Category Archives: The Working World

Idle is the New Ambitious

Scribblerist is a Senior Fellow at the Ida May Gurkis Institute for Idleness. He has not published since 1983. [Note: Originally posted on One City]

For graduation last year I was given Tom Hodgkinson’s How to Be Idle, a somewhat-revolutionary, pseudo-intellectual, rather-Marxist treatise on idling, creativity, and how to live life. My friend bought it for me because, he claimed, “you kinda look like the guy on the cover.” Translation: you’re the type to hob-nob at cafes, chatting about whatnot, procrastinating that novel you’re endlessly writing about Small Town America. He was, of course, dead on.

In the frenetic haze of post-graduate life, How to Be Idle was tonic. It often gave me that particular sensation that comes only from reading a good book, the feeling that “this book gets me.” I’ve zealously defended my idleness ever since.

At it’s core, How to Be Idle is a critique of capitalism in Western societies (what I heard Thom Yorke refer to as “Advanced Capitalism,” which made it sound like some kind of terminal illness that had nearly run it’s course). Hodgkinson is saying: industrialization came along and robbed us of leisure time, and all our various and sundry problems with stress, obesity, depression, and lack of agency could be solved with a little idling. Work, particularly in an urban office, is de-humanizing drudgery and should be avoided. We are so caught up in acquiring, scheduling, meeting, climbing, envying, and wanting that we have forgotten the art of simply doing nothing.

In fact, idling enables you to accomplish fewer things better, with a greater sense of reward because you have time to enjoy the doing of the thing. Dear recent and striving graduates: Idle is the new ambitious.

In an interview with Mother Jones, Hodgkinson lays out the basic tenants of his philosophy of non-doing, and I highly recommend it. He says:

MJ: When I first picked up the How To Be Idle I thought it was a self-help book, which in a way it is–but it’s actually more of a social commentary and a look at the history of overwork.

TH: I gave it that title slightly deliberately because it sounded more commercial. I didn’t want to call it A Disquisition on the Benefits of Idleness. The title How to be Idle, as you say, is self-help, but it’s a slightly satirizing self-help. The self-help thing always seems to be something like, “Ten Ways to be More Efficient,” and it’s so depressing. I used to try to do those things, and could never remember what the ten ways are. A lot of that adds to your pressures: now there’s a whole new set of rules you’ve got to try to remember and live up to.

MJ: Can you offer some practical first steps on how to be idle?

TH: Part of this individualism is you feel this pressure that you alone have to conquer the world, and if you don’t work all the hours God gives then you start feeling really guilty. If you can stop feeling guilty, then I think it’s easier to start doing what you want to do. The way to stop feeling guilty is to read stuff–I’m not saying my book, but works by Bertrand Russell or Oscar Wilde, people who weren’t losers but who didn’t believe in the work ethic, and argued this thing about guilt or wrote philosophy about idleness.

And I like his vision for an idle society:

TH: Hopefully it would be full of people bicycling along the streets and whistling and raising their hats to each other [laughs]. Going for long walks in the countryside, and mucking about each day. What would it take for that to happen?

It struck me that Hodgkinson’s thoughts on idling dovetail nicely with the hoped-for consequences of Buddhist meditation, if not the actual method. Idling is a gateway to a restful mind, where inspiration has space to arise naturally; Strolling in the park lends a connection to the natural world; sleeping in and waking slowly sets the tone for a calm day; free time lets you become involved in local politics or activism; myriad simple pleasures, instead of material or chemical stimulants, become paramount.

I’m taking up Hodgkinson’s banner. I urge you all to quit your jobs (or take a day off), spend a week in bed (or sleep late on Saturday), and devote yourself a simple art, such as playing the lute (or stay in tonight and cook dinner with your partner instead of seeing another big-budget Hollywood Suck-a-Thon).

Opportunities for idleness are all around – you just have to stop and take notice.

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Shoelace

This was written for OneCity, blog of the Interdependence Project NYC

I’ve watched my shoelace get progressively shorter. The lace in question is attached to the right-side partner of a pair of black leather Kenneth Coles known as my Work Shoes (formerly, my Interview Shoes and before that, my Dress Shoes). I’ve had this pair of Coles since I was 16 and they’re scuffed on the sides and top, deeply creased where my toes bend when I walk, and the heels are worn in the particular groove of a moderate over-pronator.

“See?” said my podiatrist during my last visit, holding the left shoe closer to his face. “History of moderate over-pronation,” he concluded, like paleontologist inspecting a fossilized egg.

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“You’re going to need orthodics,” he said. I frowned.

“Are those expensive?”

