Thursday, September 4, 2008

Long live pariahs....

Back in Biblical times, the shunned and outcast suffered from leprosy. Fear of contact with them banished these poor souls to "leper colonies" — the same places where Mother Teresa did her sainted work until 1997. Today, leprosy is a fully treatable condition that's quickly being eradicated. But in its place lies an even more dreadful, much more horrifying condition: nicotine addiction, a.k.a. smoking. (Cue the cheap horror-movie sound effects here.)

Let's get something straight right away: this post should not be seen as WB's defense of a nicotine-delivery system that, when it comes right down to it, is just plain stupid. People, including WB staffers, who prefer to inhale thick white additive-drenched smoke over chewing a wholesome piece of gum or wearing a nice clean little patch are gambling with fate and cheating death. And as WB associate MP3 recently discovered, sometimes fate comes knocking very early to collect its due.

But still, let's put things into a little bit of perspective, okay? With laws and policies and regulations against smoking and smokers being handed down daily at every level from the Federal government to the workplace to the sidewalks of local college campuses, attempts to curb smoking in the U.S. have become less about health and more about enacting The Crucible on a national scale. All we need to complete the picture is a modern-day Joseph McCarthy to act as grand inquisitor, shouting "I have here in my hand a list" and demanding, "Are you now, or have you ever been, a smoker?"
A few months back, WB senior staff members attended a meeting of several hundred employees who were encouraged to ask questions about traffic congestion and parking improvements. Remember those crucial details: traffic congestion and parking improvements. But before that meeting was over, the conversation had somehow leaped, without sequence of logic, to the number of smokers who gathered outside building entrances. The accompanying rise in hysteria and zeal would have been unprecedented LOLZ territory — if only it hadn't also been scary as hell. The smokers in the room, who were already huddled (but not smoking) conspiratorially and defensively in a back row, fully expected everyone else to turn and chant with pointed fingers: "Kill them! Kill them!"

We understand; we really do. We've felt the religious fervor behind the anti-smoking campaign. We've stood on street corners in busy downtowns where children have covered their mouths, fallen into adorable little coughing jags, and cried through their hands: "Ew, fubwud ith mokig, Mom!" And we have seen their mothers whisk the children to safety on the other side of the street, where jackhammers spewed gasoline fumes and city buses sat at idle belching black diesel clouds. We've heard groups of women begin loud, fake, chiding coughing spells while still twenty feet away from the smokers they needed to pass, and we've noticed the strain that their three-hundred pound bodies had to endure in order to hurry past. We've sat in public parks where rangers have warned smokers to extinguish their cigarettes so that the other park patrons could fully enjoy their picnics of Aspartame, corn syrup, BHA/BHT, red #5, and sodium nitrites.

One of us even remembers a childhood doctor named Charlie Brown (no joke!), waaay back in the day, who always had a cigarette fuming in the ashtray above his roll-top desk outside the examining room. Today, Dr. Brown is in his 80s, runs several miles a day, and recently completed the Boston Marathon.

Now, WB is not claiming that every smoker will enjoy the same lack of punishment as good ol' Charlie Brown, nor are we naïve enough to think that the anti-smoking madness in the U.S. will ever end now that it's begun, and we especially want to encourage our young friend MP3 to keep on walking the no-tobacco road. However, we do wonder if maybe things could ease up, just a little. After all, even Harry Potter smokes.

Yes, it's a dangerous habit, and it can have serious, unintended second-hand consequences for innocent bystanders. Yes, it needs to be done responsibly, and with utmost consideration for others. Yes, it's expensive, dirty, smelly, and even environmentally destructive — trillions of cigarette butts are flicked to the sidewalk each year, and all of those tobacco additives leach into the water supply eventually.

Still, smokers are people, too. They don't deserve to be banished to remote regions, fired from their jobs, expelled from their colleges, refused health or life insurance, and threatened with arrest. If they called their defensive huddles and offensive habits "passing the sacred tobacco," then everyone would get all misty-eyed with New Age pseudo-spirituality and "honor the tradition." But it's just a white paper tube filled with highly addictive brown leaves — isn't it?

"Indian teachers know," writes the pipekeeper Turtle Heart, "that there is a mysterious power that happens when a group of people with open hearts and well-informed spirits gathers together and makes a ceremony of sharing the smoke. It is a power that works to bring something magical and sacred from the people when they do this together."

Like, say, conversation. And friendship. And community, through solidarity against adversity. When two strangers who are also smokers light up together, they share an immediate, tangible bond. The connection is the ritual itself, even if they smoke together in silence. (Or sometimes don't smoke at all — WB's nonsmoking and excellent friend, Eighth Chakra, has experienced the bond, although she occasionally has to hold her breath or move upwind.)

Now, about that traffic congestion and those needed parking improvements....

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