Hello there 🙂

Welcome to issue twenty eight of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.

This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee 🙂

Speaking of coffee, grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…

Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online…

A fortnight ago I visited my friend Laura which was an absolute delight. We took a trip to Hamburg, and over breakfast, I mentioned that I’d read somewhere that the hotel we were staying in had recently started offering their employees a four-day work week.

I said something like:

“It’s cool, huh? I think I’d really like to try something like that.”

Laura, quite rightly, came close to spitting her mouthful of coffee across the table:

“You work for yourself, you can do whatever you want!”

At the time I responded automatically, and spouted a bunch of nonsense about client considerations, needing to flexible, blah, blah, blah.

None of that’s really true though.

Laura’s right, I could indeed do a four-day work week; I just don’t feel like I can.

I still consider myself new to freelancing, even though I’ve now been doing this for more than two years.

It’s a funny old game.

Like most freelancers, at various points, I’ve taken on way too much work and then cursed myself for doing so.

I’ve also had periods which have been much quieter work-wise, but rather than enjoying those times, I’ve become a quaking ball of fear, utterly convinced that no one will ever hire me again in a freelance capacity, and that I’ll have to get a “real job”.

Incidentally, it interests me that I write the words “real job” when referring to working for someone else. I do it automatically, unthinkingly. But it’s revealing, no? On some level I clearly view what I’m doing right now as something other than a real job.

And yet it clearly is a real job. It keeps the roof over my head and the wolf from the door. It’s as real as any other job I’ve ever had.

I frequently joke that I’m the worst boss I’ve ever had. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that this is quite true; but it’s a fairly close run thing.

I’m not great at downtime, or switching off.

I think perhaps that part of the reason that I feel like I can’t do a four-day work week, is because most of the time I struggle to take weekends off. For clarity I don’t mean that I work 8-10 hours a day, 7 days a week (although I definitely have had periods like that); but I do frequently schedule myself to work at weekends. Typically I’ll do 3 hours on a Saturday, and a further 3 hours on a Sunday.

But I wonder, how much of that is habit, or hangover from working for someone else? How much of that work do I really need to do?

I was fascinated to read We are Running in ‘Degraded Mode’ by Charlie Warzel this week. In this article he explores why the question “What can people do to cultivate a better work/life balance?” is so tricky to answer:

“There are plenty of things a person can and must do to craft a healthy, flexible relationship to work. You can start by honestly assessing how much you work, and compare that to an honest assessment of how much work there really is to be done (for example, is some of that work performative?). You can then sort out which work is rigid and which is flexible and begin to craft routines around it.

You can take a brutally honest look at what you value about your personal life and your job and find ways to bring that relationship into balance. Personally, this process has been really difficult and has included the revelations that I’ve been, at times: a shitty friend, an absent partner, so laser-focused on a narrow definition of career success that I barely even know what I like outside of being told I’m “doing a good job” at my job. If you’re honest and intentional, it’s a hard but ultimately rewarding exercise.

But it only goes so far.

All the hard planning and self-inventorying and commitment to decentering work and cultivating a rich personal life means very little if you are trapped in a system that refuses to give you space, and actively rewards those who refuse to erect boundaries between their work and personal lives.

You can crave balance in your life only to be caught in the vicious cycle of precarity that permeates American work culture. At-will employment, sparse benefits and worker protections, the valorization of productivity, the understanding that even a few weeks without health care could lead to financial ruin:

They all lead us to perpetuate the system as a form of self-preservation. You become the person sending frantic late-night emails because you’re worried about looking productive; your work makes work for others; a culture of constant communication, busywork, and anxiety takes root.

As you’ve likely noticed, the quote from Warzel’s article above specifically makes mention of the challenges of being without health care in America as a driving force which perpetuates the cycle.

I’m no way seeking to diminish this consideration, (and I am very grateful for the NHS); but what’s nevertheless interesting to me is that I feel like I see a remarkably similar culture of work here in the UK.

