It’s no doubt a good thing that smoking is no longer as popular a pastime as it once was. It’s better to live in a world where one can experience the joy of walking into a bar without reeling at the thickness of cigarette smoke. It’s better to not have to wash cigarette smoke out of your hair (let alone deal with the dry cleaning consequences) after sitting in a smoky conference room for hours. (Yes, boys and girls, back in the day, people were allowed to smoke indoors, let alone within 10 feet of a building. Moreover, there really were smoke-filled rooms in which deals were done.) And obviously there are those nagging little issues of death and disease.
But the world is missing something now that many of the culture and rituals associated with smoking are also dying out. The rituals are rich and pleasurable, a boon to the quality of life, and something we need to find a way to reinvent. Without the side effects, of course.
What culture of smoking?
Well, there were the accoutrements, all absolutely perfect outlets for the work of fine artisans. Ashtrays as little sculptures out of clay or metal. Cigarette cases out of fine leathers that became impregnated over time with the smell of tobacco. Boxes for cigarettes (in case a guest didn’t have their own) that called into play the work of fine woodworkers, techniques such as marquetry and intarsia, or lacquer. Lighters and portable ashtrays out of fine metals, perhaps with some etching, chasing, engraving or gilding. Cigarette holders out of jade or bakelite.
And the cigarette crowd has nothing on the cigar crowd with its delicious polished wood humidors; pipes; guillotine-style and scissor-style cigar cutters; ashtrays made specially for pipes. I’m sure I’m missing something.
What little objet do we have today for the artisan to show off their skills, or for the connoisseur to keep on their persons as small talismen and personal signifiers? Not many, really. We don’t really use pens anymore; wallets are another endangered species in the age of ApplePay. And iPhone holders don’t cut it for me: artisanship doesn’t appear to be in great evidence around those, since most are pretty simple leather affairs with a bit of stitching. It’s unlikely to be that thing you thrust into your pocket to feel, to worry, to calm yourself with during the course of the day. That iPhone holder is never going to be that object that’s indelibly associated with you. It’s quite a loss.
Now there is hope on the accoutrement side. I’ve been noticing a little resurgence in objects influenced by the culture of smoking: the cigarette box as card holder; the elegant and intricately (though not by hand) engraved iPhone case that also brings that cigarette case aesthetic to the party; seeing more vintage ashtrays in hipster shops; product designer friends of mine talking about it. There’s something in the air. Obviously, there’s a nod to MadMen, all wrapped in its haze of bourbon and cigarettes and valium: a kinship with the (also) MadMen-fueled faux sophisticate cocktail culture that swelled and manages to linger; the morph of the hipster vibe into the beatnik one (you can’t keep a good one down); and a certain return to opulence (norm core backlash).
But it’s not just about the objects: there’s the social angle in ciggy culture. Back in the day, all sorts of connections could start out with the bumming of a cigarette. It was a communal kind of thing, a way to engage … but not too deeply. What do we have these days? What small things can you share? Not much, really. Buying a drink for someone in a bar brings a great deal more baggage with it. Share food? Out of the question, with all those food obsessions and allergies (real or imagined) about.
But more than anything it’s the cigarette break that I think is the real loss. Once upon a time, even before laws forced smokers outdoors, people took these little time outs from the day to go and have a smoke. Smokers had license to go and commune with themselves (or with a few others), smoking, thinking, reflecting, just being. Whether occasioned by addiction, habit, or just the understandable wish to free themselves from the shackles of the office or meeting they were in, they had a chance to reconnect with themselves, to process or to zone out, let feelings and thoughts wash over them, to integrate, to savor the moment.
No doubt there are long economic treatises on how much money employers lost from these little breaks, but on the other side of the ledger, there’s no end of evidence showing that taking small breaks during the day are good for the soul and the body not to mention productivity.
There’s also the cigarette break as a way to get away from people all together, whether in the course of a day, a party, or extended periods of torture like enforced family gatherings. For introverts and people with difficult families (of course that’s not you), this kind of break is really an imperative. It’s probably saved no end of marriages.
Smoking was a convenient excuse for all kinds of things. But not any more.
Stand outside, leaning against the wall, have a think, and watch the people look at you sideways: you clearly are up to no good. Head out for coffee or a snack but there’s a limit to how many of those you can have in a day. Tell a co-worker that you’re going to take a walk and they’ll wonder why you’re so stressed out and upset. How ironic: people seem to be forgiving of addictions … but not to the addiction of just doing nothing for a little while. Our puritanism strikes again.
Of course our bodies are healthier, but what’s saddest about the loss of cigarette culture is that it’s another way in which we’re losing the opportunity to maintain a sense of the self. It’s another way we’re losing the opportunity to contemplate and process and savor. In a time when so much seems to be about the social, the electronically connected, the loss of personal space and personal objects is chipping away at who we are.
The answer is obvious: carve out that time (perhaps get addicted to it), ignore the looks, find a talisman you can use as a personal signifier or pick up some fabulous worry beads. Or perhaps we could create a new set of socially acceptable rituals to make it easier on us all.
In the meantime, I broke down and bought the ever so slightly naff cigarette case-like iPhone bumper. Will it encourage me to not engage with it as a tether but as a talisman? Hope springs eternal.