Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guest Blogger Lillian Stewart Carl: May You Live In Interesting Times . . .

by guest blogger Lillian Stewart Carl

As old Chinese curses go, “May you live in interesting times” is less dire than some, even when you take “interesting” as a euphemism for “uncertain” or even “chaotic”.

The corollary that brings the curse home is, “May you live in interesting times—and have those times in your face 24/7.”

B&W TVRecently I read a brief article (are there long, in-depth articles any more?) saying that younger people who’ve grown up with the multiple distractions of the electronic age are not as stressed by the constant look at me! over here! whiplash as older ones. Like me, for example. Heck, when I was a kid our television set got only two channels, both of which closed down at ten pm. (And I had to walk uphill both ways just to change channels.)

I’m not saying those days were better than these. In many significant ways, they weren’t. I’m saying I feel as though I’m now living in the Era of Attention Deficit. In the Age of En-lite-enment.

Exhibit A: Why do so many places I go have to have a television set mounted on the wall?

Tv in dinerA sports bar, yes. People come there to watch the game with their friends. No problem—I can avoid sports bars. It’s the televisions in ordinary restaurants that annoy me. There you are, trying to have a pleasant lunch with your friends, while just above your head politicians foam at the mouth and disasters play out in excruciating slo-mo. Those televisions are like electronic swords of Damocles.

My hairdressing salon recently installed a television playing home, garden, and cooking shows, much better than one playing the news—or worse, opinion clothed as news. Still, it’s noise pollution. It’s that constant urgent movement in the corner of your eye.

And, so help me, doctor’s offices also have televisions. Your blood pressure might be just fine when you sit down in the waiting room, but it will be sky-high after half an hour bombarded with interesting times—all brought to you by companies whose commercials use every trick in the sound-and-light book to get your attention.

Over here! Look at me! Voices! Music! Bright moving colors!

Dog snoringAnd then there’s Exhibit B: When I do, on purpose, turn on the news, that’s what I want. I don’t want what seems like ten minutes of the anchors chatting and teasing: “Which dress did you like best at the Academy Awards?”Or “Oooh, here’s a tape of you in 1989! Look at that hairdo!” Recently our favorite local station featured an interminable segment in which the anchorwoman played video clips of her dog snoring.

Seriously.

It’s a relief to change the channel to PBS, which still believes in presenting information in a sober, non-confrontational fashion. (No, information does not equal wisdom. But that’s another issue.) I don’t know whether Gwen Ifill or Ray Saurez has a pet. It doesn’t matter whether they do or not. Their pets aren’t anchoring a news program. Neither do I want the anchors reading off to me the tweeted or Facebook’d opinions of viewers. I want professional presentation and knowledgeable analysis.
This brings me to Exhibit C:

Our local dead-tree newspaper is so marginalized these days that they’ve not only cut themselves back to little more than a pamphlet, they seem to have fired most of their writers and are now letting the remaining readers write the news for them.

We have one and sometimes two entire pages devoted to readers’ often knee-jerk reactions—not letters to the editor, but sound-bite tweets, “cheers and jeers”, and Facebook-style comments designed, I suppose, to appeal to those with the attention span of a two-year-old. Who aren’t reading the newspaper anyway.

Julie's prom dressI’m an adult, and I want to read news. Not “features” including large photos of lawn furniture or craft projects, seemingly included to fill space. A couple of years ago, so help me, the newspaper spent an entire week on “help Julie choose a prom dress”. This meant a full page every day with photos of Julie modeling a gown, or shoes, or flowers, so that readers could vote on which they liked best.

I repeat. Seriously?

I know, I know, it’s all hard economic reality. The newspaper is trying desperately to appeal to people who spend all day focused on their smart phones and tablets, picking up an image here, a few words there. The restaurants and offices are afraid if they don’t provide their patrons with moving images and chattering voices, they’ll go elsewhere. We live in an age when flash and charisma is more important than substance, because that’s what sells television shows, newspapers, music videos, apps—you name it.

Monkeys dancingMy tai chi instructor tells me that sitting and meditating, or concentrating on the flowing motions of the form, is difficult because—as the old Chinese masters used to say—the human mind is like a monkey dancing on a hot griddle. It was probably those same old Chinese who uttered the “interesting times” curse.

Hey! Over here! Look at me!
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Mortsafe-cover-200x300Lillian Stewart Carl has published multiple novels and multiple short stories in multiple genres, sometimes straight up mystery or fantasy, but usually blended, with nuts. Her most recent novel is The Mortsafe, set in Edinburgh. All her books can be found through Backlist eBooks.  And speaking of which, Lillian has a story (The Avalon Psalter) in the Backlist eBooks anthology Tales from the Backlist.