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Archive for October 27th, 2008

Burn Baby, Burn

If death and taxes are life’s two most prominent features then I’m probably skating on thin ice because I’ve been smoking cigarettes for my entire adult life. I can’t imagine how much I’ve paid in tobacco taxes. Ohio taxes a pack of cigarettes at $1.25 per pack, so at the very least, I’ve given $35+ to the state, per month, for the past eight years. Roughly speaking, that’s $3,360 in taxes over the course of my Ohio residency.

The fact is however, that I never looked at it from a cost perspective. I smoked because I liked doing it. Doing so is not unlike spending $200+ for a game-day ticket to OSU football, except that smoking costs less. Factor in all the junk food and OSU paraphernalia like t-shirts, jerseys, body paint and car-mounted flags and smoking cigarettes for a month is considerably less expensive than attending one OSU football game.

Earlier in the year when I stopped buying cigarettes I discovered that I felt really lonely without them. I’m not much of a social butterfly and the activities that I’ve grown to enjoy – reading and writing, have almost always been accomplished with a cigarette in hand. If I went out for a coffee somewhere, I could sit quietly and contemplate the world around me while enjoying a smoke. No one really thinks it odd to see someone sitting and smoking alone at a cafe.

“He must be taking a well-deserved break” or “he’s obviously thinking through some terrific new idea”. This is what I thought when I noticed others doing it. In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand refers to a lit cigarette as symbolizing a fire in the mind, the fire of creative ideas. Considering that Atlas Shrugged is said to be the basis of Alan Greenspan’s economic philosophy, who was I to argue with any of it?

The other activity I’ve always been fond of and precisely for the same reason, is bicycling. Its something that I can do most anywhere, and like the contemplation undertaken while smoking, I can contemplate the world while quietly moving through the space around me. When I lived in Utah I’d head out in the mornings for a day of riding through the canyons and higher elevation neighborhoods and when I returned home later in the day, I’d smoke a pack of cigarettes. Strangely ironic, but perhaps my success with integrating the two activities had something to do with the high-altitude training.

Smoking in Salt Lake City was an act of social rebellion. Paired with drinking – booze or coffee, it sent the non-verbal message that few dared to speak. For eleven of my fourteen years in Utah I lived in the golden glow of Angel Moroni. I had to move my bed to the other side of the room to avoid being kept awake from the spot lights that shined upon the center spire of the Temple. Maybe it was tit-for-tat, but those spotlights irritated me and having a smoke and a cup of coffee on my front stoop was social retribution.

When my social life turned to Finland I found no better place to sit alone and smoke than in Helsinki. Sober, the Finns have a difficult time being social so at most any cafe it was possible to sit for hours without saying a single word to anyone other than the clerk. With limited language skills at the onset, there couldn’t have been a better combination. When the social situation improved, things changed.

The Finns don’t smoke inside their homes, so a gathering always meant going outside to smoke. Even in the winter. Getting dressed to go out took the same amount of time as burning through one cigarette. While the tips of our cigarettes were on fire, our nose hairs were turning to ice. Still it seemed worth it.

In 1998 it was still permissible to smoke in Little Rock’s supermarkets. While I never went so far as doing that I marveled at the frail and wrinkled old women who tapped melons with one hand while holding a cigarette in the other.

When Columbus banned smoking in bars I vowed to stop going out for drinks. Smoking and drinking have been one in the same, like steak and potatoes, burgers and fries, and Jesus and the cross. Its a set. For awhile it was actually nice because I could buy a six pack for a lot less than drinking six at a bar and I had more money for cigarettes, but I was missing out on the social scene.

That was until I discovered that one of my favorite neighborhood bars was ignoring the ban. I popped in one night and discovered, through the thick blue haze, dozens of my neighbors tossing back drinks and enjoying cigarettes – at the same time!
“Linda?” I said as I fanned aside the smoke. “Is that you?”. I’d never seen Linda in a bar, and for that matter, anywhere without her husband in tow. But there she was, living it up. Drinking, smoking and laughing with everyone else. It was like the roaring ’20’s in there on any given night and I went back often. That bar had never been so much fun and the fact that we were getting away with something made it all the more exciting.

When the State cracked down I stopped going out again. Bars were getting old anyway and I was busy. I’d smoke on the way to work and on the way home or invite a friend or two over for a beer on the porch. And in the morning, it was coffee, cigarettes and reading the news on-line.

There was a natural order in things and my morning coffee and cigarettes were part of that natural order. During the night the Asian markets opened. Later the European markets opened and by the time I was awake, thanks to coffee and cigarettes, I was ready for a bowel movement prior to the opening of the US markets. They wouldn’t dare ring the bell until the counter-clock-wise rush of water made its way to the Scioto River.

When I started riding the bus to work in January I found that my smoking decreased. The stress of driving went away and while I occasionally lit up at the bus stop I couldn’t suck down two or three while on the way home. The important thing to remember was to smoke before making a transfer at Broad and High. Smoking there leads to being badgered by others for a cigarette, so before disembarking, the pack must remain out of sight at all times.

Limiting my driving offered a tremendous savings and when I tallied things up I discovered that I was spending five times more on cigarettes than I was on gasoline. The rate at which I smoked hadn’t changed but suddenly I felt ashamed of my gas-to-cigarette ratio.

When spring arrived I thought of planting tobacco after the garden had been tilled. Honestly, tobacco would have been the most cost-effective crop to plant and would have reduced my expenditures to such that I would have been able to pay off the car six months sooner. Publicly, I stated that I wanted to grow my own vegetables to lessen the amount that were trucked in. It was a way to reduce my carbon footprint – but secretly I wanted to grow tobacco so I could increase my carbon intake.

Soon enough I realized that it was time to stop. I was still bicycling – ten or twenty-mile rides still took place and I felt fine afterwords. To be able to do that twenty years from now seemed very unlikely and the vision I had of myself in twenty years looked more appealing in spandex than it did with an oxygen tank.

I didn’t finish the last pack of cigarettes that I had. I soaked the remainder of the pack in water and went out to buy some nicotine gum. It tasted better than I remembered – we used to have it on the plane at Finnair and it tasted like clay. I had to rearrange pieces of my life when I stopped smoking. The summer nights were the most difficult because it meant no more beer drinking on the front porch. It also meant limiting with whom I went out for coffee.

While the Nikkei and the FTSE opened on schedule certain parts of my anatomy did not despite my morning coffee. My bowels were tied in knots. The natural rhythm had been tampered with and consequently this was about the same time that the cracks in the banking system started. I won’t go so far as to say that there’s a correlation, but the timing is rather suspicious.

I wasn’t in a bad mood because I wasn’t smoking. The gum took care of that.  I was in a bad mood because I was bound up on the inside as if I’d eaten a block of cheddar. Something had to give – so I started smoking again. Within ten minutes I felt normal.

Eight days ago I decided, again, that I’d had enough. I soaked the remaining pack of cigarettes with water and went out to buy more gum. It’s getting colder and the desire for front-porch beer is over. The windows of the house are now closed up. The banking problems continue but the worst of it is probably over.

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