In lieu of luminaries, learning from a seasoned telecommuter.
By Sylvie Epstein
Each month, a Blue and Write staffer speaks with a local luminary—a visiting artist, an influential administrator, a star professor with a new book. Those luminaries are no longer at our beck and call, but that hasn’t stopped us from engaging in—and publishing—meaningful dialogue with those who share our new environs. This month, Sylvie Epstein, our Assistant Literary Editor, takes on this task, at once convenient and its own distinct challenge.
Many of our conversations these days are virtual. We listen to professors talk about Pride and Prejudice, maybe offering a word or two of input on occasion. We plan online birthday parties and watch the Bon Appetit staff converse about their favorite cups of home-brewed coffee. We call to teach our grandparents how to use Zoom, then we Zoom with them and about nine other family members, none of whom seem to understand the “one mic” rule we learned in kindergarten.
For many of us, only one genre of in-person conversation remains: the parent-child.
On a recent afternoon, a few minutes after leaving Art Hum, I wander into the living room for a chat about quarantine and working from home that my dad and I have penciled into our schedules. My mom is still on a work call in the next room, my sister is doing an assignment downstairs, and I have another class later that evening. I find my dad reclined on the couch with a novel in hand. He chuckles, claiming he actually is doing work (research, he says), but he imagines that he must look like a total slacker.
My parents are both writers; working from home is their norm. They have spent their adult lives transforming bedrooms and dining tables into offices, just as so many of us are doing for the first time these days. For my dad, what’s new in quarantine is what happens to his scripts when he finishes writing them: Instead of being produced, they enter limbo. And with this peculiar professional pause, the phone calls and negotiations that used to take up his non-writing time have ceased. He is trying, though—and sincerely, he might add—to continue to set a good example for my sister and me.
We agree, however, that there’s no better influence than dozens of strangers surrounding you, busy with their own work. My dad longs for an hour or so at a nearby coffee shop, followed by a brisk walk and an hour or so at another. I miss the countless semi-strangers in eyeshot at the libraries.
I also miss the libraries themselves: the big green chairs in Milstein, my favorite Butler table. I get some sick satisfaction from loitering in these infamously unproductive haunts—texting and scrolling through Instagram on my computer, aimlessly checking my email.
I haven’t quite found a replacement for these productivity shams in quarantine. But my dad, seasoned work-from-homer that he is, found one years ago: He cleans. I catch him vacuuming and wiping down countertops at regular intervals throughout the day, whether these chores are really needed or not. And under self-isolation circumstances, he’s brought that work outdoors. Almost every afternoon, he chops up fallen trees around our house. He’s cleaning what to my mind cannot be cleaned—wood and dirt and leaves. I, meanwhile, have taken up baking and cooking.
I end our conversation by asking what he thinks about all this? What profound reflections can he offer me? Does he have a comment—any comment!—on our gendered endeavors?
“You are more than welcome to use the chainsaw,” is all he has to say.