In addition to over-pronation and an inclination towards shin splints (immediate and immobilizing), my feet smell like a rice paddy when wet. I am also a vigorous shoe-tier. I tie my shoes with authority, like an actor in a play trying to convey a powerful inner disposition. I yank and pull and wrench. That long, floppy lace is made my bitch, again and again. And usually it’s fine – sneaker and boot laces are tough and designed to take abuse.

This one, however, wasn’t built for punishment. The Kenneth C’s themselves are nice. Once, a tailor who was measuring me for a pair of slacks noticed them and exclaimed, “Oh! Italian?” I told him they were not and he shook his head in wonderment and said, “very nice.” Having no sense of fashion in men’s dress shoes, I came away thinking, “They must really be nice.”

I started my current job last June (type: Office/corporate, law-related, requiring education but not intelligence). The rules demand that I be clad in “Business Casual” attire at all times, so my Interview Shoes came in to heavy rotation as my Work Shoes. My first day of work, I sat down in my kitchen, full of English muffins and morning light a-streaming, and commenced tying. Leftie went fine. Switch to Rightie and SNAP. With the first tug, I broke the thin leather lace nearly in half. No time, I thought. First day. Go. Using a ball point pen for precision, I re-threaded and took off.

Six months on, the nubby, frazzled remains of my right shoelace have come to embody my attitude towards my job, and work in general. I’ve broken it twice more, and each time I move down one eyelet and re-thread, thinking, “I’ll replace it over the weekend.” Well, I’m down to the last eyelet. If I try to walk to the coffee room too fast, or skip to catch an elevator, the shoe flaps on and off my heel like a percussive jaw: fwop – fwop – fwop. It really is time to replace it, but I know I won’t until it snaps again and disintegrates, like a tiny leather spaghetti noodle in the wind. On that day, I’ll leave my desk and head downstairs in search of a replacement lace, dragging Rightie behind me like a club foot so he doesn’t come off. If someone asks me what’s wrong, I’ll smile ruefully and say, “Oh, nothing,” all the while thinking, You were tough, little one. We had a good run.

Shenanigans

The Scribblerist, Inc. has intercepted an intraoffice memo (with all names and identifiable details redacted) indicating the existence a secret brotherhood of destruction in his place of work. The sinister communique is posted here in it’s entirety.

It must be noted that the memo, while reeking of evil, has a certain stylistic flair.

Operation Retribution

every day a little death.

so at various points throughout my liberal arts education – always scrambling to read a million pages in this book, meet with that group for a presentation or complete that paper- i would often think of a life not bogged down with the rigors of classes. in my mind it was sort of like summer break but longer. and it would be time in which i could read and think on my own. i would read all of those social science books that looked interesting but i never had time for, a real almost sort of renaissance experience. most of the time at school it felt like i was holding down a nine to five job (four days a week) with the lovely addition of assignments when i got done. in my mind there was an equation that went something like this, working nine to five would keep the same hours of class but eliminate the homework. so more time would be mine.

recently i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a graduation speech by david foster wallace at kenyon college. [which was originally published in here] there are a lot of things i like about the speech but this is the part i’ve been thinking about the most.

“And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.

it’s true. of course i realize now, two months into a boring dead end nine to five job i took for no other reason than making money to pay bills – i had it backwards all along. thinking all day long as your job breeds more thought. while doing mindless tasks all day breeds a sort of banal mindlessness you have to spend your time fighting.

and that equation? part of it is true – and it’s the part i like and makes the other part worthwhile – is that the time not between the hours of nine and five is my time. completely and utterly. nothing from this office comes home with me ever. that means i have a lot of fun, doing what i always wanted to do – living in a cultural capital. to date i’ve gone to readings, shows and a hodgepodge of other events. i get to read what i want, so for the first time i am gorging myself on fiction of my own choosing. fiction which while in school seemed like too much of a luxury can now fill those long subway ride commutes.

of course there is a boring day in and day out quality to a lot of these days. sometimes i feel like i am home for two minutes before i need to go to bed, get up and do it again the next day. fitting time in during the week to run errands, especially as it gets darker earlier is not fun. which means going on the weekends, when the place is packed with parents and children doing the exact same thing. attempting to get cable / internet set up for example, is a huge undertaking of scheduling.

the subject of this post refers to the sondheim song of the same name, every day there is a little death, which i had never factored into my mental equation. i also now see my movies like office space get made and are so well received. it’s also not a good sign when parts of “the office” no longer seem like irony and seem instead to hit a little close to home. turns out you’ve got to think or the death side will slowly win and you will find yourself a living dilbert cartoon. truly a fate worse than death.

