I’m reading the pleasingly-titled The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) by Henry Miller. It’s a scathing critique of American (read industrial) life by way of a grumpy travelogue.
Miller left a bohemian life in Paris to see his own country again in the hopes of coming to terms with it and feeling less like a cultural refugee, but it didn’t work.
He didn’t hate America but he didn’t love it either and one of the key problems was Capitalism; the way the grindstone ethic infected everything while everyone claimed to be “free,” the way a gulf in liberties widened between rich and poor while both tribes cooperated to tear the natural environment to pieces.
The book contains many wise observations relevant to Escapology and the world’s current problems even though it was written almost 80 years ago.
This moment, however, is one of my favourites because, as well as seeing the twin-locking nature of work and consumerism I like to discuss, he ties it directly to the car.
The saddest sight of all is the automobiles parked outside the mills and factories. The automobile stands out in my mind as the very symbol of falsity and illusion. There they are, thousands upon thousands of them, in such profusion that it would seem as if no man were too poor to own one. In Europe, Asia, Africa the toiling masses of humanity look with watering eyes toward this Paradise where the workers ride to work in his own car. What a magnificent world of opportunity it must be, they think to themselves. (At least we like to think that they think that way!)
They never ask what one must do to have this great boon. They don’t realize that when the American worker steps out of his shinning tin chariot he delivers himself body and soul to the most stultifying labor a man can perform. They have no idea that it is possible, even when one works under the best conditions possible, to forfeit all rights as a human being. They don’t know that the best possible conditions (in American lingo) mean the biggest profits to the boss, the utmost servitude for the worker, the greatest confusion and disillusionment for the public in general.
They see a beautiful, shinning car which purrs like a cat; they see endless concrete roads so smooth and flawless that the driver has difficulty keeping awake; they see cinemas that look like palaces; they see department stores with manikins dressed like princesses. They see the glitter and paint, the baubles, the gadgets, the luxuries they don’t see the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker. They don’t want to see this—they are full of misery themselves. They want a way out: they want the lethal comforts, conveniences, luxuries. And they follow in our footsteps—blindly, heedlessly, recklessly.
For many years I had tried to live a life that made sense to others. I had swanned from a prestigious university straight into a job at a prestigious newspaper. I had got married young, to the man I began dating at 23, we had bought a beautiful home, got ourselves a cat, and begun to talk about starting a family. I had tried, very hard, all my life, not to put a foot wrong. And yet something inside me felt perpetually crushed.
This article is a bit humblebraggy, quite waffly, and has some truly eye-popping displays of unchecked privilage. But it also contains some textbook-worthy escape stories. Yay!
“I was deeply unhappy,” [Ben Short] says today. “Beset by anxiety and stifled and frustrated by a career which was supposed to be creative but often felt anything but.”
Rather than walk out entirely on her career, [Lucy Leonelli] negotiated taking a gap year from her job, using the time to explore a range of other lifestyles and write a book about her experiences.
Additionally, the article’s author mentions the significance of running an “emotional audit”:
The pandemic has encouraged many to perform an emotional audit of their lives; with a break from entrenched routine has come a recalibration of work and home, a recognition that life is perhaps too short to spend doing something you do not love.
Yes! Now we’re almost speaking the language of Escapology. A “Life Audit” is what I encourage you to conduct in the “Preparation” chapter of Escape Everything! (now also known as I’m Out). Without fretting about specifics and practicalities, make a list of five honest priorities. Something like “travel, art, family, etc.” and dig deep to find them. Dwell on them while you’re plotting your escape.
Let them glow inside you. If and when you manage to make a break for it and find yourself living a life on the lam, refer back to your life audit frequently as a reminder of your new programme and/or as part of a secondary life audit to find if you’re the same person you were when plotting your escape.
I did not go back to my office job. I did not return to my marriage or my home. For a long time I lived in the state of nothing, trying to work out who I was, and how I wanted to live. I think, if we are lucky, all of us are given a moment to question the narrative of our lives.
The Guardian has a good feature for International Workers Day (1st May).
It uses fictional workplaces from the past twenty years, from The Office to Severance, to show how working culture has changed:
For all its mundanity, The Office never went full-blown bleak (one colleague might ask you, “Will there ever be a boy born who can swim faster than a shark?” but another might turn out to be the love of your life).
