Saturday, March 19, 2005

Smoke Up

Even a tight-ass like David Brooks, God love him, can see the writing on the wall: America is becoming a nation of persnickety, fitness-obsessed killjoys. In a recent New York Times column, Brooks recounts a veritable orgy of food and booze he and some friends enjoyed during a trip to New Orleans. When the waitperson came around to offer that final cup of coffee, Brooks -- after properly gorging himself on an array of seafood -- surprised even himself by checking to ensure that the java was decaf. It was emblematic, the writer admits, of the wussified (my word, not his) era to which we belong.

"We live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code," he wrote.

"I blame the arbiters of virtue. Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word 'sinful' is most commonly associated with chocolate.

"Now we lead lives in which everything is a pallid parody of itself: fat-free yogurt, salt-free pretzels, milk-free milk. Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture."

Amen, Brother Brooks (that, incidentally, will be the last time your humble blogger refers to Mr. Brooks in that manner). While I certainly understand and appreciate the attention paid to fitness -- even I have been known to walk a few paces every so often, if only to find my wallet to pay the Dominos guy -- such zeal has cast a pall over the glories of decadence.

And nowhere is that more evident than the push to ban smoking in every nook and cranny of the globe.

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that I am a former smoker. Until a few years ago, I smoked a pack and a half a day. And while I have been horrified to find myself slowly turning into a pain-in-the-ass former smoker, the kind who wrinkles up his nose in disgust when sharing an elevator with someone who smells like he or she has diddled an ashtray, I fervently believe that some places should remain smoker-friendly -- indeed, must remain smoker-friendly.

Namely: Bars.

I defer to an excellent piece recently penned by Mike Millard in the Boston Phoenix.

"Smoking bans make sense, to a point. I won't argue, as some do, that the seriousness of secondhand smoke has been exaggerated. And as someone who hacks butts on a semi-regular basis, and who'd love to kick the habit, I gladly agree with common-sense rules. In airplanes, of course. Shopping malls. Even restaurants. But bars? Sorry. Smoking and boozing go together like Dean and Frank. To my mind, one of life's great pleasures is sitting in some quiet pub, a paper and a pint before me, the whorls from a cigarette playing in the late-afternoon sunlight. These days, one has to travel to Providence to be that decadent. Or actually, no. As of March 1, smoking is verboten there, too."

Even if we accept as gospel the health hazards of secondhand smoke, stamping out all traces of the smoke-filled bar is simply... un-American. Some romantic notions, no matter how misguided or delusional, are worth propping up by all means necessary. Politicians should cut deals in back rooms. Construction workers should catcall and whistle at good-looking women walking down the street. Detectives should wear fedoras and talk like Bogart.

And bars should be smoky. It is a winning combination comparable to coffee and doughnuts (another twosome currently under attack by the Health Nazis). Hell, anyone who has ever taken a drag on a Camel knows that nothing -- not even the euphoria of good health -- is quite as satisfying as a nicotine high accompanied by a cocktail. A free society cannot, in good conscience, prohibit that payoff. Otherwise, we might just as well allow sex but outlaw the orgasm.

But the need to protect the smoke-filled bar transcends matters of simple gratification. The smoky bar is iconic. And in an America seemingly wracked every few minutes by cultural upheaval -- a game of social tectonics constantly challenging our perceptions of conservative and liberal, right and wrong, truth and falsehood -- we should resolve to save the few iconic scenes that are still around.

Yes, even if they can kill us. These are, after all, weird times. We live in a world in which a submarine sandwich franchise promotes itself by catering to obese people. Growing numbers of school districts send home "weight" grades, as if further traumatizing fat kids will help them lose weight. A boob falls out of a bra during the Superbowl and people recoil as if Rome is burning. Gymnasiums have become the new coffeeshops, and coffeeshops have become the new gyms.

OK, I digressed there, but you get the general idea. Hey, teachers: Leave them bars alone.


At 10:53 AM, Anonymous triticale said...

Ending one's coffee consumption with decaf could be nothing more than a calculated tapering off based on intended bed time. Being as I am not much of a caffeine user, I avoid cola beverages (my only source) after about 2:00 PM.

At 12:14 PM, Anonymous Norm McDonald said...

I can't smoke at the pub, but I can listen to the fat chick in low-rider jeans scream into her cell phone about her cheatin' boyfriend. That's not America! That's not even Mexico.

At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps, our culture resolved the existential crisis of the 20th century by concluding that the purpose of living is to do it for as long as possible. There's also a correlation here with the consumerist mantra of our Wal-Mart crazed times in which a meaningless quantity of consumption is valued over a purposeful quality of consumption. Life is but another commodity, and we should devote ourselves to acquiring as much of it as possible.

Of course, Europe experienced an existential crisis as well, and avoided jogging fads and smoker persecution. As always, the divergent paths of the New and Old worlds probably has something to do with God and/or Capitalism.


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