It's easy for adults to rationalize their most self-destructive weaknesses in the company of other adults. But throw a kid into the picture and the process becomes damn near impossible.

"What did you do in school today?" I asked my five-year-old son one recent afternoon, expecting to get the usual lowdown on the alphabet letter of the week, the construction-paper volcano he made and decorated with teensy charred corpses, and the latest inside poop on his kindergarten fiancee, Stephanie, a.k.a. "The Body."

"We talked about drugs," the boy chirped. "I learned that drugs are very, very bad. People who use them die and go to jail."

"Well, yes, they can," I agreed. "But not necessarily in that order."
"My teacher asked if we knew anyone who used drugs."
"And what did you say?"
"I said, `Yeah. My dad.'"
"You use drugs, Dad."
"I most certainly do not!"

"My teacher says cigarettes are drugs, and you smoke cigarettes. You're gonna die and go to jail."

"Honey, people only go to prison for using drugs that are against the law. Those are bad drugs. But there are also good drugs, like the medicine a doctor gives to sick people to make them well. Those are good drugs."

"Are cigarettes good drugs?"
"Well, ahhhh, no . . . "
"Do they kill people?"
"Well, ahhhhh, yes . . . "
"And they can kill people who don't even smoke, right?"
"Well, ahhhh, yes, they can, but . . . "
"Dad, we're all gonna die and go to jail."
"Ahhhh . . . "
"Why do you smoke cigarettes?"

Geez, I thought. Why couldn't the boy interrogate me about something simple, like the birds and the bees, the meaning of life, or the new Billy Dee Williams line of perfumes?

It's not like I don't have a perfectly reasonable excuse for turning my lungs into twin scale models of the La Brea Tar Pits. You see, my ever-dwindling supply of brain cells simply refuses to work until it's slathered in nicotine. Every time I've tried to quit smoking, I've been successful until I've found myself staring at a blank sheet of paper and a killer deadline--at which point my most creative thought is, "IIIII NEEEEEEED AAAAA CIGARETTTTTTTTTTE!" Not exactly Pulitzer Prize-worthy material.

This preoccupation lasts until my deadline draws closer and I have no choice but to 1) light up, or 2) get a job that doesn't require functioning gray matter, like those fast-food cashiers who ask if you want French fries with your pancakes.

Given the same choice, I am convinced, there isn't an American Heart Association executive on the planet who wouldn't light up, too.

To my credit, I don't smoke in my house. And I am way too smart to pollute my bodily temple with Camels or Marlboros or any of those brands guaranteed to increase one's masculinity, testosterone level and desire to wear a cowboy hat. No, I smoke "ultra lite" cigarettes. And frankly, it's comforting to know that if I get lung cancer or heart disease, it will be of the ultra-lite variety, requiring only ultra-lite chemotherapy and ultra-lite heart by-pass surgery.

Another reason it's been easy to live with my addiction is that, despite the current social status of smokers (who are ranked directly between AIDS-infected lepers and newspaper editors), it is still possible to find an understanding ear in some of the more sympathetic corners of the adult world.

But nowadays, I was discovering, a smoker would have to hang out with a grade-school junkie street gang to get any slack from a kid.

"Dad? Why do you like cigarettes?"
"It's not that I like them, son . . . "
"You don't like them?"

"Ahhh, no, I don't, but they become a habit. Once you start, it's not easy to stop."

"That's what my teacher says about bad drugs."
"Well, she's right, but . . . "
Apparently, my son had had enough of this mind-bending conversation, because he ended it much like the Indians at Little Big Horn ended General Custer's retirement plans.

"Dad, cigarettes are stupid. Smokers are stupid. We're all gonna die and go to jail."

The boy wasn't entirely correct, of course. But he was right enough to make me retreat to a designated smoking area, inhale some ultra-lite carbon monoxide and render myself capable of rerationalization.

Any sympathetic adult would understand. It's those unsophisticated, buttinski kindergarteners you've got to watch out for.

Why couldn't the boy interrogate me about something simple, like the birds and the bees, or the meaning of life?

I am way too smart to pollute my bodily temple with any of those cigarette brands guaranteed to increase one's masculinity.

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Michael Burkett