But such hope and humanity may be absent from the next wave of pop-culture workplaces. Gruelling gig-economy jobs, timed loo breaks, enforced commutes after months of working from home, rising bills, closing companies, the looming threat of redundancy – the desperations of 21st-century capitalism have been neatly reflected in Korean dramas such as Squid Game and Parasite, and it’s unlikely the depictions will end there. There’s brutality at the heart of the new workplace drama, as there often is at the modern workplace itself.
The evolution of the fictional workplace is a reflection, of course, of the evolution of real-life workplace anxieties. They now have a different flavour to when New Escapologist emerged in 2007.
Where it used to be a relatively simple “I’m bored and trapped here, being juiced for money” it’s now the same plus a fear that the world outside the workplace is too scary to escape into while that world also threatens to reach into your safe space and drag you out into it, unprepared, like something from The Mist.
“There’s a feeling captured in 90s and 2000s pre-crash media, that sense that you were bored and stuck at work,” says Amelia Horgan, a philosophy PhD student at the University of Essex and author of an examination of modern employment, Lost in Work, “whereas the dominant feeling now is the fear that the rug will be pulled out from under your feet without you realising, very quickly.”
New Escapologist was one of those “pre-crash media” but I think The Good Life for Wage Slaves (2021) was a timely update. The Good Life has a more contemporary take on workplace anxieties — this “fear of the rug being pulled out from under your feet” — through both my misery memoir segments and through my new-and-improved solutions.
The new fear of “the rug being pulled” is connected to bigger machines than before, to bigger and more disruptive world events. In my case it was the hostile environment for immigrants. In your case it might be the pandemic or the war or the results of austerity or something else, but it’s all connected to a broader social environment that is sometimes difficult to read much less do anything about.
The issues have indeed evolved and become more complicated, more surreal-feeling, more of a headache, taking us all the way from David Brent to Squid Game, but the solution, I think, remains the same. Escape.
Times have changed but I’m still here to say “don’t wait for the rug to be pulled when you can throw in the towel.” You don’t have to submit to either type of workplace anxiety, be it of the 2007 variety or the 2022 variety. You can escape instead.
Build an escape fund, hone your skills, define your goals, embrace frugality, practice minimalism, and get the hell out of it. Because face it: that green Squid Game tracksuit wouldn’t suit you.
Instant coffee just isn’t a draw anymore. The latest development in Gilded Cage technology is nothing less than the open bar. Boooooze!
Reader S draws our attention to a Wall Street Journal item about the lengths some firms are going to to get employees back in the harness:
some [businesses] are pulling out the stops–literally, on kegs, casks and wine bottles–in an attempt to make workplaces seem cool. Sure, executives could simply order people to return to their cubicles, and some have, but many want their workers to come back and like it.
It’s never enough to have a workforce under the thumb, is it? Wage slaves have to enjoy being stuck in a room with their better-paid overlords, puzzling over spreadsheets or just pretending to be busy while the sun shines and their kids grow up.
That means giving people what they want, or at least what bosses think they want. People like to wear comfy hoodies, right? OK! They miss their dogs when they go to work, don’t they? The canines can come!
A happy worker is a productive worker! It’s just interesting that the key to worker happiness is so rarely “higher wages” or “fewer hours” or “work from anywhere.” It’s always crap like this.
[Workers] love an afternoon cocktail, yes? Check out our new office bar!
So offices are filling with booze now. Well, why not? It’s not as if these places were conducive to concentration anyway.
And who better to emulate than our leaders in Downing Street? If they can run a whole country on the slosh, we can probably handle an inconsequential marketing concern.
You might think that, as a noted booze hound, I’d welcome the news of free drinks for office workers. But on the actual clock? It’s a recipe for disaster.
A social lubricant, booze encourages camaraderie and honesty. And being honest at work, let’s face it, will get you sacked.
This is why the offer of booze at work will neither work nor last. As soon as one leery wage slave, tongue loosened by tequila slammers, starts speaking truth to power, they’ll take it away. After all, the drunks in HR won’t do anything to help.
Alas, by that time, you’ll all be back where the bosses want you instead of being paid to wear slippers. Don’t be fooled. I’m here to help you spot a classic trap.
Booze can blur the line between professional and personal relationships in ways that make certain workers—often less-powerful ones—feel uncomfortable.
Exactly. Look, if workers have shown they can be productive at home and if, as figures suggest, they prefer to work remotely, why do we need such desperate attempts to coax them back to the office? Why are our bosses so needy about getting us back into city centres and onto industrial estates in the age of the total digital connectivity? Why does it have to be the worst of both worlds?
It’s because they (not we) pin their identities, often their whole lives, on the idea of being a manager of people. Which is pretty darn sad when you think about it.
