Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Smoker's Tale

Both of my parents smoked, and as a child growing up I didn’t think much about it. Many grownups smoked – in fact, most grown-ups, who weren’t really old, smoked. My mother smoked Winstons and my dad smoked Kents. My mother drank a lot of Cokes and the combination of a Coke and a cigarette punctuated the completion of each major task. For both my parents, the morning started with a cigarette and ended with a cigarette. From the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, to a barrage of TV tobacco commercials, to magazines with pages filled with cigarette ads, cigarettes were part of our culture and a part of my daily life. I couldn’t smell it; it was around me all the time.

I went through a period when I was an adolescent when I thought smoking was a disgusting habit and I vowed I would never do it. But vows are easily broken when the pressures of teenage life kick in. About the time I was a junior in high school, I noticed that the “cool kids” smoked. And, being a normal teenage girl, I longed to be “cool.” Soon the pressure mounted and the temptation was just too much. One night when my parents were away, I tried it. I coughed and sputtered, but I felt so “cool.” During the remainder of my high school days, I smoked very rarely and even then, I didn’t inhale (really, I didn’t.)

In college, almost all my friends smoked. Cigarettes were sold freely; there was even a machine in the dorm next to the Coke and candy machines. By spring, I was hooked on Newports; I preferred the menthol flavor. I guess about my sophomore year in college, my mother confronted me. She said that she knew I was smoking and I might as well do in front of them. She also told me that she didn’t see anything morally wrong with it; just that it was not too good for you (but it 1966 and the evidence was sketchy and my father said he didn’t believe any of it!). So I kept on smoking and now smoked more and more. I was a grownup and I was still not “cool,” but I was hooked. Cigarettes were only about $.35 a pack, but still a costly habit.

I smoked all the way through college and grad school. I preferred to study at the dorm rather than the library because they made all the smokers sit in one room at the library and it made me cough. My library research was probably weaker than it might have been had I been a non-smoker.

Shortly after I got my masters I married Steve and he also was a smoker. Being a purist in many ways, he smoked unfiltered Pall Malls. They made me gag. Somewhere along the way I switched over the Benson and Hedges 100s. They had a really smooth taste and lasted longer. Besides, we could get our cigarettes really cheap at the BX. I think they were only about $.20 a pack.

When I was pregnant with David in 1971, I confess I didn’t totally stop, but I still had one now and then. There was some “talk” that smoking could be harmful to a developing fetus, but it mostly seemed like talk. Still, I took it seriously enough to cut way back. My mother had smoked all through her pregnancy with me and I turned out OK.

My parents continued to smoke and we did too! The years crept by. When we would visit my parents, a regular ritual was the trip from Vestavia south across the Shelby County, Alabama line for cheap cigarettes. All four of us puffed and puffed away.

Steve, my husband, suddenly decided to quit. I am not sure exactly why he made that decision, but he did it “cold turkey.” He smoked his last cigarette the night that Nixon made his famous “I am not a crook speech.” About a week later my parents came to visit us in California. Steve was not a pleasant person to be around – not surprisingly.

But time passed and in 1976 we moved to Maryland. Steve never smoked again and I continued to smoke and smoke away. Everyday I worked on fixing up our new house and every day I seemed to smoke more and more. By February 1977 I was up to 2 ½ packs a day. I had tried to stop a few times, but with no luck. I tried the low “everything” cigarettes, NOW, but just smoked more of them.

Then on March 23, 1977 everything changed. My mother had a massive heart attack and had to be resuscitated. It was a nightmare that went on for weeks and weeks as she clung to life in a Birmingham hospital ICU. My father and I sat in the waiting room and smoked and smoked—I guess I was smoking three packs or more a day during that period and living on Cokes, cheese crackers and candy from the machine. I gained 15 pounds. Whenever we went into see my mother in ICU, she said she would ask for a cigarette. She could smell it on us! Of course, smoking was not allowed in ICU (although it was in regular rooms).

The one day in April 1977, her conditioned worsened. The doctors told us she had a 1 in 5 chance of making it through the night. But if she could survive the night she had a good chance of surviving long term. I sat in a lounge chair at midnight in the ICU waiting room and I made a silent prayer to God that he would let her live and if he did I vowed that I would never smoke another cigarette until the day she died. She DID make it through the night. She lived another ten years.

