[Surfside] Daydream Believer, a loafer's manifesto

Paul Makepeace bookmarks@paulm.com
Mon, 19 Nov 2001 04:06:24 -0800


Daydream Believer 

A loafer's manifesto 

By Bob Jacobson 

Industrious people create industry. 
Lazy people create civilization. 
                            --Hideo Nakamura 

Hard work never killed anybody, 
but why take the chance? 
                            --Edgar Bergen 

It only took me about two hours of membership in that
not-very-exclusive club we call the American Workforce to realize that
my participation would forever be grudging at best. For a long time I
thought something must be wrong with me. Other people seemed to enjoy
working hard, if not at a job, then at some hobby or artistic endeavor.
I enjoyed nothing of the sort. I liked to loaf.

Over the years I've seen my friends--the same gang among whom it was
once a badge of honor to work for only a few months out of each
year--mature and launch seemingly satisfying careers as writers,
teachers, psychologists, and computer gurus. Meanwhile I bounced in and
out of the labor force, out more than in, spending every loathsome
minute of "in" counting the number of pay periods left before I could
afford a few months of "out."

I now have two children and a mortgage to support, but I haven't
changed. I manage to pass myself off as a productive citizen, but I
work only because I am too stupid to have figured out a way to avoid it
without inflicting a guilt-inducing level of hardship on my family. In
fact, I am more convinced than ever that my anti work orientation is
utterly reasonable. Judge me harshly for that if you must. But at least
understand how one pathetic shmuck arrived at the conclusion that
idleness is a valid, perhaps even noble, lifestyle choice.

My journey began 21 years and nine months ago, when my brother's pal
Ira Handler got me my first job, busing tables at Irving's Delicatessen
in Southfield, Mich. I started after school on my 16th birthday. Part
of my job was to unload the dishwasher and carry the steaming-hot
dishes about 10 feet to the shelves on which they resided.

Alas, even this simple-sounding task was too much for my tender paws. I
fared no better at any of the other, less painful tasks I was assigned.
Bottom line: I was a bad buser. On day 2, Irving, a toxic little crust
of a man with white hair and a raspy Delancey Street voice, started
giving me grief. He called me "good for nothing." But he was wrong; I
knew I was good for plenty of things. It was just that none of them
happened to involve wiping up pools of pastrami grease or scraping crud
off a grill for less than minimum wage. I called in sick on day 3, and
never went back.

Irving's was only the first of perhaps a dozen jobs for which I have,
over the years, failed to show up on day 3, give or take a couple
weeks. I got through my college years hardly working at all except
during the summer. That income, along with a generous National Merit
Scholarship and a minor revenue-producing hobby or two, was sufficient
to enable me to squeeze by.

After college, the jobs started coming and going in rapid succession. I
lasted three full weeks as stock boy at a little party store called
Sgt. Pepper's. I stuck with my law-firm-messenger gig for four months,
after which I was rescued by some insurance money from an apartment
break-in. For a day and a half I did a plant-watering route that
included a major university hospital, a vegetarian restaurant, and a
porn shop. I inherited that job from a friend who was forced out for
being too smelly. Too smelly to water the plants at a smut shop.

Many job fiascos later, it's clear that work and me are a bad fit.
And it's not just jobs; I don't even like working at leisure most
of the time.

The problem is that our culture does not appreciate the things I truly
enjoy most in life, such as wandering around a city aimlessly, or
sitting on a comfortable piece of furniture and staring absently into
space--activities, if one can call them activities, that are of
absolutely no value to anybody in the world but me, unless you count
their value to the people who must interact with me. Usually they get
to interact with a slightly happier me when I have been allowed to be
sufficiently inert.

Our society is set up in a way that tries to make us feel bad for
enjoying inactivity. There is a pervasive notion that one should spend
one's precious time doing "useful" things, things that somehow benefit
society, as if my personal enjoyment of life is of no value to society.
Even when we are not working, we are supposed to be doing something
useful, like exercising or reading poetry or learning Swedish. We
slander a perfectly respectable animal species by naming a deadly sin
after it. And yet the sloth has been every bit as successful as Homo
sapiens from an evolutionary standpoint.

The job that finally broke the cycle for me was telepanhandling for the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Granted, it was a half-time job, and it
lasted only for half of each year, making it really only a quarter of a
job I guess, but it was a breakthrough nonetheless. The CSO Annual Fund
boiler room was populated by a fascinating mix of actors, musicians,
and other weirdoes and misfits. My favorite misfit was Tom Harris, a
lovable, African-American narcoleptic who worked the phone clad in
threadbare, mismatched suits and wide polyester ties. Tom was
brilliant, possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music.
But as a fundraiser he was totally inept. He would fall asleep in

I, on the other hand, turned out to be pretty good at cajoling
Chitown's cultural elite into whipping out their Visa card in the name
of the Three B's. It was a nice ride for a while, but the thought
eventually sank in that I had spent the last three years kissing rich
people's butts for a living. Thus my seasons of symphonic solicitation
came to an end.

