Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for the ‘Survival’ Category

Working Physics: How Changing Space Alters Time

In Community, Survival on November 2, 2011 at 1:40 am

Time passes differently in an office. As a freelancer, I work at home or the coffee shop or the library, but sometimes it makes sense to work onsite with a client for a few months. That’s when I notice the movement of time. It’s not that it goes faster or slower in an office or that it’s better or worse. It just goes differently. Sideways, maybe.

When my mom was in the hospital overnight, I spent the day with her. Mostly we were waiting—waiting for tests, for medication, for the doctor. The doctors and nurses were busy and efficient and I knew they were getting things done. But what happens in there isn’t life, or at least not normal life. Normal life is what happens outside the hospital walls. You can see it from the window. Two nurses taking a walk during lunch, a man unloading groceries from his trunk, a group of teenage girls sitting on the lawn, heads bent over their phones.

That’s the best comparison I can make to how I experience time in an office. I feel like I’m alongside life. I’m not unhappy. I just feel that something is missing, or that I’m missing something. After a few days in the office, the feeling starts to dissipate. After a few weeks, it’s almost gone.

It’s easy to understand why time moves differently for me inside an office. On my own, I have total control over my time and my days are varied. I’m used to moving directly from folding a load of laundry to interviewing a source to walking the dog. By comparison, a day in the office feels pretty monotone.

What’s more intriguing to me is why time stops moving differently, and quite quickly. It’s possible that I get used to it. People are adaptable, and you can get used to anything. (This is why college students raised in tidy homes adjust to dorm living.) Maybe being able to adjust is just nature’s way of helping out. But that answer seemed partial at best.

I was still thinking about it last week when I got an e-mail from the client. The team I’m doing work for was going out for lunch, she said. Would I like to join them? Sure, I said. While at lunch, I heard about children’s sports-related injuries, Halloween plans, and career paths. A few days later, in honor of all the people with October birthdays, donuts, bagels, and sliced apples magically appeared atop a bank of filing cabinets not far from my desk. All day people stopped to snack and chat.It’s an open office, so I overheard conversations about work, upcoming college visits, recipes. I remembered one of the best parts of working at an office: People.

And I think somewhere in there is the answer to why time begins to feel normal again. The more time I spend onsite, the better I get to know the people who work there. Then—not surprisingly, I know; none of this is rocket science—I feel connected and that’s when the shift occurs. That’s when time inside the office stops feeling like it’s operating alongside life and starts feeling like a part of life.

Or it could be the food. But that’s just six of one, half dozen of another. –Christine MacLean

I Frazz, Therefore I Am?

In Fulfillment, Survival on October 15, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Doing laundry in less than three hours for the second Saturday in a row, I realize I’ve reached the point I worried about several years ago: I don’t have enough laundry to get my thinking done. I dug out this essay, first written for Jugglezine, to explain.

Joyce Carol Oates, asked to describe her writing process, said, “I clean my own house.” For a minute, I thought she’d misunderstood the question, but then I saw: Cleaning the house gives her time to think, the mental leisure for ideas to bounce around and connect in different ways. When she sits down to write, she’s very productive, because she’s documenting the thoughts that she’s already assembled.

This makes perfect sense. For a writer, it’s the difference between sitting down with a blank page and a sense of purpose, or sitting down with a blank page and a sense of impending doom. The former is invigorating; the latter is enough to put you off writing for the rest of whatever.

It’s getting harder and harder, though, to follow Oates’ example. Our technology and the expectations created by its use have encouraged us to think that every moment needs to be filled to overflowing. We measure productivity by the number of messages sent, phone calls fielded, simultaneous tasks–anything but the quality of thought.

This is in spite of growing evidence that we’re mistaking activity for productivity. The IQs of participants in one study dropped measurably–lower than marijuana users–when they were subjected to “always-on” technology–instant messages, Blackberries, anything that demanded immediate attention. Other researchers concluded that 28 percent of the work day is spent on interruptions–2.1 hours a day. The same study estimated that interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year–based just on wasted time, not the lower quality of work produced by distracted people.

There’s also a human cost. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap–Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD, has seen a dramatic increase in patients with symptoms like those of attention deficit disorder. He adds a new term to the multi-tasking discussion, “frazzing: frantic, ineffective multitasking, typically with the delusion that you are getting a lot done.”

