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(H/T to Gussack dangoch for the title, it was inspired by a comment in one of the GUS threads)

GUS (Gave Up Smoking) is a community support diary for Kossacks in the midst of quitting smoking. Any supportive comments, suggestions or positive distractions are appreciated. If you are quitting or even thinking of quitting, please -- join us!

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             "Luuuuucy, you got some 'splainin' to dooo..." - Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy


Tonight's diary deals with nostalgia...and not just the happy, shiny, rose-colored glasses variety of nostalgia, either. It deals with the way popular culture glorifies, romanticizes and codifies the act of smoking for us all, how deeply ingrained it is in how we see ourselves, and how very often the pretty images we see on screen, or replay in our own heads, differ from the reality of the act itself.

Except for the very youngest Gussacks, most of us grew up in a world where smoking was much more common than it is today. In my earliest childhood memories (I'm a Kennedy Administration baby, a child of the Mad Men era) it seemed that everyone smoked (in reality, it was around 45% back in the day) - just something grown-ups did.

But when some people did it - movie stars, artists, writers, and musicians, those creative rebels with or without a cause - smoking took on a certain aura of glamour. Smoking was cool. We saw images of smoking everywhere, and internalized it all like the good consumers of popular culture we are.

Even now, in a country where only about 20% of the adult population still smokes, smokers are disproportionately represented on TV and films. A lot of actors and musicians smoke; virtually every model does. I can't even tell you how many journalists, artists and writers smoke as if their next deadline, commission, or typed word depended upon it. I know I sure used to!

(The two places I am most likely to see crowds of smokers in my neighborhood: outside the parole office and outside the front doors of the local College of Art. Make of that what you will.)

I'm betting a bunch of us started smoking because we were unsure of ourselves, and looking for a little edge, something to make ourselves look more grown-up, maybe a little cooler, something that would allow us to have something in common with strangers, or fit in with a group we admired. We looked at those figures in popular culture, and they told us things, and we listened.

"If you smoke," the images said, "you can be cool and rebellious too."


"You can be the life of the party!"   title=

"Smoking's romantic, seductive..."    title=

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" makes you look mysterious, alluring, elegant, and sure of yourself."

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"Besides, all the creative people smoke..."  title=
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Except there always was -- and still is -- a great big honking disconnect between the images of smoking and the ideas that go along with them. And there's a gulf wider than the Grand Canyon between the idea of smoking, or the memory of smoking, and the less pleasant (okay, downright scary) aspects of an active addiction to nicotine. We see these pretty images and ignore, or never even see, the ugly flip side of the addictive process: the diminished looks, the financial impact, the diseases and early deaths.

And there have been a lot of them, so many I'd run out of room in this diary if I tried to include them all.

Musicians like Fred "Sonic" Smith (died at 45) and Joe Strummer (died at 50), whose smoking aggravated underlying heart conditions. Lots of wonderful voices silenced: Mary Wells, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, the incomparable Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington and Eddie Kendrick (the sweetest voice in The Temptations lineup).

Creatives like choreographer Bob Fosse, who smoked 4 packs a day until he dropped dead of a heart attack, and band leader Spike Jones, whose famous 5-pack-a-day habit led to the Emphysema that killed him at 53. Writers like T.S. Eliot, Ian Fleming and Lillian Hellman.  Chain-smoking Twilight Zone writer and host Rod Sterling and Director John Houston. Journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley, Peter Jennings and Harry Reasoner. A gazillion actors and actresses and icons of the stage and screen.

Even non-smokers weren't spared: Dana Reeve (a cabaret performer) and Andy Kaufman (a comedian) both died of lung cancer most likely caused by second-hand smoke from the clubs they played, a reminder that smokers don't only hurt themselves.

As Gussack dangoch pointed out, it's dangerous to "romance the smoke" - to remember it as something wonderful, transcendent, a panacea for all the things that stress you out, or the only friend who never lets you down.

Fact is, it DOES let you down, a lot, in a whole lot of ways.

The momentary thrill of being one of the cool kids, or the edgy creative with an ever-present cigarette has - or should have - faded long ago. In fact, you're probably a little pissed at yourself for ever starting to smoke in the first place. If you're reading this, odds are pretty good that you're not one of those happy smokers - you've at least thought of, or are trying to quit. If that's the case, good for you! You're seeing smoking for what it is, an addiction, not a romantic pursuit or a symbol of anything, and certainly not a "friend."  There's no romance in continuing to do something that makes you ill and will most likely hasten your demise.

Addicts are very good at rationalizing things, and people like to point out exceptions to the rule as though they disprove common wisdom, or even straight-up fact. Every smoker knows someone who smoked X number of cigarettes (or cigars) a day and lived to be 98. Hell, my own Great-Grandpa fits that description to a T.  Problem is, random examples like that don't negate the very real facts that smoking will, if not outright kill you, most likely shorten your time on this Earth, and that quitting will probably drop your odds of that happening considerably.

In fact, here's a real-life example of that very scenario, involving someone who was so often seen with a cigarette on his lips that his surname eventually became a slang term for hogging a smoke (or a "smoke," if you know what I mean, and I think that you do):


It's tempting to idealize something you did for so long, that at one time gave you pleasure, or helped bolster your self-image, or made you feel like you fit in, or fueled your creative impulses. It's tempting, but also dangerous - things in the rear-view mirror are not as wonderful as they seem, and sometimes, they bite you in the ass.

And now for the housekeeping. That was never my strong suit, so if your name has been left off of the list, please pipe up and I'll fix it!

Current members of the GUS team!
Please post a comment if you would like to join, or if your name is here in error:
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Originally posted to Vacationland on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 04:34 PM PDT.

Also republished by gussians.

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