An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 44: Batten Down the Hatches

My year of contract work to satisfy the new immigration rules continues.

I recently completed a five-week contract at a countryside university. While I didn’t appreciate rising at 6:30 each morning, everything else about the contract was surprisingly nice. I liked the people, the work itself, even the commute. It wasn’t the classic inner-city slog thankfully, but a fine swing across open countryside by rail followed by a twenty-minute walk past the tidy shop windows of a small town.

Not all contracts are so nice, but I’m still left feeling that some temp work every now and then could be the lock pick for Escapologists who can’t (or don’t want to) give up employment entirely. Work for three months and, if frugal, take nine for yourself. It’s far less horrible than full-time work, always with a light at the end of the tunnel and a finite, well-defined project to complete in the meantime.

I’m now enjoying a period of languishing at home, where I’m tinkering with New Escapologist Issue 12, listening to a lot of jazz music, and generally having a fine old domestic time of things. Not bad at all.

I’ve accepted more contract work for later in the year, this time for a medical library. While I wouldn’t say anything so ridiculous and dishonest as “I’m looking forward to it,” I don’t feel afraid either and I’m somehow managing to keep feelings of anger and defeat firmly in place. Yes, I’ve been bullied into this whole thing by some ideologically-installed Westminster bureaucrat, but since I’m powerless to fight him I’ll simply ignore him. Besides, the extra money will be nice. Maybe I’ll spend it on an anti-xenophobia or free movement campaign.

These contract jobs mean putting my creative practice into a state of hibernation. I’ll keep the creative heart beating but in a minimalist way, a kind of safe mode. I’ve experienced employment often enough to know that while there may still be hours to write novels, there’s never the necessary energy or willpower or peace of mind. I’m wise enough not to go into this thinking “Hey, I’m strong enough to do both at once and have a social life!” It’ll never happen. So I’ve battened down the hatches by planning to do only what I know I’ll find manageable.

To start with, I’ve a long overdue need to send manuscripts and enquiry letters to publishers and agents. There will be promotional work to do for the new book too. This is the kind of work I too often fail to do in the land of the free. It always feels like such a chore. But since I’ll be getting paid to cheerfully push bullshit around all day anyway, I’ll be in the right state of mind to tackle such things. Operation Dung Beetle.

For actual writing, I’ve been keeping a private Nature Diary since April and I intend to continue it ’til next April. It’s a manageable amount of writing: just a few hundred observational words per day. I hope to edit it into a book, a sort of Escapological novel, once the year of contract work is over. Nature Diary of a City Slicker will likely be my next book (2017) after Escape Everything!

My general feeling as I write this in a sunny apartment (the lease on which we extended yesterday when landlady Heather popped in) on the leafy and pedestrianized West End street we share with art students and foxes, is thankfully, of everything being under control.

Yes, despite everything, I feel in control. I think this is down to the “batten down the hatches” attitude and not putting myself in a position of feeling overwhelmed. I highly recommend it.

As a teenager, I worked in a large music-and-video store. Part of my self-imposed work ethic was to keep the cargo bay empty. When a delivery came, I made it a priority to get it priced and onto the shelves or into the overflow warehouse immediately. An empty cargo bay meant we could tackle any delivery that came in, no matter how big or how complicated. Nothing could take us by surprise. We could take on all-comers. That’s how I feel today: in control, stripped back, versatile, ready. And it’s not bad.

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What Comes After Work? Creativity or Vegetation?

stapler

Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?

This is from an interesting (if extremely long) article in the Atlantic, with very cool photos from a post-work future museum.

It starts with the kind of will-technology-make-human-workers-obsolete discussion we’ve seen before but goes on to an intelligent exploration of the post-work future, what challenges our work-obsessed society will face should we reach such a point, and how we might “recover” from it.

New Escapologist, like the “post-workists” mentioned in the article, is occasionally seen by its critics as insensitive for rooting for a world without employment in that so many people wouldn’t know what to do in such a world; that without being forced into a labour market through fear of poverty or complete loss of social status, we’d all just drift around aimlessly, occasionally stopping to puzzle over the “clunk” sound our heads make when they bump into each other.

