June 8, 2021

How I Avoid Loneliness While Working Alone

Article by Catherine Downes

Edie’s nose is small and dark. It looks like it belongs to Teddy Ruxpin.

Her snout was once a similar shade of charcoal, but swards of white fur have sprouted up around the edges of her mouth. I can’t tell you when this occurred. One day, it registered that my once entirely black dog had a muzzle that appeared to have been dipped in a bowl of marshmallow fluff. I imagine this is how it must happen for people whose hair goes gray seemingly overnight.

Most mornings, I am greeted by this nose as I sprawl in bed, stretching my arms above my head and drifting in and out of consciousness between the intermittent jangle of the snoozed alarm on my phone. I feel it against my forehead or cheek, accompanied by the gentle tickle of whiskers and rapid succession of snuffles.

Occasionally, when my tiny dog is deep in dreamland, curled in a doughnut-shaped mound on the pillow next to mine, the role is reversed. On these mornings, it’s my nose — and if I’m past due for a laser hair removal appointment, whiskers — prodding her awake.

Usually, by the time Edie and I hop down from the mattress to stretch our legs, Lola — my older, less agile mutt — is climbing out of her dog bed, which is positioned on the floor next to the human bed. She greets the day by exposing her pointy teeth with a giant yawn and arching her back in her best attempt at the yoga pose named after her species.

Lola, like Edie, is small. They’re both roughly 11 pounds. Lola, unlike Edie, is covered in fiery red fur, with the exception of her chest and three of her four paws, which appear to have been dunked in the same bowl of Jet-Puffed crème as her sister’s snout.

I slip my feet into a pair of sandals. I fasten the dogs to their leashes. We head outside to the communal patch of grass designated for canines that live in our complex to use as a kind of exclusive washroom. The area is conveniently located two, maybe three, steps from my sliding glass door. I stand there in whatever garment I slept in the night before, grasping the leash handles while the dogs sniff around. After a few minutes of probing the turf for the perfect spot to relieve themselves, they get down to business.

We go back inside. I serve them kibble on separate plates positioned far enough apart so no territorial snarling transpires. Sometimes I scramble some eggs for them. I feed myself whatever human food is on hand. After we’ve finished eating breakfast, I clip the dogs to their leashes once more and take them back to the patch of grass to do it all over again. We come back inside. I start my day.

The Transition to Working Alone Was Sudden

Since becoming a full-time freelancer last year, this morning routine has turned into a sort of pillar around which the rest of my day is constructed. The routine is similar to the one I had when I was going into an office, minus the breakfast part. I could never wake up early enough to enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and still make it to my desk by 9:30. But the act of crawling out of bed and following the same steps from the leashes to the dog food placement hasn’t changed. My days are no longer peppered with meetings, and my email inbox is no longer threatening to bury me alive, but there’s still work to be done. And getting started in a familiar way has been helpful.

I guess I’d always assumed one of the perks of being self-employed is that you would get to work from cool places. The pool at my complex has been closed due to the pandemic since I moved in last summer. The neighborhood coffee shops are currently limited to outdoor seating, so these are not options. The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder whether people actually get anything done at cafés or next to shimmering bodies of water. Kind of seems like an elaborate form of procrastination. Like, are you actually being productive? Or just tricking yourself into thinking you’re working when in fact you’re consuming one-too-many overpriced caffeinated beverages or eavesdropping on a conversation between two recent college grads while you scroll through Twitter with a Word document open in the background?

Maybe there are people who can work this way. I presume I am not one of them. But I perform like a victor from my bed.

Some people have the means to create an at-home office more regal than the corner space in a Manhattan skyscraper. Most of us have to make do with our imaginations. I have three offices in my small studio apartment in downtown Palm Springs: A round white table next to the sliding glass door with an excellent view of the dog lavatory; a built-in-desk-like-nook-thing facing a wall near my kitchen counter that feels like being in time-out; and my bed.

My bed is where I tend to be the most productive. Countless studies have been conducted on how we should absolutely, positively, never, ever work from our beds. It’s bad for our posture; it ruins sleep quality. It blurs the lines between work time and relaxing time.

Alas, here I am, typing atop my comforter. Whereas some people order designer task chairs for their home offices, I’ve ordered pillows. Lots and lots of pillows. This way, I can be comfortably propped up at my imaginary desk without hunching over my computer like a shrimp on the rim of a martini glass. Also, my fluffy, four-legged colleagues like to use the padded mounds for their personal napping requirements. HR should be pleased with how content everybody is.

The transition into working alone was sudden. Like so many others, I was confined to my home due to the pandemic. And then, during that time, I was laid off. I took my years of experience and tossed them around for a while before deciding to try out life as a full-time freelance writer.

Had you told me a year ago that I’d be working on my own, without colleagues or a boss, I might have shot you an uneasy glance. I enjoy being around people on most days. Routine chitchat in an office kitchen doesn’t bother me, nor does the occasional happy hour. I figure if you’re going to spend more time with these people than you do with your friends or family, you might as well become familiar with their hobbies and favorite restaurants.

But to my surprise, working alone hasn’t been lonely. There are a handful of editors I regularly report to, so that’s kind of like having a boss. I’m challenged by what I do, so I’m never bored. I even enjoy my own company. Over the past year, I’ve grown to love myself in a way I never have before. That’s a tangent I don’t have enough room to get into now. Point being, working alone is bearable. Enjoyable, even. And most of the time, having dogs around makes it even better.

The companionship my dogs have provided over the years far surpasses what I imagined possible when I first welcomed them into my world. They’ve been a constant as life has done what life has always done throughout documented history: the unexpected. There have been moves. Health scares. A divorce. This Godawful pandemic and a job loss due to it. And now, a career shift. But through all of this, my dogs’ love has been unwavering. Maybe it’s because I feed them. I like to think it runs deeper than that.

