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Habits & Routines

In Praise of the Home Office

Mike Sager has spent the last 40 years plying his craft from his home office, working away on a 63-year-old desk that used to belong to his father. He reflects on what it's like to be responsible to, and responsible for, only himself in a place where the line between duty and pleasure is blurred.


Early on a Sunday morning I’m sitting in my favorite space, a small outbuilding behind my house, in my favorite chair, a twenty-five year-old, medium-sized Aeron with a few small burn holes in the mesh seat. Even though it’s spring, it’s still cool outside. I’ve got my hoody pulled over my head, keeping the ole brainpan warm. I have nowhere to be but here. The red second hand of the school room clock mounted high on the wall ticks audibly, counting off the progression of moments, every one of which belongs to me.

Through the several windows I can see that the sun has begun to burn through the layer of clouds, revealing a patch of light blue sky—I’ll leave the exact color to my visual artist friends; to me it is reminiscent of the powder paint we used for skies in elementary school. A plane streaks overhead, gleaming and metallic, rumbling through the atmosphere like thunder. In the middle distance, a red-tail hawk circles, searching the canyon for breakfast; hummingbirds hover and dart, flirting and issuing their odd squeaks. A breeze plays through my neighbor’s invasive stand of tall bamboo. The stalks sway and knock together, making woody sounds like a marimba. From over the hill I can hear the throaty engines of powerboats and other personal watercraft churning circles around nearby bay, weekend warriors at play.

Here in my home office, the line between pleasure and duty is blurred. Weekend or weekday, there is no difference to me. Nobody counts my hours. My work is also my hobby. It takes as long as it takes. That someone is or is not paying me at any particular time is sort of secondary. Like most people, I work to live. But I also live to work.

This is where I do it—a 900-square foot patch of universe chock-a-block with photos, keepsakes, books and other familiar objects of personal history, most of it qualified as tax deductible, all of it mine to command.

Like nowhere else, when I am here I know who I am.  

***

Now it’s a little after noon. I’ve just returned from the house, where I threw together leftovers for my typical 15-minute lunch. Afterwards, I folded the whites and stuck the darks in to the dryer.

When I think about it, I come from a tradition of home offices. Both of my grandfathers—a lawyer and the owner of a clothing and shoe store—had offices in their homes, satellites to their more traditional workplaces. I remember being a little boy and swiveling around in their desk chairs, hunt-and-pecking on their clunky antique typewriters. In part I believe I owe my love of writing to the happiness of these times, my unexplainable attraction to the physical act of typing—the wonderful rachet-sound of the platen, the percussive clack of the keys against 20-pound bond, the ding at the end of each line heralding the need for the cleansing physical action of the carriage return. To type is to have the world at your fingertips—twenty-six neutral symbols to endlessly recombine. It is a task that requires both whimsy and precision. Another universe to command.

My father was an OBGYN. He had a home office, strictly for paperwork, in the basement of our rancher, the only place in the house he was allowed to smoke his cigars. The centerpiece of my dad’s home office was a desk his parents bought him for use in medical school—a blonde mahogany, Midcentury Modern kneehole desk with curved drawers by Heywood Wakefield, according to my research on the web. There is a matching Tambour door cabinet, on the back of which is stamped the manufacture date, May 1, 1954, two years before my birth. (The desk is too heavy to move.) As a boy I remember stealing down to the office when my parents were out for the evening. In the deep, double-drawer on the left side of the desk, my dad kept a stash of racy gag gifts given to him by friends—an oversize toothbrush with two plastic breasts instead of bristles, a windup penis with feet, a deck of cards with naked ladies instead of kings and queens.

When I went law school, my Dad gave me the desk and the hutch, for both practical and symbolic reasons. Hopefully, he said, it would see me through grad school with the same kind of success as he.

Of course, law school only lasted three weeks, but I was allowed to keep the furniture, which has traveled with me through forty years of home office incarnations. In Arlington Virginia, the desk was in the second bedroom of an apartment situated just beneath the flight path to what was then called National Airport—the entire building would shake. In Washington D.C., I lived in a basement apartment, and then in a loft, and then in a townhouse, the last for 12 years. My office was on the third floor; the desk had a nook within the front bay window, which looked out on the cityscape of a still-untamed section of town (in present times the Theater District), where hookers and crack dealers worked the dark corners, a different kind of natural show playing at all hours of the day and night.

