Monday, April 29, 2013

Home. Work. Homework. Work@Home.

I’ve been working from home for a long time now; twenty years or more. When I held a staff position, I often worked from home when deadlines and the general craziness of a large organization intruded into my worktime. It took a bit of discipline at first, setting goals and reaching them, rewarding myself with a cup of coffee or even lunch or dinner (I’m not a “snacker”). I valued those times when I could justify leaving my office, letting the rest of the staff do what they had to do, and focus completely on one project. Of course there would be interruptions: questions from my staff, calls from the person I worked for, anything that had to be dealt with “now.” But for the most part my office left me alone.

Like most people who work at home (part-time or full-time), I accomplished more, but I also worked longer hours. That seems to be the case with most people today who telecommute, and while most of us who do that sort of thing won’t admit it, there is a part of the workday we miss. You can e-mail your colleagues, or even pick up the phone, but if you are like me, when I get on the phone my first thought is to get off as quickly as I can. There is something about talking to a piece of plastic that doesn’t encourage real dialogue. I want to see you, but I also want to experience subconsciously, your breathing, your warmth, whatever scent you may exude. I want to know, when you get right down to it, that you are alive, living, breathing, and that I am alive as well. It’s no small thing, is it, to know you are in the presence of another human being?

Since I have come to live in a remote and underpopulated part of the world, except for an occasional face-to-face meeting with a client, or my more regular meetings with a group of other writers, I work alone, for myself, in a small office in the house. I still begin my day early, get out with my dog, then eat breakfast and “go to the office.” As quickly as I can, I dispose of incoming mail, check the headlines (I get a lot of ideas from them), and then begin work on whatever I left unfinished the day before. Today I’m focused on this essay, but when it is ready to go, I’ll turn to stories or other projects that I have committed to (to myself, if not to a client).

A writer never really stops writing or working on stories or ideas, but I don’t work full-time any more. Mornings are for things I do in my head. Afternoons are for physical things: maintenance of equipment, wood cutting for the furnace, necessary trips to town, jobs that occupy my hands more than my head. Reading time begins usually around nine or ten. My days are full every day, seven days a week. Yet there is something missing.

I call it “water-cooler time,” but you know what I mean: in college it was called a bull session, but it’s the same thing, no matter where you are: conversation that, although it may seem to be meaningless or just “bull,” is really a way to sort out your ideas, get responses to things you are thinking about, and even hear something that starts a new line of thinking in your own mind. Ideas come from that sort of thing, which is why some companies are now taking a second look at telecommuting. To remain competitive today takes more than people typing away in a cubicle. It is that interaction of ideas, coming at times from unlikely sources, a kind of conflict creativity perhaps, that leads to everything from identification of problems to original and successful solutions.

A water-cooler for one just doesn’t do it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On the Cutting Edge

This is the story of a knife. It has three blades, and the sides of the handle are simulated bone. It has been around a long time. “Old Timer” is the name pressed into a small metal block on either side. It attached itself to me years ago, when a friend  and I were fishing one of the local rivers. It was lying on a rock along the bank, when I saw it, picked it up and put it in my pocket.

For a few years it remained on top of the chest-of-drawers in my closet. I had other, smaller pocket knives, some with more blades and a few very small ones with tiny tools like scissors, or a screwdriver. I had a Swiss Army Knife™, but it completed its service commitment and retired. I have a multitool Leatherman™ that came to work for me after that. I have some larger, sharper, more aggressive knives, including one my father had for many years. A few in my collection are small ones given away by various companies over the years. Back in time, these small knives were called pen-knives or stamp-knives and were used to trim quills or cut stamps (before the post office started perforating them).

When I started carrying the “old timer” a few years ago, it made the terms of our association very clear: from time-to-time it would step out on its own, do whatever an old knife does when it’s alone, and then come back. Saturday night, leaving a friend’s house, I pulled my car keys out of my pocket and, probably at the same time, the “Old Timer” saw its opportunity to escape. It must have decided it need some time off.

At home, emptying my pockets, I realized it was missing. I checked the car, then recalled that I had used it to cut the seal on a wine bottle at our friends’ house. Perhaps I had left it on the counter, I thought. The next day I called and asked if it was safely in their hands, but the answer was “no.”

On Monday morning our friend called to say that it had been found in the yard, near where we had parked. I know that it will remain with me for whatever time it feels is right, before going off again. I wonder if it is seeking its original owner. I wonder how many pockets it has resided in other than mine. I hope it will remain with me a long time. I’ve carried a knife of some sort probably since I was seven or eight, and I feel incomplete without one either in my pocket or on my belt. It’s a small thing, but perhaps it represents the boy in me.

We are both old-timers now.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Wet Land and People Not Dry Behind the Ears

It was a disappointing weekend. The weather was fine, warm and sunny, telling us that Spring is almost here. The birds are learning again that they can have a better balanced diet if they feed beyond the feeders we have on the decks; that worms and grubs and other tiny live things are tasty and nutritious. It is the time when the nuts are out, so to speak. Which is what makes it somewhat disappointing. A few of them have fallen on our fields.

This time of year, after the winter rains and snows have mostly soaked into the ground, our north field remains somewhat like a rice paddy. The underground springs suddenly remember that they can penetrate from below, and much of that field is under water, soft and delicate. So much so that the natural fertilizer we spread can’t be put out yet. It’s always a race between the field being dry enough to work, and the hay growing too tall to get over it.

