By Ryan Knighton | January 31, 2003

Day 30 and I’m doing all right, holding the course, keeping away from my old haunts, as they advise. And since I miss them all—the particular doorways, patios, picnic tables and bus benches–today’s topic, then, is why places to smoke matter.

It has come to my attention, as a curious and somewhat ensconced quitter, that smoking permanently alters the dopamine production in one’s brain and, as a consequence of giving up the habit, the newly cigarette-less individual is rendered forever starved for a little extra dopamine and its attendant IQ points. Evidence, you demand? The sentence that kicked off this paragraph took me fifteen minutes to coax from my brain and hammer straight. But write ahead, regardless of stupidity’s many obstacles, I will.

Curiously enough, this biological effect further compromises an often overlooked reason for taking up smoking in the first place: the life of social criticism and its necessary spaces. This is to say, not only could I be dumber than I was before, now I have lost the social position which fed the few shreds of vital intelligence I clung to on a daily basis, clung to about every 45 minutes, to be exact.

One of the unfortunate sacrifices that goes without smoking is one’s social and spatial marginalization. As a smoker I used to be an object of scorn at restaurants and parties and other public occasions, and, taking my cue with my lumps, I would cheerfully step outside the house or exit to the nearest sidewalk for a nice, fresh ciggy.

It occurs to me now that smoking, for this reason, is perhaps the ugliest of identity politics. Our tribe is not one to be tolerated or integrated into mainstream society. Yet, unlike other identity politics, we’re mostly okay with that judgment and agree we are a dangerous and deplorable lot. Mostly sick, though, but definitely dangerous.

And that’s why, I suspect, many writers and thinkers I know were, at one time or another, content to light up outside, in the rain and sun, cars passing by, pedestrians whizzing past through the clouds of our smoke. That’s where the work is found and gets started, standing outside the group, taking in the public world as you side-step it, stand clear of the doorway and inhale deeply.

We all know this practice well, too, and are bound to its advantages. The last shindig I found myself at, I also found myself outside in the Toronto snow, every hour or so, smoking my brains out and making smart-ass remarks with fellow smokers about the goings-on inside. Over the course of a night, we group and regroup there, building the narrative, extending the evaluations and understanding, comparing stories and reconnaissance from the mess that is a party of people.

On day 30 of my adventures in quitting, I can say, without reservation, I miss being ostracized and sent to the pavement to fulfill my habit and, as it turns out, sharpen my sense of what’s really going on in there. I’ve not only lost some of that dopamine, I’ve also lost some of the analytical infrastructure for generating social observations.

Now, you might argue, yes, you have lost some of your IQ buddy—why the hell don’t you just step outside once in a while and hang with your ex-tribe members? That should keep you plugged in, right?

Those who would argue a non-smoker can simply "join" the smokers clearly lacks any insider knowledge of life as an outsider. Smoking outside is a communion of minds in ritual exchange. Burning cigarettes somehow conduct between us and free that vital exchange of perspectives, information and interpretation. That communion of minds, however, cannot be faked, nor can it be joined by falsified practice. Just because you’ve got a hankering to hold a stick, doesn’t mean you are actually one who holds the talking stick. How I miss my talking sticks.

Speaking of which, I have a friend who’s always got something interesting to say and he just walked by my office to go outside for a smoke. We used to call it going out behind the barn, only now I’m the one who feels about as dumb as that bucket of hammers just inside the barn door. I think I’m too stupid and uninformed now to figure out what all this adds up to, so I’m going to go ask him what to make of all this.

I mean, when he comes back inside, I will.


  • Ryan Knighton

    Ryan Knighton lives in Vancouver, teaches at a college in North Vancouver, and peers at the world with a strange but distinctive focus. He just signed a whopping book contract based on a series of pieces that appeared on this site, and his publisher made us erase them.

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