Work-obsessed drone Alex Braae assesses whether shutting himself up in a dark room will allow some semblance of normality on a day off.
It is a sad fact of life that many of us spend alarmingly large chunks of it working. The relationship is like quicksand: as we spend more time on the job, we realise there is more and more to do, and find it harder and harder to cut ourselves away.
Perhaps it’s like an addiction, only with the self-imposed guilt reversed. A smoker knows they should quit, and know they’re doing something they shouldn’t when lighting up. But for someone addicted to work, slowing down is the sin. Activity is all.
I too spend rather a lot of my life working. There’s the 5am alarm to start working on that day’s edition of The Bulletin, and the evening’s reading news and doing prep. There are days in the office and weekends at events. I’m not complaining, I like my job, and the vast majority of my overwork is self-imposed. But, and perhaps for the same reason, it’s almost impossible to stop thinking about.
So it was with a rare day off last week. I finished up my morning duties, and settled in for a relaxed Tuesday of freedom. A cup of coffee and a slow breakfast later, and it was about half past eight. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll just quickly check my emails to make sure nothing urgent has come up.
An hour passed.
Coming to, I realised I had been sucked back into the vortex. It was all too easy to go from wondering what was happening on Twitter, to checking news sites, to figuring out some questions for an upcoming interview, to simply being back on the grind. It wasn’t yet 10 in the morning, and already a bit of panic was setting in that I’d somehow end up donating a few precious hours of freedom back to the job.
Something drastic was needed. I closed my laptop.
I had to find a place where phones aren’t allowed, and where working becomes impossible. The rain coming down made a walk out of the question, and most cafes had the dangerous distraction of a newspaper. There was only one place to go.
The wifi doesn’t work properly in the basement that is the Academy Cinemas in Auckland. Underneath the library and all that concrete, you’re lucky to get a signal at all. There are a few networks set up for the projector systems, and absolutely none for public use. Naturally, I still couldn’t help but check.
When I arrived, the lobby was almost empty. I was half an hour early for a showing of acclaimed Korean film Parasite, with nothing to read and no way of communicating with the outside world. So I sat down with a coffee to watch the room, and the rhythm of a cinema in the early afternoon.
The guy behind the counter was a study in calming hustle. He sold tickets and made coffee. He answered the phone, and politely but firmly informed the person on the other end of the line that yes, they still had to pay a deposit on their event. He greeted someone from a council organisation who came in wondering if they could access an event discount – alas, he informed them as well, the price was the price, totally sure of his own footing in the discussion. He helped out another guy doing maintenance on some mounted screens.
Never once did he look out of breath or run off his feet, even though there was always something more to do. It was neither the deathly monotony depicted in Clerks, nor some overworked assistant from a 90s romcom about office life. But it was the beautiful, low-key theatre of someone going about their day.
When it was time to go into the cinema, I wondered if it was the wrong one. About a hundred seats sat empty. One seat was filled. In a brief moment of madness I considered going and sitting next to them as a joke, before realising that it probably wouldn’t be very funny. Somehow I managed to navigate the wealth of choice, and picked one out at the back.
Dare I admit it, I put my feet up on the seat in front. The doors had closed, and nobody else was coming in, so it seemed like this particular social taboo could be broken. And I spent the next two hours becoming more and more comfortably engrossed in someone else’s story.
Time slowed down, before ceasing to matter altogether. The eternal, impending deadline clock in my head stopped ticking. There wasn’t a moment when I realised what had happened. It’s just that I became far more curious about whether the Kim family’s secret would be revealed than I was about anything else. As the tension mounted, my feet were planted firmly on the floor, the better to lean forward on.
When the film ended, the lobby was still empty. I climbed the stairs out of the basement, and stepped into sunshine. A guy painting a mural opposite the library had made a bit more progress.
The world had turned. And for a few hours, I didn’t have to turn with it. I was able to step outside of my normal routines, and for once be properly disconnected. My resting heart rate felt ever so slightly, imperceptibly slower.
Days later, that feeling still hasn’t quite dissipated. It will in time of course, there will always be new deadlines coming up. But for now, giving myself a little permission to have a break has gone a long way.
Good or bad?