Reader G writes from New Zealand:
Re: returning to the office, here’s a contrary view. I have returned to the office after exclusively working from home for a while. (Life has been near-normal in New Zealand since mid-2020).
I did this by choice because I found I prefer a sharp barrier between the world of work and the rest of my life. Working from home, it’s easy to feel bad about stepping away for breaks, to work late, to keep an eye on online chat… I prefer to leave the office on time and leave work behind too.
Also, of course, my employers provide a reasonably ergonomic workspace for me with the associated amenities. Why should I fit out a home office and dedicate that space for the benefit of my employers? They don’t pay me any rent for it or buy me any extra kit.
I also prefer the social contact and the sight of other human beings and spontaneous interaction. I find video conferencing a poor substitute.
You’re correct, of course. If the office is right for you, that’s excellent. And your point about setting up a specialist workspace in your home is a good one. Why should you?
We’re traditionally against office life and the job system at New Escapologist but the real moral of the story lies in making a life that fits you and doing it creatively and out of free will. If you like working in an office, then that’s great!
I miss proper human interaction too. Not in the office context, mind you, which in my experience revolved around microagressions and colin the caterpillar. But face-to-face relationships with other people are irreplaceable, yes. I miss gigs and art shows and nightlife very, very much. I even speak as an introvert who has to stay at home for a couple of days with the curtains drawn if I happen to go out three nights on the run.
Human contact is too important to throw away even if it makes economic sense in the context of working from home. Video conferencing is garbage. I disliked it in the days of office life (20 minutes of a 60-minute meeting could easily be devoted to setting up a piece-of-shit technical “fix” to allow distant colleagues to have a say) and I positively despise it now. The remote quizzes and and so-called cultural events online during lockdown did not please me. “But it’s all we have at the moment,” is the usual refrain. But it’s not, is it? Books! Walks! Nature! Love! You’ve heard this all before.
“The hatred of laziness,” they write, “is deeply embedded in the history of the United States” and consequently the rest of the world:
The value of hard work and the evils of sloth are baked into our national myths and our shared value system. Thanks to the legacies of imperialism and slavery, as well as the ongoing influence that the United States exerts on the rest of the world both in media and in military force, the Laziness Lie has managed to spread its tendrils into almost every country and culture on the planet.
Strong, most excellent stuff.
They go into the etymology of the word, which conflates weakness with evil, and then into the use of “laziness” to justify slavery in America and oppression during the Industrial Revolution.
It’s the kind of thing I touched on in my “How the West Was Won (by Work)” chapter in Escape Everything! and again in The Good Life for Wage Slaves but didn’t quite have the expertise or guts to go into very deeply.
Colonial America relied on the labor of enslaved people and indentured servants. It was very important to the colonies’ wealthy and enslaving class that they find a way to motivate enslaved people to work hard, despite the fact that enslaved people had absolutely nothing to gain from it. They also needed to find ways to ideologically justify the existence of slavery because many people of the period recognized (as we do today) that it was a morally abhorrent institution.
Importantly, this history forms the basis of the Operating System on which we run today:
Decades of exposure to the Laziness Lie has had a massive effect on our public consciousness. It’s made many of us critical of other people and quick to blame the victims of economic inequality for their own deprivation. It’s made us hate our own limitations, to see our tiredness or desire for a break as signs of failure. And it has created an intense internal pressure to keep working harder and harder, with no limits and no boundaries. This ideology was created to dehumanize those whom society had failed to care for, and with each passing year, the number of people who are excluded in these ways seems to only grow.
What a wonderful essay. I am yet to read Dr. Price’s book, but I recommend it all the same.
Listen. I might have discovered a previously-unobserved source of human misery. If we can work out how to escape this thing, we can probably all be a lot happier.
We might even be happier at work and not want to escape it if only we could escape THIS problem instead. We could be happier at school, happier in our own heads and, yes, happier on the toilet.
I know it sounds grandiose to go claiming a new discovery and all, but describing sources of misery–revealing them for what they are–and working out how to escape them is sort of my job now. And I’m digging deep.
This is from a New Escapologist essay of 2019, one of my exclusive-to-Patreon efforts.
I wasn’t sure about the quality of the essay at first and my struggle with it was part of the reason I stopped doing Patreon.
The struggle might have been worth it though because, revisiting it now, it doesn’t seem too bad. It garnered some good feedback from readers at the time (including wise Henry and sage McKinley) and the truth of the essay still rolls around in my head today.
