Our sickly-sweet obsession with comfort will end up killing us
The leaves are turning red, and it is peak cruise ship season on the waterways of Canada. In Quebec City, the main attraction, the thing the disgorged passengers all lined up for, was not the museums or churches but a popcorn shop.
You could smell it for miles away, sickly sweet and buttery. At the counter you ordered your popcorn with a topping: chocolate, salted caramel, vanilla syrup, pecan syrup. Giant tubs of chocolate or syrup covered popcorn is for kids, right? But the average age of the people in the queues was 60 plus.
The elderly children ate their buckets of comfort food wearing comfort clothing – baggy shorts, bright-coloured polos and trainers for men, athleisure leggings for women and those functional vest parkas. There were thousands of Benjamin Buttons walking around town with their giant tubs of popcorn, subverting the usual, old ways of ageing – the scratchy tweed clothes and the palate for sharp things: whiskey, blue cheese, anchovies on toast.
The cruise ships are all about comfort, too. Everything is done for you. You’re fed and watered and when on land, moved around the place in coaches with guides. You bypass the discomfort of the post-9/11 airports with their nasty queues and TSA full-body scans, removing your shoes and having your moisturiser confiscated.
Last week, marvelling about the queues at the popcorn shop, I thought about another type of sailor, from Taiwan. In the late 1970s, Tehching Hsieh jumped ship in Philadelphia and made his way to New York to make his name as an artist.
In the 1980s Hsieh made a series of performance art pieces that are now being celebrated in this year’s Venice Biennale. Last year I met the now 66-year-old in Taipei to discuss these works. The pieces all took a year to perform and the each of them involved significant discomfort to the artist.
There was the year he lived outside, not entering a building for a year (except for a courthouse when he was arrested), in New York during the coldest winter on record.
There was the year he tied himself to another artist, Linda Montano, by a length of rope, and they had to spend 12 months in close proximity. And the year he spent in a cage marking off the days. And the year he spent every hour clocking on to a time clock, breaking up his sleep and activities into hourly intervals.
In the 30 years after making these works the intentional discomfort he endured seems perverse and shocking. In that time, the rich of the rich west have engineered our lives so that we rarely have to experience even a twinge of discomfort.
It’s not just the cruise ships and popcorn. Comfort is the organising principle of modern life. So great is our need for comfort – to be comfortable – that the most popular products are based around things fulfilling this need and have internalised within their very engineering the fulfilment of our need for comfort.
What is Netflix and on-demand TV, chocolate-covered popcorn, business class and premium economy, cruise ships, athleisure wear, our social media echo chambers, our online shopping and UberEats – other than things that sate our desire to be comfortable?
The New York Times columnist David Brooks has written about the millennial generation weaned on praise and constant booster shots of self esteem – every participant gets a prize! But our desire for comfort to be physically and psychically comfortable – to live within an inarticulatable but deeply felt and precise bandwidth of ease that includes everything from how a food feels in your mouth, to how socks rub on your feet, to how a phone sits in your hand, to how a drink or a movie or a computer game calms you – can be traced back to baby boomers. The children of those who lived without comfort through rationing, wars and depression came of age in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Their birthright was the quarter-acre block, mass production of household appliances and timesaving devices, television, fast food, breakfast cereals and affordable airline travel.
We are taught as consumers that if we are not comfortable, if the temperature is too hot or cold, or if the music is too loud or if the meal is not right, we can complain and things will be adjusted for us.
We seek comforts in controlling our inside climate through aircon and heating – despite the fact that our short-term comfort comes at a long-term cost to the climate. Yesterday, ABC radio took calls about the federal government’s new scheme to get people to turn off ap-
pliances – including air conditioners during what’s termed peak times – ie during heatwaves – to prevent widespread power outages.
One complaint from a woman who used her air conditioner was typical and went along the lines of: “I’m not switching my air conditioner off on a hot day, I don’t want to be uncomfortable.” Of course you don’t.
But increasingly we are living in uncomfortable times. The sugary comfort food is killing us. The comfortable temperatures are killing the planet. Tehching Hsieh – an outsider, a sailor who jumped ship, with little English – sought discomfort and turned it into art. This discomfort now seems prescient. A warning of a time to come, where discomfort is no longer about choice, but about survival.
‘The main attraction was not the museums or churches but a popcorn shop.’ Composite: Getty Images/Jon Helgason for Alamy