It can be a lonely workday for those of us who labor at home, but here's the answer: a dog.
(OK, don't all you cat lovers write in to complain. I'm sure cats are wonderful, too, but I'm allergic to them. I'll take your word for it. No catty letters.)
I recently returned to the world of canine companionship after a 10-year hiatus. Our last pet had been a mutant Airedale named Scotch, who still thought he was a fidgety lap dog when he reached 85 pounds. Scotch nearly caused me to swear off pets forever. He ruined the yard. He left tooth marks in the doorknob, trying to get inside. He barked all day while my wife and I were at work, prompting the neighbors to leave anonymous threatening notes. I realize now that he was lonely and neurotic and way too excitable. We found him a nice home before our first son was born.
While that was a terrible experience in pet-owning, it was, I learned later, pretty good training for parenthood.
I wasn't in any hurry to try another dog, but my wife and kids wore me down. My best ammunition -- a dog would be lonely and loud if left alone all day -- became a dud once I started working at home.
A couple of months ago, we adopted a puppy. Actually, at $75, it was more like ransom. He's a shaggy mutt named Elvis. My sons say "he ain't nothin' but a hound dog," but I believe he is part Clydesdale. He nearly doubled in size the first month we had him. He's only six months old, but we're already sizing him for a saddle. We can tell the boys we got them a pony.
So far, Elvis is rowdy with the kids, apparently thinking they're puppies, too, which isn't so far from the truth. But he thinks I'm the Alpha Male, in charge of things around here (ha, ha!), and his job is to follow me around the house.
When I go to the kitchen for coffee, he comes along, watching carefully, as if he's trying to learn to brew French Roast. (Which wouldn't be a bad trick to teach him, come to think of it.) When I'm working at my desk, he sleeps. He's delighted to go outside and play by himself.
He is, in fact, the perfect co-worker.
He doesn't talk back. He doesn't complain. He does exactly what is requested of him (sure, that's essentially nothing, but he's good at it). He never tries to sell me band candy.
He doesn't goldbrick and then hog all the credit. Indeed, a dog can even provide a good excuse for your own lolly-gagging. This has been true since the days of "the dog ate my homework," though it pays to be more sophisticated than that now. Your grandmother can pass away only so many times, but your dog can have repeated miraculous recoveries.
A dog makes sure you don't sit too long at your desk. You have to let him outside and later you have to let him back inside. He'll let you know when. One way or the other. Get too wrapped up in your work and the carpet suffers.
There are other disadvantages. Elvis sheds hairballs, something you don't see much with human co-workers. And humans don't usually snore and drool while you work. Well, some do. But they don't usually chase rabbits while they're sleeping. That can be distracting.
Because Elvis follows me wherever I go, I have a good excuse when walking around the house, talking to myself. See, I'm not really talking to myself like a lunatic, I'm talking to the DOG. Maybe he doesn't answer, but it helps to have someone to bounce ideas off. I find myself muttering, "Elvis, where did I leave that invoice?" And then, "Ah, here it is!" He shares my delight, naturally, though he may just be scamming for another Milk-Bone.
But the No. 1 reason a dog is best is this: You can rarely get your human co-workers to lie on your feet and keep them warm.
It can be a lonely workday for those of us who labor at home, but here's the answer: a dog.
Memo to those who work at home:
It has come to our attention that you folks who don't go to an office every day do not adhere to an enforceable dress code.
Granted, many of you bailed out of the 9-to-5 world to escape jobs that required suits and ties or heels and hose. But how do you expect clients and the outside world in general to take you seriously if you don't dress for success? And wouldn't you feel more professional if you followed a basic dress code?
Therefore, we here in the main office have drafted a proposed dress code for those of you who never leave your homes to perform your valuable work functions. We will conduct an open comment period during which we'll seek your input. Then, without warning, the following rules will become mandatory:
1. Pajamas are not proper office attire. Ditto for bathrobes.
2. Blue jeans are acceptable, of course, as long as you're not meeting clients face-to-face. But there are limits, people. Blue jeans that have been worn for more than six days in a row without washing will be considered a violation of the dress code.
3. Jeans with holes, slashes, patches, burn marks, tire tread patterns, coffee stains or large ink spills are verboten. Legs of said jeans should be approximately the same length.
4. Baby formula spit-up on your shoulder is not to be considered an accessory. Dried spit-up on both shoulders cannot be passed off as epaulets.
5. T-shirts are acceptable as long as they are in good condition (see Item 3 above). T-shirts should not bear beer slogans, rock band logos, curse words or depictions of naked people. Remember: Even if you don't see any clients all day, you'll probably run into your child's teacher at the supermarket.
6. Sweatshirts. See Item 5.
7. Sweatpants are comfortable work-at-home attire, but wearing them anyplace public should be reconsidered. No one's backside looks good in sweatpants.
8. Even though you're no longer going to a proper workplace, underwear still should be changed and laundered regularly. Turning it wrongside out doesn't count.
9. Flannel shirts are proper attire, if you're a lumberjack. However, we recognize that many of you work in poorly heated spaces and therefore need to layer on warm shirts, so we are willing to overlook these. Flannel shirts should have at least 50 percent of their original buttons. Any flannel shirt you owned in high school probably should be discarded.
10. Denim shirts. See Item 9.
11. Clothes should be put on hangers after they are laundered. Valuable work time is wasted sorting through that pile on the floor of your closet, trying to select a garment on the basis of crunchiness.
12. We here at the main office recognize that many of you enjoy the comfort of bare feet. But there are many hazards lurking in your home. Sharp-cornered plastic Legos. Need we say more?
