Thursday, April 11, 2013

Once upon a time, I was a smoker

When the history of the contemporary world is studied by future wide-eyed eccentrics who for some reason choose to focus on an era when humanity's sense of itself was arguably the most conflicted, there will undoubtedly be a collective gasp of breath at the sheer indiscretion with which so many people chose to poison themselves with a small white paper tube stuffed with all manner of vegetable and chemical matter known to cause prolonged and painful deaths.
But what these poor students will never know is the fleeting sense of unalloyed abandon implicit in the act of actually putting paper to lip and drawing on a heady whiff of freedom that flew in the face of reason, individual responsibility and a sense of communion with a discredited wider world made up of bleeding heart evangelicals who nobody in their right minds would want in any way to be associated with, anyway.
I was a smoker for fifteen years, and I remember the exact ambiance when I had my first cigarette as, I suspect, I will remember the exact circumstances in which I smoked my last cigarette recently. People choose to start and stop smoking for a variety of reasons, most of which are interesting only to themselves, but the emotions surrounding the severing of ties with a hitherto lifelong and loyal companion that made relatively few demands on time, money and thought compared to a lot of other less lethal vices, are, I'm sure, common to all ex-smokers. There is first a keen sense of loss, followed by a steeling of the will, followed by a morose nostalgia for the once-intimate taste, and eventually gratification - at escaping an addiction that you once thought you would take to the grave with you.
That the time has come to ban a 7000-year old unhealthy custom is self-evident. What is not self-evident is that when that time comes there will be a sudden explosion of goodwill, health and prosperity across classes of people who have for long been so disenfranchised, disenchanted and dispirited that they once relied on a product that guaranteed one a minute of quiet self-absorbed reflection that no one could take away from them.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A critic after my own heart

I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different 
T.S. Eliot in 'The Journey of the Magi' (1930)

It has been more than eight years now since I first encountered Roger Ebert's writing on his movie review website and there are some reviews of his that I still continually go back to even though the interest in re-watching the movie in question has waned. Visits to his (more recently begun) blog drew me in only marginally less magnetically, and to think that there will never be another post: describing an obscure (to me) pub in Chicago and the myriad colourful characters inhabiting it, or a passionate denunciation of what he believed were denialist beliefs on evolution and gun-control laws in the country he was from and loved deeply, or an insight on alcoholism or addiction or love... is depressing and disorienting. He was my first stop after seeing a movie, and (if the movie was not being released in the cinema locally and unavailable for download) before seeing one, after hearing it described in some other internet forum. IMDB's profiles of movies saw me scrolling down furiously to the small link to the External Reviews section and then, the Roger Ebert link which was usually the first in a long list. When his name was absent from a list, there was invariably a pause to reflect on whether the movie was actually worth the watch if Roger didn't take the time to review it. The essence of his writing was, in a word, humane and his humaneness tempered everything he wrote on anything. In an insular  world that seems increasingly distant from the idea that we actually share it with seven billion other souls, his writing was a compass - unerringly pointing to the standards that we once collectively held ourselves to; in our art and in the consumption of that art.

Reproduced below is a poem written by Roger Ebert about what he believed should be done with the World Trade Center site, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks that have now come to define my generation, and, in some ways, implicate his:

"If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it, for it is not the possession of a nation but a sorrow shared with the world.

Let it be a green field, with trees and flowers. Let there be paths that wind through the shade. Put out park benches where old people can sun in the summertime, and a pond where children can skate in the winter. 

Beneath this field will lie entombed forever some of the victims of September 11. It is not where they thought to end their lives. Like the sailors of the battleship Arizona, they rest where they fell.

Let this field stretch from one end of the destruction to the other. Let this open space among the towers mark the emptiness in our hearts. But do not make it a sad place.

Give it no name. Let people think of it as the green field. Every living thing that is planted there will show faith in the future.

Let students take a corner of the field and plant a crop there. Perhaps corn,  our native grain. Let the harvest be shared all over the world, with friends and enemies, because that is the teaching of our religions, and we must show that we practice them. 

Let the harvest show that life prevails over death, and let the gifts show that we love our neighbors.

Do not build again on this place. No building can stand there. No building, no statue, no column, no arch, no symbol, no name, no date, no statement. Just the comfort of the earth we share, to remind us that we share it."

Thank you Roger Ebert. You will be greatly missed.