Quitters never win

It’s been ten years since I quit smoking but I still feel like I’m just between cigarettes. Time has a dream-like continuity when it isn’t punctuated by smoking. The past ten years have slipped by almost unnoticed, as though I’ve simply been too busy to smoke. Now I have a friend who wants to quit smoking. Watching him wrestle with his habit has reminded me of how hard it actually was to quit, and how hard it is to stay quit. What makes it particularly hard is that we call it quitting to begin with. When you quit, you give up. You stop. You take the easy way out. When you smoke, the word quit is used the wrong way around. There’s no easy way out. Stopping is worse than the thing you’re doing. What makes it particularly hard is that the reasons to stop aren’t very compelling. If you drink too much, for example, there are excellent reasons to stop—you could end up at the AA where they make you speak in public and hug drunks. If you do hard drugs, there are even better reasons to stop—you could wind up living in a box under a bridge. In comparison, smoking is tame. When you smoke, everything is more or less OK.

“Why’s this so hard?” my friend asked as he lit a cigarette in disgust.

“You can always kill yourself,” I joked.

He looked at the tip of his cigarette.

“Who wants to inhale a fire?” he asked. “Why do we do this shit?”

“I started because of a woman,” I said. “She was attractive, and so was smoking.”

“How’d you stop?”

“There was another woman.”

Jack often got invited to events at art galleries. Sometimes I went along. We’d get embroiled in lengthy agreements with the artists, but only so that we could eat a dent into the catering. The day before Q-Day—the day I planned to quit smoking—we were at a small gallery in the heart of town. It was a spring evening and the guests mingled on the deck outside. A few people stood together in the one corner, smoking. This was before the all-out bans on smoking, and smokers didn’t lurk like petty criminals, the way they do these days. They were brazen and sure of themselves. I’d left my cigarettes in the car and was on my way to bum one from these happy people when a woman cut me off.

“Don’t go there,” she said and flashed a smile. “It’s bad for you.”

She wore a strong perfume redolent of Turkish Delight.

“But I’m—” I started.

“Forget that,” she said and brushed my words aside with ring-laden fingers. “You can thank me later.”

She took my arm and steered me to a little table.

“You’re Jack’s friend, aren’t you?” she said.

“Yes, but—”

She handed me a glass of sparkling wine.

“And what does Jack’s friend do?”

Jack was famous for doing nothing, so this was his fault.

“When, uh, what?” I asked and eyed the smokers.

The woman laughed and tossed her hair.

“What do you do for a living?” she clarified.

“The usual things,” I mumbled. “Eating, and sleeping, and so on.”

I wanted to say that I smoked for a living and that I needed to work.

“Jack’s friends are interesting,” she said in a tone that suggested that she’d found an exception. “And weird.”

She still had me by the arm as we stood there at a loss for words.

“I work at a secret research institute,” I lied.

“Really?” she whispered and tightened her grip on my arm. “Doing what?”

“I can’t say.”

She pulled me closer.

“Tell me,” she insisted and gave off a whiff of perfume.

“I used to smoke,” I lied again.

“Me too!” she cackled and took a sip of her sparkling wine. “I quit three months ago!”

“It’s been longer for me,” I said, unable to stop myself. “Six months tomorrow, actually.”

“Oh, wow!” she said and looked longingly at the smokers. “Half a year? I still want to smoke all the time.”

I was about to quit, and here was this woman telling me that I’d be lusting after a cigarette three months from now. It wasn’t very encouraging.

“It gets better,” I said.

One of the smokers blew a plume of smoke toward the sky.

“Hmm…” the woman said.

“Sometimes I wonder whether stopping was really worth it,” I went on.

She snapped out of her smokey reverie.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “It must be worth it! Six months!”

“Sure,” I agreed. “But it feels like there’s something missing, you know?”

She smiled wistfully. Another smoker lit a cigarette with evident satisfaction. I got a lump in my throat just looking at him.

“Wouldn’t that feel nice?” I asked.

“I guess so,” she said.

“Maybe I could go over there and bum a cigarette?” I suggested.

“And start all over again?”

“Well, yes.”

“Just like that?”

“At least I know I can quit when I want to, right?”

She stared at the smokers.

“I guess so,” she said again.

“That’s it!” I declared. “I’m going to get one. Now!”