My feeling is that New Escapologist has more respect for people’s agency than the critic who accuses us of insensitivity: we believe people will find ways to fill the gap left by the removal of work. The people of history had quite full lives before being corralled and morally-blackmailed into joining to the workforce during the Reformation and one way or another we’ll relearn how to occupy ourselves when the Protestant work ethic is more widely accepted as obsolete.

Alas, a study referred to by the Atlantic suggests that most Americans, when freed one way or another from the workforce, fill their time with television, browsing the Internet and sleep. Aside from this data, immersive video gaming is offered as as a genuine suggestion. So maybe it’s true. Maybe the critics are right and the majority of us is genuinely unable to occupy ourselves in a worthwhile fashion without being cattle-prodded into an office or a factory each morning.

To the non-working public I say this: are you going to prove right these patronizing naysayers or are you going to prove right New Escapologist and the post-workists, who have respect for your imagination, agency and willpower?

Post-workists are certainly right about some important things. Paid labor does not always map to social good. Raising children and caring for the sick is essential work, and these jobs are compensated poorly or not at all. In a post-work society […] people might spend more time caring for their families and neighbors; pride could come from our relationships rather than from our careers.

The post-work proponents acknowledge that, even in the best post-work scenarios, pride and jealousy will persevere, because reputation will always be scarce, even in an economy of abundance. But with the right government provisions, they believe, the end of wage labor will allow for a golden age of well-being. [Post-workist writer] Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē, the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.”

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Talk Is Cheap

HDTPosted by Lentus Ambulandus

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Henry David Thoreau, urging us to walk the walk. To move beyond the mere contemplation of escape, to discard our subtle thoughts in favour of action, and to live according to the principles of Escapology.

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More Tiny Houses

cabinreplicacathallPosted by Lentus Ambulandus

There was a good article at the BBC the other day about small living spaces. In it, they profile a lady from Colorado who, years ago, bought a small apartment at a time when her friends were all buying houses.

“I was teased a lot because I bought so conservatively,” said Michelle Jackson, now 42. “Some of my friends didn’t understand why I wanted such a small place. There was some peer pressure that I didn’t expect.”

Ah, yes. Peer pressure. But Jackson gets the last laugh. Her reduced living costs have afforded her a degree of financial freedom, such that she’s been able to leave her job. I guess she does all the teasing now, during her ample spare time.

There are some interesting stats, including the average size of newly-built, single-family detached homes in select countries:

Denmark: 1,475 square feet / 137 square metres

U.S.: 2,506 square feet / 233 square metres

Australia: 2,616 square feet / 243 square metres

Go Aussies!

The article goes on to discuss a range of factors that should be considered by prospective owners of small (< 500 square feet) and tiny (< 350 square feet) houses. In my opinion, they save the most important consideration for the end:

Professionally built tiny houses [in the U.S.] typically cost between $30,000 and $50,000…Build it yourself and you could do it for $25,000 or less.

Just think what you could do with the $325,000 you didn’t spend on your house, or the equivalent amount of time that you didn’t need to work. The possibilities are endless.

I trust readers will recognize the house in the picture…

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DC: “Life is a Field, Not a Corridor.”

sartre

Bad Faith is one of my favourite philosophical subjects. What better breakdown of the freedom paradox (that it’s the world’s most desirable and terrifying commodity) could there be? What better way to explain the phenomena of professional personae and the other strange, self-defeating ways in which we behave?

“A load of French twaddle”, as my university philosophy professor had it? Non, monsieur!

David Cain (who also writes the introduction to the forthcoming Escape Everything! book incidentally) wrote an excellent post on the phenomenon this week:

Sartre believed that we have much more freedom than we tend to acknowledge. We habitually deny it to protect ourselves from the horror of accepting full responsibility for our lives. In every instant, we are free to behave however we like, but we often act as though circumstances have reduced our options down to one or two ways to move forward.

