20 May 2012

The weight of preventing boredom

My chap's choir are rehearsing today for a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on London's Southbank, which is fairly touristy spot on the river, lots to see and do. So I thought I'd go with him in the car in the early afternoon, rather than brave public transport later in the day, and spend the rehearsal time wandering around taking photos and peering in shop windows. However it's a grey, cold, windy London day, so I find myself perched at a table in the lobby of the Royal Festival Hall, where the wifi is strong and free and there's a café downstairs.

Earlier today, with the prospect of photos in mind, I was getting ready to leave the house and realised I'd been preparing for my afternoon of leisure since the week before. Last night I'd charged my camera battery and computer, decided on the netbook over the laptop, based on battery life, cleared the CF card for the camera and debated with camera bag to take - would I need both the wide angle and the 50mm lens? This morning I dug through several cupboards to find the Kensington lock to secure the laptop to a mooring hook in the boot of the car and decided the purchase of a lock box for the boot might be worthwhile.

Last week, I researched (in person, with a photo on my phone as proof) the parking arrangements at the venue (and found them satisfactory) and bought a last-minute ticket for the show online (singles only, up in the nose bleed seats) which I collected a couple of hours ago by swiping my credit card through a slot in a self-service ticket machine in the foyer.

In my rucksack right now, I have a netbook with mini-mouse and mat, DSLR camera with two lenses, iPod and Sennheiser earphones (the chunky kind), smart phone, wallet, notebook and pens and the April issue of the Fortean Times. All in the name of staving off boredom. I commented to my chap as we were leaving, my shoulder groaning under the weight of all this technology, that 15 years ago I would have taken a book and maybe a pad and pen.

Technology has provided me with so many options for staying occupied and connected that a pen and a book aren't enough any more. Of course I still HAVE a pen and a book, in case of no wifi, battery death or eyesight begging for forgiveness from bright screens. But it's unlikely that I'll use them when I have the kit to take high resolution photos, tweak up the colours and contrast from the featureless grey of the London sky and upload them to Facebook, with comments and tags,  so my mum in Australia can see how I've spent my Sunday. All within 30 minutes of taking them. I have my own music and thick earphones to protect me from the horrors of other people's conversations and a smart phone in case I don't want to crank up the netbook. All in the name of 'just in case'.

The concert starts in a couple of hours, so I'll go back to the car and secure the netbook and hide the camera bag in the boot as best I can, telling the niggling voice in my head that it will all be fine, our car doesn't look like it has anything valuable in it, there's CCTV and guards in the car park, which is brightly lit and hardly a spot for theft from cars. It's that, or lug it all with me into the theatre, into the toilets, tuck it under my seat and apologise to people trying to get past in the narrow space between rows. Between the netbook and the camera, there's £1,200 worth of gear sitting in the boot of our little car, obscured only by the vinyl boot cover, protected only by the locking mechanism on the car and a flimsy keylocked coated wire. If it was just a book and a pen I wouldn't even be thinking about it.

Is it worth it? I ask myself. I honestly don't know. Would I have taken the photos and uploaded them to Facebook TODAY had I not had the means to? They're not particularly interesting photos, and in the grey light, not even very good. My mum will probably like them, she likes most of the things I do, and I amused myself by tagging myself in a photo of the exterior of the hall - 'that's me, right now, right there!'. My chap has also posted a photo from inside the hall with his iPhone and I've commented with *waves*, as I can hear them rehearsing from where I'm sitting, so we're doing that coupley-Facebook thing that makes everyone a bit nauseous - us included.

Would I have had more value in a book and a pad and pen? I wrote this post sitting here, took some photos in less than ideal light and had a look over what my friends were posting on Facebook. I probably could have read an entire book in the time I've spent on tech today. Or written someone a letter. Or started that young adult novel series I've been promising I'd write.