Surely there’s a place for the always-connected, immediate-response work style. Hallowell describes his patients as “making decisions in black-and-white, shoot-from-the-hip ways rather than giving things adequate thought.” While that doesn’t sound good to me, it fits for situations and jobs where the rules are black and white and snap decisions are what’s called for. Oddly, I can’t think of any really good examples–because in any setting, sooner or later something would be missed, some subtlety or implication.

The appeal of the grey zone

But lots of work–especially creative and high-end knowledge work–is done primarily if not exclusively in the grey zone between black and white. That’s where we’re told our future lies, what keeps jobs from migrating to cheaper labor markets or being replaced by machines, what gives our companies their competitive edges, what in the long run can make the world a better place. So what’s a frazzing knowledge worker to do?

First, put technology in its place. Suggestions are everywhere: turn off the “ding” or the cell phone; set aside a specific time (or several) during the day to check e-mail; leave the cell phone turned off or at home when you’ve got something else to think about. Isn’t it odd that people who don’t otherwise seem selfless are willing to abandon themselves, their time, and their trains of thought to whoever might be on the other end of the ringing phone or bonging e-mail or IM?

Once you’ve decided to subjugate technology to your own agenda, make some space for thinking time. There’s a bit of serendipity involved, of course; you can’t always force creative thinking. It is like building a social life: If you don’t leave your house, you’re not likely to meet someone. And if you don’t make some space for thinking, you’re not likely to have ideas that inspire you.

The shower is one of the most-cited spots where inspiration strikes, perhaps because the shower is a place we’re ill-equipped to multi-task. Drive-time works for me. I can use a cell phone while I drive, but I’d rather not–and I’m not very good at it. My commute is short and full of stop signs and I drink a Dr. Pepper while I drive. I just don’t have enough hands. But I’ve also found that having time for myself and my thoughts makes me better prepared to start work in the morning and shift out of work at the end of the day.

Change the angle

Folding laundry is good thinking time for me. I worry that, as my kids grow older and leave home, there just might not be enough towels to get a really good insight. Like Oates’ housecleaning, folding laundry is active but automatic enough to let my thoughts wander. Which is a good thing, science shows. We can look at problems from different perspectives, combine different elements, and come up with solutions we couldn’t have if we’d just tried to “power through.” Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer says, “When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and we can activate different areas of our brain.” While it may be good to have a housecleaner, or to drop off your laundry for someone else to do, don’t outsource all your repetitive, manual labor just for more time to multi-task. Come up with something else–knitting? woodcarving?–that will give you an excuse to let your thoughts wander.

After we’ve included some open thinking time in our days, we need to rethink our planning and pacing of projects. Typical plans include only the time a person needs actually to do the hands-on work, not the time required to have the idea to execute, or the time for reflection between iterations. A graphic designer I work with told me how important it is for her to immerse herself in a project–but to be able to walk away and return a day or two later with a fresh perspective. And working on several projects interspersed can mean that an idea that springs out of one project feeds another project that’s percolating.

I’m proposing that we embrace woolgathering–by its original meaning. I learned recently that the word originally described poor people scavenging along hedges and trees for wool that had been pulled from sheep walking by. When the gatherers had enough, they’d card and spin the wool and make it into garments. Now that’s productive assembly of elements, over time, from here and there, merging them into one creative output.

Obsessing is not thinking

Finally, we need to use our thinking time for things that deserve it. We’re hugely drawn to obsessing about things that don’t matter; we’re compelled to run down to-do lists over and over. What works for me–when anything works for me, which is not always–is to plant reminders of what I want to be thinking about. For this essay, for example, I’ve had a note on my office whiteboard for weeks. A related magazine article on my desk at home, when I’ve walked by–on my way to that laundry–prompted me to think about this rather than the groceries we need or the state of my basement.

And it’s worth it to me because the experience of sitting down to write with my thoughts collected and a direction to go is so enormously satisfying–at least as satisfying as having a clean house.

–Lois Maassen

Sleepless

In Survival on August 18, 2011 at 2:30 pm

This is what happens when you can’t sleep:

You put the book back on the stack and turn off the light. You curl your arm around Luna, who is conveniently sleeping next to your pillow. When you close your eyes and suddenly aren’t sleepy any more, you find there’s a cat paw right next to your hand. You can squeeze the paw and make the claws come out: squeeze, retract, squeeze, retract. Luna doesn’t even lift up her head. You can feel every bone in her paw, feel the way the joints work.

