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Home is where the dedicated line is

Diary of a born-again telecommuter.

Photo/Courtesy of eyewire.com
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Published 1/26/2000

I was born to telecommute, and now, at long last, I am living out my destiny.

A few weeks ago, I accepted a job as a reporter with an online business-news site that has no local office. "We're afraid you'll have to work from home," they said apologetically during the interview. I nearly squealed, so unabashed was my joy.

See, there's just something about going to a job that has always felt . . . wrong. Getting up at dawn, rushing around accessorizing feverishly, tearing out the door, and driving recklessly with all the other upset-looking commuters — it was so unnatural. So was sitting in a hermetically sealed office environment 2 feet from the next person, trying to work amid a maddening truckload of distractions that drag 10-minute tasks out for hours. Add in the fifth-grade-level office politics and all that end-of-the-day fatigue associated with running like a gerbil on wheel, and you've got a recipe for just wanting to be left the hell alone. When I accepted this job and starting flitting about giddily setting up a serious home office, folks ignored my obvious joy and offered all manner of warnings: "You think you're a procrastinator now — just wait till you're home all day, my friend. Your closets will be arranged alphabetically and you'll be all caught up on Ricki Lake — but work? You're not going to get any of that done." Or: "Eww. You're just going to get all freaky there alone all day. You're going to forget how to relate to people. You'll be reduced to monosyllables when we see you next. Oh, and you'll turn pasty gray."

I just snorted at them, the jealous fools. What they didn't understand was that I was born and bred to work at home. They didn't know that very early on in my life, when I was maybe 8, this mysterious tingly feeling began to wash over me every time my mom would announce she was leaving me home alone while she went out to run errands. I'd get all aflutter with excitement. It's not that I had anything naughty planned; I just wanted to be alone in the house, to have the place all to myself for an extended period. By myself = bliss.

This feeling, I think, is genetic. After retiring young, my dad evolved into what you might call full-fledged hermitage. He holed himself up in an apartment on the beach and watched sports shows and news shows and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes all day long. He rarely left, except to take eligible women to dinner and to come pick me up for the weekend-custody gig.

Plus, I also come from a long line of nonconformists — renegades who can't stand to be team players, people who gnash their teeth at the thought of workplace ice cream socials, whose idea of a living hell is having to go out into the woods and fall back into their co-workers' arms to establish trust. I'm one of them; why fight it?

And so it was with this attitude that I went out and got as technological as I could — procuring a cell phone, hooking up a dedicated line, getting a nice, souped-up computer. Then I stocked up on nonperishable food items and toilet paper, and proudly hunkered down to begin my life as a telecommuter.

Day One is amazing. I roll out of bed at 8:29 a.m. One minute later I commute from my bedroom to my apartment's porch-balcony thing, the site of my new office. I work in my jammies and look like hell all day. It is glorious.

My editor, from his apartment across town, checks in to assign stories and give feedback via Instant Messenger, an America Online-generated concoction that lets you talk in real time with folks as if you're in a chat room. What's cool is the knowledge that if I really want to ignore him, I can. Hell, I can trot off to the zoo and tell him later that I didn't respond because I had some sort of seizure and passed out on the floor. He'd have to take me at my word because he's not here. Nobody's here.

Also on Day One, my cats Poots and Habbib walk all over my keyboard typing "ffffffffyyyyy" and "````````" and I love it. It is also sweet when they obscure my monitor so I focus on them and not on my stories. What is not neat is when Habbib poops in the bathtub, which I think might be a sign that I am invading his space being home all day. Jeez, I thought they really liked me and wanted me there. Also on Day One, friends call me at home by the dozens because they assume "working at home" means "watching 'All My Children.'" I have to put them off because the actual work is more hectic and deadline-oriented than what I was doing before. I am down for three to five stories a day. Clean out my closets? I don't think so.

