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The Mills of God

In the summer after a long day’s work a not-so-young man’s mind turns to cigarettes. I like to buy a pack, smoke one or two, and then throw it away to avoid future temptation. I set out to do this last Tuesday. A very occasional smoker, I went into the nearest corner grocery store and bought a pack of Marlboro Lites that set me back $14.

I still think of $7 as being a shockingly high price for a pack in NYC. The last time I bought a pack I paid somewhere around $10. What is going on here? If you smoke a pack a day, that’s $5,000 per annum. This is surely going to not result in increased tax revenues for long.

When I grew up in South Africa I loved the smell of cigarettes and knew I was going to smoke as soon as I could. Somewhere around the age of 16 I started on menthols whose brand name I can’t remember. I never smoked a lot. At some point I splurged on Mills that came from England in beautiful last-your-whole-life tin cases of yellow metal. Players were pretty cool too, and Sobranie. Imported, they cost twice what Peter Stuyvesant or Ransom or local Viceroy (red box for the filter, green for the plain) cost, but they seemed worth it, I convinced myself.

There were and are lots of poor people in South Africa, and so cigarettes came in a luscious variety of containers to match your lifetstyle. Cylindrical tins of fifties; flat big double-decker boxes of 30s; flat boxes or packs of twenties; smaller boxes of 10s; and cute little boxes of 5s that sometimes were placed as freebies on dining tables at weddings and barmitzvahs. And finally, blessedly, you could go into grocery stores and buy ONE cigarette in a variety of brands kept loose in a tin near the counter. (Those days may be coming again too, given the $14 price. It’s now cheaper to buy a cigar than to buy one cigarette and throw the pack away.) When I was back in Cape Town last Xmas they still sold single cigarettes, but they cost more like a Rand or so now.

Cigarettes came in a luscious variety of styles too. Filter was filter. But then there was plain, no filter at all. And most cool, cork, which was cork-tipped, literally, a bit of cork on the lip-end of the cigarette to prevent it from sticking to your lips, but no filter at all.

And the accoutrements of the smoking life were great too. My sister’s boyfriend smoked Viceroy Green 30s, and used the back of the flat box as a Filofax, writing his reminders on the large white surface and then copying them over from pack to pack. How cool was that?

We live in a poorer world when it costs so much to indulge our addictions.

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On a related note, I have carried around in my electronic filofax for years a quote that apparently comes from Hegel that says

“The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.”

I used to believe in free will and liked this quote, though it refers to the progressive extension of political freedom to unpropertied men, women, and eventually animals. But lately I have been reading bits of Spinoza and been impressed by his argument that people are not really free to act, only “free” to follow their unasked for desires. It took thousands of years to figure out the laws behind simple things like inanimate planets. We haven’t lived long enough yet to discover the laws describing all matter, of which we are a part.

His amendment to Hegel would be

The history of our knowledge of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of our lack of freedom.

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