Luna is so cooperative you pet her, long strokes from head to tail. You compare the feel of her fur to the rabbit fur mitt one of your clients recommends for touch therapy. You think Luna is actually softer than the rabbit fur, and this is not the softest or lushest-furred cat who lives in this house.

You realize you’re contemplating skinning your cats and deliberately redirect your thoughts. You pet the cat once more with, you hope she knows, affection and respect, and not envy or avarice. You realize how bright the moon is. You note the smaller moon reflected in the window. You wonder if you should reconsider window treatments so the room is dark.

While you’re at it you note the amount of light given off by the large-number digital alarm clock, which your husband bought as a convenience for you. As on previous sleepless nights, you wonder whether it’s a good thing to be able to see the minutes popping by.

You pet the cat again, hoping she’ll purr, which is sometimes a soporific. You wonder at the differences in the three cats’ fur, but then realize that you could also tell your three children’s hair apart by touch, even if they had the same haircut.

Because, after all, your three kids are quite distinct, and have been from conception. Which reminds you of the book you were reading before turning out the light. It was a gift from your daughter, a book about mother/daughter travel—both physical and emotional. If you knew whether she’d read the jacket or the book before giving it to you, you’d know how seriously to take the tensions between the characters and the daughter’s depression. You wonder if you should be a more perceptive mother.

You think you could read another chapter or two, but your book light is on the other side of the bed, left there when you asked your husband to switch bed-sides for a few weeks to see if sleeping on your other side would lessen the pressure in your surgically damaged ear. You debate various acrobatics that would net the book light, but, especially since Finnegan has now curled up by your knees, you’d probably disturb your husband and two cats: Is it worth it?

Because why, after all, are you still awake? Are you stressing about your work? Your daughter? Your volunteer project that has grown tentacles? The sheer number of things left undone? Your fear that you’ve passed this part of your nature along to your daughter?

Now you feel a little cramped, and you don’t think it’s just the cats. You’re pretty sure that your husband has encroached on your side of the bed. Knowing all the time that it’s petty, you still count the slats in the headboard to see just where the centerline is. When you prove that, indeed, one shoulder and one leg are over the line, you realize how pointless the exercise is. You nestle.

You wonder if you could read your book by the moonlight, because it seems just that bright.

You’re too hot, so you maneuver to poke your feet out from under the blanket. This involves sliding your legs under Finnegan, who turns to concrete when he sleeps and is otherwise imperturbable. You think there must be a haiku about sleeping with cats, but you can’t get beyond the first line: Kittens sleep in heaps.

It’s a dangerous slide into thinking about the other things you should be writing, so you redouble your efforts to get Luna to purr. She doesn’t lift her head, still. You put your nose into her fur, and can’t quite decide whether she smells like anything at all. Maybe a little like dust.

Dust. Dust. Dust makes you think about the discussion at book group earlier in the evening, where books with big themes frequently lead to discussion about the state of the world. You think about whether you can really follow through on your advice to stay engaged with the world, to resist turning off NPR in favor of Vivaldi because the news is just too painful. We saw in The Handmaid’s Tale what happens when people aren’t vigilant—especially women. You have to admit that you’ve been listening to music instead of news for the last five days, since the Iowa straw poll.

You wander into thoughts about what’s happened to women in the last three decades, how much is different for your daughter from what you experienced. You’re afraid it’s not enough: She may not be asked to bring a man coffee in the office, if she happens to take an office job. But choices in relationships are still determinant of options for her in ways they aren’t for men, you think.

Because you’ve been listening to music instead of NPR, there are lines from Joni Mitchell songs accessible in your head. “I am as constant as a northern star” | And I said “Constantly in the darkness | Where’s that at?” Or Crown and anchor me |
Or let me sail away…. Or When you dig down deep | You lose good sleep | And it makes you | Heavy company….

