I had the nightmare again last week, right before the annual celebration.
I’m in a crowd of people and I’m back smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. A wave of utter hopelessness washes over me. How did I get here? I had quit — and now I know for certain I’ll never be able to quit again. Then I wake up with such a feeling of relief I could cry.
It was 30 years ago on Jan. 31 that I really did quit after smoking for the previous 30. I started when I was 13, stealing packs of Salems from my mother and then, big hero, sharing them with friends.
When I was 42, the year before I quit, I had seen a hypnotist in Wellesley. The sessions were more like meditation and deep breathing than going completely under. She asked for a pleasant, peaceful memory and I mentioned hearing Leonard Bernstein conduct Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 on an idyllic Tanglewood evening, so that’s what she “implanted” while I was doing my deep breathing. (Ever the snob, even under hypnosis, it bothered me that she pronounced his name Chakowsky.)
I left her office totally blissed out without any desire for a smoke. I was cured. And since I was cured, surely there wouldn’t be any harm in bumming a daily cigarette? Or two? You can write the rest of that story. I went on a two-week business trip while I was TV critic at the Boston Globe and by the time I came back I was a regular pack-a-day man again.
The Globe had recently instituted a smoking room where the addicted had to go. (It was actually quite a nice bonding experience amid the poisonous cloud.) But the Taylor family, which owned the Globe at the time, and nurse Barbara Jonic were more enlightened than just banning cigarettes. They announced that they would be hosting a mass hypnosis for Jan. 31, 1991.
So why not give it another chance? It was only downstairs, in the William O. Taylor room, so down I went with maybe 30 other smokers and listened to a clinician show slides of the effects of smoking before conducting deep breathing exercises similar to what I had experienced with the other hypnotist. Then they sent us off with an audio relaxation tape. I didn’t think it was nearly as effective as my one-on-one sessions so I didn’t hold out much hope that it had taken.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with the arts, aside from Chakowsky? Well, just this. I thought the hypnosis needed some help. It was a Friday afternoon so I stopped at the late, lamented Tower Records on the way home and bought $100 worth of CDs as I planned to hole up for the weekend at home and listen to music and watch TV. The two albums I distinctly remember were Elvis Costello’s “Spike” and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Voodoo.” There were probably also some Miles Davis and Abdullah Ibrahim and no doubt some classical CDs.
This was hardly the first time I used music and books to reward myself. As far back as 5 or 6 years old, I’d be dragged by Mom to the late, not so lamented, Filene’s Basement on Saturday afternoons. My reward for behaving myself, more or less, was that she’d buy me a book or record when I was done getting jostled as she trolled through bins, tried on dresses and forced me into itchy woolen pants. The itch would be worth it. I remember scoring the single of "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" from the Walt Disney TV series and any number of swashbuckling books.
But now, 40 years later, I was going through withdrawal listening to my new music, trying the meditation tapes, channel surfing, gorging on pizza and cheese steak, trying as hard as I could not to go up to my upstairs neighbor and bum a cigarette.
I made it through the weekend before going back to work on Monday, a few pounds heavier and incredibly irritable, knowing that all I had to do to get less irritable was to head into the smoking room and cop a smoke. Then my eureka moment. I told myself that if I didn’t do that I could stop at Tower Records on the way home and buy another CD. Every day.
OK, a word about CDs. I know I’m a dinosaur, that I can get virtually any of my 5,000 or so CDs by clicking on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube. Why do I need to own them? I go over to friends’ houses and am impressed by the Zen layout of their living and dining rooms and then I notice what’s missing. There are often no CDs and only a handful of books. Why bother taking up all that space when you can store everything on the computer or a Kindle?
Yeah, not for me. I agree with the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler and the New York Times’ Tony Tommasini that collecting music on the computer is markedly inferior to taking out a CD or LP, looking at the cover and then lovingly putting it on the turntable, or slipping it into the CD slot, either one giving off superior sound to streaming.
It isn’t the sound, though. I love walking around the house surrounded by Best Friends Forever like Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Leonard Bernstein as well as new kids on the block like Gustavo Dudamel, Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson or Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. And I’m not averse to looking at Yuja Wang covers while listening to her sparkling pianism. Books too. I’m staring at my complete set of Alice Munro stories as I’m writing.
While there are still terrific bookstores in the area, there is nothing like the mecca that Tower Records represented for music on the corner of Newbury Street and Mass Ave. So the idea that I could stop there on a daily basis on the way home from work if I didn’t have a cigarette was all the inducement I needed not to check into the smoking room with the Morrissey Boulevard regulars.
Instead, I’d drive from Tower to Medford with KLF’s “The White Room,” Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet,” a late-career recording of Bernstein’s, Sinéad O’Connor or Sonic Youth. I didn’t stop there every day. Often I couldn’t find a parking spot and by the time I got to Tower the crisis of copping a smoke had passed anyway. I can’t remember how long this went on but it was a good six months before the desire for cigarettes passed.
I haven’t had a drag of a cigarette since, except in my dreams. The idea of putting that junk in my lungs revolts me. But every now and then I see Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” or Don Johnson lighting up a Lucky Strike on a “Miami Vice” rerun and think how cool they look smoking. The stuff of dreams to come, perhaps. (Bogart would die of the cancer sticks, after making a PSA about his illness.)
So just to make sure I don’t fall prey, I still celebrate every Jan. 31 or a little before. In honor of my $100 splurge, I buy a set of books or CDs for about the same price. (My wife, who wasn’t married to me during the smoking years, will tell you that I don’t really need an excuse to buy books and CDs.) I’ve been particularly partial to Deutsche Grammophon box sets — Beethoven, pianist Wilhelm Kempff, “The Originals” (with original covers) — along with Pierre Boulez’ complete Columbia collection. (Obviously my taste has grown more classical since 1991.)
But there’ve also been book collections like Patricia Highsmith’s five Ripley novels (soon to be a Showtime series with Andrew Scott). I was recently channel surfing and came across the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” on “Twilight Zone” with a young William Shatner menaced by a monster on the wing of his plane. The dirty little secret about “Twilight Zone” is that the best episodes were not written by Rod Serling, who tended to be moralistic and self-righteous and who often wrote laughably bad dialogue. (Watch "The Fear" if you don’t believe me.) The best were written by Richard Matheson (“Nightmare”) and Charles Beaumont ("Perchance to Dream," "The Howling Man") with an occasional adaptation of Jerome Bixby ("It's a Good Life") or Ambrose Bierce (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). So this year my treat was short story collections in the Penguin Horror series.
“Perchance to Dream” involves a guy who’s sure that a femme in his dreams will soon be fatale as she’s about to throw him off a roller coaster unless he can prevent himself from falling asleep. My cigarette dream is almost that frightening. I do believe that I would not be alive today if I hadn’t quit 30 years ago.
So you can stream and Kindle to your heart’s content. Me, I’m going to slip on the CD of Miles Davis’ “Elevator to the Gallows” and crack open my Charles Beaumont book.