Unexpected Consequences Of Remote Work

The prevalence of remote work has changed a lot of things in our world. From traffic patterns during rush hour to restaurant usage in downtown areas to what people are regularly wearing from the waist down that can’t be seen on Zoom or Teams calls, the reality of many people working from home has reordered our lives in more ways than we can list.

Here’s another change that you might not have considered yet: what are you going to do with that inevitable cache of leftover Halloween candy? You know, the excess that was created because you don’t want to be caught in the dreaded predicament of being the only house on the block to run out of candy while Beggars’ Night is still going strong, so you bought an extra bag or two of “snack size” candy bars and little boxes of Milk Duds?

In the pre-pandemic world, the solution to disposition of the excess Halloween candy was easy and obvious: because you didn’t want to keep the tempting little goodies in the house for fear that you would fall into a chocolate consumption frenzy, you took the leftovers to the office. Once your supply of candy was placed in a bowl next to the coffee machine, you could be confident that the candy would be fully and happily consumed by anonymous officemates within hours, if not minutes.

But with remote work, those rapacious hordes aren’t at the office every day anymore, and the office coffee station isn’t the hub of frantic consumption that it was in days of yore. You’re not going to be able to rely on “taking it to the office” to get rid of that leftover candy, unless the federal government declares an emergency and orders everyone to return to their offices for National Candy Consumption Day on the Monday after the Halloween weekend, to assist in the Snickers and Reese’s and SweeTarts disposition effort.

Give it some thought before you go out to buy your trick or treat candy this year and come up with your preferred approach. Do you buy less, to avoid any excess? Or do you follow your standard “avoid a shortfall” overbuying approach, and figure out an alternative method of getting rid of the leftover trove? Or do you head in an entirely different direction, disavow candy altogether, and offer trick-or-treaters those unappealing “healthy snacks” that nagging health authorities have been trying to get us to hand out for years, on the theory that while the kids clearly won’t like them, at least they won’t tempt you, either?

Welcome to the remote work world.

Suitable

Yesterday I had occasion to wear a suit and tie for the first time in . . . well, I don’t know how long, exactly. Months, at least. And as I ventured into my now-unfamiliar work clothes closet to pick out suitable attire, my mind was filled with questions that simply would not have arisen pre-pandemic:

1. Would my suits still fit after not being worn during the months of remote work?

2. How do you tie a tie?

3. Could I get away with not wearing “work shoes”?

4. How uncomfortable would it be to wear a shirt that buttons up to the neck and then cinch a knotted piece of colorful fabric around the neck, just to add insult to injury?

Ultimately I went for the full “suit up” approach and even donned some work shoes for good measure. My selected suit fit, to my relief, my muscle memory kicked in and I tied the tie reflexively, and the outfit wasn’t too uncomfortable. In fact, it felt pretty good to break from the remote work garb and wear a suit. Who would have thought wearing a suit, button-down shirt, and tie would be a welcome change of pace? But it was—so much so that I might put on a suit from time to time, just for the hell of it.

I guess wearing a suit suits me.

Trailblazing

I’ve spent a few days working over at Russell’s property this summer. He has multiple acres of some lovely, largely wooded property at Cape Rosier on the mainland, and among many other projects he’s been working on creating hiking trails through the property to particularly scenic spots. Earlier this summer Richard, Russell, and I worked for a day on clearing out a path and glade along a cool, stony brook that spills out from a natural spring on Russell’s land, and on Sunday I continued the path along the stream and then turned inland to follow an obvious animal trail and see where it led.

Trailblazing is hard work, but it is also a lot of fun. Basically, the goal is to identify the logical route for a trail and then convert landscape that looks like the photo above into something walkable, like the photo below. That means breaking up and removing rotted logs, gathering up and moving fallen timber that blocks the way, and cutting down scrub trees and dead trees and low hanging branches along the route. Armed with a small saw and limb-cutting shears, I let my pathfinder instincts run free, cutting and chopping and hefting armloads of branches and fallen twigs. As the trail signs turned inland, I followed what looked like a deer trail, shown running through the moss in the photo below, that led to a pretty natural clearing where sunlight dappled the ground under towering trees.

