A clean desk indicates an unstable mind

One of these days, as Mose Allison so memorably sang, I’ve got to get things right. I’ve been promising myself I’d do it for decades, but it hasn’t happened. And now an expert in Getting Things Right says it probably won’t.

The problem, as I and most of my family see it, is organization.

Reporters are notoriously sloppy in dress and habit, which may be one reason I gravitated to the career: Neckties weren’t required, and if you had a pile of papers on your desk, it wasn’t any bigger than the pile of papers on the desk of the next guy.

Even in that company, I stood out. When I worked at the Other Paper, we had “on-site inspections” by corporate heavies. The visits were preceded by a blizzard of scrubbing and painting. (I always wondered if the heavies, most of whom had endured on-sites of their own before they moved to Corporate, were impressed. Or fooled.)

Along with extra janitorial attention, we also got a warning. It was phrased as a reminder, like “an orderly desk is the sign of an orderly mind.” Writ between the lines, though, was the real message: An orderly desk was a condition of employment, until the heavies flitted back to the Batcave.

Which brings us to today, when I no longer have janitors and all my stuff is in what I (and the IRS, so far) call my home office. It’s a good-sized space, but it’s inconvenient (never mind; you’d have to see the house), and we haven’t used it for much until I set up a workstation in a corner.

That was in November. Today, the stuff in the office covers the floor, the shelves along one wall and a portion of another room, which we do use. Or did, anyway, when we could still get through the door.

Serendipitously, a relative of mine has made a modest fortune helping people design offices. She started by giving friends tips on where to put end tables and why their kitchens would work better if the refrigerator were over there. Now she commands significant fees for designing entire interiors, and she speaks knowledgeably of workflow, traffic patterns and efficiency.

She was in town last week, and I called in a favor so old it’s become a joke.

“Remember the time I told your dad that was my beer in his car?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, laughing. “He still doesn’t know.”

“Great. Come upstairs.”

She did, and regarded my home office with wonder, though not the kind that comes from admiration.

“Show me what you do.”

So I sat in my tippy chair, then got up to move papers off the keyboard, sat back down, stretched over to turn on the computer, typed a few lines, walked across the room to the printer and (after removing the paper that had been on the keyboard) picked up my copy, all the time squinting against the glare of a single bulb placed so the light caroms off the monitor and slices into my eyes like a 200-watt stiletto.

“How long have you worked like this?” she asked.

“Five months.”

“And you get things done?”

“Sure.” I told her I was doing columns, a blog, a radio show, sometimes TV commentary. “I’m here three or four hours a day. Come on, this is what you do. Make it work. You owe me.”

She looked at the room, stepped back and looked from another angle, then shook her head.

“Can I use your phone?” she asked. “I want to call my dad and tell him about the beer.”