On Workism

Derek Thompson’s Atlantic essay “The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable” deserves widespread discussion around dinner tables; and in churches; synagogues; and heaven for bid, workplaces.

It’s hard to excerpt from because the whole thing deserves a close reading. In particular, the conclusion is strong:

“Workism offers a perilous trade-off. On the one hand, Americans’ high regard for hard work may be responsible for its special place in world history and its reputation as the global capital of start-up success. A culture that worships the pursuit of extreme success will likely produce some of it. But extreme success is a falsifiable god, which rejects the vast majority of its worshippers. Our jobs were never meant to shoulder the burdens of a faith, and they are buckling under the weight. A staggering 87 percent of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup. That number is rising by the year.

One solution to this epidemic of disengagement would be to make work less awful. But maybe the better prescription is to make work less central.

This can start with public policy. There is new enthusiasm for universal policies—like universal basic income, parental leave, subsidized child care, and a child allowance—which would make long working hours less necessary for all Americans. These changes alone might not be enough to reduce Americans’ devotion to work for work’s sake, since it’s the rich who are most devoted. But they would spare the vast majority of the public from the pathological workaholism that grips today’s elites, and perhaps create a bottom-up movement to displace work as the centerpiece of the secular American identity.”

Insightful and important, but incomplete. Thompson misses the sociological nature of workism. He implies well compensated Americans are consciously choosing to work to the point of exhaustion, but the dynamic is far more complex. More of a sociological sensibility is needed to understand two things: 1) the subtle and nuanced way status anxiety contributes to conspicuous consumption, and 2) how a few workaholics can create workplace cultures that lead others to haphazardly conform until a critical mass of pathological workaholism takes over.

Simply put, in some workplaces, you are not truly free to choose whether to make work the centerpiece of your identity or not. Your co-workers make the decision for you.

 

 

Do Yourself A Favor

And jumpstart 2019 with some Chinese fiction. Specifically, Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, translated by Canaan Morse. My first 2019 book, well technically a novella, but I need to round up because Eldest read 44 books in 2018, the Good Wife 20, and the Youngest is reading up a storm since devouring Becoming late last month. Hmm, I wonder if Eldest and Youngest gave me six months of HBO for Christmas to distract me from the printed page #dastardly.

A rising tide raises all boats, so as I try to hang with the fam on the book front, I’m falling further beyond on The New Yorker. Ever catching up is probably hopeless. I’m onto this now, but I digress.

Ge Fei is a Chinese Ian McEwan, who I really, really like. Wonderfully clear; whacked out characters; compelling, suspenseful storylines. It was like spending another few weeks in China.

The back of book overview:

New wealth blossoms in today’s Beijing because everyone is lying to everyone else. Friends use friends, relatives cheat each other, and businessmen steal from one and all. Superficiality is the standard, and Mr. Cui knows it—in fact, he is drowning in it. The rich clients who buy his exquisite custom sound systems know nothing about music; his sister’s family is trying to trick him out of her unused apartment; his best friend takes advantage of and looks down on him. Desperate to escape this poisonous hypocrisy, the quiet artisan stakes his future on a job for a wealthy yet mysterious client who wants “the best sound system in the world.” This man, who has a mansion and an air of thinly concealed brutality, will drag Mr. Cui to the precipice of a new yet dangerous future.”

A central concept is connoisseurship. Unless it’s paired with arrogance, I always enjoy being in the presence of connoisseurs like Mr. Cui, an expert on high end sound systems. At one point, Cui secures a pair of the world’s nicest speakers, but he doesn’t tell his wife:

“Nor did I ever reveal their real value to Yufen. One day I came home from a delivery to find Yufen cleaning the speaker boxes with a goddam steel wood scrubber and White Cat disinfectant. She scrubbed hard to make them ‘look a little newer,’ and even put a huge fucking flowerpot on top of the each box. I almost fainted.”