Would that have been a more valid choice? Should I see posting photos on Facebook as 'connecting' with people? Should I have stayed home and Hoover'd? Does it really matter? Other people spent their afternoon at the football. Or watching TV. Or at the pub. Or weeding the garden. Or, in the case of people at other tables here, doing physics homework till that got boring and ended up watching rap videos on YouTube.

Choices aside, what I find really interesting about my own behaviour today is that I would rather haul over 10kgs of stuff around with me, fretting quietly about their safety when I leave them in the car, so I can take and edit photos and get online to write about them, then write about hauling 10kgs of stuff around to do just that. The clichéd part of my brain is humming with phrases like 'sign of the times', 'addicted to technology and validation', but the short answer is, I have the means to do this, so I am. Reading my book can wait for lunchtime tomorrow when I hide from the people I work with and letter writing can wait for those evenings I can't bear to look at a computer screen any more that day.

Taking photos today showed my friends and family on the other side of the planet what I'm seeing, in almost real time, and many of them will never see those things in person. Taking photos in bad light gives me another opportunity to learn about taking and edit photos and writing a blog post is always practice, even if it's as long and rambly as this one. But most of all, I enjoyed taking photos and writing this post. Which I think is the best validation of all.

18 Feb 2012

In defence of the souless commuter

Or why I wouldn't have stopped to listen to Joshua Bell play in the subway.​

Recently, a friend of mine reposted one of those Facebook/email stories stories about violin virtuoso Joshua Bell busking in the New York subway and how all but two people and a few small children ignored him. It was paraphrasing an article called 'Pearls Before Breakfast', a 'social experiment' engineered by Gene Weingarten and the Washington Post in 2007. Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Interestingly, his second Pulitzer was for a (very insightful and moving) article about the deaths of children left in their cars by forgetful parents - I suggest you read them both, not just for the quality of the writing, but also to understand the common point he is highlighting.

Most people I've heard react to the Bell story with 'oh yes, isn't it terrible how we just rush through life and don't enjoy the beauty, we must stop and smell the roses more often, it's so sad, we've become such automatons and slaves to the modern industrial world' - Weingarten compares the video of Bell's busking performance to that of Koyaanisqatsi ('Life out of balance'), an 80s film illustrating our descent into robotic antdoom, becoming cogs in the great wheel of progress and industry, the loss of beauty, art, music, self in the layers of urban consumerism.

Weingarten, Bell, the Washington Post and the makers of Koyaanisqatsi make a good point. There should be space for art, music, beauty, peace in everyone's life. But I resent the implication that because I work 9-5 as part of The Great Corporate Machine, I am ignoring the opportunities for beauty in my life.

For the record, Weingarten's article is not judgemental. He presents the facts and statements from the people interviewed and allows us to draw our own conclusions - as a journalist should. What I resent is the way his objective view has been regurgitated into chain emails and Facebook posts, with the obligatory 'oh it's too sad', inviting similar comments lest you be one of the unenlightened, the spiritually void, the Tin Man without a heart.

I work 9-5.30, five days a week. I travel 75 minutes each way to reach my office so I can live in a three bedroom house with a garden instead of a studio apartment. My office is in a modern high rise building made of glass and steel and I have a desk in a cluster of six other desks in a giant room that I share with 150 people, computers, phones, printers and photocopiers. My firm provides financial services and I am the sole 'creative' on staff, providing branding, formatting, application support and layout design for pitch documents, presentations, client reports and process flowcharts. I like my job, but it's not what I dreamed I'd do - I tried that for 15 years and got tired of being broke. Ten years ago I made a conscious decision to work 40 hours a week and get paid enough to be able to spend my evenings and weekends filling the parts of my life I don't spend at work with things that made me happy.

Now I give 48 hours a week of my life in exchange for more money than I've ever earned in my 23 years of working. And that money means that in the last 12 months, my partner and I were able to afford to go to the theatre a dozen times, visit art galleries, museums, travel to Australia for two weeks, spend a week driving around the island of Ibiza, eat out at nice restaurants and buy so many CDs and DVDs we had to buy more shelves to accomodate them. I also bought a camera. A good one, which meant I could finally start working on photography, a hobby I've been interested in since I was child.

