Universe Part Four: Through The Looking-Glass Self

So, as I was saying earlier

It’s a little bit counterintuitive, this stop-smoking method of mine. Or, rather, it isn’t counterintuitive at all, but we’ve just learned to think really counterintuitively about smoking in the first place. Surrounded by dogma, we don’t see forests and we don’t see trees, we just hear stuff…and then we repeat it to one another. Cutting down doesn’t work; you gotta do it cold turkey or nothin’. Cigarettes are harder to quit than heroin. There’s no safe dosage for tobacco. Secondhand smoke kills.

It doesn’t quite add up to reality, even though it makes — on the surface — a nice consistent picture. Or even: makes a nice consistent picture out of a surface? Secondhand smoke can kill, but it doesn’t kill like a gun, it doesn’t kill like plutonium…there are actually some specifics involved, it isn’t just all about finding categories that click together with other categories in a way that satisfies one’s demogogic agenda, the confusion in play here matters. Matters, because it absolutely distorts the hell out of any sort of quitting-smoking process — until even the meaning of “quitting”, that seemingly so-straightforward word, becomes cloudily elusive when you get up close to it, nothing but a very fine mist when you are finally right in the middle of it. What are we talking about, when we invoke “quitting”, as a thing that’s harder to do with cigarettes than with heroin? It is, I hope obviously, not about how arduous it is to suffer withdrawal! I’ve quit smoking a hundred times, and never yet seen a crib-death baby on my ceiling…so I think we can assume it isn’t about the visceral. Therefore it must be about the statistical, but what kind of statistics are we talking about here? How long does it take, to be considered “quit”? What are the recidivism rates? What are the contributing factors? Well, for one thing — although it is, please note, not actually just one thing — to reacquire the smoke habit is significantly easier than reacquiring the smack habit, in that it requires no more effort than sharing a table with a group of people in a public place. But, really if we start listing contributing factors, even in just unpacking this one we may be here all day…so maybe we should start at the other end?

What isn’t a contributing factor?

You see, the assertion is hollow. As hollow as the notion that there is no safe dose of tobacco: because if the meaning of “quitting” is misty, the meaning of “smoking” is positively foggy. No safe dose for tobacco? And yet tobacco does not even come in “doses”, because tobacco itself is not a drug. No one smokes cigarettes or cigars, or a pipe, because they just can’t kick the tar habit, you know! There’s no such thing as a dose of tar! But at the same time if there were, we must figure there would be some dose of it that would be safe…or at least statistically insignificant as far as disease is concerned. A friend of mine was telling me recently about a new thing called “third-hand smoke”, stuff that gets onto your clothes as a non-smoker who is breathed on by smokers, that then gets to your skin and through your pores, and is bad for you. But now, we really are talking plutonium if we’re talking about that, aren’t we? And therefore something for which the concept of “safe dose” must be replaced with “safe distance“, the likelihood of escaping encounter with even a single atom of the stuff — of which, thankfully, there is a finite amount to reckon with even in hypothetical cases. Smoking — I should say, “smoking” — isn’t like that, though. It’s a complex substance, far from elemental…why, it isn’t even as “elemental” as heroin. Smoke, for want of a better word, is smoke the world ’round: cheap plant-based hydrocarbons, burnt and flung into the air. Microparticles.

We’re actually surrounded by them.

And they’re not good for you, but say this for them if you say nothing else: that they’re not particularly hard to quit. “Smoking and heroin”, that’s a verb and a noun, and therefore hard to compare sensibly…”tobacco and heroin”, and that’s not much more commensurate. What’s at issue is the nicotine, of course: how do you quit taking the bloody nicotine?

In truth, it’s all down to the method of administration. We say “smoking”, but there’s a big practical difference between burning the weed and sucking it into your lungs, and burning it and swirling it around your mouth…or not burning it and parking it between the cheek and the gum. Or, you know, baking with it. Who bakes with tobacco? Man, you can’t get high that way, let me tell you! Take a drag on a cigarette and the nicotine hits you mighty fast, the action and the hit are all but perfectly coincident…and the hit is large. Smoke a whole cigarette in (intermittent!) puffs over five minutes or so and the hit is profound…a gram of tobacco burned, maybe a good three-quarters of it or more turned to blissful gratification. Because nicotine, like any drug, isn’t cognitively-neutral; nicotine smashes into the circuitry of the brain like a freight train, and it does something to it. The subjective apprehension of time is stretched, briefly twisted like Silly Putty before the charge clears the system in the tearing hurry that it does: so if you want to know what nicotine does, that’s what it does. I use it while writing, to stay on a thought, stay on a line…in fact I’m using it now, you think I could do this spattery coalescence of tangential thoughts without nicotine, at three thousand words a post or whatever it is? THINK AGAIN…but there are more everyday uses for it too. Many of us smoke on the phone, a great many of us smoke at one in the morning at the party just when everything starts to fall into the groove. Because we smoke to stretch the moment. Physically addictive, sure: it is. But how much traction can addiction hope to gain without benefit? Even for heroin, this principle applies…though not, it must be said, for plutonium…and so it’s also the way you take the drug, that forms part of the addiction. Cigarettes are fast; cigars are slower; chewing tobacco’s slower still. The vast majority of smokers moderate their own smoking by playing tough with chunks of five, ten, twenty, forty minutes. This is around about the dose-clock of a pack-a-day smoker. But for a chaw-type addict the delivery’s different.