“Don’t do it!” she called out as I walked off.

When I returned with a cigarette, she intercepted me.

“You’re smoking!” she cried. “How can you?”

I took a deep drag and blew the smoke in her direction.

“Because it feels wonderful,” I said. “Soon—maybe tomorrow—I’ll quit.”

“You’ve been off cigarettes longer than me,” she snivelled.

“It sure feels like it,” I said and took another drag.

She glanced at the smokers.

“The hell with it,” she croaked. “Give me that thing!”

We bummed a few more cigarettes until I slipped guiltily away. I quit the next day.

Mail me when new posts come out

Manic Haven

My grandmother died twenty years ago from a complication of virtue and defiance. She was perfectly healthy until she insisted on giving up cigarettes. Then she was gone in a fortnight.

“You’re eighty-seven,” my mother warned her. “When you’re eighty-seven, you don’t stop smoking. You keep smoking.”

Grandma looked at the cigarette she was smoking.

“It’s not healthy,” she said.

She said it with the air of someone who’d made a discovery.

“Look,” my mother said, “you’ve been smoking for sixty-eight years. If you dropped dead right now, no one would say that you smoked yourself to death.”

“God’s against it,” Grandma said darkly. “It’s a sin.”

“Where’s that written?” we asked.

Grandma became vague and mentioned the temple of her body.

“Why do you drink wine then?” we asked.

“Wine’s different,” she stipulated. “Jesus drank wine.” Then she added, “And he didn’t smoke.”

“So what?” we said. “He never ate a pizza or listened to a CD either. That doesn’t mean those things are bad.”

Grandma thinned her lips and folded a napkin.

“God doesn’t want me to smoke,” she said.

Even though God didn’t like Grandma’s smoking, He never let on. She remained healthy while others died who were much younger. Men in her family ran out of heartbeats in their forties. Her sisters and aunts were overtaken by cancer and blood clots. But Grandma kept on going. In her eighties she moved into an old age home near us—a depressing place called Masonic Haven—and there she stayed. On Sundays she got into her old Toyota, rolled down the windows and drove to our house. Along the way she smoked two cigarettes and ran every red light she came to.

I once got a lift with her.

“The light’s red!” I cried.

“What light?” she asked once we were through it.

“The one back there.”

Grandma gripped the wheel and accelerated.

“When did they put that up?”

“Five years ago.”

“No one told me,” she said.

During lunch she complained about her smoking.

“God’s very angry with me,” she said and swilled her wine.

My father puffed on his cigar and regarded his mother-in-law.

“I’d be angry with Him,” he said. “He’s the one who made tobacco and lips and lungs.”

Grandma took a sip of her wine and smoothed the tablecloth.

“Smoking is the Devil’s work,” she said with complete conviction. “Not God’s.”

“I’d still be angry,” my father insisted.

Grandma looked hurt.

“You mustn’t speak like that,” she said.

“Well,” my father replied, “God’s free to intervene when He has a moment.”

Grandma thought about this.

“I’m going to stop smoking,” she declared.

One Sunday, God intervened. Grandma stopped smoking, bronchitis found her lungs by the end of the week and the hospital did the rest.

Her service was held in a little hall at Masonic Haven. It was a dreary Sunday at the onset of winter. We waited at the gate and greeted people as they arrived. Jack was there too. He’d known Grandma for years and thought of her as his own.

“Look,” he muttered and gestured at the sign above the gate.

Wooden letters spelled Masonic Haven, but the S and the O had fallen off. The sign read Manic Haven.

“They have wheelchair races on Wednesdays,” my sister said. “When no one’s around.”

We smiled at this, relieved to have something to smile about. We went inside and sat near the front, behind my mother and father. My mother was quiet and my father looked ashen-faced. He’d known Grandma longer than he ever knew his own mother. There were a few other family members and two dozen old people from the home.

The minister was a gangly man with a sonorous voice. He made us sing a hymn while he swayed behind the makeshift pulpit like a reed. Then he cleared his throat and assured us of Grandma’s piety. Her life had been one of devoted service and unquestioning reverence. Her place in heaven was guaranteed, he said, and similar guarantees extended to those of us who followed her example. While the old people nodded grimly, Jack whispered to me, “Everyone crams for the end exams.”