By then I had figured out that I could get people to pay me for
writing. The thing about writing for money is that there is an inverse
relationship between compensation and enjoyment--the more interesting
the work, the less you get paid. Earning a living writing fun,
creative stuff is quite rare. I could support myself because I was
willing to write, for example, a blistering overview of the wood
pallet industry, and instructor's guides for a number of courses on
restaurant management. That willingness allowed me to avoid actual
employment for another five years or so, and while writing freelance
actually does entail a certain amount of labor, it still beats the
hell out of having a job.

I actually believe that many more Americans than let on secretly share
my distaste for work. They can sense that the American Dream of getting
so rich they no longer have to work is a hallucination. It is almost
impossible to achieve it through hard work alone. They believe instead
in a version of the Dream that requires outsmarting work by going for
the big kill. You can see that Dream being chased in casinos, in the
slush piles of publishing houses, in the overflowing file cabinets of
the patent office, and in classifieds sections thickened by omnipresent
ads for multilevel marketing schemes and
make-millions-working-at-home-in-your-spare-time scams. We are as much
a nation of disappointed dreamers as of optimistic laborers. You can't
really blame people for dreaming big. The problem with big dreams, of
course, is that when you eventually wake up, you're still in the same
grubby little bed you fell asleep in; the bigger the dream, the littler
and grubbier the bed seems in the morning.

Realistically, the decision to forego work must be made independently
of any attachment to material comfort. It is a decision that must be
made from the soul. Being idle means being willing to live with two
separate categories of unpleasantness: the unpleasantness of being
broke all the time and therefore unable to buy things you want; and the
unpleasantness of public opinion, of people calling you a lazy shit, of
people telling you to get a life. But public opinion has it backwards;
the people who really need to get a life are those who have no life
because they are wasting theirs slaving away at some inane job that
they detest but will not admit it.

There finally came a day not so many years ago when, largely owing to
the idiotic way we finance health care in this country, I had to bite
the bullet and get a regular, professional-type job. I found myself,
irony of ironies, employed in a position that involved editing a
twice-monthly publication all about employment. One of my tasks was to
review books about how to get a job. I became quite well-read on the
topics of job-hunting and career navigation. Most of these books
contained a certain amount of useful technical information, like how
to format your résumé and what kinds of questions to expect in an
interview. Beyond that, many employment book authors seem to put a lot
of stock in the notion that the real key to career success is finding
the job you were meant to do. This
"Do-What-You-Love-and-Let-the-Money-Take-Care-of-Itself" school can be
annoyingly New Agey at times. They would have you believe that some
folks have "insurance adjustor" or "phlebotomist" woven into the
fabric of their soul. How sad, as I wrote in one of those reviews,
that innocent soybeans had to die for the ink used to print those
ridiculous volumes.

I have a friend who, two years ago, had a job that paid exactly the
same salary as mine. There were, however, two major differences between
his job and mine. One was that he worked for the state, so he had
really good benefits while mine sucked. The other was that he didn't
have to do anything. He could just sit around all day and surf the Web
if he wanted to, or do crossword puzzles, or read cheap westerns.

Other than the fact that my friend had to actually show up to not work,
his job was my idea of the American Dream, or close to it. But my
friend was miserable, because he thought he should be doing something
useful. He and another friend of his got the idea to write a book
called Not Working, which would be a spoof on Studs Terkel's famous
opus Working. It would consist of a bunch of people's accounts of the
no-work jobs they have held. Naturally, they never got around to
writing the book. My friend has since changed jobs and is, I presume,
much happier for it.

As it happens, my friend is married to a labor economist. She will tell
you that workers have been getting shafted for years. At the dawn of
the industrial age, the masses were led to believe that they would be
the beneficiaries of the increased productivity that technology was
bringing to the work process. Socialist types tended to envision a
society in which people worked a lot less, and were free to spend the
rest of their time enriching their lives through cultural endeavors, or
quaffing ale, or screwing, or whatever. The idea is that since it takes
only half as many hours to produce a widget as it used to, the other,
newly liberated half of that erstwhile widget-making time belongs to
the worker.

Our pinko friends would seem to be implying that nobody in his right
mind would choose to work more than he had to.

