Learning How to Not Work

From a debate in the New York Times today, over the effectiveness of cutting salaried employees' hours during a recession featured this commentary by Corinne Maier, the author of "Bonjour Laziness":

France has the ultimate weapon for fighting the economic crisis: free time. Long live the 35-hour week, though it was once sentenced to the scaffold by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The law reducing work hours, known in French as R.T.T., today is like a shock absorber of the crisis. Businesses in trouble are using the R.T.T. regime to avoid layoffs. The proof? Last Christmas, none of my salaried friends in Paris were working. Several of them told me, “My company pushed us to take the R.T.T. between Christmas and New Year’s Day.” Translation: since there’s no work, mandatory days off. France’s law reducing work hours has been a shock absorber in this latest economic crisis. So what, then, of that favored slogan of President Sarkozy, “Work more to earn more”? Mr. Sarkozy himself still seems to believe in it, though perhaps he is the only person who does, and the 2007 changes to the R.T.T. law that reduced overtime costs for business remain in effect. But considering the current recession, it’s unlikely that many businesses will need to take advantage of them. Indeed, the Japanese employers’ organization is studying R.T.T. as a solution to the crisis in that country.

Here's my favorite part, where she wonders if the Americans are up to not working as hard on work and working on enjoying life:

I wonder, though, if the French model can work everywhere else: What would Americans do with close to two months of vacation a year? When you’re not used to it, it can seem like a LOT of free time. But perhaps that is indeed the future of capitalism. My American friends, make an effort to be lazy!

Word of the Day--Today Only!

A new feature, which may only last for today, depending on the mood of the Thoreau You Don't Know staff: hurdy-gurdy!

Franklin's Dream Come True

Lord Franklin's Lament, a great old ballad, is referenced, in a sense, at the close of Walden. Franklin was looking for a Northwest Passage, and things took a turn for the worse (death). Things are clearing up, passage wise, at the poles, which means old maps may become new again, or maybe not. Either way, here's this:


At Thoreau You Don't Know headquarters, we count ourselves fortunate to often find ourselves in the company of excellent photographers, such as E. Etheridge, who captured the Washington Square Harp & Shamrock, playing at the Brooklyn reading of The Thoreau You Don't Know, at Book Court, in Cobble Hill--neé Poinkiesbergh, which, in old Dutch, apparently means, cobbles hill--the place was named by farmers who saw a lot of cobblestones in the area. The orchestra was on fire! The crowd tuned up with them: mmmmm! The author was, as his wont, a little out of control. But then what do you expect? Music, friends, family, seemingly interested strangers, professionals of a relaxed sort--the author was pretty happy, especially as pictured here.

The Wild

Holy cow!

Where Tonight's Reading Is


In Spite of Ourselves

This is it! Tonight's the night. This is what you've all been waiting for. Well, maybe not all of you have been waiting for it. OK, maybe some of you have been dreading it, but still, nonetheless it's here—the Brooklyn reading of the Thoreau You Don't Know, featuring the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra. Why an orchestra, when talking about Thoreau? Because Thoreau is not a stick in the mud. He's really about joy, which, for him, is nicely epitomized in music, as some of these notes would indicate—he seems to be saying that we can be happy, in spite of ourselves, to kind of quote John Prine:

When I hear music I fear no danger, I am invulnerable, I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times and to the latest. (From his journal on January 13, 1857.)

A thrumming of piano-strings beyond the gardens and through the elms. At length the melody steals into my being. I know not when it began to occupy me. By some fortunate coincidence of thought or circumstance I am attuned to the universe, I am fitted to hear, my being moves in a sphere of melody, my fancy and imagination are excited to an inconceivable degree. This is no longer the dull earth on which I stood. (From his journal on on August 3, 1852.)

What is there in music that it should so stir our deeps? We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation; such is our life; ofttimes it drives us to suicide. To how many, perhaps to most, life is barely tolerable, and if it were not for the fear of death or of dying, what a multitude would immediately commit suicide! But let us hear a strain of music, we are at once advertised of a life which no man had told us of, which no preacher preaches. Suppose I try to describe faithfully the prospect which a strain of music exhibits to me. The field of my life becomes a boundless plain, glorious to tread, with no death nor disappointment at the end of it. All meanness and trivialness disappear. I become adequate to any deed. No particulars survive this expansion; persons do not survive it. In the light of this strain there is no thou nor I. We are actually lifted above ourselves. (From his journal on on January 15, 1857.)

