Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Smoking in the Boys' Room

At 4 AM on the first Tuesday in September of 1969, I woke up in my grandmother's house in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and, three hours or so later, began my junior year of high school in Annandale, Virginia, in a building I had only stepped inside previously, surrounded by teachers and students I had never met. My father dropped me off on his way to his first day at his new job at the Pentagon, and he would pick me up after work to take me to the room we were renting for six weeks until our house became available.

I stood outside the locked door of my homeroom looking at the other students, mostly the girls. One particularly beautiful brunette, who danced even when she walked, took my breath away—and made me glad I was carrying a binder. (As it turns out, I met her first ex-husband on the other side of the world more than a decade later.) Another cute number had nice, firm-looking, sticky-out breasts, the pocket on the front of one of which sported a cigarette package. (Does that hurt, or do the cigarettes get bent?) In fact, it looked like everyone who had shirt pockets, male or female, had cigarette packs in them. Except for me. Wasn't I the virtuous one!

In those good old days, I could go through the entire school routine with only one potty break, and I quickly learned to take that in the gym after PE. Even though selling cigarettes to minors was illegal, the boys' room across from the school office was always thick with smoke, and the others in the building weren't much better. At some point before I graduated, the administration got around to forcing the smokers outdoors, but smoking and smokers were as much a part of high school as shapely girls.

My parents smoked when I was young. I remember many weekend drives with the windows rolled up against Seattle's signature rain, the car filled with smoke. I blamed the migraine headaches that usually ended with reverse parastolsis on my parents' smoking, and I'm sure it didn't do me any good, but I still get those headaches, so that wasn't the culprit. And I was dumbfounded to learn that one of my heroes, Jacques Anquetil, who had owned the Tour de France a few years before, smoked. But I developed a healthy dislike for smoking and, being a descendant of Adam who grasps at any reason to consider myself "like God," considered smokers an inferior breed, especially when they threw butts out the window or dropped them on the ground.

Well, I wouldn't expect to see smoke in the bathrooms at Annandale High School today, nor butts on the ground outside the door to the bus stop. Tobacco taxes make cigarettes prohibitively expensive, and merchants who sell tobacco to minors face draconian consequences. There is simply very little opportunity for kids to smoke anymore.

But our society has embraced a "solution" that solves nothing.

A Clockwork Orange, a movie shunned by evangelicals because of sexuality and violence, deals (at least peripherally) with the question of forced morality. A violent young man is given the opportunity to be programmed to do good, or at least to be sickened by evil. When he asks the prison chaplain whether he should undergo this treatment, the chaplain replies that one cannot be moral without choice and the treatment will not make him good. And at the end of the movie, the young man is "cured"—of wanting to be virtuous.

Our government at all levels is frantically expunging all evil substances, whether tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, saturated and trans fats, or vitamin supplements, from daily life. You can be fined and probably jailed for not buckling your car seat belt. Many people, even evangelicals, want to see the Internet, the freest communication forum the world has ever seen, regulated. All this in the name of making the world a better place and our neighbors better people.

But there will be smokers and nonsmokers, chaste and otherwise, in both heaven and hell. I can't say we do anyone any good by taking away a person's choices in personal matters.

Smoking is stupid—unless you enjoy it, I guess—but I think I'd rather be with people who have chosen to smoke (at least at times when they're either not smoking or downwind from me) than with people who are glad that they aren't given the choice. Someone who knows how to choose is by definition able to choose between life and death, the blessing or the curse, heaven or hell, Jesus or idols. One who prefers not to choose will choose anyway, and wrongly.

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