What Do You Do? Redux

Here are two more escapological nuggets from Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, discussed on Friday. (Here’s a link to actually buy the book, since I’m quoting from it so liberally.)

On “What do you do?” Miranda says:

Such an odd thing to ask. What do I do? Lots of things, Nosy. I wasn’t used to the question. Nobody asked that in Manchester, no one asked it in clubs. It was too personal, a bit police-y. If you met someone for the first time, you would just give your first name — if you even said that — and then you’d try to make each other laugh. Comment on the situation you were in, talk music, or dance moves, or maybe football or DJs. Your job never came into it.

This supports my sense of the question’s prevalence being new, a product perhaps of neoliberalsm. Miranda had to go to the bright lights of London to experience it in the 1990s. Today it’s the first thing people ask even here in stinky old Glasgow.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Victorian etiquette expert Emily Post wrote that “what do you do?” is a uniquely boorish thing to say to someone at a social event. Leave work at the door for crying out loud and don’t make people compete with you for status.

Speaking of status:

One of the things I notice now is that in conversations with other people there’s always a status element. It’s disguised but its there. So if someone says they’re so busy they can’t cope, they’re really saying “I’m important because I’m indispensable.” […] Going out to gigs, getting hammered? Still relevant, not old. Know what’s going on locally? In touch with authentic experience. Kids picked for the sports team? Great parenting, plus talent passing down the generations.

This is something I discuss in Escape the Deathly Humblebrag. Let’s smash the work ethic by expunging it from our language!

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Escapology as Crisis

I’m reading Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer. It’s a recent book about midlife crises.

At 34, I’m not quite the intended reader but you never know how long you’ve got left, so the concept of “midlife,” is surely always relevant. Who are you to assume you’ve got a full 83-year lifespan to work with, Mr Complacent-pants? We’re all in a state of mid-life no matter how far along one happens to be. As in “I am amid life.” (Fuck off, that absolutely works).

I’m reading the book because I heard Miranda interviewed on a podcast and I liked her. She strikes me as someone who lives quite fully and won’t have many regrets, but is also aware of mortality and temporariness. That, my friends, is how to live. Her book has been described as “anti-self-help” but it’s really an introspective memoir about youth — as seen from the vantage point of being 45 in 2016 — and time moving on.

As someone who lived through the brilliant, sanguine ’90s and inherited the cultural changes delivered by clubbing, ecstacy, Madchester, Steve Coogan, Britpop and all those magazines but was a bit too young to experience it properly, I’m finding it fascinating. From my perspective, it’s a very-recent-history book, about the ten years that came before my adult consciousness kicked in. Explanations at last!

Anyway, something that struck me are the book’s various descriptions of midlife crisis. Frankly, I think I’ve been in a state of crisis since I was about 11 years old. It’s the sense of there not being enough time to do the things you want to do despite them being relatively modest, the feeling that the odds are against you, and the sense that escape is a solution, and perhaps the only one.

There were other feelings. A sort of mourning. A weighing up, while feeling weighed down. A desire to escape – run away, quick! – that came on strong in the middle of the night.

and:

I would wake at the wrong time, filled with pointless energy, and start ripping up my life from the inside. Planning crazy schemes. I’d be giving [my daughter] her milk at 4am and simultaneously mapping out my escape, mentally choosing the bag I’d take when I left, packing it (socks, laptop, towels), imagining how long I’d last on my savings. I’d be rediscovering the old me, the real one that was somewhere buried beneath the piles of muslin wipes and my failing fortysomething body. I’d be living life gloriously.

So maybe Escapology is the practical application of crisis. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Many people who’ve told me about their sudden, deliberate change in life direction also mention an epiphany — a moment when you’ve got one foot in the commuter train and the other still on the platform and you say “no more” — and what is that but a crisis?

Look at this beauty:

In short, you wake one day and everything is wrong. You thought you would be somewhere else, someone else. It’s as though you went out one warm evening – an evening fizzing with delicious potential – you went out for just one drink… and woke up two days later in a skip. Except you’re not in a skip, you’re in an estate car, on the way to an out-of-town shopping mall to buy a balance bike, a roof rack and some stackable storage boxes. “It’s all a mistake!” you shout. “I shouldn’t be here! This life was meant for someone else! Someone who would like it! Someone who would know what to do!”

I genuinely remember feeling this way when being sent off to secondary school. And again, later, when walking a steep incline one morning to reach a university lecture I didn’t want to attend, to get a degree was ambivalent about, to get a job I’d barely be able to tolerate.

Perhaps a midlife crisis can be experienced at any age, especially to those with strong ideas about the kind of life they want or at least a strong sense of direction that isn’t being granted by inertia alone.

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Ask Albert

A handwritten note from Albert Einstein — originally given by Einstein in lieu of a tip to a courier — sold for a record $1.56m this week.

The note says (in German):

A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.

One of the finest minds in the history of the universe concurs with our theory!

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Begin With the End in Mind

I’ve never read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It looks too long, too managerial, and generally like something Rimmer would read.

Doubtless it’s the sort of book to contain the odd gem or an interesting way of seeing a problem, but this is an effect that leaves me feeling like a gold prospector sifting for nuggets.

