As many other young couples, when my wife and I looked for our first home, we were obsessed with the idea of an “open concept” home. After having religiously logged an uncountable number of HGTV-hours, we were made to believe that an open concept was the only way we would achieve a truly happy home, so we looked for the ideal open concept home for what must have been an eternity. We swiftly discarded any listings that did not feature the two magic words. Our realtor was ready to drive her car off of a bridge, with us inside of it, when thankfully an open concept home became available on the market, in the neighborhood of our choice, in the school district of our dreams, and we purchased it. Finally, our very own open concept home! Our own chance to the pursuit happiness, the start of our own family, all of it in a glorious open format living arrangement.
How do I wish now, with 20-20 vision, for a closed concept home or, perhaps, a middle ground: a clopen concept.
Fast-forward a few years, we have two school-aged kids under 10 years old, we are still living in the same open concept home, and a pandemic is raging outside. There is one door in our entire first floor (the door to a half bathroom) and, on the second floor, three doors that lead to three bedrooms (plus bathrooms). One of the bedrooms is a guest room that now doubles as a home office, and it is the sole refuge from the daily unstable chaos our home life has become. When we are all home (meaning, 100% of the time), there is one spot for one of us to hide away, while the other adult has to share the open concept first floor with the kids. My wife and I take turns hiding away at the paradisiacal home office, which typically means that my wife is in the home office 99 turns for each one of my turns. To be fair, my wife works in industry, so she has daily critical meetings, while my teaching and research meetings are not of such a high profile. Maybe if I had daily briefings with the Dean, then I would get a turn a bit more often.
On a typical day, by 9am, we have finished breakfast and everyone positions themselves at their battle stations. The open concept first floor features three areas carefully separated by noise-superconductor air: the kitchen/dining area, the living room, and a third space that serves as a smaller cozy living room, library, and my office. We bought a small desk for the older kid to work at a corner of the living room, and the younger kid typically works on her homework at the dining room table.
My wife nods “good luck,” and walks upstairs, with a perceptible spring in her step. The kids fire up their devices (their work is on Seesaw and similar educational platforms), and I open my laptop, while praying that everything goes smoothly for once.
Narrator: “It will not go smoothly.“
“Dad, have you seen my charger? My iPad is almost out of batteries,” Julia yells from the kitchen area.
We spend a few minutes trying to locate the charger and, by the time we find it (mysteriously, it walked to the basement), the iPad’s battery is dead. We plug it in, restart the machine, but Julia is now logged out of her online account. Her password is a QR code printed on a piece of paper, and Julia cannot remember the last time she has seen it. Once again, we walk in circles around the open concept first floor, looking for the little piece of paper that will permit my work-day to begin, my ticket to do math if you will. Eventually, Julia remembers the QR code is safely tucked inside the iPad protective cover. All is well, she can begin her work.
I fill up my coffee mug, and return to my desk. The laptop awakes, and the inbox displays a long list of unread email messages that patiently await for my attention…
“Dad, I need help with math,” Natalie calls from her desk in the living room.
Her math homework consists of a number of haphazardly phrased word problems, which make me fume inside, but I do not want to vent my frustration in front of my already frazzled daughter. Her questions are not about math, but about how to express the answer. I suggest the most logical way to represent the answer, but she insists that her teacher does not want the answers in such a (otherwise logical) format. I insist it would certainly be ok to write it the way I propose, and hint that maybe she might have misunderstood the teacher’s instructions. My daughter proceeds to break into tears.
“THAT’S NOT THE WAY MY TEACHER HAS TOLD US TO DO IT, DAD!”
“Please, can you be quiet,” Julia pleads from the adjacent kitchen area.
“What is going on?” my wife asks from the second floor, stepping out of her meeting for a moment.
“We have it under control, we will figure it out,” I reply in an attempt to pacify the audience on the bleachers. Natalie and I take a deep breath and go over the way she is required to answer her math riddles. We find a middle ground and she writes the solution in two ways. All is well, and she returns to her desk.
