Alone Again, Unnaturally
'My stint as a CEO over, I've joined the ranks of 39 million home-office workers,' writes the author. 'But broad categorizations fail to describe my condition. Part of me is still somewhere else, and I need all of me to make my new venture work. What I really am is scared'
I was reading electronic news on the Mac in my home office when I heard the rumble of the Harley-Davidson. It was 1:30 in the morning. My wife and daughters were asleep. The chopper backfired as it passed in front of my window, and then turned into the half-moon driveway two doors down, gliding to a stop beside a Cadillac. A large man about my age, wearing jeans and boots and a suitably rebellious leather jacket, got off the bike and went around the swimming pool to the rear entrance of the house.
I wondered if he removed his boots on the stairs to avoid waking his parents.
In case you haven't noticed yet, something strange is going on in the suburbs. The cohesiveness of American family life is making an unintentional comeback.
Here are four reasons why: entrepreneurs, telecommuters, boomerang kids, and the unemployed. At 36, I'm already qualified to talk about the first three. I've started a new venture to pretend I'm impervious to the fourth.
On Technology recently merged with another software developer, ending my three-year stint as On's CEO. The merger was hard and painful. For months I barely saw my family. I swore that if the pile of legal documents on my office floor grew taller than I am, I would go home for good and let it run the company. Finally, the contracts were signed, creating an electronic-mail and scheduling company with products for the PC and the Macintosh. I got to go home, anyway.
Now chairman, but with little daily connection to the company, I spend almost no time in the office -- a strange feeling, since I used to spend very little time anywhere else. I've left talented people and good friends behind, and I miss them. They call to tell me about the latest intrigues. One wrote me a bitter and unsigned letter. I knew who it was right away, of course, since bitterness is as distinctive as a human voice. You can't be bitter without being specific. I hear from both sides. I try to stay objective.
My wife and kids see a lot of me. They tolerate and ignore my attempts to organize them. I've joined the ranks of 39 million home-office workers, some 12 million of whom were fired or took early retirement. I'm one of 5 million telecommuters.
But broad categorizations fail to describe my condition. What I really am is scared. Part of me is still somewhere else. I need all of me to make the new venture work. Cutting across the gentle, prosperous sound of sprinklers outside my window is the backfire of a motorcycle. The sound of fear.
If commuting hadn't dulled my peripheral vision, I might have noticed sooner that the "boy" two doors down is a man. Easy Rider's supposed to live on the highway, not in the suburbs. I saw what I wanted to see: a biker, not a neighbor. But Easy must have his own doubts about being back at home. He still dresses like someone who's just passing through.
I can sympathize with him. I've also been a boomerang kid. During college I moved away to California, failed to get a job in the movie industry, failed to sell encyclopedias out of an office on Hollywood and Vine, failed as a construction worker in Wyoming, and finally succeeded as a flower-delivery man. Not wanting to be a flower-delivery man, I came home. My parents bought the plane ticket. As soon as I had saved enough money, I took off again, for London, where I worked at a wine bar for a pair of Cockneys who drove American muscle cars and dispensed too much free champagne to sustain a profitable business. After a few months, I was back in Boston. But I was making progress. This time, I could afford the ticket.
I lived at home while I started my first novel, while I chased my first job in high tech, while I courted my wife. When I think about home in that context, it isn't a place to rest or even a place to avoid spending money you don't have. It's a place to get things started. And the further along a thing gets, the farther away from home it takes you.
Which is why I can't believe millions of people will adapt to working at home. I've had a home office for years, but when I find myself in this space during the daylight hours, my computer seems like a minor appliance compared with the dominant rhythms of practical machines that wash, dry, and vacuum. My daughters don't think I'm working unless they see me in a suit.
My skepticism about full-time offices in the home is mild compared with my distrust of companies that refer to themselves as "families." They're lying. A company is not a family. Business is full of necessary intolerances. A family becomes successful when it confronts and overcomes its intolerances. Easy's parents are sharing their standard of living with him. But more important, they're accepting him as he is now.
For me, returning home has triggered a sorting-out process. In the solitude that has replaced the day-to-day mayhem of running a company, I mentally divide what I've learned into piles: Keep, Toss, Funny, Sad, Right Decision, Big Mistake. There's a lot to cover. Easy's kept his jacket and his Harley. What have I kept? Wrapped up in the pace and excitement of a job, you become the thing you need to be. Home is where you decide who you really are.
As fall approaches, a flying wedge of motorcycles rumbles into the neighborhood, and several of Easy's friends join him around the pool. Barbecue smoke and Allman Brothers music waft across our backyard.
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Tryin' to make a living and doin' the best I can
When it's time for leavin' I hope you'll understand
I want to believe that Easy's getting restless and gathering strength, that he's still capable of getting a thing started and furthering it along, that soon he'll roar off with his friends on a new adventure. I want to believe that he is doing the best he can.
I want to believe it for him because I want to believe it for myself.
Home is where we feel most comfortable, and perhaps, most daring. Where we figure out that it's OK to swerve off in another direction, because life is about swerves. That fear is the necessary fuel for courage. That we're eager to strike out into the world again.* * *
Besides being chairman of On Technology, Conall Ryan has published three novels and is a consultant to high-tech start-ups.