I think my deal with God was pretty powerful and the other factor in my quitting was that my world was turned totally upside down. I fashioned a plastic tube and stuffed in with peppermint. I sucked on it A LOT. I knew that smoking was as much a physical addiction as a mental one. There is something about the movement from hand to mouth that is very addictive. For months after I stopped smoking I would smell the tobacco odor whenever I showered – as if it was coming from my every pore stimulated by the hot water. I cleaned my house and removed the yellow scum from everything. My health started to improve and my energy level soared. There was no longer the need to punctuate every accomplishment with a cigarette. With in a year, I found myself employed in a private school where smoking was not allowed.

Gradually, fewer and fewer of the folks I associated with smoked. I found myself disliking the smell of tobacco. In particular, I couldn’t stand to smell the brand my Dad smoked.. For some reason, that brand make my eyes water and gave me a sore throat. Whenever I would visit him, I asked him to smoke another brand – any other brand! In general, however, as the years went by I came to hate the smell of smoke, although every now and then I got the urge to smoke. But I never gave in.

Meanwhile, my mother was doing well after open-heart surgery. She never smoked again, while my father continued. She didn’t like the fact that he still smoked and he tried to smoke more often outside. He still didn’t think there was any real health issue with smoking.

Ten years after my mother’s heart attack, she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. That diagnosis rocked my world! And to compound the problem, her doctor told my father it was his fault; that it was his second-hand smoke that gave her the cancer. He was never the same after that. He was there lovingly for my mother throughout her year-long illness. He never smoked in the house while she was there. More and more of her time was spent in the hospital.

One afternoon, he left the room for a smoke and I stayed there with her. It was at that moment she stopped breathing and despite a Code Blue and about eight hours of manual respiration, she was gone. I have to admit that in the flurry of activity, the signing of the big black and the realization that she was really dead, there came to fleeting thought that “this is when I supposed to have my cigarette. I don’t have to not smoke anymore.” Then, of course, there was no power on earth that could make me smoke. I had just witnessed my mother’s year long struggle with lung cancer! What a bitter irony!

My father suffered greatly after my mother’s death. Depression took its toll. He loved my mother so deeply and the doctor’s words blaming his second-hand smoke for her death kept going around in his head. Within less than two years, he was dead from congestive heart failure. I honestly think it was a broken heart.

My parents were amazing people. My mother was talented, creative and probably the most all around capable person I have ever known. People loved her outgoing personality and her zest for life. My father was brilliant; he was an inventor; he was a leader in his community. He was the man who first transmitted data over a telephone line – really! And yet, these wonderful and bright peoples’ lives were damaged by tobacco.

My parent’s things were coated with the same yellow scum that coated everything in my house years before. I cleaned it off furniture, art, crystal and more. I found that Dow bathroom cleaner would take the scum off the furniture without damaging the finish. Some of my parents; furniture was very special because my mother had refinished it. My favorite piece is a chifferobe that belonged to my grandfather and which my mother lovingly refinished. It stands in my entrance hall today.

What about me? Was I damaged too? Certainly, the 14 years I smoked were not good for me, nor were they good for our son (who fortunately has never even been tempted to smoke). Once I had a doctor tell me that if I had not quit, I would have been dead by now. That was probably 15 years ago. It has been 29 years since I smoked a cigarette. I am not around smoking any more. I request non-smoking seating in restaurants. There is no force in this universe or amount of money that could make me smoke even just one cigarette. I know that if I had even one, I would be hooked!

Soon after my mother’s diagnosis I became a volunteer for our local American Cancer Society. I guess it was my way of striking back. After her death, I continued to volunteer. It seems that our County has an unusually high cancer mortality rate and the cause is not clear. I was intrigued by this problem and agreed to work with our local County to chair a Cancer Task Force. This seventeen member multi-disciplinary task force looked into possible environmental and lifestyle causes of cancer, including lung cancer.

