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Life on the home front

Deciding to create a comfortable office space in your house is only the first step toward actually getting work done. With mismatched equipment, curious children, and random office hours, it can be challenging to find that work/life balance.

One of the first priorities of our new “old house” was to make sure I had a workspace that would allow me to be as productive at home as I was at work. When I was editor, I had the good fortune of working from home one day per week, and I didn’t want my time at home on the company’s dime to be hindered by an inadequate workspace. I also wanted to provide computing opportunities to my family, such as scanning and printing photos, and personal e-mail.

Before we moved into the house, I tried to figure out where this space would be. We thought about investing a lot of money into the basement and creating a dedicated space. But, while we still want to do that at some point, the house had lots of other more pressing needs–like working electricity and plumbing–that would consume all our resources for the time being. So we had to find an available space in the existing structure in which to create the home office.

We settled on a niche in the guest room and had it wired for cable, phone, and plenty of power. While the space is not ideal, it does have the unintended benefit of discouraging a lot of overnight guests. Most of our friends and family know me well enough to realize they’re not going to get a lot of sleep with the clack of the keyboard and the whine of the hard drive serenading them. So they opt to stay with other relatives or they make the more radical choice of actually staying in a hotel. Now the bed in the guest room serves as my credenza and a place to work through wording problems on my back. And the spread of office equipment is making it look more like an office and less like a guest room every day.

At my first opportunity, I set up my home office to replicate the work computing environment as closely as possible. That meant needing a Mac for exchanging Quark documents with the other editors and needing a PC to use the VPN. (As soon as Mac OS X 10.2 released a VPN client for Windows NT, the office upgraded its VPN server to an unsupported version.) Two computers meant an extra router between my cable router and the two machines. It also meant a separate multifunction printer (MFP) for the PC (or a server–I chose the MFP). Then I plugged all the family extras into the Mac–printer, scanner, USB hub, and card reader. I had 10 outlets in my UPS system and all of them had cords attached to them. You can imagine the tangled web of cables and cords–not exactly inviting guest room ambiance.

Just when I felt like the ungainly mess was all working smoothly, I transitioned to editor at large and my home office was now my only workspace. Since it would cost the company more to refurbish my office Mac than it was worth on the refurb market, they just gave it to me. So I had another Mac, keyboard, and an external monitor to make room for (literally) on top of all the other stuff, at least until I transferred all the files from the home Mac to the office Mac and refurbished the home Mac for our son John.

Not only was my already cramped office looking like a used computer storeroom, but I began to spend more time trying to keep all this stuff working and helping my wife Beth navigate the mess than I did in writing and working in e-mail. “The black keyboard is hooked up to the iMac and the green keyboard is hooked up to the laptop,” I would say. “And the On button is in the upper right corner of both keyboards.” That’s before explaining all the minute differences in the software versions on the separate machines. Rather than trying to untangle and simplify the mess, I found myself bypassing the office altogether and looking for more inviting projects to work on, like stripping and repainting windows. Computer system simplification will always be a work in progress.

When deadlines forced me to descend into the bowels of the office, I found out that an everyday home office has to be fundamentally different than a one-day-per-week home office. First off, there’s the chair issue. For a long time, I made do with one of those kneeling chairs that are supposed to be so good for your lower back. Maybe it’s because I’m Catholic, but it never bothered me that much when I only used it one day per week. But after days of being planted in the chair pounding at the keyboard, it began to take a toll on my knees, feet, and just about everything except my lower back. When writing is akin to something the Spanish Inquisition would inflict, for some reason you find yourself avoiding it despite the deadlines. Finally, I went to the furniture store and got one of those comfy chairs that adjusts in every conceivable way, brought it home and announced that I would spend more time in my new office chair than in my living room La-Z-Boy.

Once my family stopped finding me in the recliner, they started going into the office after me. This was the biggest challenge of the everyday home office–boundaries. You want to set flexible hours and you don’t want to be disturbed during those hours, but you can’t have it both ways. Either you set rigid office hours with no interruptions or you set flexible hours and expect interruptions. Since insight is not something that can be booted up and shut down like my PC, flexible hours are more important for a writer than uninterrupted time. So I keep an open door and hope that interruptions don’t interfere too much with deadlines.

Those hopes are a bit unrealistic during John’s summer vacation. He’s a very curious six-year-old who would rather read books about ancient Egypt than play with toys. And he’s learning how to write but he suffers from the same language challenges that his father and grandfather struggled through–he inverts letters, writes stuff backwards, and sometimes garbles the words he reads. Because we’ve spent so much time explaining Beth’s Assyrian heritage to him, when he gives me something that he’s written backwards he says, “I wrote it Assyrian style.” (The Assyrian language–Aramaic–is similar to Hebrew and Arabic in the sense that it is written from right to left.) In part because I have struggled so much with these issues, I have a strong desire to help him with language skills. But when he brings in a dozen sheets of writing the same day when a deadline is looming (all written “like Mommy’s people write”), I have not always been as patient as I could be.

Finding a healthy work/life balance is also a work in progress. It’s a lot easier when you can leave your work on your desk and come home to live your life. But when your only desk is in your home, your work is always with you, intermingling with your life and sometimes conflicting with life’s commitments. Some folks just can’t do it. There are too many home enticements–the fridge, the TV, the garage, the garden–to be productive in the home. Others thrive on the freeform lifestyle. I can’t say I’m ideally suited to full-time home work. It is easier to procrastinate when there are fun things to do and no one to check up on you. But I’ve found I can set those things aside, close my door against interruptions, and get stuff done on time when I need to. And I’ve come to enjoy being able to step away from my desk and work with John when he writes “like Mommy’s people.”

And how many offices let you take a nap on your credenza?

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