Working for 'the man' also provides me with private health insurance, life insurance and a pension I'd never get if I'd stayed working in the arts.

Yes, the commute gets frustrating. Yes, the workload can get tedious and open plan offices are noisy, distracting and tiring and yes, I could fit all the work I do in five days into three - but that's not how the system works. You're required to spend a portion of your 40 hours chatting to colleagues about fairly irrelevant topics, offering cups of tea if you're making one and showing an interest in other people's holidays and photos of their children - if you don't, you don't 'fit in'. Apparently 'fitting in' is key to getting the work done. And getting the work done is key to getting paid.

Once, a delivery made to my home had to be left on the front porch and I asked my boss if I could go home to ensure it wasn't stolen. It was 11am and my firm provides me with remote access to our systems, so I offered to work from home for the rest of the day, rather than waste three hours of my work day making the round trip. But my boss asked me to come back to the office as 'it looked better' for me to be present in the office. For a time, I worked at home two days a week when we were commuting from further away, but was relieved to give it up when we moved closer, as I was forever being asked 'Now, you're not in tomorrow are you?' and explaining that while I wasn't physically present in the office, I would be performing the same tasks and often working harder to justify that fact.
I have no illusions about how 'pointless' my job is in the greater scheme of the universe, but I work a lot less hours and make a lot more money than I ever did in the theatre. I also have a lot more time for myself.
Long distance commuting was one of the most stressful experiences I've ever had. And it wasn't about how much time I was spending travelling to and from home. It was about the physical and mental abuse of the public transport system. In a city like London, and I'm sure this applies to New York, Washington and any other city with a mass transport system and sprawling suburbs filled with people who work in the city centre, there are more people than the system can cope with. Trains are expensive, crowded, dirty, smelly and aging at an exponential rate.

We used to position ourselves on the platform where we knew the door would be on the incoming train and arrive 15 minutes early to grab that spot so we'd at least have a chance of getting a seat. It was that or end up standing in the aisles for 90 minutes of creaking, jerking, juddering into London, only to pile off and be shoved about by people made late for work by signal failures, overheating rails in summer, frozen points in winter, or my all time favourite - llamas that had escaped from a farm and were wandering over the tracks.

​ The result of this is that more often than not, I was rushing through the station, either late for work, or, worse, late for the train home, meaning I could be standing on the platform for another half hour until the next one. And I was one of a couple of million people in exactly the same situation, sardining ourselves into overcrowded train carriages, weaving through platforms fill with people, jostling for a place in the queue for the escalator, hoping we didn't end up pressed up against someone with body odour, bad breath or the tinny screeching of pop divas through plastic earphones. This is not an environment for appreciating art, music or culture.

A few year ago I heard about an organisation called 'Slow Down London' whose mission statement is 'to inspire Londoners to challenge the cult of speed and appreciate the world around us.' They went to the papers with a campaign stating they would be walking the streets of London during rush hour, stopping people and encouraging them to slow down. I am here to tell you that if one of those people had stopped me rushing on my way to catch my train home, which, had I missed, would mean 30 minutes less of my evening at home, I would have punched them in the face. I challenge any of them to match my record of cultural experiences over the past 12 months - all done because I can afford to do so - because I work a 40 hour week in The Machine.

So I say, not so much to Gene Weingarten and the Washington Post, who performed the experiment in what I hope is an unbiased piece of reporting, but to everyone who has ever forwarded that email, reposted that Facebook article or commented with a 'oh I know it's so sad' - you try commuting through a metro system with a million other people on a daily basis and see how keen you are to stop and listen to a guy playing the violin. Experiencing beauty like Joshua Bell playing the violin is one of life's imperatives. But you cannot tell me that experiencing that beauty when I have time, space and energy to actually enjoy it is not just as important.