Things take a turn for the worse when my Internet connection begins ejecting me and I can no longer communicate with my editor or do any research. During these tense moments, I experience a longing for technical support, the kind that used to be a few desks away, the kind that was named Aaron and would hold my hand through the rough times of recovering deleted files and getting rid of every trace of my personal e-mail so the bosses would never see it. But I get over it when my connection is re-established.

At the end of Day One, I have so much life in me from sleeping till 8:29 that I am bouncing off the walls and gabbing to pals like a maniac until midnight—a far cry from my workplace self, who used to collapse on the couch moments after getting home, lacking even the strength to speak. Day One of telecommuting is a hoot.

On Day Two, my hair looks like I've been on a vicious carnival ride all day and I don't care. But just for grins I decide to take a shower between assignments, just to see what it's like to do that on The Man's dime. I also scoop out the kitty-litter box while on the phone with a source, and I don't brush my teeth til 4 in the afternoon. I start to congratulate myself on the money I'll save on makeup and dry-cleaning bills now that I never get dressed. But then worry sets in: Will I forget how to accessorize?

My Internet connection pops in and out all day. Where is Aaron? Can he maybe come over at lunch? Probably not. Perhaps I'll have to read a manual or something. Ugh.

By Day Two of my life as a telecommuter, my sleep cycles have rebooted. I go to bed at midnight and get up at 8:30, as opposed to surrendering at 11ish and getting up at 6. The amount of free time and energy this tacks onto the end of the workday is astounding. I am fully charged and ready to be a flitting social butterfly without rival from 6 till midnight every night of the week. Holly Golightly, get out of the freaking way.

Day Three is a fright. A rainstorm hits and water starts pouring into my little telecommuting room, threatening the innocence of my new computer. I call the landlord, but she says there's nothing she can do until the downpour stops. I put down towel after towel and the rain soaks through them. I find myself fantasizing about just tossing the problem to an office manager and going shopping. Then a repair person arrives. I look like total hell, but I congratulate myself for at least being dressed. Note to self: Maybe showers are a good idea.

The assignments come so fast and furious today; I'm almost overwhelmed. For a few hours, I feel just as nerve-wracked as I used to be at work. It's disorienting to experience that in your home. If you're going to go getting that hyped up and freaked out at home, one's abode can quickly lose its safe-harbor status. Note to self: Stay out on the porch-balcony thing all day; don't ruin what the rest of the place means to you.

On this day I get all shaky at around 2 and realize it's because I forgot to eat lunch. As a telecommuter, there's no office-clearing lunch zeitgeist that sends all of the people scattering out of the building and into the street at noon. That's because there's no people. Note to self: Set an alarm clock for noon, and also keep cans of Ensure in the desk.

Despite the stress of Day Three, I'm at least pleased that Habbib doesn't shit in the tub. I also revel in the thought that I can make calls to my gynecologist and go into excruciating detail without having to cup my hand over the phone. Yee-ha!

On Day Four, I realize the days don't really have a line of demarcation anymore. Night is day, day is night, it's all the same. Maybe there is something to this commuting thing. Perhaps I should get all gussied up in the morning and go drive around a while, then come back home and work, then return to traffic at 5:30. Would that give the day more of a punctuation point at either end? I vow to get out at least every other night to visit with chums, preferably in groups, so I can keep my vocal cords rosined up and retain my ability to interpret the gestures humans make.

On this day, I do what comes natural, which is work half-naked. I also wee while on the phone with a source. This creates a sense of intense joy. I revel in the fact that I can crank up the volume on ooey-gooey New Age CDs playing on my computer, and I can burst out in song or burp Hail Marys if I want to. At lunchtime I wander my neighborhood slowly and languidly, seeing things I'd never seen before because I was always in such a hurry. Upon my return, I make a faux pas on the phone, but quickly recover and rejoice in the fact that no one heard but the cats. Just one of the many joys of my new life — 78 percent less embarrassment.

Another upside: I'm giddy all the time. An amusing thought will make its way across my head and I'll burst out laughing. And I'm smiling a lot, randomly. Is this a natural byproduct of the profound relaxation of working at home or a sign that I've gone daft from isolation?

