Friday, November 19, 2004

A Nonanniversary of Uncertain Date

It's been 10 years since I both started and stopped smoking.

I'm sure that it was some time in November 1994, my last term at Dartmouth; I was trying to defeat college before it defeated me. The only things standing between me and graduation were Real Analysis (math 63) and two free electives: Modern British Drama (engl 54) and Topics in Algebra (math 101). Real was a constant struggle, made worse by the fact that the grader was Vik. Not only were we locked in a long-term rivalry (he also ended up at UCSD!), but I had graded harshly when he had taken Algebra (math 71) the previous fall. The only bright spot in that situation was that I was doing better than he was in 101 that term, and he knew it. (And I was sleeping with one of his good friends, but that is an entirely different story.)

I had no idea what I was going to do once I finished. I had applied to math graduate school for fall 1995 admission, but that would have left me with 9 months of nowhere to be. I had thought about making arrangements to spend the winter and spring (and perhaps also the summer) working at my high-paying former summer job in Maryland, but I never got around to it. There was no way in hell that I was going to spend several months in Schenectady and live to tell about it. And really I was in no position to plan more than a few days in advance. My most brilliant move of the fall was to have my graduation date be spring 1995 and be a matriculated student "on leave" for the rest of the academic year so I did not lose my health insurance or my ability to live in College-affiliated housing. (A close second was my convincing the Dean -- on the last day of classes -- to grant me Incompletes in two of my three courses.)

I was living at my house, which I sometimes refer to as the Panarchy Center for Lung Cancer. Not only did we have asbestos insulation, but it was asbestos insulation in really bad shape. And eleven of the seventeen residents of the house were smokers. Everyone who lived in the house paid "house dues" for basics that we all shared: things like flour and sugar, toilet paper and paper towels, cable TV and cigarettes. Being in Panarchy was probably pretty close to the peak of my social life, and there was great pressure to be different -- just like everyone else. With cigarettes free for the taking in a dish on the coffee table and within an environment that encouraged empirically self-medicating, it was only a matter of time before I started smoking.

But my housemates were all much more practiced smokers, and I felt awkward by comparison, and I never got over the initial nastiness of it all, so the habit never stuck.