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Blowing Smoke

I say I want to quit, and every time I really mean it. Every time.

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Last night my wife and I made a pact to stop smoking cigarettes today. This morning, after walking the kids to school, I walked to the gas station and bought a pack. My wife will be pleased when she gets home this evening. She knows, as I do, that we were just blowing smoke last night.

As I close in on two-thirds of the life span I can expect as a smoker, there are not many subjects about which I can claim expertise. But there is one thing I am an authority on: stopping smoking. I've done it so many times that I've actually lost count. I've quit three times in each of the last five years. I've already quit six times in the 21st century. Even as I sit here puffing away, I'm fully committed to quitting again. Tomorrow.

A few months ago my brother called from New Jersey to tell me our mother had died. The call was not unexpected, nor was it unwelcome. I'd spent a weekend with her a few weeks earlier, and she told me then she hoped to die soon. After 86 years, she'd had enough. For the last year, she'd been living with my brother, his wife, and their kids--not an ideal situation, but preferable, we all agreed, to a nursing home. Congestive heart failure and emphysema were the official causes of her death. Her condition had gotten so bad that she was on oxygen around the clock. But the things that really did her in, that broke her spirit, were not being able to live alone and not being able to smoke. It killed her not to smoke.

At the time of my brother's call I had been a nonsmoker for six months. When I heard the news, my first thought was I want a cigarette. But I had none on hand, and the urge subsided for a time.

I was saddened by my mother's death, but not distraught. I felt relieved that she'd been spared the suffering she would have otherwise faced. I didn't need a cigarette to console myself, I simply wanted one. But by the time my wife got home an hour later, I felt like I deserved one. I told her about my mom, we embraced, and she began to weep. After a few moments, she pulled away and wiped her eyes. "I want a damn cigarette," she said.

I went right out and bought us a pack.

That evening she suggested that I go out with my friend Tony. On my way, I stopped by the gas station where I used to be a regular. I was going out to drink, as I do about once a week, but tonight was special. If a guy can't smoke on the night his mom dies, when can he, right?

Tony and I drank and talked and smoked until last call. On the way home I bought coffee, to have something to drink with my smokes when I got there. I was happier than I'd been in months. My mother was gone, but I felt like my old self again.

Over the years, I've compiled lists--long lists--of reasons to quit smoking: fatal diseases and chronic conditions to be averted, social and economic advantages to be gained. Like a 12th-century monk, I've written duplicates, and then posted them prominently by my 20th-century household conveniences. This is elementary Quit Smoking 101 strategy. The idea is that every time you get an urge to smoke, you consult the list for one good reason not to. I've found that it's important to have as many reasons as you have urges in a given day. At 9 AM, for example, reading the words "lung cancer" with my lips moving can easily divert me toward a banana. By 9 PM, however, "heart disease" or "tracheotomy" can prompt a response along the lines of Ah, why the hell not?

So it helps to have less obvious things to consider. These I write out in wordy detail, elaborating on the more contingent consequences, like setting the house on fire late some night and killing the whole family--or worse yet, killing just my wife and kids and living on, horribly disfigured by burns and racked with guilt. Or dropping an ember on my member while driving and then being rear-ended by a litigious SUV driver talking on a cell phone. When I find myself calculating the increased odds of being at the all-night convenience store during a botched armed robbery, I know it's time to stop smoking or stop thinking about stopping.

These days when I quit, I no longer write lists. I just refer to the ones I've already written. The one above my computer is yellowed from smoke.

I've tried almost every stop-smoking aid on the market: nicotine patch, nicotine gum, nicotine nasal spray, nicotine inhaler. I've tried them in combination with antidepressants. I've gone cold turkey, whole hog, one day at a time, hour to hour. I tried acupuncture and stopped smoking for three miserable days. I haven't gotten around to hypnosis, but my brother once weighed in on its merits relative to acupuncture. After acupuncture, he said, he lit a cigarette in the car on the way home. After hypnosis he lit one on the way to the car.

By far the best stop-smoking aid I've found is pregnancy.

