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David Bouchier: High Anxiety

You must be familiar with those mail order catalogs that promote devices and gadgets, designed to make your life safer and easier. In fact they make your life harder, because they create guilt and anxiety, which of course is the whole point of the sales pitch.

There are lots of small domestic tasks that you never even thought of before you saw them in the catalog. No problem is too trivial to require its own dedicated solution. For example I see one for removing leaves from the cracks in the deck. What’s wrong with a kitchen knife? What’s wrong with leaving the leaves where they are? Another handy device allows you to pick up acorns from the lawn without bending down. But the squirrels will do that, and even bury them again for you so you can use the special tool for repairing squirrel holes in the lawn.

These catalogs create a whole world of worries. The keywords are, “secure,” “protect,” and “safe.” There are devices to warn you if anyone enters the driveway, ladders to climb from an upstairs window if you get bored with using the ordinary stairs, alternative sources of power, water, food, and air, a gadget to test for gas leaks, and on and on page after page until the only response is paranoia or laughter. Syria must be a haven of peace and security compared to our leafy suburbs, where everything seems to threaten the tranquility of our lives. There’s a gadget to meet every fear: secure your outdoor faucets, protect your mailbox, save yourself from lint buildup in the dryer, blocked gutters, flooded basements, household fires, squeaking floors and, for some unfathomable reason, dust under refrigerator. Why, for goodness sake? What harm can it do there?

Even as they are trying to scare us with nerve-racking images of dust under the refrigerator these catalogs offer an alternative vision of a perfect life, not only without anxiety but without effort, trouble, or risk of any kind.

One of their favorite phrases is “Never Again.” Never again need we feel a draft, slip on the stairs, get our underwired bra twisted up in the washing machine, or touch the trash can (really, there’s a gadget that saves you from touching the trash can). Never again need we live with a dull lifeless floor, or be frustrated by difficult packaging, or breathe bad air, or fail to notice a flood in the house, or confuse the wires behind the stereo. Never again need we leave the refrigerator door ajar, suffer from hot knees when we use the laptop, run out of Sudoku puzzles, cry when peeling onions, or play unwitting host to moths in the pantry or cockroaches under the sink.

Selling fear and anxiety is big business, and always has been. It’s the best way to get our attention and short-circuit our rational brains. But, frankly, I think the catalog companies are missing the real anxiety market. The daily news tells us that we have more far important things to worry about than tangled wires behind the stereo. We could all make our own “never again” list, and it would be a long and difficult one. But where is the catalog we need to put it all right?

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.