety, to provide facilities for visiting smokers.

I hated that with every fibre of my being. Both the expectation (remember the rebellion against cultural norms?) and the actual stink. My house would take 2-3 days to lose the stink. In winter this also required throwing windows open and freezing to death for the sake of my friends. Good thing I loved them.

It didn't take me long therefore to "accidentally" break said ashtrays and offer a saucer instead. I toyed with offering the cat's old water bowl, but I never actually did. Much as I loved my friends, the entire charade pissed me off. I didn't go into their homes, make them stink, AND expect them to provide me with cut glass facilities to do so. I used to fantasize about taking a dump in their bathrooms and not flushing. Or maybe even do it in the sink. But I'm just not that crass in actuality.

I couldn't retaliate with a gallon of perfume either, because it made me sneeze.

So, for the time I lived in England, I sucked it up. For the sake of friendship and peace. Looking back now, I often wonder why, but truly, some cultural norms are SO powerful that it's almost impossible to defy them, when you are the minority.

Arriving in Canada I had not only a new set of friends, so that ground rules could be set right at the start, but there was a different attitude here too. People didn't expect to be allowed to smoke in their friends' homes. Hallelujah.

But early on here, it was still OK to smoke in restaurants and bars. When that all changed, and I visited England - who banned it later - it came as such a shock. I had got got used to being able to eat out in comfort, with the enjoyment of my food not being harmed.

This reminds me actually of the situation when I was working in a bar. A customer brought me a full ashtray from his table and tore me up and down for neglecting him by not having emptied it. I could find no words that wouldn't have caused a fight (it was that kind of bar) so I said nothing, but I daresay my face was priceless. This reaction is not sensible. I happily washed their used glasses, after all. Well, maybe not happily, but without resentment. Yet there was something that niggled at me, about ME being blamed for THEM having to suffer the inconvenience of having a full ashtray of THEIR debris while they ate.

My boss, also a non-smoker, was not sympathetic. All part of the service, she said. And of course she was right. I wasn't there long.

Fast forward, and we now have the opposite situation to the one I grew up with. Now the smokers are the minority, and they get to go outside in a blizzard to smoke. This seems fair to me. I'm sure it doesn't to them, but most of them, bless their hearts, suck it up for the sake of the new cultural norms. They might grumble a bit but really, they are remarkably good about it. Not sure I would be.

WHAT? Well, you see, despite everything, I think that had I been a smoker, I'd probably not have been so nice. My attitude is usually take me as I am, or don't bother. I fear I may even have made utterly stupid arguments to defend myself, like saying "well, at least it doesn't do the harm alcohol does". I'm not sure, but I think I may have rebelled, I do tend to.

I'm really not sure, so I may be totally off here, but really the problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude towards the problem. (Did you see what I did there?) That is to say, it's one thing to choose a habit initially, pressured by peers or otherwise. It's another thing to be addicted. It's yet another thing to become a social paraiah for a habit that, when it began was as normal as wearing a hat, but it's quite another thing to get defensive about it. That is most definitely a choice.


  1. Mrs. Boxall gets extra points for writing "statute of limitations" as opposed to the common american misconception "statue of limitations"

  2. Oh they don't. Please tell me they don't. I've had to overlook so many written errors in friends' stuff today. I can't take any more.

  3. Oh, yes, they do...seen the statue thing many times. All I can add is that it is the same mindset when it comes to money...and there are those who have money to burn. Well done ~ Blessings! :)