Ultimately, these people like sitting in rush hour traffic because it makes them feel important. They like to chair meetings while idly clicking at a biro. They like to stride around the corridors like they’re in The West Wing.
They like feeling big while others in proximity feel small.
Feeling small and drunk probably isn’t a good combination, so I’d encourage anyone tempted by an office bar to stay at home. Drink at night instead, with company — not a company (aha!) — like nature intended.
Now that the short work contract is over, my mornings are back to being the most idle portion of the day.
I’m usually up by 10 because that’s when the postman inevitably knocks. I don’t mind being seen in my tatty old dressing gown but I prefer not to be startled out of bed by a knocking door and to be compos mentis enough to say “good morning” instead of “bleurgh.”
I have some other rules too: that the bed is made and any breakfast (or previous-day) washing up is done by noon. Why? I’m not sure. It just feels like the least I should be capable of.
The rest of the morning is spent watching YouTube videos like these ones or reading light novels or playing records.
I usually glance over the Guardian‘s horrible front page for a gist of how the world looks, but I only ever read one or two stories. It shouldn’t feel like much more than looking out of the window.
After years of not having a proper job and being able to call the shots each morning, I’m still consciously grateful for these bone idle mornings, to live in accordance with my natural rhythms and to not have to catch a bleary-eyed bus to anywhere.
I’d been meaning to describe the shape of my mornings to this Diary for a while and was finally prompted by a moment from the end of The Great Gatsby.
Gatsby’s father shows the narrator a book from Gatsby’s childhood. It’s a copy of Hopalong Cassidy, in which a young Gatsby has jotted his daily rituals and resolutions on the flyleaf beneath the word SCHEDULE:
Rise from bed 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling 6.15-6.30
Study electricity, etc 7.15-8.15
Work 8.30-4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports 4.30-5.00
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00
Study needed inventions 7.00-9.00
No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smokeing or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents
I think this is very charming and easily the best part of the novel.
Gatsby, we know, is a “self-made man” who willed himself from rags to riches; this artifact reveals that he was but a child when he decided to break his class destiny.
It’s easy to find this sort of thing a bit square, a bit nerdy, the secretive devotions of a self-policing goody-two-shoes who takes life too seriously. But I think it shows great passion.
I used to be a bit like Young Gatsby, the SCHEDULE being the sort of tool I’d concoct of my own volition so that I wouldn’t end up doing just what I was expected to do. I wanted to take life by the horns! But to be an existential matador, you probably need to develop these dorky techniques in self-discipline.
At almost 40, I’m still like this to an extent but I’ve calmed down a bit. Today, for example, has almost dwindled to nothing, with barely anything to show for it, and I’ve come to see this as an achievement in its own right.
My reading The Great Gatsby this week was part of a hole-patching exercise in my reading experience.
Many people read Gatsby in school but the school I went to preferred us to read self-consciously working-class literature instead of these twentieth-century icons that might have been a useful cultural grounding for later in life. I can’t help thinking that if we’d read The Great Gatsby and Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Slaughterhouse 5 and Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird like so many other children did, we’d have felt less isolated from culture in our teenage years and would generally understood more of what people were talking about.
(The working-class books we read at school were not working-class classics either. We did not read Love on the Dole or Hangover Square or Down and Out in Paris and London or The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists or even anything by Dickens. Instead, we read (yes, I remember everything) some miserable books called Twopence to Cross the Mersey, Across the Barricades, The Driftway, and a supposedly-humorous play called The Rebels of Gas Street. We didn’t enjoy or understand any of these books; we didn’t relate to them at all. This is a shame because I think they were chosen to be relatable, which shows how our teachers thought of us. Seriously, why not give us Day of the Triffids or Treasure Island or something kids might actually get something out of?)
Now, embarrassingly late, I’m reading these basic modern classics like a dufus.
The Great Gatsby looked good to begin with but I found it unfocussed and ultimately not about very much. The first of three acts is about the mystery of this unknowable man (a “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere”), the second (and best) is about the history of a great love triangle, and the third is about a random accident that results in the end of Gatsby’s life. The end doesn’t feel (to me) like a well-planned tragedy or an irony or anything. It just feels like F Scott ran out of time or met his wordcount or something. Maybe I’m being unfair?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a lovely book though. I was surprised by how little of it is about the famous trial. I was also surprised by how joyfully messy and unconventional the structure is; it’s not an obvious classic at all, though I really enjoyed it and it’s probably perfect for kids. It’s only right that Atticus Finch is seen as one of the great memorable characters and I find myself vowing, Gatsby-like, to be more like Atticus Finch in my own life and less like Saul Goodman.
