My first office was my best, and it’s been downhill since.
I was a junior in college, 20 years old. I worked a few hours each week as a special assistant to the special assistant to my university’s president. About as low on the totem-pole as one could get, yet I had a corner office, on a third floor, overlooking a tree-lined side street in Boston. The room was at least 20’ square. True, some of it was taken up by the detritus of administration—steel file cabinets and cardboard banker’s boxes, a spare desk. But the windows admitted plenty of light, and the crown molding was hand-plastered.
(The assistant I worked for had an office filled with books: in shelves, all over his desk, on chairs, and several feet deep on the available floor space. He was a deeply learned autodidact, but with no sense of mine and thine. He was born to grapple with entire libraries—of overdue books.)
My second office was at the same university—I’ll call it University A—five years later, when I was writing my dissertation. A friend among the higher-ups there wrangled it for me. The view wasn’t as good as from my first office. It was in an empty building, awaiting renovation. A resident rat once gave my toe a nibble as I sat motionless parsing out Plato’s Laws. Still, it had a decrepit grace.
Which is more than I can say for the office I had for six years teaching at another Boston-area college, University B. This was little more than a cinder-block box. (Actually, I had two offices in my time there, but both were so undistinguished as to be indistinguishable.) Time spent in that box—such as in “office hours”—felt like imprisonment. I can’t imagine someone working there and producing anything fine. I didn’t.
For a semester I borrowed the office of one of my former teachers while I taught a few classes back at University A. He had many of his books there, photographs of his own former teachers, knick-knacks, and plenty of dust and clutter. The office itself was the usual institutional dreck. But he had overgrown it like a gentle, cooling moss. It made a pleasant retreat.
Upon leaving teaching, I took up residence in not one but two offices at the same time. The first was another academic shab-fest at University B, this time in a “research center.” Though I didn’t have students, I did have a view, of a road, some sidewalks, other university buildings, some trees.
The second of my simultaneous offices was my first “corporate” office, at a financial firm outside Boston. Over the next six years, I had three more such offices—four in all—terminating in a cube. The cube really was the natural end—the telos, Aristotle would say—of such offices. Their defining feature is their impersonality. They are designed for constant change. No moss grows there. An employee might be here today, gone tomorrow. The same for the company itself. I lived through three mergers in those four offices. The rented furniture is shiny but ultimately disposable, just like everything else. Why not the walls too?
After my third merger, I became a consultant, which meant that my study became my office, unless I was working from trains, planes, automobiles, hotel rooms, hotel lobbies, or relatives’ spare bedrooms.
Ben Johnson wrote, “Speak, that I may see thee.” Language may most show the man, but an office does pretty well too: the space reflects the work, and the work the man. See the space, see the man.
Such, alas, has been the case for my offices. My first office showed well, but it had no substance, like the 20-year-old pomposity who inhabited it. My second office was a dead end; so was the dissertation I wrote there. My teaching offices were shabby, rendering a like judgment on a professional who did little to better himself. My corporate offices were transparent, lacking depth. I’ve never did so little thinking as in those years.
What, then, of the “home-office”? It would seem to be the natural habitat of a free man. You can decorate it as you wish. You can come or go. There’s no clock to punch.
Of course, almost all people today now know what many of us discovered over the last decade or two: that vision is illusory. At home you’re free to be distracted by spouse, children, dog, chores, errands, and food. What of work? It shrinks in comparison.
Thanks to our response to COVID, the home office has become the norm. But, as in so many other bad things, COVID has merely exacerbated a preexisting condition. The home office is the proper successor to the cube. You do not enjoy greater privacy because you’re home. Far from it: you suffer greater publicity. Now your work is evident to your household. And your home to your work.
Publicity is always part of an office, understood not just as a place but in the deeper sense of “office” as a duty or responsibility. No duty is ever completely private. Socrates in the agora was not “out of office.” He claimed that by cajoling the Athenian youth about virtue he was an exemplary public servant. Likewise, one of my teacher’s teachers made a point of working evenings at a desk that was visible from the main street running through the heart of the university. He set a public example, even if it was of private reflection.
The problem with a home office, then, is not only private life’s intrusion into work. It is the demotion of work, particularly its public character. This demotion demotes the worker, in others’ eyes, and his own. An office—whether a place or a position—carries status. If you hold an office, others need you here, now. Without an office, you’re “on call,” doing “projects,” a fungible unit of productivity.
A man without an office is a man without office.
How can many people—maybe most—not feel this change degrading and depressing?
As an aside, it’s for this reason that I’m not surprised that at this very same time, when so many feel the loss of their offices, the Office of President is inhabited by a demented, incontinent has-been, who lurches from one grinning pose to another, shepherded by his Leftist handlers, who have only contempt for him and his Office. Their choice to prop him up in a “Let’s Pretend” TV-studio set was inspired. For a fake, a fake office is the true one.
What, then, is to be done?
For some, the Woke religion gives them a sense of purpose, involvement with others, work, rectitude, and status, that they now lack in their work. The situation is self-reinforcing. Woke corrupts work. Work corrupted feeds on Woke.
But if we don’t go Woke, what is our “office,” our duty?
One precursor to exercising any duty is memory, and here we have so much to recollect, for we have lost so much, so quickly: the delight (few ever noticed it as a delight, but it was) of seeing each other’s faces. The freedom to breathe easily in public places, and not to fear a sneeze or a chill. The confidence that our elected officials were actually … elected, and, if not always to our tastes, were more or less on our side, and not in thrall to powers, whether economic, foreign, or ideological, hostile to us. The hope to get some shreds of truth from the so-called “mainstream media.” The belief, when dealing with our fellow citizens, that it was very unlikely that someone would be simmering with rage or resentment. The much-battered yet once-deep trust in our doctors and “modern medicine.” The fundamental conviction that I could never be forced to let others do something to my body that I didn’t want them to do. How could we fulfill our offices well if we don’t remember the life, liberty, and happiness they serve?
Next is to see what’s in plain sight. For my part, I hold many offices: Father. Son. Spouse. Friend. Advisor. Partner. American. Citizen. The location in which I fulfill these offices matters. But it matters little in comparison to the more fundamental point: that I see my offices and I do them.
But in a world of crumbling institutions, doing one’s duty requires more than remembering what a full life is and acknowledging your responsibilities. Due to the breakdown of our families and schools, it requires learning, from a neglected tradition, what those offices are and entail. It means bucking up, Buttercup, and accepting that each of these offices comes with its own character: you may get to choose an office, but you don’t get to choose what it means. We need to work off the moral obesity that comes from trying to have our cake and eat it too.
If we do this work we discover that no one of these offices—nor even their combination—is ever quite the perfect fit. In reclaiming my offices, I sense that there’s something more, something higher, than my offices. My soul. My life. What is that … ? But this sense, I divine, is one that arises only, or at least most powerfully, when one has sincerely and energetically reclaimed one’s office.
So for this reason, too, in addition to all the others—the good it will do for your loved ones, for your friends, and neighbors, for your country, as well as for yourself, by rendering you more substantial, not just in others’ eyes but above all your own—even if “shade among shades, you breathe!”—do it. Reclaim your office.
Image: kate.sade, Public Domain