Ambient noise and distant windows: A history of my offices

Author’s note: The timing of this piece says a lot about the my life right now. I started drafting it in early June to celebrate moving into my very own office space, the first in my working life that feels like an intellectual home; a true seat for working. Because I blog for a few minutes every Saturday (the plight of the working mom), it’s taken me a month to write this post, during which 1) I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my bright, quiet room 2) I’ve worked harder than ever and 3) there’s a plot twist…

Office 0.0: Across from the student union snack bar

College is all about shared work space: library, computer lab, dorm, and … college newspaper office. I served a year as the features editor. On Wednesday evenings, the paper’s long, skinny, windowless office filled with stressed out editors proofing pages on shared old-school Macintosh computers while consuming onion rings and milk shakes from the snack bar across the hall. There was a CD player with very few CDs to play. Actually, one CD. I heard the Doors over and over, late at night, smelling someone else’s onion rings. I still can’t stand Jim Morrison’s voice.

Office 1.0: Small town daily news room

In past lives, the long, low Livingston County Daily Press & Argus building in Howell, Michigan had been a grocery store and a designated bomb shelter, among other things. When I worked there, first as a reporter and then as features editor, it was a classic open-floor news room with news writers’ desks scattered about, photographers coming and going all day, the sports section clustered in a corner that came alive at night. Phones ringing, CNN burbling, no privacy. The news editor had an “office”  – a glorified cubicle with flimsy, clear plastic walls, and we could hear him on the regular, pounding his desk and yelling about some missed scoop or typo. My work as a section editor was stressful, so I made an 8×11 sign to prop up when I was working on deadline: This is my door. It is closed.

Office 2.2: Former visiting team football locker room

As an admin for Cornell alumni affairs Athletics & Physical Education team, I worked in a cement structure called Schoellkopf House – formerly Cornell football’s visiting team locker room. We shared the building with the athletics information team, who filled the place with a pleasant chatter of sports statistics that reminded me of the newspaper. There were no windows beyond the front door. It got so hot in the summer that we worked with the lights off. There was a stash of woolen letter sweaters, organized by size, on wooden shelves in the basement. And in odd moments in the damp concrete staircase I felt the presence of ghosts of Ivy League gridiron, numbered and helmeted, trooping down to face the home team crowd in the bright sunlight of some long-past Saturday afternoon.

Office 3.0: Classic cubicle

A lot of life, including graduate school and some time working in a vegetarian deli, passed before I found myself in an office setting again, this time working for Cornell’s business school. The topic couldn’t be further from my personal interests, but it was a job with benefits and a get-to-work-by-8:30 a.m. dictate from my retired army colonel boss and that’s what I needed at the time. It’s actually my only stint working in a classic cubicle. Useless gray half-walls boxing me off visually but not audibly from a floor full of similarly penned up workers, herded together in contrast to the folks who have offices along the outer walls of the floor: doors to close, sunlight. I try to not think metaphorically (farm animals, babies) but I find cubicles demoralizing. Give me an open news room any day.  

Interlude: Noise

I don’t need absolute quiet. A little healthy rustling, coughing, or chatter, the tapping of fingers on keys reminds me I’m among other breathing beings. And then I can get back to work. Or can I? I’m good at tuning out sounds of life and even conversations, but repetitive mechanical noises really get to me. So does music. I used to listen to classical music radio but that was when I had a job that didn’t require much concentration. When music goes on, all my brain cells go to it like iron filings to a magnet.

Office 4.0: The (dark, shared) corner office

After two years of the cubicle, I found a new job in the same division – Cornell Alumni Affairs and Development – but as a designated writer. Full circle, baby. Or almost. I moved into a corner office! One on the interior of the building and shared with Emily, a writer, editor and cartoonist who brought joy back to my work life. We split the office on the diagonal, frequently spinning our chairs around to face each other and gab. Or rant. I cried occasionally. We had at least one photo shoot.

My Cornell AAD communications corner office the morning the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, arrived. Note the empty desk behind me.

When Emily left to pursue freelance work, I kept her side clean for my next office mate…who never showed up. So there I had it: an office of my own. the darkness got to me. Sometimes the quiet. Instead of working in quiet privacy with the door closed, I spent a lot of time working on my laptop standing at a “café” table in a sunny hallway on the other side of the floor.

Interlude: light

Someday, some brilliant architect – perhaps one trained in Cornell’s top-ranked program, housed in the sun-drenched hive-type work room in the cantilevered modern renovation to Milstein Hall – will invent thick wires that instead of conducting electricity to run ghastly overhead fluorescent lights that currently illuminate 99 percent of all interior cubicle-filled office spaces in America will conduct actual light – full-spectrum, glorious sunlight – via a series of mirrors from the exterior to even the most tucked-away, interior work spaces, rendering even the most humble administrative assistant that much more human for that all-day, direct connection to the mother-load of life on earth.

Go for it. Please. Get us out of here.

Office 5.0: Above the historical piano collection, across from the archaeology lab

Not that I’ve had to suffer in many light-less cubicles in my working life. I haven’t, in large part because I’ve worked for a university. And universities are notorious for tucking staff into odd buildings with fascinating histories. Like now, I work as a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences at Cornell, and my team, 8 of us, are housed at 726 University Ave, a brick building that started life as a fraternity, turned into classrooms and faculty offices, and now houses:

  • a collection of historical keyboard instruments (quite noisy, much virtuosic practicing);
  • a center for German studies (completely silent);
  • the ONE professor assigned full time to American studies;
  • and an archaeology program on hiatus.
  • Oh, and us – the writers and web people.

When I started this job, I plopped down in the common room of the communication team suite, one desk among maybe three. Less cubicle, more newsroom, and with lots and lots of natural light. Then March 2020 came and a pandemic shut down the world and we all worked from home for two years.

Now, summer 2022, 726 University Ave is open for business again…but two of my teammates have moved to other states, and a third works fully remote from an undisclosed location (just kidding – I think he’s local, but in Zoom meetings he looks like he’s tuning in from a cabin in northern Saskatchewan). That felt strange and hollowed out – until I was offered my own office.

Finally: A room to call my own

I was a little sad to leave my open office space downstairs, a little sad to be one more floor removed from the piano practice in the basement.

Until I got settled, and something settled in me. This is my space. There is a plant. There is a window, northern light. I can sneeze, take my shoes off, make a phone call, concentrate. For the first time in my working life, an office that takes me in, protects me from the outside world, gives me the space to think. Rest, breathe, work. I didn’t realize how much I would like this.

A bright small room with a desk and plant
My ephemeral office

Let’s take a deep breath in celebration of achieving work-life balance.

And now, the news: my husband and I and our baby are moving to Boston. Moving to Boston! This month. Long story short: he got a dream job offer a year earlier than he expected and it’s going to be well worth the hustle and hassle for all of us in the long term to uproot. So like one of those marriages that ends when one partner dies scuba diving on the honeymoon, my perfect office match was short-lived. But I have the key to the space for the next three weeks at least. As our home gets more and more chaotic, this room will be my quiet place.  


  1. Sharon Watson on July 18, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    Your trip down memory lane as you revisit each office/workspace offers us a look at you, the writer. Obviously, walls, a door, a window, noise, lighting, etc. did not adversely affect your success! It helped to make you who you are and to appreciate the good things that come your way. And, a very nice office you have….at least for a short while until your next adventure begins! Don’t forget to take the picture of the handsome man and baby with you to your new, remote working office.

  2. Raymond Shuster on August 8, 2022 at 1:30 pm

    Thank you for the tour through your offices and through your life. You’ve given a lesson in flexibility and adaptability. Congratulations on your new adventure.

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