More on the speakers:

“To keep the speakers in good working order and prevent the sound from deteriorating into fuzziness, I warmed them up once every two weeks or so, usually during the quite hours of the night. I’d pull out a recording of an Italian string quartet’s rendition of Mozart ( my favorite composer to this day), or Walter Gieseking playing Ravel or Debussy, and listen to it as a low volume for a couple hours. I knew that the technical specs of my own system kept the speakers from producing the best sound. But it was like seeing a young, beautiful woman right after she wakes in the morning, face fresh and unwashed, free of make-up. It felt more than enough. I could sense her understated elegance, her every gesture, her intoxicating allure.”

Damn, not all analogies are created equal yo.

Also, Cui’s takedown of self-important professors is LOL funny:

“. . . They seem incapable of doing anything but complaining. If the number of mosquitoes dropped one summer, they’d say, My God, the world’s gotten so bad even the mosquitoes can’t adapt. And if the mosquito population boomed, they’d say, Shit, it looks like only mosquitoes can thrive in this world.”

I should stop writing, and start reading, otherwise I’ll be mired in fourth place at year’s end.

 

 

 

The Humanities Are Not Dead

In recent years the humanities have been the Phoenix Suns; the Miami Marlins; the Arizona Cardinals; the Theresa May; the Sears, Roebuck, and Company, of the academy.

Science sexy. Technology steamy. Data analysis super hot. Religion, art history, English literature, philosophy, decidedly unsexy.

Partially due to the escalating costs of a university education, “What is the ROI—return on investment?” has replaced universal questions about the purposes of life and a life well lived that are the lifeblood of the humanities.

That is the context in which I read this Kara Swisher New York Times commentary titled “Is This the End of the Age of Apple?

Swisher touches upon Apple’s recent struggles and asks:

“Where is the next great boom of innovation going to come from, when even the strongest brands and products might not be sure things anymore?”

She contends:

“Now all of tech is seeking the next major platform and area of growth. Will it be virtual and augmented reality, or perhaps self-driving cars? Artificial intelligence, robotics, cryptocurrency or digital health? We are stumbling in the dark.”

She concludes by imploring:

“We need the next wave of innovation, and we need it now.”

Only if we concede to our President that everything is transactional and deem the humanities completely irrelevant, should we conclude we’re stumbling in the dark because a high profile technology company is struggling. As I write, Swisher has inspired 1,105 comments.

Dig the top rated one, as determined by New York Times readers, by “Childofsol” who resides in Alaska:

“No. What we definitely do not need is more technological innovation in the world of things. How about this: What would truly be innovative, is to develop an economy that isn’t based on endless growth and the mindless consumption that endless growth entails. We need to become a country that values its citizens, as evidenced by clean air and water, the right to health care, and the right to retirement security. A culture which reverses its headlong rush into ever-faster everything, and celebrates the art of living in harmony with the environment which supports us. That’s the kind of innovation we could use more of.”

Or the silver medal comment by “Berk” in Northern California:

“’Where is that next spark that will light us all up?’” A fantastic, memorable vacation? A good story? A great meal with friends? A walk in the woods on a crisp fall day? Experiences, not things.”

All of the top rated comments are similar. Clearly, if we can generalize from New York Times readers even a little, there’s serious skepticism about mindless technology. And a longing for some semblance of balance where the humanities rise from the mat before the quants hurriedly count to eight and declare a technical knockout.

That is heartening.

 

 

Cautiousness Is Costly

After spending Saturday morning exercising, I rallied when the family proposed a hike in Olympia’s Watershed Park, a beautiful 1.4 mile trail in the heart of a dense, fern-filled Pacific Northwest forest.

By the time we began, daylight was fading into dusk. In a steady rainfall we began our clockwise loop. A few minutes later, a young athletic woman materialized in front of us, maybe 18 to 20 years young, hair wet, holding her phone, listening to music. Her warm smile suggested this was a better than average run. Fifteen minutes later, she reappeared. Impressed, I said, “Man, you are really getting after it.” “Yeah,” she acknowledged, smiling even more exuberantly.

The Good Wife, Eldest, Youngest, her, and I all got to our parked cars at the same time. She split before I could thank her.