Be kind and give more of yourself to Good.
No more cutting corners!
Read the classics already? Try a classic in the making and read The Good Life for Wage Slaves by Robert Wringham. The annual fee for hosting this website is due so any extra support would be most welcome. Ta!
God help me, I’ve accepted a work contract. It’s just a short one (six weeks) and it’s a work-from-home position.
The contract presses my old librarian skills back into service, which has so far been very enjoyable and nostalgic. Plus, the money I’m making should compensate precisely for the overspend on buying and decorating our new flat. So why not?
Now, as a writer I always “work from home” in that my writing happens entirely at our dining table. But I don’t really think of it as “work” (i.e. employment) because it’s something I just want to do. But what I’m doing now is what people more normally mean when they talk about “Working From Home,” so I’m finally getting an experience of Pandemic-era WFH.
What I wanted to mention today is the unique flavour of WFH Presenteeism. It’s delicious.
Presenteeism, lest we forget, is when you have nothing to do at your job but you have to sit there and make a show of it because you’re on the clock. Presenteeism corrodes the soul and helps the world not a jot.
When I worked in an office, I’d often brood angrily about some culmination of micro-tasks I couldn’t attend to because I was instead being paid to sit in an office no mater what.
In these moments, I wasn’t even particularly angry about separation from my big non-work projects or from bathing in the sunshine or travelling the world. No, it was things like not being able to reach the post office to collect a package before it closed. Or having a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. Or not having time to shave that morning because there there was a train to catch. If only I could just work from home, I’d think, I could do these things. But instead I just had to sit there and fume.
Working from home and doing those things wouldn’t have been any skin off the company’s nose. So what if I spent five minutes of company time shaving? Or ten minutes washing the dishes? It’s not like that’s any money worth caring about, and any net gain to a worker’s mental clarity and general wellbeing would probably benefit the whole firm. And I wasn’t doing anything for them by being pointlessly present anyway. I was just sitting in an office because That’s What People Do.
In the WFH era, I’ll work for an hour or two and then take a break. Instead of that break being in the company rec-room where I’d have to make chit-chat with other time-wasting and life-cynical employees, I can get those little things done. It’s lovely.
I’m not supposed to leave my “station” and I should theoretically be ready to receive a Zoom call at any moment, so I’m still tethered in the same kinky way of most employment. But I can take out the bins, receive packages from couriers, do my exercises, play a record.
If I really had nothing to do for a few hours, I could probably put my feet up and watch some Netflix. It’s not bad.
This has been a voice in favour of WFH. (And for balance, here’s one against). Are you still working from home, dear reader? If so, what do you think?
For further insight into workplace survival, try my book The Good Life for Wage Slaves out now in paperback.
I’ve been thinking about the future of books. “Struggling to get anyone interested in your novel, old boy?” Well, yes, but I anticipated that. My daydreaming here is more about books and society than books and me.
Googling in the wake of this train of thought, I stumbled upon a 2006 New York Times article by technocrat journalist Kevin Kelly. In it, he says a truly appalling thing:
[books are] isolated items, independent from one another, just as they are on shelves in your public library. There, each book is pretty much unaware of the ones next to it.
Holy Christ. I didn’t know anyone, let alone someone who could be described as a man of words, was carrying around such a thought.
Books are not isolated. Books (plural) are a chorus. You might write a book to put your own subjective vision into the world but then it sits not in isolation but in the Grand Culture of collective human thought.
That’s what writing and publishing a book is. A contribution. A single unit of climate change in a centuries-old intellectual atmosphere.
That Kelly (a founder of Wired magazine, which I liked in its exciting early days in addition to my love of older media, not in opposition to them) doesn’t understand this is aggressively underlined by his “public library” example. The public library is precisely where a book is the least isolated. Public Libraries tend to use the Dewey Decimal Classification System, in which all books take their physical place in an ordered spectrum of knowledge.
While a single book might look isolated from others when its sitting on your bedside table, this “isolation” is only physical; it would remain a part of the Grand Culture even were it abandoned on the moon.
To a constant reader, one book leads to another. To even the most casual onlooker (or so I thought), one book is connected to all others whether overtly by reference or implicitly by its very existence.
This doesn’t have much to do with Escapology, does it? Sorry. But I know there are book and library lovers who keep an eye on this blog and I wanted you to share my shocked gasp.
