Sunday, May 17, 2020

Shelter in Place (Day 61): Coworkers

The first time we shared an office was the summer we met. It was 1991 and Carissa was a summer intern at the daily newspaper where I toiled as a young punk journalist. We married the next summer after she graduated college and we each followed separate career paths. The summer of 1991 remained the one time we shared the same work space.
Until now. After a gap of nearly 30 years, we are together again, sheltering in place as our modest part in the effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. For the past nine weeks we’ve become “coworkers” again. Living, working, sleeping, eating, breathing, trimming our toenails, leaving dirty dishes in the office kitchen sink, and dirty socks on the executive suite bathroom floor. Together. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Week after week. Fun fact: this time around, for better or worse, we are no longer a couple of love-struck kids sharing office space. In fact, we are joined in this coworking venture with a couple of kids of our own, a college freshman and a sixth-grader. The Office meets Married with Children, except set during a modern Plague that triggers the next Great Depression.
I am grateful for many things right now. We are healthy. We are food secure. Probably a little too food secure. Carissa and I both have jobs and can work from home. Our kids are with us and safe. Their distance learning experiences seem to be mostly working. We have three bathrooms. I am also grateful to everyone who makes it possible for people like me to work from home. When we come out on the other side of this I hope we examine who we value, and how we value them. We also need to remember those many people whose jobs and businesses are gone or at risk right now.
So I don’t want to bemoan my personal circumstances. Kidding! I do want to bemoan my personal circumstances! Like many of you, I am adjusting to the new normal of working from home and spending all of my time – all of it – with my family. So much togetherness! As our college kid observed the other night, it’s hard to separate “home life” from “work life” when it’s all one life. Then she asked to sample one of her mom’s hard ciders. Momma is highly protective of her hard cider supply so the answer was a hard no, but I respect the kid’s hustle.
Initially, I aspired to post a how-to guide on how to absolutely crush working from home with your family during a pandemic quarantine. But, as it turns out, I have not crushed working from home with my family during a pandemic quarantine. I am scrambling every day to figure out how to balance work and school and family and sanity and how not to drink half my monthly booze supply in the first ten days of the month. The reality of our new reality is that anyone claiming that they are crushing working from home with their family during a pandemic quarantine is (a) lying, (b) full of shit, or (c) both. It’s not even the “working” part that is the problem. All I need to perform my job is a laptop, cell phone, and internet access. Just that and a few blocks of uninterrupted time every day.
But there’s the unicorn. Those mythical blocks of uninterrupted time. Home life and work life are all one life. My coworkers and I try to establish routines and boundaries and adjust to one another in our shared office space. One coworker learns that it’s rude to blow his nose loudly while another coworker is addressing her board of directors on a conference call. A different coworker says it’s embarrassing when a supervisory coworker barges into her bedroom and scolds her about the mess without realizing its all playing out on Zoom in front of a middle school math class. And some coworkers bristle when accused of wearing the same T-shirt all week when it was in fact only three days, four at most. That’s not even factoring in the stunts of the cat who is incapable of sauntering past a webcam without announcing her presence. Finding routines and establishing boundaries is an ongoing process and I have discovered no shortcut, no #lifehack. I will not be the one to tell you how to MacGyver your work from home experience.
But there is something that I can tell you. Reuniting as a coworker with Carissa after so many years has been revealing. You can learn a lot about your spouse when you spend a couple of months listening to her work. And when I say “listening to her work” I mean we literally listen to the sound of her voice every day, all day, and sometimes on evenings and weekends. It’s not always her voice. Sometimes I hear other voices coming out of the speakers on her computer. I am reasonably confident that I can now match the names and voices of Carissa’s entire staff even if I’ve never seen some of their faces.(They are doing great work, by the way.) But it’s mostly Carissa’s voice filling our home, starting each day with a 9 a.m. staff meeting. Am I exaggerating? Consider that our youngest coworker wrote her mother a note in the form of a clue in a plastic egg that was part of an Easter morning scavenger hunt, providing instructions for finding the next hidden clue. The note said: “You will find me where you Yak Yak Yak all day (in a good way!).” The clue was in an egg hidden on the built-in desk in a converted hallway and storage space that Carissa has commandeered as her office. We did not realize how great the acoustics are from that corner of the house until the last two months. So loud! 
We learned some good stuff while listening to our coworker over the past two months. The kids and I had front row seats to some inspiring acts of leadership, for starters. Carissa is the CEO of a K-12 education policy organization that represents state education leaders. When coronavirus cases began to spread and school across the nation began to make difficult decision about whether or not to close, and what would happen if they did, she and her team were instantly engaged. They worked long hours in those early days to provide information and guidance to state school chiefs while pressing political leaders and federal agencies for relief to help schools navigate an extraordinary moment in history. She’s been interviewed by Politico, New York Times, and other media outlets.
There is another side to the coworking experience, though. A darker side. The side that can test even the strongest relationships. Carissa, you see, understands the importance of using stories as an effective communications technique when making larger points to an audience. What the rest of us have come to learn during our time as coworkers is that sometimes those stories are about us. And they are not always flattering! Sometimes they’re embellished! During one meeting Carissa described our children as “going feral” in a story intended to signal that everybody is struggling with work and family boundaries and that’s OK. Our younger coworkers overheard this story while they were both in their rooms quietly doing school work. I’ve overheard comments about my quarantine beard, which she openly loathes. In one particularly heinous instance, I listened to Carissa on a call repeat something funny I told her a few days earlier when the sketchy ice cream truck rolled through our neighborhood minutes after the governor’s statewide order locking down ”non-essential” businesses became effective. My observational humor as told by my partner for life provoked laughs from her audience with no credit to the creator of the material.They say laughter is the best medicine, at least untils you discover you’re married to a joke-stealer.
There are moments when work life and home life being one life feels like a lot. I don’t have answers on how to manage that feeling. We’re safe and healthy and for now that has to be enough. And it’s no small thing to watch – or listen to – your spouse engage in a national education crisis with a laptop and a cell phone from a desk in a corner the basement of your home. When I first met Carissa in a Nebraska newsroom during the summer of 1991, she came across as smart, talented, and exceptionally competent. What I’ve learned as a coworker during the covid-19 pandemic of 2020 is that if anything my first impression of my future spouse was woefully insufficient. She has been remarkable. 

Another differences between 1991 and 2020 is that maintaining a secret office romance is more difficult when you sleep in the same house with all of your coworkers. To be fair, a not-secret office romance isn’t that simple either when the coworker you share a bed with is snuggled in with a laptop catching up on work email. And one coworker stops in to complain that she can’t sleep. Another one is practicing the harmonica downstairs. The cat bats a toy mouse down the hallway into the room. Life in a pandemic. 


  1. I too had the pleasure of sharing an office (tho only 8 hours a day) with Carissa, and it was truly a pleasure. She is indeed all that you describe- bright, competent, hard-working, and a lot of fun! (Clark, ask her about the day we knew for sure we weren’t cut out to be nurses.). And on those days when she gets irritated with you, remind her that it could be worse-at least you don’t bring a farting English Mastiff to your shared windowless office. Bonnie

  2. I too had the pleasure of sharing an office (tho only 8 hours a day) with Carissa, and it was truly a pleasure. She is indeed all that you describe- bright, competent, hard-working, and a lot of fun! (Clark, ask her about the day we knew for sure we weren’t cut out to be nurses.). And on those days when she gets irritated with you, remind her that it could be worse-at least you don’t bring a farting English Mastiff to your shared windowless office. Bonnie