And it’s no good pretending it isn’t. Nico-gum gives what I presume is a chewing-tobacco-like boost, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the boost is less, too…as all these boosts are less, just like it tells you on the label. The nico-inhalers, they deliver less as well, practically boast about doing so…and as for the patch…

Let me tell you something about the patch. I tried it a couple years ago, but got hold of a much stronger dose than I needed. The way this works is that it isn’t any more graduated a step-down system than you yourself make it, it is just three levels and you have to jump down to each on your own. High dose, medium dose, low dose. A dumb system? Yep, it sure is…

…But for me, going on the high dose when I didn’t really need it worked wonders. My body super-saturated with nicotine, I quickly forgot there was even such a thing as smoking cigarettes…and the high hit me so hard that after I’d forgotten that for five minutes, time stretched out so much it felt I’d never known it in the first place. Thirty-six hours later, I tore the patch from my arm and flung it into the garbage…three hours after that, I found myself at the drugstore trying to answer shockingly pointless questions from the pharmacist, one of which was “how long have you been on this patch?”

To which I replied: “I don’t know, about a week? Ten days, maybe?”

Which is quite an amazing mistake to make, right?

But anyway: as well as it worked, I had to get rid of it after thirty-six hours because I started to suffer serious O.D.-like symptoms. The patch was too strong for me! So I tried to step down from it, but even on the weakest dose it only took four hours, this time, for the O.D. stuff to kick in again. So I just gave up on it, filed the remaining patches away somewhere.

And I tell you all this, because I tried the patch again just the other day, figuring that after a couple years, and back up to the pack-a-day thing, I owed it to myself to go for a non-O.D. type of run at the problem — reasoning that the efficacy of the replacement therapy might be less, but then the overdose wouldn’t happen so at least I could keep wearing it. Worth a try. So on went the patch, then ten minutes later the tingling started, then ten minutes after that I started to trip. So far so good. But then…

I had to get rid of this patch too! After about four hours. Because I got the overdose again.

So, what was going on? What had happened? The patch was too strong for me, but how could it be? When it says right on the label that it delivers less nicotine to my body than smoking my usual pack a day…

But of course that’s a fudge, isn’t it?

Because here’s my contention: that if the government were to set some maximum allowable daily dose figure on nicotine (which is something, I confidently predict, that they will never do), the amount of nicotine you can absorb out of a smoking habit would go way past it. But what can they do, it’s just a LEAF! They can’t regulate the amount of nicotine in a leaf, and they already permit the sale of tobacco, and so there’s nothing much they can do about a situation like that (although this may help to explain why the government didn’t do much of its usual hemming and hawing with respect to tobacco companies’ right to sell toxic shit, when it came to them adding nicotine to the leaf)…and so posting some notice about how much nicotine it’s safe to have is something they pretty well can’t do either. BUT. If you’re making some sort of a stop-smoking aid that delivers nicotine to the system in a less natural way, one thing you can be sure of is that you are not going to be allowed to match the levels of nicotine available from tobacco! And that’s why all those products boast loudly about having less of the good stuff in them, than you’d get from a smoking habit. Because it isn’t us they’re boasting to about that…

And anyway it’s still a fudge. Wherein lies, at last at last, the beginnings of my theory about what a good way to quit smoking would be…because though the patch may deliver only about half the amount of nicotine to my bloodstream over a day as my smoking habit would, my smoking habit doesn’t involve a constant drip of nicotine into my tissues. To tolerate that kind of chemical assault really takes decades of acclimation: one pull off a cigarette instantly renders a sharp spike of nicotine, but it is also a short spike, and so one’s intake is very finely controllable in a way the patch cannot be. In one second, in one long drag, the sharp peak of a craving can be smoothed and blunted, as by a million years of erosion…in one more it can be annihilated, shorn clean off as by a million pounds of TNT. And after that, what you do about smoking is pretty much your business. Because in fact every smoker does plenty of things to brake their intake of this drug over the course of a day, it is not really about “keeping the levels up” once the craving’s been smashed if one really thinks about it…few people experience cravings for tobacco while taking a shower, as is borne out (I believe) by the fact that even fewer people feel the need to charge up before stepping into the shower in order to time their tobacco consumption out properly so they don’t get the shakes! And so here’s where the stop-smoking method really finds its root: in the voluntary (if unconscious) braking of the urge to get more, that smokers already apply several times a day. For myself, for example, I only very rarely feel the compulsion to light up when I’m outdoors, now that I’m an adult. In fact I can go quite a long time out there, without the thought of smoking even crossing my mind! Though it is not quite as blanked-out as it was in my first experience with the patch, it is more than manageable, it is actually easy. Oh, and here’s a thing about that patch, again…

…This time around, it didn’t even work!