[There] was a distinct sense that there’s a whole world out there. Not out there on the internet, but out there over the horizon. Out there in this same world are jungle cats, opera houses, subterranean hideouts, breakdancing circles, riverside tire swings, and old women playing mahjong. There are desert caravans and bullet trains and foggy valleys and kangaroos, and I can one day visit some of these things or maybe just read about them.
You know David Cain. He’s the chap behind the Raptitude blog and he also wrote the foreword to Escape Everything! A great friend of the magazine.
David’s latest post is excellent. It’s about what happens when we go without mobile Internet for a while. What happens, it turns out, is deeply positive and his observations about the experience are refreshing and interesting. It’s not an anti-internet piece. It’s just about what we lose when we’re scrolling through Instagram (or whatever it is). Check it out.
My own relationship with the internet has improved in recent years: it’s been very light on social media and other fripperies, though Gmail remains a load-bearing part of my personal organisation and my use of streaming services has increased. It’s largely deliberate and seldom passive. As it happens, this breakthrough was Rapitude-related. In 2019, David used the phrase, “making my phone a tool, not a toy.” I immediately understood what he meant. It appealed and I committed.
Twitter and the other “fun” (i.e. not really fun) junk was removed from my phone. I’d still allow myself to use these things but I’d have to want to do it enough to open my laptop and hit up the websites. Useful apps like the radio player and the public library catalogue were moved to the front of my phone and it became truly “a tool, not a toy.” Perfect. And that’s how I use it today.
My next breakthrough, I think, will be keeping my phone beyond arms’ reach so that I’m less tempted to pick it up and start futzing with it. I like David’s idea of making a holster for it in the kitchen so it resembles (logically if note aesthetically) the wall-mounted landline telephones many of us had in our kitchens up to 2004 or so. Not sure I’ll have the strength to commit to that one but one never knows.
Related posts: Lanier and Escape the Digital (New Escapologist) and It’s Time to Put the Internet Back into a Box in the Basement (Raptitude).
This email came from Reader Emily who recently ordered the full print run of New Escapologist from our online shop:
I’m excited to have the whole collection on its way. I’ve been a fan since I met you and bought a few issues at a fair in Montreal, probably close to 15 years ago.
I was there on behalf of a feminist organisation focused on menstrual health activism at the time, and was feeling a bit alienated by the self-serious snickering often directed at me for hawking washable pads and underwear along with our zines. I enjoyed chatting with you at the New Escapologist table. Both you and the publication were refreshingly sincere and hilarious.
I want to make sure I have the whole back catalogue now, while its available. It means even more after ten years working at a desk.
I was recently reminded of my own family escapologist lore. A cousin or great uncle had arrived in Chicago from the old country sometime in the early part of the last century. He had been a scholar back home and as a result, had no “practical” work experience. Faced with the prospect of a day job for the first time, and having blown several interviews already, he headed to the local post office as a last resort. After an interview, my ancestor was offered the job and notified that he would start the following day. “Do I have the right to any vacation time?” he asked the boss. “Yes, sir, two weeks paid leave annually,” the boss replied. “Well then, I shall see you in two weeks!” he declared.
I realize now that this story is probably totally apocryphal bullshit. Would the USPS would offer two weeks paid leave to inexperienced young Jewish men fresh from Kiev???? Anyhow, its always been a family favourite, and it definitely paved the way for a lifetime of career ambivalence on my part.
Thank you for all the brilliant things you do!
Hi Emily. It’s a crazy thing but I’m pretty sure that I remember you. We’d see hundreds of people each day at those Montreal book fairs and we did at least 3 Anarchist Book Fairs and 4 Expozines; I’m quite introverted at heart and talking to so many people would really take it out of me. I can’t imagine being able to remember many people from that blur (or indeed very many of them remembering our table). But yes! I remember the menstrual products and thinking the idea was pretty great. It was a good attitude and a cool organisation.
Thank you again for buying the complete run. Every cool kid should have one. I’ve placed the order with the printer and it’ll be with you in about 10 days. In any event, your complete run of New Escapologist is wending its way to you.
Yours from an unseasonably sunny Scotland,
Here follows the annual report for my imaginary shareholders in the year of 2021. Or, as I prefer to call it, the year of the ring-tailed lemur.
The report, you’ll notice, is over a week late. This is because my partner and I were hit by the dreaded Omicron at the eleventh hour and have been resting ever since. We’re doing fine but it’s surprisingly hard-going considering the claims of it being a “Covid Lite.” Look after yourself, readers. Get boosted pronto.