Alexander Hellene

Don’t You Know That’s Bad for You?

Tobacco is not good for you. But it is my vice. It is, in fact, my favorite vegetable.

I love a good cigar. More so than the relaxing nature of the chemicals released is the cigar ritual. One cannot simply light up a cigar and smoke it down quickly between meetings. In between the selection of the correct cigar, one has to set aside an hour or two in order to truly enjoy your smoke. In a world that encourages us to go-go-go, it’s refreshing to tell the world, “Hold on a minute; I have to sit still for a while and, dare I say it, think.”

Because that’s what it’s all about for me: enforced relaxation. The need to schedule time to kick back and do nothing might strike you as perverse, but it’s really not. A man needs time to himself, alone with his thoughts, or perhaps a book or a little conversation.

Cigar lounges are the optimal location for enjoying this particular vice. This goes beyond the Disney-fied, corporate, “boobs, beer, and bacon” caricature of masculinity men are relegated to these days. A good cigar lounge is not a theme-park “man cave,” a small place carved out for men in a woman’s world. A good cigar lounge is a place for relaxation and serious conversation, built entirely around the cigar ritual.

I have gotten into the habit of writing while smoking. Given that the nearest cigar lounge is a half-hour away, and that I am also a family man, this typically takes place on my porch at night when everyone else in the house is asleep. I very much enjoy sitting outside on a summer night, laptop open and cigar between my lips, letting my creativity flow. I’ve cut down on my alcohol consumption, never that great to begin with, the last year or two, but there’s something to be said about pairing a cigar with some good whiskey, scotch, or bourbon.

Of course, during the winter here in New England, this is a non-starter. Even sitting in the garage is not warm enough, and so the writing has to be smoke-free for a large part of the year.

This is fine, except for the fact that, as with many rituals, the cigar ritual isn’t just about the cigar. It’s the association between the cigar and the activity performed while smoking it. In my case, it’s writing. For a time, it just didn’t feel like a writing session unless I was able to smoke during it.

A lot of habits, both good and bad, work like this: we associate tasks with our actions. For example, weightlifting is when I listen to podcasts. We can use this sort of conditioning for good or for ill.

Writing is an interesting pastime as, much like cigar smoking or reading for that matter, there is a serious temporal component. More than the passive act of watching a movie or TV show, you have to engage your brain and your fingers for a substantial amount of time in order to get your ideas onto paper. And this must be repeated consistently over time before a book can be created. You can’t just wait for a flash of inspiration and bang it all out in one magical session—it doesn’t work like that.

And you also can’t just wait until the weather is right for smoking a cigar outdoors.

Rituals are powerful things. All the pomp and pageantry is not there for show, but to underscore something’s importance. It’s hard for something to feel special if you’re just able to click on a screen or snap your fingers and have it be done. The Divine Liturgy, the blessing of the Eucharist, takes a long time because it matters. Military officers receiving their commission has all of those trappings because the newly minted officers need to feel that what happened is special and not just on paper.

When you pray, if you’re doing it right, you’re not just saying a few words by rote memorization and calling it a day. You are kneeling down in a quite place while you are alone. Or you are in church with the incense and the lght filtering through the stained glass and the “strange” chanting going on. The mood needs to be set. Now, contra to what a lot of Protestants say to criticize us Orthodox Christians and our Catholic brethern, God doesn’t need any of that. But it’s clear from Scriputure and ancient Hebrew tradition–where our liturgical practices come from–that God likes this sort of thing. And the reason He likes it is, in all likelihood, because it helps us get into the proper midset.

Slowing down is good for you. The hectic pace of life has a way of grinding us down and burning us out. The rapid-fire nature of things has inhibited our ability to focus deeply on something without a dozen other distractiosn getting in the way. Imagine writing a symphony or a novel, let alone several, while checking social media every two minutes or having something else pop up to distract you.

Culture has stagnated in part because there are more attractive things which provide instant gratification that have already been completed by other people to occupy our free time. Why create, which takes a long time–time we bitterly complain that we don’t have–when you can just pop over to YouTube and lose yourself in a million different videos right there at your fingertips?

He who has focus, wins.

Listen: if you have to hours to set aside watchign some bozo on YouTube, you have time to create something of your own. Maybe you just need something to help you slow down . . .

*     *     *

Cigar smoking—the act of holding smoke from burning tobacco in your mouth over time until the wrapped bundle is consumed—is not in itself important. It’s what goes along with it that is important. The camaraderie. The conversation. The slowing down. And yes, the writing.

*     *     *

All the same, the act of writing is over-romanticized and made more intimidating than it has to be. By all means, do whatever it takes to get yourself writing. Set aside time, make your writing space comfortable, have a smoke, and so on. But the magic doesn’t come from the exterior trappings surrounding the, quite frankly, rather boring task of writing.

Are you in it for people to ooh and ahh over how much of an artiste you are, or are you in it to share what is in your head and your soul with others?

Writing is a craft. Writing is, dare I say it, a job. And luckily, it’s one of those work-from-home type of things where you can also enjoy a smoke on the job.

Weather permitting.  

– Alexander

2 thoughts on “Don’t You Know That’s Bad for You?”

  1. Alexander,

    I get it. I need to get back to my modelbuilding. I really enjoyed cutting, gluing, adjusting, etc until the finished model/diorama.
    For now it’s writing drafts out with my fountain pens, reading looking up non-English words in a dictionary.
    And playing with the Catalan version of Wordle.

    It’s important to take time off, and do something quietly.

    Ritual provides an anchor, rhythm and habit to savour the cyclical or repetitive nature of life. The cynics will claim ritual is just a conventional ordering against an uncaring, chaotic reality. No, ritual is much deeper than functionality. I find rituals, the good ones, give us an appreciation for what around us family, friends, beauty, etc

    1. Ritual provides an anchor, rhythm and habit to savour the cyclical or repetitive nature of life.

      Really well said. Hobbies these days can also almost be seen as substitutes for the sorts of trades our ancestors used to rely upon for their livelihood. They’re healthy no matter how you conceptualize them.

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