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You Can Be Messy and Work at Home

Taking a look at what's buried under paperwork at your desk.

The desk in my home office isn’t much of a desk; but then, my home office isn’t really much of an office.

Two years ago, when I took a leap of faith into the goofy, madcap world of self-employment, I needed, first and foremost, a bit of space in which to self employ.  

I interviewed the various rooms in my very small house, and only one seemed up to the challenge. Kitchen, living room, bathroom, closet .. hello!  Guest room.

I had never stuffed my worst enemy in there, let alone a living, breathing guest.  According to bits and pieces of evidence, this room began life as a service porch of the outdoor variety, back in the 1920s. And somewhere in the inglorious 90 year history of this house, one owner with a good sense of humor decided to slap up a couple of walls around an outdoor patio,  squeeze some Elmer Glue around the more critical corners, and then call it a day.  

There are some people who work best in an antiseptic environment. In fact, I have several local friends who fit this bill. One runs a cottage industry from her house on New York Drive, and you could hold open-heart surgery on her office floor.  She’s a belt-and-suspenders kind of person; a computer backs up the main computer, which is backed up by a hard drive and backed up by papers filed in color coded folders.

As is the case with many close friends, we think the other works in mysterious ways.

But my office and I, somehow we’ve come to an understanding, a truce. It’s ugly, and I’m messy.  I keep all my current work, and some past and future work, in plain sight.  That’s the way I  roll – I need to see my projects laid out before me at all times, like a landscape. Somehow they lack substance if packed away in file folders.

When I worked in a business office for a major corporation, my desk top was clean, pristine before I left for the day. But that’s only because I dumped all the papers in the bottom of a filing cabinet. Co-workers called it my “ sock drawer.” And then I’d dump the sock drawer out on my desk the next morning.

At my home office, I don’t bother cleaning up at the end of the day. One sock drawer in the house is quite enough.

My desk isn’t only a resting place for my computer and all my notes, it’s also a shelf for other things I’ve used recently, as the office squats one step down from the rest of my house and three steps up from the backyard. So right now, my desktop features a tape measure, eight packs of vegetable seeds, a dog collar, three phone bills currently under dispute,  and hand cream. There’s also a shovel, not sure about that one. Maybe I was doing some work in the back and the phone rang.

In an uncertain time and uncertain economy, many of us have decided, by choice or circumstance or some combination thereof, to steer our own ship. I find  the journey strange and strangely self-revealing. Sometimes scary, sometimes satisfying.   For better or worse, we’re not doing the stuff we took for granted we’d always be doing. But as I tell anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into my office, it’s not where you work that matters.

On my desk, there’s a lovely 5-pound cut-glass paper weight. It belonged to my dad. My dad was a sculptor and painter, and then, when necessity called his name, he became an industrial engineer.

I wouldn’t say we had a whole lot in common, my dad and I, except we could both rise to an occasion.

My dad was a tidy man, and never needed the paperweight, as there were no errant papers to weight. I never use the paperweight either. But that’s just because I can’t find it. It’s buried on my desk somewhere, under a bag of sunflower seeds and the notes I need for Thursday's job.

Karin Bugge May 17, 2012 at 12:30 AM
Hey D -- Trial by Toast -- I like it.
Ellen Stein May 17, 2012 at 02:06 AM
You speak so well for me! Today is day 1 of my retirement, and I the last couple of weeks were particularly stressful, both for the work and for organizing stuff that was on my desk. I, too, always need what I'm working on right in front of me. And in the same place, since I have photographic memory. It is when something is put away neatly that I lose things.
Susan Campisi May 17, 2012 at 03:37 AM
I love the Norton Simon print under the glass. My desk is fairly neat at the moment but only because I don't have a comfortable chair so I don't often work in my office. Instead I use the dining room table or the kitchen counter. Nothing like being surrounded by dirty dishes to get the creative juices flowing.
doris finch May 17, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Just so we all feel better--Years ago,I worked for a renowned National Academy member scientist at Caltech. He was notorious for having an office fill with stacks of paper. An assistant once offered to neaten things up, and he was horrified. "This is training my memory", he said. And it was true. If you asked him about an obscure reference from ten years ago, he would go straight to a pile, reach into the middle, and hand you the relevant paper.
Karin Bugge May 17, 2012 at 07:30 PM
Hah! I think there's a number of us who will borrow the line, "This is training my memory." Isn't that right, Ellen, Ray, Ericka, Petrea, Lori, Angela, Patrick, Susan?

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