What the Heck?

Can't hurt, even if some commenters are going nuts about it.

Also, this is cool:

The Ecology of Shopping

The staff of the Thoreau You Know is on the radio today, across the United States of America. Next stop, Raleigh, N.C., and the Alvin Augustus Jones show, on WCBQ and WHNC. Raleigh is coincidentally where one of our favorite bands is based, Chatham County Line, who are seen here performing this song, a great song that is just a great song but is also a song that could be used in a university course about how roads and consumption affect the stuff in our lives that we don't necessarily think of roads and consumption as affecting, if that makes any sense at all.


The view from the Brooklyn window around this time of year, last year.

Other Winds

This morning, I drove through the California desert and saw this excellent wind farm, which is captured here by a cell phone that is very old but still kicking.

Winds Changing?

Because the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know is in Los Angeles, we are reading the Los Angeles Times, and the other day, while on our way to, yes, a movie, we ran across this column by Michael Hiltzik, entitled "The belief that the wealthy are worthy is waning":
With financial crisis and scandal as backdrop, Americans are questioning whether plutocrats are either indispensable or deserving.The notion that the poor always will be with us has been ingrained in our culture ever since the sermons of Moses were set down by the anonymous author of Deuteronomy. The financial crisis of the present day raises a rather different issue, however: What should we do about the rich? That the point is even open for discussion suggests that a sea change is taking place on the American political scene. For decades, the wealthy have been held up as people to be admired, victors in the Darwinian economic struggle by virtue of their personal ingenuity and hard work.
Here is the rest of the column.

The L Train, as in Labrador

Thoreau famously said, “I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord...” I think that an art exhibit on a subway platform of stuff on a subway platform is an example of the Labradorness that can be found in some recess of New York City.

(via Swissmiss)

Schluffing Wars

Things are getting pretty intense, viz a viz schluffing, over at Streetsblog. Bike Snob has attacked the Thoreau You Don't Know--though it is not clear he thinks of us as that, since Bike Snob, when referring to us, uses as a moniker the word dork. The word snob comes from the Latin sine nobilitate, or without nobility. Dork comes from--well, we're not going to say where dork comes from because we run a family blog here, but it's a not a bad thing, the thing that dork refers to, and Bike Snob seems to be attempting to show people that he has one.

Green House

The White House was green, as in Irish, or more specifically, Chicago Irish. (In Chicago, they die the rivers green.) The How Not to Get Rich Orchestra was there, as described in this blog post on the Powell's Books website, where the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know blog is camping out temporarily, snoring too much at night, hogging the camping stove, singing too loud at the campfire singalongs that go on at the Powell's blog headquarters. To wit.

A Review!

From Barnes & Noble here.

Saint Patrick's at Powell's

More guest blogging here.

The Daily Beast

is all Thoreau-ed up today!

Guest Blogging, as Opposed to Resident Blogging

The staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know is guest blogging on Powell's blog this week, at powells.com--Powell's being the Portland, Oregon-based book paradise. We won't waste your time here, blogging on what we blogged about over there. Rather we will recommend you to the blog therein, or thereover, or over there, which is here.

The Clothes That Got Away

This afternoon, the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know, on break, stepped outside to happen upon this rack of clothes, which is not just any rack of clothes but a rack of clothes at a dry cleaners—a rack of clothes, in other words, that no one ever picked up, whether by accident or on purpose. It's almost to much to bear, the rack of clothes that no one picked up, by accident or on purposed. What were people thinking? What were these clothes to them? Nothing or everything, and they were, in the case of the latter, momentarily forgotten, or forgotten for the alloted three months, the time period in which one is typically required to remember clothes that mean at least something to them? Which reminds us of something that people always say about Thoreau, which is that he brought his clothes home every day, for washing, which is a problematic assertion in many ways, not the least of which, it paints a picture of the Thoreau You (Maybe) Know, which brings us to Richard Smith:

We’ve hear this comment many times: Thoreau was a hermit at Walden Pond. Of all the mythology and stories that surround Thoreau, this one story is the most persistent. And no matter how much Thoreauvians protest, the story continues to circulate. I even had a teacher say to me recently, “You know, Thoreau was a hypocrite – he told everyone he was a hermit, but he came home every day to get his laundry done!”

