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Virtual Water Cooler

[NPR, "All Things Considered," July 12, 1996]

Someone somewhere is sitting in a car. She’s just left the office and is trying to get home, but the traffic is backed into a snarl.The setting sun cuts through the windshield, steaming the car and wilting the collar of her blouse. It’s been a long day, and tomorrow will be another, all summer, all winter, year after year.

I’m the woman you envy: I work at home. I have my office in a spare bedroom, with a computer and a fax machine, a small copier, a couple of phones. I get up when I feel like it and switch on the computer, setting it to download e-mail while I shower. I can sit at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the newspaper as long as I like. My kids bounce in and out of the office all day long, and my husband, also a home-based worker, is right down the hall. I can break from work to do laundry or paint the bathroom, or just knock off for a walk around the block. I do my Christmas shopping on weekday mornings, when the malls are almost empty. There’s a cat sitting on my desk right now. Bet you can’t say that.

In some ways it’s idyllic, but there’s one thing I miss. I don’t have a water cooler. I don’t have conversations at the photocopier; I don’t have a colleague to joke with when I’m feeling dull; I don’t get to pass around get-well cards and have office baby showers and a big slab of carrot cake when somebody retires. It’s just me here, me and the phone and the cat. The problem with working at home is: it’s lonely. 

Cyberspace has offered me a partial substitute. I’ve joined a small on-line group, about a dozen people, all with home computers, going by the silly name, "the Pogos." Joining that swift flow of electronic conversation has been heady, and I realize I’m not alone—or rather, I’m alone in lots of company. I’m linked with Pogos in Fort Lauderdale and Kansas City, Chicago and L.A., all busy daily with bustling talk, intent as kids with tin cans and string. We need each other for airing big ideas, but just as much for the ephemera of human interaction, the skin contact of cyberspace: jokes, recipes, memories, dreams.

I have one other thing in my office: a bulletin board. I’ve asked the other Pogos to mail me their photos, and as they come in I pin them up: Rod outside a used-book store, Jim standing in snow at the Continental Divide, Doug eating pizza for breakfast. I think of it as my virtual water cooler. It isn’t like sharing stories with a buddy over the coffeemaker. But it’s not like sitting in rush hour traffic, either.

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