One of my first meetings of the day begins over Zoom, with two collaborators. As soon as I speak and they hear my voice, Cotton and Hyper start to loudly squeak supplicating for food. The two demanding voices belong to our Guinea pigs, whose home resides in the same living area where my desk is. (In fact, this area is now known as the Piggies’ room.) We forgot to feed them in the morning, so they are rightfully yelling at me to provide the hay and vegetables they deserve. I request a minute from my colleagues, turn the camera and mic off, and quickly throw some hay pellets and spinach into the piggy enclosure. Now that they feel heard and appreciated, they will let me continue my research conversation.
However, I forgot that I had hired a teenager in the neighborhood to clean my yard, and now there are insanely loud leaf-blower noise-waves invading and resonating and amplifying throughout our open concept home.
“WHAT IS THAT NOISE!” Julia and Natalie yell in unison.
“That’s Andrew cleaning the yard!” I reply, but it is unclear whether they heard me.
I text chat with my collaborators for the time being because turning my mic on would surely be a Zoom session killer move.
By the time my meeting ends, it is lunch time. My kids demand Mac and Cheese, and I have no strength to fight for a healthier alternative, so I resignedly boil some water. Mesmerized, staring into the bubbling water, I wonder when this nightmare will end, if ever. My wife’s meeting ends, almost magically, precisely when the kids food is already served on the table. We have a quiet lunch, we share some of the technological issues we faced in the morning, for the millionth time, and we rejoice in any of our small accomplishments during the morning session.
The kids are done with their work, so they run to their play area in the basement. My wife runs to her next meeting on the second floor, and the open concept first floor becomes an eerily quiet area. Even the Guinea pigs are quiet, taking a nap. It is a mirage, and it will not last, so I quickly go back to my laptop to finish taking care of my inbox.
As predicted, the fleeting peace comes to an abrupt halt when my kids run upstairs once again to prepare for their ballet classes. In order to have sufficient space to perform, each one needs a different room and device where to connect from for their same Zoom-ballet lesson. Natalie will dance in the living room, and Julia in the Piggies’ room, which means that I have to evacuate the desk and move to the dinning table.
My mug is full of coffee once again, and I try to concentrate to no avail. A cacophony of dance instructions and terrible iPad-speaker quality classical music blare from the other two spaces in the open concept home. Not even my best headphones can cancel the pandemonium that permeates every corner of the house. I decide to use this time to take care of menial tasks, hoping that I will have the energy and concentration to tackle research when the ballet lessons conclude.
It is 4pm and my kids have put away their devices, and have been kicked out of the house, to play outside, ride their bikes, or pick up sticks if they must “but get the heck out of here.” I have one more meeting with a graduate student, so I connect to Zoom once again. We are chatting when the connection dies and the screen freezes. After a few seconds of confusion, I realize the problem: my wife is heating up water for a tea cup in the microwave. Why would that be a problem, you ask? Well, it turns out that our microwave and our Wi-Fi signal are somehow and inexplicably intertwined and incompatible, and whenever someone turns the microwave on, the Wi-Fi signal cannot reach the corner where my desk is located. It seems that the open concept home was perfectly designed so that waves amplify and collapse throughout the house in the most frustrating ways.
“PLEASE stop the microwave! I am in a meeting!” I beg to my wife. “Please use the kettle when I am in Zoom calls!” How many puzzled students and colleagues have heard me yelling at my family complaining about the microwave? We shall never know.
By 5pm I am mentally exhausted, and angrily pace around the open concept first floor, thinking of alternative configurations that would have made this house a closed concept. I daydream of walls and soundproof doors. Perhaps we should cover the walls with egg crates to minimize noise travel. Maybe there is a way to transform our open concept space into a clopen concept with some sort of removable tarps or barriers to block the large entryways between the three areas… Hopefully, this nightmare will end soon, and there will be no need for drastic measures.
Damn you, HGTV.