THE OTHER DAY a colleague phoned me from her desk to say that her shoes were too big. Actually, she called for another reason -- there was some work-related matter she wanted to discuss -- but when I asked whether she'd like to meet for coffee or otherwise chat in person, she explained that she couldn't because her new pumps were a size too large and she was trying to get up from her desk as little as possible, to avoid the mortification of clomping around and possibly even, horselike and inevitably in front of the person who does her job evaluation, throwing a shoe.
When I asked why her pumps were too large, she explained that her mother had bought them for her; when I asked why her mother would buy shoes that were too large, she said her mom was like that -- she'd see shoes on sale and buy them on impulse. When I asked why she'd gone ahead and worn them . . . well, my purpose is not to probe the irrationality of filial love. My purpose is to point out that office employees have complex personal lives, lives so complex that there are in fact many diverse situations in which a worker needs emergency time off. To me, Shoes Too Big -- like, say, Feeling Fat After Lunch or Experiencing Mid-Morning Outfit Reassessment Shock -- should be written into the Family and Medical Leave Act as plausible reasons why an entire afternoon might be wasted and why any worker, of any status, should be allowed to get up and go back home.
I have been mentally compiling a list of such reasons for several years. It started when a friend mentioned that her boss, an editor for a well-known national magazine, had called in "depressed" on the day he knew a hostile profile was about to run in a rival publication. Intrigued, I started thinking of other legitimate reasons why a person might want to stay in bed on a workday morning. If you could call in depressed, I thought, what about calling in lonely? Or neurasthenic? Or inexplicably sad?
"What about calling in in love?" said a colleague.
I had mentioned my idea to her, and it recalled a grievance she herself had been nursing. In fact, she argued, companies do let some people take a lot of time off, and those people are called parents. These days -- her argument ran -- it is indeed permissible for workers to arrive late, go home early, and in some cases not come in at all, as long as their excuse consists of (1) baby-sitting crisis, (2) preschool conference, (3) Little League coaching or (4) crucial Halloween pageant. But what if you don't have children? my colleague wondered. What if you aren't married? What if, instead, you just met this fabulous guy and want to skip work and moon around thinking about him? Similarly, she pointed out, bosses tend to be sympathetic to workers who are distracted and inefficient as a result of divorce. What if you and your boyfriend just had a devastating breakup? Who's going to take this crisis seriously enough to let you recover in a day spa?
I thought she had a good point. On the other hand, her reasoning seemed dangerously close to what I have come to think of as the "feminization of the workplace" argument. You know -- the bogus idea that working women have ruined everything that was right and good with life; that because mothers are not at home, fathers are stressed-out as well; that working parents, male and female, dominate office culture; that nobody can cut out early to go drinking but anybody can cut out to help with bath time. Still, I knew my viewpoint might be skewed (as the parent of small children, suddenly noticing peanut butter on the shoulder of my suit is a common emergency-leave situation), so I asked a different person -- a single man -- what he considered a legitimate excuse to be absent.
"Sex," he said immediately. He also felt the romantic needs of the single person are given short shrift by office managers. On other hand, he admitted, single people nevertheless manage to waste great amounts of productive work time: an unusually exciting date, for example, results in endless next-day e-mails. As it happens, he and I were discussing this by e-mail, prompting him to speculate that perhaps -- contrary to everything we'd just been saying -- it is really not necessary leave the office at all. In today's wired world, people can do everything associated with leaving the office -- chat, gossip, flirt, shop, trade stocks, even have sex -- while remaining at their seat.
Whatever the reason, the truth is nobody leaves the office much. Not single people. Not parents. The truth is that Americans spend more time working, according to a study last month by the International Labor Organization, than citizens of any other industrialized country. Time was when people did leave; time was when, while idly perusing the old old New Yorker, you'd see these wonderful Talk of the Town items in which the writer noticed something interesting after having slipped away, on a Friday afternoon, for a movie. Time was when my hero, The Washington Post's late great gardening columnist, Henry Mitchell, would come in late after a pleasant morning hunting tadpoles. Tadpoles! On a workday! Who does that now? Nobody I know. The office hasn't been feminized. The office has been workerized. It's enough to make you call in depressed.
Liza Mundy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.