This is bad faith: when we convince ourselves that we’re less free than we really are, so that we don’t have to feel responsible for what we ultimately make of ourselves. It really seems like you must get up at 7:00 every Monday, because constraints such as your job, your family’s schedule, and your body’s needs leave no other possibility. But it’s not true — you can set your alarm for any time, and are free to explore what’s different about life when you do. You don’t have to do things the way you’ve always done them, and that is true in every moment you’re alive. Yet we feel like we’re on a pretty rigid track most of the time.

We often think of freedom as something that can only make life easier, but it can actually be overwhelming and even terrifying. Think about it: we can take, at any moment, any one of infinite roads into the future, and nothing less than the rest of our lives hinges on each choice. So it can be a huge relief to tell ourselves that we actually have fewer options available to us, or even no choice at all.

In other words, even though we want the best life possible, if life is going to be disappointing, we’d at least like that to be someone else’s fault.

That’s Samara‘s drawing of Sartre on a plate, by the way.

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Self Esteem

Posted by Lentus Ambulandus

chanel-cruise-2013-handbags-6I once had a friend who worked as an addictions counsellor. Drugs, booze, gambling, sex…she dealt with every kind of addiction conceivable. She would frequently regale us with fantastic stories from her work (usually over drinks, come to think of it), and she was fond of saying that “Everything — EVERYTHING — comes down to self esteem”.

I thought of her this week when I read a series of articles about our growing addiction to consumption and debt. The articles were about Canada (my homeland), where people seem to have an insatiable appetite for borrowing money to buy things. This problem is not unique to Canada, of course, or to so-called rich countries. Consumerism is rampant wherever people have a bit of money, access to credit, and TV ads telling them what they should buy in order to be like the cool kids.

Here are two of the articles, for your reading dismay. The first deals with the issue of debt, money and depression. In it, a middle-class woman describes how her family was sideswiped by sudden loss of employment (emphasis mine):

It took Zerr four years to clear her credit card debt through the credit counselling service…[she] has torn up the Visa, Brick and Bay cards in favour of prepaid credit cards when needed.

For those readers not from Canada, The Brick is a furniture store, and The Bay is large department store that sells clothes and home decor items.

Here’s how I think this counter-Escaplogical scenario played out: couple gets married, has children, succumbs to the pressure to buy 2000+ square foot suburban house because everyone else is doing it and because banks make it easy, then they rush to furnish said house. I’m also guessing they had two vehicles, took the odd vacation to Hawaii or Mexico, and purchased a lot *indispensable* Martha Stewart type stuff like toss cushions for the sofa, a big mirror to go above the fancy table at the front entrance, a KitchenAid stand mixer, and an extra TV for the man cave.

I try not to judge, because I’ve lived on the fringes of that world and I understand the insidious nature of the process. And as much as anything, the article speaks to a lack of financial literacy and shoddy government / central bank policy. But the overwhelming take-aways for me are about personal responsibility and the underlying motivations for spending money. The reality is that people waste a shocking amount of money, and in some cases incur a crazy debt load, solely to keep up with expectations. The sad part: they don’t even need to.

Here’s the second article, which reads like something out of The Onion. In this case, I almost hope the debt crash happens so that there can be a follow-up interview with these lunatics. “Honestly, we never saw this coming…my wife even had to sell her collection of Chanel purses.”

You be the judge.

The bottom line is that my addiction counsellor friend was right:

Everything — EVERYTHING — comes down to self-esteem.

Escape would be a lot easier if people learned to examine their spending patterns through that lens.

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The Curse of Aspiration

Illustration by Andrzej Krauze

An eye-opening column by George Monbiot. He beautifully trashes aspiration by lifting the lid on the horrible, futile, unsatisfying, pre-determined lives of the elite.

In the cause of self-advancement, we are urged to sacrifice our leisure, our pleasures and our time with partners and children, to climb over the bodies of our rivals and to set ourselves against the common interests of humankind. And then? We discover that we have achieved no greater satisfaction than that with which we began.

