Smoke Rings in My Mind
Just like a flame
Love burned brightly, then became
An empty smoke ring that has
Gone with the Wind.
~~ Ella Fitzgerald, Gone With The Wind
I started tobacco smoking circa the late spring to early summer of 1966, before I turned twenty-two. How it got started should be a classic case study on the pitfalls and subtle vulnerabilities of the idle soul to all sorts of mischief and misbegotten misadventures.
Having just migrated from a quasi-custodial cocoon of the Foreign Students’ College in Chiba University to a bootstrap Ronin lifeboat in Kyoto University in my second quest for a baccalaureate degree, there was not a single soul in school I could call a friend. My typical day would end with me not having spoken to anybody whosoever.
I used to get back to my dormitory room from school half an hour before the cafeteria served dinner. I would spend the thirty minutes trying to empty out my mind by making cascading clouds of smoke rings with my feet on my desk. My pack of cigarettes was then kept in the desk front drawer.
After one week the cigarettes transferred to my shirt breast pocket. After two weeks I was burning one pack a day. After six months I made it to five packs a day. One year later I discovered the economics of the hobby rather unsustainable. I took up pipe smoking based mainly on economic calculus.
One pack of cigarettes then cost ¥70. At five packs daily burn, my diurnal cigarette expenditures booked at ¥350. I could buy a decent lunch at the Kyoto University cafeteria for ¥250. A can of Momoyama pipe tobacco, costing ¥350 afforded me one week of smoking pleasure. My first pipe which lasted almost one year, I bought for ¥300. I was burning an average of nine oz/week, supplemented with a daily two- to three-cigar ration.
I quit clean on February 1, 1993 not because I wanted to but courtesy of a massive stroke which left me out of commission for thirty days. In fourteen of those the right half of my body was completely paralyzed. I plan to get back to the pipe and cigar just as soon as I can figure out how to hide it from my wife. Alternatively, maybe I shall develop the powers of persuasion to prevent her from pre-emptively dismissing the idea. I’m terrified at the prospect of going to my grave with the ignominious branding of a quitter.
My father, after whom I have been named, has been my only lifetime hero. I never knew him to be a quitter except when he quit tobacco and alcohol to conform to religious norms of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. I am not about to vilify his memory by earning the quitter moniker for myself.
I answer to the short name “Stan,” short for “Constancio.” Other than for it being more than a mouthful to most people, I sometimes demure from using Constancio because of its exalted stately pedigree. It was the name of the father of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor after whom Constantinople (now Istanbul) was named. I very much doubt that my grandparents were cognizant of this history when they had my father baptized. Lore had it that my father was first named Demetrio. It was later changed as a countermeasure to his being a sickly child.
But wherefore, at this particular juncture, dwell on these tedious trivialities? My excuse would simply be that each time I’m brought face to face with my own mortality everything seems to assume exaggerated proportions. It propels me to cling on to the most inchoate banalities which seem to make all the difference between life and death. Or as I noted midway in my “Epicurean Laments of Aging Old,”
Brandy and cigars, marks of indulgence
Ne plus ultra, in Hedonist heaven;
Coveted by consorts of decadence,
Mocked by hypocrites at their mirrors preen
Indulgent of their trespasses unseen:
All bets are off on mere appearances
Je ne sais quoi acquits disturbances.
This all reckons back to the incidental factoid, that I am a veritable walking time bomb as I am writing this piece. With my abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) measuring 7.6 cm. in one dimension, I can explode anytime without any warning and there is nothing much I can do about it. Nor is there anything I want to do about it. I definitely don’t want to go to any Emergency Room to be sedated to escape the pain.
As a token of respect and deference for my mother’s pain when she gave birth to me, I don’t want to avoid the pain of checking out of this mortal coil. I probably pass out anyway but at least I would know what shall have hit me. I don’t harbor an iota of a doubt that my indulgence with all forms of nicotine and brandy, with occasional champagne and gin Martini, and perennial dinner Chianti had brought me my legacy of AAA. Given the chance at a Mulligan, I would certainly embrace the same choices, albeit start at them most definitely earlier than I had done the first time around.
My strongest grudge at getting old has been my not finding a viable option to navigate through old age without being compelled to do away with my favorite brand of Napoleon Brandy. I ungrudgingly abandoned the aroma of Manila Coronas and Latakia blend Balkan Sobranie courtesy of my massive stroke on 1-Feb-1993. But to walk away into the sunset without the bouquet of Napoleon Brandy warmly trickling down and pleasantly tickling the esophagus is tantamount to going gentle into that good night without a fight, if not altogether adding insult to injury outright.
I enjoyed drinking through 47 of 71 years or 66.5% of my life time. As I documented in chapter 4 on pp. 72 ~ 73 of my last book, before starting high school, I established my bona fides as a successful practitioner of the craft of harvesting coconut sap (tuba in the Bisaya vernacular) for alcoholic beverage. I did not consider myself a drinking person then, although I imbibed the mandatory gulp to test the taste of my harvest. It was the standard quality assurance practice for the craft.
I was smoking for 27 of 71 years or 38.2% of my life time. Pound for pound, I hazard to guess, my cumulative tobacco intake far exceeded the combined consumption of my two oldest siblings. They started their habit in or before their high school days. I embarked on mine in my second tour as a college student.
I did not only enjoy smoking. I was a smoker with an attitude and was never apologetic for it. Being a pipe smoker became integral to my ego identity. Pipe smoking itself assumed a rationale uniquely all its own. I ventured into mixing my own blends of pipe tobacco. The hobby became an expensive indulgence in a hurry. I started collecting my favorite pipes. I spent my weekends cleaning and flavor-tempering my pipe collection.
As a student, I picked my elective courses in Kyoto University based on which professor allowed smoking in the classroom. This accounted for many a few elective courses cross-matriculated at the Science Department rather than the Engineering Department.
As an Assistant Professor at MSU Marawi, I was the only faculty member who officially allowed smoking in my classroom. First day of class, my first announcement was “smokers at the window side of the room, and a zero-tolerance for solicitation of cigarettes or lights for the duration of a class session.” Violators were excused forthwith.
As a consumer, I was abrasively arrogant about my right to smoke. On one occasion I was waiting at a Japanese restaurant for my dinner date, smoking away like a wood-burning locomotive. A pair of female customers in their early- to mid- twenties walked in and after settling down at the adjacent table requested me to refrain from smoking because it bothered them.
Summoning up all the cool and collected charms I could muster, I serenely informed the pair that the perfume they were wearing did not exactly titillate my whimsy. I would gladly forfeit the use of my pipe for the evening if they would go and shower off the perfume they were wearing. They opted to walk out of the establishment without dinner.
Regardless of how the eventual trajectory of the aneurysm might leverage the onset of my final demise, let the record show that whatever its genesis might have been, I zealously treasured every moment of indulgence which might have fostered its existence, and jealously resented every event which deprived me thereof. The point is, I lived life to the fullest vent on getting the most of what circumstances allowed, without being miserable about it
My attitude could be reckoned back to the admonition of the drinking Persian sage of antiquity in the below quatrains:
XIIISome for the Glories of This World; and someSigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
Yet Ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!That Youth's sweet-scented manuscript should close!The Nightingale that in the branches sang,Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!
Or to bring the metaphor, closer to earth, to the matter at hand, and coeval with the narrated events:
Oh! why do they seem to picture a dream above
Then why do they fade my phantom parade of love?
Where do they end, the smoke rings I send on high?
Where are they hurled
When they've kissed the world goodbye!
~~ Mills Brothers – Smoke Rings