13. Similarly, working in the nude to circumvent these regulations is not recommended. That coffee is hot. Trust us.
14. Personal hygiene remains important, even for those who work all alone. Here, we will refer you to the Rule of Doubles. You can safely double whatever your practices were when you worked at a regular job without risking dismissal or divorce. For example, if you showered daily when you went to the office, you can now shower every other day. Ditto for shaving your face or legs. However, if you were one of those pigs who only showered once a week to begin with, you might want to consider taking the math the other direction. Teeth should be brushed regularly and deodorant applied every day. You may be working at home, but there's still your family to consider. And, believe us, they'll let you hear about this.
There, that wasn't so painful, was it? No neckties. No high heels. Just a few basic rules for maintaining a professional appearance, even when there is no one around to see it. You'll look better and feel better. And you'll be ready to get right to work every morning, which is all we here at the main office care about anyway..
At my house, we greet the dawn yelling.
Every morning, it's a mad scramble to get the kids off to school on time. I'm busy getting ready for the day, too, racing through a shower and hunting up yesterday's blue jeans in preparation for another day in the home office. My two sons and I end up in opposite ends of the house, shouting back and forth. I demand that they get dressed and brush their teeth. They scream back excuses and complaints and pledges of compliance.
The result often is strange, as in this recent exchange:
Me (from the living room): "Achoo!"
Six-year-old (from his room): "I'm hurrying!"
Such miscommunication comes because we live in The House That Devours All Sound.
It's an old brick house, solidly built, with lath-and-plaster walls instead of modern Sheetrock. It does a good job of keeping out street noise and muffling altercations in distant rooms.
Sometimes, the boys resolve their arguments before a parent is even sure what's going on in there. Other times, we go running at the piercing cry of a child in pain, only to find the child shrieking with laughter when we arrive. It's hard to tell exactly what you're hearing in a house that chews up sound waves and spits them out as garbled noises.
So we have a lot of room-to-room conversations that go like this:
Kid: "Augu tanay ob myma neff!"
Kid: "Augu tanay ob myma neff!"
Kid, frustrated, louder: "Augu tanAY ob myma NEFF!"
Me, starting to stew: "Come in here if you want to talk to me!"
Kid, shambling into room, rolling his eyes: "I got an 'A' on my math test."
Me: "Oh, why didn't you say so? That's great."
Kid stalks away, shaking his head.
Confusion can ruin even the best moments of child-parent relations.
Partly for this reason, and partly because the old vocal cords were going, I sought a high-tech solution. For Father's Day, I requested as my annual tribute an intercom system for the house.
My wish was granted.
It's your basic Radio Shack model, three anonymous gray boxes, each with a button to push when you want to be heard. Essentially, they're walkie-talkies for the home. Plug them in, push the button and your voice booms into the farthest reaches of your property. Use a deep voice, and it sounds like a message from God. If that still doesn't get the kids' attention (and you'd be surprised how often that's the case), the boxes also have a button labeled "call." Push that button, and the intercom emits a high-pitched squeal, one that can't be easily ignored, one that says, "Come over to the intercom right now and listen to what I'm saying." The intercoms also have a button labeled "lock" that keeps the channel open so you can eavesdrop on whoever's at the other end of the line.
We installed the intercoms in the living room, in the detached studio where I work and in the basement, which doubles as a rec room for the kids. Now, when I want the boys to turn off the blaring TV downstairs, obedience is as close as the nearest intercom. And if they pretend they can't hear me, there's always the dreaded "call" button.
The system isn't foolproof. The 6-year-old tries to play songs with the shrill call tone. And, as I learned, the "lock" button is dangerous.
I was in the studio, supposedly working, while my wife was in the house with the kids. I didn't realize one of the kids had left the intercom locked on. When my computer game cheated (really!) and I suddenly was defeated, I uttered a very bad word. A series of words, actually. Multisyllabic and blue.
My wife came on the intercom and said calmly: "Are you all right out there?"
I quickly realized what had happened and was forced to explain that I was playing instead of working and the computer had gotten me riled.
"Oh," she said, "I thought maybe you'd fallen down again."
At least I think that's what she said. I couldn't really tell. Somebody was pushing the "call" button.
A kindly old editor once explained to me the facts of life in journalism: “Deadlines are simple. Cross the line, and you’re dead.”
Probably not an original thought, and he had a gleam in his eye when he said it, but I took it to heart. Through two decades in the news business, I rarely missed a deadline. In fact, I usually got my stories turned in early. It left more time to argue with the editors.
Deadlines are more extreme in the newspaper business, as the old editor’s advice shows, but every industry has them. That's why you see people using laptop computers at the beach. It's why the businessman with the car phone to his ear nearly mowed you down in traffic this morning. And it's one reason ulcer medications sell so well (parenting being the other reason).
When you work at home, with no boss looming over your desk, deadlines are largely self-imposed. Granted, clients make demands and there are only so many hours in each day. But when you work at home, your schedule is your own. If you need to work all night to meet a deadline, then you do it. You can catch up on your sleep when you’re done. The trick is to pace yourself, so you don’t end up pulling too many all-nighters. Keep busy every day, plan ahead, make a schedule. Stay on top of the work before it gets on top of you.
OK, you can stop laughing now. No really. Stop it.
It truly is possible to keep a normal schedule when you work at home. Divide up the amount of work you have to do in a given week by the number of days you can actually work on it. Then set daily goals. Meet each goal, and -- voila! -- you’ve met the deadline.
Stop that chortling. You think I can’t hear that? Enough already.
So the secret is all in the planning. Set aside time for e-mail and paperwork and phone calls that’ll interrupt your progress. Remember that Monday is grocery day and Wednesday is laundry and Friday is the dental appointment. Write it all down so you don’t forget. Then chart the available hours that remain.
Cut it out now. I mean it. I’m trying to give you good advice here and you’re still snickering.
