17 Sep Cleaning Off My Desk

I spent most of the day cleaning off my desk. This happens two or three times a year, usually after the pile-up of papers, books, CDs, note pads, magazines, bits of scribbled-on scrap, business cards, etc. has driven me mad because I can’t find anything I’m looking for and yet I can’t bring myself to throw anything away because phone numbers have to be written into my phone book or, worse, entered into my cell phone; articles (for teaching) have to be scanned; magazines have to be read (sort of); CDs have to be uploaded to my MP3 player, and so on. But who has time for all that? So the stuff piles up.

Then one day I find myself rooting through the desk-junk and cursing and vowing, once and for all, to put order in my life. Once, I lost a pile of student papers — for three weeks — because they were hidden under the pile-up on my desk. Cleaning my desk is like taking on an archeological dig. I never know what I’ll find. Today I found an Indian Head penny dated 1887 and I’m not sure where that came from. Also a circa-1960s token for the New Jersey turnpike. And a wooden house from an old monopoly game. And two miniature paitings I brought back from London last summer and forgot about (because my desk is the land of the forgotten). Oh, and three drum keys. And a tiny knob to one of my amplifiers. And a button from the band Pfisters. And a fifteen-year-old tube of cimificuga racemosa, a homeopathic medicine that was supposed to help relieve muscle pains, though I can’t recall what pain that might have been. Also a vintage geometric puzzle. This, in addition to the piles of papers and notes and cards I sorted.

As messy as my desk is, I don’t think my mess is exceptional. When a writer — in a 1918 edition of a journal called The Independent — complained of the “Clutter of Things,” he noted, “Here I am sitting at my cluttered desk, amid a vast profusion of Things, writing in praise of the absence of Things. On my desk alone, there are three inkstands, a pile or two of books, a few bundles of film, papers, paperweights . . . .”

As a kid, I had so much stuff on my desk, it was easy to ignore my homework. I’d while away a hour or so every night playing with the trinkets I had arranged there to keep me company. I could do the same now. Says the author of Get Rid of That Clutter!: “Some people think that a cluttered desk looks like a productive desk … but when your desk looks like a train wreck, you are sending a message that you have lost control.”

When I pull my desk out to vacuum, I am appalled at the velvety accumulation of dust on the backside of things. It’s embarrassing to behold and it doubles my resolve to be a better steward of my desk. The crumbs that spill from my overturned computer keyboard could feed a pond of goldfish. I run Scotch tape between the keys and extract wads of cat hair. Try it some time, you’ll be amazed at what a single keyboard can hold. It seems to speak volumes for one’s life and the littered little landscape — our world in miniature? — that represents all that we hope to do but can never quite accomplish.

P.S. I’d love to see a photo of your desk. Send me one, if you can. Thanks.