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Why I Started Smoking

November 4, 2017 Leave a comment

In the summer, we had a little cave-like hollow in a ravine across the street. Our little hollow was deeply hidden by thick bushes. We tried to smoke cigars of dried oak leaves that we rolled. They were foul, and wouldn’t burn.

One year in shop, I made a bow and bought some arrows. Down in the ravine, in the dry summer grass, Dave and I tried to figure out how to shoot an arrow properly. On one of my shots, I pulled the string as far as I could and let go. I stumbled as I let it fly, and wasn’t sure where it went.

An old garage stood on the edge of the ravine. Some earth had crumbled and slid down from the garage and left a corner jutting out in the air. While looking for my arrow, we wandered around in the grass near the exposed corner. I glanced into the open hole at the bottom of the garage and saw a printed box. I pulled it out.

It was a carton of 20 packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes. I looked up through the opening and saw that the garage was full from wall to wall with thousands of cartons of cigarettes. Smuggled cigarettes, I realized when I noticed that the tax stamp on the top of each pack was American. They were cigarettes from the USA about which Canada customs and excise knew nothing.

We took a few cartons of Luckies and a few cartons of Camels. We hid them in a variety of places, and fetched them, a pack at a time, when we wanted them. We smoked them, and enjoyed them. Non-filtered, strong burley tobacco typical of USA brands of that era had us hooked in no time. I continued to smoke the American brands until I quit. I had been a smoker for 40 years. I haven’t touched tobacco since that day in July, 1992.

I was sitting in my car at a red light in the heart of the city. While waiting, I was enjoying looking at a tall, beautiful woman standing on the corner, waiting for the green light as was I. As I admired her, her hand that I had not seen came up and put a lit cigarette to her lips.

She sucked at it eagerly, and then frenetically flicked her fingers on the smoldering cigarette to drop the ash. She became completely unattractive at that moment. I thought perhaps that I looked like that kind of weak fool. At that moment, the car radio announcer said, “It’s quit smoking week, folks, so let’s do it!”

I had three Camels in the pack in my shirt pocket. I wrapped the pack tightly closed with an elastic band and threw it into my briefcase. I never smoked tobacco again.

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My First Wife

October 9, 2017 Leave a comment

We dated when we were kids. She was fifteen and I was eighteen. She was one of the ‘nicest’ girls in our social circle. She came from a shy, simple, working-class family. I came from a bold upper-middle class family. My car cost about the same as their house.

We dated for a while, and we each dated others from time to time. Eventually we drifted apart and didn’t see each other for a while. I went to Miami for a while with my closest friend, and life went on. I was bribed to go home. My mother’s anxious tone when she tracked me down dulled the edge of pleasure, so I went home.

I got a job in a warehouse in the heart of the city’s garment district. My future wife worked in the office of a dress manufacturer near the warehouse, although I didn’t know it at the time. She apparently learned that I worked nearby, and perhaps saw me parking my car. One day, as I was leaving work there was a drenching rainstorm. As I was about to emerge from the alley where I’d parked my car, my future wife scuttled by in front of me, bent against the slaking rain. On course I had to call to her to get into the car.

I had heard that she was sometimes going out of town, to fraternity parties and so on. I found myself babbling that she should be careful, that she needed somebody to take care of her, to look after her. By the time I dropped her off at her parents’ house, she had my school ring, and we were going steady.

She was a very pretty girl, nicely dressed and well mannered. My mother urged me to marry her. I had done a lot of adventuring and experimenting in my young life, and thought perhaps I should marry her. And I did. She was 19 and I was 22. My father paid for the wedding, of course, because the bride’s family was not wealthy. My mother wanted a big wedding, and it turned out to be enormous. It would be worth about $100,000 in today’s dollars.

I truly loved her, and we did alright for many years. We had a daughter after 2 years, and another 2 years later. The second girl died in infancy from birth defects. 2 years after her, we had a boy.

My wife was simple and inhibited, just like her parents. Meanwhile, within a few years I was out of the warehouse and on the road. Then I moved to an office job in a large company, went through a couple more sad, loser jobs and then began to write.

I got into television commercials and series. My life changed as I moved into a show business, bohemian sort of life. My wife feared and obstructed it, so I left her behind, but stayed close to the kids.

How Much Life is Enough?

May 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Editor’s note: Amitai Etzioni is a sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University and the author of several books, including “Security First” and “New Common Ground.” He was a senior adviser to the Carter administration and has taught at Columbia and Harvard universities and the University of California, Berkeley.

(CNN) — No one has come out yet and explicitly suggested that old folks like me (I am about to turn 83) should be treated the way the Eskimos, as folklore has it, used to treat theirs: put on an ice floe and left to float away into the sunset. We are, however, coming dangerously close.

A recent study by Dr. Alvin C. Kwok and his colleagues finds that surgery is common in the last year, month and week of life. Eighty-year-olds had a 35% chance of going under the knife in the last year of their lives; nearly one out of five Medicare recipients had surgery in their last month and one in 10 in their last week.

Nobody doubts that some of these surgeries were necessary. But major medical and ethical figures argue that they reflect our reluctance to accept death or let go, the surgeons’ activist interventionist orientation and the way the incentives are aligned.

As the surgeon Atul Gawande put it in The New Yorker: “Our medical system is excellent at trying to stave off death with eight-thousand-dollar-a-month chemotherapy, three-thousand-dollar-a-day intensive care, five-thousand-dollar-an-hour surgery. But, ultimately, death comes, and no one is good at knowing when to stop.”