OK, so you’ve figured out how many hours you have left. Did you leave room for all this weekly planning? Getting organized takes time. And you’ll need more time later in the week to re-evaluate your plan and make sure it’s working. Interruptions happen. You can’t anticipate that quick trip to the emergency room or that computer meltdown. So if things go wrong, you’ll need time to reconfigure your plans. If it means doubling up your work hours for a day or two to still hit that deadline, it’ll be worth it, won’t it? A happy client is a client for keeps. And an unhappy client won’t care that you were called away from your work by an equally unhappy schoolteacher who wants to discuss little Johnny’s spitball habit.
See? There you go again. Are you serious about making your deadlines or not? All right then, stop snorting and listen.
We’re talking about discipline here. If you’re going to be a success working at home, it takes discipline and dedication and determination and several other traits that start with the letter "D." Just like Deadline. And only you can do it. No one’s going to monitor your progress or suggest a shortcut or recommend that a briefer lunch hour would mean more efficiency. It’s up to you.
A pep talk does you no good, huh? Just more hilarity at the notion of keeping on top of everything and never having to burn that midnight oil. All right, fine. Forget the whole thing.
Find your own method for meeting your deadlines.
I don’t have time for any more of this anyway. I’ve got a project to complete. And if it’s not finished on time, I’m dead.
I called a man a "twit" the other day.
This isn't like me. Don't get me wrong, I can be as guilty of name-calling as the next purported grown-up. But, like most people, I prefer to spread my slurs in the usually safe zone behind the other man's back. If I get riled enough to go face-to-face with somebody, we've usually moved beyond the "twit" stage and into the shouting of unprintables.
But this wasn't a face-off. It was via e-mail. And this guy had said something so, so twittish that somebody had to call him on it.
The occasion arose on a mailing list called DorothyL, which is for readers and writers of mysteries. Delivered daily by e-mail, the list resembles an extended conversation about books among its 3,000 or so members.
One member is facing a serious illness, and asked others to send her messages that said they were burning candles for her. She was making a map with these "points of light" all over the globe as an inspiration to get well. Hundreds of us replied and it was going sweetly until one snarky guy complained that these messages had nothing to do with the topic of the list -- mystery stories.
Now, I don't know this guy. I don't know the ailing woman, either. So why did his message enrage me so? Within seconds, I was boiling. Within minutes, the message had been sent. Zoom, with all the speed of e-mail. Delivered to the list for all to see. Twit.
As is typical of these virtual conversations, a flame war quickly ignited. Some defended the twit. Others pounced on him, as I had. After two days of bickering, the manager of the list told everybody to cool it and was obeyed. Within a week, the list was in an uproar over some other slight and I cackled loudly while watching the battle from the safety of my home office. This time, I stayed out of it.
For those of us who work at home, such virtual neighborhoods can become too familiar. There are mailing lists and newsgroups out there on the Internet for every interest, everything from sheepdogs to Sherlock Holmes. What begins as a fount of information soon becomes a source of camaraderie. We develop virtual friendships. And, like kids on a playground choosing up sides, we make virtual enemies, too. Before you know it, you're calling somebody a twit. Or somebody's saying the same about you.
Because it's all said via e-mail, it carries the protection of anonymity and distance. Sure, you might attach your name to the flame, but there's no danger that the guy you call a twit is going to take a poke at you. The worst that can happen is someone who's wittier or meaner will get you back, that you'll become the butt of the joke or the target of the attacks. It may sting, but it's only e-mail, right? That's why computers come with a "delete" button.
The intriguing part is how something so remote becomes so emotional. I sometimes laugh aloud at others' posts. I was near tears when a distraught DorothyL member recently reported the death of a well-loved author. And I clearly can be moved to anger by the occasional twitticism.
None of it is real. We're all alone, all of us, sitting at our computers, playing at friendship and enmity and debate. Yet it feels like a cocktail party, clamorous with gossip and argument and inane chatter.
When pollsters ask telecommuters what they miss most about not going to a regular office, the answer usually has nothing to do with the work itself. Thanks to computers and modems and the Internet, most of us can do our work anywhere. What we miss is the office environment: the internal politics and the hearsay and the lunchtime conversations. We miss the water cooler.
And now the computer supplies that, too.
It was a simple blue shirt. A camp shirt, I think they're called, with a flat collar and buttons up the front. My wife picked it up during a shopping excursion, but it was a lesser purchase, not one that gets immediately modeled for the family. It was the type of shirt that went into the laundry for softening and then an initial wearing days later, when she could check if I was alert enough to say, "Is that a new shirt?"
Unfortunately, that day never came. She never got to wear it.
I noticed the shirt when I was doing laundry. It still had the sale tags on it, so I carefully removed them. Then I read the "Washing Care" label, which seemed to have been written by someone with an inadequate grasp of English. I remember noting that the shirt was a synthetic material, Mylar or Pylon or something, as I tossed it into a pile of like colors and dumped it into the washer.
When I removed that load from the dryer, I intended to hang up the shirt so it would be unwrinkled for its maiden wearing. I pulled it from the tangle of hot clothes and found it was much smaller than it had been when purchased. I mean, MUCH smaller. You expect a little shrinkage with a new item, but this shirt was half the garment it used to be.
My wife took the surprise with equanimity, as she does most household mishaps.
"It was on sale anyway," she said, which somehow made it all right.
We gave the shirt to my 9-year-old son, who was pleased to have it and didn't even care if it buttoned the wrong way.
A happy ending, right? But the shirt wasn't through. The next time I washed it, it shrank some more. And it has continued to shrink each time it goes through the laundry. The 6-year-old's wearing it now, and it won't be long before the shirt becomes doll clothes.
Work-at-home spouses automatically become the laundry mavens in two-parent households. Laundry's one of those jobs we can do while we're working on other things. We drop what we're doing every 45 minutes or so at the sound of the dreaded buzzer and trot over to the washer and dryer to move another load through the process.
But when the work-at-home parent is a man, disaster awaits. There's something about laundry that evades men, which is why you see so many of them going around in pink tube socks.
