"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I’ll preface my letter by saying that I think common advice is to not worry about what we can’t control, but what I want to know is who then is worrying? The problems we have today are on a scale that is much bigger than any one of us, than any group of us, and I don’t know how to direct my life.
I don’t know if we should have a second child. I don’t know what job I should be trying to get or what our long-term goals should be.
Another thing people tell themselves is that you can’t plan for the unknown, but I think we now know quite a bit. We know that within this century, the planet is going to undergo major changes. The details and exact timeline are debatable, but the reality of environmental degradation is not.
When I was about 9, I learned that gas and oil were not renewable, plastic rings around soda cans could strangle pelicans, and aerosol cans were destroying the ozone. We celebrated Earth Day in school. I thought, “When I grow up, people will have to do things differently. They’ll have to be more careful with water and stuff like that.” The rules will change about how we have to live. But 30 years later, nothing has changed. If anything, people are worse at basic home conservation because you can’t have a house with less than 2.5 baths and it’s practically impossible to be a one-car family. The boomer generation knew about the consequences of CO2 levels rising in the ’70s, and they did nothing about it. Now my generation is grown and as a collective we also ignore, ignore, ignore.
I first began to really be concerned after I took a graduate course where I wanted to look into the ethics of how the news portrays global warming. I began by reading a lot of books, like Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Notes From a Catastrophe,” and recent research articles on global warming and climate change. Scientists are always conservative and they qualify what they say, so I was shocked by how much they knew and how little of that had been presented to the general public as emergency items by politicians. The news, I was surprised to find once I began looking, actually does present these issues pretty well, but it’s buried in the stream of sports, entertainment and other types of news people are more drawn to. I became depressed for about a year. I never finished that course. I put on blinders and continued to live my life.
Then I spent last summer in Beijing, China, where the air gets so thick with pollution it looks like yellow cheesecloth is covering eyes. You can taste the grit of it on your teeth and it scrapes your throat raw when you breathe. Sweeping sand storms caused by desertification plague Beijing. You can’t drink water that isn’t bottled and not all bottled water is equal. You can’t trust the food and just hope your dumplings don’t have meat mixed with sawdust, like the stories you read about in the news. Twenty-two million people live in that city and there isn’t really anywhere for them to go if it gets unlivable.
A few years ago I had a child and my husband and I would like to have a second, but then recently a few things happened that have me peeking out from the blinders again. I started to read –and couldn’t finish– this book about a container of rubber ducks dumped in the Pacific because it talks about how plastic doesn’t decompose, it just turns into really small particles that float around in a slurry indefinitely and get eaten by fish. BTW, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had so many zombie, planet-going-to-be-destroyed, alien invasion movies and books out recently. I think it’s wishful thinking that if the world as we know it ends, it would end quickly. I think that’s why the idea that the Mayan calendar has the end of the world pinpointed is so appealing to some.
This month Scientific American has an article out on how climate change poses disaster risk for the planet. Even the tightly focused Chronicle of Higher Education has an article about earth headed for disaster. Many, many scientific sources predict that by mid-century we will experience species loss, severe system-wide poisonings, episodes of intense drought and flood, and rising sea levels that will wipe out probably everyone at low sea levels except the Dutch, who will likely make all their houses float by then. They’re talented like that.
What I want to do is protect my son. I want to turn into Sarah Connor from “The Terminator” because she understands what’s coming, ignores what others think, and starts to prepare her son for the end of the world as we know it. Is the “smart thing” now to move us to a house like the “Earth Ships” out West, learning to farm, shoot a gun, fix appliances, or maybe even build a bunker like they did in the ’50s? I feel like the “smart” thing is crazy. Society makes fun of people like that. Modern civilization doesn’t work if people behave like isolationists.
My husband thinks the super rich would step in if markets crashed. He says they’d want to stay rich, so they’d pay to fix governments and problems if they threatened what they care about most, making money. A smart friend thinks science will come in and save the day, just like in “Star Trek.” But I think it’s not that simple. I think we’ve skipped merrily off the edge and we have passed or are at the point of no return with the environment at a time where we all seem to view everything as a war. From real wars in Syria and Iraq, to the war on women and winning on the political battleground. We can’t agree on anything. How can the world come together to save us? I can make small changes in my life to try to use fewer chemicals, eat less corn syrup, and use less gas, but the amount of change needed cannot be counteracted by these kinds of changes. They’d have to be sweeping and entire systems of transportation, business and government would have to change, too.
My question is, so what do we all do? What do I do? Do I turn into Sarah Connor and turn our lives upside down to try to prepare for what is unknown, but inevitable within my son’s lifetime and possibly in ours? Do we go about our small life, have the second child, and hope those in charge figure it out? I feel paralyzed by this kind of choice, but I don’t want to look back in a decade or two from now and wish I’d gone a little “crazy” because it would have protected my family.
Watching the Catastrophe
Dear Watching the Catastrophe,
What if you could join an army to fight global environmental catastrophe? If you could simply enlist and say, give me whatever I will need to fight this thing, give me a cot, teach me how to fight, and I will fight it?
I’ll bet lots of people would join such an army.
But there is no such army to join.
Perhaps some philanthropist will fund the formation of such an army and equip it to do the kind of fighting that must be done. Until then, millions are faced with the same questions and the same concerns and must individually seek out ways to do their part. You can work for environmental organizations and political organizations and take direct action and send money and sign petitions and talk to your neighbors and many other things, all of which are good things to do, but I am sure many people feel as you do: paralyzed, incredulous.
I wish I had answers. I am, unfortunately, just a writer.
But here is what I do. I try to get through the day. I only have answers for individuals about how to get through the day.
Just living in your physical world in the present solves some problems. But it does not stop global environmental destruction and climate change.
What I do in this column is address individuals about their difficulties living in their world. “Your world” means your physical world in the present. Your world as you portray it includes a great deal that is not actually present. It includes fear about the future and confusion about what to do next. These are things you feel and they are legitimate but they are not things I can do anything about.
I would say the wise course is to worry about the future but live in the present. I would suggest that the wise course is to plan for the future but accept that the world is full of surprises. Planning is good. But it is not a guarantee. So we plan but we remain flexible. And if you are called upon to do certain work, trust the fact that you feel called to do it. This is how we will explain ourselves to ourselves later: We will say, well, I did not know if I would be successful, but I had to try, so I did.
These are the conditions under which we live today. We may consider them extraordinary because they seem to involve the whole planet but they are still just the circumstances under which we live. Throughout history people have lived in the shadow of annihilating threat, whether from marauding armies or vast cyclones and fires or volcanoes or earthquakes; throughout history people have seen what they consider to be their world annihilated. We as a species have been through much. This is different, but we are not alone.
As all this goes on, in spite of the urgency of it, sometimes the question will still be, What am I going to do today?
It is helpful when facing uncertainty to embrace life in its tragic nature, to see the human capacity for evil clearly and lament it and mourn the dead until you reach catharsis, or acceptance, and then set out to live each day as well as you can, according to principles that ensure that you do the least harm and that you honor your own being by seeking joy.
Other than that, I’ve got pretty much bupkis.
This was a hard column to write. I must look for some easier questions.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)