I quit smoking when I became a father. A couple of months later I quit again, and a couple of months after that, and so on until I became a father of two. I’m not proud, but it became a pretty significant part of the essential struggle between who I was and who I wanted to become, and, as such, I even miss those days a little. If you were to meet me downstairs right now with a Camel Light and fifteen minutes to kill I’m sure I would not disappoint.
It wasn’t for health reasons I ever quit, or to set a good example for America’s youth – no, I was primarily motivated by the gradual disappearance of everything else that made smoking such a great good time in the first place. Like people to smoke with. I regret there aren’t parents regularly ducking out of PTA mettings, for example, or lighting up behind the bleachers at soccer games, but when I do occasionally see one cupping a butt in his hand, or fanning the smoke from her sweater, her scarves, or anywhere else it might linger, I find myself wondering at all of the time these people must have to even cultivate the habit. Considering the demands of family and job, and notwithstanding all of the places where cigarettes are legally – or socially – prohibited, sometimes smoking can seem like an act of pure will rather than a reflection of weakness.
Of course we give up a lot of stuff as parents, not all of it unhealthy, though it is often with the understanding that when things have finally settled down again, when – what? – the kids are packed off to college, and we have to go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes, and we can’t remember what we ate for breakfast that morning - yes, that is when we’re going to get our lives back together, lose weight, learn to play the tuba, go out to dinner more, take a wine class, pick up smoking.
Often I wonder if we do not give up too much of who we used to be – or whoever we were on the road to becoming – when we make our children the priority. We get old, and I cannot help believing that our kids are absolutely correct to wonder – at six years old, and twelve, and eighteen – if we are less than the sum of our advisories, because, well, we stopped evolving the minute they started paying attention. We ran out of time – to improvise and experiment – and what got left over is the stuff you can chart on your iPhone – practices and meetings and appointments – plus cranky old rituals like reading the sports page. And you cannot blame children for recognizing themselves as a nut in that grinding routine, and you cannot blame them for resenting it.
Let’s enjoy ourselves then, no, not with with a furtive smoke out in that back alley, but rather where our children can see it, whenever possible, legally. Call it selfishness if you will, but the books I bring home for my kids might have a little something nestled in there for me, though it doesn’t need to go whizzing across the tops of their heads like so many pop references in children’s cinema. Often the pleasures are nothing more substantial than a moment of hilarity, and often the humor is every bit as subversive as anything you will find in literature intended for adults – this precisely because it stands in opposition to all of the nobler claims of the medium: something smuggled versus something too proudly waving its values.
I think of Irving and Muktuk, two polar bears of Daniel Pinkwater’s invention, who are always stealing muffins and getting in trouble for it. Says Muktuk:
“We must remove this smirch from our names.”
“Our names are smirched?” Irving asks.
“Badly smirched,” Muktuk says. “People think we are bad bears. They think we are not to trusted.”
“We are bad bears,” Irving says. “We are not to be trusted.”
I think of Mr. Lunch, the dog and famous bird-chasing professional, being dragged off to the slammer, his expression inscrutable:
Mr. Lunch was sure there had been a misunderstanding. He didn’t even have a leash…
Then a couple of months ago I found a book – and I bought it, because I was sure I would never find it again – originally published in Australia in 2004 with coffee stains all over it. The stains are by design, and the story, called Dougal the Garbage Dump Bear, is related in crude, even crummy-looking snapshots. Dougal is a discarded stuffed bear who hangs out at the dump with a discarded stuffed bumblebee. The local garbagemen let them sleep in the cab of a tractor – the dragon they call it – and sometimes even escort them after work to a local pool hall where everyone stays out too late.
And always the next day, they would both feel very sick from drinking too many ginger beers and have to sleep it off in the air conditioned dragon.
“Never again,” Bumble would say.
“I need an iced coffee,” Dougal would say.
The story ends well – “sometimes bad things happen so that good things can happen” – both I and my six-year-old enjoying it separately and together, because, I think, it didn’t talk down to either one of us. I think that’s good story-telling, and if it isn’t good parenting, then at least it is easy. My kids will both ask me, and sometimes I tell them, about my smoking days. I see them thinking: Really? I see them thinking: Smirched. I hope they do not look to me or to a literary character for inspiration in such matters. And when the time comes, as it inevitably will, I hope they are up to the challenge of inventing their own misadventures, and resolving them.