In 1653, Izaak Walton described in the Compleat Angler the fate of “poor-rich men”, who “spend all their time first in getting, and next in anxious care to keep it; men that are condemned to be rich, and then always busie or discontented”. Today this fate is confused with salvation.

Finish your homework, pass your exams, spend your 20s avoiding daylight, and you too could live like the elite. But who in their right mind would want to?

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 43: And For My Next Trick.

THEY-LIVE2

At the awards ceremony (did I mention that?) in Ontario, I met a literary agent who said a writer, as well as writing, should have a day job and a partner who works.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear me disagree.

The idea presumably is that day jobs and working partners are a “double lock” against complete professional and financial failure, and perhaps that the double information input from these day jobs can provide the raw material for a literary output.

I prefer to throw caution to the wind when it comes to life and work (it’s served me well so far) and to just get on with things in terms of writing. When I have a job, my prevailing thoughts are “this is an appalling expectation” and “why can’t I just be left alone to get on with my stuff?” none of which is very productive. As for a working partner, I wouldn’t wish a job on an enemy let alone the person I’m uniquely squiggly about.

Regardless of my thoughts on the matter it’s starting to look as though my partner and I will be following the agent’s advice to some extent.

A term of my wife’s immigration to Britain from Canada is that her spousal sponsor (that’s me!) earns £18,600 per year. Without revealing the full moth-ridden shame of my personal finances to you, dear reader, I do not usually make £18,600 per year. We live well and have never been in debt but that’s not enough for the British government. They want to keep Bohemian types off these shores, and that includes my life partner. Honestly, they don’t know what they’re missing. She’s fab!

Fortunately, we’ve found a rare loophole that (assuming the Tory vermin don’t close it this year) will allow Sam and me to share the burden of earning the £18,600. Sam’s looking for a j-o-b and I’ll be relying largely on short-term contract work like some sort of hipster-for-hire.

We can’t depend on our (by most standards quite substantial) savings because the value of savings is subject to an equation designed to make it look like a pittance. We can’t depend on the kind of literary or arty schemes I’m known for either. I could reframe my entire artistic output as self-employment by keeping detailed accounts, but the criteria for this is confusing and contradictory so I’m terrified of Sam’s visa being rejected on a technicality.

So it looks like Robert W, self-styled master Escapologist, has little choice but to OBEY and must knuckle down for a spell. No more getting up at 11, no more boozy breakfasts, no more writing or chatting into the we small hours. A crushing blow really, to have the shackles put back on so mercilessly despite thinking we’d got things all figured out (the £18,600 financial requirement has only existed since 2012).

We have for a while felt like Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty Four, cast asunder in a gigantic, unforgiving mechanism. But we’ll not dwell on that. Let this diary be cheerful.

I mentioned in the last thrilling installment that I’ve accepted a one-month contract at a university. It’s going surprisingly well. Today will see my twelfth working day draw to a close: almost halfway through. The campus is rather beautiful, abundant with wildlife; my temporary colleagues are a very good-natured bunch; and (I can’t quite believe I’m writing these words) I’m enjoying the commute.

After a short and barely-noticeable jaunt on the tube, I take a half-hour train ride into the countryside, followed by a twenty-minute brisk walk to the campus. I like trains and I like walking, so it works out nicely. I wouldn’t be so chipper about this if the train were a crammed inner-city commuter one or if the walk was much longer or less scenic. I’ve been lucky.

Feelings of “that I have to do this is a fucking outrage” are mitigated by the fact that the job is temporary and that it’ll be nice to have some extra cocktail money anyway. I’ve also started, rather uncharacteristically, keeping a nature diary, for which twice-daily walks in the countryside provide ample fodder.

I have secret hopes of winning less desk-bound, more arty contracts. A new artist friend is good at raising money and seems willing to hire me in some capacity. Meanwhile, poor Sam’s applying for all manner of curious employment to shoulder her half of the burden.

