The Awful Truth

Home Work

by Marion Winik

By the time I quit my job of over 10 years as a technical writer for a software company in South Austin, I thought of the office I went to every day as a drab, fluorescent-lit prison. Writing manuals and datasheets and advertisements held no more interest for me than breaking rocks: it was what I had to do to get by. When I finally mustered up the nerve to leave the company, I pictured myself embarking on a life of freedom, creativity, and meaningful work.

Sitting here in my silent house in my deserted neighborhood, I look back on those days at the office as a non-stop party. There were meetings and collaborations, coffee pot rendezvous, closed-door confessions: I think I'm quitting, I think I'm moving, I think I'm getting divorced, do you like my new shoes? Home renovation plans and sex acts were diagrammed on the washable white boards, birthday celebrations plotted on the marketing calendar. There were small kindnesses, small meannesses, the happy hours and unhappy hours. There was one whole summer that my workplace seemed to turn into high school. Everyone had a crush on everyone else, the e-mail system went berserk, messages flying back and forth like scraps of paper passed in study hall. Everything happened at the office. I even went into labor there, and the vice president of sales drove me home.

In fact, it was my addiction to this social setting as much as the practical considerations that kept me from pursuing my dream of being a writer. I could picture myself, alone in my little home office, a ray of sunlight working its way across the hardwood floor as I churned away at my computer, the clicking of the keys the only sound, the arrival of the postman the only interruption. Peace and quiet. Total solitude. The mere thought of it struck terror into my heart. Maybe the office was a prison, but at least it wasn't solitary confinement.

As I was soon to learn, isolation was only part of the home worker's problem. The following is an entry from my journal, written that first day on my own, over a year ago: If today is the first day of the rest of my life, I'm in trouble. I got up at 6:30, fed and dressed the kids and made their lunches. By 7:15 I was paying bills and balancing my checkbook. I then read every word of the newspaper, returned some phone calls, and dyed my hair red. I drank too much coffee, I wandered in and out of the house, I tried without success not to stuff my face and smoke cigarettes continuously. Now it is 1:45 and I am ready for a drink.

I had discovered a second major peril of working at home. Aside from mind-numbing loneliness, there is the endless cycle of domestic chores, which are no sooner finished than they have to be done again. Soon I began to wonder how I managed at all when I worked in the office, since I can now make a day of folding the laundry and emptying the dishwasher.

In the course of that first year, I installed a second phone line, a fax machine, and acquired an e-mail address. I thought I needed all these things for work. Well, I did, but their more frequent use is as a means of distracting myself, of re-creating that social buzz I missed so much. I was trying to work, honest, but the phone rang, someone beeped in on call waiting, an e-mail message came. Look, I got a fax! And if no one calls, if there are no incoming faxes, no e-mail, no messages on my tape, I stare slitty-eyed at my dormant machines, willing them to action. Come on, guys. What do you think I brought you in here for? Get with it. If worst comes to worst, I take the initiative. I call my agent, or my mother, or some other poor home worker and make sure they're not getting anything done either, seduce them into a lunch date or a matinee.

It's gotten to the point that when I really must do something, like finish writing a book or meet a deadline, I have to leave my house. I take my laptop computer to a coffee shop where I know there will be no interruptions. They even make the coffee for you. I make myself stay there until I've accomplished something (or until the battery in my computer runs out) because I know once I get home, it's telecommunications time again. This worked fine until one day the countergirl at the coffeeshop came up and tapped me on the shoulder. There's a call for you, she said.

My next idea was to start getting up at five in the morning, to seize the day before it seizes me. Then I get a few hours of work in before the kids are even awake, before there is any possibility of a lunch date or a ringing phone. This works okay, but if you start at five you tend to peter out by lunchtime and then what do you do with yourself all afternoon?

It has taken me two weeks to write these thousand words. I have confronted all manner of obstacles and have faced the ultimate futility of human endeavor. I have planned dinner parties, killed cockroaches, adjusted the thermostat, checked my e-mail hundreds of times. I have gone for walks and bike rides; I have tweezed my eyebrows. In desperation, I even fixed a semi-serious problem with the toilet. It was the most fulfilling and successful thing I've done in months.

When you have an office job, you feel like part of society if you simply get dressed and show up for work. Maybe not a vital part, but at least somehow connected. You can do nothing for quite a while without even noticing it, or certainly without it bothering you in the least. When you do nothing at home, it's totally different. Two days of nothing and I feel like some boring, overprivileged, suburban slug, some manic-depressive in the depressive state. I'm killing time, and time's killing me back.

My friends say I need a hobby, but I don't want a hobby. I want a purpose in life. I want connectedness. I want - a job? Well, maybe not yet. I admit, I dreamed the other night that I went back to work for the software company, but even in the dream I only agreed to 15 hours a week. I suppose things could be worse. I could be like my food writer friend, who thinks he's getting something done when he spends all day on his couch watching cooking shows on television. At least I'm dressed. At least I'm awake. If I had a real job, I could collect my check for doing not much more than that. As it is, my bank account is in a serious downward decline. If this keeps up, I may have to start moonlighting as a plumber. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle