WORKPLACE OCTOBER 29, 2013
Certain events seem inevitable only in retrospect. For instance: Was it determined the moment I decided to work from bed for an entire week that I would not be wearing pants come Thursday? OK, probably. Four days seems the right amount of time for the logic of pantslessness to break the will of anyone who resists it. Still, I thought I could hold out: Because I was not commuting into work, my morning routine was languorous, with plenty of time to put on pants. By Thursday, however, my morning routine had grown so languorous that I skipped my morning shower, and then realized during a midday teleconference that I kind of needed it, after all. I snuck away, rinsed off quickly, and, worried that my absence would soon be noted, was forced to admit that pants had become dispensable. There was work to do, so I pulled on my skivvies and got back into bed.
What was I doing there in the first place? Last summer, I set out to defend traditional sitting against the standing-desk evangelism that is spreading from Silicon Valley into the ordinary workplace. I discovered, in the process, a third category of writers who neither stood nor sat to work but laid down instead. Marcel Proust and Mark Twain both wrote in bed, as sometimes did William Wordsworth. “I am a completely horizontal author,” Truman Capote bragged to The Paris Review. The novelist Gary Shteyngart told me he writes in bed, too. “I do EVERYTHING in bed,” he elaborated in an email.
I felt strongly about my right to rest my legs in a chair, but even I had to admit that lying down seemed self-indulgent. Still, it’s better to indulge yourself than stand. It’s not just that standing desks are uncomfortable; they sublimate wellbeing to workaholism, as though it were a perfectly normal thing to do. And it turned out that, as a sitter, I had not adopted the most radically anti-standing position. Once you knew about the supine option, sitting became merely the mushy middle ground.
So I decided to stand up for lying down, the most neglected of workplace postures, by trying it myself. I asked Shteyngart for pointers. “Do not eat a Szechuan hot pot in bed,” he replied. An upcoming book, The Art of Lying Down: A Guide to Horizontal Living, had other practical tips—“taking pills while lying down should be avoided because they can stay too long in the esophagus and cause damage”—as well as history, theory, and awkward translations from German. “Our culture seems ripe for a new balance between vertical and horizontal existence, and ready to embrace horizontal relaxation,” its author Bernd Brunner writes. I would be the avant garde.
I was worried, however, about working in bed. “I’ve tried it,” the novelist Sam Lipsyte wrote me. “I thought it would make my work more Proustian. But whenever I lie down I fall asleep.” I have the same weakness. Was bed my only option? Just as there are standing desks and treadmill desks, I figured there must be reclining desks too. Indeed, there is something called the “Ergoquest Zero Gravity Workstation.” But watching a man dip backwards in an armchair and then swivel a computer monitor overhead in the instructional video, the whole procedure looked the opposite of relaxing: It looked like a visit to the dentist. Also, prices start at $2,695. Bed it would have to be.
On Monday morning, I pushed my bed into the corner of my room so I could rest my head against the wall while lying both lengthwise and crosswise on the mattress. Then I began the workday. First things first: I sent an email to Susan Orlean, who wrote in The New Yorker about her fondness for treadmill desks. She replied:
I don’t know anyone who works actually in a prone position, but I know tons of people who work in bed (my husband, for instance). I think they’re all a bunch of lazy, bedsore-prone, rapidly deteriorating slobs. Or maybe they’re much, much happier (and smarter) than the rest of us. Who knows? I’ll keep walking for now.
Christopher Buckley, meanwhile, approved of my experiment. “My all-time favorite position is on a couch,” he wrote:
And not just any couch: a particular couch that seems to conform to my back—with laptop. The problem is that laptops tend to get hot and one's ... how to put it, delicate parts end up getting rather toasty. But I suppose poached testicles are preferable to carpal tunnel. Either way, one must suffer for one's art.
Not necessarily! I wasn’t going to shell out for an Ergoquest, but “bed desk” turned up plenty of affordable options on Amazon. The nicer models are anchored beneath the bed frame and wrap around the mattress, but they seemed too convalescent. I settled on a more modest model that rested atop the bed, creating a safe distance between my lap and my computer. It was called “My Ultimate Pro Multifunctional Laptop Table,” and it included a laptop-cooling fan and a cupholder.
During the workday, I tried to follow certain rules. I would not go under the covers. I would get dressed, even if only in sweats. I could rise to use the bathroom, make coffee, and prepare lunch. Even these three basic functions ended up seeming pretty grueling: When you’re in bed, everything seems too far away, even the other rooms of your apartment—and I live in a studio. My water intake dropped to almost zero, which I never noticed until I went outside on some errand and found myself desperately thirsty after a few minutes of leisurely walking. One evening, returning home, I planted my right foot on a step in the hallway, and lifted my left foot assuming it would follow, but nope: It went back down exactly where it had started. I landed it on second try, but I was disconcerted. Were my muscles liquifying already? Typically, I do not have to concentrate on climbing stairs.
For the most part, though, things were going well: I was completing all my normal workday responsibilities without falling asleep. I would start each morning with my head against the wall at about a 150 degree angle, and then slide during the day toward 180 degrees. This motion often caused my shirt to bunch in the small of my back, exposing a cummerbund of bare abdomen on which I could rest a bag of chips. Sometimes, I would discard the bed desk and roll over onto my side or go prone. While standing or walking at your desk is supposed to keep you in shape, lying down to work is the more corporeal experience: I was becoming better acquainted with each of my vertebrae, from C1 to the coccyx. Whenever one of these little guys became distressed by my position, I would shift my weight to spread his burden among his friends.
Most importantly: I was always comfortable. “Unlike sitting in a chair, which requires some physical control, lying down requires no effort at all,” Brunner writes. But everything started to feel a little bit like work, even going to sleep. A few years ago, I used to have hellish dreams—they were too dull to qualify as nightmares—where I’d just slog through an ordinary workday, start to finish. Then I would wake up to face, in fact, an ordinary workday. Now, something worse was happening: I was waking up in my workplace. In the mornings before I logged in to email, I found myself just standing in odd corners of my apartment because it had come to seem like the best use of my time. Lying down on the job was beginning to feel like its own type of workaholism.
I also was having issues with working from home. I thought lying down to work might sharpen my mind (“In no other position can certainties suddenly seem less certain,” said Brunner) but small things around the apartment began to drive me crazy: Why does my toilet tank run for so long after I flush it? What is that thumping noise upstairs every day between 11 and noon? I began to contemplate a change of scenery. If I really wanted to promote lying down as an alternative to standing, it needed to be viable in the office. A coworker told me to come in on Friday. She said she’d bring an airbed.
It was a disaster. People kept coming over to look at me, as though I were a zoo animal or just an idiot. The mattress constantly deflated, and the pump was so noisy that I could only use it when no one was using the telephone, which was hardly ever. A standing desk has the advantage, at least, of only filling vertical space; to lie down, I needed a whole slice of the floor plan.
“How long can it be before the movement will start for people to recline at their desks?” The New York Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren happened to tweet last week, when, in fact, I had already begun the movement. I’m sorry to report: It fizzled. I’m back in my chair.
Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic. Follow him @bencrair.