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Letters to the Editor: Unlocked

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Hi Rob,

Just handed in my notice!

New Escapological achievement unlocked.

I thought you should be the first to know.

N.

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A Tale Of Two Quarters

CafetalesPosted by Lentus Ambulandus, on escape in Colombia

We recently visited the small city of Manizales, located a few hours drive to the south of Medellin, in one of Colombia’s coffee regions.

[Aside: next time we’ll take a bus instead of renting a car, as the extra mass of a large bus will offer protection for the inevitable.]

We are in the habit of booking accommodations in advance, to avoid the hassle of searching for a room upon arrival. This is always a crap shoot, of course, as we tend to rely on guest ratings at sites like TripAdvisor. We booked online at a hotel called Quo, near the city centre. Described as “boutique” (let that be a gigantic red flag going forward), it had rave reviews and a reasonable price point due to a weekend sale.

Everything about the hotel was new, ultra-modern, and a bit too “cool”, if you know what I mean. Between the receptionist (who shamelessly lied to us by saying that the staff would be pleased to attend to our needs 24/7), and the bellhop (who insisted on escorting us to our room, pressing the elevator buttons, opening the door for us, and orienting us to the room’s features), I couldn’t help but think of Sartre’s waiter. If we were to meet these people on the street, they’d act like any other Manizaleño, and not give us the time of day. But they were “in role” and doing what they thought was expected of them.

I became increasingly irritated with the bellhop as he showed us how to turn the TV on, how to work the electric (!) blinds, and where the bathroom was (oh, okaaaay, so it’s in that other room…). I struggled to hide my pleasure when the hotel-supplied iPad failed to work.

We went to the lounge for our complimentary cocktail, only to discover that the “free” list didn’t actually include anything of interest. There’s probably a marketing term for this sleight of hand. We asked to see the menu, which was so thoroughly modern that it was nigh impossible to read. Everything on the menu seemed to be artisanal, and had some sort of reduction drizzle. Perhaps I’m uncultured, but sometimes I just want simple food.

What does artisan really mean? I thought to myself. If everything becomes artisanal, will it still be artisanal? The plates were square. The cutlery was visually interesting and rather difficult to use.

We had intended to hike the next day in nearby Los Nevados National Natural Park, but the weather wasn’t cooperating, so we began to research coffee tours. We found a finca that not only offered tours, but also had a guest house. As luck would have it, they had one room left, and we were still within the time limit for cancelling our second night at El Gran iPad Boutique Faux-Artisan Hotel.

We drove the next morning to the coffee farm. Descending from the highway into a deep valley, we crawled along a gravel road, repeatedly scraping the underbelly of the car on boulders (perfectly acceptable treatment of a compact rental car). Our arrival was heralded by several barking dogs, in various states of filth. The guest house, surrounded by fruit trees and thousands upon thousands of coffee bushes rising up the steep slopes, was old and showing some wear. I was pleased to see hammocks lining the veranda.

Upon check in, we were shown the shared bathroom, which sported a single lightbulb for illumination and offered a waste bin for soiled toilet paper (so as not to block the septic system). Our small room had two single beds, an old fan in case the heat became unbearable, and no iPad. In the common area, there was an honour bar with cheap beer and wine. There was wifi, but it rarely worked, we were told. We met the cooks, who were busy preparing a simple dinner, which would be served at 18:30, no exceptions. If we got hungry in the meantime, we could pick and eat the fruit. And if we got bored, we could walk anywhere among the coffee on the 200 hectare property.

The difference between the finca and Quo, in terms of both experience and value, could not have been more absolute. The finca was an honest, hearty plate of meat and potatoes. Quo was a pretentious, overpriced, unremarkable snack, covered in drizzle.

We dined that night at a communal table with our fellow guests: a very nice Colombian family from Medellin; two American women who vowed not to return home until they were fluent in Spanish (sounds like they’ll be down here for a while…); and some parenting heroes from Belgium, who had decided to beat the whininess out of their two young children by dragging them from one South American hostel to another via public transport for a period of six months.

When we retired to our room, we discovered a small ant colony on one of the beds. We figured out that they had been falling from a small opening in the ceiling, so we shifted the beds to be outside the drop zone. At around 05:30, a rooster started crowing outside our window. When we couldn’t take it anymore, we got up and went for a walk among the coffee.

“This is our kind of place,” my wife said.

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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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