(This is precisely how I felt about the famous Getting Things Done when I finally read it last year. In this instance the useful nugget was the word “trusted”).

The 7 Habits was hugely influential and contributed significantly to the tone of modern self-help so it gets mentioned a lot. When it was came up today I found myself wondering what exactly those seven (sorry, “7”) habits are exactly so I looked them up.

Aside from the annoying discovery that I’d independently come up with Covey’s abundance mentality rather belatedly, the best truth nugget lies in the second habit: “Begin with the End in Mind”.

This struck me first as a bit “well, duh” but then it hit me like a suckerpunch.

It had never occurred to me that many people (perhaps even most people?) do not “begin with the end in mind”.

Suddenly, the behavior and decisions of so many people I’ve met over the years made sense. People who binge as soon as pay day rolls around. People who think that checking themselves into wage slavery is a sustainable solution. People who hoard. People who are disorganised. Above all, people who discount the future.

You can probably see how this applies. For example, if someone in receipt of a £1,500 pay cheque had a reasonable, pragmatic, non-punishing idea of how they want their finances to look by the end of the month (e.g. all bills paid, a reasonable amount spent on fun, a minimum of £300 left over for savings) then they wouldn’t start pissing the new income so spectacularly up the wall on Day One.

In the case of being disorganised, I’d sometimes look at a spreadsheet put together by a colleague — multiple sheets scattered across a single workbook, coloured cells, bold text, complicated filters, cells formatted so that phone numbers can’t begin with a “0” — and wonder about the decisions that led to such a mess. I’d think “is this what you wanted your system to look like?” I mean, it didn’t just happen: you clicked on “bold,” you put weird formatting on those cells.

And man oh man, does this apply to minimalism. “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” is the maxim. Having nothing in one’s home except for the useful and the beautiful is the “end” one must “have in mind”. So when looking at the range of lovely products available to buy, or when given a gift or presented with the opportunity to take something for free, one needs to wonder if it contributes to or detracts from that end.

Some of us probably do this instinctively, but many, I suspect, do not. Covey writes:

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy — very busy — without being very effective. People often find themselves achieving victories that are empty, successes that have come at the expense of things they suddenly realize were far more valuable to them.

It’s sort of bizarre that people fall into this trap so often (or, if we’re being brutal, at all). It’s as though they haven’t worked out that actions have consequences (or that the desirable consequences require specific actions) and instead allow their listing autopilot to drift them into a tempest or throw themselves into performing a host of unhelpful, unrelated actions. Why?

I had an idea a few months ago that I’d quite like to live among a few leafy houseplants so that I might feel a bit more like a monkey in Rousseau painting. What I did next was visit a florist where I acquired a couple of leafy houseplants and I took them home. What I did not do was enlist in a dance class, rub my body down with a prone Cocker Spaniel, or ring up the Natural History Museum to complement them their famous sauropod skeleton. The reason I did not do these things is because they had nothing to do with my envisioned “end” of living among leafy houseplants.

If I found myself performing all of those crazy actions “in pursuit” of fulfilling my house plant ambition, I’d like to think that at some point I’d stop the madness and say “Why am I doing this?”

Which is a good question to ask oneself quite often, really.

Maybe a fault in Escapology is that it assumes people tend to function with an end in mind where, in fact, so many do not.

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Supermum Retires

Then, a couple of years ago, she retired. Suddenly, her life changed completely. No more 5.15am alarms. Instead, every week it is Zumba and pilates and afternoons at the local cinema with her neighbour and a large glass of red. It is trips to the Tate, the British Film Institute and the Imperial War Museum. It is walks on the beach with new and old friends. It is attending local council meetings to single-handedly overthrow the Conservative party – but always home in time for a bath and Front Row on Radio 4.

Just like that, the grind was over. And now my chest is bursting [with] relief. Now she is not snatching sleep or time or moments with her children. […] Now time ebbs and flows with her command. […] Her once-furrowed brow, anxiously staring into an arsenal of phone screens and pagers and notebooks, now light with smiles when I arrive at her house on a cold, dark evening, and I am the one who is tired, falling asleep on the sofa. Every time she texts me to tell me she is doing the things she didn’t do for 30 years – a Thursday morning yoga class or watching the 6pm news – I remember the tea bags kept in the fridge to cool her tired eyes. And I think: she is not tired any more.

There’s a lot to think about in this daughter’s reflection about her hard-working Civil Servant mother who, in the 1980s, would fall asleep on her feet during bus commutes.

There’s a bit too much to go into here without offering a fully-annotated reprint of the article, so when you read it, do so while thinking about feminism, millennials, boomers, leisure, the work ethic, and the opportunities available if we can only advance our attitudes a little more quickly.

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Towering Panopticon

Hee! This, from the clever cloggses at McSweeney’s, is great.

Good news! In response to your “concerns” about our current open-plan creative campus, we are pleased to announce our new building: a towering panopticon à la Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century vision of utilitarian corporate efficiency!