Russell’s property is beautiful and full of surprises—like the brook, the spring, a big round boulder I dubbed Cannonball Rock, and a natural granite promontory that affords a view of Cape Rosier and Castine in the far distance, and others yet to be discovered—and there are lots of ways the trails could run. I’ve finished my trailblazing work for 2021, but I’ll gladly return in 2022 for more scouting, brush cutting, and trail clearing.

The Steps Project

I am calling my last big yard work initiative of the season the Steps Project. It’s been an interesting, challenging, “dirt under the fingernails” bit of work that combines archaeology, tricky balance, digging, pulling, and lots of roots.

The Steps Project began when our 80-year-old neighbor visited our down yard as part of our earlier tree-cutting work. He’s lived in this neighborhood since he was a kid, and he recalled the hillside being a treeless expanse with stones that the kids used as steps to come up and down on their walk to and from school. Steps in that location would be a good thing because the hillside slopes at close to a 45-degree grade, and getting up and down on a dewy morning can be a slippery proposition. But the steps he recalled were long gone, covered now by a thatch of moss and weeds.

Obviously, stepping stones don’t just vanish; they were under there somewhere. And I think having a kind of stairway to get from top to bottom of the slope would be useful. So the archaeology part of my Steps Project involves figuring out where the stones are buried. When I find them, I cut through the thatch, pull out the moss and weeds, and then cut or pull out the tree roots that grew over and around the rocks. Then I use a brush to clear off the dirt and other debris so the rocks—now exposed for the first time in decades—can dry out in the sunshine. The balance part of the project comes in because I’m doing all of that while trying to hold myself steady on the slope and not taking overly aggressive actions that might send me toppling down the hillside.

Yesterday I finished with the last two “steps,” and now I’ve got a rocky, ersatz set of stairs on the side border of the down yard that you can see in the photos accompanying this post, from the above and below perspectives. Of course, the steps aren’t perfectly aligned like a staircase, and you have to zigzag and take different length steps to get up and down, but they are definitely a safer way up and down. And they are kind of fun, too. In fact, I feel like one of the kids in my neighbor’s old gang when I use them.

The New Soap Hope

Our firm’s restrooms always feature high-end hand soaps, so you can add a pleasant smell to your day as you do your 20 seconds of hand washing. The scents of the soaps are ever changing and always intriguing. Usually there’s a fruity or flowery option and also a woody option. I tend to favor the teakwood and mahogany choices.

On one recent visit I saw this new sunshine and lemons hand soap, and I think it means we’ve broken through a soap bubble barrier and entered entirely new hygienic fragrance territory. Sunshine, of course, is warm and bright, but it has no discernible aroma, so when I tried this concoction it smelled like your standard lemon soap. But perhaps the sunshine notion is meant to be aspirational and mood-setting, rather than a component of the soap’s odor, and intended to put the user into a sunny frame of mind.

What’s going to be next? Caribbean moonlight and coconut? Cool shade and carnations? Wisdom and witch hazel? Once you get away from actual smells, the possibilities are pretty much endless.

What A Difference A Tree Makes

Trees are lovely things, as a general rule. But sometimes, in coastal communities, trees can really get in the way, and unhealthy trees also pose a risk of causing real damage to nearby houses during a severe storm. So it was with the trees on the hillside of our neighbor’s property, which made yesterday morning “tree removal time” on the Greenhead Peninsula.

Through the work of Melvin and his backhoe and his friend Steve and his chainsaw, we cut down and hauled away more than a half dozen trees of varying sizes, including a large diseased tree located right next to our house. My role was basically limited to lifting and bundling branches for later removal, and since I value my fingers I tried to stay as far away from the chainsaw as possible, just to be on the safe side. It’s amazing, though, what a chainsaw, a backhoe, and a few hours of hard work can accomplish. As a result of our efforts, we cleared much of the hillside, as our neighbor wanted, and we also gave Melvin and Janet a view of the harbor from their kitchen window, just like they had years ago, when there weren’t as many mature trees in the neighborhood.