When my wife became pregnant ten years ago, we both knew we had to quit for the sake of the fetus. But the day after our son was born, once he was safely tucked into the crib and sleeping like a baby, we celebrated...with a cigarette. I'd purchased a pack at the pharmacy while procuring postpartum essentials: diapers, wipes, powder, ointment, episiotomy doughnut. We'd sit in the dark after middle-of-the-night feedings, sharing one cigarette at a time, basking in the glow of new parenthood, holding hands and talking optimistically about our future as we passed the cancer stick between us.

During my wife's second pregnancy we quit again, but when the second baby came home, we succumbed to nostalgia for those late nights the first time around and started smoking like there was no tomorrow.

I began smoking regularly in high school. I was an honor roll student, not a troublemaker, but I hated school. In the morning before class I'd stand by the chain-link fence that marked the boundary of school property and smoke with my friends. No matter how bad the weather, we'd gather in clusters--freaks and greasers, dopers and juicers, the college bound and the going nowhere, industrial artists and National Merit Scholars, even a few jocks--and chain-smoke by the chain-link. Smoking was our common ground, and as long as we were on "our" side of the fence, we could do it with impunity.

To get into the school, the teachers--our jailers--had to walk right past us. Their disapproval was palpable. They'd avert their eyes, obviously uncomfortable with making eye contact with us. There were a few teachers who I could tell regarded me as a bright kid, the kind who occasionally posed intelligent questions in class, someone with potential. I had no desire to be openly rude to these folks, but I did feel compelled to disabuse them of their conception of me as a good boy. This was the late 60s, by the way.

The thing I most enjoyed--practically the only thing I enjoyed--about high school was smoking in the morning next to that chain-link fence.

Around the time she hit 80, my mother developed congestive heart disease. This followed emphysema, from which she'd suffered for a few years, but overall she wasn't doing badly for someone who'd smoked since she was 13.

My mother was hospitalized four times for these ailments. Each time she was released the doctor arranged for her to have oxygen at home. She refused to turn on the machine: she was afraid, she confided, that she'd light a cigarette and set herself ablaze. "Now that's what I'd call lighting up," she'd joke. But it made her nervous just to have the thing in her house, as if it were the ghost of my old man standing there with the can of gasoline he used to burn leaves when I was a kid.

Given the option of smoking or breathing, my mother chose smoking three times. The fourth time she had no choice.

My choice should be obvious. So why am I still smoking?

To succeed at quitting I need the committed cooperation of my wife. I can't stop without her, nor she without me. We are codependents, joined at the lip, adept at swapping the roles of the enabler and the enabled. Between the two of us we've mustered every imaginable rationalization, every conceivable self-deception, for giving up the fight, giving in to temptation and "having just one." A friend says our periodic attempts to stop fulfill some unconscious need for conflict in an otherwise solid relationship.

When we give up smoking, we give up part of ourselves. As my wife explained to our doctor, "It's practically our only form of social recreation."

Smoking creates the occasions of our communication. When she gets home from work, we smoke a cigarette together and talk. After dinner, we smoke together and talk. After the kids are in bed, we smoke and talk. When we don't smoke, we don't talk--we argue. We follow a pattern that, after all of our previous attempts to quit, has become a script. We bicker incessantly until one of us finally cries out, with method passion that Nicolas Cage or Elisabeth Shue might envy, "OK, you want to smoke a cigarette? Go ahead, go get yourself a pack of cigarettes! See if I care!" When we reach that point--the catharsis that we knew was our destination all along--the gloom lifts and the glow returns. We smoke together and talk--amicably, patiently, sincerely--about how we really do have to start stopping again tomorrow.

During our last few efforts we've added a new wrinkle to the familiar scenario: we begin bickering even before we stop, while we're still working up the resolve. It's a great stalling tactic.

When we can hold out long enough, the bickering subsides, more a casualty of exhaustion than of our emotional strength. But the irritability can be tenacious. My wife, for example, grants herself "permission" to be in a bad mood when she quits.

"I'm not smoking," she'll say. "Am I not I entitled to be in a bad mood for a little while?"

"But honey," I'll say, "you've been in a bad mood for six months now."

"You're wrong, it's only been five."

It's been claimed that the addiction to cigarettes is the most difficult monkey to get off one's back. Heroin addicts who are able to kick junk rarely give up their cigarettes. Alcoholics who manage to put down the sauce usually keep picking up their smokes.

