Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Heureusement, je fume"

Puiflijk, February 26—

 I QUIT SMOKING in 1968, after sixteen years of mostly pipe-smoking. It wasn't too hard, though I'd been a serious smoker, the equivalent of a pack a day. The pipe was a great pleasure, partly for all the accoutrements, partly for the physical pleasures of manipulating pipes, pouches, lighters, cleaning-spoons and the like, partky of course for the glorious taste and smell of the tobacco itself. Over the years I'd graduated from the cheap rustic satisfaction of the Grainger brand, rather a bland but edgy Pale Virginia leaf, to the deep rich 796B, blended to my own specification, with lots of Latakia, by the venerable Berkeley firm Druquer's, of fond memory.

In 1968 Anthony Boucher died. He was a magnificent man, a fine writer of mysteries ans fantasy, a specialist in pornography, canon law, and liqueurs which he used to study on annual cruises to Europe and back on the ols steamer lines. I knew him only slightly: he'd produced programs on opera and  mysteries for KPFA, where I was music director; and he joined John Rockwell and me on critics' panels there and, later, at KQED, where I helped produce another such weekly round-up, Culture Gulch. I'd admired him for years, and was saddened by his final months, and I'd visited him in hospital, where the shock of his greatly altered appearance, lessened and divested of his usual regality (amiable, though), revealed the ravages of lung cancer, making it much easier for me to quit smoking.

Other strategies helped. I took up a more serious attitde toward drinking. I enjoyed a subtler sense of taste. I promised myself I'd resume smoking, if I wan ed to, on my fiftieth birthday, which was only seventeen years off. Oh: and I was thinking of my wife and kids, whose life would be made more pleasant without ashtrays and smoke, not to mentiion the money saved. And I made a pact with my oldest daughter: if she stopped biting her nails, I would give up smoking.

So I did, cold turkey. Since then I've only smoked once, twenty years ago I think, an after-dinner cigar, a very good one I was promised, at the very soigné wedding of a couple of acquaintances, held at Francis Ford Coppola's estate, hardly a routine drop-in on our calendar. The cigar left me pale and queasy and I abandoned it halfway in.

Until last night, when Erik brought out a box of cigars after dinner, and Krijn tempted me to join them, telling an anecdote involving a tobacconist in Den Haag, who knew how to set broken merchandise aside for his own later delectation…

I thought of something I'd read in the airplane a couple of days ago, an appreciation of the pleasures of tobacco, la pipe, by Stéphane Mallarmé:

 Jetées les cigarettes avec toutes les joies enfantines de l'été dans le passé qu'illuminent les feuilles bleues de soleil, les mousselines et reprise ma grave pipe par un homme sérieux qui veut fumer longtemps sans se déranger, afin de mieux travailler…

And when Erik responded to my regretful demurral that an entire cigar would be far too much for me to attempt — really an excuse more than a demurral — by offering instead a miniature cigar, from P.G.C. Hajenius, in Amsterdam — and I reflected that after all the Dutch had been aficionados of and expert in tobacco for centuries — i gave in, held the tip of my cigarillo over the candle-flame a few moments, and drew in a half-mouthful of calming after-dinner solace, as my grandfather had done the last eighteen thousand evenings, give or take, of his long life.

I thought of my oboe teacher, if I may call a man I've visited only twice such an intimate, who'd advised me to smoke if I were to dry my mouth in order to play the thing more comfortably: aha: perhaps that's why Nelson, excellent horn player, had become such an adept of the pipe. I remembered how to roll the smoke around in my mouth, tonguing it as a dog noses sheep through the fold, and I practiced taking smaller amounts, so as neither to cough nor to inhale it into the lungs. 

It's more complicated than it looks, smoking — many seemingly automatic activities are, even the pleasurable ones. I recalled my beother, whose cigarette pack had yielded up a critically needed but if tinfoil at a moment when, stranded in an isolates village on an outer island in French Polynesia with a blown fuse on our rented motor-scooter, suddenly and surprisingly providing an inspired comment as I recounted the adventure to oue hotelkeeper:

Heureusement, je fume. Happily, I smoke.

Fortunately, I no longer do: but I'm glad to have been reminded of the pleasures…

1 comment:

Curtis Faville said...


I wouldn't have picked you for a smoker. You seem much too puritanical in your ruminations. Another illusion of language!

I grew up in a household occupied by two smokers, my mother and stepfather. Both smoked two packs of unfiltered Camels a day, or more.

My mother had begun as a young teenager, and loved it. In her 80th year, she told me over the phone that the doctor had cut her back to "only" 11 cigarettes a day, which she thought absolute torture. For this pleasure, she endured smoker's cough, yellow teeth, dry cracked lips, yellow-y eyes, and a distinctly unfeminine smell (she also hated to bathe, you get the idea).

My Stepfather smoked almost as an emotional expression. When angry, he smoked angry. When happy, he smoked happy. When intrigued or studying or reading, he smoked meditatively. He despised himself for this weakness, and pretended to try to quit several times, even trying a hypnotist once. Alas, he was a type A personality, and the obsessive type, so quitting anything that was habitual was extremely difficult for him. He never did, and died in an automobile accident at age 72. My mother lived to be 84.

Not surprisingly, as a child in the 1950's, I was threatened and warned relentlessly about smoking, and I never was tantalized. I could see how it ravaged their bodies, and whenever I brought friends over to the house, it was embarrassing: "Eww, what's that smell?!" The other boys in the neighborhood believed I was a sissy, but I thought hurting my body to make them accept me was a poor bargain.

It also kept me from experimenting with drugs in the 1960's.

Pipe-smoking has always looked appealing, but the cases of mouth cancer I saw in my youth scared me away from that. My real Father, John Calef, was briefly a smoker, later a pipe smoker in his youth. He gave them up with little difficulty.

I belonged to a single malt tasting group for a while, and occasionally was invited to share a cigar after sessions. I did only once--very curious sensation, as if there were a little bright glowing spark in the middle of my brain, and then a slightly nauseous sensation.

I guess I'm immune to the pleasures of smoke. After being away from my parents house for years, I was struck, returning by the heavy odor and penetrating presence of it. Now I find being around cigarette smoke very unpleasant, and will go out of my way to avoid it. It's one thing that puts me off when eating out in Europe, where they haven't caught up with us yet in this regard.

No problem with alcohol, though, as my blog attests. I drink some wine nearly every day. An cocktails at least three times a week.