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January 23, 2001

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Zen by Cigarette

by Travis Merrigan

A cigarette is rolled with tender fingers and growing anticipation. The tight cylinder is placed between the lips and a match is struck. In front of a cupped hand, the fickle flame dances upon the patiently waiting organic material and a vacuum created by the cheeks draws in the oxygen that the cherry needs to thrive. The mouth fills with the familiar taste that the tongue knows so well. A breath is drawn into the chest as the smoke permeates the lungs with its satisfying burn. The breath is held for an instant while the eyes close in complete relaxation. The breath is exhaled through puckered lips and the eyes open to watch the smoke drift to the heavens like an offering to the gods.

It is with neither pride nor shame that I admit that I am a smoker. Two of my grandparents died of smoking related cancer. Add that to the fact that I understand just enough biochemistry to appreciate the carcinogenic effects of smoking and one would think that I would have enough sense to quit. But to reach that conclusion would be to underestimate the power of an addiction and to overestimate my self-control.

Smoking has long been an intermittent constant in my life. I have smoked on and off since high school. I thought that I had the habit licked by quitting for over a year and a half but, alas, it was not to be.

I have known people who could smoke one or two cigarettes a day and no more. I am not as controlled as those people. I am either not smoking, smoking 15 cigarettes per day or building up to that number. I have smoked on and off (presently on) for seven years. I like to quit periodically to pretend that I am in control of my habit but, as is true with any good addiction, the tobacco wears the pants in our relationship.

The worst part about smoking is the awful smell that envelops every smoker. A smoker can reduce the stench by only smoking outside, never smoking in the car and washing his hands and brushing his teeth after every smoke. But regardless of this, a non-smoker can always smell a smoker from a mile away.

The person who suffers the most from a smokerís habit is probably the smoker's non-smoking significant other. Kissing a smoker is roughly equivalent to flossing your teeth with the butt hair of an unclean yak. Since getting a smoker to quit is an exercise in futility, I suggest that the partner start smoking in self-defense.

Tobacco has been a faithful mistress. Even though I have left her many times, she has always been there ready to take me back and give up the goods at a secondís notice. Unfortunately she is greedy and never offers to pick up the tab for our frequent rendezvous.

I recently began rolling my cigarettes. This allows me to feel superior to normal smokers much in the same way that a redneck aristocrat feels when he moves into the biggest doublewide in the trailer park. I would be lying if I said that I didnít enjoy the looks that I get from strangers who think that I am rolling a joint. Of greater personal import than my misguided the pride and childish desire to make my fellow man uncomfortable is the satisfaction I get from process of rolling a cigarette. Grabbing a cancer stick from a box takes away the spiritual preparation that rolling one necessitates. Rolling a smoke requires patience and care and makes a young lad truly appreciate natureís bounty in a way that the Marlboro Man never experienced. A processed cigarette signifies submission to the status quo. A rolled cigarette is a unique creation that yearns to be savored.

My best reason for taking cigarette breaks has less to do with the cigarette and more to do with the break. I returned to smoking heavily in my sophomore year of college during long nights with an organic chemistry tome. I never smoked while studying but rather smoked during breaks. Smoking became psychologically linked with taking a break and with relaxation itself.

My reverence for the break reached the point that I stopped taking a break in order to smoke a cigarette and began smoking a cigarette in order to take a break. The difference is more than mere semantics. While I was perfectly capable of relaxing without a cigarette, it became utterly impossible to smoke a cigarette without reaching a state of relaxation. Zen by cigarette.

Since my smoke breaks became sacred moments of serenity, the breaks became bastions of peace in a chiral-centered world. Since studying was against the rules while smoking and the TV was located inside, conversation became the only accepted practice during these rituals. Just as alcohol and frat boys create a superficial environment for a conversation, cigarettes tend to deepen discussion. This isnít some chemical side effect of nicotine but is a secondary consequence of allowing the opportunity of discourse without the constant influx of mindless television programming or other forms of sensory bombardment. Many of the greatest conversations of my college career owe their existence to my favorite addiction.

Equally, a cigarette permits an opportunity to pluck a moment of peaceful solitude out of the jungle battlefield of life. As a cigarette pollutes the lungs, it clears the mind and facilitates deep introspection of lifeís great mysteries. Iím sure that many an artist, writer and scientist has looked deep inside a can of rolling tobacco for inspiration.

If you donít smoke, donít start. Smoking is a dirty, disgusting, unhealthy, expensive and addictive habit with few redeeming qualities. But if you do smoke, enjoy those redeeming qualities. Cherish every cigarette and the social and spiritual side effects that one of the few great carnal pleasures provides.


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