May 30, 2008

Tomorrow I take my first driving lesson: New Hampshire be warned! I did once drive, in Baton Rouge between 1994 and 1996, having almost achieved my lifelong goal of getting a Ph.D. before I got a license”€”which has long since expired. But I haven’t controlled an internal combustion vehicle in12 long years. In my brief tenure as a real American, I mostly crept around (in a sky-blue ‘78 Dodge Aspen wagon with a Battle Flag bumper sticker) on side roads because I couldn’t muster the nerve to merge on the freeway.

It’s best, I’ve figured out, to pick up driving skills while one’s still 16, and firmly convinced of earthly immortality. By 30 or so, you start to think a little too much. And as I tried to get onto I-10, what I was thinking in 1994 was: “€œCome on, they’ll let me in. If they don’t, we’ll crash. It’s in their rational self-interest!”€ Then I remembered that half these people had voted for the felon Edwin Edwards for governor”€”and the other half for David Duke. So much for “€œrational self interest.”€ So I kept steering away from the merge lane until I ended up stuck in the mud on the shoulder.

A tow truck driver kindly pulled me out, and from then on I traveled from teaching my screenwriting class at Tulane back to my reporter’s job in Baton Rouge on Huey Long’s old Airline Highway. While it took a good hour longer, and wasn’t actually safer, it was a great deal more scenic”€”dotted with cane fields, lined with old fashioned “€œNo-Tell Motels”€ with Art Deco signage from the 40s, and the one subdivision which has ever tempted me to fork over for a mortgage. The place, which I passed twice a week, was proudly named “€œCretin Homes.”€

The story behind it, I heard from locals in LaPlace, was that a family came from Sicily bearing the unfortunate name “€œCretini,”€ which means (loosely) “€œidiots.” Apparently, the name came from an old euphemism, invented in those dark days before selective abortion, when retarded people were often born alive. While scientists might label them with precision “€œidiots,”€ “€œimbeciles”€ and “€œmorons”€ (each term was once used by psychiatrists, and corresponded with a certain IQ range), European peasants referred to them, in various languages, with terms like “€œpoveri Cristiani.”€ This charitable phrase got shortened into terms like “€œcretini.”€ Euphemisms tend to backfire. That’s why the word “€œspecial”€ now pretty much means “€œretarded,”€ “€œopportunity”€ means “€œproblem,”€ “€œdiversity”€ means “€œno whites need apply,”€ while “€œchoice”€…. You get the idea.

The Cretini family, I was told, made good in South Louisiana building homes, and as part of marking the distance they’d traveled from the old country, changed their name to Cretin… which means “€œidiot”€ in English. So my point is that”€”assimilation works!

It was bad enough that it took me seven years of living in a town with no public transit system to convince me I needed to drive, hitching rides to Latin Mass and making my dates do all the driving. But by the time I was comfortable enough to get on the interstate, my mother was dying of lung cancer and I had to move back to New York. Given its public transit system (and the taxes you pay to support it) owning a car in New York is slightly more quixotic than keeping a horse. And much less eco-friendly.

So I stopped driving and started smoking. What kind of idiot takes up that habit at age 33? The same kind that learns to drive at around that age. Now, you might think that as a Reagan-era Republican who once tried to start a magazine called Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms (my own idea for a title, and we came within a hair of raising $2 million to start the project)  I would be gently disposed to this vegetable derivative of Native American origin, whose production is key to the economy of many developing nations and several states that elect desirably right-wing senators.

But no. In fact, for the first three decades of my life, I was an anti-smoking activist. At age four, I deduced that if my chain-smoking mother could get cancer from breathing the stuff, then so could I. (As soon as I learned to read, I began to peruse Consumer Reports, checking out the ratio of insect parts and rodent hairs in the brands of TV dinners that constituted most of our evening fare. All I will say about that is: If you really want chicken pot pie, for the love of God… please make it from scratch.) I”€™d open windows for fresh air, to have them promptly slammed shut for fear of drafts. I”€™d lie awake sleepless from the reek of those Marlboro Lights, wafting through that small (but rent-controlled) apartment. At last, I resorted to sabotage, filling my mother’s cigarettes with little doodads from the practical joke catalog that made them explode, or send up a cloud of “€œsnow”€ that would fall all around her. Finally, I stuffed a pack with live earth worms. The look on her face was worth every lick of the subsequent whipping.