But in our culture, the struggle to stop smoking gets no respect. The anguish of alcoholics and junkies is the stuff of great literary and cinematic art: Lost Weekend, Under the Volcano, Ironweed, The Man With the Golden Arm, Requiem for a Dream.

Smokers, what do we get? Cold Turkey with Dick Van Dyke.

The first time my mother was hospitalized I found her frail and shriveled, garlanded with tubes, and (I thought) near death. The next day she was showing signs of improvement. On the third day I arrived to find her sitting up in a wheelchair at the door to her room, in spirited conversation with a nurse.

I was delighted to see her condition so improved. But when she saw me, she shouted, "Where the fuck have you been?" Before I could answer, she pointed at the nurse and said, "This bitch won't let me have a cigarette. Did you bring my cigarettes?"

I apologized to the nurse, who, fortunately, had assumed she was dealing with an Alzheimer's patient, and wheeled my mom back into her room. Due to an imbalance of electrolytes and possibly an overload of oxygen, she was temporarily delusional, talking about imagined visits with relatives--some dead, some alive--one of whom had warned her that her house was on fire. She'd even had a visit from Jerry Orbach, who plays Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. Her thought processes were scattered, but on one subject she was quite lucid: smoking.

In a monologue whose wrath and single-mindedness called to my mind the ranting of Huck Finn's dad, old Pap, on the doings of guv'ment, my mother delivered her indictment. "When I was in the army reserve during the war, the government gave us cigarettes! Now the government says we can't smoke! Who does the government think it is? All I want is one lousy cigarette and the government says I can't have one? How dare they! What kind of thanks is that? Why did the goddamn government give us cigarettes in the first place?"

I reached in my pocket and pulled out my pack. Her tirade stopped and a hungry smile spread over her face.

I wheeled her into the bathroom, pulled the oxygen line from her nostrils, and lit her a smoke. She took three long puffs between labored breaths. "That's enough, sweetheart, that's all I need." And it was. Until she got out of the hospital a few days later.

I work at home as a writer, which puts me at a disadvantage relative to most people, my wife included, when trying to quit. Most workplaces are smoke free, mine is free smoke. Willpower is my only deterrent.

Every time I stop smoking, I stop writing and start housekeeping. I vacuum--floors, walls, ceilings, windowsills, miniblinds, under beds, behind furniture. I mop, I dust, I wipe, I do windows. I do laundry--sheets, pillowcases, curtains. I hover over my kids, ready to snatch the clothes off their bodies should they spill something. I sort, I organize, I hang things on the walls. I cook, favoring recipes that call for lots of ingredients and plenty of chopping. Sometimes I even turn to yard work.

In the initial days of quitting, carrying out these chores gives me a sense of productivity. But when the first week passes and my computer screen remains dark, I become apprehensive that I'll never be able to write again.

Over the years I've found that the one thing I can't do when I stop smoking is write. Weeks after I've quit, I'll labor fruitlessly over some easy assignment that should take an hour or two, compulsively rewriting sentences until I give up for the day with nothing to show, only to repeat the futility the next day. When I get close to deadline, I'll pace the house until my feet begin carrying me toward the Shell station three blocks away. Sometimes I'll ride my bike there, telling myself that going for smokes is a great way to get some exercise.

I sit down, light a cigarette, and the muse returns. Instantly. It never fails. I wish it would, because faced with the choice of being able to make a living and being able to live longer, I always choose the more immediate benefit.

If I'm really committed to stopping, I'll throw the pack away as soon as I finish working. But most of the time I'll keep the smokes around for when my wife comes home. She hates me for it, but only a little.

When I'm wrestling with the problem of writing and smoking I have to remind myself that in 1981 I wrote my first novel without cigarettes. (I also wrote it on a typewriter, which makes it even more unimaginable.) Then I remember that I started smoking again when I got down to the last 50 pages. I resumed not because of any sort of block, but as a self-congratulatory gesture. I was feeling so good about having written a book that I wanted to give myself a reward.

Understandably, people who have never smoked have trouble comprehending how any intelligent, self-respecting person can light a cigarette and suck poisonous vapor into his lungs, given what we know about the relationship of smoking to heart disease, and to cancer--of the lung, of the mouth, of the esophagus. That we pay for the privilege is even more confounding to them. I can't explain it, and I'm not stupid enough to try to justify or rationalize it. Smoking is stupid, smoking is expensive, smoking is self-destructive.