Most men subscribe to a philosophy best summed up as: "More is better." If the washer will comfortably hold five towels and two shirts, why not ram in six towels, three shirts (they're getting smaller all the time) and all the socks and underwear you can find? Slip a little extra in each load, and you've eliminated a whole load, maybe two, from that day's labors.
If the underwear comes out an unlikely pastel, who cares? Nobody's going to see it anyway. If everything comes out wrinkled, so what? That's what steamy bathrooms are for. Hang up a shirt while you shower and shave and, by the time you put it on, it's damp, but wrinkle-free.
All of which is fine if you're doing laundry only for yourself. But shrink a kid's favorite ratty T-shirt, and you're going to hear about it. And when you add women's clothing to the mix, the situation is ripe for catastrophe.
Manufacturers make women's clothing out of exotic fabrics in bleeding colors and with elaborate fasteners that catch on everything. It's all part of the conspiracy to get them to buy more clothes. Run those babies through the wash a time or two, and they're goners. Especially if a man is at the controls.
The latest problem outfit at our house is a cute little summer number consisting of black shorts and a matching sleeveless top. Every time they get washed and dried, they get smaller and I get in trouble. It's only a matter of time before they're too small for my wife.
And I think this is one outfit the boys will refuse to wear.
I have a confession to make. I had an inappropriate relationship with a 22-year-old intern.
This happened years ago, long before sexual harassment lawsuits and regulations became commonplace. But that doesn't excuse what I did. It was wrong. I take full responsibility.
I was a young editor for a major news service, full of vim and vinegar. And, yes, regrettably, full of lust as well. She was a college student, a self-possessed young woman who knew what she wanted. She had her whole life ahead of her.
It was a mentoring relationship at first. I recognized her potential. I wanted to help her. I wanted to make sure she landed the right kind of job when her internship ended. But there was a spark between us, and it soon became apparent that a deeper sort of involvement was imminent.
I could've put a stop to it. I could've kept the appropriate distance, kept it all professional and chilly. But I was 25 years old (old enough to be her brother!) and we were consenting adults, after all, and I let the inevitable occur.
We tried to keep our relationship a secret from our co-workers, but we were cursed by the feeble awkwardness that often plagues such romances. On our first date, we went to a fancy restaurant. It was all fine food and candlelight and longing looks, the way a date should be. Then, as we were leaving, we ran smack into my boss. After raised eyebrows and red faces and fumbled explanations, we slunk out of the cafe, figuring the jig, as they say, was up.
But the boss recognized where it was headed, and he looked the other way. The romance was allowed to bloom. We thought our other co-workers were kept in the dark. They played the game admirably. Only later did we learn they were onto us the whole time. When romance is in the air, you can't prevent those nearby from getting a whiff of it.
It turned out fine. Careers were undamaged. No lawyers were involved. Nobody posed for "Vanity Fair." The secret relationship eventually became public, but by then it was too late to harm either of us. Because, by then, we were married.
That was 15 years ago, and we're still together. Things have changed a lot over the years -- not the least of which has been the addition of two sons -- but I can honestly say the spark still burns brightly. While it would be legally accurate to say it all began in secrecy and inappropriateness, it's clear now the relationship was the best move we could've made.
A lot of journalists marry other journalists. It's a quirk of the business. They spend most of their time with other journalists. They work strange hours, they speak their own lingo, they suffer the same slings and arrows of outrageous bosses and impossible deadlines. It's only natural that they end up conducting secret romances and public weddings.
It's tough to keep two careers going in the same field in the same market. My wife and I managed as best we could, chasing my career from New Mexico to California and back again. She found jobs along the way, but it was only when we landed in Albuquerque for good that her career began to eclipse mine. She moved up the ladder into management jobs. I was trying my hand at fiction, and wanted no part of being somebody's boss.
Finally, the scales tilted far enough that I could quit daily journalism and spend all my time writing fiction and running the household. I'm trying my hand at a few other things, such as writing this column and teaching.
It's all possible because of a one-time intern who works hard every day and pays the bills and provides the medical insurance. I do my part, working around the house and looking after the kids, but it's definitely a one-sided arrangement. All of us who work at home should be so lucky.
I feel better after confessing all this. And now it's time to get on with the business of writing new novels for the 21st century. Let the healing begin.
Draft of a letter to be sent to dozens of people I used to know:
"I know it's been a long time since you've heard from me. I regret that I've been so remiss in my correspondence. Sure, we've talked on the phone a time or two, but it's been months. Remember how we once wrote letters every week or two? We kept in touch, made sure the old friendship stayed intact.
"I could make excuses for not writing to you sooner. I could say I work as a writer and I use up all my words in my prose and all my time being creative. But that would be a lie. I'm never at a shortage of words. And I spend much valuable time playing cards with my computer.
"I could blame the computer itself. It has seduced me. Every free moment is given over to that accursed machine. It has made me a wastrel and a loner.
"I could blame my children. The little ragamuffins devour all my free time, leaving me harried and distracted. By the time I've fed them and clothed them and bossed them through a long day of chores and bickering, I'm too exhausted to compose a letter to an old friend.
"I could blame what passes for co-workers in this lonely life of a work-at-home dad. My agent and my editors and my students all make demands upon me, demands I often am unworthy to meet. I therefore spend much of my time faking it, which keeps me too busy to properly answer my correspondence.
"But, in fact, dear friend, I blame you. You see, you still don't have e-mail. I frankly don't understand how you function in the modern world without it, but I guess that is a choice you've made and I shouldn't question it. Lots of you low-tech Luddites manage to lead productive lives, I'm sure.
"E-mail has spoiled me. I can fire off missives to the electronic 'haves' among my friends in minutes, sending the latest news or snorting humor or just a quick hello without bothering with the formalities of paper and envelopes. My correspondents can reply just as quickly, so that sometimes we can write back and forth several times in a single day. No waiting by the mailbox in this modern world. Just a quick check of the electronic mail, oh, seven or eight times a day, as easy as clicking a few keys and waiting for that warm, familiar voice to say, 'You have mail.'