As a result of the tree removal operation, the neighborhood looks a lot different. The south side of our house now has dramatically altered views and will be getting a lot more sunshine on clear, cloudless days. We can also see the huge rock formations on the hillside, which I like. Our work has also affected the view from our upper deck, as shown by the before (above) and after (below) photos with this post. And now I don’t have to worry about a sick tree toppling into the side of our house during the next nor’easter.

A Man, A Backhoe, And A Project

Meet Melvin, our next door neighbor. Melvin is a retired lobsterman who spent 60 years out on the open waters surrounding Stonington, arising at the crack of dawn, heading out to his boat, and baiting and retrieving hundreds of lobster traps. But even in his retirement, he’s the most industrious person I know. He’s always working on a project.

That’s Melvin on his backhoe, which features prominently in many of his projects. So far this summer, Melvin and his backhoe have moved hundreds of lobster traps that he sold, cleared out a waste area of scrub trees and weeds, hauled and split granite rocks, built a nifty stone wall, and dug up and updated a drainage system. Melvin also built a safety fence for his toddler age great-grandson. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The next project on the horizon starts today. There are some trees that have grown up in the lot next to ours that block the view of the water for Melvin and Janet, for us, and for the owner of that lot next door. One of the trees isn’t healthy, either. The old owner of the lot didn’t want to do anything about the trees, but the new owner wants them to come down, and Melvin and his backhoe are ready to do the job. He’ll be cutting down and hauling out the branches and trunks and then chopping them up. The work starts this morning.

I also noticed a mound of fill in Melvin’s driveway. I guess that’s for the next project—or maybe the one after that.

Zigzagging To Work

The lobster boat workers of Stonington are early birds. They awaken at the crack of dawn, don their waterproof work clothes, pull on knee-high rubber boots, grab their lunch pails, and head to the water in their pickup trucks while the rest of the world is still abed. Those who anchor their boats off the Stonington town pier then walk down an aluminum ramp to a floating dock that zigzags out into the water. There they board the outboard craft that shuttle them to the larger, sturdier lobster boats in the harbor that chug out to the open water where the buoys and traps may be found. The Stonington floating dock employs a zigzag construction to conform to the available space while accommodating the maximum number of motorboats.

Usually this process is long completed by the time I walk by just after 6 a.m. and the floating dock is empty. Yesterday, though, a few lobstermen were just departing—with the help of their faithful dog.

Incidentally, it’s not unusual to see dogs on the motorboats, usually seated upright at the bow while their human companion operates the outboard. If you’re a dog, it’s got to beat hanging your head out of the passenger-side window of the car.

A Downyard Project Update

This summer I haven’t had a chance to do as much work as I’d hoped on the downyard—which is too bad, because it really needs the help. We’ve had a lot of rainy weekends, and other weekends have been devoted to travel.

This weekend, however, Mother Nature cooperated with the puny plans of mortal men, and I was able to devote a full day and a half to working on the project before the rain started falling around noon today. Because the downyard attracts weeds like mangy dogs attract fleas, the concept is to limit the potentially weedy areas and introduce plants that can hold their own against the weeds in the Darwinian struggle for survival. I’ve tried to do that by exposing the many rocks as possible (because I’d rather see rocks than weeds), digging out the weedy areas, and mulching over the whole rock-infested area.

In the process, I’ve tried to spot the small fern plants that naturally grow in the yard, weed around them, and then mulch around them, in hopes that once they’re freed from surrounding weeds and get more water and sun they’ll grow into bigger fern plants that will keep the weeds at bay. Those little green plants at the far end of the mulched area are ferns. I like ferns, and they seem to grow well here and are capable of holding their own against the weeds.

The project featured a fair amount of shovel work, lots of weeding, bug bites galore, digging out and tossing or carrying all kinds of rocks, hoisting and dumping five large bags of mulch and six medium bags of mulch, and then using a rake to spread the mulch. I could have used another bag of mulch to really finish the job, but I’m happy with the results.

The “Knowledge Check”

Our firm requires everyone to take data security training from time to time. A few days ago I began completing the modules that make up the training. When I finished the first module, I was invited to click on a link that said “knowledge check.”