Self-destructive: sometimes I think that's the part I like about it. Perhaps my smoking is an act of penance, a manifestation of unacknowledged self-loathing. If I could understand why I do it, I could learn a lot about myself. Chances are it reflects a part of me that I don't want to know much about. (Evidently I am stupid enough to try to rationalize it after all.)

I've had sinus problems all my life, possibly because I grew up in a house where the adults puffed away all day long. Both my parents smoked during dinner. They'd have a puff, exhale, put their butts down to smolder in their respective ashtrays, have a mouthful of meat loaf and mashed potatoes, chew, swallow, chat a little, and puff again. In all of my 18 years in that house, and all my own years of smoking, I never contracted pneumonia. Never, that is, until six years ago, six weeks after I stopped smoking.

That's very common, a doctor told me.

When I heard that, I felt tricked. If I hadn't been so sick, I would have started smoking again right away. I held out for another four months, smoked again for six, then stopped again. Six weeks later I got pneumonia again. Now when I stop smoking, I do so with the expectation that respiratory illness will be one of the consequences.

My father stopped smoking once, while I was away at college. When I came home to visit he told me it had been surprisingly easy--so easy he wondered why he hadn't done it decades earlier. He had simply cut down by two cigarettes a day until he reached zero. Except for eating a little bit more--he had put on five pounds--there had been no side effects whatsoever.

My mother took me aside. "He's been a goddamn SOB to live with," she said.

From my old bedroom, a converted garage below my father's office, I could hear a distinct change in the familiar drumming of his fingers on the card table that he used as a desk. The frequent light tapping that had once seemed a mere nervous tic had become an unrelenting furious thumping.

The next time I came home, my father was smoking again. His finger rolls were back to normal.

To understand why people keep smoking once they've started and why it's so hard for them to stop, it's necessary to have some understanding of the effect of smoking on the brain.

Nicotine, like other psychoactive drugs, stimulates the production of certain neurotransmitters: naturally occurring chemicals that act like happy juice on certain receptors of the brain. Or maybe it just massages these receptors, making them more approachable to the happy-making chemicals when they pass through the neighborhood. At any rate, once the stimulation is provided by an artificial source--nicotine--the brain stops producing stimulating stuff on its own. It behaves like a disgruntled employee who's been passed over for a promotion in favor of a new guy. The brain develops an attitude: "It's not my job, dude."

When you work up the nerve to tell nicotine to clear out its desk, you need to retrain your brain to do its old job. The brain, needless to say, is none too eager to reclaim its old responsibilities. The result is withdrawal, which can last anywhere from five days to five years. You get so depressed you cry; you get so angry you yell; you feel irritable all the time; you can't concentrate; you feel like your head is going to explode. And then it gets hard. As my friend David, a former smoker, says, "When you stop smoking, you are insane and stupid for six months."

As a child I would follow my mother around with the ostensible purpose of helping with the housework. As she moved from room to room, dusting and vacuuming, she would light cigarettes and leave them burning in ashtrays--or, when no ashtray was at hand, on any available surface. While cleaning the bathroom, she sometimes would park her cigarette on the back rim of the commode. I recall showing my friend Mace Pinchal how she had browned out the S on the toilet in our upstairs bathroom, rebranding it a "tandard." It was not unusual for her to come into the room where my brother, sister, and I were watching TV and ask if we'd seen her burning cigarette.

I can't recall my mother ever having more than three cigarettes lit at any given moment, but two at once was typical during housework. As a result, many of the windowsills and countertops in our house had brown stains where mom's butts had smoldered to ash. There are identical brown streaks along the edge of my desk that my kids marvel at.

My mother smoked unfiltered Kools, a flavor concept that must have been devised as a prank--mentholated cough drop marinated in tar macadam.

One day, when I was about eight, she saw me picking up her pack. "You want to try one?" she asked. "Go ahead."

She lit it for me, and my response was predictable. I gagged, choked, managed to say "Yuck," and handed it back to her with tear-filled eyes.

"There," she said. "Now you know."

My mother thought that by letting me try one of her cigarettes, she'd fix it so I'd never have one again. And she was right. That was the last Kool I ever smoked.

