Sunsets and The Machine

Koh Lanta sunset

Koh Lanta sunset

  • Time: Monday evening approximately 18:45
  • Location: The island of Koh Lanta; west coast of Thailand

A Free Sunset

As hermit crabs begin to drag their shells around me for the first forays of the evening, I lean back in the gritty sand and watch the Andaman Sea swallow a yellowish-orange sun. The jagged silhouette of nearby Koh Phi Phi Island adds to the meteorological drama.

The burning orb first touches the water, then seemingly accelerates as it is pulled beneath the blue and extinguished. The finale is an explosion of orange across rippled cirrus clouds; the show will be over in 15 minutes.

Cliches smell as nice as dirty diapers to writers, but describing this absolutely flawless sunset without using them is hopeless.

Just another picture-perfect evening enjoyed on a practically deserted beach. I waited for my beaten-up dopamine receptors to unclog, for some tingle of appreciation, and sadly I had to dig deeper than I want to admit. I’ve seen hundreds of these island sunsets now, many on this very sea, and almost didn’t bother to walk the 100 meters from my new bungalow home to the beach for this one.

I should be tied to the nearest palm tree and flogged.

My Beach

Koh Lanta, Thailand

So that made me start thinking; a good thing to do when you are beginning to grow complacent about postcard sunsets in exotic places.

I realized that as I was sitting shirtless in the sand watching nature do her best to take my breath away, literally at that moment a much different scenario was taking place back home in Kentucky.

The 12-hour-ahead time difference here means that when I see the Andaman swallow up that gorgeous sun, it’s literally going just around the corner to wake up my friends and loved ones on Eastern Time.

A dreaded, despised scenario which I know all too well: Monday morning.

Island sunset

Sunset finale

Monday Mornings

If you’re a morning person, you can stop reading now. Or continue on to see how the rest of us sane people live.

Coffee makers set on timer have clicked to life. The aroma of hope and caffeine is starting to waft through houses into the bedrooms of people clinging onto the last precious minutes of their weekends. Birds are in an annoying frenzy outside. The first sounds of traffic and streaks of daylight are filtering through curtains.

Groping hands are searching for snooze buttons to pound. Glowing digits on alarm clocks are being scrutinized. Morning math is being calculated: how long can I continue to hold this pillow in defiance, eyes squinting against the invading morning light, until the inevitable has to happen? What can I sacrifice from my morning routine to remain comfortable for a few more precious minutes?

As I sit here shirtless, wearing the same shorts that I’ve worn for three days, someone at home is staring sleepily into a cluttered closet, wondering what to choose. Or even more nightmarish, buttoning a dress shirt and fumbling through knotting a tie to the correct length.

The neighbors’ engines are being warmed up. Keys jingle. Doors slam.

The first horns sound; people who miscalculated the morning math are going to be late. Traffic is backed up worse than ever. Women are using rear-view mirrors to put on makeup. Text messages are flying. Unwanted meeting invites lurk in bulging email inboxes. Managers are feeling motivated. Cubicles fill with employees who begin opening spreadsheets. Phones ring around the room.

The Machine

The bowels of a dark, ancient machine – one that runs on blood, meat, souls, and dreams of regular human beings – begin to churn; rich men rub their hands together in anticipation at the other end, hoping the excrement will be a fraction of a stock point gained.

Only by sheer grace and well-planned coup did I manage to escape IBM, perhaps one of the most oily machines in Corporate America. It had already chewed on me for close to a decade before I managed to drag away screaming in 2006 and salvage my 30s. My 20s had already been decimated by Corporate America and a mortgage.

It’s not entirely my fault. I was convinced from a young age that the only way to see island sunsets other than when on two-week vacations was to spend a minimum of at least three decades in this cubicle, allowing The Machine to shred its way through my guts and youth with rusty claws.

Many, many days I walked up the stairs to the back entrance of my building in the dark on a winter morning, then exited again in the dark of a winter evening; the sun was a luxury afforded only to a select few with offices. Cubicle dwellers don’t need light to survive. We thrive as mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed lots of crap.

Most of the things that really make good people happy are free or nearly free, anyway. How many Saturdays did I just want to watch a sunset, go hike in the woods, sit in a park, throw a line into a pond, or read a book when instead I was called into work. Some baby seals were getting out of control so the Board of Directors figured a good clubbing was in order.

The stomach of The Machine was rumbling for more blood, and as employee number 6A5706 (I didn’t make that up), I was forced to give mandatory overtime while on salary – a practice for which IBM eventually lost a lawsuit, kept hushed, and was ordered to give backpay to many, many people.

When one friend of mine and fellow engineer asked his manager if being required to work an extra 15% per week was legal, the manager leaned back in his chair, fingertips together, and ominously replied: “Well, if you work the extra, we can do things for you.

The mutiny didn’t last long. People dropped like flies. IBM began outsourcing and offshoring jobs faster than they could assign serial numbers to Indian engineers. My hallway was soon lined with empty offices as cohorts with families were flushed from The Machine for a cheaper alternative. An army of educated guys named Raj were willing to work for what the average teenager at Baskin Robbins earns scooping ice cream.

Even with a current stock price of $182 per share, an incredible gain over the last five years, IBM leadership announced earlier this month an additional 3,300 American job cuts and mandatory pay cuts for thousands of people. The lucky or unlucky ones, depending on how you look at it, will still have to give up free sunsets and drag through Monday mornings as described above to pick up the work and projects left behind by their fallen comrades – for less pay.

The new CEO of IBM had her salary doubled in 2012 to $1.5 million and she has a target bonus of an additional $3.5 million. The previous CEO earned a bonus of $6.5 million in 2011.

How can intelligent 20-somethings straight out of university still be willing to queue up for cubicles? After seeing these vomit-inducing factoids they should be running like hell with middle fingers in the air. Stay away my young friends! Go make love on exotic beaches and watch free sunsets instead of television.

Trust me: The Machine’s appetite will never be satisfied.

My Island

Koh Lanta, Thailand

My empty beach

For the third time in several years, I find myself living on the mostly closed-for-low-season island of Koh Lanta, my favorite in Thailand. My combined daily expenses tally around US $20 per day – a splurge for this place – which includes rent for a gorgeous bungalow with sea view, delicious meals, and drinks.

I feel spoiled, rotten even, but every one of these island sunsets such as the one I nearly took for granted tonight are gifts not to be wasted. People grind through Mondays for 30 or more years just to save enough money to see a few beach sunsets between handfuls of prescription medications.

Thoreau said: “We spend the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.”


Thailand squid

Squid for dinner – $2

If you happen to be sitting under fluorescent lights at the moment, playing on the internet when you should be opening spreadsheets, don’t give up hope. The world is beginning to see just how ridiculous this entire make-rich-guys-richer cycle really has been all along. The Machine itself is getting clogged with bones and splinters of dreams; even it will break down one day. When it does, I’ll still be sitting here on my island watching those sunsets.

I ponder these things as I walk back to my bungalow, careful not to step on one of the many crabs or frogs which account for most of my neighbors.

Koh Lanta Island

My path home

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16 Responses to “Sunsets and The Machine”

  1. It should be in everyone’s best interests to figure out a way to escape the 9-5 and live their lives like its a holiday 24/7.

    Well written article. Love it.

  2. Wow, Greg. Your Monday Morning and the Machine really hit home. I left just 3.5 years ago after they did away with all work at home and gave me the “opportunity” to move to Iowa. Have you been to Iowa in February? I drove my truc ON the Mississippi river. So, I left and came to the Nations Second best Chidlren’s Hospital here in Cincinnati. I’m not helping one Corp by another Corp any long and I don’t help kids but I do help those how help kids. I had to do something and this was the perfect match for me.

    Hang in their and keep the faith.
    Gerald Jones

  3. Loved the article Greg. After 20+ years working my ass off in the IT industry, I have finally figured out that working hard and doing a good job, like my parents taught me, no longer gets you ahead in life. My job has been outsourced to one of those Indians willing to work insane hours for half or less of what I make. I couldn’t be happier. I have been preparing for this day for a little while now and I plan on taking taking 6 months or more and just travel and figure out my next move.

  4. Hey Greg,

    Nice story although still hard to feel sorry for you!

    Check out the Why Not bar on Koh Lanta. Friendly people – “should I have another beer?” “Why Not!” and so it goes…

    Have fun my friend!

  5. Hi Greg. You are the greatest! Loved your latest on Koh Lanta and why anyone slaving at The Machine should escape it ASAP. I’m still lingering in China but you’ve convinced me a sweet island like Koh Lanta might be the perfect respite from recent typhoons and a bout of bronchitis. Besides those sunsets look so delicious as does the $2.00 plate of seafood.

    Gotta go check those air fares. And you keep up the good work of convincing folks why they need to dump The Machine and keep company with the sand crabs and frogs while the planet still has them.

    Love you Greg and what you do and how you do it. Hope to meet you yet!


  6. Hi Greg, when I was an IBM Operations specialist, I worked contracts. Lucrative – paid better.

    A 3 month contract gave me 6 months wandering around. Then another 3 months and hit the road again. No bungalow on a Thai Island though.

    Sounds like you are luxuriating yourself something fierce 😀

  7. Brilliant text. Really inspiring. I can’t wait for my turn to ditch the IT/IBM world, but unfortunately this is the best way to save money faster.

  8. very powerful post man… quite insane how they cut the pay of workers and yet increase the pay of the CEO that much!

  9. Greg, such an amazingly well written article. I think a lot of people don’t realise what a massive amount of courage it takes to walk away from the “machine” and go against the grain like you have. Good on you!

  10. Fabulous stuff, I often find myself calling this life over in Thailand monotonous- a healthy reminder of how very lucky we are and how important it is to stop and remember that!

  11. Good stuff man, thinking of spending january or february in that area just chilling like you are. i know it’s high season, but still.

  12. No, Sallie, you are the greatest! Found a way to read my blocked blog while in China, I see? 🙂

    Hope you’re feeling better. China isn’t really known for their air quality most of the time. Maybe an island is in order?

    By the way, tens of thousands of people have read the interview that we did, shared it all around, and I can only imagine how many people that you’ve inspired!

    Sending love and get-well energy your way. See you one of these days!

  13. I hadn’t read the interview with Sallie, so did. Then went to her blog. Think I’d like to meet you too Sallie. You’ve been doing stuff others dream about without letting all your time be sapped by social media and blogs.

    Remember those 4 x 8 foot sheets of plywood and the notes? The “Twitter” of the 1970’s? That’s about as far as we got then. The rest – well, you younger ones just gotta go live it.

  14. Hi Greg, I found your blog only a few days ago. I have been reading similar blogs for a while now, planning my escape and trying to convince myself that my wife and I could really do this if we put our minds to it. I have always dreamed of travelling the world but thought you had to be wealthy.

    We have lived as British ex-pats in Switzerland and Italy for a few years but to be honest that was still a 10 hours a day cubicle existence during the week. Since then we have spent some time in Thailand, Nepal and India in the regular 2 weeks a year kind of way.

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I’m still in the cubicle / office but I now have a new spreadsheet, it’s called Freedom Fund …. my 3 year plan to become a Vagabond. Thanks for the inspiration.

  15. Nice! As I’m reading this, I’m watching a sun RISE in Canada 🙂 Thanks for participating in #doyouindie!


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