You feel less and less secure in your ability to give good advice to your daughter, should she ask, because not all of the choices you made were smart ones. You’re not sure whether you should have listened to less Joni—whose favorite theme has been disappointed love—or your daughter should listen to more, but you know this for sure: You want her to be happy, to live in some proximation to her dreams, to have a relationship with someone who will cherish her. You want her to know what it means to have a real partner, but you’re not sure you can describe how you know for sure when you’ve found one, since you feel just plain lucky yourself.

After seeing the giant luminous 3:44 on the too-bright clock and being abandoned by Luna, who seeks solitude in the linen closet, you stop.

In the morning, after sleeping through two alarms, you’re awakened by your husband from a dream in which you’re looking for the flip charts from a series of meetings. One of your former bosses assures you that they’re all taken care of, that they’ve been automatically uploaded to the web. You think the notes should have been synthesized and edited before they were made public; the former boss doesn’t think that’s a problem because no one knows where to find them on the web, anyway. You can’t find them, either.

The sun streams into the bedroom and you are stupefied with sleep.

–Lois Maassen

Can You Say “Dead”?

In Survival on July 3, 2011 at 7:57 pm

My Uncle Clare died on Tuesday. So far, no one has mentioned it.

There is much talk of his “passing,” as if he’d finally been promoted to fourth grade or sped by the slow-moving vehicle ahead of him on I-96 or successfully pulled off faking his race, gender, or sexual orientation. But no one — not the hospice social worker, not the young chaplain, Bible in hand, who gently escorted my aunt to her car, not the two kind men from Dykstra Funeral Home who came to retrieve my uncle’s body — pronounced the D-Word in my hearing.

I have to think that Uncle Clare, a plain-spoken, even occasionally gruff son of a considerably gruffer, occasionally mean working-class father — a man who never relinquished the colorful vocabulary of his Army and construction worker days, even after he returned to college at the age of 42 and became a teacher who attended church and lived with his wife in a beautiful home on the Thornapple River, one of the tonier suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city where he was born — would scoff at our reluctance to use the definitive four-letter word that describes his current condition.

Uncle Clare is dead. As in, he won’t be teasing me about wearing heels to try to be taller than my old uncle. As in, he won’t be calling “Sweetheart” from the open door of the refrigerator to ask my aunt if there’s any butter. As in, his ashes are in a cardboard box in the back of my VW Bug.

“I just can’t realize he’s gone,” my aunt tells me every time we speak. And that gets to heart of it, I think. Not that she can’t “believe” he’s “passed away,” but that she can’t comprehend the reality of his utter, absolute, irrevocable goneness.

If words can do anything to help the bereft, bereaved, thunderstruck human being whose best beloved has been snatched from her arms, it must be in the service of this realizing.

When my father died, Emily Dickinson’s words helped:

You left me – Sire – two Legacies -

A Legacy of Love

A Heavenly Father would suffice

Had He the offer of -

You left me Boundaries of Pain -

Capacious as the Sea -

Between Eternity and Time -

Your Consciousness – and me -

In two short stanzas, she sums up the whole human tragedy: we are loved; we are left. The condition of experiencing the former is experiencing the latter — those Boundaries of Pain that death lays down in black permanent marker. By acknowledging, putting words to the inviolable barrier between my father’s consciousness “- and me -” (that final, heartbreaking dash breaking off into the empty eternity of separation spread out before me), Dickinson’s poem helped me to realize the unbearable truth about what had happened to me.

The word “dead” had that kind of shocking, cold-water-in-the-face effect on me, too. My dad is dead, I told myself over and over, and the heavy downbeat of those two D-laden words hammered the realization into my resistant consciousness. The weight of the noun (the verb form to die is lighter, more ephemeral — you die in an instant; you’re dead forever) gives it finality. And dignity.

Auden knew how to use it:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead . . .

Clarence Ekema at the age of two.

My dad is dead. My uncle Clare is dead. Someday you and I and all the people we love will be dead. Realize it. Call it by its name.

–Debra Wierenga


Groping Our Way Toward Green

In Community, Survival on March 4, 2011 at 2:19 am

While I was brushing my teeth the other day (with the water off), I heard that  Republicans have switched back to using Styrofoam in the Capitol instead of compostable food containers. They say that the money saved by making the switch can be used to reduce the deficit and that the “Green the Capitol” program didn’t help the environment much, anyway. Democrats disagree. Vehmently, of course.