You see, I had thought the super-efficacy of the first patch was linked to the overdose symptoms I experienced, but it turns out that isn’t so — since I got the exact same symptoms from the patch’s regular efficacy on the second time around. And yet, still experienced cravings! So maybe there is even more specific detail to the business of nicotine than we have yet got to — outside the method of administration, what kind of drug is nicotine? It’s possible, at least conceivable, that it’s a drug that operates a lot like anaesthetic drugs: a shade too little and the patient doesn’t fall unconscious, a shade too much and they’re dead. Trickily liminal sweet spots, in other words: the reason anaesthesiologists have to stay in school twice as long as anybody else, and possibly even the reason that smokers do exercise such fine control over their intake of nicotine. A big hit, it sure is…but it clears the system so quickly that you don’t satisfy your addiction so much as you drive the thing, like a high-powered sports car. Hand on the stick, braking with the clutch: that does the job. But the constant drip-drip-dripping of the stuff into your system, no…that doesn’t work too well. You get too much to stand, and simultaneously not enough to work, and so the whole thing comes up short after just a few hours of steady absorption. As a recreational drug, the patch is actually pretty interesting — who couldn’t use a bit of stretched time, to apply to the sight of a tree silhouetted against the evening sky? — but as a replacement therapy it sucks. And so, hmm, are any of the other stop-smoking aids much better? The gum, perhaps effective for those who chew tobacco, is obviously a terrible mismatch for smoking: much as the patch, you have to start chewing the gum before you get the cravings if you want to head them off, and if you try to speed that process up by chewing more aggressively you get a headache for your pains — once again in overdose-land. Because the margin, apparently, is just that slim! So maybe the puffer is a better solution? Hey, it may be, I don’t know…I didn’t try it because even though in Canada it is now priced competitively with tobacco (only because of tobacco’s 900% tax mark-up, natch), it’s a massively more serious piece of hardware: forget a bunch of cut-up leaves being crammed into a paper tube, this is an atomizer than runs off a little ampoule of concentrated nico-juice the same way a nuclear reactor runs off uranium, what we’re talking about here after you’ve used it all up is basically medical waste…and I couldn’t try it, because I couldn’t bring myself to throw it into the landfill when I was done with it. Like: I can’t say for sure, but I think if you took the ampoule’s contents and splashed them on your skin you’d want to call 911 in a bit of a rush!

…And so it appears the major problem with tobacco is simply that it’s the cleanest and safest and least environmentally-damaging and CHEAPEST way to get the stuff into your body, and its method of administration is the most user-friendly as well…all while it delivers a bang so tremendous that no one is allowed to simulate it in an artificial delivery-system, as well as associated benefits that no one has yet been able to match. In other words: as a way to wean yourself off tobacco, the best replacement-therapy may well be…

Tobacco itself, which brings us back to the “cutting down doesn’t work, you have to go cold turkey” thing. Except that cutting down does work; so much so that even the makers of the relatively-ineffectual puffers and patches and nico-gums can legitimately claim in their marketing materials that their stuff makes quitting smoking twice as easy versus going cold turkey. So: only half as hard as it is to quit something that’s harder to quit than heroin?

Categories. Well, you knew I’d get back around to them, and here I am. Just made-up things, so time-sensitive in their believability, and yet we do cling to ’em…we cling for so long, we forget they’re supposed to deliver a benefit too. Take smoking for example. You know what the really funny thing about it is?

There’s no sympathy for it.

Not even from the smokers. Because alone out of all the legal and illegal drugs people take, it’s the one no one ever blames society for. Smokers don’t blame society, but themselves; why there isn’t even enough rage available there to justify criminal behaviour! Someone who uses heroin, cocaine, even alcohol, they might do things to feed their habit that requires blaming society as a justification…but no smoker knocks over a gas station just to get money for one more carton, just one more carton please God, you know I’ve had such a hard life… It doesn’t happen, that’s all. No one feels they are owed anything for not being able to quit smoking. No one medicalizes a nicotine addiction, and no one socializes a nicotine addiction: these things, in our society, for whatever reason, are taboo. So the ethical implications of the practice of smoking do not touch anyone but the smoker, in a cultural construction we might easily identify as sinfulness, rather than addiction; just as the administration and the hit are closely conjoined in the act of smoking, so too are the characterizations of self-harm and social harm conjoined in its practice, until it becomes an act that despoils the commons — an act of selfishness, that cannot be made up for. Thus the pressure to quit is immense; the respect for having tried and failed is nonexistent; and “giving up” is an option that delivers no relief, only the necessity of acceding to a negative social judgement you don’t have the power to change anymore. Even now, it may be that anyone who’s managed to read this far is feeling some hackles bristle at the idea that I am complaining about it all, trying to justify it all. But no: I wouldn’t dare, you see. And more to the point, I simply don’t feel as though I can blame anyone or anything for this bad habit of mine. Heck, I don’t even feel like I can give it up to my Higher Power. It’s just all my fault. I try everything, and nothing works, and there’s the smug guy at the bar again telling me that the only way to quit is cold turkey. But I’ve tried that too, and I can’t do it either.

So where does that leave me?

Well, on a curious road, perhaps; looking at the categories of the nice shiny surface, the superficial consistency of them all, and wondering if it wasn’t the superficiality that made the consistency, rather than the other way around. Here you go, if I’m personally trying to quit smoking or not at this moment or any other then it’s just my business, since there is no one else whose feet I can lay it at, and no one else I can look to for ideas about it…and so that’s no longer what I’m thinking about when I think about this stuff. I’m off on my own with that, and you don’t need to follow me. But as far as the systems analysis goes, I think that is, or at any rate should be, of some wider public interest. Many an attempt to change things for the better is hamstrung at the beginning by a sort of casual confusion…these things are like these other things they’re not like, these complicated things are simple, these approximations are exact and require no updating, these pieces of evidence for competing views are inadmissible because they go against orthodoxy…especially if it’s an orthodoxy we don’t care very much about for any other reason but our own cognitive convenience. Because essentially, we don’t care if changing social attitudes toward smoking have changed what it means to quit, too…if it isn’t our problem, we are comfortable leaving the ethical questions about it to somebody else. And ignore the fact that this wasn’t always how it was: when my father and his friends all quit smoking in the Sixties, they did not all find it more difficult than quitting heroin, they found it fairly easy to do by that comparison…and so what are we to believe, that the general availability of willpower was higher in the past than it is now? No, it seems far more likely to me that the subject was simply less socially fraught…in part (I am convinced) because real incomes were higher then and so it was much less necessary to use all the willpower you’ve got just to deal with how it looks like you’ll never get ahead — hey, never underestimate the power of success, even the illusion of success, to help you stretch moments and hang onto them, own them and inhabit them! — but also in part because the decision to quit smoking at that time was no more than a decision. Not a test of citizenship or moral fibre, not an ethical obligation owed to others more than to oneself, not a seperation of the wheat from the chaff, the elect from the damned, the anointed from the untouchable…the victors from the vanquished. Well, but it’s a funny old world we live in, really: every aspect of our social lives is shot through with power relations, yet with every year that passes we trim our laws and our governments and our practices so as to blunt the unrestrained exercise of power. And we can pat ourselves on the back for it, I certainly think we do deserve to pat ourselves on the back for it, but that doesn’t mean the power relations don’t still seek a level. This is not the ancien regime of France where the meeting of two social equals was a logical impossibility, nor even the world of my father’s youth where it cost practically the whole earth to have, and keep, your own head in personal matters. But the will to power and the will to punish are still out there, just dressed in slightly different disguises, and they still rely on what they’ve always relied on:

Category mistakes. Sloppy thinking. Bad histories, that leads to bad definitions…or, possibly, it’s the other way ’round: since the ultimate barrier to all explanations is the existence of facts, and discovery is where all narrative founders.

And mind you, this is all just a probably-too-long example…a case-study of something no one really sees as a case and no one really wants to study…because no one really wants to care about it…

But finally, in any case, here is how I think one should go about the process of quitting smoking, in a nice neat bullet-pointed list:

1. SMOKE WHEN YOU WANT TO. Take advantage of your already-existing power to brake your smoke-intake, and use it to defer and delay the practice of taking that shit into your lungs. Don’t think of it as quitting, think of it as not always smoking. Because you already don’t always smoke, and you already choose when you’re going to light up and when you’re not…you already choose when you’re going to stub out and when you’re not, too. There’s a big part of this that’s compulsive, but there’s also a much bigger part than you’ve been told, that isn’t. So start with smoking when you want to; and when you don’t want to, don’t. That is something you know you can do, because it’s something you’re already doing. Just do it more consciously. Just do it when you want to.

2. SMOKE INDOORS. The last thing anyone who’s trying to quit needs is more fucking triggers, so resist having to make new activity/environment couplings. Because I smoke indoors, when I go outside I don’t feel compelled to light up because some part of my brain is whispering “this is your opportunity, you’d better take advantage of it”…and so whenever I want to avoid smoking all I have to do is go outside, and the temptation is eased, while at the same time I find that there is no craving I experience that is so intense it will keep me from going outside. So this is a good trick, I’m telling you: decoupling triggers where you find them. Smoking bans in Canada and elsewhere actually act to reinforce triggers, in my humble opinion, by making you want to be somewhere else so you can smoke — by keeping you in motion, keeping you going out through doors, keeping you from sitting down or relaxing. The idea, one supposes, is that eventually you’ll get tired of doing it…and, well, you do get tired of doing it, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll stop. Often it just means your whole life gets more effortful, and makes you want to smoke more because you come to feel you deserve a bigger break from all the bullshit. Because there’s a name for aversion therapy that isn’t carefully-conceived and carefully-controlled, and that name is punishment…and in uncontrolled circumstances the one who is punished often grows to think themselves unworthy of not being punished. SO THIS DOESN’T HELP. Compulsively chasing things all the damn time never helps, if what you want is to quit them. So find a place you can smoke without the anxiety that comes from punishment. Call it “recovery space” if you like, even if the world would say it doesn’t count as recovery space if it’s a place to practice the undesired behaviour. Nevertheless, it helps to have it.

3. REALIZE THAT STOP-SMOKING AIDS AREN’T WHAT THEY APPEAR TO BE. They’re not effective replacement-therapies, for the very simple reason that they are not designed to be effective replacement-therapies. They’re not effective at quelling cravings, because the cravings stem from the addiction, and the addiction is not just dose-specific but administration-specific…the method of administration, in a manner of speaking, IS the addiction. So no matter what it says on the side of the box, that doesn’t matter, that’s just advertising copy, and you’ve got to use these things for what they actually are, instead of what they say they are…and if you do that you may find some real use to them. The gum may be useful to you for “breakthrough pain” (if I may borrow that term) even if it does give you a headache…the patch may forestall cravings for an hour or two, or three or four, where you are not inclined to put these off yourself. All these are, are tools; and not every tool is right for every job. Nobody knows anything about how these things work but the people who use them, it’s like Pokemon, or Beyblade, or Yu-Gi-Oh or something…and I think it’s fair to rely on that, that only for the users is it anything more than an abstraction, a puzzle, a gimmick, a toy. You are probably not expected to exert any expertise or agency in your stop-smoking effort, you are probably just supposed to suffer like they tell you to…but my own feeling is that the exercise of control is at least as helpful as having ministering angels swoop in to solve your problems with Science, so long as you just follow the instructions. So don’t worry, Mokuba; we’ll get off this island somehow…

4. START WITH THE EASY STUFF. And save the hard stuff for later. Is this basic? It isn’t, but I think it oughtta be. If you couple smoking with an activity that smoking makes easier, whether that’s writing or having fun at parties, you should recognize that you’ll be better off saving your effort for erasing that most-ingrained link ’til LAST. Me, I sit down with pen and paper and the smokes come right out; that’s the most serious part of my habit, the part that’s scariest to think about quitting. I need to modulate my attention and my mood this way, I have gotten so damn good at it I’m not sure I even remember how I used to get along without that skill. So the last thing I’m going to do is start with getting rid of it…! You have to build up to these things, you can’t just go all-in willy-nilly with a crap hand. Similarly, I am not going to make myself go to a party and be all pissed-off about not being able to smoke around all my usual triggers, just so when I finally get a head of steam on I’m going to cave in anyway and then feel bad about it later. That’s just masochistic. That’s a really unfair expectation. I’ll get to that, you know? But this isn’t a goddamn contest, I don’t fail just because I refuse to enter a rigged game. This is just more weird social pressure: first, fight the biggest guy! Then fight all the smaller ones. It’s a set-up, and it’s meant to make you blow it and get discouraged…