And, so here’s the kicker! I was running a meeting of the task force one evening and speaker was an expert in the causes of lung cancer. The expert reviewed various lung cancer types one after the other, but did not mention oat cell. Oat cell is kind of lung cancer that killed my mother; it is aggressive and fast growing. The expert’s response literally blew me away! I felt light-headed; I could believe what I was hearing! Oat cell cancer lung cancer is connected with chemical exposure more than smoking. Huh! My mother didn’t mess with chemicals. So, I asked “what kind of chemicals?” In an instant I knew that everything we had thought about her illness and how it happened was wrong. It turns out that the chemicals that often cause oat cell lung are the kind that were used to refinish furniture. My mother LOVED to refinish furniture. That was her hobby. Patience was not one of my mother’s virtues. She used the most powerful chemicals she could buy to strip off the old finish and she never wore a mask. She was not known to be a person who took the directions and precautions all that seriously. Usually she did her work with the garage door open, but little other ventilation.

Had we but known! My father would not have tortured himself with guilt about the second-hand smoke. My mother would have surely been more at peace with the whole situation. She was someone who always wanted to get to the bottom of a problem and find out what went wrong. Sadly, neither of them ever knew.

So, maybe it wasn’t the cigarettes after all! Still no doubt they made the situation worse.
Did this outcome change my opinion about smoking? No way! It is a terribly addictive habit and I personally will NEVER smoke again. Still, those 14 years may get me one day. No more smoking and no more furniture refinishing for me.

And, what about our task force? We never could get to any “smoking gun” for the cause of cancer in Anne Arundel County. What we do know is that with a lifetime of human behavior it is difficult to isolate the variables that may lead to death. More likely it is a confluence of factors that come together for any individual to make the cancer kick in. Lifestyle, environment, and heredity all matter. It is clear that more of these factors come together in our area than in most places. One thing for sure, we are on our own in this. The government can’t protect us from ourselves. Smoking is bad for you; chemicals can harm you; our environment has many problems and no one really knows what they all are. Smoking is a nasty, stupid habit that can destroy your life.

I see young women today smoking. Despite all the evidence, they keep on smoking. If only I could somehow make them understand.

Monday, May 22, 2006


When my grandmother died on June 5, 1957, life was never the same for me. I had just turned 11 a couple of days before. I simply couldn’t believe that she was gone. It was horrible. That was my first real acquaintance with death and I hated it. My mother planned the funeral and did what she could do to make it a good funeral, as such things go. She was very pleased that so many friends came to the funeral, sent flowers, and came back to the house afterwards. From my perspective, it was gut-wrenching. I was old enough to understand about death and its finality, but not old enough to accept it.

Over the years, I have been to many funerals – some for dear friends and relatives and others for acquaintances. My grandfather died a few years after my grandmother. Nothing, however, prepared me for the pain of having to bury each of my parents decades later.

I come from the South and down South, when people die, they are embalmed and put in a casket for viewing. The funeral follows the funeral home chapel or at the church, with the burial to follow. Everyone then comes back to the house for a pot luck spread in honor of the deceased. Depending on religion, there might be something to drink. In my family, we congregate in Birmingham at the Embassy Suites (with free drinks, free breakfast and nice suites). We have been to so many family funerals where we opted to stay there that my son calls it the “death hotel.”

My mother used to always take the same thing to funeral gatherings. She made a molded chicken salad, done up in individual gelatin molds. When she died, one of her friends made her recipe for the funeral. My mother would have been proud.

When my father died, he was living in a retirement high rise. His two bedroom apartment was way too small to accommodate a funeral gathering. He founded the Chamber in the town of Vestavia Hills, so the town leaders got together a gathering at the local library. It was a fine tribute.

These days more and more people are getting cremated. That thought used to make me shudder. Now it isn’t so bad. I am not sure I could do it though, but I guess if I was dead it wouldn’t matter anyway. Of course, I am an organ donor and can’t imagine any better final gift.

As I approach 60 I am not comfortable contemplating my own mortality. Not that anyone really is! I could just ignore the whole subject and let my family figure out what makes sense for them to do. After all, funerals are really for the living! They give a sense of closure. On the other hand, I suppose I should do the really responsible thing and figure out something that makes sense to me. That would be kinder than giving them one more thing to worry about.

