Monday, December 31, 2012


My First Smoke

Sonia in my apartment over Thanksgiving.  We're still friends.
I had my first cigarette at age fourteen with Sonia Saxena, at the pond that passes for a lake in Twin Rivers, New Jersey.  I had just met Sonia – she was my friend Laurie’s fancy friend that went to the fancy private school (Peddie) down the street for my decidedly mediocre public high school (Hightstown High).  My high school's motto was: Pride in Performance.  Please note, quality was not a prerequisite for this pride.  The only part of my high school that really excelled was a Humanities program that integrated English and History and basically taught me how to think and make connections.  But I digress. . .

Just Say No
The day I met Sonia, I was still part of the brainwashed “Just Say No” generation.  I hadn’t yet realized that drugs, like most things, can be great when done right and terrible when not.   Smoking was wrong.  But Sonia smoked.  And Sonia was cool.  So smoking was cool.  I had a cigarette that afternoon in August, choking down the smoke of the Marlboro light, and a few cigarettes later, I even enjoyed the sensation a little. 

I didn’t become a smoke overnight, but the next summer, at the Summer Shakespeare Program at McCarter Theater, I met a few fellow drama-rama teen smoker kids like myself.  Back then, you could smoke indoors, in the green room, and doing it made me feel like one of the professional actors.  That was also cool. 

Marlboros and Camels and Parliaments, Oh My!
By the time I got to college, I was downing a pack a day.  I was up to Marlboro Reds (I’d demote myself to Mediums when they came out, shortly thereafter) by then, but would also smoke  Parliaments with their recessed filters, Camels with their phallic brand logo, Benson & Hedges (coincidentally, the heir to either the Benson or Hedges fortune was rumored to live down the hall).  Lecy Goranson turned me on to American Spirits, and even though they were more expensive and almost impossible to get (we’d have to drive to a store in New Paltz) I loved those the most.  The light yellows, the normal Blues, the semi-light light-blues, the organic reds, the unfiltered browns, the special blacks.  It’s a testament to my memory and their packaging that I still remember all the variations.

The first time I tried to quit smoking was when Garland Wright died, in July 1998.  I did it cold-turkey.  Then a few weeks later an evil wizard possessed my brain and convinced me that having one again would be okay.  And so I did.  And it was okay.  It was better than okay, like meeting up with a good friend after years apart, and finding out you still have a lot in common.  The evil wizard convinced me to have a few more.  By the next month, I was smoking a pack a day again.

By that point, taxes were up and I was rolling my own.  It was messy and weird and an interesting conversation starter, and I liked all those things.  Loose tobacco, like loose women, wasn’t taxed.   I also liked being able to control the size of my smoke.  In spite of my sausage fingers, I’m good with my hands, and I mastered the skinny five-minute toothpick cigarette and the fatter ten-minute fatty.
The last time I played poker,  my pocket aces got busted by 10/J.
I made a few more half-hearted attempts to quit over the next few years that involved patches and gums and carrot juice.  The next time I quit for real was when Wendy Wasserstein died in January of 2006.  I lasted longer this time, a few solid months, until my dalliance with online poker drove me back to other unhealthy addictions (as opposed to healthy addictions?).  In December of 2006, broke, single, unemployed but miraculously with health insurance from a directing gig at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I went to my PCP and told her that I wanted a prescription for Welbutrin.

I chose my quit date:  January 1.  I started taking those little blue pills.  I would eye the date nervously on my calendar as December progressed.  At first, nothing changed.  But then, whole hours of being awake would elapse before I realized that I hadn’t smoked.  Or even wanted one.  That was Welbutrin’s real power: it took the wanting away.  Given that almost every day since I was 18 started with a cigarette, this was its own Xmas miracle.  


I smoked my brains out that New Year’s Eve, at a friend’s party in Queens.  I woke up on January 1st, 2007 and haven’t had a cigarette since.  The Welbutrin had some funny side effects.  Since it was developed as an anti-depressant, I got up with abundant pep the glorious three months we were together.  My dreams were also really intense, as they were whenever I tried the patch – Technicolor and epic, like WIZARD OF OZ meets PARADISE LOST.  My three-month prescription ran out in February, and I begged for more, but seeing the manic look in my eyes, my doctor wisely suggested I go off and see if I had kicked the habit.

I hadn’t just kicked the habit. Smoking lay at my feet, bruised and bleeding like I’d just fatalitied the shit out of it, Mortal Kombat style.  I haven’t had a cigarette since – tomorrow, that’ll be six years smoke free.  Not even a puff.  Not like some of you ex-smokers, who can cheat every now and then.  There are some addictions that I trust myself to flirt with, like poker.  Sometimes poker will flirt back, and we’ll go out a little and neck, but I know I’ll have the strength not to call the next morning.  But smoking isn’t like that.  Smoking’s like that ex you hate, the one who will always have some power over you, and even though you know you’re giving that ex the power s/he has, you still can’t stop yourself from doing it.  That’s what smoking is to me.  Or was. 


  1. Congrats Michael! And Happy New Year. Just wanted to say hey and let you know that I'm reading! Hope you're well.

    1. Zoe - thanks for reading, and Happy New Year to you, too!

  2. Ah, my smoking grasshopper, you have finally reached the mountaintop. I was your first influence, yet you actually surpassed me in going through the various stages. I never bought organic cigarettes or even attempted to roll my own.
    I want your readers to know that I, too, no longer smoke. It's been roughly seven years (I didn't record an exact date). Having said that, there are no regrets whatsoever. We had the best conversations while smoking on that bridge. I love those memories.
    In conclusion, I hope my mother never finds this blog.

    1. Sonia, I find your regret-free-ness totally inspiring. I still dream of smoking, I must confess, and always awake from those dreams feeling terribly guilty until I realized I haven't actually cheated (isn't funny that we use the same work about lapsing w/smoking as we do betraying other significant others?).

  3. Michael: Congrats...yours is a triumph of Herculean leave me alone to suffer my defeat to

  4. Richard, if my triumph is Herculean, then your self-inflicted punishment is Sisypushean. Happy New Year and much love to you.

  5. Ha! Really love the tense correction at the very end. So telling.