5. DON’T HIDE YOUR SMOKING. Because it’s shameful, right? It’s a shameful thing, to try and fail. Everybody looks at you and sees “FAIL” written all over your face. But this is fabulously counter-productive, to put such moral pressure and irony-flavoured comeuppances on yourself, and worse even than that it manufactures new triggering environments. A friend of mine used to say “the guilt over not going to the gym, is what keeps you from going to the gym”, and she was dead-on right about it: the prospect of the moral consequences of failing feeds back into the tendency to say “fuck it”…fuck you, and fuck me, and fuck the whole stupid situation! But this bright and positive rebellious act soon turns to poor self-regard and creeping nihilism…and more of the same barriers, put in place by the social environment in the false guise of encouragement, that actually makes it more difficult for you to simply do things, that you wish to do. When “doing things” is actually easy, if the truth be known…but it’s the one truth that (in my experience) no one will ever tell you. So this is a test, it’s a gag, it’s a game; and you shouldn’t play. If there is someone you choose not to smoke around, being around that person will make you want to get moving so you can smoke again…and thus limiting yourself from encountering that person can start to equate to freedom. But a little farther down this road and all “freedom” means is agoraphobia, the freedom to stay inside and never go out. It’s worth facing a curled lip or coercive look of disappointment, to avoid that outcome. If that shit was going to work, it would have. But if it didn’t work, then now it’s only making it worse. If you’re going to avoid seeing someone, it’s much better to do it because they’re being a dick, than because you don’t want to feel like a dick. And in much the same vein…

6. TREAT HAVING CUT DOWN AS A WORTHY GOAL IN ITSELF. As I said, if you live in a city you are walking through a sea of airborne particulates anyway, every day, and most all of them are pretty harmful. So being “either quit or not” is another cold-turkey all-in-with-the-worst-hand sort of power-seeking definition; if you’re having a cigarette a day, that is probably a good enough thing for you to be happy with if you want, because now you’re massively more likely to get sick and die from the fucking diesel fumes than from the smokes. And anyway there are lots of ways to die. You know what the world’s number one killer is? STAIRS. So yes, smoking’s not good for you, it’s a bad habit and all that…yes, yes, yes, fine fine fine, we all know that. But the presumption of its so-extreme voluntariness is the only thing that makes it such a target for the danger-hounds, and that’s the same thing that makes cutting down so much you could quit, and yet still refusing to, look like an act of vile perversity. This whole “you could quit” thing is really so demeaning, isn’t it? It’s tougher to quit than heroin, and yet you should just get off your ass about it, is that the presumption there? On Star Trek, Captain Kirk makes computers blow up by saying shit like that to them, so what’s with the smug guy at the bar? Well, I’ll tell you what’s up with him: he’s a bullshitter. I use that in the now-technical sense of a person who is unlike a liar in their indifference to truth-vales, you know? “I quit cold turkey, why can’t you?” But you do not know he did that; he’s just saying he did that. He might never have smoked at all; he might be a smoker still, just hiding it. It might be passive-aggressiveness you’re seeing there. It might be the looking-glass self of sociology, the way we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of others: feeling worse when the reflection is ugly, better when it’s good. There are ways to make this work for you without being passive-aggressive, I should remember to say: I often advised depressed friends of mine to invite someone over for coffee and be seen to be chopping up vegetables next to a stock-pot when they arrive. Because they don’t need to know that as soon as they’re gone you’ll just dump all the chopped vegetables into the garbage and go out for a slice of greasy pizza, you know? In their eyes, for that moment, you’re an on-top-of-things person who eats really healthy and doesn’t waste your money on a dissolute diet…and who knows, maybe one day you’ll figure “I chopped all these vegetables, I guess I might as well make the damn soup.” Similarly, although you should only do this if you’re feeling really bad, you can walk around your shopping district with a couple of carefully-prepared bags — stop to chat with people you know for a moment, and then gaily declare “well, I’ve gotta get these things home and in the fridge!” And they don’t need to know it’s just a couple of old sweaters with some carrots and a quart of milk sitting on top. And yet you may get some shopping done after all, but the important thing to remember here is that many people use the looking-glass self to make themselves feel better by making you feel worse…and there’s no reason to put up with that. Smoke your one or two cigarettes a day happily; smoke ’em joyfully. Heck, if you’re a guy like me you can smoke ten joyfully, you know? Because what you do for yourself that’s good, is good; though the bullshitter at the bar may claim you’re half-assing it, if he’s whole-assing it you’ve still cut your consumption of toxic sludge by 50%. If the bar for “what’s good” is set so high that 50% harm reductions can’t get over it, might as well be 0% reductions, then what this standard is really trying to enforce is you never quitting, to make someone else look good. And finally, because it seems to be a convention that all such lists as this one need seven things on them…

7. INVESTIGATE HOLISTIC CAUSES. You’ll notice I did not say to investigate holistic treatments, I hope? I have very little faith in treatments, as I hope is obvious by this point: the reductionist ones are all muddled, and the holistic ones probably aren’t even muddled. But the causes of smoking, that’s another thing entirely. Are there such things as “reductionist causes” and “holistic causes”? Well, actually there are

…They’re just on the other side of the looking-glass!