It should be obvious to anyone who’s read Walden that Thoreau was not a hermit. Just the chapter called “Visitors” is enough to put the myth to rest. So the question in my mind is not “Was he or was he not a hermit,” but how did the rumor start in the first place? In Walden itself, Thoreau declares, “I am naturally no hermit.” So if someone tells me Thoreau was a hermit, I'm inclined is to suspect that this person hasn’t read Walden very closely.

Thoreau On Friendship

Here Thoreau is quoted on the influence of friends. The passage comes from his river book, "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers."
After years of vain familiarity, some distant gesture or unconscious behavior, which we remember, speaks to us with more emphasis than the wisest or kindest words. We are sometimes made aware of a kindness long passed, and realize that there have been times when our Friends’ thoughts of us were of so pure and lofty a character that they passed over us like the winds of heaven unnoticed; when they treated us not as what we were, but as what we aspired to be.
Photo from Library of Congress, here.

Trying to Capture the Vortex

The staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know is always trying to film our local vortex--the circle of wind that comes up on the corner of Court Street and Montague in downtown Brooklyn--but we never have the right equipment, or a film crew. Here is a very lame attempt, a video that does not capture the exquisite circle of blowing newspapers that we saw spin and spin and eventually ascend into the downtown Brooklyn sky... shortly before we executed this lame attempt. We will not stop trying.

A Break for Shakespeare

The markets are up, the markets are down! Here at the Thoreau You Don't Know headquarters, we're confused, as usual. Time for a break--this time for the Beatles, because the Beatles are in the air for at least two reasons: (1) people are complaining about the ticket prices to see Paul and Ringo perform together in NYC coming up some point soon; and (2) a Liverpool University announced that it will offer a Beatles degree or a degree in Beatles, or something like that. The important thing is that Thoreau dug Shakespeare, seen here:

This Just In

Whether it was inevitable or not seems like the inevitable question. See it for yourself here.

Flight Lines

powerlinerflyers from wes johnson on Vimeo.
as seen on the Daily Dish...

Streetsblog and The Thoreau You Don't Know

Streetsblog.org, the Thoreau You Don't Know's favorite place to read about public place and street issues, posted the essay on biker civility that the staff here typed up. A lot responses came in, some discussing the Thoreau You Don't Know's age, some discussing really cool ideas about how bikers can break through their bad p.r.—bad p.r. that has nothing to do with the fact that bikes are cool and the way to go and will eventually take over the car world, or perhaps some huge portion of it. I mean, we do like to drive once in a while. Photo from Fliker, here.

Why They Hate Us

Here is a piece that the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know worked hard on. It's about why they hate us, us being bikers, they being everyone who is not a biker at the moment. The intention of the piece, as far as the staff here is concerned, is to highlight a political Achilles heel of the pro-bike community--i.e., people hate bikers when bikers aren't really the problem, as far as air quality, global warming, mortality, public space deprivation, obesity, and personal debt goes. Also: Schluffing!


Biking is the best way to go in the city if you are not walking. We at the Thoreau You Don't Know believe strongly in this proposition. Meanwhile, as far as bike etiquette goes, it's tough to stay off the sidewalk even thought the law and courtesy says we ought to. (A friend of the staff recently went to court for a sidewalk bike riding ticket and served some community service time.) Sidewalk bike riding is like jaywalking--who among us cannot resist, once in a while or more. Bikes, like people, are vehicles of compromise. Thus, we draw attention to the schluff, for when you absolutely have to move on the sidewalk and absolutely won't actually "ride."

More on schluffing: an alternate way to use your bike on the sidewalk that is faster than walking and yet is not biking. Intended for short distances only (obviously). What is a schluffing situation? When a biker goes from street biking to sidewalk biking and the bike lane (or bike-favorable street) has ended and the biker still needs to go some distance to his or her front door or destination. Or when the biker just needs to go one block against the direction of traffic and doesn't want to walk. Ideally one would walk, but unfortunately people tend to bike on the sidewalk, which is problematic and illegal and, when there are a lot of people, dangerous and clueless. We present schluffing as an alternative to riding a bike on the sidewalk. We present schluffing as a Third Way, a particular kind of compromise that bikers are great at, as opposed to car drivers, who you would not to see pushing a car down the sidewalk or on the sidewalk at all, pedestrians or not.Schluffing takes advantage of the bike as a scooter-like implement to shorten your trip--and as something that is human-powered and, thus, capable of being NOT used, just walked, walking being human. Brought to you by the staff at The Thoreau You Don't Know, located at http://thethoreauyoudontknow.blogspot.com/ (No pedestrians were injured in the making of this video.)

