This, being day three, is when you may start to notice that I’m not doing much actual work this week. When I am actually working on an assignment for Vanity Fair, I work full time, biting my nails over the fact that I have to quit for the day at 6, when the baby sitter turns into a pumpkin, and when Important Sources in Washington are just starting to return phone calls. I’m never their first call-back, since I don’t work for one of the daily papers or networks that incite their most Pavlovian responses; but they do call back fairly promptly (could this have anything to do with their wanting to bring their wives to Vanity Fair’s annual party after the White House Correspondents’ dinner?)–as long as I lie to their assistants and say my deadline is three days away. Usually my deadline is four weeks away, but if you tell them this, you go into an oubliette so deep that it will take three more calls just to get their assistants to take the caps off their pens when you try to leave a message.
But in between assignments, which is where I am right now, I have a blissful freedom to see to all the tedious household chores: returning a package to eToys, which was supposed to be Aunt Patsy’s Christmas present for Willie (inside was a cheerful box with a card that read, “Merry Christmas, Jasmine and Jandria”). Collecting the forgotten bedspread from the dry cleaner. Forgetting to return videos. Buying small bribes with which to purchase silence when we take the kids on a 5 hour plane trip Thursday. (A nosegay to the person who invented stick-on earrings for little girls.) Normally I feel sheepish that I haven’t instead used my freedom to write the great American novel or something (my problem: I love situation and character, can’t fathom plot), or at least write back to all the friends who sent me Christmas cards. But I’m setting the bar very low, just now, because without lifting a finger I’m performing what will be the most important feat of my year: not smoking.
I started smoking again last spring, after more than a decade of abstinence, while my mother was dying. It was an artifact of grief, I knew, a misbegotten effort to hang on to her. Among my most vivid pictures of Beverly is her at the high wheel of one of the big cars she favored (she was into SUVs way before they were cool), posture perfect, with a cigarette aloft in her left hand; my mother smoked a Carlton the way others take high tea. So I inherited, among other things, her car and her habit. But I knew I’d have to give it up again, and so I quit on New Year’s Day. Which puts me, now, at almost three weeks of abstinence.
I’m using the patch–a miracle drug. The real miracle, though, is the way the world has changed since 1987, the last time I gave up smoking. I smoked for 10 years under the old dispensation (when you could light up almost anywhere) and 10 months under the new one (when you could light up almost nowhere). And it’s an amazing difference. For one thing, I just couldn’t smoke as much this time as I did last time; there weren’t enough places to do it. For another, it’s hard not to notice you’re doing something stupid when none of your friends will let you do it in their living rooms. It’s a testament to the curative powers of social opprobrium. The anti-smoking movement’s success is so complete that, looking back, it’s almost impossible to believe that smokers felt as entitled as we did. Can it really be true that we smoked on airplanes? In hospitals? I remember with dismay how, when I went to work on the National Desk of the Washington Post in 1986, a co-worker and I merrily befouled the air around the seven or eight other editors who practically sat in our laps (they don’t call it a Desk for nothing). One of them was even allergic, and the grand concession we two smokers made was to move our overflowing ashtrays to the sides of our terminals farthest away from her.
Wherever you are, Alison, my apologies.