So far in the summer of 2011, the keyword has been smoke, as in a thick haze that has been infiltrating the Lowcountry every few days.
Apparently the smoke is from wildfires in Georgia and Florida. It's especially noticeable late at night or early in the morning when I walk my dog, and it's annoying. But it could be worse: It could be from somewhere less "distant."
I've also been thinking a lot about the other kind of smoke -- the kind created by cigarettes. Unless you actually light up, you smell less of that these days. Growing up in the South -- where smoking was a God-given right when I was a kid -- it's hard to believe we've almost completely eliminated public smoking in little more than a decade.
When I first started dating my wife in 1998, we'd always go to the smoking section of the restaurant to appease her dad. Now, "smoking sections" seem like a science fiction concept. It's another thing we put in the mental time capsule and say, "Wow, we sure were crazy way back ... five years ago."
My father was a smoker my entire childhood, until I went to college. I used to secondhand smoke about a pack a day. He'd quit for a day or a week or a month but could never shake the habit. And then one day, he did. It's been that way ever since. But the comfort I get from knowing he stopped doesn't erase the terror I had as a kid knowing he was tempting fate and his own mortality.
My father-in-law also smoked most of his life. He recently quit, but not before his health caught up to him. Now he's on oxygen and facing an uncertain future.
Smoking and cancer are two things every American has a connection to. We all have an uncle or aunt or grandparent or friend who smoked too much and died too soon. President Barack Obama smoked, until recently. Speaker of the House John Boehner smokes. It's a bipartisan addiction! One imagines that if aliens land tomorrow, the only thing we'll have in common is, "My uncle smoked three packs a day until the day he died."
That's the thing: It's a lot to ask a teenager to make a decision that will prevent pain and suffering 40 to 50 years down the road, but given how much we now know about cigarettes, it's hard to believe we still need to ask.
Last week, the FDA released a new warning system that, essentially, exists to remind you, "No, for real, smoking is bad for you." New York City also recently took its smoking ban to further extremes, ratcheting down on the places you can smoke in public. We're heading to just two appropriate smoking locations: home and car. I think I'm OK with that.
Even though most people tend to freak out when new laws are passed, you barely hear much anger about the ever-shifting no-smoking laws. If the government were to discuss banning cigarettes outright, there'd be anger. I'm sure some of us would write our congressmen. But we'd email it ... late in the day, after we finished everything else. And we wouldn't use exclamation points. And when the news hit that the bill to ban smokes was written into law, we'd say, "What! That's outrageo ... hey, look, 'Frasier's' on."
There's a reason why we've completely eliminated smoking sections in just a few years, even in the South. It's because NO ONE likes cigarettes. (I'm convinced smokers don't, either.) We defend them as an abstract concept, because people should have a right to do what they please, but it's hard to get that passionate about something you loathe -- they're like taxes or porn or the Kardashians.
It also doesn't help that when you defend cigarettes, you're also defending the companies that make them. These are the same people who, just a few decades ago, were running commercials with doctors saying, "Actually, cigarettes INCREASE lung capacity!"
It's a nasty business with nasty consequences. I don't have answers, just lots of thoughts, a little anger and lots of despair on these smoke-filled nights.
Let's hope as we head into July, the haze to this summer will start to dissipate. And let's hope that as we look ahead to our future, the smoky consequences of teenage mistakes will also lessen in our lives.