I’m sitting here surrounded by 120 CD’s of the music that once defined my life. There’s Dylan and Springsteen, The Beatles, The Stones, The Eagles, The Byrds––you can see where this is going, it’s a nostalgia-heavy collection––and there’s no greater proof than the fact this collection has been sitting in my office closet for at least 10 years, maybe more, in sealed boxes.
Next to the CD’s is a box of old newspaper clippings, cartoons, phone lists and rejection letters from publishers; beside it, a second box of what can only be described as trinkets––snow globes, bobble-head dolls, a sumo wrestler fan, a statue of Albert Einstein and a singing frog my son bought me on a vacation in Puerto Rico.
All this collects around my desk chair because, after 13 years, I am waiting for Michelangelo to come paint my office.
Michelangelo To The Rescue
Michelangelo is not the maestro of office painting his name implies. He is a house contractor my wife met at Home Depot in the depths of despair over not marrying a handyman. But his name actually is Michael Angelo and, for the purpose of picking up handyman jobs at the hardware store, he’s happy to embrace the confusion.
I myself would not have considered using his services until a recent hailstorm brought home the fact our house is getting old. Obviously, we needed some professional assistance so we invited Michelangelo over for an estimate. Water seeping through the roof combined with general settling created a crack in the living room wall that required both a plaster and paint job––Michelangelo’s specialty––but, as we all know, you can’t just paint one wall, or even one room.
My wife and Michelangelo agreed there’s the whole question of how the color scheme flows into the dining area, not to mention the stairwell where my 3-year-old son last winter fashioned an abstract mural out of permanent ink marker. Plus all those nicked corners and loose doorknobs that have gone unattended all these years. They walked through the house attending to each little flaw. When they returned to the living room, Michelangelo had a list a page long.
“And what about your office?” he asked, poking his head into my cubbyhole.
“I’m fine here,” I said.
“But have you ever seen your office in white?” he asked.
A Second Look
Okay, I admit that there are water stains in one corner and whole sections of office wall where the paint is peeling off. But the yellow tinge to the walls? I prefer to call it ochre, or the subtle glow cast by my vintage lamp (with the low wattage bulb) designed to bring a creative calm to the room.
As a workplace––a place where you an actually get some work done––my office is a model of efficiency. Side by side desks give me a large surface area for my computer and printer, a charging station for my cellphone, two glasses filled with pens, a stack of yellow pads and an endless supply of printer paper (which I keep on the floor). And those walls, well they function as sort of a 360 degree bulletin board for all the little things you’d hate to just throw away.
Important papers I keep in an old file cabinet in the corner. Mortgage documents, car insurance, software disks and manuals, ––all the things you’ll never need until you need them––are stored there. For everything else, I use the Socratic piling system, stacking papers in the order that they come to my attention until one pile falls into another and I can’t remember why I kept them in the first place.
It was easy enough for Michelangelo to boast he could paint my office in a day. “We’ll just move everything into the center and have it back before you get home,” he said. And much as I wouldn’t mind seeing what my office would look like with white walls, he kept overlooking one hard fact: I didn’t want to move all that junk.
Filling The Dumpster
Last week I acceded to my wife’s demands and began packing my stuff. You’d be surprised how easy it is to fill a dumpster with your past. Old cameras, computers and cell phones . . . gone. Along with them, cables and cords with connectors that no longer match up to anything. Accordion files filled with notes for old stories and books. Who needs them? Goodbye rough drafts of screenplays no one will produce and overstock copies of books nobody bought.
A friend of mine recently had to clean out the house of his father, a retired journalist, after his death. “Writers, they’re the worst,” he said. “They save everything.” I tried to explain why it’s necessary to save everything, for reference, because you are always rewriting. But that makes no sense if you are dead. So out went the drafts . . . and notes for stories I meant to write but never got around to . . . and stories I wrote that nobody wanted to publish.
Not everything found its way to the dumpster. I put aside a manila envelope to hold photos, letters and a few other pieces of correspondence that somehow felt historically significant. I labeled it “Docuwall” and stuck it in the “deep storage” file cabinet.
I also started a new pile of “things I have that someone else might need.” Then I started matching those items up to people who might want them––and was sorely disappointed. “I used to do something like that,” another friend told me. “When I cleaned my room, I gathered up all the stuff I didn’t want anymore and put it on my little sister’s bed. ‘Here’s a present for you,’ I told her. Needless to say, she was not impressed.”
There is one more step in the clean out process that may be the most time-consuming. Remember those CD’s? (How long are they going to be around?) I spent an evening loading them into iTunes, picking and choosing among my favorites from each album. Then I systematically began scanning old photos (and my children’s art work) into the iPhoto library on my Mac. The bulk of the physical material is now gone, but basic problem remains. Just as you can never just paint one room, you can’t move things from one storage device (the walls) to another (computer) without creating a structure for finding it.
So I spend another day creating folders for various items and trying to come up with names that I won’t forget 13 years from now. I don’t think all of this has made my life any more organized, but it feels good that it is now tucked away in digital bits. And I can’t wait until a few years down the road I can upload those files again to my office in the cloud, where they promise I will never have to paint the walls again.
When Michelangelo gets here, I figure I can get all the remaining stuff in my office out in an hour. If he’s true to his word, I’ll be back in business by nightfall. But the clean surface of my empty desk already beckons to be filled. I’ve printed out a few articles from the Internet, scratched down interview notes and phone numbers on yellow pads, and, when I saw something funny in the newspaper, ripped it out and taped it to the wall (temporarily).
When he’s finished, he wants me to call my office “The White Room.” But I like to think of it as a blank slate.