In Praise of a Boring Life
by Flynn Washburne, October 18, 2017
There is a "curse" which is usually and almost certainly erroneously attributed to "ancient Chinese" sources that goes either, "May you live in interesting times," or, "May you lead an interesting life." It appears believably Chinese because it fulfills our Western expectations of Oriental subtlety, duplicity, cleverness, and guile. It seems innocuous, even beneficent at first. Interesting is good, right?
One imagines an exchange between an ancient Chinese and an ancient, I don't know, let's say Turk. The Turk says to the Chinese following an unsatisfactory commercial transaction, "You misbegotten, motherless son of a syphillitic shegoat, I hope your descendants are afflicted with boils for seven generations," in the normal curse-like fashion, and the Chinese calmly responds, with an enigmatic smile and a slight bow, "May you live in interesting times." The Turk walks away thinking, Huh — that maybe wasn't such a bad guy after all, and then months or even years down the road as his life gets progressively more interesting, he recalls the words of that implacable Asian and realizes, "Sonofabitch. That cocksucker slipped me a timed-release stealth curse."
This is in keeping with our generally held lofty notions of the discourse of the ancients, who certainly never communicated in the crass, plebeian manner of today's benighted nitwits. It was all wisdom and profundities back then, none of this meaningless banter of the modern age. It's a well-known fact that you couldn't get ten steps through the marketplace of ancient Athens without hearing a dozen separate and distinct theorems and apothegms, each more brilliant and sagacious than the last. Japanese of ancient times did nothing but loll around on the banks of mountain streams spouting impenetrable koans which, when unraveled, revealed the secrets of existence. This is why, when some third-rate hack conceives of some marginally clever way of illustrating a point he attributes it to a 4th-century monk rather than himself, because the luster of age automatically bestows legitimacy .
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but I am 100% sure that 99% of human discourse throughout the ages, from the very dawn of mankind to the present, is some variation of "Hey, what's up? / Not much, how about you? / Oh, you know, same shit, different day / I heard that! / Alright man, you take it easy / You too."
And curses are rarely if ever so genteel and sophisticated. They generally involve terrible language and derogatory references to one's parentage, and often lead to violence. The purpose of cursing someone is to definitively convey feelings of anger, hatred, dissatisfaction, murderous intent, etc., not to make someone say "Hmm" after a period of reflection.
Still, the wish that someone would have a life described as interesting is interesting, in that it may be interpreted in two ways. Existentially speaking and from the perspective of the individual, everything about his life is interesting — to him. All the tedious minutiae and stultifying routine that makes up the average person's day is endlessly fascinating to him, even if another average Joe couldn't take more than five minutes of listening to its description before tuning out. We are all the centers of our universes and the stars of our own show. The sun shines down on us specifically and others only incidentally. Traffic lights change strictly to inconvenience us personally. Life or any aspect of it becomes interesting by definition when we become involved in it.
Then, there is the objective, second-person view of interesting, which is where the curse part comes in. Once other people take an interest in the details of your life, chances are you're experiencing some unpleasantness, as illustrated by the following conversation I overheard in a dream.
Jim: Say, did you hear about Bob? He was nearly hit by a bus!
Other Jim: That so? He okay?
Jim: Well, the reason he wasn't hit is that just prior to the moment of impact, a pterodactyl swooped down and spirited him off.
Other Jim: But pterodactyls are extinct!
Jim: I guess this one didn't get the memo. Anyhoo, it took him to its aerie atop the Palace Hotel and attempted to interpolate him into the family, but the other nestlings got jealous and flung him from the nest, whereupon he plummeted down to State Street into the path of a bus. He's in the hospital with a number of broken bones and juvenile pterodactyl punctures.
Other Jim: So he was actually hit by the bus.
Jim: Yes, but he was also nearly hit.
Other Jim : That is a very interesting story, if oddly told.
Interesting indeed, but to Bob no doubt harrowing in the extreme.
Climb with me into the wayback machine to observe a vignette from my own life, pre-prison, which was from any perspective interesting. Not rewarding, or healthy or safe, or legal, or cooperative, or helpful, or in any way conducive to growth or fulfillment, but interesting. Randomly plucked from a succession of unidentifiable days and hitting only the highlights.
I wake up in Fort Bragg with no idea whatever of what I'm going to do that day short of using the bathroom and getting high. Four hours later I'm in Point·Arena, running down the street with a hefty salmon in each hand and being pursued by what I can only describe as a couple of fishwives. Two hours after that narrow escape, I'm in Manchester trying at gun point to prove my outlaw bonafides but unable, due to that selfsame gun in my face, to recall the name of my parole officer. A while later I'm in Ukiah having my feet washed by a repentant Baptist, and when the hours revert to wee I'm back in Fort Bragg dressed in a completely different set of clothes than I started the day with a pocket lined with currency from three separate foreign economies, two of them Asian. And of course, when asked upon my return, "What's going on?" in a general way, I say, "Oh, you know. Same shit, different day."
Now, crank the temporal relocation dial sharply to the right to land somewhere in the vicinity of the present day, and fix in your mind a particular day and time. It doesn't matter what it is, I can tell you exactly where I am and what I'm doing, and I like it that way. Granted, the list of things it is possible for me to be doing has been pared down significantly, from literally anything to virtually nothing, any number being effectively zero when compared to the infinite, but the order in which I do those few things is rigidly adhered to and that I find very satisfying and comforting. The downside, of course is that any disruption of my routine is highly upsetting and causes me to develop a case of the fantods, and I am powerless to prevent such interruptions to the status quo as the administration may feel are necessary in the service of security, boredom, or pure perversity.
And then of course there's me and my own personal Imp, riding my shoulder and whispering imprudent suggestions into my ear, the little bugger that got me into this mess in the first place. I thought I'd subdued him for good, but the sonofabitch has gone and made my life interesting again.
Faithful readers will recall it's been over three years since the last incident, when a territorial dispute over seat sovereignty landed me in the hole for ten days with a colorfully reimagined face. This most recent to-do was not so serious but still upsettingly short. The facts of the case are as follows: I wanted to watch the Simpsons, and some jackass wanted to watch something else. Clearly I was in the right, but an argument ensued, some harsh words were tossed around, and when the dust cleared, I was being moved bag and baggage to another dorm. After four years in the same environment with the same group of miscreants I was thoughtlessly tossed into a whole new group, and while they may look the same, and have the same names and tattoos and behaviors, the truth is that each one has his own separate and distinct personality, and although the group dynamic resembles an anarchic mob, there is a complex underlying social structure. At times they exhibit almost human-like characteristics and I find myself in danger of compromising my scientific detachment and bonding with them.
The upheaval has been trying, and at first I thought I may not survive the shock to my system when I discovered the flush handles of the toilets were on the opposite side. However, after several days of reflection, I have decided to view this as an opportunity for growth and change, as there may be times in the future, out in the real world, when things don't go exactly as I've planned or would wish them to. It seems unfair that the universe wouldn't bend over backward to accommodate me, but that's the nature of things, I guess. The sooner I learn to adapt and overcome, the better.
In closing, I offer the following benediction: may all of your lives be exactly as interesting as you're comfortable with. As for the times we live in, good luck. I suggest earplugs, blinders, and maybe a sensory deprivation chamber.