Ode to a Desk

I have a desk here at home that gets far less use than it should, not just because I’m an avid procrastinator, but because I’ve always had something of an aversion to the traditional workspace of the desk. As a kid, even though I had a particle board IKEA desk in my bedroom, I’d usually do my homework at the kitchen table or in front of the TV. And I follow the same pattern today, though, let’s be honest, I gravitate towards the couch the majority of the time. It’s a comfortable, lazy way to work, and I don’t think it serves me very well, but I still do it.

Who could blame me? I spend eight hours a day, five days a week at work, sitting at a desk with nowhere to go but the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the copy machine that jams spectacularly half the time I use it, causing me to get on my knees and fiddle with the vaguely labeled, preposterous green levers and knobs in its belly for several minutes just to get back to work, my hands covered in scratches and smears of toner.

There is something romantic about the notion of sitting down at the desk with impeccable posture and a furrowed brow to do Big And Important Work, but in practice it can feel like being stuck on a boat in the middle of nowhere, bringing back those fidgety memories of endless school lectures from which you couldn’t get up to escape. Writing at a desk is, for me, like the idea of writing on a typewriter: charming, yes, but it would get old after a while. (Not to mention the likelihood of yet more ink stains on my hands!)

Still, I’m making an effort to look and feel more professional by sitting down at this desk today, doing my taxes, of all things. (I like getting my taxes done early, and since I am in charge of getting our W-2s processed at work, I am in full control of my tax timeline. I realize this is not a normal or sane position to take, but so long as I don’t actually owe the government anything, the whole process makes me feel mature and virtuous. Which is rare in the current political climate…)

This desk is in front of a large window that looks out on our balcony, and beyond that, the tall, bare trees with their gnarled hands stretched out towards me in either supplication or some kind of threat. Through the woods I can see the traffic out on the highway, which provides a near-constant white noise like ocean waves that I rarely notice anymore unless I’m listening for it. From here I can see the paved walking trail through the woods where I am frequently dragged along by our big, eager hound dog, and, as is usually the case when I’m out with him, there is no one on it. I can’t blame them; it’s damn cold, and the air is slightly thickened by a very fine curtain of snow, so light as to be almost invisible.

With the exception perhaps of the traffic, it’s a calming scene: a typical gray afternoon in mid-winter, the kind I can only stand when observing it from the comfort of the centrally heated indoors. But even the cars out on the highway sometimes capture my imagination. It’s a lazy, cold Saturday, but traffic is constant, everyone’s headlights switched on under the impenetrable cloud cover that threatens heavier snow at any moment. I find myself idly wondering where all these people are going in such a hurry, and I’m glad I’m not one of them.

On days like this, when I really let myself sink into my office chair and observe the world from behind the keyboard, I can actually start to appreciate the ritual of sitting down to work at the writing desk. I can appreciate the significance of carving out both a time and a place for creative work, separating it physically from the drone and hum of everyday life, from the screeching of the television and the crumbs of a midday sandwich. It feels different to sit here, even if I spend just as much time zoning out and staring into space as I do from the comfort of the couch. Even when I’m idle, here at the desk it feels somehow intentional, like the gears are still whirring somewhere in the back of my head. It is a different feeling from the quiet suffocation of the desk where I spend forty unimaginative hours a week earning a paycheck.

I’m not sure what kind of spell this faux wood, prefab Swedish piece is casting over me, but I appreciate it. I think, despite my reservations, I may just keep coming back to this desk, if only to see what dedication to a dedicated workspace can inspire over time. Writing advice consistently touches on the theme of “showing up,” and perhaps that showing up is a little bit easier when you know exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Pictures of Imperfection

Words have been causing me some problems lately. I want to say things, to spew language as I always have, but when I try, I get stuck almost immediately. After a thousand words of a story I grind to a halt, and trying to move forward feels like trying to rock a car out of thick mud.

I’m sure it’s purely psychological. My perfectionism has become a barrier to productivity. My aching desire to have my writing matter and be successful (whatever that means) has caused me to freeze up creatively.

