The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 31, 2006


Around Home Two offices, one house

New friends and business contacts often ask to see my home office. It seems that if you're a freelance writer, outsiders are always curious about the den of creativity. They imagine that it will either be a shrine to freely meandering neural pathways — a CD of whale songs playing quietly in the background to inspire my poetic words, soft lighting and imaginative colors emanating from the walls — or a rat's nest of chaos, with balled-up papers encircling the wastebasket and six different thesauri, each opened to a different page.

The truth is that my writing space is sparsely decorated, tidy and utilitarian. But what really surprises visitors is what they glimpse just down the hall from my home office. My husband's home office.

"You both work from home?" they invariably ask, with looks of astonishment. "What's that like?"

Three mornings a week at 9:05 a.m., just after leaving our two small children off at school, I head up the stairs to my office. By that time, I can already hear Rick talking on the phone; he starts up his computer as soon as the kids and I leave the house. I close my door and, like all telecommuters or freelancers, key in on the three most important words in an independent worker's day: focus, focus, focus.

Only once have I met anyone else with a similar setup, when my aunt brought me to her neighbor's house. Her neighbor writes the kind of paperbacks that most people buy in airports or supermarkets and don't admit to buying at all. The woman's name was not the same as the name that appeared on the book jackets, because she and her husband actually worked as co-authors and used a pseudonym combining their two identities. The two of them not only collaborated on the same books but also had offices adjacent to one another on a wing of their large house.

"Look at this!" she whispered, pulling me into her office. "I sit here at my desk" — she demonstrated a typical pose in her desk chair — "and I look across the hall, and what do I see?" I looked across the hall and saw a white wall, on which was a framed Ansel Adams print of a snow-covered log.

"A picture!" I replied.

"No, not a picture! Look at the glass! I can tell whether he's working or just goofing off!" She pointed, and indeed, if you peered at the Ansel Adams at a very particular angle — one that she had obviously perfected — it provided a clear reflection of her husband's desk chair. We could see his profile as he scrutinized his computer. The woman poked her head into the hall and barked, "Get back to work!" Then she explained to me, "He's leaning forward. That means he's reading sports scores off the Internet. If he was writing, he'd be leaning back with his hands on the keyboard."

My husband and I have no such reflective glass and presumably no similar need to spy on each other, since we are in different professions. When we do interact during the day, it's usually over a game called "doorbell chicken," in which we both pretend not to notice that someone is at the front door and needs attention from one of us: a signature, a payment, instructions on where to leave the bottled well water. There's also "lunch chicken," whereby the person who manages to hold out longer waiting for the other person to cave in and head down to the kitchen calls out, "Could you make me the same thing you're having?" And, of course, "caller ID chicken," in which the phone rings and we both pretend not to notice that it's his mother.

Once in a while, there's a bonus to the proximity of our work spaces. When he's writing a particularly important e-mail to a client, he calls me in to edit and proofread it before he sends it off. And when my computer freezes, I scream in frustration, just like office workers everywhere, but the difference is that in my case, someone comes running to help, which the IT guys never used to do when I worked in a traditional office.

What we generally don't share during the workday are the details of what we're working on, because there just isn't time. Focus, focus, focus. Unlike regular office workers, we avoid water-cooler conversation.

Once in a while, though, it's inevitable. "I'm done! Two days before deadline!" I'll crow in delight as I put the final touches on an article.

But I always come to regret it. "That's great," Rick calls back from his office. "So you must be ready to take a break. If you're going to make lunch now, could you make me some too?"

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito