Gear and Loafing in America

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed or buy anything sold or processed or repair anything sold, bought or processed as a career. I don’t want to do that.”
  – Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), Say Anything

“You pretend to be more eccentric than you actually are because you fear you are an interchangeable cog.”
  – Douglas Coupland

I sold buttons with my roommates (Michael, Shannon, and MK) when I lived in Eugene, Oregon in semi-optional poverty. We’d scraped together $100 to mail order the button materials and we’d borrowed the button press from MK’s brother Charles, who sold tie-dye stuff at Dead concerts (which would make Charles feel entitled to steal from us later).

The button designs were mostly conventional: symbols (like ankhs, yin yang, and peace signs), quotes from Freud, Einstein, Gloria Steinem, and Marx, and political statements (Free Tibet!), smiley faces, and character (the Grinch and “Bill” from School House Rock). We came up with some original slogans and designs, like “Follow me, I’m Jesus” and “Fuck off! I’m Meditating.” Don't Be A Cog Button

I used Michael’s Apple to create the gears that now appear as the header of my website and newsletter for a button that said, “Don’t be a Cog.” This wasn’t just another slogan to me. At the time, this directive had resonance and urgency. I’d rejected the big industrial-commercial machine. I saw that civilization was a giant Ponzi scheme, borrowing from the environment and the poor to finance temporary gain. I wanted as little to do with it as possible. I was going to use my time doing something worthwhile, or at least something creative and fun. And if I couldn’t do either, I wanted to do as little as possible.

Yin Yang Fish I had mixed success at doing little. I was a part time shift supervisor at a skating rink in nearby Springfield. I got off early enough in the evenings that I could go to a bar or a night diner. There was no alarm clock. When I decided to get up, I would bicycle along the Willamette River, stopping to practice Tai Chi or to pick blackberries when they were in season. I often went hiking or hung out at Buffalo Gals (a coffee shop where I was known). And sometimes I wrote stories or worked on schemes with my roommates. Only frequent misery kept it from being perfect.

Despite the schemes, it was stagnant. I was restless and impatient. My roommates were my best friends, but we had lived together a little too long in a too too crowded apartment. Increasingly we all looked for ways out. I didn’t date and had sex even less. And my poverty was only partially voluntary. Unless someone wanted me to direct a short film, I had no marketable skills. I was at the end of my middle twenties, and I’d failed at (or turned my back on) my first two ambitions. I was running out of ideas.

Sunflower Botton In many ways, my life is better now. I’m married and I have a smart and silly five year old. I know many interesting people, some of which I can call friends. I have a fairly good job, a house, and I put money away for the future. Perhaps, I’m a wage slave, but I’m just as much a slave to my writing. I have less free time, I don’t know if I would have ever had the discipline to write a novel with my loose schedule I’d had in Oregon.

In most way things are much better now than they were when I created the gears artwork, but I am definitely a COG.

Most of my waking hours are spent in routine, work, chores, feeding. My job can be interesting, but it is all about saving money for a large multinational corporation. I may free time it is difficult not to want to crash by the TV or play a stupid game on the computer. I look for ways out of the machine. But I know that even if I become a successful novelist, it is no guarantee I will escape (it could, in fact pull me in deeper). Dead Smiley

Though long gone, that guy that created the gears artwork is my harshest and most interested critics. He wouldn’t necessarily been opposed to my job (to him all non-personal job were the same: janitors, offices temp, project manager, etc.) He would not approve of my working overtime (without time and a half!) He would have frowned when I took the job home with me or when I lost sleep over it. He would have expected me to spend more time with some political or community cause. Mostly, he would have hated that I ever allowed routine to make me forget what is important: Action! Creativity! Connection! He would have been pleased that I was trying to get my novel published, even if it took me forever.

I’m not sure if my former self would have approved of my life now. But then again, he didn’t know everything.

Gear Art

The intermediate art between the button and the header.


  1. Sean says:

    Boy does this resonate. I graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a degree in Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC). In between studying revolutionary figures like Marx, Fanin, & Lenin and movements like the Black Panthers and the Algerian War, I was protesting admission policies and holding sit-ins at the Deans house. Something that became rather routine in the scheme of things (I’m pretty sure it happened at least once a semester while I was there). I find myself in the same place though I try and ‘kid’ myself because at least I have some ownership of the company I’m in. I am “the man” in my small, 70 person company. I think the thing that gets me the most isn’t the being a COG, it’s the fear of anything else. Complacency and the resistance to risking the easy paycheck or the lifestyle I’ve come to expect. I didn’t realize I was such a chicken shit. Who’s loafing now?

  2. [...] I don’t keep up well with Shannon. She lives across the country. We talk maybe once a year. But just after college, Shannon, Michael and I had several ‘adventures’ out on the west coast. Recently a firend of Shannon’s, asked several people that knew her to write something about her for a surprise birthday party. Below is what I wrote.  While not my best writing, I think it captures the feeling of the time well. It is a prequeal in a way to Gear and Loafing in America. [...]

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