I don’t know whom to believe. Like healthcare and education, being green is complex.  Something that seems like it’s best for the environment might not be. Our dishwasher has been underperforming for a while (due to either its 17 years or companies changing their detergent formula in an effort to be more environmentally correct themselves), so I’ve been washing dishes by hand. I’d forgotten how much time washing all the day’s dishes by hand takes.

I was okay with it because I thought I was helping out the environment. I’m woefully late to the green scene—we don’t compost and I still use baggies and Saran Wrap, albeit guiltily. Washing dishes by hand made me feel environmentally virtuous. But whether or not hand-washing dishes actually is virtuous depends on what kind of dishwasher you have, which cycle you use, how you heat your water, and the process you use. Can you wash and rinse a dinner plate in about one cup of water? I can’t.  According to treehugger.com, it’s almost impossible to be more efficient than a good automatic dishwasher, as long as you’re using good automatic dishwasher practices.

After that I decided to circumvent green complexity entirely by using less. When cooking, I estimate instead of using a measuring spoon. It’s one less thing to wash. Estimating amounts puts the meal at risk, especially those that call for cayenne pepper, but so far no one has noticed. My son did, however, notice when I went a step too far with my philosophy and drank grapefruit juice out of the container. He’s a teenager who has done that himself. Still, he didn’t approve. (In my defense, it was a moment of weakness, and I’m the only one who ever drinks grapefruit juice in our house.) 

I also buy less at the grocery store. All the packaging makes me queasy, but I’m equally motivated by the work involved. The more I buy, the more work I create all the way around—bagging it, lugging it home, putting it away, not to mention the work involved in making money to pay for it. I’ve gotten a lot better at distinguishing want from need.

The same goes for clothes. I just don’t buy many anymore. I’ve had my red winter duffle coat for at least 18 years; when the lining wore out, a friend made a new lining for it that was nicer than the original.  When the straps of my purse wore out, I started using an old purse that’s dated, but well made—so well made that it will last for another 10 years, by which time it will qualify as retro.

Perhaps because I buy so few new clothes, I resist parting with old ones, even when I’ve stopped wearing them. I made half-hearted attempts at cleaning out my closet several times last year, but it was still full of things I didn’t wear. When the Salvation Army offered to pick up donations at the curb a few weeks ago, I took another run at it.

We live downtown, a few blocks from a shelter for the homeless. At this time of year, I see a lot of people walk by without real winter coats. When, on the day I tackled my closet, I saw yet another woman in a sweatshirt, it occurred to me that it is morally and ethically wrong to hang onto clothing I don’t wear.  If I have it, then someone who needs it doesn’t. For the first time it struck me as hoarding, and it trumped all my old excuses. There were still some things I clung to, but this time my closet is visibly emptier.

I’m not setting myself up as an example. Rather, admitting to all this is embarrassing. These are basic things, all of which I once knew and practiced but, I’m ashamed to say, set aside during the fat and stupid years.  I’m now having to re-learn them.

“Reduce” is the first commandment of environmentalism and where I should have started.  It was our way of life growing up on the farm. My father, a Christian and a Republican, taught us that God expects us to be stewards of the land. Even as little kids we knew what that meant—in all things, take what you need and no more. Whenever possible, reuse. He made it clear that God didn’t care if you were a kid, adult, or a Martian, for crying out loud—we are all stewards. Even Republicans and Democrats.

Which brings me back to those Stryfoam cups at the Capitol. Since the most environmentally friendly option—drinking straight from the container—truly is unacceptable (even if you are the only one who drinks that particular beverage), maybe the folks at the Capitol could do what I’m asking my family to do at home: use the same glass, water bottle, or travel mug all day.

That would give me lots of company where I am on this journey–at the beginning. And I’m not picky about the company. Bring on the Martians.–Christine MacLean

Chill

In Survival on January 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm

Children’s choirs almost always do it to me. That eerie, almost spiritual frisson that starts in the vicinity of the shoulder blades and tickles its way up the back of my neck, raising hairs like little sensors as it moves.

Musical chills — measurable physical changes in skin conductance (as well as heart rate, breathing patterns, and body temperature) — signify an intense emotional response to music. A new study from McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (affectionately known as The Neuro) suggests that these chills are built-in to the human brain’s “reward circuitry” — the release of mood-enhancing hormones that evolved to reinforce survival behaviors like eating and having sex.

