jonathan franzen

Jonathan Franzen Once Wrote Something Similar About Smoking*

I was a smoker for a very short time. My cigarette-buying phase lasted two or three years in college and even then, most of my cigarettes were social or finals induced. I would frequently give away packs of cigarettes in an effort to smoke less. After I graduated college, I stopped buying packs, and in the next calendar year, I resolved to stop smoking completely. 

Obviously, smoking is the worst by every metric, including health, appearance, and the capitalist machine. And let’s not forget the smell. The other night, the guy next to me in yoga was a smoker. I could tell because his sweat smelled like tobacco.

I haven’t bought a pack of cigarettes in a half dozen years, but I still smoke about three cigarettes annually, and I enjoy them all. Just yesterday, I considered getting a pack from a 7-11. I didn’t. I was at work and I would feel indicted by the smell on my fingers for the rest of the day. Plus, I would have nothing to do with the other 19 cigarettes. I still sort of wish I could have bought a loosie. Absurdly, I feel like a cigarette would have turned the day around, or at least made it into a day I smoked a cigarette.

I don’t know how people who really smoke ever quit. I was never chemically addicted to cigarettes, but I did, and do, structurally enjoy them. For people whose days are incremented by tobacco, I’m not sure that passing desire for a smoke ever really leaves them. It hasn’t quite left me yet.

The other thing I’ll say about smoking is something my friend once said upon quitting for his 24th birthday: “I feel like I’ve accomplished something: I’ve given myself an addiction and weaned myself off of it.” It’s one of those quotes I remember more than him, though now he remembers it as something I remember.

I think about that line when things don’t work out. For instance, in my first year in Denver, a job and a passing relationship fell a part at about the same time. And while both were disappointing, I did feel like I had accomplished something. I had built something in Denver that could be, and was, destroyed. I smoked a cigarette the day I got laid off, and I didn’t regret it at all. 

*That Jonathan Franzen essay can be found here or in How To Be Alone

Freedom Speaking

Like If You’re Feeling Sinister, the Belle & Sebastian album that played behind my sophomore year of college, Freedom brings back a very specific, if not too distant, time.

It’s not the details of my life I remember, but the feeling that there was a writer on the cover of Time Magazine. Everywhere I went, people were talking about a book. That New Years, I went to a party with a lot graduates from Connecticut colleges. Before we got there, I bet my date that everyone he would meet will have read Freedom. I won. As someone who is in favor of reading, I was favor of this.

Tonight, I’m seeing Jonathan Franzen speak in Denver. And the thing about hearing an author speak—it’s not like a show or an opening or a game. People aren’t dragged to readings. No, the people who go to hear an author speak are excited to hear an author to speak. I’m excited to hear Jonathan Franzen speak tonight, and I’m excited to be in a roomful of people who agree. 

I Have Measured Out My Life in Fruit Snacks

I’m running my first marathon on my 28th birthday. What’s up, aging?

There’s a transition between running half-marathons and real marathons. For one, when you’re training for a full marathon, you think an 8-mile pace run is an acceptable thing to talk about in public. It’s not, but it’s easy to let training take over your life.

And in my life, which includes a book on hold, weeks of waiting to hear back from grad school, and a couple of short stories kicking around, the marathon is a tangible thing to worry about. Running is a structured escape. It’s a reason to leave a party early. It’s a way to get out of the house for hours at a time. And if 18 weeks are passing you by, it’s a way to make sense of the time that never ceases to move forward.

And in this way, running is no different than smoking cigarettes. Well, it’s better on the lungs and worse on the knees.

As Jonathan Franzen explains:                              

There’s no simple, universal reason why people smoke, but there’s one thing I’m sure of: they don’t do it because they’re slaves to nicotine. My best guess about my own attraction to the habit is that I belong to a class of people whose lives are insufficiently structured. The mentally ill and the indigent are also members of this class. We embrace a toxin as deadly as nicotine, suspended in an aerosol of hydrocarbons and nitrosamines, because we have not yet found pleasures or routines that can replace the comforting, structure-bringing rhythm of need and gratification that the cigarette habit offers. One word for this structuring might be “self-medication”; another might be “coping.”

The other thing that’s different about training for a marathon is that you can’t get away without carrying anything on a run, and just vomiting from salt depletion when you get home. And so nutrition becomes another thing to think about, you know, instead of considering the human condition.

I bring Fruit Snacks on my long runs. I can already picture myself packing school lunches for my children that include such Fruit Snacks and wistfully remembering this period in my life, when I used Fruit Snacks to measure time’s passing. Not that I’d ever let my kids eat that shit for lunch.