Taking Stock

We, the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know, are watching the stock market dive down deeper and deeper, and wondering what it all means. We often turn to these words that Thoreau wrote to a friend. Lately, they have been sounding exceptionally true:
The merchants and company have long laughed at transcendentalism, higher laws, etc., crying ‘None of your moonshine,’ as if they were anchored to something not only definite, but sure and permanent. If there was any institution which was presumed to rest on a solid and secure basis, and more than any other represented this boasted common sense, prudence and practical talent, it was the bank; and now those very banks are found to be mere reeds shaken by the wind. Scarcely one in the land has kept its promise…. Not merely the Brook Farm and Fourierite communities, but now the community generally has failed. But there is the moonshine still, serene, beneficent, and unchanged. Hard times, I say, have this value, among others, that they show us what such promises are worth,—where the sure banks are.
(Photo, Library of Congress on Flicker: Farm auction, Derby, Conn.; 1940, Sept.)

Wise Investments

Is it just us over here at The Thoreau You Don't Know or is this cool? (Can't find your glasses?) Our favorite letter at this particular moment is V for Vocation, a word that seems like it might be proposed as an alternative to career. And now, some of the accompanying text from the designer, P.J. Chmiel: Life in years to come may not be the same life we enjoy today, at least in a material sense, but it can be a lot more rewarding than the work/shop/TV/sleep/die life that most of us now lead. The key to weathering the storm lies in joining together in closer-knit groups of family and community; the solutions will not be coming from the top-down, they will be happening from the ground-up...

Biker Byrne

From David Byrne's always bike-friendly journal, at the point where he is talking about meeting the mayor of Vancouver, B.C., after a show there:
After the show, I was told that the mayor was backstage. Keith, Mauro and I hauled a bucket of beers and wine into the green room, where the guests were waiting. The mayor, Gregor Robertson, and his wife Amy chatted with most of us, and it turned out they had arrived on bikes! At one point they seemed slightly antsy, so as an out I offered that they probably had to get going, but they hung around — and after a bit, we all went to a nearby bar-rest for local wine and mussels. I chatted with Robertson about my own bike rides around Vancouver, and how NYC has made great strides in becoming more bike-friendly. I mentioned the efforts of Enrique Peñalosa, Janette Sadik-Kahn and Jan Gehl in transforming some cities into more livable places.

Robertson said that there has been a radical transformation of the land and cityscape in a generation. Vancouver is no longer a small city, and having seen all the new condos and office buildings here, I wondered aloud if developers were simply unstoppable; if the city might lose some of its charm and character; that the human scale of the city will be lost if profit is left as the prime force determining urban texture. In Peñalosa’s terms this means that people with lots of money determine how everyone else lives, and what kind of city we all live in — which, he feels, is undemocratic.

Robertson responded,
“I don't really see them as unstoppable. I'm doing the aikido thing, moving that drive for building and profit into the most positive outcome possible for the community. Not a simple thing. But my hopes are high.”

Photo from Byrne's journal, of a sculpture by Bill Reid, the great Haida artist. The staff of the Thoreau You Know has spent a lot of time in Pacific Northwest Coast Canoes and they are solid! They are also semi-public transportation.

Bus Chick

Buses are cool, even if they are the public transportation most disdained by the drivers of the car. Buses are fun, and even hand-held communication friendly, as opposed to say driving and Blackberrying in a car. Bus Chick, whose column for the Seattle Post Intelligencer is here, proves it, having taken a bus to the hospital when her named-for Rosa Parks child was born. Like the staff of the Thoreau You Don't Know, she is car free, as you can see:

Via Clarence Eckerson Jr. on the most excellent Streetsblog.


