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Three months into shelter-in-place, I took my work laptop to an Ojai resort, and the week of remote work there prompted some thoughts on work itself. The idea of taking a workation had occurred earlier, when the summer cold of San Francisco fell overnight in July. In the morning, as I woke up to the leaden sky, made coffee, and coiled into the sofa to log into work, the howling wind whooshed over the roof, bringing close the plangent blows of the Golden Gate foghorn. At dusk, logging off from the unchanging tasks, I stepped to my window and overlooked the bistro across the street, the diners in layers and huddling in the sidewalk sheds. Above, thick gray clouds gushed into the city, hulking and ominous above the treetops. Even protected by the shut bay windows, I still developed goosebumps on my forearms.
It was amidst this monotony and cold that an Ojai workation was discussed, first between my partner H and me, and then with D and R, two architect friends of ours. In the run-up to all this, after spending a decade as a statistical modeler in finance, I had found my work tasks increasingly repetitive and unprolific. It could be the stifling effect of fitting the same model form to different problems, or the perception of being stuck as the world marched on in new, exciting directions. Deprived of face-to-face colleague interactions since March, I also felt like dealing with this lack of meaning all alone. The prospect of injecting something new into work, even if only the setting and the company, delighted me. And judging by our friends’ readiness to join the trip, the proposal must have struck a similar chord.
We left behind the morning chill on a Sunday, and reached Ojai in the early afternoon. The sun-splashed town nestled in the embrace of two mountains, its August air smelled of dust and dry grass. Outstretched oak boughs embowered the resort’s Spanish revival villas, casting still shades over the manicured lawns. After checking-in, in the downtown supermarket, we put dinner items in our baskets but saw a fellow shopper shaking her head. “Don’t buy oranges here,” the grandma said in Spanish, and D the Chilean translated. “They’re giving out free ones there.”
But who were “they” and where was “there”? The abuela walked away before offering an answer, so we carried our oranges to the checkout line amidst the lingering surrealness of her words. Only after our simple, homemade dinner, when we were out again and driving beyond the rim of the town, we finally understood her. An expanse of orange orchards opened before us, their golden fruits drooping right by the roadside. The grandma meant we could simply come here and have our bags packed. “How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?” I recalled Steinbeck’s comment on Californian oranges and relayed it, and then we all laughed.
In that echoing laughter, surrounded by the lush bountifulness, I felt the ebb of my Sunday blues. Something energizing instead was pulsing, and when I looked inward to examine it, I was surprised by the alacrity of work I found there.
We started working the following day, Monday. It was a slow week; my only task was writing a whitepaper describing a statistical model I had built. On a bench under a gigantic oak tree, I retrieved my steps from data cleaning to building candidate models, then reran some tests in Python to generate numeric evidence for my decisions. I sipped coffee and squinted at the formulas, remembering that when I started as a statistical modeler, such tasks in themselves incited much enthusiasm. The years elapsed since had somehow soured that into dissatisfaction, which was at its acutest when I examined my work within its context: my model was but one of the many for the management to choose from, and the whitepaper itself served no practical purpose other than fulfilling a regulatory requirement. I’d feel hard-pressed if asked to detail how my work contributed to my employer’s performance metrics, and when I reviewed the day’s work at log-off, it was a sense of insignificance that jumped foremost on my mind.
All this could be why I found distaste in my job, but I needed it to put food on the table and support my foray into writing. Yet now, as my skin grazed by the dry air and my toes wet by the sprinklers, I found my distaste evaporating without help from such justifications. Something like revitalized stimulation had taken its place, gusto even. I paused my typing fingers just to enjoy this mental state, squinting at the mountains shedding their morning purple tint. To further prolong the joy, I put down my laptop and stretched my limbs. I extended my face beyond the shade, eyes shut to feel the sun’s red-warm impression.
I took more such mini-breaks as the morning progressed, until the diminishment of its effect suddenly kicked in. I was only startled by the speed. With the break of the spell, there was now the awareness of the chair’s wooden slats cutting into my rump, the hot air prickling the pores but blocking the sweat. Withdrawing back indoors and sinking into the sofa, I felt the monotony of my work leaping from the screen and refitting me back to an old pattern. Pouring another coffee, I saw that while my cubicle’s confinement and the San Francisco cold were now gone, these were parameters too peripheral to reconfigure the core meaning of my tasks. I was on only a workation and not an escape from work, which, at this point, seemingly was totally made of ingredients of unfulfillment.
