The other contains three dead laptops, an unused wireless keyboard, two decommissioned flip phones, a retired cordless phone and -- I'm proud of this one -- a real, live box of a corded telephone -- the kind with the handset across the top -- that we still plug in and use when storms knock out Internet and cellular service in our farmhouse. Also: dozens of half-filled notebooks, discarded receipts, crumpled store advertisements from the recycling bin -- she likes the ones printed in color -- pencils, markers, tape, staplers (plural), and scissors -- especially the damn scissors -- pilfered from other parts of the house.
Yup, this is my daughter's understanding of 'work' -- something she plays at solemnly, arranging all of the above on her bed like a massive desktop and using her most-grown-up voice to negotiate over the phone, pacing around, her hands adding punctuation to her thoughts as they slice through the air.
"No, that's not what I said, Baby," she says, addressing her bumbling imaginary playmate. "You'll have to un-rase it and do it again. Here, let me show you. Like this."
She learned the pacing and negotiation from her dad, who spends easily 70 percent of his waking day managing cattle, finance, personnel, and a ever-evolving network of contacts by cell phone. Long before his alarm goes off each morning, text messages queue up. He might move a million dollars worth of cattle by texting directions to a cattle trucker, arrange a six-figure draw on our operating line, and trouble-shoot an employee's grievance before the water for his pour-over coffee has come to a boil.
My daughter learned the assembly of the right tools and fierce protection of her work space from me. I'm known to use only certain pens and small-ish notebooks that will lie flat on a writing surface without coercion. I prefer uninterrupted time to myself, with control over the ambient music/atmosphere, to shape my freelance writing, study physiology for Pilates teaching certification, or compose business communications read by hundreds or an important few.
Such is the way we do what we do, as self-employed professionals and business owners. It's subtle -- this distinguishing of activities that amount to our living, since it's rare that we have to be in any designated location to do meaningful professional things. I worry that our daughter might not recognize all we've done to earn this flexibility. In the building of any business there are whole years -- a decade in our case -- in which the work is as intimate and crucial as the act of breathing. You either do it when it demands your attention, or you pay dearly for assuming it can wait.
When we talk about what we do -- which is often -- my husband and I try to emphasize the importance of pursuing something you love, and of humbling yourself to the refinement of your craft.
"You get better at things you practice," we say. "There may always be someone better at it than you, but you can't do your best work without trying, and trying again."
And this week, when she traveled with us to attend an out-of-town meeting to discuss our possible investment of more than half our net worth in a business partnership, we got a glimpse of what our daughter understands.
As my husband and I sat down to negotiations and pulled out our respective notebooks, Eliza unzipped her purple-polka-dotted school bag and opened her 'journal,' a striped pencil with monkey eraser topper ready.
As the adults turned to profit-and-loss statements and share structures, she doodled and practiced 'cursive,' occasionally whispering in my ear pint-sized questions about the conversation, which was well above her head. I wrote out words using dotted lines so she could trace them, and she put the sentences together under her breath. For an hour she did this without complaint. Only in the last few minutes did she sigh heavily and ask to watch a movie on the iPad -- the entertainment we'd planned for her all along.
Turns out, she had more important work to do.