It remained for Daniel Callahan, an influential bioethicist and co-founder of the prestigious Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research institute in New York, to take the next step. In a May article in The New Republic, Callahan (with co-author Sherwin B. Nuland) argues for a cease-fire in America’s “war against death,” calling on us to surrender gracefully; Americans thus “may die earlier than [is now common], but they will die better deaths.”

Focusing on care for the elderly, Callahan and Nuland warn that our present attitudes “doom most of us to an old age that will end badly: with our declining bodies falling apart as they always have but devilishly — and expensively — stretching out the suffering and decay.” They hence call on us to abandon the “traditional open-ended model” (which assumes medical advances will continue unabated) in favor of more realistic priorities, namely reducing early death and improving the quality of life for everyone. They further advocate age-based prioritization, giving the highest to children and “the lowest to those over 80.”

The journalist Beth Baker summed up this position: “After people have lived a reasonably full life of, say, 70 to 80 years, they should be offered high quality long-term care, home care, rehabilitation and income support, but not extraordinary and expensive medical procedures.”

Baker’s interview with Callahan reveals one reason this line of argument should be watched with great concern: Once we set an age after which we shall provide mainly palliative care, economic pressures may well push us to ratchet down the age. If 80 was a good number a few years ago, given the huge deficit and the pressure to cut Medicare expenditures, there seems no obvious reason not to lower the cut-off age to, say, 70. And nations that have weaker economies, the logic would follow, should cut off interventionist care at an even younger age. Say, 50 for Guatemala?

Above all, age is the wrong criterion. The capacity to recover and return to a meaningful life is the proper criterion.

Thus, if a person is young but has a terminal disease, say, advanced pancreatic cancer, and physicians determine that he has but a few months, maybe weeks, to live (a determination doctors often make), he may be spared aggressive interventions and be provided with mainly palliative care. In contrast, an 80-year-old with, say, pneumonia — who can return to his family and friends to be loved and give love, contribute to the community through his volunteering and enjoy his retirement he earned with decades of work — should be given all the treatments needed to return him to his life (which in my case includes a full-time job and some work on the side).

We should learn to accept death more readily; we should stop aggressive interventions when there is little hope; we should provide dying people with palliative care to make their passing less painful and less traumatic. Such a case may not just be that of an elderly person succumbing to a terminal illness — it can be that of a preemie born too early to survive, a youngster following a car wreck, a worker following a tragic accident. We should learn from the Eskimos — they long ago stopped abandoning their elderly just because they got “too” old.

Living on Chemicals

April 28, 2017 Leave a comment

The pharmaceutical companies encourage us to do things we ought not to do. If you get heartburn from spicy chicken wings, don’t worry. Just gulp Pepto or pop Zantac and indulge your addiction. Eat wings, eat pizza, eat salami… it doesn’t matter, because there’s a ‘medicine’ for that.

You like to jog, but your knees make you suffer. Pop a couple of Naproxen, and off you go. Just ignore the fact that whatever is going bad in your knees, it’s still going bad, but you’ve masked the reality.

My own organs are wearing out. They’ve served me well for 80 years, but the wear and tear begins to show. One’s prostate gland swells, interfering with the flow of urine. A series of pills helps somewhat, until finally, a colonoscopy fixes it, and creates another problem – one can’t quite turn it firmly off for the whole day.

The heart needs help, so there are pills for that. They do a great job on the heart, but the side effect is impotence. Along with that, there is some degree of depression. There’s a pill for that. There are pills for blood, pills for Thyroid, pills to sustain the function of almost every organ in your body.

I question myself, requiring so much maintenance. As Gloria Steinem said (she’s a year older than I am) “Most people my age are dead.”

The truth is, every day I see news of people 10 to 20 years younger than I am, passing away. Maybe I’m on borrowed time. The people I knew in high school are gone. Most of my cousins are gone. One of my brothers is gone. Meanwhile, I’m still having fun. I’ve never taken life, or death, very seriously anyway.

A Heart is a Muscular Pump

September 12, 2015 Leave a comment

It causes me a momentary discomfort when I hear someone say (either in a performance or in society) “I love him with all my heart”. “It is with heartfelt gratitude I thank you for your generosity”. “This heart-rending story has ended”. “This will tug at your heart”.

On and on, and I don’t understand why all these emotional characteristics have been attributed to the heart. It is a pump. It is an amazing pump to be sure, but a pump all the same. It is a muscle, perhaps superior to all our other muscles. I honour the muscle for all that it is, but it is not a thing which emits love, gratitude and emotional contact.

The heart is obviously a fabulous pump. Mine has been working for seventy-eight years now. For the first seventy-six years it performed brilliantly. Even then, some minor servicing by talented doctors (much like talented mechanics), and on it goes. It has seen me through a vast number of adventures, four marriages, many canoe voyages, millions of miles driven through mountain ranges, across prairies and deserts. It was pumping happily when I raced sports cars, raced motorboats, survived sailing mishaps, several trans-ocean flights, several domestic flights, several small plane adventures, grand-fatherhood fatherhood, and a rigorous career as a creative professional.

Through it all, it just keeps pumping. Never did it fall in love, feel remorse, harbour hate, or get tugged at by a tragic event. The heart is a fabulous pump… but just a pump.