I had been struggling with the felt meaninglessness in my work for some time, so I had read Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition to borrow some wisdom. In it, the author sorts active human activities into three categories: labor, work, and action. Labor is to meet the biological necessities of self-preservation, so it is repetitive in nature and carries a sense of futility. Work, in contrast, is a productive task aimed at leaving behind a durable object. Guided by the utilitarian logic of means and ends, its product is subsumed into the material world we live in. Action, lastly, are activities where we reveal ourselves to others. It is about collectivity; it is about expressing ourselves.
This is an intuitive trichotomy, as different human agencies underline different categories: a passive kind for labor because it is done out of necessity, and a positive type for action because it is about revelation and expression. When it comes to work, however, I found the clear delineation breaking down: we work in part out of necessity, but also to create and express. At one extreme, work is substantial labor; at the other, work bespeaks the sublime volition to leave a mark.
The gadfly of capitalism, Karl Marx, holds no ambivalence on this matter: the proletarians sell their labor in exchange for remuneration. The tasks we – I mean all of us working for the owners of the means of production – engage at work, then, are done out of no other motivation than meeting the necessities of living, driven by the same motivation as in the case of Arendtian labor. Locked in the status of hired hands, our work serves not our creative volition but the profit drive of our employers, and this misalignment creates the seam called alienation, separating our work from our authentic selfhood and obstructing our life from our self-realization.
Besides the quick fade of my enthusiasm for work the first morning, I was most impressed by my fellow workationers’ work attitudes. H and R always started early, already on calls by 7:30 am. I knew H was trying to onboard more customers to the startup he ran, while R was in the middle of designing a pharmaceutical lab in the Bay Area, juggling between client requirements, city code, and the outsourced rendering team in Uruguay. Tension and devotion flared in the air, heating up the coffee and filling the void of skipped breakfast. Even D, whose task of the week comprised of only coordinating Zoom calls, folded up his breakfast-time nonchalance and visibly transformed once the work began, his eyes shining, his arms taut.
And despite my distaste toward my own work, I noticed a similar tensile build-up in my body. Starting on Tuesday, I stopped even trying to work outside the house. Five minutes into working, I had already left the living room sofa and planted myself by the kitchen table, my shoulder plates straightened, my nape away from the backrest. My mind was so focused that I barely noticed my press of the keyboard being firm, tension knotting up in my forearms and calves. A realization came during a water break that even though I was engaging in “white-collar” and thus “mental labor,” my work still maintained an embodied, physical aspect.
All these faculties I put into work – from my intellect to my physical abilities – would be called “labor power” by Marx, the “aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities” drawn upon in my actual act of production. Having observed Monday’s elation to gloom and Tuesday’s slackness to tension, I found it clear that such a list could be extended: besides my intellect and physical abilities, my emotions were also ingredients to what I produced. Like the religious sentiment that had fueled the Calvinists’ pecuniary quest per Max Weber’s famous thesis, my lasting sense of ennui and my undulating excitement for work also tinted my paper’s formulas and sentences, leaving behind clues in the form of the word choices of the paragraphs, or the color scheme of the figures.
Pressing deeper for the source of such emotions, I saw the origin of my bodily tension. It was the simple fact that my name would be there, in block letters on the whitepaper’s first page. Despite the fact that the readership might never surpass five, I could not allow mistakes or typos because my reputation was at stake. In this light, my sense of self – my self-worth, my worry, and my vanity – had made its way into the paper, manifesting itself in between drafts, performing my best self in the final version to be stored in the company archive. Even though I found my work product lacking meaning, the part of me contained there would still command my care.
And as the oneness between my work and my selfhood lanterned before me, I realized this was precisely where Arendt’s theory could use more clarification, in that work can be done out of both necessity and self-expression. Marx’s concept of alienation could also accommodate more middle ground, in that the output of work is not entirely alien but baked with a dose of self-care. The amount of selfhood we choose to put into work might vary, but its being there blurred the theoretical lines between labor, work, and action. Even for a hired laborer like myself, the product constructed for profit could still be an object of care.
Later that day, another case demonstrating this point presented itself. After dinner, R volunteered with embarrassment that he had mistakenly dialed into a conference he was not supposed to be part of. “Well, R is a nice guy,” he heard his boss say, “but he is not technical enough, still not familiar with the Californian code…”
R hung up at that moment.