I start to wonder about odd things, like who will be my secret Santa this year? I guess Habbib and Poots and I will draw names. Note to self: Consider starting a telecommuter support group in the building. At around 4, I find myself craving an ice cream social. That feeling quickly goes away when a paralyzing pain presents itself in my right shoulder and my lower back begins to ache. I know deep down it's due to my ergonomically incorrect workspace, but can't bring myself to admit it out loud. Can't I just continue sitting on a dining room chair covered in mix-and-match throw pillows? I don't want to buy a $500 chair from The Back Store. I'm not certain what else in my jerry-rigged office needs fixin', but I'm sure a lot of it does. Denial seems the best route. Ignore the shoulder, ignore it. You just need to stretch out or something. Just . . . go to yoga.

On Day Five I go back to taking showers in the morning, which slices about 40 minutes off my magnificent night of sleep, but really pays off when a cute neighbor happens by to borrow sorghum or something. Alas, my career in bad hygiene is over a mere five days after its smashing debut. But I delight in knowing that the opportunity for personal sloth is always there.

Having cats walk on my keyboard all day giving me the look of love is no longer endearing. I try to train Poots and Habbib to contain themselves to one section of my desk. They don't get it.

At the end of Day Five, I look in the mirror and notice that I am turning a peculiar shade of green-gray. Note to self: Investigate tanning booths.

The weekend comes and I feel I must stay out of the house at all costs, almost as if a really amorous couple is bunking up there. Must fight the tendency to be like Dad. It is icy cold but I wander the streets. And I spend more time with recent ex-coworkers than I ever did when we were running on the gerbil wheel in tandem.

Come Monday, Day Six, my editor across town has phone difficulties. An online editor with no Internet access is not a good thing. I try to be supportive by telling him he can work at my place. "Come on over and hook up in the dining room and I'll stay out on the solarium," I offer, thinking, He's never going to do that. He's a big privacy hound too. He'd sooner go to the public library than come over here.

"Sure," he says, "I'll be right over. Thanks!"

Oh, crap. My tranquil telecommuter bubble bursts on the spot. People? I'd be having a person over? I start to panic. It's OK, I tell myself. It'll be just like being back in the workplace, which wasn't that long ago. Buck up, little shaver, you can do that for one day, right? I could, and I did. But it was mighty kooky having my editor sit about 7 feet from me editing my stories and assigning more and talking about the philosophy of the company from my dining room. It was even weirder when I was past deadline on an article and he was sitting right there tapping his fingers waiting for it. Ugh! Just like the old days, only worse because you couldn't just get up and pretend you had a meeting and run off. Plus, I really had to put the kibosh on the spontaneous singing and burping and dancing around. Thank god I'd bathed that day.

At the end of Day Six, I realized what it was about workplace culture that had me so stressed out during the 10 years I subjected myself to it: human beings standing right there wanting something from you. It's just awful. That just wears a soul down. Oh sure, there are human beings at my new job who want things from me all day long, but they are remote human beings, and that makes all the difference. My new editor, he's a good guy, but sitting in my apartment at my dining-room table, he's nothing but a representation of The Man. So when 5:30 comes, I am mighty pleased — and much looking forward restoring our Instant Messenger-only relationship.

On Day Seven, the lion's share of my 12 nieces and nephews fanned out across the globe discover my Instant Messenger name. After school, right when I'm on deadline, they hit me with a barrage of messages, each of which makes a twinkly bloop when it appears on my screen — in front of my work.

"Aunt Suz? What's the weather like there?" "Aunt Suz? I got all A's and one B on my report card!" "Aunt Suz, my latest crush likes me too!" "Hey, Aunt Suz, can you get backstage passes to the Britney Spears concert?" Then my mom checks in wanting to chat about cookbooks.

It's hard, but I put the kin off till I have a between-story lull, then catch up with all of them in rapid succession while while Habbib types "pppppppppppp."

Telecommuting. Damn if it isn't the best gig on the planet.

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