In our new office, all team members will work in isolated, transparent rooms called “Cells” on the periphery of a circular tower called “Synergon.” At the center of Synergon, management will reside in “Nest,” a glowing, elevated sphere of omniscience.

We know you have questions, and we want to address those.

I especially like this part:

This sounds terrifying and dystopian. Is it?
No.

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Demanding the Post-Work Future

We have spoken about Inventing the Future by Srnicek and Williams before. The manifesto within is excellent and this morning I found a nice, graphical summary online (above, click to biggerize). Print it off! Carry it around in your wallet!

It came from this blog (by the way, why won’t Blogger fuck off with those huge and never-vanquishing cookie warnings?) and explains things nicely.

I like the point under Demand 4 that “we all too often valorize work,” which is something we can address individually and immediately with ease.

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Corbyn: a new settlement between work and leisure

UK Escapologists could do worse than support Corbyn’s Labour party. Not only has Corbyn proposed four new bank holidays and begun to investigate UBI, he had this to say about automation in his conference speech this week:

We need urgently to face the challenge of automation, robotics that could make so much of contemporary work redundant. That is a threat in the hands of the greedy, but what an opportunity if it’s managed in the interests of society as a whole.

If planned and managed properly, accelerated technological change can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure, a springboard for expanded creativity and culture, making technology our servant and not our master, at long last.

As far as I know, he’s one of the only political leaders speaking in this way about the inevitable future (and dreary present-day reality) of work.

Here’s the Guardian analysis:

What is fascinating about Mr Corbyn’s speech is its hidden depths, most notably on possible “alternative models” to capitalism. The Labour party sees in the future not just the rise of robots, which might entrench economic feudalism, but also the worry that too many people will remain trapped in drudgery-filled, low-productivity jobs. Although Mr Corbyn did not spell this out, he referenced a little-publicised party report that fleshes out Labour’s view of the new economy. This states that accelerating automation is a key political project. Labour’s goal, the report argued, should be to accelerate into this more automated future “while building new institutions where technological change is shaped by the common good”. Mr Corbyn’s socialism is evidently more intellectually bracing than previously countenanced.

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Needs

I love quitting things. Possessions. Habits. Jobs. But you know that.

At the moment, I’m trying to overcome a health problem by temporarily quitting things to see what happens: bread, alcohol, caffeine, prescription antihistamines, hot showers. Giving up hot showers has been the toughest so far but the one that makes the most difference. Try it! It’s Hell!

Anyway, all this has led to my marveling once again about the importance of decreasing one’s requirements for life. It’s no fun quitting bread, but who really needs it? It’s liberating to see if you can go without something for a while.

Consistent, back-of-the-mind reflection on what you do or do not need is Escapology 101 and just part of the machinery of living as a free person instead of a worker-consumer — but it really is good to do and it’s worth remembering to do it if you don’t.

It’s also, it seems, suddenly topical.

Leo Babauta has been posting sporadically to his mnmlist blog and his Lowering Your Life’s Requirements entry just plopped into my feed this morning. He’s quitting coffee and booze:

I saw a long line at Peet’s Coffee, and decided I didn’t need the coffee to be awake, happy or alive.

When something becomes a need, a requirement, it locks us in. We have to have it, which means we start structuring our lives around it.

For lots of us, it’s more than just coffee: we need a glass of wine (or beer) in the evening, we need some quiet time alone, we need things to be neat, we need to watch some TV to unwind in the evening, we need the Internet for entertainment and news. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but soon the requirements for a happy life start piling up. What are your requirements, things you can’t do without?

Then I notice that Russell Brand’s been plugging a book called Recovery: Freedom from our addictions. It seems to be a memoir about his personal struggle with drug addiction but also a sort of self-help guide on how to apply the 12 Step Programme to quitting less dramatic addictions like Twitter-checking, pornography and sugar.

And then I find that Mark Boyle, the “moneyless man” I mention in my own book, is writing for The Guardian again. His little essay series, written from the perspective of someone who has completely rejected modern technology, contain such plums as:

most of what afflicts us today – cancer, obesity, mental illness, diabetes, stress, auto-immune disorders, heart disease, along with those slow killers: meaninglessness, clock-watching and loneliness – are industrial ailments. We create stressful, toxic, unhealthy lifestyles fuelled by sugar, caffeine, tobacco, antidepressants, adrenaline, discontent, energy drinks and fast food, and then defend the political ideology that got us hooked on these things in the first place. Our sedentary jobs further deplete our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, but instead of honestly addressing the root cause of the illness we exert ever more effort, energy, genius and money trying to treat the symptoms and contain the epidemics.

Knowledge of what you need and what you don’t need is escapological in that it helps your great escape from worker-consumer culture into the good life but they’re also acts of escape in themselves; the escape from coffee, the escape from tech, the escape from dependencies.

Look around. What can you do without? Would life be better without it? How so? Would it save you some money, save some time, help you to be healthier, make you stronger or less frustrated when you can’t get it? Would it help you move into the good life?

Try escaping something for a limited time at first and then escape it forever if you want to.

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Long Conveyor Belt

This is ‘The Long Conveyor Belt’ (2007) by Misty’s Big Adventure, a band with the same accent as me.

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