I’ve dropped the password on the essay and dusted it off for general consumption. If you’re interested, you can freely read it here.
Reader M has drawn our attention to a new book called Laziness Does Not Exist by social psychologist Dr. Devon Price. It looks good!
A review in Jacobin highlights the point that it’s awfully convenient for the world to point the finger at you and say “everything that has gone wrong in your life is your own fault because you are lazy” when most people really are doing their best in a world set up (The Trap) to consume them.
Well, look. It’s not your fault.
Here’s part of the blurb the back of the book (well, from the Waterstones website, but you know):
Dr. Price offers science-based reassurances that productivity does not determine a person’s worth and suggests that the solution to problems of overwork and stress lie in resisting the pressure to do more and instead learn to embrace doing enough. Featuring interviews with researchers, consultants, and experiences from real people drowning in too much work, Laziness Does Not Exist encourages us to let go of guilt and become more attuned to our own limitations and needs and resist the pressure to meet outdated societal expectations.
And so say all of us!
Reader M also shares a discussion about the book on Reddit.
On one of my best days here I found a bunch of loose jewelry in a bin. There was a bit more inside some black trash bags.
An old friend of mine in Montreal, Martin describes himself as a professional scavenger. Objecting to waste, he set out to make a living from it as well as using the project as a basis for online anti-waste activism.
I’m happy to tell you that Martin continues his good work to this day. I’ve been catching up on his posts and they’re extremely enjoyable. There’s something so satisfying about his process of turning nothing into something, his intervening in destruction.
I recommend his most recent blog post in which he shows off some fairly shocking (though not actually atypical) finds from last autumn. It includes some pure gold. Literally.
It goes to show, among other things, how a bit of cleverness and imagination (and maybe a peg for the nose) can free you from unhappy convention.
In this Twitter thread, Vice writer and section editor Simon Doherty asks his followers, “would you prefer to go back to the office or stay at home forever?”
Answers include: “I’m never going back to the office full-time. I will do 2-3 days per week […] but if an employer insists on 5 days per week in the office I’ll go elsewhere”
“home forever, preferably with a swimming pool.”
Can’t argue with that, though it makes me wonder if the poster considers working from home to be as fantastical as swimming pool ownership.
There are some differing viewpoints too, including one about the economy that is so stupid as to essentially argue for the abolition of office life anyway.
From Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles (1968):
ESCAPEE GETS JAIL FOR LIFE. One sighs, of course–I mean, surely this man was (if anything) an escaper. The escapee was the governor of the jail.
[Lock picking is] definitely a good skill, requiring sensitivity and patience, as Philippe Petit revealed during his Film Lessons presentation, when he showed how to pick a pin tumbler lock and escape from hand-cuffs.
I recently munched my way through A Guide for the Perplexed by renegade filmmaker Werner Herzog. It’s an offputtingly humongous book, but it’s really a big slice of delicious cake. It’s essentially an autobiography, spoken aloud by Herzog in response to questions put to him by a loyal biographer.
The book is useful for Escapologists in that Herzog shows how you have the chance (even a responsibility) to GET ON WITH IT, whatever IT might be to you. He says we should ignore the nay-sayers, the ditherers, the pen-pushers and those who advise too much caution. You have one life. One life to enjoy the world and to make a contribution. Don’t let the pin-heads and the knuckle-draggers stand in your way!
The title, Guide to the Perplexed, refers to older books by George Perec and the ancient Jewish philosopher Maimonides, both of whom wrote tomes of approximately the same name. The title also offers to shine some light on the divine madness of the man who made Fitzcaraldo (which indeed the book does) and serves as an irregular self-help book. You really do go away from it feeling better, wired and armored and ready to take on the world again.
With regards to the lock picking, Herzog really does practice it. For him, it’s not a metaphor like it is here at New Escapologist. He sees it as a vital skill for creative people and he teaches it in his “Rogue’s Film School.” In the book, Herzog describes how he has lock-picked gates and doors to let him into shooting locations rather than wasting his filming time seeking out some power-tripping facilities manager with a key. He says:
When the system doesn’t respond, when it doesn’t accept what you’re doing–and most of the time it won’t–you have to become self-reliant and create your own system. There will always be periods of solitude and loneliness, but you must have the courage to follow your own path. Cleverness on the terrain is the most important trait as a filmmaker.