Although it’s still unclear why listening to music would have helped our ancestors live long enough to procreate, the new research has established that higher levels of dopamine are released when people listen to music that evokes chills than when they listen to non-chill-factor tunes.

Even more interesting — to me at least — is perusing the list of chill  excerpts provided by study participants asked for examples of shiver-provoking music. The selections range from the highly expected (Barber’s Adagio for Strings) to the slightly surprising (Led Zeppelin?) to the unheard of (by me) “Techno” strains of some person, group, or machine called Tiesto.

I’m heading over to iTunes to check some of them out in hopes of creating my own shivery, dopamine-inducing playlist.

–Debra Wierenga

Do or Do Not

In Survival on January 19, 2011 at 10:17 pm

I’ve been working hard to resist thinking that I need more information in order to change what I do. Two cases in point: A recent review of The Procrastination Equation made me think I should read the book, that an understanding of the history and psychology of procrastination will make me stop putting things off. An introduction to SimpliFried, a new food blog, made me think I needed to subscribe for shortcuts on menu planning.

This is a form of magical thinking. That’s what I need to keep repeating to myself: This is a form of magical thinking. I know what I need to know to meet my deadlines (which I mostly do) and to feed my family (which I mostly do). I simply need to do it. Which I mostly do.

And yet… there is the allure. Can it be simpler? Can it be faster? Can it require less mental or emotional energy?

This is a form of magical thinking.

I am, of course, attracted to magic.

–Lois Maassen

Pets@Work

In Survival on January 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

My cat Scratch works long hours in my home office, rearranging paper piles, typing cryptic notes on my laptop, making sure that my wireless mouse isn’t lazing around on its pad. The other day as I watched him bat the mouse to the floor, then drape himself elegantly across my notes and keyboard (he’s a big guy), it occurred to me that my furry assistant might actually be having a negative impact on my productivity.

Not that I would ever consider banning him from my place of work. Who else is going to pat me on the cheek with a soft paw as I labor in my endless pursuit of a fresh approach to extolling the virtues of adjustable-height tables?

Still, it got me thinking that there are probably a lot of people out there who share an office with their pet(s), and even more who wish they could. And, speaking of height-adjustable tables, mightn’t there be a market out there for furnishings — or at least accessories — designed to accommodate the special needs of the pet-friendly office?

A little bit of internet research revealed that, yes, many, many people these days face cat-computer compatibility issues. Also, I am not the first one to think that a desktop cat support device (in your choice of birch, cherry, or walnut veneer) is an idea whose time has come.

The real revelation for me, though, was the extent to which the pets-at-work phenomenon has spread beyond the home office. A recent survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) found that nearly one in five U.S. companies now allow pets at work. Many of these pet-friendly offices belong to small startups (my personal favorite, Small Dog Electronics, devotes a page on its website to employee and customer dogs) probably because with fewer employees it’s easier to reach consensus on issues like pet hair and squeak toys. But larger businesses are also signing on. Google, for example, has a liberal pet policy that nevertheless includes the provision “Dogs are not allowed on the sand volleyball court.”

The mental and physical health benefits of pet ownership are well documented. Studies have shown that pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease and an increased rate of survival after a coronary event. Simply being in the presence of a friendly animal has a measurable positive effect on pulse and blood-pressure rates and reduces the intensity of stress experienced by people in such stress-inducing situations as undergoing a medical procedure or taking a math test.

But the benefits to employers who let workers bring their furry friends to the office extend beyond a healthier and more relaxed staff. The APPMA survey found that pets in the workplace improve employee morale and camaraderie, reduce absenteeism, and promote willingness to work overtime. Ninety-six percent of the pet-friendly companies surveyed said that pets contributed to positive work relations, and 73 percent said that pets in the office “create a more productive work environment.” Businesses that allow pets believe it improves the atmosphere for all employees, even those who are not pet owners themselves. In companies where people work long hours and/or spend most of their days working on computers, pets encourage employees to take healthful physical and mental breaks.

“Taking a minibreak elevates our brainpower and makes us more creative,” writes Doris Helge, pets-at-work proponent and author of Joy on the Job. “Some of us don’t take time to take the break we need until Rover reminds us.”

In a time when money is tight and work-life balance issues are hot, establishing a pet-friendly policy is an inexpensive perk that can serve as a significant recruitment and retention tool. Simply Hired, an online jobs database, provides a search option that allows job seekers to specify that they wish to work for a dog-friendly company. A survey by Simply Hired and Dogster, another online site, found that a third of employed dog-owners would be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant they could bring their pets to work. Two-thirds said they would work longer hours, and half said they would switch jobs.

Not everyone is an animal lover, of course, and even some who are have allergies to pet dander. Some employers try to accommodate everyone by designating certain areas as pet-free zones. Most companies that allow pets have a written policy which outlines expectations about where pets are allowed and what their owners’ responsibilities include. Policies typically specify that animals be housebroken, flea-free, and friendly, and that their humans clean up after them, inside and out. Autodesk, a pet-friendly company employing 1, 100 people at its San Raphael site, stipulates that “dogs are not to be brought to meetings” and “loud, repetitive barking or eating another employee’s food is also not acceptable.” Seems reasonable to me.

Promoters of “Take Your Dog to Work Day” (next  TYDTWD: June 24, 2011) offer tips for people planning to introduce Fido to the office that include leaving the squeak toy at home and making sure that your cubicle or office can safely and comfortably accommodate your pet. With regard to the latter, entrepreneurial types are already training their focus on the pet-friendly office market.

U.S. Patent 5934813 — “Keyboard protector having peaked configuration” — claims a unique design for a “protector assembly” comprising a “means to prevent an animal from remaining thereon in obstructing relation to the keyboard.” Under “Background of the Invention” the inventor explains the need for this device:

… individuals who are pet owners and particularly cat lovers and also use some type of computer instrument involving a keyboard have encountered the problem of having cats generally prowl across the keyboard thereby disturbing the operation thereof. In addition, cats of a particularly curious nature or those who have a habit of invading the operating area while their owners are working on the computer certainly have a disruptive effect on the operation and in fact, could, in certain instances, destroy certain work currently being performed on the computer.

I haven’t been able to determine if the protector assembly has made it into production yet.

In the meantime, BitBoost Systems offers PawSense, a software utility that “quickly detects and blocks cat typing.” The application analyzes key stroke timing and combinations to distinguish between your typing style and your cat’s. Its designers say that PawSense typically recognizes a cat on the keyboard within one or two “pawsteps” and then proceeds to block the cat’s “keyboard input.”

Or, better yet, let your cat use those keyboard skills to supplement the family income. A new book out from Ten Speed Press — Careers for Your Cat by Ann Dziemianowicz  — includes a “Meowers-Briggs Career/Personality Test” to help  you find the perfect placement for your office cat.

–Debra Wierenga

This article was originally published on jugglezine.com.

Organizing the New Year

In Fulfillment, Survival on January 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I just took down the Christmas tree, packed up the crèche, and wrapped the other decorations in tissue. The only remnants are the wreath on the door, which is more seasonal in my mind, and the Advent wreath on the table, since the candles aren’t yet burned to nubbins.

As much as I love the Christmas holiday, I also relish getting the house back in order, shifting from holiday food back to “real” stuff, and being able to devote my time to projects without deadlines. Or, at least, projects that don’t all have the same deadline.

But there’s something about the holiday season, or the onset of winter, or the approach of the new year, that makes me want to declutter, reorganize, increase my virtue, double my productivity. That made me extra susceptible to buying a new book, in spite of my best intentions.

I’ve long had a soft spot for books on time management and organization. Over the past several years, I winnowed my collection down to just one yard of shelf space; only a month ago, I was thinking I could probably free up that space, too: My problem isn’t with knowing what to do, it’s with doing it.

But somehow, when the email arrived early this week announcing the paperback edition of Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutter Your Life in One Week, my defenses were down. I was already, as I said, yearning for a simpler, less decorated home. I was anticipating getting back on post-Christmas track. I subscribe to Erin’s blog, Unclutterer, and have gotten good ideas or motivation from it, as well as the weekly chuckle from the unitasker. And it’s so easy to click those links, you know; Amazon surpassed expectations by delivering the book the very next day.

One of the reasons I’m sheepish about my collection of books about organization is that if I spent as much time organizing as reading about it, well… you know. But this week between the holidays is a hiatus in some ways, so I whipped through the book.