"No addresses to remember, no Zip Codes to hunt up. Just click on a button and spew your reaction directly onto the screen. We often don't even bother with salutations or greetings of any kind. The computer tells the recipient who sent the mail and that's enough information for such rapid, informal correspondence. I even find myself forgetting to use capital letters and punctuation. E-mail is more like a quick chat than a formal conversation. Dash off a few words, hit the 'send' button and move on to the next.
"Real letters, printed on paper, seem so permanent that they require more care. There are all those rules about addresses and spacing. So many choices to be made: 'Best wishes' vs. 'Yours truly' or 'Sincerely yours.' What if the recipient saves the letter and shows it to others? Better not have any typos or incoherent passages or risque jokes in there for the world to see. All those things are allowed -- even encouraged -- in e-mail.
"And once I've struggled through composing such a letter, making sure every 'i' is dotted and every sentence succinct, there's the act of actually mailing it. Scrounging around my wife's desk in search of postage stamps, which seem so old-fashioned and expensive. Better to pay $20 a month to America Online than to be nibbled at, 32 cents at a time.
"So, dear friend, this will be the last letter you receive from me. It's all just too much effort and expense. But let me know when you get e-mail. Then we'll be in touch again.
First call of the day:
"Hello, Mr. Brauer?"
"Hello, Mr. Brewer. My name's Mindy. You can consolidate all of your bills into one monthly payment--"
"Sorry, Mindy, I'm not interested. Thanks anyway. Bye."
Third call of the day:
"Hi, my name's Pat and I represent--"
"Not interested. Thanks. Bye."
Fifth call of the day:
"Hello, Mr. Braugher, I'm calling for Dustaway Carpet Cleaning--"
"I have no carpets." Hang up the phone without saying good-bye.
Seventh call of the day:
"Hello, is this Stella Breener?"
"Hi, I represent--"
"NO!" Slam down the phone.
I know telemarketers are just trying to do their jobs. It's a hard job and I wouldn't want to do it. But they prey on those of us who work at home, and it's hard to remain patient as the phone rings again and again.
All day long, telemarketers call empty homes, ones where people hold jobs in offices and stores. Then they hit on one of us homebodies, and it's a feeding frenzy.
When you work alone all day, the shrill jangling of the phone is jarring. It always yanks me out of whatever level of concentration I've been able to muster.
Worse yet, the telemarketers often call during housework. My arms are full of laundry. Or I'm up to my elbows in dishwater. Or standing on a ladder. Then it's drop everything and go to the phone. No wonder I can be a little touchy.
Sure, I could let the message machine take the calls. Check them at my leisure. Erase the automated sales pitches. But the ugly truth is that many of us who work at home get a tad lonely. That ringing phone may be an important call from a client, we tell ourselves. Or, it might be a friend calling to lure me away to lunch.
So it's not just the annoyance of the call, it's the disappointment. Not only did the call not bring any good news, but it's a stranger, one who's not interested in me, one who's only out to dip his hand into my pocket. I feel so used.
Many work-at-home folks have Caller ID, a little box that shows who's calling before you ever lift the receiver. Wouldn't work for me. I'd still have to stop whatever I was doing to run over and check the box in case it's somebody I know and I can snatch it up before they're switched into answering machine limbo.
Supposedly, you can tell the telemarketers to "remove me from your list" and, by law, they can't call you anymore. I believe that about as much as I believe sending a "remove" message to e-mail solicitations will get you off the spam lists. And, even if it's true, a dozen new telemarketers will spring up to take that one's place.
Others who work at home advise me to talk the telemarketers' ears off when they call, then don't buy anything. They're wasting your time, this philosophy goes, so the only way to get even is to waste theirs right back. I don't have the patience for that.
Then there's the approach that I think made its first appearance on "Seinfeld." Say to the telemarketer: "I don't have time to do this right now. Give me your home number and I'll call you there." I don't have the nerve to pull that off.
During the summer, I hit upon the perfect answer. I let my 6-year-old son answer the phone. I only hear one side of the conversations, but they seem to go something like this:
"Hello, may I speak to Mr. Bruger?"
"Um. Is your mommy or daddy there?"
"Mommy's at work."
"What about your daddy?"
"He can't come to the phone. He's going potty."
"Okay, thanks anyway."
"Have you ever seen the purple Beetleborg when he morphs into a super Beetleborg?"
"Uh, bye now."
"What's your name? Do you want come over and play?"
I miss my office.
No, not the office I left 19 months ago to become a work-at-home writer and stay-at-home dad. Not that office, a now-alien landscape of cubicles and neckties. I miss my home office.
It's still where it always was, in a narrow garage-turned-studio behind my house. I can look out the window and see it from here. But my computer and I have been exiled into the house itself, and things just aren’t the same.
One reason we bought this old house a decade ago was because of the studio. I needed a separate space, one with some privacy for the desperate hair-tearing that is writing, one where I could be as messy as necessary without the clutter spilling over into areas seen by visitors.
It's a cozy space, as I remember. Ten feet wide by 30 feet long with a bathroom and closet in one end. The previous owners put ugly carpet on the floor and Sheetrock (but woefully little insulation) on the walls, cut a big window in one side and added an air conditioner and a heater.
From the moment I saw it, I knew it was right for me.
I've added my own touches over the years. Shelves for my reference books. A big work table made of a door stretched over two file cabinets. An ancient sofa and a wonderful old wooden swivel chair. A boom box on a shelf next to a collection of blues CDs. Everything within reach, everything ready whenever inspiration strikes.Then the house guests arrived.
