Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike is Dead

Marlboro cigarettes
A pack of Marlboro cigarettes.
The Complete and Total Loser read John Cheever which gave him no room for John Updike so the Complete and Total Loser didn't read him. And now he's dead of lung cancer.
Smoking will do that to you. Hard to believe a guy that smart would smoke himself to death.
The Loser learned to smoke at 13 from a summer friend named Richard.
“Take a small drag,” Richard said. "When you get used to that, take bigger ones.” One night, girls present, the Loser took bigger drags than he was ready for, blowing out impressive clouds. Later, as he and Richard headed for the small sailboat Richard's family owned to sleep, he vomited.
Many stop forever at that point. By summer's end, the Loser was addicted. He found he could buy cigarettes from most stores and that vending machines were unsupervised. Only once in his teens was the Loser refused a pack of cigarettes. You had to be 16. He'd get 50 cents daily to take the bus home from school and then hitchhike, saving the money for cigarettes.
John Updike smoking
John Updike, smoking.
 The Loser's mother smoked. There’s nothing a teenage smoker likes more than a smoking parent. It covers the smell and provides a source of free cigarettes. If you knew how to roll a joint, you could get butts from a parent's ashtrays and use the leftover tobacco to roll your own. She smoked L&M’s, an awful brand. The package used to have graphics like Marlboro’s, but not as bold. In the 70s they went for a hip look—a photo of a couple, smoking of course, surrounded by trees in full autumn color.
Marlboro was the preferred brand. They came in crushproof boxes, which meant you could put the pack in your blue jeans pocket and still have unbroken cigarettes after a day of bicycling and running around.
The Loser's older brother took up smoking at boarding school. “You’re not a real smoker,” he said, “unless having a cigarette’s the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night.” Smoking in bed was hugely pleasurable. There are times even now, decades after quitting, that the Loser wakes up from a dream in which he was smoking and searches the sheets for a burning ember.
He quit in high school, an all-boys school where he was unpopular. Not going to parties meant few opportunities to impress girls. Even though his tobacco use was withering on its own, it still required a conscious effort to quit.
He went to college in rural Ohio, miles from any city. The isolation was good. The only TVs were in lounges, there were no VCRs, the campus had one computer in the physics department.
The winter of 1977-78, his freshman year, broke records with its snowfall and cold. Even though the campus was small and neatly contained, lying along a level spine-like path less than a mile long, classes were canceled during the worst of the storms that season. From women's dorm rooms came popcorn, cookie dough, hot chocolate, decks of cards and board games.
One reason people start smoking is for a feeling of social togetherness. That winter, as the Loser played backgammon and hearts, he began to borrow cigarettes from friends, first as a joke, with mocking cool. He was soon hooked again and bought packs for those he’d borrowed from. Eventually he skipped that step and bought his own. Winstons.
The late 70s were a smoker’s paradise. You could smoke almost anywhere; dining halls, hospital waiting rooms, libraries, airplanes. Cigarettes cost about 75 cents a pack. In big cities, young people on street corners promoted new brands by giving packs to passersby. You could smoke anywhere. Only once in four years of college did anyone ask the Loser not to smoke while they ate. There were fold-to-assemble ashtrays made of coated paper, a dull aluminum, at library desks and study carrels throughout the campus. Even parties at the jock frats were thick with smoke.
The Loser majored in art. Much of art involves waiting. For gesso to dry, for film to develop, for plates to etch, for ideas to form. A cigarette, held and smoked the right way, was an indispensable part of being an art major.
The Loser didn't quit till he was out of college for three years. At age 25 he knew that, being a loser, he would never be able to quit at age 40 and that he would be the type to get lung cancer or heart disease by 50 if he didn't. It took several attempts but the final one took and now he lives smoke free. When he thinks of how he could simply walk into a store and buy a pack at any time, the idea surprises him a little. He sees smokers standing outside in the cold, the heat, the rain and pities them.

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