Richard Louv

Recipient of the Audubon Medal

Author of the International Bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

From the Blog

The Virtual Blacksmith Shop: In the post-Covid world, working from home may be the norm. It's an old tradition.

When my boys were small, I considered myself lucky to work at home. At the time, I missed my colleagues in the newsroom. Still do, on both counts. In 1995, I wrote a column about working from home, which was later included in The Web of Life, and adapted here:

We should be cautious when we talk about traditional fatherhood. Which tradition?

As a writer, I spend much of my time in a home office staring at a computer screen. Often on weekends, or after school, my sons head for the small Macintosh that sits a few feet away from my bigger Mac. I work in a virtual blacksmith shop.

Working from home was the norm for many parents before the Industrial Revolution swept men up and sent them off to the widget factories, and later to office parks and office building, where women eventually and rightly joined them.

In those days, fathers spent a lot of time close to their children. On the farm, in the store downstairs, in the blacksmith shop next door, a child might work with his father, might hand him the tools of his trade or might play to one side while his father worked.

The sinew of this earlier tradition was time and proximity. Being there. Being nearby. And of course this was true for mothers and their children, too.

To be clear, I’m not here all the time. I often travel for work, but working from home helps compensate for work-travel absences. Or I hope it does.

A cautionary note. The distractions are real. My home office is in a converted garage on a canyon edge behind the house. One day, a swarm of bees flew up from the canyon and applied for internships. The wood rats in the garage/office attic offer gratuitous editing.

My two sons are good about respecting the sanctity of my computer, but one day I couldn’t figure out why the cursor on my screen was stuck. After a couple of hours of chanting Computer Voodoo, I accidentally turned my mouse over to discover that the ball inside as missing. One of my boys and his buddy had borrowed it for a Nintendo mouse that had lost its ball.

Then there are the unexpected sounds. One day, when I was out of the office, my older son decided to program one of my computers to play, upon startup, the spooky theme song to “The X-Files.” When a disk was ejected, the computer blurted out anxious dialogue from the show: “If it’s not human, what is it?” During shutdown, a voice from the computer would announce, ominously, “You may not be who you are!”

Scissors and tape disappear mysteriously. One time I found a neighborhood kid hiding under my desk.

Our old dog, who wants to be with the boys all the time, is another issue. He licks. He sighs. He snores. He has a flatulence problem. Occasionally, this problem startles him awake and he jumps to his feet ready to flee or fight.

Sometimes, all of this happens simultaneously: The X-Files, my boys arguing, the one-dog band, the neighborhood kids running through like herds of pygmy bison. It’s a little overwhelming.

But it’s worth it.

Depending on the situation and the family, working from home can be inconvenient, socially isolating, and sometimes unsafe for kids. But for many families, including mine, the home office has offered immeasurable fringe benefits: the comfort of proximity; the ability to take them on a walk in the canyon during work hours; the Post-it notes from the grade-schooler; the self-portraits stuck to my computer screen; the overheard conversations between the brothers, the sudden revelations about their lives. I’m often around to help them their projects—their comic-book catalogs, the stories they write and illustrate and print or publish electronically to the world.

To Matthew and Jason, the adult work world is not some mysterious and closed box, but a familiar doorway, an opportunity. They learn by osmosis.

They overhear my phone interviews. They know my work personality. They understand that I can feel frustrated and even defeated by work, but never permanently. Day after day, we share our tools in our virtual blacksmith shop.

Now that my older son is entering junior high, he’ll probably want a computer in his room. For the time being, I’m resisting that option. The decision is partly selfish.

Think of what I would be giving up.

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Comments

Thank you for these thoughtful and positive ideas, that make lemonade from the lemons that the pandemic has overturned into our lives. This has been an unprecedented family time, strengthening our nucleus family, similar to the experience when both my husband and I took family leave when our daughter was born.

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