-S. Becque

New York City Public Transportation: A Daily Hell

I take the L train from Williamsburg/Bushwick to Manhattan every day, and today the commute was a small hell. It started off Ok – I got my third favorite position, leaning against one of the two poles in the center-most vestibules of the car, the smooth, matte steel cold against the space between my shoulder blades. I adopted my heavy-lidded, unconcerned Subway Demeanor and listened to “Equus” by Blonde Redhead and “Recently” (live) by the Dave Matthews Band. “Recently” opens with Matthews singing, “Sunlight on my shoulders makes me happy/ Sunlight almost always makes me high.” I tried, as Mitch Hedberg says, “to force the trip” and transport myself to a bright, grassy place where the sun warms my shoulders. It did not work.

Three stops after mine, the train was filling up. Four stops, and riders were packed like sardines in a large and fast-moving aluminum can. Five stops, and the human crush reached critical mass and the entire state of New York was consumed by a vengeful black hole. Hipsters at the Bedford stop pushed, squeezed, pried, hammered, wriggled, and climbed in to spaces that didn’t exist. A small Latino gentleman was eaten to make more room. I found myself facing the smooth metal pole, nose nearly touching it, left hand grasping the pole at neck level, unable to move my right arm to change the song on my Ipod Shuffle. I had to endure “Human Touch” by Bruce Springsteen (Good song, I just wasn’t in the mood), and various plunkings by Townes Van Zandt. I was beginning to feel a little panicked.

On a packed subway car, bodies cease to be discrete and begin to move as one organism. When there is a jolt or sudden deceleration, everyone heaves like a rolling wave. If you cut out one side of the car, replaced it with a glass wall, and viewed it from the side, it would look like one of those desktop wave-making water tables that you can buy at a museum gift shop.

All manner of unintentional sensory exchange happens on a densely crowded train. Smelly people (and in the summer, pretty much everyone) coat you with stink. A teenager with cheap headphones shares a maddeningly repetitious Caribbean hip-hop beat with the whole car – dunk dada dunk dada dunk. The worst, however, is the touching. This morning, I was pressed up against four things, representing the four cardinal directions: to the north, a balding hipster reading something in French. To the south and east, girls with their backs to me, wearing backpacks and messenger bags. To the west was a sprite of a woman reading Johnathan Safran Foer. She was smallish – perhaps 5′ 5″ with brown hair the texture of half-wet pasta. I couldn’t see her face. She was pushed up against my side by the press of people near the door, the inner face of her left leg against my outer thigh.

The minutes passed. The train stalled. The automated voice warned us to “please alert the police or MTA official in the event of an emergency.” This is about to be a goddamn emergency, I thought. If someone sneezes, this car is gonna explode. I began to feel something warm against my leg. At first, I thought it was just cumulative human energy, but I could feel it – my left leg wasn’t just warm, it was hot. I looked down – pasta hair woman, bent over her book, was placing some of her weight on me. I was suddenly alert, my sleepy, cool attitude gone. What is this, I thought. Is this a Senator Larry Craig situation and I’m not aware of it? Admittedly, it’s sad that the first scenario that came to mind was, “Am I being solicited for sexual acts?” But I’m single. These things happen.

My next thought was, how can she not notice this? The heat our legs was generating could have melted cheese. She was, essentially, straddling my leg. Casually, of course, but the contact was tight, down to the level on which atoms are exchanged. The heat, the touching, the beautifulness of my leg: I’m pretty sure I was vaguely molested this morning.

At Union Square, the crowd disembarked. Pasta Hair went her way, and I mine. I had wanted to see her face, to try and gauge her potential as a molester, but I couldn’t. I was, as Anthony Lane put it in a recent review, “feeling spooked and sullied,” and still a little bewildered. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just missed some social subtlety.

Whatever the case, Attention perverts: if you’re not getting enough public feelies in your repressive Midwestern town, the L train at 9:15 is the place for you.

New York is a city of grand cultural institutions and unlimited human energy, but as mornings like this one remind me: it is a bitch of a place to live.

Work = Drugs

“Work is like heroin – It kills brain cells and you go back to it every day.”

Finer Lessons of Law

Attorney 1: Blah blah blah blah

Attorney 2: Blah blah blah blah

1: Ha ha ha

2: Ha ha ha

1: Blah deal blah blah money

2: Deal blah blah money

1: Blah blah

2: Right, but is the language vague enough? I mean, we don’t want them to understand what we’re saying…

1: Ah, well…

2: Blah blah

1: Blah blah

2: Money power blah

1: Blah blah Power money

2: Ha ha ha

1: Ha