Sadly, the owning class has elected not to cooperate with this little
fantasy. They have, if I may continue to wax slightly Marxist for just
another moment, stolen all that newly created productivity from us
working stiffs. Thus the income of workers has actually shrunk over the
last few decades in spite of all that spiffy new machinery. I say,
therefore, that having a job that entails lots of loafing really just
represents the workers taking back a little bit of what has been stolen
from them. I would argue that under the right circumstances, getting
paid to not work is not only defensible and desirable, but gosh darn
it, it's the right thing to do.

Hating work is hardly a new idea. In fact, for most of history people
have understood that work is difficult and degrading. It wasn't until
the Protestant Reformation that anybody thought to design an ethic
around work. Even since then, my attitude puts me in some pretty heady
historical company. Some of our brainiest geniuses and wittiest wags
have been closet layabouts. Mark Twain, for example, staked out a
fairly extreme position when he wrote: "I do not like work, even when
someone else does it."

Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, tended to waffle on the matter.
Franklin's alter ego Poor Richard preached an
"early-to-bed-early-to-rise" brand of industriousness, but Ben didn't
really buy it, admitting: "I am the laziest man in the world. I
invented all those things to save myself from toil." In other words, he
avoided a life of print shop drudgery by dreaming up bifocals. Perhaps
the most influential slack enthusiast was the multitalented Bertrand
Russell, whose 1932 essay "In Praise of Idleness" was published at a
time when thousands of Americans had idleness thrust upon them by cold
economic reality. Russell wrote:

"I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that
immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that
what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite
different from what always has been preached. . . . The road to
happiness and prosperity lies in the organised diminution of work."

Another intellectual giant who lobbied for lethargy was R. Buckminster
Fuller, of geodesic dome fame. Fuller, not surprisingly, had an
ecological take on work. As he explained in his visionary tome
Critical Path:

"History's political and economic power structures have always
abhorred 'idle people' as potential troublemakers. Yet nature never
abhors seemingly idle trees, grass, snails, coral reefs, and clouds
in the sky."

Fuller goes on to complain about the waste inherent in a society rife
with jobs that produce nothing of real value to the world.

"We find all the no-life-support-wealth-producing people . . . spending
trillions of dollars' worth of petroleum daily to get to their
no-wealth-producing jobs. It doesn't take a computer to tell you that
it will save both Universe and humanity trillions of dollars a day to
pay them handsomely to stay at home."

Too bad Bucky didn't stick around quite long enough to take part in the
debate over welfare reform.

Unfortunately, only a very lucky few actually get paid to loaf. Most
quality loafing must be done on a volunteer basis, as an act of
conscience. Sparsely populated areas of the country, including parts of
the northern Midwest, are crawling with folks who have opted out of the
conventional workaday world. Many of them have kids, but, unlike me,
have not let that little detail force their hands. For a lot of people,
an aversion to work is part of a broader lifestyle choice.

One can arrive at the decision to not work from several different
philosophical angles. A common one is the desire to live simply and in
harmony with the environment. The Midwestern countryside is dotted with
communities of people who grow their own food and make their own
clothes and don't have jobs. Some, including a cluster of homesteads in
the vicinity of Amherst, Wisc. (home of the Midwest Renewable Energy
Association), get their power by tapping the sun and milling the wind.
They know how to fix things when they break. They barter and invent
alternative economic structures, like co-ops and local currencies.

A similar dedication can be found among the black-helicopter crowd,
which values self-reliance above all else. A different set of skills is
required, but in many ways the choice stems from the same impulse: a
fundamental distaste for and consequent refusal to participate in a
political/economic system they perceive as being corrupt beyond repair;
a rejection of mainstream values, one of which is the good old
Protestant Work Ethic.

But make no mistake--avoiding employment by going "off the grid" is no
stroll in the park. There are photovoltaic cells to hook up and bunkers
to booby-trap. A truly work-averse individual, be he extremely green or
extremely olive-drab, would probably balk at the effort involved in
either undertaking.

I envy people who successfully pull off an intentional workforce
withdrawal, regardless of their motivation or political persuasion. For
me, the failure to concoct a work-free lifestyle is a big defeat. I
feel like a sellout and a coward. Sure, I still hold out hope that
someday I will figure out a way to end the misery, but it gets harder
to imagine with each home repair and dentist bill. In the meantime, a
fella can still dream, and calculate, and revel in the occasional
privilege of delivering that most exquisite phrase, "I quit."

As for Irving, my first employer, he eventually got nailed by the NLRB
for failing to shell out the overtime pay he owed his workers. A couple
years later, he developed a circulatory problem and had to have his leg
amputated. It's tempting to chalk his misfortune up to twisted fate or
poetic justice, but in the words of Bartleby, American literature's
most famous idler, "I would prefer not to."