At Yale’s Party of the Right, I was the annoying guy who always objected to the cigar smoke, and sat scowling by an open window in winter. This particularly irked the young Charles Bork (son of the should-be Chief Justice of the Cour) a hard-drinking, gun-toting character straight out of a Tom Waits song. Charles was famous for his zonked-out Nietzschean style of argument. On abortion, for instance, he once observed, with a shrug and a Cheshire Cat grin: “€œThey”€™re only babies.”€ (Hard to know what to make of that….) As Charles once said to me with a smile, “€œZmirak, why are you such an a”€”hole?”€

And when it came to smoking, he was right. (They’re only cancer cells….) I was a positive health Nazi on this issue until one fine day in 1999 when I was working for a company owned by secular non-Christians which made its business of… offering Vatican-branded Internet access to Catholics. That’s right. Thanks to a handy-dandy licensing deal in which some shifty cardinals had essentially snookered these New York marketers, we were the “€œofficial Internet service of the Vatican Treasury Museum.”€ That’s a small museum off to the left hand side as you enter St. Peter’s, which holds things like the hand-shaped silver reliquaries that contain the hands of saints, and head-shaped reliquaries for skulls, and so on. At the time, it didn’t have a Web site or even an email address, so our affiliation was… nominal. Indeed, I was the only Catholic working at the company, where it was my job to populate with daily news a home page which would come up when people signed in on the dial-up service we offered”€”so they’d have Church news and commentary every time they logged on. Since I really needed the job, I didn’t raise with my employers my doubts about the enterprise… for instance, the fact that few Catholics cared if their dial-up Internet service was run by the Vatican”€”or the Freemasons, for that matter. They wanted what was cheapest. Or my gut feeling that “€œofficial Internet service of the Vatican Treasury Museum”€ made as much sense as “€œofficial dental floss of the Vampire Bat Museum.”€ I showed up every day in Silicon Alley, and did my best”€”as they frantically tried to go public before the Dotcom bubble burst.

Most of my stress at this job stemmed from my immediate boss, who was not only anti-Catholic, but a lefty gay activist with a penchant for foot stomping, desk pounding hissy fits. Privately, we called him “€œRumpelstiltskin.”€ Every day for some nine months, I had to try to squeeze reports of the Church’s official doings and doctrines through this hostile filter. It was the catechetical equivalent of passing a kidney stone. Never before or since have I found myself shouting at the top of my lungs, for instance, at my employer, “€œGo find someone else to do this f——ing job!”€ It says something about the state of this company that at this, Rumpelstiltskin backed down.

Each day, I came within a hairsbreadth of slamming this opera-lover’s face through a shiny Macintosh, and I knew that sooner or later my self-control would snap. (Irish and Croatian”€”it’s like being half nitro and half glycerine.) Then one day, I came across an article in National Review by an old schoolmate, and one of Charles Bork’s smoking buddies, Mark Cunningham. In it, Mark explained that “€œnicotine is a wonderful drug, and cigarettes perhaps the best drug-delivery device known to man. I savor the bitter taste and dusty feel of the smoke as it enters first my mouth and then my lungs; my spirits rise even with the tiny buzz the habit now provides. It picks me up when I’m feeling down, and adds to the joy of fine food, good drink, heartfelt conversation”€”of almost everything the good Lord put on this earth for our delight. It helps me think.”€

Faced with the alternative of job loss and a likely assault conviction, I decided to give it a try. Not cigarettes, of course”€”the smell of which will always bring me back to a bunch of blue-haired biddies playing bingo under a crucifix. No, I began to pick up each day a single $8 cigar, usually a thick maduro, one that took a solid hour in Madison Square Park to smoke. I’d sit by the dog run, watching the labs chase the chihuahuas, smiling as the lovelies strutted their stuff on the way to the gym, soaking in the fresh air I was helping to pollute. And after that break, somehow, I’d no longer feel the need to argue with Rumpelstiltskin. I’d accept his snarky emails with equanimity, and when he chatted with his boyfriend in the next cubicle as tried to I edit a piece on Humanae Vitae, I’d simply sink into my golden, druggy haze and do my job.

In time, I refined my taste in cigars. I began by pursuing “€œpiramidos,”€ then moved up to the more expensive “€œdouble torpedos,”€ cigars hand-rolled from larger leaves of higher quality. I inched up in price, and began to frequent those faux-Edwardian smoke shops in New York City which are among the last refuges of masculinity. No need to post illegal rules excluding women; the smoke accomplishes this nicely.