This is why I am drawing more. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, but I’ve rarely attached any “THIS IS THE MEANING OF MY LIFE” pressure to it. It hasn’t been blown up in my head into THE THING I WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO DO the way writing has, so I’m able to participate in it as a pleasing, almost meditative activity without a lot of extra baggage attached to it. And thus, it’s a way to satisfy my need for creative exploration and expression without antagonizing my internal perfectionist demons too much.

If anything, I’m almost proud of the lack of perfection in my drawings. As much as I appreciate the awesome power of a beautifully-rendered realistic drawing, I find myself more drawn to slightly lopsided, offbeat forms of illustration. These days I’m particularly tickled by the creations of Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half), Rubyetc, and Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), who all manage to capture complex absurdity with deceptively simple-looking drawings. That is the kind of work that really excites and inspires me, more so than the still lifes I’ve been painstakingly working on in my night drawing class (though that has value, certainly… Multiple values, if done right, right??).

This morning’s offering is a gloriously imperfect rendering of a three-year-old basset hound/lab mix named Duke, who my boyfriend and I are seriously considering adopting:

I admit my version of him doesn’t do him justice, but I found the process of trying to bring him to life in my notebook satisfying all the same. There’s no agenda in the drawing, no expectation of greatness. It’s just an exercise and a way to keep my mind busy.

(We’ve already decided, by the way, that if we get this dog we’re going to make his full name Duke Silver, after Ron Swanson’s sax-playing jazz god alter ego from Parks and Recreation. So there’s that.)

I realize this is an awful lot of words for someone claiming words have escaped her, but I am nothing if not a walking (typing?) contradiction. Still, I’m likely to be spamming the internet with more and more doodles of varying quality and subject matter, so all I ask is that you be prepared. There’s a lot of weird stuff in my head waiting to come out. Just like this sketch I did from a stock photo of a panda climbing out a window:

Just like that.

Incidental Lessons

Even though it’s only been about a week, and I’ve only taken a couple of my new classes so far, I’ve already learned a few things, mostly unrelated to the actual course material:

  1. I have a terrible habit of comparing myself to people.

    I’ve never been an outwardly competitive person, never one to do extra credit or work extra hard to get a leg up on everyone else. Even so, I admit I have this innate desire to be better than EVERYONE at EVERYTHING. In school I was frequently singled out for my work or seated comfortably at the top of the class, and I had attention lobbed at me even though I didn’t go out of my way to attract it. Needless to say, though I hate to admit it and would never declare it outright, I got a bit of a swelled head from this constant recognition, and even came to expect it despite my not working particularly hard for it. So it’s humbling and somewhat frustrating, for instance, to take a drawing class and realize I’m not actually great at nuanced, realistic drawing, and even worse, other people are better than me at it! GASP! HEAVEN FORBID! I’d like to think of myself as a more gracious, less petty person, but the truth is when I am not the star pupil I get a bit of a knot in my stomach, courtesy of a little green-eyed monster with, I imagine, a bad haircut and bad breath. Not good, lady. Stop it. Jealousy and self-importance do not become you!
    Not my best work…
  2. Everyone reminds me of someone (and this probably means I watch too much TV).
    In both of these classes, I’ve had such a sense of deja vu with some of my fellow students, I have to stop and consider that I may be in a weird time warp, or the Matrix: Ah, I know who this woman looks like! She’s Ron Swanson’s girlfriend, how bizarre! Or I’m sure I’ve seen her somewhere else. Did we go to school together? Maybe she works in town somewhere? Or THIS LADY LOOKS LIKE A PIXAR CHARACTER AND OH MY GOD I CAN’T STOP STARING AT HER WHY IS SHE A LIVING CARTOON I NEED TO DRAW HER IMMEDIATELY. It’s freaking me out.
    This does not accurately capture her cartoonishness, and it’s driving me nuts!
  3. Classroom shyness doesn’t go away with age.
    In school, I always used to get embarrassed on behalf of teachers when they asked a question and were met with blank-faced silence from the students. Sometimes those silences would go on for so long, the discomfort in the room became almost a separate entity: a nervous, throat-clearing little creature scuttling around the room with its eyes darting, waiting to be put out of its misery. Of course, even when I knew the answer to the question I wouldn’t come to anyone’s rescue; I was too shy, and not a hand-raiser. Fast-forward a decade later, and guess what? I’m still not a hand-raiser. Despite being a generally more confident human being, that old habit of staying quiet hasn’t died, and apparently that’s not just true for me. Sure, there are always the few people who will talk and talk at any given opportunity, but the majority of students–dare I say, a silent majority–are like me, and let those awkward silences build and stretch out until they are nearly intolerable. Somehow, this is both slightly unnerving and slightly comforting to me.
  4. No matter how worthwhile an experience is, if the drive to get there and back is even remotely challenging, I will kind of, sort of hate it.
    This is pretty self-explanatory. I hate driving, particularly at night, or in heavy traffic, or on complicated routes my spatially-challenged brain can’t remember. Even if I’ve had a great time in a class or at an event, if I spend the whole drive home white-knuckled with my teeth gritted, forget it. Bad mood and crippling anxiety for the rest of the night! (This is legitimately one of the reasons I don’t do a lot of things that are more than a few miles away from home. I can’t express strongly enough how much I hate driving. Blech. Uck. Nope! Please to be stopping now.)