For all my cheerful (stoical?) approach to the situation, being forced into work could barely come at a worse time. My book, Escape Everything, is due for publication quite soon. Received an early sample of the cover art yesterday evening and it looks utterly marvelous. I need to be available for last-minute edits and, afterwards, for any promotional work and public events. As much as anything though, it’s embarrassing to have written the bible of Escapology only to fall into mandatory (albeit brief and fairly undemanding) employment almost immediately. I hope people see how extraordinary my circumstances are.

Still, all this at least provides material for the next few issues of New Escapologist. Watch in awe, ladies and gentlemen, as the Great Roberto escapes his toughest predicament to date! This surely is my “Chinese Water Torture Cell” moment. Let’s see if I can escape.

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Hardworking

Interesting topical thoughts about the nature of work in Zoe Williams’ column today, with reference to a new survey of attitudes to working hours:

these figures point to the same conclusion: people work extremely hard when they can’t live any other way, and steadily less hard – or wish they could work less hard – when they can afford to.

It contains a thought about the modern use of the word “hardworking” used frequently by twats in the government:

the new consensus about hardworking people, hardworking families, human units defined by the intensity of their effort, actually sounds, when you decouple it from whichever smooth voice whence it came, a bit Soviet. It calls to mind those glory years of post-revolutionary propaganda in which to work – particularly with your top off – was to wrest back dignity from the capital forces that had tried to steal it from you. And yet we are meant to exist in this era of self-interest, in which our sense of identity is created not by work but by consumption. It’s a totally contradictory trope: of course it couldn’t brook challenge or nuance or an honest account of what work actually means to people. It would disintegrate.

I recently read Green MP Caroline Lucas’ marvelous book about the mechanisms of parliament. She says that “hardworking” is indicative of subtle Conservative Party propaganda, in this case a deliberate and concerted attempt to “reframe” the way we perceive beneficiaries of the welfare state. Rather than see pensioners, the disabled and the unemployed as people deserving of state assistance, the Tories want us to despise them so that any cuts to their welfare will be met with public approval. The key, apparently, is to position them as lazy, selfish, non-hardworking:

hardworking

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572 sq ft

Posted by Lentus Ambulandus

MedellinDue to circumstances beyond my control, I am currently living in Medellin, Colombia. My wife and I have rented a small apartment which, at 572 square feet, is roughly half the size of the apartment that we just vacated in Canada. Which in turn was half the size of the house we used to own. If this trend continues, we’ll be living in a small yurt by the year 2020.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’ve stayed in a yurt before. It was fun and relaxing.

Back to the apartment. There’s one bedroom, 1.5 bathrooms (i.e. 0.5 bathrooms too many), a decent sized living area, a small walk-in closet, and a small laundry room / pantry. There’s no clothes dryer, so right now I’m sitting with wet laundry draped across all the chairs. Gives the place a nice fresh scent.

Since we’ll be here temporarily (end-Oct), we’re renting a furnished place. Bedding, towels, cleaning supplies: all included. We brought our own coffee paraphernalia (as one does) but otherwise the kitchen has all the essentials. There’s even a sandwich press, of which I’ve become a huge fan.

We’re very happy here. With each successive move, as our square footage has decreased, our peace of mind has increased. Maybe we’re like dogs, who instinctively seek refuge in small places, rather than be exposed to the dangers of large open areas. I suspect many of you will feel the same way about the comforts of small living spaces.

Because we’ll go mobile at the end of our stay in Medellin, we must remain unencumbered. There is simply no incentive or impulse to buy anything. This creates a real sense of freedom, because a whole thought process is removed from the equation. Contrast that with more permanent scenarios, where we tend to nickel and dime ourselves with small purchases of “must-haves”, unwittingly spending our hard-earned money just to create a maddening world of clutter.

Our stay in Medellin, and our forthcoming life of hostels and tents, will serve as boot camp for when we eventually return to Canada. Our spartan existence on the road will allow us to recalibrate our stuff-o-meters. We’ll return to the land of plenty as hardened minimalists, inured to making do with enough. We’ll be armed with the knowledge that we’re happier with less. And we’ll know that 572 square feet is overkill.

Yes. I think we’ll go back and live in a yurt…

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