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A modern tale of scents and sensibility

It happened again.

Very few instances during this time spent doing other things suggest to me that life is just the Flying Spaghetti Monster's idea of refreshing a video game, but one of them is the karma of the post-shower encounter with a non-aggressive smoker.

It happens far too often for it to be mere happenstance. You're fresh out of the shower, dressed for whatever occasion it is necessitated a soaping, lathering and rinsing, and for a moment there's a feeling of being an alien on a distant, dirty planet.

Then you turn a corner, or get out of the car and "¦ WHAM! "¦ the stench of heated tobacco attacks with the adhesiveness of plastic wrap, and the momentary sheen of cleanliness is shattered.

Game over, man. Game over.

We all stink in our own ways; we know that. But why must we endure a smell intentionally inflicted by others? If the trail of tobacco would just stay where it came from, we could live with the drive-by interface. But it doesn't. It clings to you like an awkward memory from high school that reminds you of your imperfection.

Smoke gets in your eyes, your nose, your hair, your clothes. It follows you in aggravation like a younger brother on a first date, seeps into your soul and beats down upon your shoulders. It won't go away, and knowing that it's there only exacerbates your discontent.

When I was a young boy, my brother and I shared a downstairs bedroom. He was light-sensitive and had to sleep along the wall less affected by the sliver of light that stayed on overnight and illuminated the wedge of doorway that remained open to our room.

Against the other wall, I had a framed view of the cellar door and a cedar cigarette pack dispenser nailed into a slat of wall leading to my parents' bedroom. The wall-box held my father's Pall Malls and my mother's Newports. They pulled pack after pack from this nicotine Pez dispenser; it seemed to me that the box was never empty. Night after night, the last image I'd see before I'd fall asleep in the smoke-drenched bedding was of that dispenser that had long lost the striking singularity of cedar.

It's hard to imagine my childhood without the omnipresence of cigarettes — whether being given a note to take to the variety store to buy a carton for them, a pack of baseball cards for me, walking through the house and seeing the cigarette my mother kept going in each room, seeing the butts my father left floating like overturned rowboats in the toilet.

I've never smoked anything more deadly or drug-infused than a bubblegum cigar, and never will, and when I read about efforts to keep smokers out of Medford parks or making it a crime in Oregon for drivers to smoke with a child in the car, it doesn't bother me that these laws are tilting at the windmills of addiction.

Someone else's smoke is invading my space.

Mrs. Robichaud, my ninth-grade English teacher who would die from emphysema, would crack a smile and let out her throaty cackle at this point. She loved to test us "¦ spring surprise in-class assignments on us that tested our desire to think on our feet.

One day, the challenge seemed simple enough: On one side of a piece of paper, write about something you feel strongly about, something that inflamed our passion. Well, I was stumped, of course, thinking far too hard and too long about something I felt strongly about — finally settling on a half-baked notion about the school year being too long.

To top it off, foreshadowing a career in newspapers, I got the math wrong.

Now, on days outside an Ashland coffee shop or walking downtown in Medford, I encounter the remnants of a smoker and I know what I should have written that day.

My own protest to my parents came at age 11, when I refused to take the note, or run to the store for their cigarettes. Not quite Brooke Shields testifying before Congress that "Smoking kills. If you're killed, you've lost a very important part of your life," but then again I never had to pose for a picture with cigarettes sticking out of my ears.

My civil disobedience did no good with my parents, of course; they each smoked until the very ends of their lives. But my air had become important to me, and I didn't want them befouling it.

This all came to mind over these past few weeks as I was following the debate over the possible impacts that farming GMO crops would have on the produce harvested on other farms in the Rogue Valley.

Of all the talking points, and the arguments about the talking points, and the finger-pointing over who was funding the arguments about the talking points, the issue to me was in one inarguable tenet — Person A shouldn't be forced to become the unwilling recipient when what Person B was doing was carried by the wind, particularly if it violated a moral or ethical stance.

Evolution is a slippery slope, filled with compromises and rational debate that keep us (well, most of us) from erecting impenetrable walls around us to keep from being soiled by the inevitability of human interaction. The old "the right of you to clench a fist ends at the tip of my nose" postulate itself is amended over time to make room for our endless march in circles.

Perhaps someday, we'll have universally verifiable and accepted proof that GMOs are a health risk, but that's likely to have to wait until we're all on the same page about climate change. Heck, even now only 83 percent of Americans in a recent poll were willing to accept the correlation between smoking and disease.

Still, it's not too early to see where the next storm clouds on the horizon will be to prevent another artificial inversion layer from settling into our personal space. All it takes is a look north to Washington or east to Colorado to follow the experimentation of legal recreational marijuana use, and you can see the potential pitfalls for human interaction.

Smoke is smoke, whether it comes from Big Tobacco or the Mom & Pop pot shop around the corner. And your right to blow it ends at the tip of my nose.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com