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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Smoker's Diary #1: To Smoke or Not to Smoke

December 18, 2010

Photograph by Rob San Miguel (Seoul 2008)
Why do some people smoke while others do not?  I think it is not just a matter of addiction but something more profound.  My father was a chain smoker and he died because of a heart disease complicated by his diabetes and long years of smoking.  As far as I can remember, I have always remembered him holding a cigarette.  As a teenager, one of the most powerful reasons why I never smoked was because I always hated my father smoking in the house, the smell of the smoke and the ash and cigarette butts all over the floor.  Most of the time, I always had to do the cleaning.  Oddly, in 1992, I started smoking. In my first year in the University of the Philippines (U.P.), I found myself buying my first pack of cigarettes. Most of my friends, who were budding writers, smoke and so lighting a Marlboro was probably one of the most artificial representations of our aspirations to be the next Plath, Sexton and Neruda.  After I left U.P., I stopped smoking, just like that. I can’t remember really why.  Suddenly the urge disappeared.  Then, I spent my early twenties surrounded by smokers and yet they never influenced me.  In 2004, I started smoking again, and thus began a 6-year tug-of-war between Rob the smoker and Rob the non-smoker.

For the nth time, I decided to quit for reasons that will remain personal for the time being. On December 15, exactly 8:45 a.m., after finishing editing an essay, I went downstairs to smoke. I lighted a cigarette and smoked my first stick of the day, a 6-year old habit.  After that, I went to the bathroom and suddenly, out of nowhere, I decided to throw my last 5 sticks and my lighter.  That was it.  Not a bang, not even a whimper, but a sudden decision to stop.  I have tried to stop before so it was not a big deal.  It was like one part of me, the smoker part, was just patronizing the non-smoker side.  “Okay,” he says. “Let’s see how long you’ll last this time.”  I survived my first three days of not smoking, no cheating.  The longest I have been without a cigarette since 2006.  So now, I am coughing like a literary character suffering from consumption; this is supposedly a transition phase in which my lungs are expelling all the nicotine that I have inhaled for many years. An ironic twist, I never had severe coughs when I was smoking.  My friend said that these coughing episodes will last at least a month. My chest and throat hurt from coughing; now I understand why some people never even try quitting.  The ugly period of transition is enough to make you light another stick, just one.  One won’t hurt. That classic Carrie Bradshaw line still echoes in my head every now and then, “I have an addiction!” Carrie clad in designer clothes shouted with style, gusto and recriminations to the one who dared ask her to stop.

Now, I won’t turn into one of those former non-smokers who quit successfully and then condescendingly sit on their high horses like sanctimonious white knights. Like I said, I could start smoking again but having lived the life of a smoker and a non-smoker; I believe I have a better understanding of smokers and non-smokers. I think cigarette smoking may be one of the most conspicuous symbolic representations of the individual, down to his core.  The act of commission or omission, two aspects of human action at play when a person smokes or refuses to smoke. People smoke and refuse to smoke for various personal reasons. My fascination is not about smoking. Smoking, along with all the clichés associated with it, is just the medium to explore human choices. In 2008, this fascination was the spark that ignited a series of very short stories entitled “The First Time.” I wrote the first episode on May 10, 2008. It is peculiar that Filipinos would be electing a smoker for a president on the same day two years later.

Next: Smoker's Diary #2

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