This Dangerous Business

This Dangerous Business

One of the things they never tell you about the book business is how much sitting is involved. Reading and writing demand immobility, and immobility has consequences.

There was a lot of sitting in my last job, too. But there I would leave the house in the morning, drive to work, take the long walk from my parking stall to my office in another part of the corporate campus, head to my first meeting, and afterward spend the day traipsing from building to building, meeting to meeting, or down the street for coffee or lunch, before heading home again, having walked several thousand steps and climbed a lot of stairs (for a few years I took the stairs exclusively, even to meetings on the tenth and seventeenth floors.) The routines of office life guaranteed that minimum of motion.

This new life does not, and certainly not when combined with lockdown. Last September, it occurred to me that apart from a half-hour of daily exercise, I was almost completely sedentary. Those regular five or ten minute walks between meetings on the corporate campus had been replaced by twenty or thirty steps to the kitchen, the mailbox, the john.

I’m a bit proud of my ability to sit still for long periods of time. It’s an acquired skill. An abundance of physical energy is one of many excuses for why I was a terrible student. Over the decades, I’ve become adept at staying seated, concentrating on the page for hours at a time. The benefits are clear: the less you move, the more work you get done.

At the same time, I’ve read the warnings about the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. According to the World Health Organization, two million people die every year from physical inactivity. Which is how many people have died from Covid. It’s a top ten leading cause of death and disability. And sedentary lifestyles increase the risks of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, depression, etc. The WHO estimates 60% to 85% of the world’s population is sedentary, “making it one of the more serious yet insufficiently addressed public health problems of our time.”

Alarmed at what I was doing to my body, feeling like the hippo who lolls weeks at a time in the same muddy pool, eating 2.5 percent of its massive body weight each day, I decided in September to change things up.

I first tried reminding myself to get up and move every hour and set an alarm to assist me. It didn’t take. When you’re a big-league concentrator, you can reach over and turn off the alarm without even being aware you’ve done it.

Fine, I thought, I’ll start working out twice a day. That didn’t last a single day.

Reluctantly, I turned to the standing desk that’s been standing undisturbed in the corner of my home office for the past few years. I can’t remember why I bought it. I don’t think I used it for more than six hours before leaving it to collect dust. My back got sore after an hour or two of standing and I quit. I meant to dispose of the desk but never got around to it. Fortunately.

I started standing for an hour or two a day in early October and by Christmas, having learned the trick of laying a foam mat beneath my feet, I was able to stand all day without strain. It felt like an enormous achievement, never mind that every person in the foodservice, cleaning, and retail fields does it without thinking.

Beyond that fleeting sense of accomplishment, my life hasn’t changed. I do feel marginally more energetic and slightly less concerned about my health. Otherwise, I’m simply upright more often, and it feels as natural to stand up to work as it used to feel to sit down to work. There’s no self-help book in the experience.

The fun came over the holidays when I decided I was sufficiently committed to standing to pimp out my desk.

It’s a modest desk. I bought it because it was solid (steel), compact, adjustable, mobile (wheels), inexpensive, and highly rated on Amazon.

It took a while for me to appreciate its virtues. For starters, it’s a single-purpose standing desk, not one of those either/or desks you can set at sitting or standing height. In my brief experience of those desks (I had a fancy electric model worth several thousand dollars at Rogers), any desk that can be used for either sitting or standing will be used entirely for sitting. 

My laptop (Macbook Pro) goes on the second-highest platform, which I can adjust to precisely the right height for my hands. That platform is wide enough that I can keep a stack of papers to either side of the laptop. That’s it. No other distractions. The smaller middle shelf accommodates the dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style. The top shelf is stable enough that I’m comfortable putting my heavy Thunderbolt display on it (with a clamp to ensure I don’t knock it over). As for the wheels, I can lock them or roam around the room.

The idea of accessorizing the desk was planted in late November when I attempted to fix the broken audio jack on my Macbook and destroyed it, permanently. I had to buy a pair of speakers with a USB connector to get sound out of the computer. The speakers worked brilliantly and enhanced my standing experience. I wondered what else I could do.

I thought about getting a better, wider, curved monitor but I like the atypical height of the Thunderbolt — the more verticle your monitor, the more of a page or scroll you can see at once. I decided to keep the Thunderbolt and bought a riser that brought the screen six inches higher, so its sweet spot is now directly at eye level, just where I like it.