Now my father’s desk has outlived him. For the past twenty years it’s been in this room, in San Diego, at the bottom-left corner of the continental United States, twenty-five miles north of the Mexican Border. The deep drawer is now full of vintage reporter’s equipment—defunct tape recorders, film cameras, old pads and other office supplies, not nearly so much fun as the booby toothbrush and other naughty bits of yore. In the hutch I have a ton of tear sheets from my years as a newspaper reporter and a few copies of the literary magazines I edited in college. I still remember sliding it open one time and finding multiple copies of a sex manual my father must have given out to patients. The authors were a husband and wife team. The photos were black and white. Naked, and without expression, the authors demonstrated dozens of positions, a sort of humorless kama sutra for the Masters and Johnson set.

In order to better accommodate the various pieces of hardware associated with today’s modern office, I have since added around the desk an eclectic mix of work tables and equipment stands, so that I’m nearly surrounded with surfaces—imagine a closeout sale in the office furniture department at Staples and you get the idea. (My original typing table, which used to hold a used, IBM Selectric typewriter, now holds the laser printer.) Swiveling around,  rolling my chair (over a plastic floor mat), I can attend to the different tasks and projects I have going simultaneously. Sometimes I imagine myself sitting in the command pod of a space ship, all the controls of my great solo enterprise at my fingertips—look at that, another reference to control.

Clearly a theme is emerging here. I am my own man, yes. But that also makes me nobody else’s man. Responsible to, and responsible for, only myself. Powerful and powerless at once.   

***

Nighttime now. These things take time, another reason I suppose I’ve spent so much time in my home office. The sky is dark. Stars have appeared. Somewhere across the canyon an owl is hooting. If I listen carefully I can hear the waves break quietly on the coastline, a half mile away.

After making myself a simple dinner of steak and greens, I’ve put up the dishes and returned the fifty or so steps to my office. Yesterday, I left the house to go to the post office. Today I didn’t leave the house at all; most of my time was spent in this chair. And yes, I am still wearing the sweatpants I put on this morning when I rolled out of bed. I will make sure to shower at the night’s end. I’m a home-based worker but I’m no misanthrope.

For the last few minutes, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to tally the number of hours I’ve spent in proximity to this desk, alone in a room with my thoughts and labors. With all the travel for work it’s hard to say, though I also know that for every week in the field doing research, I’ve generally spent several more weeks at my desk—making calls and arrangements, transcribing, doing further research, composing, rewriting and editing.

Struggling to find the right formula, I went to the doorway and looked into the darkness, in the direction of the hooting. One hot summer evening the owl had overflown me by only a foot or two—the whoosh was palpable in the immediate airspace and kind of freaked me out.

Standing there, I noticed one of the many photos of my son. A decade ago, he was working hard to become a point guard on the middle school basketball team. At an age where many boys dream of becoming pro athletes, he had a Lakers jersey with his name—SAGER—custom printed on the back. He was taking extra practices, working out with a coach, running several miles every day.

One afternoon when he was off at practice, I was sitting here in my home office, thinking I wished I could do something to help. One thing you (hopefully) learn as a parent—the kid has to take the all the practice shots and do all the math problems himself. You can’t do it for him. All you can really do is cheer them on.

In that instant, an idea came to me. I walked over to the desk and picked up a pen. I wrote it like this:

 

Hard work

Well enjoyed

Builds a man

Makes a life

Day by day

 

Though I wrote this with myself and my son in mind, the same can be said for building a woman as well.

It’s what I’ve learned after forty years of sitting in my home office, doing what I love.   

Mike Sager

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist. A longtime writer-at-large for Esquire, he has been called “the Beat poet of American journalism, that rare reporter who can make literature out of shabby reality.” Since 2012 he has also been the publisher of The Sager Group, a consortium of multi-media artists and writers, with the intent of empowering those who make art.

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