“Knowledge check”? I hoped, forlornly, that that meant the data security company would be sending me a check for paying rapt attention during the training, but that hope was unfortunately in vain. When I clicked on the link it became clear that the “knowledge check” did not involve the transfer of funds, but instead was a test–more of a “pop quiz,” really–to see whether I’d paid attention during the training module I just completed.

So what’s up with calling it a “knowledge check’? Are they afraid that people would be overwhelmed by the prospect of taking a “test” to see whether they had assimilated the lessons from the training? “Test anxiety” is a real issue for some people, but if you could solve it by using “knowledge check” rather than “test,” “exam,” or “quiz” every school in the United States would long ago have made that change. Coming up with a new euphemism doesn’t change the fact that you have to answer questions and you get a grade at the end depending on how you’ve responded. Anyone with test anxiety is going to recognize the “knowledge check” as a test, no matter what you call it.

Somewhere, someone sits around and comes up with these innocuous, and often ridiculous, euphemisms to replace perfectly good, and typically much more clear, words. Whoever came up with “knowledge check” comes from the same school that decided “sanitation engineer” sounds better than “garbage man” and “downsizing” is more socially acceptable than “firing.”

And the process goes on. Yesterday I saw an article with a headline contending that people should stop “networking” and start “relationship marketing.” Leaving aside that “relationship marketing” is a pretty awkward phrase that sounds like how a gigolo might describe what he does for a living, now we’ve got someone seeking to replace one euphemism with another. When will it end?

This Weekend’s Project

I like having a good weekend project. I think having a project to work on, sprinkled in with some fun stuff, makes the weekend seem longer. And if it’s an outdoor project that allows you to see the visible fruits of your labors on Sunday night, so much the better.

Fortunately—or unfortunately depending on your perspective—our down yard provides an endless supply of such projects. One ongoing problem area is found at the base of the big granite outcropping in the middle of the yard. It quickly becomes weed-infested, because it can’t be mowed with all of the big rocks, and it also floods after a heavy rain, due to the rocks just below the surface. The flooding makes it impossible to grow pretty much anything, except weeds and a hearty fern plant I’ve been cultivating. So this weekend’s project was to weed out the area between the rocks, dig out as many rocks as possible to increase drainage, and level out the soil to expose more of the big rocks and reduce pooling of rainwater. The last step would be to cover the area with a dark mulch to highlight the colors of the ferns and rocks and (hopefully) discourage rampant weed growth while giving the ferns a chance to flourish.

Fortunately, the weather fully cooperated with my plans. I pulled out bucket after bucket of weeds, dug out countless rocks, broke up the soil, leveled out the sloping, and then mulched until I ran out of mulch. I also got sunburned on the back of my neck. There’s still work to be done, but I’m happy with how it looks—so far. The acid test will come when we get a good rain and get a chance to see how the area drains, and whether all of that mulch gets washed out.

If that happens, it will just mean another weekend project.

A Maine View On Immigration

The Working Waterfront is a local publication that covers Maine’s coastline and islands. The June 2021 issue carried an interesting story about immigration and its importance to the future of Maine’s economy, which includes both Maine-specific industries, like seafood harvesting and processing, forestry, tourism, and farming, as well industries found everywhere, like elder care and health care.

The bottom line is that Maine is desperate for workers, and is looking to immigrants to fill the void. And when Mainers talk about “immigrants,” it’s not just people who come to Maine from other countries, they’ll gladly welcome people from other parts of the U.S. who might want to come here to work, too. The Working Waterfront article calls all of these people “New Mainers,” and estimates that the state will need at least 75,000 of them over the next ten years to keep Maine’s industries economically viable. That number will allow replacement of the 65,000 workers who will be hitting retirement age–according to the Census Bureau, Maine has the oldest population, per capita, in the U.S.— and adds in some additional workers to allow for growth.