I also learned to set up the display so that it extends rather than mirrors my laptop display. I can now have two full-size documents side-by-side on the monitor with email and slack open on the laptop. This is something every eighth-grader can do but, again, I felt a rush of accomplishment, until the laptop display went blank.

The display went blank for the first time last summer after I dropped the laptop. It came back on in an hour or so. A couple more drops through the autumn and the blackouts got longer. It’s been out almost two weeks now so I’ve ordered a new laptop. The Macbook Air with the M1 chip. I’m excited about it, hoping it can handle better than my dying laptop enormous word documents.

I got a task lamp that clamps to the desk to better light the papers to either side of my laptop.

I purchased a monitor arm that clamps to the opposite side of the desk from my lamp. It’s not for my monitor. I spend a lot of time taking notes from books or from manuscripts or papers that I’m reading, and I have no room on this small desktop for a reading stand. So I built a simple bookstand from wood and attached it to a “full-motion articulating gas spring monitor arm” and I can now have the books and papers at eye-level directly at the left of the Thunderbolt display, or out of my sightline if I don’t need them. I can also move the task light to illuminate what’s on the book stand.

Cord management was becoming a problem so I got a power bar with six outlets and a bunch of USB and USB-C ports. It’s attached to the desk’s frame. Somehow, in a paperless, wireless world, I still have a lot of paper and wires.

There’s a hook for my headphones (they, too, are wired — I hated having to always charge the Bluetooth ones).

My pens and pencils sit on the top shelf in a National Post mug affixed to the surface with mounting putty.

My printer is on the bottom shelf. It’s Bluetooth, doesn’t need charging, just plugging in, and it works fine.

The one thing I haven’t been able to find is a good cupholder. Just as it’s easy, when you’re a champion concentrator, to turn off an alarm without noticing, it’s also easy to knock over a water bottle without noticing, at least until it’s too late. (That also explains the mounting putty under my pen cup). Wanting to keep the bottle off the desktop, I searched Amazon for cupholders. There are some brilliant designs for automotive, marine, cycling, and stroller cupholders. All I could find for desks was this:

It will do. 

For the moment, I’ve taken the accessorizing as far as seems reasonable. I’m not ready for a hamster wheel or treadmill desk.

With all of us working from home and in danger of dying from our sedentary habits, you would think there’d be better options for standing desks. I looked online to see if there wasn’t something I liked more than my inexpensive, customized setup. I came up empty. This one from Costco is okay but doesn’t seem to be adjustable and looks better suited for Paul Shaffer:

Most on offer are simply traditional desks with longer legs. Designers need to rethink the desk, top to bottom, to get it right for standers. Or maybe throw out the concept of ‘desk’ and think about work stations instead. I want something more like this but less medical: 

My guess is that someone eventually will do for standing desks what Peleton did for the exercycle. Incidentally, there are already custom parts for Peletons that turn them into desks. Notice the cupholder: 

 

The gaming people have the right idea but they have yet to abjure the chair.

In fact, they seem to be going the other direction. Notice the dual cupholders: 

 


Boris of Brexit

The Spectator says that Tom Bower’s biography of Boris Johnson pulls punches, ostensibly because Bower’s wife is a fan of the British prime minister. That may be a better indicator of the UK media’s habitual viciousness toward other members of the UK media (Boris, of course, was a long-time Daily Telegraph and Spectator hack) than it is of normal human relations or biographical standards. Boris Johnson: The Gambler seems plenty vicious. Says one of Bower’s sources:

There’s a pattern to Boris’s life: it’s the casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal, and beneath the betrayal the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained.

Add’s Johnson’s daughter, Lara: “He’s a selfish bastard.”

That was 2020!

A horrible first half of the year, and a scorching second half. That was the book publishing world in 2020. Here’s what the New York Times said about it:

With so many people stuck at home and activities from concerts to movies off limits, people have been reading a lot — or at least buying a lot of books. Print sales by units are up almost 8 percent so far this year, according to NPD BookScan. E-books and audiobooks, which make up a smaller portion of the market, are up as well.

“I expect that at the end of the year, when you look at the final numbers,” Madeline McIntosh, chief executive of Penguin Random House U.S., said of the industry, “it will have been the best year in a very long time.”

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