At his aforementioned Rogue’s Film School (where he doesn’t teach any actual filmmaking, choosing instead to hone character and fortitude in his students rather than dwell on technicalities) he gets his students to “read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television will lose it.”
If I taught a School for Escapologists, I would say precisely the same thing. And if I offered a reading list to my students, I reckon Herr Herzog’s monster of a tome would be on it. It’s a truly exciting guide to living on your wits. A true hero of creativity and Escapology if ever there was one. He will barely even acknowledge The Trap. He just gets on with what he wants to do.
Philippe Petit was a man who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
The documentary about this crazy caper, Man on Wire, is breathtaking. The real fun was perhaps not in the walk itself but in his painstaking preparation and his hoodwinking of so many people to actually get away with it.
I wrote about this some hundred years ago in New Escapologist Issue Four:
In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a wire between the towers of the World Trade Centre. The wire walk was entirely unsanctioned. To complete the feat, Philippe and Co had to secure confederates in both towers, to navigate WTC security systems, and to find a way of setting up the wire without being detected. The operation was executed with the poise, preparation and secrecy of a heist.
The documentary, Man on Wire, contains a scene (a recreation) in which Petit must hide beneath a tarpaulin for what must have seemed like hours while a security guard ate his lunch only feet away. The thrill of the operation was not the high-wire walk itself but the exhilarating sense of pulling the wool over authority’s eyes and doing something unsanctioned.
It’s the thrill of graffiti, of crop circles, of hacking, of illegal raves. There is a brilliant piece of archive footage of an NYPD officer looking up at Petit’s wire in disbelief: mission accomplished.
This is the programme on which Herzog seems to run. Astonish them if you must. Ask forgiveness, not permission. Get on with it.
20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton is a missing link of sorts between the social comedies of H. G. Wells (Kipps, The History of Mr Polly) and Orwell’s stories of creatively-inclined working stiffs (Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming up for Air). I really enjoyed it. If you’ve not read Patrick Hamilton before, I’d recommend his Hangover Square first but 20,000 Streets is rather smashing as well.
It’s a “plight of the working class” kind of book, stylishly told and with a dash of dark humour. It’s a trilogy of novels in which the three central characters’ strands interact and intertwine.
Each character has eyed the potential for escape (a sum of promised money, the support of resourceful people) and each escape is gradually undermined or foiled. It’s humorous but very much on the side of the working class; the pathos of what Hamilton once or twice refers to as “social destiny.”
Towards the end, there’s a moment in which Hamilton talks about “wage-slaves” (the hyphen is his) in a more analytical tone than elsewhere in the book. The analysis has been present all the way through, but by the end he really goes for it and speaks more directly to us through the page.
One of our three characters, a barmaid called Ella, reports to a posh house in Chiswick after hearing there might be a job for her as a nanny. It’s still a job but it’s well paid and she’s always wanted to work with children; it would also take her to India, which she finds exciting. She sees the prospect as an escape. First though, she must get to the interview:
It is in nearly all cases impossible for servants, or wage-slaves of any kind, to seek happier conditions free of charge, and the heavy tax of eightpence (fourpence there and back) was exacted by the Underground railway on her way to N. W. 3.
I’ve had similar experiences of fury. When you don’t have a lot of money, it really stings to invest some of it in simply having a chance at finding work. Which, of course, you don’t really want anyway.
When she finds the house of her prospective employers, she is almost too frightened to go in:
She found Number Five but was now in such a state of fright that she had to walk on a little way to collect herself–an affliction of the nerves common to wage-slaves, with only their labour power to sell, and the consciousness and their insignificance and powerlessness before their aloof and comfortable masters.
And when she rings the bell, a maid comes to the door. A house maid, one might imagine, would share a sense of solidarity with a barmaid but instead she is suspicious of Ella’s presence on the doorstep:
Hidden rivalry and circumspection, rather than fellow-feeling, most often exists between wage-slaves such as these, possibly because their sensitiveness to the dangerous surplus of willing wage-slaves on the market, and possibly because certain fortunate wage-slaves come to acquire some of the aloof and clannish airs of their lords above.
The interview doesn’t go very well. In fact, the lady of the house is more interested in the antics of her dog (“Bustah! Bustah! Get down, Bustah!”) than taking the opportunity that had been dangled before Ella in any way seriously.
It is a book of great insight, I think, into the life of wage slaves. To the library! You know, when they reopen next month.