I would’ve liked to thank her for daring to be different. Or more simply for being daring. A lot of people, scratch that, nearly everyone, would say she was crazy to be running alone, near dusk, in the rain, in a park where a person or two have been accosted previously. By focusing on the one or two tragic episodes over the last 10-20 years, people would forget that in between, thousands of runners have joyously run the 1.4 mile loop unscathed.

Our semi-dark, rain drenched hike was great fun, but based on her radiant smile, I bet her run was even more exhilarating. One she’ll remember fondly.

Close in age to my daughters, I thought to myself, what would I think if I was her dad or if my daughters chose to run alone in Watershed at dusk in a steady rain. I would’ve felt better if she had a friend or dog with her and told me her plan, but I’d much rather her (and them) error on the side of running alone in the elements, than not.

Why? Because when we try eliminating risk from our lives, we’re not really living. We’re most safe when sitting on our sofas, but if we spend too much time on our sofas out of fear of what could go wrong if we venture outside, we forego adventures, new friendships, and positive memories of having successfully taken calculated risks alone or with others.

Calculated risks like running in Watershed in a steady rain, in the almost dark. Negotiating the rolling hills, the wet footing. Celebrating being of healthy mind and spirit. Of overcoming fear. Of being alive.

Thank you for reading some of what I wrote this year. My hope for 2019 is that we live a little (or a lot) less cautiously. Happy New Year or is it New Years?

 

What Does Downtown Olympia’s Future Hold?

This could make a compelling documentary film.

Saturday night I attended an interesting five-person panel discussion at downtown Olympia’s hippy theater, a 94 year old building that shows independent movies, about the importance of cultural spaces in our fair city. The panelists were artists who spoke eloquently on the importance of the arts. One lived downtown and most worked there.

As an academic, it was glorious listening to one person after another actually honor their five minute time frame. Collectively, they stimulated my thinking not just about the arts, but about economic inequality, downtown development, and the future of these (dis)United States.

Here’s the conundrum. Olympia has long had a vibrant arts scene encompassing live music, allegedly more theatre seats per capita than any other 40,000 person city, murals galore, a vibrant farmers’ market, and well attended public art events. Many downtown buildings are historic, which the panelists all described as wonderfully unique and relatively affordable for artists to live and/or work in. The unique, historic, funky buildings they argued, are the very essence of downtown.

But lots of other more politically and socially conservative people in the surrounding burbs would describe the exact same buildings as run-down, gritty, and in need of serious investment. Some think downtown is too far gone, even unsafe, and avoid it altogether.

It was refreshing that downtown’s growing homeless population wasn’t mentioned once since it tends to dominate any discussion of downtown, but it’s one of the most common reasons some have soured on it. The focus was on low-income artists and others, but at some point obviously, the discussion has to expand to include the fate of the no-income walking wounded.

Meanwhile, in keeping with free-market capitalism, deep pocket developers eye downtown as a place to make money by flipping ancient, crumbling buildings that are too expensive to maintain. In some cases, by knocking them down and starting over, which of course enrages the art community and others of modest means. Shiny modern buildings mean higher rents, meaning low-income artists are priced out.

There are no easy answers on how best to move forward. The only thing I know for sure, the more voices that are heard before buildings are razed and rebuilt, the better. Make no mistake though, those voices will be wildly divergent.

I’m conflicted. Take the hippy, Capital Theater, as a point of reference. When a panelist “preached to the choir” by saying, “I’d much rather attend a movie at this theater than a neighboring multiplex,” the crowd applauded lustily. But all I could think was “I’d much rather attend a movie at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma, than at the Capital Theater.” Why? Because at the Grand Cinema (prices $8 matinee, $10.50 general; versus $8 and $9) I’m unlikely to tear my jeans on the springs in the seats as a Swedish friend of ours once did. And damn they’re uncomfortable.

Admittedly, I have a different sense of aesthetics than the typical Capital Theater member who is much younger than me and may live in a dorm with three other people at Evergreen State College. I appreciate historic, artistic, funky elements in buildings and downtowns, but I also like sitting in comfortable seats and not having to hope my timing is right for the one toilet.