One level further up the Universe, from where we are now.

Just let me put this out first…

17 responses to “Universe Part Four: Through The Looking-Glass Self

  1. Ever read Bellwether? Connie Willis? Very pleasant little book, lot of stuff in there to enjoy. Including about smoking and its current taboo nature, which is why I mention it.

    Smoking. I never smoked. Decided when I was little that I never would, and stuck to that. Preadolescent Matthew E got to make a lot of decisions for grown-up Matthew E like that. My family, on the other hand…

    My father smoked. Not sure how he got started; probably just regular peer pressure. He’s quit since. His workplace went smoke-free in the ’90s, see, and he figured, “Well, I sleep about seven hours a day, and I’m not smoking then. And I’m at work for about eight or nine hours a day, and I’m not smoking then. And then there’s all the times when I’m in the shower or something… It’s not worth smoking for just the small amount of time I’ve got left to do it in.” And he quit. I don’t think it was easy, but it was easier than it was for my mother.

    The dangerous time for picking up smoking is the teen years, right? I think I heard that somewhere. Both my brother and mother, though, got through their teens basically smoke-free, and then a) my brother picked it up at this one summer job he had, where his coworkers kept offering him cigarettes until finally he accepted, and b)…

    My mother, in her early 20s, went on a trip around the world with a friend. They went by ship because she won’t fly. She crossed the Atlantic as a passenger on a freighter. They were mostly across when one of the sailors came up to her and her friend, and said, “I’ve got this crate of cigarettes I bought, but I can’t afford to take it through customs. I don’t want to just throw it overboard. Would you help me smoke it?” So they did. And she was hooked.

    I don’t get it. It’s not like they didn’t know they shouldn’t do it!

    I think that’s the real thing about smoking. It’s not that people think it should be so easy for you to quit; it’s that people think it should have been so easy for you not to start in the first place. Isn’t it? Does anyone like their first ever cigarette? I mean, I wouldn’t know, but I’ve heard that it’s not a pleasant experience. So why would you try another?

    My parents used to smoke Rothmans. That wasn’t too bad. But sometimes they’d take it into their heads to get a carton of More cigarettes. Do you know those? Long brown smelly melonfarmers. My brother and sister and I used to plead with my parents. “If you have to smoke, could you please just smoke the regular ones? These ones smell really bad!” But they never listened.

    My mother eventually did quit. She had to try I don’t know how many times, and it was super hard for her, but she did. She hasn’t had a cigarette for years but I think she still misses them.

    Would one way of quitting be just to go somewhere where there aren’t any cigarettes, and you can’t get out of it? Like if you were to sail your own boat across the Pacific, or something, so that by the time you finally arrived on the other side, you’d have kicked it.

    Smoking and cigarettes. What is there?
    Thank You for Smoking, Christopher Buckley
    – Bob Newhart’s monologue with Sir Walter Raleigh calling home from the New World
    Stormy Weather, Carl Hiaasen
    – the movie Cat’s Eye
    Smoke, Donald Westlake
    – Denis Leary’s album No Cure for Cancer

    To me it seems intuitively like the best way for quitting would be cold turkey*. Any other way, you could sort of fudge your way around the constraints of it; you’re always on the edge of undercutting your rules. But with cold turkey, it’s harder to rationalize; if you’re smoking at all, you know you’re cheating. And the thing of it is, it does work, if you do it. But the trick is, you have to do it, and that’s the hard part.

    So I have no advice. If you’re trying** to quit, good luck and I hope you succeed.

    * as distinct from Dr. Hoot, the Wuz-Wolf, Frogzilla, or any other Zoo Crew villain.
    ** Do or do not! There is no try! But then, have you seen Kung Fu Panda? Where Master Shifu says to Master Oogway that he’ll try to teach Po how to be the Dragon Warrior? I thought Master Oogway was going to lay the old Yoda line on Shifu there. But he didn’t; he just smiled genuinely and said, “I know you will.” Oogway was a lot nicer than Yoda. But then again Shifu had earned a lot more of the benefit of the doubt than Luke had.

  2. Bellwether…I’ll check it out!

    I’m neither trying to quit nor not trying to quit…with cigarettes getting ever closer to ten bucks a pack I can’t always move heaven and earth to serve the addiction, so I end up struggling with the fact of being out of opportunity to smoke for about…maybe close to a couple of weeks in a month, if you add all the days together? Doesn’t do anything for breaking the habit, though, excuse me I mean the ADDICTION…one rule I forgot to put in there is a very important one: “don’t try to quit when you’re broke.” Smoking does something very important when you’re broke, that little else can…really just alcohol and marijuana can do the same thing. It’s like trying to quit when you’re massively stressed out by some personal problem, sometimes it’s just something that’s a luxury, this quitting smoking stuff…and if you can’t afford quitting then you can’t quit. You can still go without, of course…but nobody’s ever broke for that long that going without turns into quitting. And really this is a lot of what I’m saying in this post, quitting is not easy to do because “quitting” is a THING…whereas “stopping” is not a thing, as “going without” isn’t a thing, and so it’s much easier to muster whatever it is that needs mustering for stopping or going without, than it is to muster whatever’s needed to be “quit”. And it’s just all so unnecessary, isn’t it? It isn’t important to have quit smoking, it’s only important to reduce the sucking-in of toxic crap. I’m not interested in beating my nicotine addiction, I’m just interested in my physical well-being…and to a lesser degree my pocketbook, but then poor = smoking anyway, so that’s a whole Catch-22 thing there anyway. But in any case I couldn’t care less about the addiction, it can stay if it likes. I’m already dealing with the pain of withdrawal on a fairly regular basis, and though when it is possible to get my hands on something to smoke I freak out and start tweaking every which way, when it is actually impossible to get it the cravings aren’t really cravings anymore, they’re just withdrawal symptoms plain and simple…it’s like being sick, sort of. There’s nothing to give in to, no willpower involved.