Lots of things have changed over the decades. Open caskets are less popular. Personal tributes are generally done, as opposed to the generic funerals of the past. Memorial services weeks later are a popular option. Charitable donations are preferred over flowers. Guests don’t have to wear black. Cremation seem more common than in the past. Internet tributes and Web pages are sprouting up. In Maryland there is a big public dispute about the appropriateness of roadside memorials. I spoke with a friend recently who reported going to her first “PowerPoint funeral.” As Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a changing.”

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

My Treo - The Little Magical Computer

Just over a year ago I was wearing a pager and carrying a cell phone and a pda in my purse. I seldom left home without my laptop computer. It took all of this equipment just to keep me organized and in touch, especially when I traveled. I spent two hours each evening, after a busy day at the office or after a day of travel, just dealing with my email. In short, I was a slave to my equipment; my shoulders were dragging from hauling all this stuff around; and I longed to make a change.

Finally, my excuse came along. The pager started to fail; the cell phone couldn’t hold a charge. The blue paint chipped off the Zire. These were all clear indications that the time was right.

At first I thought I would get a Blackberry. People who have them seem to love them. But I loved my Palm Zire and on a whim checked to see what Palm offered. I was amazed to see that they had a product that would replace my cell phone, my pager, and my pda and also do email. I read the reviews and I was hooked. It had to have a Palm Treo 650.

No, I am not getting any money from Palm for writing this. They have no idea that I am doing this. I just love my little Treo and want to tell the world about it.

Is it perfect? No! It sometimes has to reboot and sometimes it gets as ornery as any computer I have ever dealt with, but its good qualities far outweigh its bad.

Is it addictive? You bet! Just having the capacity to deal with things almost in real time is a bit of a rush. But, the most amazing thing I have found with the Treo is that it allows me to capture little snippets of time that would otherwise be essentially wasted. And that alone is a precious gift.

Can I live without it? Of course, and life is actually very calm without it. But I would rather know what is going on and deal with it immediately when I can. That keep small problems small and I don’t have to waste time worrying about what “might be happening.”

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Documenting Our Lives

When I was kid I was given a diary. Each day I wrote what I did. In those days, I was a lot like the kid (arts commercial) who recounts his day in monotone at the dinner table. I went to school. I went to Brownies. I went to the grocery store with my mother. She bought chicken. We had fried chicken for dinner. I watched I Love Lucy. I read a chapter in the Bobbsey Twins and I went to sleep. My, what an exciting life!

I couldn’t imagine why anyone would be interested in reading that and I couldn’t think of anything else to say. But, for about 3 weeks, I dutifully wrote an entry each day and locked the book with a key. So much for keeping a diary!

When I was in junior high and high school, I faced what I now know was normal teenage angst. From my perspective it was a constant “tug of war” between the desire to be popular and the desire to make good grades. If you made good grades you were condemning yourself to be a social outcast. I got my first taste of depression and I reveled in it, writing my deepest darkest thoughts in what might be called an “occasional diary.” It wasn’t a diary at all, rather a three ring binder left over from “speech lessons.” I hid it when I went to college and I don’t think my mother ever found it. I took it when we cleaned out the house.

In college, I was really too busy to write down much of what I felt. But sometimes, when depression would grab me, I would turn to my old trick of writing out my feelings. Most of that stuff went out with the dorm trash, but it was therapeutic.

For decades I never wrote anything personal and I didn’t keep a datebook. I didn’t need one; I could remember my schedule (that was when I was younger and still had an agile brain).

My parents, on the other hand, were living busy active lives and both of them kept calendars in 8”x10” calendar books. My father’s was mostly just a record of his appointments and speaking engagements. My mother’s, however, got progressively more personal. Hers was more of an after-the-fact documentation of how she spent her days. In some respects, it resembled my childhood “diary.” When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she started recording her medical appointments, as well as how she felt each day. She knew she was documenting the end of her life.

Both of my parents are gone now. I still have their calendars stuffed carefully away in the attic. I can’t throw them away, because to do so would be to not value their lives. Maybe in another ten years or so I will read their calendars again and look for similarities in my own life at their age.