I settled at last on a brand called Acid, whose cigars “€œare cured in a large room called the cuarto armatico (aroma room) for several months prior to being rolled….  This room is lined with well over two hundred assorted herbs, botanicals and essential oils,”€ the company reports. These smokes have a slight taste of incense about them, and even a hint of patchouli. They give color to the room and”€”combined with the aroma of frisky beagles”€”create the perfect bachelor atmosphere. That is, one which might guarantee that you always remain one.

When my second parent died of cancer, I began to get the idea it was time to stop. I didn’t want to die a bachelor, and wasn’t so otherworldly that I was in a hurry to reach the next one. Anyway, the Bubble had burst, the Vampire Bat Museum had collapsed in a flurry of lawsuits”€”and the URL for its porn-filter Web site had been hijacked by an outfit that offered phone sex. I was working from home for a nice Catholic magazine”€”one owned by actual Catholics”€”and there was no more reason to stun my nerves into submission for $8 per day. Big surprise, now I couldn’t stop. I tried switching to cheaper, nastier brands”€”but like other forms of asceticism, on me this doesn’t work.

After years of struggling back and forth, I became a connoisseur of fine-toned, carefully crafted nicotine gum. While it’s not exactly good for you”€”chew enough and you get heart palpitations”€”it’s not a carcinogen, and seems a decent compromise. It fulfills the need to busy your hands and mouth with something that offers a mellow buzz, and works as enough of a sedative to keep a writer seated and working steadily.

There is much less critical literature on nicotine gum than there is on, say, cigars. The first glossy issue of Nicorette Aficionado has yet to hit the stands”€”and when it does, I doubt that it will feature Heidi Klum. (At the height of Kenneth Starr’s revelations, I checked the stands every month for Cigar Aficionado, awaiting what seemed inevitable… but they never put Monica on the cover. The cowards.) Nevertheless, it’s important to know some of the basics of gum appreciation, if you don’t want to waste your money at the pharmacy counter, and relapse into stockpiling stogies.

First and foremost, avoid the generic, drug store brands. In their most primitive form, they are not even coated, and taste a lot like chips you might pull from an old Commodore 64. Hard on the teeth, tough on the gums, they’re a positive punishment; you might as well go cold turkey.  CVS does offer a coated version, which retains a soupçon of minty taste for some five minutes”€”after which it reverts to form, and you once again have a mouth full of cardboard, and perhaps a busted crown.

No, it’s worth the extra $10 or so a week to insist on quality, flavor, and elegant presentation. And nothing says all those things like the founding father, the “€œold-school”€ standard”€”Nicorette. That varietal has come a long way since its early days, the pioneer period in oral nicotine delivery. The “€œoriginal”€ flavor is still the same plastic Chiclet it ever was. A crisis in my current love relationship arose when my beloved blew $50 of my blogging money on a box of these. But we came to an understanding. I took her on a tasting tour, and revealed to her the new and sophisticated flavors that Nicorette now offers. The best known, of course, is Mint”€”which while still uncoated, catering to the tough-guy constituency that used to smoke Marlboros, does retain its flavor long enough for me to finish, say, a blog for Takimag.

But the company has moved on, and so have I. Much tastier, in a brash way that challenges the palate, is FreshMint”„¢, which its patient craftsmen justly boast is “€œcoated for a delicious burst of mint flavor.”€ Like a glass of dry Magner’s cider, it’s a nice touch after a spicy dinner of Thai Drunken Noodles. It also makes a fine accompaniment to coffee.

For those with a sweeter tooth, there’s the frothier, more feminine Fruit Chill”„¢. This dessert-style gum is, makers aver, “€œcoated twice for an intense fruit flavor with a hint of mint.”€ It’s the nicotine gum equivalent of Amaretto.

Best of all, in my opinion, is Cinnamon Surge. Now it’s true that the name isn’t trademarked”€”and in culinary matters labels often mean more than you might think. For instance, in wines from France, the acronym AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) signifies a careful attention by wine makers and regulators to qualities that connoisseurs collectively call terroir“€”the soil, the climate, the varieties and proportions of grapes employed, as well as the vine density, pruning schedules, the alcohol proof, and other critical variables. However, in case of Nicorette, I think the absence of the “„¢ is evidence less of shoddy production than of problems in the company’s legal department. Indeed, I can report that Cinnamon Surge, “€œcoated for an intense rush of bold cinnamon flavor,”€ is my very favorite oral nicotine replacement. Zingy, bold, and as “€œcuriously strong”€ (“„¢) as a simple Altoid, it soothes the nerves as it challenges the palate in a manner that recalls the very best digestivi. It is Nicorette’s answer to grappa.


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