    Ha, if I had to smoke Rothmans or Mores I’d be quit already, though! Those things are both very harsh…and yeah, you’re right, just being someplace where you can’t get them at all, ever (or have to really work to get them) kind of solves the problem at a stroke. Which is why I wish B.C. (or Canada, for that matter, but let’s not wish for the moon) would just ban the sale of tobacco full stop. I mean, it says right on the front of the package that the shit kills babies and bypassers, you know? So if I’m expected to believe that’s true, I really can’t see how I’m expected to be cool with its availability. But governments are not interested in banning tobacco, or even controlling it — they’re interested in legislating against the act of smoking, not purchse of the stuff you do it with. And anti-smoking advocates are right there with them, they do not want tobacco gone, they just want smoking gone from their nice restaurants. They fundamentally don’t give a shit about the people who smoke. I feel reasonably comfortable saying that when people are cool with the government banning light bulbs, but deeply not cool with them banning tobacco. You could ban tobacco and it would work…the diehards could still get hold of Mohawk cigarettes, but everybody else would be quit in three weeks. It isn’t the same as alcohol or marijuana, there are big tangible benefits to not smoking, if you can only get there.

    Rant rant rant!

    But like they say: everybody quits sometime.

  3. You correctly identify the problem with cold turkey, though! It is SO EASY to cave, if you can afford to cave. It’s amazingly easy. Cigarettes are everywhere, all you have to do is want one…

  4. “quitting” is a THING…whereas “stopping” is not a thing

    As Andrew was telling me just the other day, the way to help people be better (as someone in my life wants to be better but is fundamentally lazy, and I’m struggling with how to help him) is to make it more difficult to do the bad thing and easier to do the good thing. And one of the best ways to make it easier is to stop thinking of the bad thing as a THING you have to quit, but just something you’re not doing right now.

    Honestly, so much of this post is so useful and resonant to me, who’s never smoked (the smoke itself (esp. in US cigarettes) plays merry hell with my eyes so it’s never even slightly tempted me) that I am beginning to wonder if this is really about smoking at all!

  5. You too, eh?

    Heh heh.

    As a fundamentally lazy person myself, most of what I do get accomplished probably would remain forever un-done, if it weren’t for coming across the magic realization that Doing Things Is Easy somewhere towards…oh, I don’t know, the end of my twenties I guess? For me, the gap between intention and action is a real serious obstacle and always has been, it’s practically on the level of that kind of epilepsy where no matter what you do you just can’t figure out how to cross space…but (again: for me) fortunately that’s all about intentionality, not actually about action. Action is really so easy that it practically happens on its own, it’s actually difficult not to Do Things…in fact not doing things is of course a doing-of-something too. Hmm, wasn’t Andrew just talking about feedback? Negative or positive, it’s still existent, still a bunch of stuff being added back into the system. Negative feedback isn’t like “negative energy” or anything! It still takes work to stay in the same spot. It takes the same amount of work.

    Boy, now this conversation’s getting mighty fractal, I think!

    Always a good sign.

  6. Yeah, it drives me crazy; not long ago I realized that I’d been putting off doing the dishes for a whole day, and then did them in about 20 minutes, and then just shook my head at myself because I’d realized that I put a lot more effort and time into A WHOLE DAY of not doing the dishes than I did into doing them. But this isn’t the kind of realization you can force on another person; this is why “to epiphany” would make such a lousy transitive verb. And in the meantime you get hung up on all these rationalizations for why you do what you are doing, and don’t do what you’re not doing, which are again SO MUCH MORE WORK. Which is funny, because it is a kind of work lazy people are likely to put in without a blink, without a complaint, it’s amazing.

    I’m really beginning to see it as almost as simple as “do or do not.” Not quite, but almost. I read a thing about procrastination being just a matter of not doing stuff you don’t want to do, but by this point that is (if true) so buried under so much other junk, so much habit and despair and willingness to give in that it was a little epiphany for me. And since then I’ve seen very little in the world that people are putting off that they actually in any way want to do.

    And so I really think these lot are the least-lazy people I know, now. I used to be like that when I was in college, and had so much to read and write that I always felt guilty about what else I should be doing at that very moment, even when I was in class or trying to write an essay or whatever. All day and all night. It wore on me so hard, that now I am lazy because I never have the energy to beat myself up with that kind of gnawing guilt, and as a result have no choice but to enjoy the time when I’m doing fun things.

  7. “What’s Important Now”, maybe?

    The next trick is to re-learn to want to do things that make sense and should be done — actually should, as in “it would genuinely be a good idea to do this”. To want to make hay while the sun shines. It isn’t that difficult, really, but it requires a slight adjustment to perspective. I want to say I think it happens as you get older, except that it so obviously doesn’t happen to everybody!

    Questions of work like these, as you know, are all bound up for me with urban/rural stuff: matters of attention, and its different modes. I think maybe that’s all it is, just attention?

  8. Which is why I wish B.C. (or Canada, for that matter, but let’s not wish for the moon) would just ban the sale of tobacco full stop.

    They tried that with alcohol in the 1930s. For that matter, they’re trying it with marijuana now. The results have been suboptimal.

