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Saturday, November 5, 2016

A THOUSAND WORDS


This week's TIME magazine reports that nearly a quarter of all Americans work from home at least part of the time. There are nearly 40 million telecommuters and the number is rising so rapidly that experts project it could double in the near future. This means that fewer and fewer individuals are like my father. If like dad you put on a suit and tie and head to the office, you are quickly becoming a minority. The days of the 9 to 5 - or in my dad's case, the 7:30 to 6:30, because he also drove us to school - are quickly coming to a close. 

What does this mean for the stay-at-home dude? Less time spent in traffic and fewer miles on the car, for starters. Which most would agree is a plus. But if you were raised in the era where one or both parents went to the office or the factory, arrived on time and in uniform, and clocked out at a certain hour, you are also a product of this era, since the school day, with its fixed periods, recess and lunch, models what is required in the working world. Too bad most jobs (and some schools) don't allow for running around in the playground. We need our recesses! But if your view of work is the traditional one, then in this changing climate you may feel left in no man's land even as you work from home. I mean confused. Do you get dressed to sit on your laptop in the backyard or are last night's pjs okay? And how many bathroom breaks is it okay to take? So you remind yourself that one shake is business, two shakes pleasure. Sorry, a little high school humor. Must be the talk of recess.

But for much of human history, work was done in or around the home in the fulfillment of such basic functions as hauling water, tending crops, raising animals and making clothes. By lunch your appetite had been earned by the sweat of your brow as much of your day was spent on your feet moving through space. And you or your loved ones cooked the food that gave you the energy to face the remainder of the day rather than leave you in a food coma, constipated, hypercapnic and slumped at your cubicle. 

Remembering our roots gave me consolation when after graduating college I embarked on the work-from-home career of a writer. Never mind that writing was not what hunter/gatherers did. My role model was a Pulitzer poet whose name I cannot remember. I guess my memory is not that good. When asked how much writing he did each day the poet replied that he was lucky to get in an hour or two at most. "There is so much real work to do," he said. By real work I think he meant all the stuff I find myself doing each week, if not most days, when not seated at my desk.

Growing up I was groomed to be like my dad, which is the opposite of me. Uniform, set schedule, fast car, nice phone (which my dad owned years before his time). Everything was done for me - housework, meal preparation, errands - so I could focus exclusively on school and sports and what little socializing is available to the student at an all-boy's school. I used to bridle at the nonsense we were taught in school. Old wars, state capitals, foreign currencies. "For what, just to regurgitate on some test!" I muttered, while getting As. There are better ways to improve the memory. Clearly, because look at me! I wanted to learn something that was useful. Like maybe gardening or cooking, or the other stuff I do now and sometimes not so well - because I'm self taught. Long before Justin Bieber said it, my anthem was "I am not a robot." This was how I felt.

Recently a friend asked how I spend my days. Without a traditional job and no spouse or kids he imagined I had a lot of free time. Maybe slept off last night's six-pack by lounging in bed till 10, scratching my junk and heading to the hammock for a nap to sleep off the strain of . . . heading to the hammock. "I am not unlike a leaf blowing in the wind," I replied, only afterwards remembering that I had borrowed the line from a sage I had read about, who said that a blowing leaf is how everyone should be. Now I am no sage, but neither am I a slacker. I don't leave the house most days, but my life is actually pretty busy.

That the line between working and not-working is being erased is a source of concern for writers like David Von Drehle, who authored the TIME piece. "One advantage of [going to the office] is that the ritual gives visible form to abstract notions of discipline and concentration." So he pays extra for a small cubicle he can drive to whenever he needs to get out of the house and write, or just get out of the house. But by doing so he is wasting a lot of money on renting a space and spending time driving to and from said space that could otherwise be spent, say, helping out around the house. A necessity in a two-income home. 

It is not uncommon to view working as synonymous with making money, though they are not the same. Work is focused effort towards the completion of a specific and necessary goal. Only sometimes is this goal making money. But money is a means, not an end. Anything that requires effort, whether mental or physical, and accomplishes something worthwhile is work. This means helping around the house and gardening and grocery shopping and other errands, bill paying and car washing and ... basically my waking life! Even cooking food is work, eating it too. And doing all these things means not having to pay others to do them for you. Not all work is money making, but it can be money saving. And it's fulfilling, most of the time. Rose bushes can be cruel.

To be a stay-at-home dude or dudette you must wear many hats, which was initially hard for a guy like me who stopped wearing hats after high school. I shopped and cooked and cleaned even while working 80 hours a week as a resident physician. But back then I lived in a small apartment, now I'm in a house. Shampooing the carpet and washing windows is hard work. Going through forty-plus years' worth of possessions my mother accumulated living here is also hard work, and thankless, but it is how I mourn her and thus it gives me peace. Each week I fill up three bins with riff raff, six bins if you count all the dead leaves. 

So, like our poet whose name escapes me, I am lucky to fit in 1 or 2 hours of writing a day, and I am always exhausted. But work is focused effort, and in a couple hours if I really concentrate I can churn out a couple thousand words. At that rate I write the equivalent of a couple long novels each year. So allow me to introduce myself. I am the Stephen King that nobody reads! Which is fine by me. Cause if I earned a million a year like him I'd be tempted to hire someone to cut my nails, and I'd be the loser. 

And really, I don't need an audience of millions. All I need is you. Just my two cents, in two thousand words or less.

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