You might think that health insurers would want to support people in their efforts to quit, but most don't cover the cost of smoking-cessation aids. About three years ago a new and effective aid was introduced, a pharmaceutical called Zyban, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline. There's nothing new about the drug itself: it's been marketed as an antidepressant under the name Wellbutrin since 1986. But when depressed smokers taking Wellbutrin began reporting that it took away their need for cigarettes, GlaxoSmithKline sat up and took notice. After some impressive clinical trials, the drug was repackaged as Zyban. It comes with a cassette tape that helps cheer you on in your battle against withdrawal. Health insurers do not reimburse for Zyban, but if you tell your doctor you're feeling sad, you'll be giving him a reason to prescribe Wellbutrin, and your stop-smoking effort will be subsidized. And you won't get stuck with the dumb cassette. These are the kinds of secrets you command when you've got my level of experience at stopping smoking.

If you smoke long enough, you develop an us-versus-them mentality. Maybe it's the dirty looks you get when you light up, or the overload of media reports that accuse you of putting nonsmokers in harm's way with your secondhand smoke. Maybe it's the blame you take for being a drain on the economy, unmitigated by any credit for all the social security funds you'll be freeing up when you die early.

Probably it's because you know that they're right and you're wrong.

Whatever the reason, I take secret pleasure when I read news accounts of guys who keel over while running their habitual ten miles a day. My friend Ed, who used to be a paramedic, swears he saw more stiffs on the floor of the health club than on the floor of the tavern. But I think he's blowing smoke, because he's one of us.

Those who have never smoked have no notion of how powerful nicotine addiction is.

A friend of mine, a surgeon, signed a pledge to the other members of his practice to stop. He relocated and joined a new practice. He says that while he's doing surgery, which can last up to six hours, he has total concentration and never thinks about smoking. The moment he's done, he craves a cigarette. Two years ago he made a promise to his son that he would stop at the end of the year. He didn't. Last year, on Father's Day, his wife, daughter, and son extracted a promise that he would quit by the end of the summer. On Labor Day weekend, when I saw him, he was still smoking--and fuming at himself for making another promise that he felt he couldn't keep.

Another friend, a microbiologist, hasn't smoked regularly since college, about 25 years ago, and then he was only a smoker for a couple of years. While driving one day last year, he noticed a pack of cigarettes that his stepson had left on the dashboard of his car. He lit one, took a few puffs, and threw it out the window. He says he thought about that cigarette for six months.

When I'm not smoking, the red Marlboro sign in the gas station window looks like a hot fudge sundae to me. And Marlboro isn't even my brand.

My wife and I continued smoking for a few weeks after my mother died, then gathered our wits and stopped for another three months. Then her birthday arrived. I'd arranged for a sitter so we could go out to dinner, but no restaurant I named appealed to her. We set out driving, and she vetoed every suggestion I made, until I came to the one we both knew she was waiting for.

"Being it's your birthday, we could buy a pack of cigarettes."

"Really?" Her face brightened. She was as radiant as the day we were married. She looked happier than she had in months.

We stopped at one of those peculiar suburban Chicago restaurants where, when you request the smoking section, the hostess replies with conspiratorial gruffness, "Honey, we don't got any no-smokers here." We had the veal Oscar and a thoroughly enjoyable evening. We've been smoking ever since, but we know our time is almost up.

When my wife tells me I sound like my father, she could mean that I'm being charming and clever or that I'm being anal and overbearing. When she says I sound like my mother, it can only mean one thing: my cough is driving her crazy. My mother did her effortless and ironical best to show us how glamorous smoking can be, leaning over the stove burner in a worn-out robe and slippers to light her first of the day, letting out her morning death rattle as she prepared school lunches. When her coughing spasms went on so long they prompted inquiries of concern, she'd wave a dismissive hand through a shroud of smoke and sputter, "It's just these damn cigarettes. I ought to give the damn things up."

"Why don't you?" one of us would ask.

She'd always take a final drag before crushing out her butt in disgust. "Oh, mind your own business."

We did, and we came to regard her cough as a natural part of the household sound track, as familiar as the hum of the refrigerator or the clatter of dishes. Cigarettes were a fundamental element of her life, but she took no pleasure from them. She hated them so much that I wondered if she hated her life. I figured she must have hated herself for incurring and enduring such an unpleasant cough, but I've since come to learn what she no doubt knew: the cough sounds much worse than it feels. Which is why it bothers my wife more than it bothers me. I'm barely aware of it, and that's what bothers me.