  9. Yes, but suboptimal for whom?

    The word “ban” blinds us a little, I think — a ban is not a ban is not a ban: the intentions and mechanisms (and exemptions!) vary dramatically, and no matter how many different ways you can slice “success” (and there are a lot!) there is no way to make the success of every different kind of ban come out the same. Marijuana’s been criminalized for decades, and still everybody smokes it — Paul Martin has smoked it, Barack Obama has smoked it, Bill Clinton has smoked it, Jean Chretien joked about smoking it as soon as it was decriminalized, and of course Allan Rock is still out there somewhere telling the story of scoring weed for John and Yoko in Montreal. Meanwhile, no one has even attempted to ban tobacco…and it’s hard to swallow the argument that it wouldn’t work because the marijuana ban didn’t work, seeing as how marijuana is still under the ban, don’t you think? Because somebody evidently thinks that ban’s working just dandy! For, you know…whatever it is they want it to do.

    “They” meaning, of course…the government. Who else?

    Who else has the power to continue throwing money at that prohibition?

    I’m saying we’d be better off flipping that over: ban tobacco, regulate marijuana. But then I have my own ideas about “optimal” too…alcohol will always have an irreplaceable appeal as an ordinary household chemical, a “foodstuff”, and as a recreational drug, to just scratch the surface of its positive uses: and it’s cheap and easy to make, too! Pot’s tremendously useful in a similar number of ways, and it’s similarly cheap and easy to produce: add in some textile manufacturing and food-supplement stuff and you’ve got something that’s about as easy to keep people from using as baking soda or vinegar, or salt. Yet both of these things were attacked as social evils, because the motivation to do so came from a very strong place: reactionary politics, and ideology.

    It’s what we’re seeing now, in the various bans on smoking…but those bans are hardly keeping people from smoking, are they? And I’d argue that’s because they’re not intended to do that. Not one bit intended to do that. Which is ironic, because most smokers grapple with the desire to quit on a fairly regular basis…would welcome quitting, if they could do it, and so the psychology of smokers is on the side of a regulation of the sale of tobacco products as the psychology of drinkers and dope-smokers is not. I say that wishing for Canada to do something about it is like wishing for the moon, because there would be about a million complicating factors in a federal ban…Native treaty rights among them, good God! To say nothing of Quebec, where (as Ron James has it) they smoke like it’s a cure for cancer. But on a provincial level something could be done, and progress could be made. Have exemptions, even! Issue some licences! For the people who really, really want to keep smoking and are not prepared to give it up, give them a legal way. But for me and probably thousands more, though making smoking a pain in the ass is not doing anything to curb my habit, making cigarettes even a little bit harder to get would get me quit in something of a hurry. Come back in a year and ask the smokers if they want the ban, the regulation, whatever to be lifted and I’d bet good money they’d say “no thank you”.

    That’s the difference, I think. Smokers are mostly (I want to say overwhelmingly) a bunch of people who are painfully addicted to the substance in question. This is not the case for drinkers or marijuana enthusiasts. When Prohibition was lifted, drinking patterns bounced right back. Marijuana-consumption patterns grew up inside Pot-Prohibition from the beginning! But tobacco consumption levels would drop like a stone and stay there, because it’s like if ninety percent of anyone who ever took a drink was a serious alcoholic…smoking has benefits, but they’re not as extensive (it says here; since I’m not aware of anyone ever bothering to look into what its benefits are in a serious way) as the benefits delivered by alcohol and pot. Or even coffee or tea. What benefits there are may be pretty impressive, but they must — it seems to me — have a very restricted scope.

    Glad you brought that up, Matthew!

  10. Yes, but suboptimal for whom?

    I don’t know. Normal people? Taxpayers? It’s working out well for criminal organizations, I guess, and private-sector prison operators. I’m happy summing it all up as “suboptimal”.

    There was a period of time in, I think, the ’90s, when taxes on cigarettes increased to the point that it was almost like a weak ban. Or was this just in Ontario? I’m not sure. But the result of it was a lot like Prohibition: you had increased smuggling of cigarettes through the Akwesasne reserve at Cornwall, and a minor war started, that involved a sniper on a boat taking shots at the Cornwall Civic Centre, and I think someone made an attempt on the mayor.

    The lesson I took from this is that any attempt to legally hold down commerce in, what shall we call them, drug-type-stuff, no matter how you do it, it’ll lead to increased criminal activity and therefore we’re all better off not doing it that way. Your license idea is interesting, though; there may be something there.

    I think the reason why there’s a ban on marijuana is not so much that it’s producing some kind of desired result (although I’m sure some of the crooks who are making hatfuls of money on it have some politicians in their pocket who would oppose legalization for that (secret) reason) as it is because the conservative/traditional element in our society believes sincerely that Marijuana Is Bad and therefore the law must officially disapprove of it, full stop. It’s quite possible that the erosion of time will take care of this factor, though.

  11. “I don’t know. Normal people? Taxpayers?”

    Matthew, smokers are normal people, and taxpayers too!

    Also, gee whiz: tobacco is FAR more heavily taxed today, even in adjusted dollars, than it was then. The tax is like triple what it was. And yet not only are we not seeing more gunfights, but we’re also not seeing cigarettes being in any way made unavailable — we’re just seeing addicts sacrifice more and more of what they make, to the habit. Sure, some people may quit smoking because of the high prices, but that isn’t a ban (it’s the opposite of one!) and especially it isn’t a ban when the people quitting are way more likely to be affluent than down-at-heel.

    Poor people can’t kick, check it out. They totally smoke.

    How do they afford it?

    They don’t.

    But it’s the Shopper’s they get their fix from, not the Angels.

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