Furthermore, new buildings, like new cars these days, are far safer. The future will bring tidal flooding and a major earthquake to downtown Olympia. Also, new buildings, like new home appliances these days, are also far more energy efficient. When well built, they also require far less maintenance, but even those cost savings aren’t enough to offset the land and building costs, which developers of course pass on to renters and/or customers.

There has to be a middle ground, I’m just not sure what it is. I do not think adding taxes to existing building regulations is politically viable, but could there be economic incentives for retrofitting and markedly improving old buildings instead of knocking them down? And what about a 1% add-on to require new building projects to include public art?

Ultimately, I suppose, the fate of downtown Olympia, and others, will come down to who is most successful in persuading the City Council to adopt modern building policies that somehow incorporate genuine respect for the city’s past. Even that though, won’t adequately address the concerns of downtown’s low-income residents.

 

 

Thursday Assorted Links

1. The New York Times Bombshell That Bombed.

“And what the NYT can still do to find an audience for its Trump tax story.”

This blows. I was hoping he’d have been fined $400-500m dollars and impeached by now. Maybe some jail time for good measure.

2. Can’t help but wonder if the bombshell bombed because people have been distracted by what Tay is up to. I got you. Taylor Swift Succumbs to Competitive Wokeness. Wokeness a future Olympic event? How might one begin training?

3. We Slow as We Age, but May Not Need to Slow Too Much. Finally, some good news. Footnote. Last Thanksgiving I ran my first marathon in a long time. My time was only 5 minutes slower than my personal record from a decade earlier. Probably my greatest athletic performance ever. A legend in my own mind.

4. Amsterdam’s Plea to Tourists: Visit, But Please Behave Yourself. The problem of “overtourism”. Based upon the pictures, I will pass.

“Sometime it is as simple as tourists not realizing that real people live here.”

Reminds me of signs I see in a nearby neighborhood I cycle through regularly. “Drive like your kids live here.”

Bonus.

Tuesday Assorted Links

1. Knicks fan sells fanhood for $3,450, now will root for Lakers. Genius. Wonder what I could get for my lapsed Sonic fanhood. $3.45? Speaking of Spike Lee, I’m giving the Blackklansman an “A-“.

2. New logo and identity for the Library of Congress. And John Gruber, who takes his logos seriously, is not happy. At all.

“This new identity is a horrendous mistake. The old identity was perfect.

The new identity doesn’t look bad in and of itself, per se, but it doesn’t fit the Library of Congress in any way. The Library of Congress is majestic, historic, dignified, authoritative. A new or tweaked identity for the Library of Congress should be for the ages, something designed to last for a century or longer. This feels like an identity that will last 10 years. I love orange and black as a color scheme, but why in the world would you choose those colors for the United States Library of Congress? Why is the word “Library” used twice? Why do some of these marks break up the word “Library” at utterly random points making it unreadable? The ones that break it up as “LIBR-Library of Congress-ARY” look like a logo for the Long Island Railroad.

This is all so wrong it breaks my heart.”

3. What’s It’s Like to Shop After Not Shopping for Two Years.

“The most common mistake was that I used to buy things for a more aspirational version of myself, but then never used them because the real me didn’t want to. In waiting to feel the need for an object, I know it’s something worth buying—and when I have the money, the real me buys it and uses it. There are no justifications and no shame. I just buy it and use it.”

I’m a Cait Flanders fan.

Weirdly, just lately, in my advanced age, I started drinking asundry espresso drinks at asundry local coffee shops a few mornings a week after swimming or running. My sissy is disgusted with my frivolous spending, and I can’t live with the shame, so I’ve begun shopping for an espresso machine only to learn that’s the world’s largest rabbit hole. Oh, you gotta have a grinder? Not just any grinder, but a particularly good one. And every machine has serious trade-offs. Long story short, I’ve spent an embarrassing number of hours the last week watching YouTube reviews as I try to declare my independence from our local coffee shops. Hours I’ll never get back. Talk about frivolity. I wonder what Cait would charge for an hour of therapy. I could even bring the espresso. . . eventually.

4. Make America Great Again.