Evolution of a Tidy Room

SOME visiting friends (who live in Zurich) were telling us how it was that their teenage son, Mark, became an object of awe to a less-than-teenage boy living nearby. The younger lad happened by their front door one day. Looking into their house, he was suddenly transfixed, his mouth agape. He could see right through into Mark's room, the door of which Mark's mother keeps usually and decidedly shut for the same sound reasons that a dam is strategically placed to hold back a river fed by melting snows. Tha t day, though, it was open.

When the small son of Switzerland - famous, of course, because of its national enthusiasm for apple-pie order - regained his speech, he said in an amazed whisper: "Doesn't Mark have to tidy his room?!?"

Ah, adulthood! How, before we attain thee, do we yearn for thy arrival! No longer to be maternally nagged to "put your things away!" No longer to be paternally reprimanded when your enchanting form of bedroom slobbery and mayhem has at last reached a dimension that even a mother cannot love! Oh, to be Mark!

Cut to my study. Those who have been bold enough to enter this magic realm of ultimate pandemonium do not, I have observed, usually stay for long. Most do their best to weave past, skirt round, climb over, or generally pioneer through its complex recesses of pile and heap until safely at the window. Out of this they gaze, enjoying the view over Glasgow, spaciousness helping them to regain an equilibrium strong enough to cope with the return journey to the door.

Others size up the situation with a mere glance and remain rooted to the threshold. They smile a wee smile as they murmur something like, "So this is where it all happens!" and then swiftly make their escape downstairs to the kitchen and dining room where order reigns.

The most understanding observation on this particular subject came from a consequently valued friend: "I can see," she said, "that you have a particular sort of order of your own underlying the mess."

If I'm to be scrupulous, though, I have to admit she was only partly right, however much I appreciated the superhuman penetration of her remark. The truth is that if Mrs. Tittlemouse - Beatrix Potter's "most terribly tidy particular little mouse, always sweeping and dusting" - were to trip daintily into my study and do her thing, my primary anguished cry would be "I can't find anything anymore!"

In theory, whatever the appearance to others may be of tumbling heaps of papers and press releases, swamping piles of catalogs and videotapes, printouts and interview notes, boxes and wrapping-paper, envelopes and letters, pencils, ballpoints, felt tips, crayons, and markers, to me everything is where I want it to be because it is where I left it last. In many cases that was last year. But, I maintain, if it stays where I left it, I can find it. If anyone moves it, I've had it. In theory.

In practice ... I haven't a clue where anything is - but no one, specially Mrs. T., is going to get me to admit that.

Well - things have changed. My own Mrs. T. has finally persuaded her husband that too much is enough. Over several days, extending well into hours when others sleep, my study has been reorganized. She has been merciless, unrelenting. I have whined and muttered. She has cajoled and threatened. I have groaned and whimpered. She has stood firm. I have sagged and capitulated. The dog and cat (who live with me in my study, thinking it's their cat-dog-house) have looked disrupted and uncertain as gigantic whit e plastic bags stuffed with what she calls "rubbish" and I call "might be needed some day" gather all around them on their way to the dump. Gradually the floor has reappeared, and shelves have emerged that haven't been seen for years. The long-forgotten has become the welcomed-back.

An exceedingly vast number of old newspapers have been gone through and important items cut and stored, the waste thrown into the recycling container.

But this event has been more than a tidying up. It has distinct elements of permanent solution about it. As it proceeded, I discovered an odd process occurring. At first I had felt literally under attack, my private domain, just as I wanted it, ferociously invaded. Defensiveness gripped me. I like my mess! Don't tamper with my chaos! Life would never be the same again!

But then - first as a glimmer, then as an inkling - a faint feel for the potential of what was happening stirred inside me. Then I said in a chastened tone (as I moved an unreformed pile of art magazines from my chair so I could sit down): "What we need to do is work out categories into which everything that comes in by mail - everything - will fit. Then we need categories for everything I need to keep. Then we need categories for everything I will be sending out again; answering; keeping as a source of temporary information; saving for the next generation; or disposing of." The last category is easy: It's called the wastebin. "Yes," agreed Mrs. T., "everything in its place."

I realize that this kind of thing is mother's milk to anyone who has organized an office, but to me it came as revelation. I needed to tailor-make my work space for the kind of work I do! Ad hoc-ery out the window. Improvisation abandoned. Piling anathema. Trays, that's the answer - but just the usual "in," "out," and "pending" trays would be hopelessly inadequate. Filing cabinets and drawers are no use except for permanent items, because once the drawers are shut, what is out of sight is out of mind.

It was the fluent, unplannable traffic into and out of my day, brought mainly by the post office, that needed precisely the right kind of accommodation, and it would be no good hiding it, that I knew for sure.

So to cut the long narration short, what I have now poised elegantly on one corner on my desk, just along from a photograph of my loving wife, smiling while she eyes me a touch warningly, is a high-rise of seven wire trays on a kind of scaffolding, labeled by category. It is experimental, and if more wire trays are needed, we have some way up to go still before we reach the ceiling. I will know I have enough categories when the morning flood tide of mail can be slotted into its appropriate level and noth ing at all remains on the work surface.

Already, when I walk into my office, I feel as if it may, in fact, be someone else's. It is surprisingly refreshing. Other things - the Scotch tape, address whirligig, light box, recorder, stapler, scissors, and paper clips now have exactly determined places to occupy. Some of these items are stuck down so that I can't move them! I can already find most of them with my eyes shut. (I try this now and then as a kind of executive sport.)

What more can I say? It's like a revolution ... and, since the fourth-story wire tray is labeled "letters to answer," anyone reading this who has kindly written to me in the last five years but not yet received a reply may soon be hearing from me. But forgive me for a little longer. I just have to savor for a while the pleasure of knowing exactly where your letter is for the first time since it arrived. Such order is simple luxury. And, well, if it is a bit childish, who cares?

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