Meanwhile, over the years, various people have suggested that I journal. They would have me take use a journaling book and with pen and ink write down my innermost thoughts. I tried it. Truth is I don’t do handwriting very well these days. I think far faster than I can write so I end up with skipped spaces and funny looking letters. Sure, I can make to write a check and sign my name on a charge slip. I can even write a post-it note of instructions for a staff member. About the longest document I write these days is a handwritten thank you note. Truth is, handwriting for me in now agony. I can type on my Treo far faster and more accurately than I can handwrite. Sad, but true!

The next logical step was to try journaling on my laptop. For a few months last year I documented my struggle to lose weight and exercise. I found myself journaling, but it took up too much time. The diet failed, as did the exercise program. So that was the end of journaling. Will I try it again? The diet and exercise -- yes. The journal – not likely.

Then along came blogging. I had been reading about blogging for some months. When I was ill with the flu I decided that it was time to find out more about how to blog. Within half an hour of finding out how to blog, I was blogging. At first I thought I could do it every day, but after a while I soon realized that once a week was about the right pace for me. Honestly, I am enjoying writing my blog and I am also enjoying your positive feedback. It always surprises me that people are reading. I expected that some FacetsWoman readers would read it, but now I find I have readers from other parts of the US and even one reader from Scotland.

Comparing journaling with blogging, I have to say I like blogging much better. With journaling the idea is that other people WON’T read it and you go to some effort to keep them from reading your innermost thoughts. With blogging you write stuff (admittedly not always your most innermost thoughts) with the idea that someone might read it. For me that makes it a lot more fun!

Monday, May 01, 2006


My grandmother ironed A LOT. I think she really somehow enjoyed it. She was very good at it. Actually she taught me to iron when I was very young. I used to be assigned all the handkerchiefs. My father used white handkerchiefs, and they were frankly pretty dull to iron. My grandfather, on the other hand, used handkerchiefs that were white in the center with colored borders. Some were blue and others brown. His were much more exciting to iron. What I especially liked was folding all the corners just so.

Ironing in those days involved sprinkling first. We had a Coke bottle with a sprinkler head on top it of. Before you started to iron a piece, you had to sprinkle it first. I think most things had been pre-starched first, so the water seemed to wake up the starch.

Sometimes the maid would also help with the ironing and my mother would also iron. My grandmother, who was in charge of ironing in our household, kept the frilly dresses for herself and for my mother to do. The maid did the really boring stuff and I did the easy stuff. In retrospect, we spent a lot of our lives ironing. Mercifully, only one person could iron at once. Summer days were especially hard; the iron was hot and the sweat poured off of us in the Alabama heat. The oscillating fan helped a bit.

My uncle somehow came by an electric ironer and gave it to my Dad. This is an example of appliance that never really hit the big time. My mother was happy to get it, but using it was a different matter. It was OK for tablecloths, but not much else.

Men’s shirts were always sent out the laundry. They came back stiffly starched and wrapped around what we called “shirt cardboard.” My father’s shirts, like his handkerchiefs were always white and he liked them heavily starched. No pink or blue shirts for him. My grandfather, on the other hand, preferred striped shirts with white colors. He always wore a collar pin that connected the two corners of his collars. His shirts were very interesting! He used to let me help him pick out his clothes each night. It was fun to coordinate his suit, with his shirt, tie, handkerchief and socks. Between the two of them, they used 10 sheets of “shirt cardboard” every week. This means that I had an endless supply of “shirt cardboard” for drawing or school projects.

When I was in high school, I liked to wear oxford cloth shirts with Peter Pan collars. My mother hated them because they were so hard to iron. By then I was not too interested in ironing (strange how that happened) and she had to pay the maid to iron them. She could have sent them to the laundry like my Dad’s, but that would have been too expensive – besides, they wouldn’t look right all stiffly starched like his. I think that was one of the best parts of my going to college; I took my oxford cloth blouses with me and ironed them myself.

In my dorm, they had something called the “Ironing Room.” There was one of every floor. They may have still them for all I know. We spent a lot of our time in college ironing and soon gained an appreciation of the drudgery ironing involved. Still, it was a necessary evil.

