I distinctly remember a time sitting on a houseboat on Lake Powell and noticing Dad was smoking a cigar. The occurrence was rare, but not unheard of. I must have been nine or ten and he must have seen me watching him smoke. Instead of ignoring me or telling me not to do what he did, he asked me if I wanted to try it.
How could I pass up the opportunity to be like Dad? So, I remember taking the half-smoked cigar with, what I imagine, was childish flourish mimicked from the movies. That’s right about when he told me what to do take a deep inhale through my mouth, and then hold it as long as I could before exhaling.
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For those with some experience with cigars, in general, you don’t inhale, and never inhale deeply holding it in for an extended period of time. The result was an explosive cough that left my throat coarse, my eyes burning, my nostrils flared and my stomach queasy all while I dealt with the sour taste of cigar in my mouth reminding me of my folly well into the following day. It was all made that much worse by the fact that we were on a boat which did little to ease my discomfort.
At that moment as I handed the cigar back I think two things registered for me. One, a fresh level of respect for Dad who I was now convinced was effectively able to sit and eat fire and ashes and enjoy it. The other, and far more important of the two, was a burning lack of desire to try smoking anything else for the remainder of my teens.
In that moment he had eliminated all of the mystique, all of the curiosity, all of the attraction of the cigar and turned it into scattered ash. In the following years as I entered high school and opportunities arose to smoke I never felt the urge and outwardly scoffed at more than a few classmates. I’d been there. I’d tried that. Lesson learned.
Of course, it could have backfired, and looking back on it I know he took great care to make sure it was unpleasant but not dangerous. Still, it stands out as a wonderfully effective life lesson learned without pomp or special context that made it somehow seem less genuine and which eliminated the sense of rebellion.
When it came to alcohol, however, the approach was a bit different. I spent most of my teens convinced both parents, but my Dad in particular, had a moderate alcohol allergy. In reality, this is to some limited effect true. But, it wasn’t until my brother and I left for college that suddenly a transformation occurred and I realized the full extent of their commitment to setting a carefully crafted example for us.
Growing up there was some alcohol in the house, but usually just leftovers from BBQs or special gifts that sat collecting dust in the pantry. Thinking back, I can’t recall any instances where I saw Mom and Dad drinking. I’m sure there were a few at BBQs or for special events or an occasional bottle of wine but it was an extreme rarity.
It wasn’t that they went out of their way to shield us from alcohol or people drinking at events. Rather, they were acutely aware of their power as role models who we looked to for guidance and insight on how to behave and charted a course based on that. What we saw were two individuals who might have a lone drink, but were never drunk. Who enjoyed meals without an accompanying drink. Who never made a big deal about alcohol and who treated the topic casually but were also careful in their phrasing. I suspect a lot of this came from my Dad’s experiences running a country club for several years and regularly having to deal with drunks. We’ve also been inordinately lucky in that none of the family has shown a genetic inclination towards alcoholism which would automatically throw this all out the window.
But, ultimately, the moment that sticks out most was how it felt like a switch had been flipped once my brother and I had both started college. Suddenly, the house had a well-stocked tequila bar and the previous inhibition and absence of booze were replaced by a still moderate, but visible presence.
Now, as an adult, we can sit and enjoy a cigar and a nice Scotch together, and periodically we do as a wonderful way to connect and chat. But my path there was one that never tempted me with abuse or addiction and instead framed my way of relating to each potent aspect of our culture in a way that left me in control.
It was then that I realized just how consciously Mom and Dad had worked to create a space for us that left a powerful subliminal impression. Beyond the individual examples, each approach has left a lasting impact on how I consider the lessons I set for those around me.