Lola came to me when I first started putting it out into the universe that I wanted a dog. And by this, I mean I got online and started looking for one. I knew I wanted a small breed and that I wanted a rescue. Everything else was up in the air. A friend who was working at a veterinary clinic at the time told me that a tiny red puppy had been dropped off at the facility and needed a home. According to my friend, a maintenance man who worked at the clinic had come across her while driving on the highway. She was running alongside the shoulder of the road. Allegedly, he parked his pickup truck sideways to block traffic in order to scoop her up. (This sounds very dangerous, and I’m glad nobody was squashed.) I guess he wanted to bring her home, but his wife objected because they already had five or six dogs. So he dropped her off at the vet.

I loved Lola instantly. She was fast as a bullet train when she was a puppy. When worked up enough, she could jump three feet off the ground. She has since mellowed in her autumn years. She’s a smart dog. She took to potty training almost immediately. But she’s wily; she has a penchant for sneaking food off surfaces she shouldn’t be able to reach. Once, while staying at a friend’s cabin, I walked downstairs to find her scurrying across the dining room table. In her first few months with me, there was an incident involving a slice of pizza so brutal that, 12 years later, I still use the command “Not your pizza!” to let her know when to back off from my plate. Our main arguments occur over food. I say “arguments” because she’s stubborn and has no problem testing her boundaries. I have to be firm with her. We typically go back and forth until she convinces me it would be in both of our best interests if I gave her a nibble of whatever I’m eating. She’s extremely persuasive. It adds to her charm. Pizza thievery aside, she’s a very good dog. A gentle dog. A dog that would sit in my lap for the rest of eternity if I let her. She loves to be loved, and I adore her for that.

Edie came into the picture a few years after Lola. I found her on a website for rescue Pomeranians. She didn’t look like a Pomeranian in her photo, though. She looked like a fruit bat who had been born with its wings attached to its head. I’d never seen a pair of ears so disproportionately huge in comparison to the rest of a puppy’s body. My heart nearly shot out of my thoracic cavity when the woman who was fostering her introduced us. The woman placed her on a couch next to me; she was so tiny but with these ears that could signal Martians. Any time one of the other foster dogs got too close, she trembled and growled like a terrified satellite dish. I signed the paperwork, wrapped her in a blanket, and carried her out of there, pressed tightly against my chest like a mother bringing her baby home from the maternity ward. I named her Edith after the three greats: Bouvier Beale, Piaf, and Sedgwick. She goes by Edie.

I love these dogs, but don’t get me wrong. Not all days with them are perfect. My patience is frequently tried.

There are times when the convenience of being close to the pooch potty is overshadowed by the chaos it attracts. I enjoy working with my blinds open. If I’m seated at my round white table and I look out my window, and then past the patch of grass, and then beyond the parking lot filled with Volkswagen Golfs and Mazda sedans, I can see the San Jacinto Mountains. They’re striking, and I enjoy gazing at them. The trouble with working this way is that canine neighbors, on their way to do their business, are in clear view. I haven’t trained my dogs not to bark at other dogs. We’ve been working on it but with limited success. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, they’re curled up taking a nap on one of my many pillows when the neighbors pass with their own dogs. Other times, they’re standing ready like the Queen’s Guard.

Just last week, I was in the throes of coming up with the right adjective to describe a falafel when my concentration was decimated by Edie, who was dragging her rear across my Persian rug.

And then there was the gingerbread man incident. My sister recently sent my dogs a plush toy in the shape of the holiday cookie. It’s one of those toys that appears totally innocent, but when chomped down on, it produces a sound so piercing it could wake the dead. This soon became a favorite plaything.

One afternoon, not long after settling into my new work environment, my train of thought was eradicated by the gingerbread man’s death shriek.

Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!

So I removed the toy from Edie’s mouth and placed him on the kitchen counter. Not two minutes after being reunited with my focus, I was yanked away by a Bark! Bark! Bark! My dog was standing in the kitchen, staring at the counter where the toy lay. So I picked him up and tossed him in the bathroom and shut the door. Out of my dog’s sight, out of my dog’s mind, right?

Wrong.

Within seconds, there was a Scratch! Scratch! Scratch! at the door. It became clear Edie was not going to let this go. She would not stop until the festive round body was back in her possession. So I scooped up the toy from the bathroom floor, took him into the kitchen, grabbed a steak knife from a drawer, placed him on a cutting board, and in the middle of his belly, beneath a red candy-shaped felt button, I Stabbed! Stabbed! Stabbed!

Each pierce of the blade sent a penetrating screech into the atmosphere. My dog sat at my feet, thrilled by the commotion, her tail flipping enthusiastically. Once he squeaked his last squeak, I handed the gingerbread man back to Edie. She pranced victoriously around the room with the toy clenched between her jaws. Now when she bites down on his abdomen, he makes a kind of muffled clicking sound. She’s fine with it, and so am I. It means I can get back to clicking on my keyboard without interruption. At least for a while.

When the workday is finished, and I’m using my bed for its intended purpose instead of an office, my dogs and I curl up together and prepare to do it all over again. Nighttime stillness is broken by the soft wheeze of pup snores and the jangle of collars as my tiny family members reposition themselves to get comfortable.

It’s never fully silent in my apartment, but that’s work/life balance these days. It’s noisy and imperfect. I doze off effortlessly, knowing that morning brings a new day of doing what I love.

Versions of this article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine and on SUCCESS.com.

Catherine Downes is a freelance writer and photographer currently living in California’s Inland Empire. Her work has appeared in Success Magazine, D Magazine, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Morning News, Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, Modern Luxury, and more. While she’ll eat just about anything, her favorite food is sandwiches.

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