About the time I graduated from college, things started to change. Men were wearing “wash and wear” Haspel suits. Some fabrics were coming out that didn’t need ironing. My father was wearing “permanent press” shirts. These new fabrics were a mixed blessing. We hated to iron the old cotton stuff, but these new fabrics felt a bit “slimy” and were hot in the summer. Most of us had some of each.

I recall back in 1969, when we were first married, we had dinner with a couple who lived in the apartment across the hall from us in Illinois. Steve spilled something on the tablecloth. The hostess replied, “That’s OK. It’s wash and wear!” My engineer husband still chuckles about the idea of a “wash and wear” tablecloth.

Enter POLYESTER! I was in California at the time and embraced it. Hooray, no more ironing ever! The stuff was ugly and it was hot, but everybody was wearing and loving it! The ironing board was stuck in the back of the garage and iron stuffed in the closet. Until we moved to Maryland in 1976, we lived in an ironing free bliss. Sure, you had to be quick at getting to the dryer and hanging things up, but it beat ironing.

At the time when we were in California, Steve was in the air force and wore a wash and wear blue shirt and polyester trousers. Rarely, he would have to wear fatigues and they had to be ironed. I soon tumbled to fact that they are best handled by the laundry. The irony – the thing he wore to do dirty things had to be starched and ironed! The uniform he wore daily as an “officer and a gentleman” could come right out of the dryer onto the hanger!

In Maryland, polyester was not as prevalent as in California. In fact, it was going out of style in 1976. But, I still had a lot of it and wore it. Within a few years, however, it was gone from my wardrobe. What remained was a mixture of “wash and wear” fabrics, wool (that mercifully seldom needed ironing) and things that had to go to the drycleaner.

Soon, I started ironing again and I wasn’t enjoying it either. The spray starch I had discovered in college was now my best friend. But I wanted us all to look good and ironing seemed the only way. How I hated it! My husband preferred the softer feel of un-starched shirts, but they often still needed ironing.

My son wore oxford cloth shirts in high school and they had to be ironed. Guess that is nature’s revenge. I taught him how to iron them and he took care of them himself in college! Shortly after he married, I suggested to his wife that she send them to the laundry. She took my advice! His come back from the laundry handing on hangers and he is happy.

After 37 years of marriage, I am on my third iron. The one I bought in about 1978 recently died. I bought the new one at Costco. It is digital and wonderful and it is heavy enough and large enough to do a really good job. Does it make my like ironing any better? No! But it does seem to go faster.
Unlike in my grandmother’s day, ironing is not a big part of my life. It is something I do when I have to (because I need to wear something) or when I am on one of my “organized” kicks. Still, it is necessary sometimes.

My husband no longer wears a coat, tie and white shirt to work. He wears plaid shirts without a tie. His employer, like many others, has changed their rules and he is very happy to go to work in a plaid shirt (the plaid is not required, but he IS an engineer and they seem to like plaid for some reason) and slacks. If I am fast, his shirts don’t need much ironing, but they do need touching up a bit. The microfiber slacks are great – no ironing required. I have learned to send the Dockers to the laundry.

I stopped wearing oxford cloth blouses decades ago and I hate “fat” polyester. These days I wear knit tops most of the time and mercifully they don’t need ironing. Some of my slacks require ironing; others don’t (a tough of polyester is just fine, thank you). I have to iron many of my blouses, as I wear them over my knit top in the summer time. More ironing is one thing I dread about the summer. Right now, I have loads of stuff I washed at the end of last summer that I need to dig out and iron. And by now, it is all really wrinkled.

I have a fancy laundry room in my house with a small pull-down ironing board. It reminds me of the ironing room in my college dorm. I put a small black and white TV in there for use while ironing. BUT, I kept my old standard size ironing board. It is now set up in my sitting room, calling to me every night. One night soon, it will grab me. I will turn on the TV and take pleasure in ironing my husband’s shirts just so and remembering my grandmother.

Meanwhile, however, there is this wonderful stuff put out by Downy and it is magic. You can spray it and wrinkles go away on all but the seriously wrinkled. I never travel without it. While it is not a complete ironing replacement, it really does help!

Will future generations iron? Thirty years ago, I would have said “never.” Now I say, “probably, but only when they can’t figure out how to get out of it.”