I’ve worked in various companies (and I’m sure you have too) that have actively praised and/or rewarded those who fail to erect boundaries between their work and personal lives.

For what it’s worth I think the praise is just as damaging as the reward.

I’ve also worked in companies where management teams have looked on benignly (quietly pleased) in similar situations. Again, I feel like this is just as damaging as overt praise and reward – people recognise that these management teams are quietly pleased and feel pressurised to adopt similarly unhealthy working practices.

I recognise that I too have been part of the problem. I’d make a point of talking to members of my team who working evenings, weekends, and when they were supposed to be on annual leave (actively discouraging this practice); whilst simultaneously working evenings, weekends, and holidays myself.

Not setting a great example there, huh?

It occurs to me that I would have been more successful in impressing upon my team the importance of a erecting boundaries between their work and personal lives if I’d done a better job of erecting those boundaries myself.

The truth is, that whilst I wanted those boundaries for them, I just didn’t feel like I could have them.

It’s the same feelings that are in play when I think about the four-day work week thing:

I could do a four-day work week, I just don’t feel like I can.

I wanted my team members to erect boundaries between their work and personal lives, I just didn’t feel like I could.

I’m not sure that I’m able to unpick why I feel like this, but given I recognise it’s a feeling, not the truth, I’m going to try out a four-day work week in December.

I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

Moar serendipitous finds:

A Literary Clock

If you want to know the time you *could* just look up at the right hand corner of your laptop screen, but this web thinger is way more fun. It was made by Johs Enevoldsen, and is based on a project by Jaap Meijers (who in turn credits a project by The Guardian for the Edinburgh International Book Festival).

It tells the time via a quote:

Eric Kogan Captures Curious Coincidences

Photographer Eric Kogan has an incredible eye. With a background in painting and a day job in the event industry, Kogan often would snap shots of trash bins and perfectly aligned clouds during his commute, but with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, he began focusing primarily on his photography practice.

“When I turned my sole attention to it, one of the first things to change was where I walked. The most desolate places pulled me. Not because they were more socially distant but because they were a stage for some of the most random sights the city had to offer.”

You can find more of Kogan’s photography on his site and on Instagram.

The lies we tell our children: an illustrated history of the climate crisis denial adverts created by big oil companies:

“…last month, six big oil CEOs were summoned to US Congress to answer for the industry’s history of discrediting climate science – yet they lied under oath about it. In other words, the fossil fuel industry is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public.”

Early On-Demand Music Streaming Required Lots of Nickels

In the Pacific Northwest 70-plus years ago, a telephone-based jukebox connected callers to their favorite tunes.

“Loretta Shepard was still ateenager when she started using an alias and talking to strangers in the middle of the night.

It was 1953 and Shepard, who called herself Joyce, worked past midnight in an undisclosed studio, operating what was, for its time, state-of-the-art technology.

“We were told to give no information of ourselves, so we had to work under a different name,” recalls Shepard, who chose to go by her middle name. “I remember they were real strict about having someone know where you were at all times. It was for our own protection.”

“Joyce” was no Cold War spy, however. She was one of a small army of women in Washington State who worked as DJs for Multiphones, telephone-based jukeboxes.

The devices were the Spotify of their day, providing what some might consider to be the earliest form of commercial streaming.

Shepard, who worked in Tacoma, says she also on occasion played the role of therapist—especially with lonely servicemen who’d call in as much to hear another human voice as their favorite song.”

DJs staffing a Shyvers Multiphone studio in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Image credit: John Bennett

Staring into someone’s eyes for ten minutes is like tripping, without the drugs

“I just took a brief hallucination break with a colleague.

We stepped into a supply closet, dimmed the lights, sat down, and watched one another’s faces morph into those of lionesses. I cried the whole time.

Then we went back to work.”

