The Audacity of Long Term Side Effects by Lee Shuer
Pop-Pop smoked a pipe. My Mom's Dad. The tobacco smelled so sweet in the worn leather pouch, his empty pipe stale and sour when I would try inhaling through it when it was empty. He used to blow smoke rings that I would shoot with my cap gun. The scent of lighter fluid. The click of his Zippo. Then one day, as we were driving to the Haverhill Country Club, I noticed that his ash tray was filled with hard candies. Butterscotch, cinnamon, peppermint, sesame. And tooth picks.
Packs of gum on the bookshelf in the front hall where there used to be matches.
All of these things I noticed and remembered before I was ten years old.
At 16 I stole a bag of menthol rolling tobacco (from a pharmacy), bought a corn cob pipe at a fair, and took some matches from my parents' collection. I began to smoke. Sort of.
When I got to college, age 18, my friend Nate would offer me a Marlboro every time he smoked one, and I was new and trying to fit in, so every time he smoked one, so did I. Social. Nice.
By 20 I had realized that my recurring bronchitis was triggered by cigarette smoke. One of the only cool things I did, and I was allergic to it! I switched to smoking a pipe. Somehow that's different. "No paper at least," I used to tell myself. "It's not as bad for me."
I smoked on the porch with a hot cup of black coffee looking at the snow. I smoked while driving, watching the landscape roll by, listening to Mazy Star. Smoking. I figured out just the right amount of space to open my window so that the smoke wouldn't go in my eyes.
I knew that smoking was "bad" for me, that my teeth were yellower since I smoked, and my lungs were probably blacker. But it just didn't matter. At the time when I was smoking the most, I was also planning on living the least. "I'll be burned-out and done by 28 like Jim," I thought. "I won't live long enough to die of long term side effects. Cancer. Emphysema. COPD. Luxuries of the optimistics. I would never suffer those consequences.
Turning 29 was huge, really big. All of my theories and morbid confidence in the number 28 shattered, and what was left was the rest of my life. A long life? Happy?
I don't like quitting stuff. I didn't particularly like or want to quit using tobacco. I enjoyed it. I loved my pipe. But the comments, "Oh, Lee you smell smoky (parents,)" "You can't smoke here (everyone,)" "I should stop (me.)"
So I quit. In 2007, at age 32, I took the American Lung Association's "Freedom from Smoking" Facilitator Training. Like any dedicated peer mentor, I tried the tools on myself before I dared to tout the effectiveness. Well, the program worked, and I stopped smoking.
I've been tobacco-free for 8 years now.
I did not, could not, would not quit smoking when I didn't have a life to lose. My worldview changed, my priorities evolved, and I was awash in a renewed sense of purpose. Quitting sent ripples across my life. Good ripples. Happy ripples. Healthy ripples.
This world is full of things I can't stop, can't control. Lots of things that really suck. Bad stuff. But there are some things that I do have control over, and one of them is what I choose to put into my body. For every choice, there's a consequence.
In the scientific study of ecology, it is widely recognized that whatever new variable you introduce into an environment, you will alter it for better or for worse.
Sometimes we don't know which for millions of years. Or more.
But what if the variable that is being introduced is tobacco, and the environment is my body? What if "planet me" is going to be orbiting Mr. Sun for many years, and I am the head of my own personal Environmental Protection Agency? Will I act on my own or will my constituents need to ply me with pork? As a flaming moderate, and with a vegetarian sensibility that will not be plied with pork, I quit. Because it was time.
Pop-Pop asked me when I was around 25, "When are you going to quit smoking your pipe?" I told him, somewhat sarcastically, "When my grandson comes home from school and tells me that it's bad for me." He didn't really have anything to say about it after that. And he didn't have to. My actions spoke louder than his words. But only barely louder than his silence.
Today, he's tobacco-free at 91, and still playing golf.
I'm tobacco-free at 40, still drive, still enjoy the snow, and finally smile with my mouth open, shining my pearly whites.