The article reports that businesses have already begun to fill the worker void with New Mainers–primarily immigrants from overseas. One seafood processing firm reports that more than half of its 400 employees are New Mainers, with many of them hailing from the Congo, Angola, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while a lobster business includes employees from the Congo, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The businesses see these New Mainers as hard workers who are eager to succeed and enjoy their share of the American Dream, and the New Mainers see the Pine Tree State as a land of opportunity.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time, with a lot of attention focused on America’s southern border. But the immigration story is a complex one, and involves a lot more than a surge of desperate people wading across the Rio Grande and how we should deal with them. The reality is that America needs immigrants, and immigrants need America, and we need to figure out a way to allow people who want to work to get into our country, legally, and fill the employment voids in places like Maine. It’s pretty clear that New Mainers will be an important part of this state’s future.

Muddy Work

As a native Midwesterner who grew up about as far from oceans as you can get, I’ve still got a lot to learn about life along the coastline. So I was fascinated to watch these two people taking advantage of the low tide to dig for clams, mussels, quahogs, periwinkles, whelks, or some of the other abundant shellfish that can be found in the seaside mudflats of Maine when the tide rolls out. They were toiling away in the basin between the dock and the rocks just below the Greenhead peninsula.

It looked like very hard work. They were wearing rubber boots that came up to their knees and sank into the mud above their ankles as they dug and searched. You could only imagine the sucking sound the mud must have made on their boots as they moved steadily along, and the smells they experienced, being nose down and only a foot or two from the thick, briny mud. And the tide put a definite deadline on their efforts, because it was only a matter of time before the seawater rushed back in to cover the mud again. It’s not work that permits dawdling.

I can only hope that the mudflats rewarded their efforts, which were interesting to watch.

15 Years Of Goldbricking

According to the BBC, an Italian civil servant is being investigated for collecting his salary, but not working . . . for 15 years. If the suspected facts turn out to be true, the public employee at issue has taken goldbricking–the ability to shirk meaningful work on the job while still getting paid–to entirely new, heretofore unexplored levels.

According to the BBC story, the individual “worked” at a hospital in the Italian town of Catanzaro. He stopped showing up in 2005, and nevertheless received full pay for the next 15 years and was reportedly paid more than 500,000 Euros during that period. His case came to light as part of a police investigation into rampant absenteeism and payroll fraud in the Italian public sector. Six managers at the hospital also are subjects of the investigation.

So, how did this happen, exactly? It’s not entirely clear, but the BBC article indicates that the employee was going to be the subject of a disciplinary charge by his manager when he threatened the manager. She didn’t file the report and then retired, and her successor, and the hospital’s HR staff, never noticed the employee’s absence. In the meantime, he kept getting his paychecks.

This impressive goldbricking feat sounds like an episode from Seinfeld or The Sopranos, or the plot for Office Space II. One thing the BBC story doesn’t disclose is what, exactly, the employee’s job was supposed to be. The reader is left to wonder: what paying position could be deemed necessary to create in the first place, but could be so inconsequential that no one would notice it wasn’t being done?

Liquid Normalcy

In normal times, I’m a big office water fountain guy. There’s a water fountain on my floor, only a few steps away from my office. I would twist the little white knob and take a healthy draught of ice cold water at least a dozen times a day, maybe more. It’s refreshing, and my doctor says it’s good for me, and it’s one of the few easy things I can do to comply with those nagging aspirational physician lifestyle suggestions. Walking to the water fountain for a drink is also a good way to take a quick break and think about what I’m working on, away from the glow of the computer screen.

But since the COVID pandemic hit, our office water fountain has been closed down. There’s a sad sign on it saying that it has been deactivated as part of our office pandemic protocols. As a result, if I want to have a drink of water at the office, I need to fill up my coffee cup with tap water at the communal sink, rather than getting a brisk drink directly from the bubbler.

It’s not the same. The water temperature isn’t as frigid and bracing, and in my mind I also intuitively think that I’m just drinking some tap water, rather than water fountain water. (It’s probably exactly the same water, of course, but just try getting your subconscious brain to rationally accept that fact.)

Many places are struggling to figure out how to reopen their work spaces, and many workers like me are looking for signs that we’re finally getting back to whatever is going to be defined as “normal” once the pandemic is over. For me, one of the leading economic indicators of being back to normal will be the removal of that sad sign, and the opportunity to drink some of that cold water fountain water again.