Sydney M. Williams
Essays from Essex
“The Messy Desk”
November 23, 2016
“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition.”
Kathleen D. Vohs
Behavioral Scientist, University of Minnesota
Study published August, 2013 in Psychological Science
I appreciate order, or, at least, a semblance of order, but it would hardly describe me. Growing up, I shared a room with three siblings. When one is confined to two drawers in a bureau and a top bunk, one learns to keep precious items close. The command, “Clean up your room!” was never given to me alone.
We are told that cleanliness is next to godliness. We are conditioned to believe that neatness and order are “good,” and that messiness is “bad.” “We are charmed by neatness,” wrote Ovid, in an observation that does not especially pertain to me. In the 1960s, minimalism became central to art, music and architecture. “Brown” furniture is now out of fashion. Today we see this trend in pets: Cock-a-poos and Double-doodles have replaced the mutts of my youth and the labs we once owned. The cat, distant toward man, is fond of neatness; whereas the dog, which gives unconditional love, will roll in whatever smells the foulest. So dog pets have become small, toy dogs, kept constantly groomed and supervised.
At home, I tend to accumulate the detritus that comes with one interested in books, newspapers, magazines and writing. Papers pile up. Last January Caroline and I moved to an apartment about one third the size of our former house. Now that I share a library/office with my wife, I find confinement confining – or, at least, challenging. I try to keep in mind advice given me years ago from a friend who worked at IBM: If you have a file on your desk you have not looked at for six months, throw it out; but, like most good advice generously proffered, it is usually (and ungraciously) ignored.
In my case, chaos lovingly reigns. Under the desk are a dozen folders – subjects of interest and on which I would like to write…someday. Additionally, there are reams of yellow-lined pads, manila folders and other litter. Book shelves are jammed, intermixed with rubber animals my parents produced in the 1950s and sold to school systems around the world. There are carved wooden figures, cast iron and porcelain figurines, and approximately 700 books – special books we brought with us. At least forty-two framed pictures and photographs adorn what wall space we have. When one moves from a large library to a small one, one never down-sizes appropriately.
On my built-in, glass topped desk sit many objects, some practical, but most curios that snuck in and stayed. Beneath the glass lie twenty-one pictures and photographs, one of which is a Polaroid of me and a friend, Duncan Kendall, taken about 1956 by Dr. Edwin Land who was then a summer resident of Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I grew up. Duncan and I look like the arrogant, young wise-guys we were. Another is of Caroline shortly before we met in late 1961. She looks happy, unaware that her life will change in the next few months.
Among the items on top of the desk are many commonly found: computer, pens, a container of paperclips, photographs – nine, in all – a lamp, telephone, books (sixteen at last count), and scribbled notes, some now illegible. There are knickknacks, which include three of my parents’ rubber animals, a snuff holder carved from a whale’s tooth, two cast iron, spring-loaded non-pc piggy banks, quarterly tax reminders, a pair of silver dice given to me forty-five years ago by a friend who had just begun work at International Silver, two metal plates from which my mother made Christmas cards, and at least a dozen other objects, some of which lie hidden behind and beneath news clippings, magazines and printed reports.
Above my desk, and below two rows of shelves, hang three small oil paintings, two photographs – one of me and my sister, taken in 1943 in East River, Connecticut, next to the ’38 Chevy that would return us to New Hampshire. The photo shows a goat peering out the backseat rear window – part of the baggage that will return with us. The other is a photograph of my parents in East River, each peering into the opposite ear of a giant snow head that only young sculptors could have created. There is a framed arrowhead I found at my maternal grandmother’s home in Tennessee. Everything is personal and it all has meaning.
A recent article in the Life & Arts section of “The Financial Times” (October 8/9, 2016), was titled “Say yes to the mess.” Tim Harford, the article’s author, begins and ends with stories of Benjamin Franklin who claimed order was necessary to be productive: “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.” Yet, brilliant and exceptionally busy, Franklin was messy, but “in an orderly way.” There are people who believe that simply being busy ensures productivity. Not Franklin. As Mr. Harford writes, “Franklin was too busy inventing bifocals and catching lightning to get around to tidying up his life. If he had worked in a deli, you can bet he wouldn’t have been organizing sandwich orders. He would have been making sandwiches.”
A few years ago (September 22, 2013), The New York Times published an article about a series of studies conducted by Professor Kathleen Vohs (quoted at the start of this essay) and her staff at the University of Minnesota. It seemed to contradict the broken-windows theory that suggests disorder and neglect can encourage nonchalance, poor discipline and nihilism – that chaos begets chaos. One hundred and eighty-eight people were invited into either a clean or a messy room where they spent ten minutes doing some unrelated chore, like imagining new uses for ping-pong balls. When leaving, they were presented with one of two food items, and they were asked asked a few questions, like donating to charity. The study found that those with the cluttered desk were more creative in finding uses for ping-pong balls, but tended to be less charitable and less healthy in their food choices. Those in the tidy room, while less creative, were more likely to select the apple over the chocolate bar. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition,” concluded Dr. Vohs. However, the study also found that those who are more organized typically ate better and lived longer. I take satisfaction, though, in knowing we live in a grey world, where there are always exceptions. Living amidst clutter, I try to stay active, eat healthily – not always successfully – and to be as charitable as I can. And I do believe in the broken-windows theory – that order begets order.
The study showed that we are influenced by our surroundings. But, intrinsically, we are either messy or neat. What not Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple) have straightened up the messy desk? Would Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau in the same movie) have trashed the neat desk? We create our surroundings. Either we use file drawers, or we pile papers on the floor.
Is my desk messy? Most people would say, of course. I do have a file cabinet and four drawers. In the latter lie important stuff, like a magnifying glass, flashlight, pens, some daguerreotypes of great and great-great grandparents, scissors, a stapler and, naturally, more rubber animals. But there is a difference between messy and disorganized. I usually can find what I need, and if it takes a little longer than it should, well I have enjoyed the nostalgic trip down memory lane. I take comfort in Albert Einstein’s famous quip: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”