It’s been most of a week, and my life is not uncluttered. It was an enjoyable read, but it’s really best suited for someone like my son, who’s lived in an apartment (leaving most of his clutter at our house, I might add) for a couple of years and probably hasn’t yet been hard enough pressed to build much routine into his life.

I suspected this about the best audience for the book when I read in the first chapter that I should clear my “sentimental clutter” before the official decluttering week begins. I figure it will take me at least five years to do that. Not only do I have the lifetime accumulations of three kids to sort through—and negotiate with them about—but probably 80 percent of what’s in my house would qualify as “sentimental clutter.”

I know that my cookbook collection, for example, takes up more space than it should. But in the mix are The Vegetarian Epicure, which taught me to cook without meat; the wooden recipe box my grandfather made, which holds a few recipes only because I haven’t gotten around to transferring all of them to my actual recipe storage system; and a church cookbook published the year I was born. There are enough decisions only among the cookbooks to tie me up for at least a month.

Right off the bat, the uncluttered life in one week is a dream shattered. And as I read through the day-by-day chapters, I recognize that each day could take a month or longer.

Weeding through my wardrobe, which is slated for Monday morning, I probably could do in half a day. Organizing my desk and the rest of my office, though, which I’m supposed to have done by Monday afternoon, is a rather more daunting task. A conservative estimate: six weeks. And that’s if I can organize full-time. This is partly, of course, because my office is at home; Erin prefers “work/life symbiosis” to “work/life balance,” and I certainly live that.

Organizing my kitchen is slated for Wednesday evening, and again I’m stymied. My kitchen includes an enormous amount of “sentimental clutter,” from the Willow Ware and Jewel Tea dishes I inherited from my grandmother to the ceramics my daughter and I painted at Paint-A-Pot. If I’d already disposed of all of that with the “sentimental clutter” step before the week began… well, then, I guess an evening might do it.

At least for me, I came to recognize, this “one week” to an uncluttered life is metaphorical more than literal, aligning with my understanding of the Creation story. I can only aspire to achieve my uncluttering in something less than an eon.

I’m glad I got the book, though, and spent the time reading it. There are good ideas in it that I can use sooner or later. What I like best is one of the questions Erin proposes one ask before buying something: “Does this item help me develop the remarkable life I want to live?”

I like that question. It reminds me of something I heard in a sermon in the weeks before Christmas. We tend to think of promises as something held in the future, like “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” But Christmas is a reminder that because of Emmanuel, “god with us,” every moment holds promise. That’s a notion that crosses many spiritual practices, it strikes me.

That’s as close as I’m coming to a New Year’s Resolution this year: Do my best to remember that every moment holds promise and that I can develop a remarkable life. Less clutter—both physical and psychological—may result from that mindfulness. We’ll see.

My spousish one wandered in while I was writing this piece, Erin’s book at my side.

“Are you uncluttering?” he asked.

“No, I’m writing about uncluttering,” I said.

Between reading and writing about it, I can probably keep my clutter intact for some time.

–Lois Maassen

School of Life

In Fulfillment, Survival on December 29, 2010 at 8:24 pm

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, makes a good case for changing the way we teach the humanities (literature, philosophy, the arts) in higher education. Instead of focusing on factual information and scholarly analysis — memorizing the names of the major artists of the Ming Dynasty, say, or explicating Thomas Hardy’s use of flowers as metaphor in Tess of the d’Urbervilles – de Botton wants classes that teach us “how to live.”

“It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, and blinkered human beings.”

Along with a group of like-minded professors, writers, and artists, de Botton has founded a school in London that practices what he preaches. “The School of Life” offers courses in marriage (“Making Love Last”; required reading includes Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary),  choosing a career (“How to Find a Job You Love”; readings include Thoreau’s Walden and The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), and dying (“Facing Death”; reading works by Samuel Johnson, Luis Bunuel, and Joan Didion).

Unfortunately, The School of Life does not yet offer online classes, but their website showcases some interesting “Ideas to Live By.” I’m tempted to try out the  “Bibliotherapy” services they offer. An individual consultation with a bibliotherapist via phone or Skype will get you a customized reading “prescription” for your “particular area of concern or curiosity.” 

–Debra Wierenga


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