That’s what caused us such disappointment this weekend. I have a neighbor (whom I’ve never met), who has a nice weekend retreat on a piece of land I sold some years ago. I’ve seen the owner once, from the field when he stopped to unlock his gate. We waved but didn’t speak. That was a year or so ago. Late on Saturday, we became aware of what sounded like a pickup truck on the road that cuts through our land and goes on up the valley. After an hour or so of hearing the same noise, I went out on the deck that faces the fields, to see if the traffic was simply lookers coming to check out the deer that gather in the fields after sunset. It wasn’t near dark yet, and imagine my surprise when I stood on the deck and heard and saw someone on a 4-wheeler (the most ubiquitous toy you find in the country) in our field, riding around our pond, yelling and having a good ole’ time. By the time I put on boots, walked to where the Bronco was parked, pulled it out and drove down to the field, the perps were away, but telltale tire tracks crossed the road from our field to the driveway of my un-met neighbor. The gate was open, so I drove on up to the cabin.

I spoke to a young woman (rather reserved I thought, until she shared with me that I didn’t have to speak to her in the manner I had chosen because “We’re college educated,”). She seemed to think that whatever they might have done, they did in the innocent belief that the field was open to anyone who wanted to use it. I explained that despite her college education, she and her friends had caused considerable damage to my hay field and possibly the pond. I was assured that any costs would be met to restore the field. Well, that’s not so easy to do, and I have no idea of the cost, but I think it might be several thousand dollars. I left after assuring her that the next visitor would be from the sheriff’s office.

This morning, about 7:30, Teddy Dog and I went down to the field to look at and photograph the damage. There, around the pond, were wheel tracks deep into the land atop the dam, in the field in front of the dam, and about mid-way up the field, even more, deeper tracks. Obviously these college educated elite had not learned that when you drive a wheel through water over soil, it makes a nice little channel. Or maybe that’s what they wanted to see and study. But they must also have missed the classes on civility and civic responsibility, as well as how to live with neighbors, the meaning of trespass, and the fact that there are laws against it.

The field can be fixed (at some expense). That isn’t what bothers me. What disturbs me, what takes away from the enjoyment of the blossoming Spring, is what is left out. That people (of any age beyond puberty) can wantonly destroy what is obviously a fragile piece of land just for the hell of it, and not their own land at that. What is the pleasure factor here? Cheating a landowner? Proving you can drive in a circle and splash a lot of mud here and there? What has happened to our civilization when young adults are so cavalier about property and respect and appreciation of nature? Why would you want to come to the country for the weekend if you don’t like what it is all about? Yes, I’m disappointed that I will have a smaller hay crop this year, and yes I am saddened that the fragile ecology of that acreage is threatened. All of those things bother me. But there is so much more here: disregard for the health of the land, disdain for property rights, delight in destruction. I don’t want to put up fences and gates and more signs that warn against trespass, but at the same time, I don’t want to have to live with the consequences of someone else’s disregard for what is right and civilized behavior.

Life is too short to spend it angry.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tools of the Trade. Really.

For many years I have kept a journal (as opposed to a diary) in which I write things of greater moment (to me) than what I did or didn’t do today or yesterday. Most of my journaling has been in standard school composition books, although sometimes I have used smaller pocket-size notebooks or books designed for journaling. I have a travel journal, for instance, that I use when I am away from home. It was a gift from the one with whom I have traveled through life, on our first long trip out west, and I have reserved it for those times I am on the road, either with her or alone.

Recently I received a different format popular in Japan, that is smaller than I am used to, and is one continuous piece of paper, folded like an accordion to make a compact, connected whole. I’ve nearly filled one side, and will soon need to begin again with either the other side or a new book. I will probably go back to my favored composition book format. The small pages of the accordion don’t seem to give me the feeling of space that I like to fill. I imagine that a person who lives in a small country, where concepts and practices related to privacy and use of space are different, would learn an economy of words that befit a small book, but I’m a little too far along to change, I think. The format does lend itself to a kind of sketchbook, so I may use the rest of it for that.

Writers are especially particular about the tools we use. For years I wrote my first drafts on yellow legal pads, using red ballpoint pens. In those years the pens were much longer, about the diameter of a pencil, and almost as costly as a fountain pen. Today, unless you care about the tools you use, ballpoints are almost always available free. I still use them, but I like the “elderpen” version as a matter of choice. These fat and often soft-bodied instruments are easier for fingers cramped by constant engagement with thin pens and pencils.

I seldom commit a draft with pen anymore. I learned touch typing in high school, and still consider it the most valuable skill I learned there. I have gone through old uprights , as office size machines were known, portables and electrics, to dedicated word processors and desk tops to what I now consider my first tool of choice, a wide-screen laptop with a keyboard as wide as any typewriter I ever owned. Because I began when typewriters were still purely mechanical, I learned to hit the keys hard. When I’m really moving along, or when what I’m writing is drawing on my emotions, I tend to pound. I’ve broken keyboards in earlier computers, but my present one seems “combat hardened” and has given me no indication that I abuse it.

My journals, for the most part, are still hand-written. Fiction or fact, film or paper, demand a lot of thinking and planning before the words form. A journal is more a stream of consciousness exercise where one may pick apart more raw emotion and reaction. A pen, I think, provides an  almost a direct flow from writing to reading.

I still use a red pen sometimes, but that is too much like seeing myself bleed.