We all tried to comfort him, and I remembered saying he could treat it as a piece of honest feedback. But I know if I were him, my first emotional response would be exactly like his: perturbation and despondence. I felt a sting of unfairness because R had already worked from 7 to 9, taking in between only meal and bathroom breaks. More than once, I had spotted him rushing for a quieter spot of less bandwidth competition, intense worry etched along his face. And now, I saw his actions as springing from the will to sustain a positive image in his colleagues’ eyes, the need to prove himself as a competent and trustworthy architect. He was telling me how much of his selfhood was at stake.
When there was a chance, we paused worrying about work and explored Ojai: walking through its neighborhoods, checking online its history. The town gained esteem when we learned about its annual playwrights’ conference and music festival; it tickled our hope to return when we counted the number of its retreat centers. As part of the drill of exploring a new place, on the third night, we started browsing real estate ads and imagined living here. And on Friday afternoon, we took a longer-than-usual break at Bart’s Books. It was a bookstore with an atrium, between which and the shelves there stood no walls. Breezes made their way through the maze of shelves, having traveled far just to ruffle our hair.
On other occasions, we took glimpses of townspeople at their work. Once, I ordered some sourdough from a website. Come between 1 pm and 3 pm, the pick-up instruction said, and find the bag with your name. Driving to the designated location, I became increasingly confused as I got closer, since I was only traveling deeper into a residential neighborhood. Then, at the end of a cul-de-sac, a roadside table with 50 brown bags materialized before somebody’s front yard. A realization dawned that the baker must have not even had her own shop yet, and all in those bags were freshly out of her kitchen oven. For her, success took shape not in a fancy storefront but in the bread itself, the taste of which bespoke the care and ambition she baked into her product.
Another time, after reading about an organic café called “Farmer and the Cook” in a local magazine, we went there for lunch. The moment we arrived, I saw him, the featured “farmer” standing by the doorway, supervising his tawny-skinned workers unloading fresh produce. He had dropped out of Harvard to protest the Vietnam War, got into organic farming in Texas, and started his farm in Ojai. In his case, “work from home” became literal, as all the nutrients of his home went into the objects that his labor brought forth. The article ended with his own summary of his career path, “it is a good way to keep your hands clean in an otherwise contaminated world.” Sitting in the living proof of his work, I saw that his work had become both himself and the change he wanted to see in the world.
Still another time, I visited Pepper Tree, a retreat converted from Jiddu Krishnamurti’s last residence. I had read the philosopher’s teaching before, that you need to suspend all concepts sedimented by time to be fully present, but I had not known he had been living here, a lonely bungalow on the outskirt of Ojai. A white-haired man named Michael showed me around, and in the middle of the tour mentioned he had been Krishnamurti’s cook. Before assuming the job, he had been searching for a liberating philosophy, leaving his native Germany to find Krishnamurti in India and then Ojai. After Krishnamurti died in 1986, Michael stayed on and worked for the property, giving tours to visitors like me. He had devoted his youth to find the teaching, then his adulthood spreading the word. The teaching had helped him find peace, he said, even now when cancer was spreading inside him.
I felt an impulse to hug him, not only the physical, present person, but all the previous versions of him, the seeking one, the devoted one. Thinking of him in relation to the baker and the farmer, I felt touched that all three had their work and quest for meaning closely aligned, the Arendtian categories of labor, work, and action fused into one. And it was in this alignment that something significant was achieved, an achievement marking the difference between merely existing and truly inhabiting our limited allotment. My problem with my work was not rooted in the work per se; the root cause was all about sorting out who to be in life. I no longer see myself as a statistical modeler, and this was why my work seemed more like labor than ever.
On the last day before heading home, we hiked the north mountain at dusk. Midway uphill, we paused to look back at the verdant valley, patches of green reaching as far as the ocean. We marveled at the beauty as we discussed the good time we had here, all the friendly people we had met and conversed with. We then contemplated our return, at some indefinite future or as soon as the following spring.
The idea of return soothed me. I imagined how fragrant the valley would be then, the air perfumed by these blooming orange trees. Perhaps I would have already started a new job by then or had a clearer sense of my direction. And in my devoting my whole self to that new work, there might also be a way to weave in this valley’s verdure, all the fragrance that was so pure and sweet.