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June 11th, 2024

Yes I’m Going To Keep Smoking Them

Just in moderation. 

This post is probably going to distress some of my friends who would really wish me to quit smoking my cigars for the sake of my heart. But since I had that Hoyo de Monterrey Jose’ Gener the other day, the first cigar I’ve had since coming home from California last month, I’ve been thinking. Which usually means a blog post. It’ll probably be self justifying and full of excuses but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The seductive thing about nicotine is it calms you down but it doesn’t dull your mind. And in some circumstances it can actually help you think more clearly. Yes, there is science that backs me up here…

Nicotine stimulates the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is involved in triggering positive feelings. It is often found to be low in people with depression, who may then use cigarettes to temporarily increase their dopamine supply. -Smoking and Mental Health – The Mental Health Foundation (UK)

Preclinical models and human studies have demonstrated that nicotine has cognitive-enhancing effects. Attention, working memory, fine motor skills and episodic memory functions are particularly sensitive to nicotine’s effects. Recent studies have demonstrated that the a4, B2, and a7 subunits of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) participate in the cognitive-enhancing effects of nicotine. Imaging studies have been instrumental in identifying brain regions where nicotine is active, and research on the dynamics of large-scale networks after activation by, or withdrawal from, nicotine hold promise for improved understanding of the complex actions of nicotine on human cognition. – Cognitive Effects of Nicotine: Recent Progress – National Library of Medicine, Institutes of Health

Nicotine improves cognitive functioning in smokers and psychiatric populations, but its cognitive-enhancing effects in healthy nonsmokers are less well understood. -Effects of Nicotine on Attention and Inhibitory Control in Healthy Nonsmokers – NIH

So on the one hand it helps you think clearly and relieve depression. But it is also bad for your health and highly addictive. That is especially true when it’s being delivered via cigarettes, but any tobacco is a health risk. It can cause cancer. It can lead to heart disease.

In my case, I’m pretty sure the binge cigar smoke I did at the cigar shop in Disney Springs back in September 2019, was what lead to the heart attack I had the following October. Normally I would sit down in their little leather chair lounge section and people watch as I smoked a Padron. Normally just one and I’m done. That vacation I smoked one after the other after the other until my head was spinning. That kind of chain smoking is so rare in me I can’t remember any other time I did anything like that but I’m pretty sure why I did it. I was depressed and miserable after learning I would likely never see a certain someone ever again, even just to scowl at each other over dinner.

Love is mysterious. Go figure.

In retrospect I don’t think I actually had a heart attack, just the build up to one, which could have been fatal for all I know had it not given me plenty of warning and I was already in the hospital. The pain came and went, came and went, came and went, came and went, and it got bad enough that I had to check myself into the ER. But it never really stopped coming and going, even while I was in the emergency room. As they were wheeling me up to the operating room I was actually feeling fine. Maybe it was an indecisive heart attack. Do I want to kill him now or wait for a bit longer? Decisions, decisions…

After the angioplasty I was told there was so little damage to my heart that it could not be detected by the usual means. So I was lucky. Instead of slamming me down all at once and killing me then and there it just kept coming and going, coming and going, all the way to the operating room. But the message was pretty clear. Among other things: Stop smoking.

That’s relatively easy to do when it’s cigars. Cigarettes are to nicotine as the needle is to heroin. They’re basically a nicotine delivery system. Cigars are something you savor over a period of time…you take a walk and reflect and think, you don’t just wolf one down and then light up another…

…unless you’re depressed and just want that dopamine high, and like me you could never get cigarette smoke into your lungs.

You don’t inhale a cigar. Twice in my life I’ve tried to inhale a cigarette. First time I was a kid and a bunch of us found an unopened pack in a construction area behind the apartments we lived in. We passed them around. I could not get past the first puff. For the rest of my childhood I wondered why adults smoked them. Then I became one. Second time around I was in my 60s. I was feeling depressed and miserable and decided to try cigarettes again. I bought a pack of unfiltered high octane ones because why not just go for it. That time I made it to two puffs. Then I almost hacked my lungs out. So…no more of that.

By then I was used to the full bodied flavor of a good cigar and I am still wondering about cigarette smokers because cigarettes taste to me like you are smoking a piece of cardboard.

I have enjoyed cigars since I was old enough to buy tobacco, graduating almost instantly from the drugstore brands that are machine rolled with the intake port ready made, to higher quality hand rolled boxed labels you need to cut the ends off of before you light up. At some point I found myself perusing the walk-in humidor of an upscale cigar store, tried one of the expensive ones just to see if it was worth the money, and had an epiphany.

The downside to those top shelf brands is they can be hard on a budget. 35 bucks for just one cigar did you say? Hahahaha…some even sell for hundreds. My saving grace is I have always been, except for that one time in Disney World, a casual smoker. Well…except late in my term at Space Telescope, when the stress got serious. For that I would buy a small tin of mini cigars and take a smoke walk around the parameter of Wyman Park. That was when I began to understand why the mainframe guys I worked with some decades previously called their cigarettes “programmer’s candy.”