Such a stiff! That's all we at The Thoreau You Don't Know ever hear about Thoreau. Meanwhile, his journals talk about skating and boating, and all the fun associated with hanging out outside in the cold. In fact, Thoreau is writing at a time when the ideas of work and play were separating. He makes a long joke about skating and collecting wood on the frozen surface of the pond--sort of killing two birds (work and play) with one stone. Work at a house--the kind of work that he wrote about while at the pond--was being more and more described as "women's work." (See Catharine Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy, published just before Walden.) From the Thoreau You Don't Know:
Most radically, while Beecher attempted to change the perception of work from “vulgar” to “noble,” Thoreau aspired to combine labor and leisure, to make vigorous work more like spontaneous play. “Idle time” was the bane of the new industrial economy. For Thoreau work was itself a pastime. In the roots of the word labor, Thoreau saw an opposite. The Latin noun means work, labor, toil. The Latin verb can mean to slip or to fall away or to glide by. In the “House-Warming” chapter of Walden, the narrator skates across the pond, collecting firewood as he glides joyfully. At a time when work and leisure were first becoming separated in America, Thoreau wrote that “men labor under a mistake,” and the mistake he was talking about was that people were confusing work for work when it could also be play. They were becoming obsessed with making a living and forgetting to have a life.

Simply Put

This story (above) is out there a lot these days, which is to say: we at the Thoreau You Don't Know aren't the only one thinking that Thoreau is feeling particularly relevant at this moment in history, or re-history. One of our staff just called from a cell phone to say something along these lines: "Look, think about it. A lot of people who are in their thirties and forties, they have been through the good (economic) times. They are not used to the bad (economic) times. They don't know how to cope. They need a way to cope." The rest of the staff here agrees, but we chafe when we see a headline--RECESSION!--and then a picture of a cabin in the woods, or a description of Thoreau living simply, with no TV. Coping doesn't mean running away; it doesn't call for asceticism. It means sticking around. Thoreau didn't leave town, even when he went to Walden Pond. That was his point. To find Labrador at home, the far magnificent Utopia in your soul, in the sound of the guy whistling down the street.

To wit, from Walden:

What does Africa- what does the West stand for? Is not our own interior white on the chart? black though it may prove, like the coast, when discovered. Is it the source of the Nile, or the Niger, or the Mississippi, or a Northwest Passage around this continent, that we would find? Are these the problems which most concern mankind? Is Franklin the only man who is lost, that his wife should be so earnest to find him? Does Mr. Grinnell know where he himself is? Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes- with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary; and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign. Were preserved meats invented to preserve meat merely? Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.


As is well known, we at the Thoreau You Don't Know welcome submissions of all and any kind. Why, just the other day at a staff meeting a bunch of us were saying, Wouldn't it be great if we had nothing to do at all?--at which point a fight broke out between the people who thought they were in change of nothing and those who though they were in charge of all. Here is an old New Yorker cartoon, sent in by an alert reader of the Thoreau You Don't Know:


The nature of New York's snowstorms, from the Bowery Boys, America's number one New York City history blog.

A Good Point

This subway poster commentator--commentating on the poster at a time when police seem to be watching for people writing on or approaching in any way the advertisements that litter the subway system in New York as well as many other subway systems around the world--makes an excellent point. His or her hand written comment is in the upper left of the poster shown above right, and it is enlarged below right. We are rarely right, so please keep that in mind. Meanwhile, for more information see more information on Poster Boy.

Too Small

Too small for me, anyway, but nice try.



Photo via Y.L.M.: A Buddhist monk’s footprints are permanently etched into the floorboards he has been praying on every day for 20 years. Text via Walden

I delight to come to my bearings- not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may- not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody. God is only the president of the day, and Webster is his orator. I love to weigh, to settle, to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts me;- not hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less- not suppose a case, but take the case that is; to travel the only path I can, and that on which no power can resist me. It affords me no satisfaction to commerce to spring an arch before I have got a solid foundation. Let us not play at kittly-benders. There is a solid bottom everywhere. We read that the traveller asked the boy if the swamp before him had a hard bottom. The boy replied that it had. But presently the traveller's horse sank in up to the girths, and he observed to the boy, "I thought you said that this bog had a hard bottom." "So it has," answered the latter, "but you have not got half way to it yet." So it is with the bogs and quicksands of society; but he is an old boy that knows it. Only what is thought, said, or done at a certain rare coincidence is good. I would not be one of those who will foolishly drive a nail into mere lath and plastering; such a deed would keep me awake nights. Give me a hammer, and let me feel for the furring. Do not depend on the putty. Drive a nail home and clinch it so faithfully that you can wake up in the night and think of your work with satisfaction- a work at which you would not be ashamed to invoke the Muse. So will help you God, and so only. Every nail driven should be as another rivet in the machine of the universe, you carrying on the work.

The Box

People often ask us at the Thoreau You Don't Know what our favorite Thoreau-esque video is. That's a difficult question; there are so many to choose from. Here is one: