May you live in interesting times

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

“’May you live in interesting times,’” said Sir Austen Chamberlain (brother of Neville) in 1938, quoting what he explained was a Chinese curse, handy for use on people you don’t like.

We do live in interesting times. And it is a curse. Give me boring times any day. More time to read a book, go for a walk, fish, loiter…anything but follow the daily circus, which lures me with its element of doom.

The news is compellingly interesting despite its harming my psyche, and I peruse it in an addictive way, knowing it’s not good for me. When I’m in full control of myself I restrict my dose of news to late-night comedians for the daily lies, threats, lies, brags, lies because I can laugh along with their scatalogical take on all of it.

I once thought “May you live in interesting times” was a bright note. It seemed benign along the lines of “May the wind be at your back.” But living in daily, hourly interesting times, I begin to understand that interesting times are too volatile for comfort.

Aside from the soap-opera melodrama exclaimed on each news bulletin, one of the other interesting things that at first glance seems benign about these times is the array of aids to help me get through my preoccupied days.

Civilization has had the alarm clock for some time, but now it will sing to me (personally to me, not just a familiar tune waking me), talk to me, remind me what I’m doing today, re-remind me until I get up and tell it to shut up. The friendly countertop robots “Alexa” and “Echo” will turn on whatever music I want. They will speak more softly or loudly on command, turn off the lights, lock the doors, close the curtains, fix a martini (just kidding). Lovely voices. They’re like Stepford wives.

The day-by-day pill container is a new consumer item difficult to resist. Its job is to remind me in a happy voice that it’s time for the heart pill or the thyroid pill, the aspirin, the anti-inflammatory and so on. I don’t need a voice reminder for the pain pill.

The interesting times are filled to a close-to-intolerable brim with gadgets talking to me from all points of the compass – bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, auto, gas pump, self-checkout, grocery aisle, moving walkway, elevator, escalator. Sometimes when I call a friend and hear her voice, I think it’s voice mail, so when she says, “Hi!” I don’t say anything, waiting for the cue to leave my message. But when it really is my friend, she says, “I know it’s you, Colleen. Are you there?” So, I wind up talking to Alexa but think my friend is a robot.

To know what to do in any situation, we now don’t have to learn a thing. Or remember it if we do learn it. We don’t have to know how to read. This could be a blessing for illiterates. I am not denigrating people who never learned to read; circumstance can make one a non-reader. I know one who is clever at figuring everything out and never letting on that she can read only a few things (her name, STOP, PUSH, etc.). What with the state of the educational systems in many parts of the country, perhaps we have more illiterates now than ever and thus, helpful computer purchases that talk to us will guide them, and us if we don’t want to get up to turn off the light, through each day.

Along with the increasing aids for the minutia of our days, we have all kinds of protective aids written into law in case we are unable to figure out how to protect ourselves – helmets when riding motorcycles (no such law in Florida); hard hats at construction sites; seat belts; elaborately engineered car seats for young ones that cost more than the car. And there’s a lot of neon clothing out there running, jogging, biking, blowing leaves to help us see who not to hit.

I am being watched over, aided, forced by law to protect myself in countless ways. I should be grateful, both for the good laws (seat belts) and the dumb aids (talking pill boxes). Someone is always telling me this. Gratitude will help me be happier, kinder, more forgiving; in other words, a better person. I work at it when I think about it. This morning, I’m grateful because I haven’t tuned into what we knew as the “news” but is now the “news cycle.” Another thing to be grateful for – phrases like weather event and free gift — explaining to me with a larger vocabulary what I’ve been trying all these years to explain with a single word.

I would rather be grateful for fewer laws demanding that I protect myself from myself and more laws that protect me from the major profiteers of this world — crooked corporations and venal elected officials.

But I guess the human race evolves each minute into . . . well, something that it wasn’t a minute ago . . . finding its way from the Medieval devil-may-care-about-fellow-human-beings to the Postmodern devil-making-pacts-between-politicians-and-executives. I would like protection from: plastics and petroleum, Ready Round-Up and CAFOs, racism and sexism. Oh, and ageism.

I need protection from banks and big ag and all companies selling durable goods with the life span of bugs. Because of the parasitic nature and fawning sycophancy between the execs and the elected, we are no longer protected from bad prescriptions (think opioids), food full of chemicals, dirty air, bad water, poor educations, unfair lending, usury. Most of these things are sicced on us; we have no control.

My refrigerator may be telling me I’m out of ketchup, but I’m more interested in a guarantee that the hulking, noisy ice-making durable good won’t be dead in three years…without having to BUY the guarantee.

When did the definition of durable change?
May you live in mundane times.

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