Of all the unpleasant consequences of smoking, the nagging of one's children is among the most underrated. Having a six-year-old tell you that what you're doing is stupid, wrong, unhealthy, and dangerous--and not being able to offer any rebuttal--is frustrating. Knowing that even if you do succeed in stopping, in a few years these kids will probably reject the antismoking line they've been force-fed since preschool, take up smoking themselves, and, adding insult to injury, blame you for setting the example that got them hooked is almost too much to bear.

When I stop smoking I try to enlist my kids as partners in the effort, warning them that I am likely to be irritable for a while. "Remember, guys, daddy loves you, no matter what he says to you this week."

No matter how hard I try to control my temper, no matter how hard they try to adapt to my moodiness, we invariably reach a point where one of them says, "Dad, maybe you should go buy some cigarettes."

There has never been an easier time to quit smoking--that's the lesson I've learned from my last few futile attempts. There's a new device on the market, a plastic-tipped inhaler that provides all the nicotine any smoker's brain could crave. Unlike gum or the patch, it's a delivery system that simulates the action of a cigarette, which means you can take as little or as much help as you need, when you feel you need it. Basically, it provides the good part of the cigarette (nicotine) without the bad part (smoke). Making the transition from a soft, squishy filter to hard plastic tip entails a degree of sensory disappointment, akin to graduating from breast to bottle. But, hey, most of us learned to make that adjustment well before we hit kindergarten.

When you use the inhaler in combination with Wellbutrin or Zyban, you are spared virtually all of the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. No having to stop yourself from running out in front of cars, or gazing pensively at sharp blades, or weeping uncontrollably. No putting the milk in the closet and the shoes in the refrigerator, no locking the keys inside the car while it's still running, no surges of hatred for the guy who has nine items in the eight-or-less line.

The problem (and leave it to me to find one) is that it's almost too easy. You get the gain without much pain, which means that anytime you encounter a temptation to smoke--like when you go out with my friend Ed--the voice inside your head that should be screaming You fool! After all the misery you put yourself through! instead says, Sure, go ahead. Stopping ain't so hard.

The solution to this problem is to stay away from Ed, but if you knew the guy you'd understand why he's also a hard habit to break.

About 15 years ago I interviewed the few remaining players in the National Hockey League who didn't wear helmets (when helmets became mandatory, veteran players were grandfathered). Contrary to my expectations, the holdouts were not trying to maintain a macho front; they were simply doing what felt comfortable. One in particular, Doug Wilson, a star defenseman, had tried wearing a helmet for half a season but ultimately decided against it, although he knew this wasn't wise. His parents, both schoolteachers, had devoted their careers to doing important work, he said. He, on the other hand, got to play a game he enjoyed for a living. That privilege, he felt, compelled him to perform to the best of his ability. When he wore a helmet he didn't play as well. "It didn't feel right," he said. "I just didn't feel like myself."

I understood exactly what he meant.

When I'm not smoking, I don't feel like myself. Although my smoking may be evidence that I hate myself, I like myself a whole lot better when I'm doing it.

That, when it comes down to it, is my only excuse for continuing to smoke. It's a lame one, just like all the other excuses my nicotine-greedy brain can invent. The arguments for quitting are simply too compelling. Can I possibly be that dumb?

I've had the Wellbutrin flowing through my system for five days now. My inhaler sits on my desk, waiting to be sucked and chewed. I've already begun madly drumming my fingers. I'm saving up domestic tasks for my impending housekeeping blitz. I've allowed a week's worth of dirty laundry to accumulate, last year's leaves are knee-deep in the yard, the storms need to come down and the screens need to go up. I've put the kids on orange alert. I've told Ed I won't be seeing him for a year. My wife and I have talked things over thoughtfully, lovingly. We know what we're in for, and we're in for it together. We realize it's the last time we'll talk to each other for a few months.

I'm going to hop on my bike right now and buy us one last pack. There's going to be a cigarette orgy here tonight after the kids go to bed.

Tomorrow we stop. That's our plan. And this time we're not just blowing smoke. We really mean it. Plus, I just realized: It's my mother's birthday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Robert Meganck.

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