We sang another hymn and then the minister began his sermon. He broke over us like a wave. He riled against the Devil and his helpers—the sinners and heathens. The louder he riled, the more his gestures were inflated with the slope of his voice. At the peak of his zeal he flapped his arms and made a fist. Then, just as suddenly, he slid into restraint again. God was everywhere, he said, and He had a plan. While the minister read a part of this plan from the Bible, I remembered how I once prayed to God for a bicycle. I was ten or so at the time. My friends had bicycles, but I didn’t. Grandma interrupted me mid-prayer.

“No, no,” she said. “God’s busy. He’s making planets and flowers. If you want a bicycle, tell Him exactly what you need. That’s how it works.”

The minister knew nothing of Grandma’s arrangements with God. He spoke about our miserable existence on earth and our glorious salvation, and that was that. He wasn’t going to bother God with Grandma if he could wrap things up himself.

In the end we sang another hymn. My parents remained seated and stared at the floor. Outside the windows of the little hall the last of the swallows gathered on the staves of telephone wires in the bitter mercy of a winter without snow.

Mail me when new posts come out

Knitters Anonymous


I quit smoking many years ago but I still think about it almost every day. Sometimes I wonder if other addictions work the same way. Would I have missed them just as much?

What, for instance, if I’d been a knitter and quit that instead? Would I still crave plains and purls half the time? Maybe so. Knitting is almost as silly as smoking is and only slightly less harmful. You don’t get to put things into your mouth but it’s almost like smoking in many other ways. It’s difficult in the beginning but once you’re a seasoned knitter you don’t have to think about it. Knitting annoys other people, just like smoking. It involves needles and is addictive. It’s dangerous, too — you end up with a jersey if you don’t pace yourself.

What would the world be like if knitting replaced smoking?

Knitting is banned from the workplace and groups of wind-blown knitters hang around near the entrances of office blocks. Most other buildings have designated knitting areas. Some malls are totally knit-free. Restaurants have knitting sections with sliding doors to close them off, just in case. There are knitting bars, but even they have knitting sections. There are no-knitting signs everywhere, some with cutesy sub-texts like UNLESS YOU’RE A SHEEP or WE’D RATHER FREEZE TO DEATH. You’re not allowed to knit on planes and the lavatories have knitting detectors. Knitting while driving is against the law everywhere but routinely done in Russia. Most European countries prohibit knitting near children. In prisons the world over, inmates have to make do without needles and knit with their fingers. In some movies, sex scenes are followed by satisfied knitting. Skeins of yarn and packets of needles are adorned with pictures of calloused fingers and cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18. Pharmacies stock woollen patches for those who are trying to stop. The book Knitters & Quitters sells millions of copies and helps many to freedom.

There are brand wars and devoted factions of knitters. Camel knitters use tough yarn and wooden needles. They don’t give a shit about other knitters. The Marlboro Man stares out across the prairie as he knits a saddle blanket. Lucky Strike knitters scoff at those who knit Dunhill. Everyone scoffs at knitters who use e-needles. No real knitter understands how one can be a social knitter. Ex-knitters now and then hang out with knitters, some for a dose of second-hand knitting and others to boast that they never looked back once they dropped their last stitch.

There are support groups for ex-knitters too. They meet at the church and they have an urn with tea and plates of finger food, but no toothpicks.

“My name is Eddie,” poor Eddie says, “and I’m a knitter.”

“Hi Eddie,” the group chimes.

Eddie relates how knitting almost ruined his life. While the group nods gravely he tells them how he never knitted a stitch until he met his wife. She knitted, and soon he started to knit too. It wasn’t until he became a chain knitter and got passed over for a promotion that he realised he’d have to stop. It was a very difficult time.

“Now she’s left me—” he falters.

The leader of the group sits next to Eddie. His name is Jeff.

“And how does that make you feel?” he drones.

“—for a knitter!” Eddie continues.

Jeff lays a heavy hand on Eddie’s shoulder and puts on his caring expression. The others are quiet as they wonder whether Eddie might relapse into knitting because of this. Once a knitter, they think, always a knitter.

Eddie is absent the following few weeks. He returns, sad-faced, and admits that he merely cast on a stitch at a party and was a goner.

“Before I knew it,” he mumbles, “I had two jerseys and a beanie.”

Mail me when new posts come out