But my usual routine is have a cigar after dinner, maybe at the end of a week, take a walk and savor it. So I could afford the top shelf cigars because I didn’t smoke them that often. Now I’m at a stage in my life when I probably shouldn’t be smoking them at all, but in my defense my intake these days is a fraction of what it was previously. And my little cigar walk yesterday with that mild Hoyo de Monterrey, my first cigar since coming back from California, was a revelation.

Thing of it was, after the heart attack I was afraid, but I didn’t want to give cigars up completely because I knew they helped me with stress, and unlike alcohol they didn’t dull my mind. If anything they sharpened it and perked me up. But fear is not a good motivator. It just makes you keep avoiding a problem instead of really looking at it.

I’m looking at it now. I’ve been sluggish and morose all month long. The occasional margarita only made it worse. I was feeling my age like I’d never had before. I could see all the pleasures of life walking away from me. I was avoiding the box of Cubans I’d brought back from California because I was so tired all the time and miserable and I was afraid. I figured one of those would only make it worse, maybe provoke another heart attack. I kept telling myself maybe later, maybe later.

Eventually the misery got to a point I didn’t care anymore. So the other night I flipped misery the bird and decided to give a Hoyo de Monterrey a try. I’d heard they were top notch premium Cuban cigars and I’d only known the brand from the boxes I saw in drugstores.

I went for a cigar walk around the neighborhood at twilight. And I swear I could feel my mind awakening. By the time I got back home I felt a lot more perky and did some work around the house instead of just flopping right into the bed.

The next morning I noticed a definite improvement in mindset and attitude. And energy. Lots more energy. Got a Bunch done on the backyard and in the house. Didn’t even need my usual afternoon nap.

So, dig it…I smoked one cigar late in the day…a mild Cuban…and the next day I did not smoke at all and yet I had more energy, clarity of mind and a much better attitude. I felt great, just coasting on that one cigar from the previous day. It’s two days later as I write this and I’m still feeling the boost I got from that one cigar.

Before the week is out, I’ll probably have another. But at age 70 I can also feel the toll it takes on my body. I felt it while I was smoking that Hoyo de Monterrey and I had to let it go out when it was only two thirds done.

I listen to my body, and when it says stop I stop. It’s something I’ve learned to do with alcohol too. And…gardening. And moving luggage from the car to the hotel room. And really anything that makes me exert myself. That twenty-something body I had once is in the past. Also the thirty-something body…the forty-something body…and so on. I’ve got the 70 year old model now and when it says stop I have to stop.

It’s because cigars aren’t the nicotine delivery system cigarettes are I can stop and take a break for a few days or weeks. Everything I’ve ever heard about cigarettes, everyone I’ve known personally that smoked them have told me this, that they are incredibly addictive. I read a story years ago about addiction in returning soldiers from Vietnam and one of them said that quitting cigarettes was much harder than quitting heroin. I am so glad I never got myself hooked on them. I advise people to stay the hell away from them. I really don’t think that’s hypocrisy.

I think about the people I knew who smoked them that later died of lung cancer. And I would feel really bad if someone reading this who was trying to quit cigarettes, decided that maybe just one or two every now and then wouldn’t be so bad after all, because nicotine has it’s beneficial side. No. The cigarette seems insidiously designed to prevent moderation, also any pleasure apart from satisfying an urgent need for more nicotine now, right now.

That said, I know cigars are a health risk too. So maybe this is my hypocrisy. They can give you cancer and heart disease. Ulysses S. Grant was a heavy cigar smoker and that gave him the throat cancer that killed him. But they’ve been a part of my life ever since I was a young man and I’m pretty certain now that I’m not quitting them entirely. Just…never do that chain smoking thing ever again!

Yes I do other things to relieve stress…I make art, I go for walks, I hike a trail, I drive some roads. All of these require energy and for a while this month I was flat out. Now I have some. And a better mindset. Tomorrow if the weather is as lovely as it was today I might go hike the NCR trail for a stretch.

Except for that one time I have always smoked in moderation. And since the heart attack I have cut back. Mostly that was out of fear and I might bump it up a notch now, depending on what my body tells me. Usually I don’t smoke the entire thing anymore anyway. I can feel my body saying “enough” and I just let it go out. I have to overrule that waste not want not mindset I grew up with but that’s getting easier now that I’m also trying to downsize the house.

So. I have a humidor full of some of the best Cubans down in the basement art room. They are the real thing, not knockoffs. I may not need to buy any more for years at the rate I’m smoking them. They calm me down. They relieve the eternal stress. They sharpen my mind. They perk me up. They have been a part of my life since I was a young man. And I would rather not shuffle sadly into that good night, let alone go quietly. Maybe they do kill me in the long run, even if I moderate. But in the longer run I’m dead anyway. I made it to 70. Don Juan said all paths lead nowhere. Take the path with heart and it will make for a joyful journey. I like a good cigar from time to time.


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