Bubble-Breaking Work

I ought to be more amazed, and appreciative, that I can actually do my California-based job from a remote location in Argentina. A laptop computer loaded with software, a PDA connected to an international infrastructure, electricity transformers, a high-speed internet cable in the living room, and programs like Skype and Marratech actually make it possible. I’m not working a steady 9-5 shift, but since California is four hours behind us in time zones, I do most of my production work in the mornings while people in Redlands are snug in their beds and continue to monitor their afternoon messages while I’m getting my kids to sleep many hours later. 

The only hassle of any significance has been an inconvenient hick-up in the University of Redlands email system that freezes, with some consistency, when I try to “reply” to an email. It works fine when I initiate a new email to someone, but many of my messages are replies, and two times out of five when I hit the “send” button, I get only a “Forbidden” warning. Prohibido. Verboten. Interdit. What’s even more annoying is that once I’ve angered the man-behind-the-curtain-email-reply-wizard, he won’t let me access our Redlands email server – and all internet traffic is slow – for four or five minutes. So, imagine your productivity flow being ground to a halt for 4-5 minutes at least twice an hour. It’s enough to make an international telecommuter want to scream.

(Yes, I’ve already talked to IT support at Redlands about this, but they don’t know what’s going on and it’s confusing enough when I explain that no, I’m not on the UR network and I’m actually not able to stop by their offices and have them take a look at my laptop. And yes, Chris experiences the identical problem when he’s using his Redlands account too from work. And yes, it happens if we’re using webmail over Firefox too.)

Typically I use these short, limbo intervals to work offline or to answer Emily’s homework questions. But by late in the day, when my mind and writing both begin to wander, I’ve been known to grab my PDA and play 4-5 minutes of Bubble Breaker. You know the type of game, with columns/rows of colored balls and when you click on clusters of the same color they disappear, and the larger the cluster, the more points you get. Just a quick 4-5 minute fix of mind-refreshing entertainment. Then it’s back to my day job: making maps, designing classes, writing labs, organizing meetings, coordinating 6-figure proposals to government agencies, all in the name of spatial literacy.

One day last week, Mari (the woman who does some cleaning and cooking for us a few hours/day) was sweeping nearby and said something to me about the paro (the nation-wide agricultural strike that’s affecting the food supply). It was about 6:30 pm and I was in the midst of my 89th forbidden-email interval that day. With guilt I quickly put aside Bubble Breaker and we had a great and informative conversation that helped me finally understand what was happening on the street. She helped break my ignorance bubble.

What a complex structure this thing called work, and what she must wonder about my job. I type, I talk into a microphone, I type some more, I periodically grumble and walk around the house for 5-minute-stretches, then I type some more. Meanwhile, she completes tasks that are immediate and tangible. Clothes are folded, dirt is removed, dishes are washed, food is prepared. For this we pay Mari 15 pesos/hr (about $4.80/hr). For my typing and talking I earn considerably more – and a description of my work means very little to Mari, or Elvi for that matter. Yesterday I used Marratech to teach an hour-long workshop on Census data to a small group of colleagues back in California and Elvi watched in amazement and I set up my webcam and put on my microphone/headset. Then she turned her attention back to the Bubble Breaker game that I had just taught her to play on my PDA.

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