They're wonderful people, these houseguests. Their two boys get along swimmingly with our two boys. The whole family's moving back to Albuquerque, and it'll be a joy to have them nearby. But they needed a place to stay during weeks of frantic house-hunting, and we offered them the studio. My computer and I trooped into the house for the duration. We relocated some bookcases in the bedroom, erected a jiggly card table and set up the computer and the printer so I could still work while the house guests made the studio their own.
It’s been a revelation. I didn't know how lucky I was, having the studio. Lots of people have their home offices right in the house, tucked into a corner or spread all over the dining table. I don't see how they get any work done.
Household noises suddenly become major distractions. It's hard to concentrate on writing when you can hear water running somewhere in the house and a child's devilish laughter. My kids, who always knock when they come to the studio, think nothing of barging into the bedroom when I'm working, asking the usual six dozen questions, always culminating with, "When do I get a turn on the computer?"
And heaven forbid they enter when I'm taking a break, playing computer Solitaire or something. They take one look at the screen and, in their most strident J'accuse! tones, shout, "You’re not working!"
Sheesh, it's like having a boss again.
Not that the boys care whether I'm getting any work done. Quite the opposite. They're only interested getting their turn on the magical machine. Our house is filled night and day with the bleeps and bloops of computer games.
I was washing the dishes the other day, humming happily to myself, when I realized the tune was the theme song from "Lego Island."
The kids are getting more time on the computer than ever before, and familiarity breeds boldness. Now, I never know what I'll find when I sit down to work. They change the screensavers and the wallpaper and various settings. It's a wonder I can find a thing.
One change was good, though. I had my screensaver set to scroll giant red letters across a black screen whenever I let the computer languish. The motivational message? "GET BUSY!!!!!" Not the sort of message you want in your bedroom, the last thing you see before going to sleep at night.
Now the screensaver is a shifting blob, changing colors like a kaliedoscope. I find it kind of soothing.
But I still miss my office.
A perceptive reporter I know once did an article on stay-at-home dads and came away with this observation: All the men had tanned feet.
I was welcomed into their ranks recently when a houseguest arrived and said, before she’d even come indoors, “Look! Even your toes are tan!”
For the first time in maybe a decade, I have a suntan, and it’s because I’m a stay-at-home parent. In the past, I’ve spent all my free time working and writing, and you can’t get a tan from the glow of a computer monitor.
But this summer was a first: My two sons stayed home with me -- no day camp, no preschool -- and I quickly discovered the swimming pool was the best place to spend long, hot summer afternoons.
Swimming is a way to channel the boundless energy of children. It wears them out for bedtime. It gives them a chance to practice their negligible social skills on other kids. And, since I’m doing most of my work in the pre-dawn hours while they’re still sleeping, it gives me a chance to rest and soak up some rays.
Tanning doesn’t come easy to people of Anglo-Germanic origin. We’re melanin-challenged, our natural skin tone a shade I call Moby Dick white.
Both my sons are blue-eyed blonds. So we slather on the sunscreen -- SPF 600, I think it is -- for protection from the blistering New Mexico sun. In the tiniest of increments, we’ve changed to a life-like color. Not bronze, exactly, but darker than the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead.”
We go to the Elks Club pool every other day, taking the day off in between to let sun-hot skin cool. On weekdays, I’m often the only representative of the species Big, Hairy Dad on the premises.
Sometimes I catch the moms eyeing me suspiciously, probably wondering why I’m not at a real job during office hours. Those of us who work at home know office hours are whenever you can get them -- early in the morning, late at night, whenever the kids are asleep or otherwise occupied. Three hours at the pool in the afternoon is just an extended coffee break.
My personality changes at the swimming pool. A normally modest sort who wouldn’t think of jiggling around shirtless while, say, mowing the lawn, I strip down to my trunks and beach myself on the nearest lounge chair without a thought to whether anyone’s watching.
I hide my usual gregariousness behind sunglasses and a fat book. I’m usually vain about my hair, but I don’t even care as it dries into an arrangement that would make a porcupine proud.
Even my name changes. I become “Watchthisdaddy.” My sons started the Summer of Swimming tentatively, paddling around, getting their sea legs. By midsummer, they were doing cannonballs off the diving board and initiating splash fights and leaping into the deep end without hesitation.
Aquatic daredevils to the end, as long as they have “Watchthisdaddy” as an audience.
It’s not just my kids, either. “Watch this!” is part of the everyday cacaphony of the swimming pool, a steady background noise of squeals and shouts and splashes. Sometimes, as I’m dropping off to sleep at night, I can still hear “Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo!” ringing in my ears.
We come home from the pool reeking of sunscreen and Eau de Chlorine, hang damp towels and swimsuits on the coat rack, and repair immediately to the kitchen.
What is it about swimming that makes you voracious? It can’t be simply the burning of calories through exercise. Often, I don’t swim enough to even breathe hard. But by the time I get home, I’m ready to gobble my way through the fridge like the shark in “Jaws.”
It shows, of course. I’ve put on weight during this summer of having the boys home with me. “Watchthisdaddy” isn’t going to be left out of the snack bar raids and the post-dip ice cream breaks.
I try not to think about how I look in my swim trunks, though the phrase “Thar he blows!” echoes in my head. I avoid mirrors like a vampire. And I tell myself: It’s just more to tan.
Calm parents have no imagination.
You know the ones: Parents who trust in the flexibility of young bones and the abilities of emergency room trauma teams. They maintain saint-like repose while their children swing from clotheslines or plunge into the deep end, secure in the belief everything will be all right.
I’m not one of them. I’m a high-strung, overprotective father with a vivid imagination, and sometimes it ruins the whole experience.
My sons climb high in the mulberry tree, swinging like howler monkeys, and I don’t see two boys enjoying themselves. I see broken bones and itchy casts and plastic newspaper wrappers at bath time.
They do their balance-beam number on the wall that rings the back yard, and I envision the precise trajectory that will result in a shattered elbow. They hang by their knees from the swing set, and I imagine their golden heads splitting on impact.
