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'Meat' the Truth

The start-up work ethic is killing us

By Annalee Newitz

Imagine, if you will, the offices of a multimedia start-up. Surrounded by trees and snuggled comfortably above SETI's offices in Mountain View, the place looks about as groovy as you can get. But inside a large, airy room, employees of the hot and heavily funded E-pinions.com are working quietly--no squeeze toys are being tossed around; no techno music blares anywhere. Everyone is busy setting up a consumer-reports-style website which will, in new media speak, "bring word of mouth to the web."

To get to their desks, the E-pinions crew must pass by a whiteboard that announces the few days left until their launch. They have to pass by it again if they want to get to the boxes of bottled drinks and bales of candy and snacks arranged in tidy piles near the front entrance. On nearly every wall and every surface, somebody has posted sheets of paper emblazoned with the laser-printed words: ARE YOU OBSESSED? It's as if this start-up--like so many others--is mandating neurosis in order to meet its launch date.

And yet today, curiously, these workaholics are taking the time to pause in their about-to-go-live mania for 20-minute massages in an aromatherapy-saturated conference room, a perk largely subsidized by their company in the interests of employee health.

This sort of activity runs counter to the ruling ideology of Silicon Valley. In this brain-driven economy, bodies are little more than "the Meat," a term William Gibson's cyberpunk heroes use to describe all their biological parts. For people working in high tech, the body is often relegated to the status of Meat, a dead piece of flesh totally detached from whatever mind once animated it. Beyond feeding it and voiding its waste, what needs does the Meat have, after all?

According to Robin Ray and Mindy Lederman, co-founders of the corporate massage company Time Out, thinking of your body as the Meat is tantamount to destroying it through neglect. Based in Menlo Park, Time Out is responsible for supplying E-pinions and dozens of other companies like it in the Bay Area with massage therapists who will spend several hours gently reminding workers that stress and relaxation are not just mental states.

"Sometimes people don't know how much pain they're in," Ray says. She notes that many people's first experience with massage is a pleasant, life-changing shock. "Tensions begin in the stomach from holding your emotions in, and that tension goes up your spine to become a headache, shoulder ache, or pain from clenching your jaws all the time."

Silicon Valley organizations commission Time Out to plan and provide therapists for daylong wellness events or regular massages for their company, and they can also buy massage gift certificates for weary employees.

"And," grins Ray, "it's all tax-deductible."

In their line of work, Ray and Lederman have encountered some of the darkest psychological parts of corporate life: the gut-wrenching stress at start-ups, the shame of feeling that you're unable to work hard enough, and the horrible sense of helplessness experienced by people whose jobs involve making decisions about other people's lives. It all adds up to the not-so-surprising conclusion that work is traumatic enough to affect our bodies as well as our minds. And taking time to relax the body can remind us that we are more than just brains for sale to the highest bidder.

Cozy Faber is the office manager whose idea it was to bring Time Out to E-pinions every two weeks. "Our CEO stresses keeping employees happy. They work long hours and we want to make it somewhat enjoyable to come to work," Faber explains. "People come out of their massage in a state of euphoria."

While a company like E-pinions wants to offer its employees a sense of well-being, there's still a kind of irony to corporate cultures where offices are supposed to be comfortable and fun yet still deadline-driven. Large corporations where employees can get their cars detailed, dry cleaning done and gourmet food served to them on-site may not necessarily have employees' best interests at heart. Instead, they offer these perks to keep everyone working long hours and to monitor their employees as much as possible.

Ray and Lederman acknowledge this problem and try to make their massages into one solution. Massage is a reminder that life must include physical pleasure and relaxation--not just brainwork and corporate-sponsored distractions like free pinball in the office.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd and it won't cost you anything to send her email, violently disagree with her or write her love letters at [email protected]

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From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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