Celestial Beadwork by Margaret Nazon

Margaret Nazon is Tsiigehtchic, part of the Gwich’in community in what is now the Northwest Territories of Canada. She has spent the past decade building intricate beadwork depictions of outer space. Initially inspired by images taken by the Hubble space telescope, Nazon’s celestial renderings are part of a life-long interest in beading.

Milky Way Starry Night by Margaret Nazon

Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now

The final book I had left to read on the Booker Prize Longlist was Second Place by Rachel Cusk. I really enjoyed Cusk’s Outline trilogy, and was hoping for a novel in keeping with that style of writing, but that’s not really what Second Place is.

The novel concerns a writer, M, who invites a celebrated painter, L, to stay in the annex of her marshland home. An endnote advertises the novel’s debt to the bohemian socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos, about DH Lawrence’s chaotic stay at her artists’ colony in New Mexico.

Dear reader, I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about this one. It’s a novel about midlife malaise, and whilst it is wryly observed, and entertaining, I’m not sure I’d strongly recommend it.

Next I read I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg, a short story collection which opens with this quote from Clarice Lispector:

“Do you ever suddenly find it strange to be yourself?”

Here you’ll meet a woman who makes a living crying on the phone to men who are into dacryphilia; another who uses makeup, prostheses, and wigs to morph into the dead wives of men who want one last date; and another whose husband spirals into madness after she points out a ghostly figure in a photograph from his childhood.

I loved this collection of uncanny tales and would strongly recommend getting your mitts on a copy of this collection.

Recommendation of the fortnight goes to 12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson.

Early in the book Winterson highlights that the achievements of science and technology always start out as fiction. Not everything that can be imagined can be realised, but nothing can be realised if it hasn’t been imagined first.

In this collection of twelve essays, which encompass history, religion, myth, literature, the politics of race and gender, and computer science, Winterson explores the implications of artificial intelligence and associated technologies, and how they might change both the way we live, and the way we love.

Starting with the first industrial revolution, and the enclosure of common land, she explores both how we got here, and where we might go next.

Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching

I really enjoyed Outlaws (BBC), Stephen Merchant’s new show. It stars Christopher Walken (yes, really – and he’s an absolute delight), as grizzled ex-con recently released from prison on an ankle tag, alongside six other offenders (including Merchant) all of whom are sentenced to community payback.

It’s an enjoyable romp of a show (a little like Misfits without the superpowers), warm, witty and frequently silly. For me the final episode wraps things up unbelievably neatly, which makes me wonder what they’ll do in Season Two (which is apparently being filmed right now), but doubtlessly I’ll watch it nevertheless.

Part IV: What I’ve been up to…

I had a wonderful trip to Germany to visit my friend Laura. We went to Hamburg, where we did lots of fun things including a visit to Minatur Wunderland, which was greatly enhanced by a couple of really excellent cocktails beforehand. We also went for a very fancy dinner at Salt and Silver which I’d strongly recommend.

We also spent some time in Berlin, where I got to see my friend Amira and her new baby Noah which was lovely. We also visited the DDR Museum, and yet more bars including Rhinoceros, plus a lovely speakeasy style place (the name of which escapes me) where the cocktail menu was delightful but held little to no clue as to what you might be drinking.

I then spent a few days with my Dad, and we went to see Sarah Millican’s show which was brilliant.

What’s next?

Trying out a Four-Day Work Week in December

As I mentioned in the intro to this newsletter, I’ll be trying out a four-day work week in December. I suspect that whether or not I succeed will largely come down self-discipline; I’ll let you know how it goes.

Finishing my short story

Some of you might remember me mentioning that I signed up to do a fiction writing course in October. Whilst on the course I started working on a short story, but since the course finished I’ve done nothing with it. In the next fortnight I’ll finish it 🙂

Christmas Shopping

I probably won’t do this. Every year I promise myself I’ll get my Christmas shopping done early, but utterly fail to do so.

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