I spend all day bellowing, like a demented opera singer: "Get down from there!" "Be careful!" "Watch out!"
They get the inevitable scrapes and bruises and goose eggs. No broken bones or hospital stays yet (knock wood), but I don’t find any reassurance in that. It only enforces my inner fear that our time is coming.
How did I get to be such a Nervous Nelson? Memories of my childhood center around mad dashes to Dr. Irvin’s office for stitches and blood-pressure cuffs and tetanus shots. When my parents regale my wife with tales from my daredevil boyhood, they almost always end with a bandage count.
I rocketed my bicycle through a barbed-wire fence and did a spectacular end-over-end dismount. I snapped a leg when a rope swing let me down hard. I did a belly flop off a rocky lakeshore into water that was two inches deep.
My poor brother broke all his bones before puberty. He was always falling out of trees or stumbling over roots or plowing headlong into gravel. I got blamed every time.
I fondly remember my mother standing at the kitchen window, screeching, "Get down from there! Watch out!" Just like I do now.
Once my mom watched warily as we leaped off a high bank into the local swimming hole, moving her to shout: "If you kill yourselves doing that, don’t come crying to me!"
My wife, naturally, is cool as they come. Don’t people often pair up that way? Isn’t it a good thing? Someone has to keep her head when an emergency arises. Me, I go running to help and fall down the steps. Then two of us are writhing on the ground.
Other times, I leap into action and do the wrong thing.
Our boys used a seven-foot-long fallen elm limb as their access to the wondrous branches of the mulberry tree. They’d prop the limb in the lowest fork at an angle, then go up it like squirrels. I spent way too much time listening for a sudden scream.
The fourth time one plunged off the limb and howled, I marched out, checked him for major injury and decided he’d live. Then I snatched up the limb and broke it over the back fence and tossed the two rotten pieces onto the woodpile. This made the victim scream louder.
I felt like a heel.
The boys recovered. They found a rope ladder that lets them climb into the mulberry tree, and forgot all about the old branch.
As for me, I’m trying to learn to be patient and calm, trying not to break stuff or whine.
Sometimes now, I follow my familiar warning shriek with a hollow laugh. The boys think maybe I’m just joking, but they stop teetering on the picnic table anyway.
The other day, they were outside on the swing set, its ropes squawking like a pterodactyls. The boys shouted and laughed and occasionally landed with an "Oof!"
The 8-year-old yelled: "Dad, come see! Seth’s learned to jump out of his swing!"
"No, thanks," I said. "It makes me nervous."
He ran away, giggling. He thought I was joking.
Painting your house is similar to having a new baby. Years pass, and you forget just how tough it was at the time. You forget the mess and the smell and the discomfort and remember only the happy glow of the new and fresh.
This is why couples have more than one child, and it’s why I volunteered last summer to paint my old house.
Painting may be the lowest common denominator of home projects. You might not be able to replace a window pane or service your own furnace, but you can slap paint on something, given the opportunity.
Of course, such relative simplicity can be deceiving, leading us to tackle much more than we should. Unrealistic goals lead to slip-ups like the dingy window frames in one bedroom at our house, missed when we last painted six years earlier.
Most of our interior was a color I called "What-were-we-thinking Pink," though the paint company called it "Windsor Rose." It went on our walls the color of Pepto-Bismol and dried to a pale pink that looked fine as long as no light shone directly on it. We’d lived with that paint for six years and two small boys, and it was time for a change.
My wife and I visited the home improvement store and leafed through samples and took home paint chips and finally settled on a light taupe called "Renoir Bisque." Other finalists included "Sandrock," "Foggy Day" and "Gray Moth." For the woodwork and trim, we chose an enamel called "Pure White."
We also bought rollers and brushes and pans and sponges and yardsticks and masking tape. We considered one of those power rollers, but the house isn’t that big and, heck, we’d only use it every six years.
We got everything home, and I began doing a little prep work every day -- scraping and spackling and sanding and scrubbing.
Six years before, my wife and I had painted the house together, but this time I was doing it mostly alone. I’m a househusband now, and I had endless days to concentrate on the paint job and really do it right.
It took a month.
Partly, that’s because I could only apply paint when the boys were at Grandma’s house. Kids and wet paint don’t mix. Partly, it’s because I spent an enormous amount of time edging everything in miles of masking tape, trying for crisp edges around the ornamental woodwork. I went back to the store three times for more tape. My motto: Tape it now or scrape it later.
But the main reason it took so long is that I needed to rest a lot. House-painting is like doing aerobics all day long -- up and down and back and forth, now s-t-r-e-t-c-h. You use muscles that normally get to just lie around in your arms and legs and shoulders, filing their nails and smoking cigarettes and waiting for an alarm call. And, let’s face it, I’m not as young as I used to be. It had been six years since I'd last hefted a roller.
In paint, I learned, there is pain.
Despite the aching muscles, painting can be a Zen experience once you find your rhythm, graceful in its smoothness and economy of movement. In fact, it might be almost enjoyable if it weren’t for the paint itself. Why does paint have to be a liquid, subject to the vagaries of gravity and spill? Most of the time, I was covered in Renoir Bisque.
It didn’t help that the latex paint appeared a radioactive lavender when it was wet and I was blithely coating my house with it. It lightened as it dried, ending up just the right shade of taupey tan. I think paint manufacturers make it happen that way to drive us all crazy. Their little joke.
It's been nearly a year now, and the place still looks pretty good. But already I find myself thinking: Maybe down the road, say six years from now, I’ll be up to doing it again.
It's that time of year again. Time to pack up the family and drive across country on summer vacation. See the grand panoramas of America. Soak up history and culture at museums and national monuments. Spend meaningful time together. Fill those photo albums.
Had you going for a minute there, didn't I? Let's face it. For most of us, traveling with our kids is a battle of wills. Children gag at the thought of a museum. They make faces at the camera. They wander off. They get bored. Seen one grand panorama, you've seen 'em all. The national monuments all have golden arches.
All together now: "Are we there yet?"
My wife and I recently took our two sons, ages 6 and 8, on a driving trip to Arkansas to see my relatives. More than 900 miles each way, through some of the most unspectacular country on God's Earth. Interstate 40 takes you through eastern New Mexico, which is almost scenic in a big, empty sort of way. Then there's the endlessly flat Texas panhandle and the whole rolling blah of Oklahoma.
People in that part of the world know they don't have much to offer. Their tourist attractions are big enough that you can marvel at them without stopping the car. The Cadillac Ranch near Amarillo. The World's Largest Cross in Groom, Texas. Oklahoma has a lakeside exit called Lotawatah Road (hilarious laughter from the kids) and one called Arnot Road ("Are, too!"). That's about it. I always look for a town called Allright, OK, because that's what we parents keep saying, but I haven't found one yet.
We're veterans at this. We make this pilgrimmage to see the folks back home every year or so. We know to take plenty of toys and books. We know to keep lots of snacks hidden in the car. We know to stop overnight in a motel with an indoor pool.
We even stock the car with children's music on cassette. Of course, that's hard on the adults. After a dozen listens to Bob Dylan croaking "This Old Man" or chirpy folksingers giving us "Little Bunny Fou-Fou," we're pulling out our hair.
Making up new lyrics helps. One song strings together all the parts of the body by funny names -- "smell-sniffer" and "soup-strainer" and the like. My wife and I sing a version that goes: "nosepicker, backstabber, bootlicker, Whitewater, pants-dropper. . ." The boys don't understand why we're laughing up in the front seat.
As the kids get older, each trip gets a little easier. The 8-year-old simply reads one book after another, never looking up until we reach out destination. The 6-year-old plays with his plastic superheroes, plays handheld video games, sleeps and, twice an hour or so, says, "How much longer 'til we get there?"
We travel eight hours a day. On our recent trip, the 6-year-old was good for about seven hours, then his patience wore out and he started getting into trouble.
During the last hour of our trip home, when we could see the Sandias looming up ahead, he amused himself by removing his shoes and tossing his dirty socks at my head. My wife was driving, so he left her alone.
But the shotgun passenger makes a heck of a target. Knowing we were in that deadly last hour and trying to be the good-natured dad, I tossed them back. Oh, that was so funny we had to do it again. About the ninth time a stinky sock hit me in the head, I wheeled on him and, laughing villainously, rubbed it all over his nose, saying, "How do YOU like that smell? Hah?"
His reply: "Smells like French fries!"
By that time, everything in the car smelled like French fries.
So, as your summer driving vacation nears, remember this advice: Lots of food, lots of distractions, regular exercise breaks.
And keep their socks in the trunk.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do I.
Vacuum cleaners may be the efficient way to remove dust and grime from your floors, but I prefer the physical labor and shush-shush resonance of a broom on hardwood. Plus, I can listen to Muddy Waters while I clean rather than wincing the whole time against the roar of forced air.
I feel the same way about lawn mowers. I use an old push mower than barely whispers when I give the grass a haircut. Not for me those blaring, polluting, gas-powered mowers. This stance was strengthened by my last encounter with a power mower, when I accidentally ran over a sprinkler head, sending dangerous shrapnel flying around the yard. I was uninjured; the mower wasn’t so lucky.
You probably haven’t given these matters much thought, but they’ve become philosophical positions for me since I left the corporate world to become a househusband. This proves either that: a) constant exposure to housework will lead to finding methods that work best, or b) I’ve got way too much time on my hands.
Maybe you’re thinking: Just like a man to overanalyze every little household chore.
Men love to solve problems and make decisions. It makes us feel important and competent and masculine. Most men would rather spend two hours figuring out an exotic labor-saving method for doing a job than the five minutes the actual job would’ve taken the old-fashioned way. Especially if the new solution involves power tools. Tim the Tool Man on TV’s “Home Improvement” makes men laugh because he hits so close to the truth.
No amount of technology or powerful chemicals does the job as well as elbow grease. And that, as women have known all along, is why it takes so much time. Most men think of housework as something you knock off in two hours on a Saturday. That’s because they’re not the ones doing it the rest of the time.
It’s easy to straighten up a house when the basics -- sweeping the floors and scrubbing the tub and doing the dishes -- are regularly kept up. Pick up a few toys, throw some newspapers in the recycle bin, fluff the pillows and -- voila! -- the house is clean.
But the basics are ignored at your own peril. Pretty soon, rambling herds of dust bunnies are running the place and you can’t go barefoot in your own home.
Men also tend to dismiss the amount of work involved because they suscribe to a cleaning philosophy best described thusly: "If you can’t see it, it ain’t dirty." Look under a bachelor’s sofa sometime. Brr.
The problem with being right here in the house all day, every day, is I’m always surrounded by the work. I start noticing things like dust. It’s a short hop from noticing filth to becoming obsessive about it. Pretty soon, I'm on my knees with an old toothbrush, trying to get the grime out of baseboard corners.
Oh, I can try to reach it with a vacuum cleaner, but that’s the coward’s way out and it never works anyway, even when I use one of those skinny corner attachments that look like a murder weapon. I can spend all day sitting and pondering, trying to come up with some high-tech answer. But to really get rid of dust and dirt, I’ve got to get close to it, become familiar with it, show it who’s boss.
And that’s hard, boring, physical work, which is why men find it easier to ignore dirt than to do something about it. And I don’t expect that to change, not unless more men end up working at home like me and paying way too much attention. Or, unless they invent a giant suction that strips dust, dirt, stains and old paint from the entire house with the flip of a switch.
Imagine how much power that baby would have. Ooh.