These are all incidental lessons, obviously, and I am indeed learning some actual new skills at the same time. While I hate the commuting, and fighting the inertia to get up and go out after a full day of work, I’m still glad to be taking the initiative and giving my brain some new experiences to chew on. When the brain is stretched and dragged out of its comfort zone, that can only be a good thing. So here’s to continuing the stretch! Except not tonight. Tonight I’m going home and lying down on the couch like a slug because it’s Friday and I can. So there. Yes.

The Theoretical Homicidal Bus

I would like, if I may, to put a moratorium on the use of the phrase: “Say you get hit by a bus tomorrow…”

If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, always as the beginning of a discussion about contingency plans, or insurance (which I guess is a form of contingency plan in itself). It is, of course, prudent to plan for the absence of key people in the workplace or the family, but…a bus? Really?

Who decided a bus was the go-to instrument of theoretical unplanned absences? Why do we need to conjure such a violent, splattery end for our colleagues and loved ones in order to plan for the future? Is it because being hit by a bus is a realistic enough scenario to be plausible, but not common enough to be completely horrifying? As in, it’s more believable than “Say you’re kidnapped by a gang of sentient CFL light bulbs tomorrow,” but less depressing than “Say you have a fatal heart attack tomorrow”?

Either way, I don’t much like it. If someone is looking me in the eye and imagining a world in which I am no longer there, I’d rather they assume the event that pulled me away was a happier, less gruesome one:

“Say you run off and join the circus tomorrow…”

“Say you take possession of a small tropical island tomorrow…”

“Say a talent scout sees you singing to the watermelons at the grocery store and whisks you away to Broadway to join the cast of Les Miserapples tomorrow…”

“Say you wake up tomorrow and know exactly what you’re meant to do with your life, and you quit your job on the spot…”

It just seems like a bit of a slap in the face to assume the reason I won’t be around anymore is because I have met my untimely demise, especially through something as stupidly pedestrian as getting hit by a bus*.

I know bad things happen, but could we save the morbid reality for reality, and have a little more optimism in our imaginings? Eh? Please? I would prefer not to be terrified of buses, or as I have come to know them, “Contingency Death Machines**.” That’s all.

* (Only slight pun intended.)
** Still working on the name. Fear of theoretical bus death stifles creativity, you know.

The Day of the Button

When I was in ninth grade, I was sitting in biology class, mind wandering, when I noticed one of the buttons on my teacher’s shirt was unbuttoned. Let’s be clear: this wasn’t a sexy thing. She was a middle-aged woman with a dark brown bouffant who once made us use the biology concepts we had learned to explain why a handful of Far Side cartoons were funny (because nothing makes a cartoon funnier than having it explained to you in scientific detail).

The button was obviously an oversight on her part, hardly at the level of “wardrobe malfunction” that would cause my classmates to pay any mind. Even so, I noticed it, and a thought struck me. I’m not sure what sparked it, but I told myself in that moment, ‘I am going to remember this.’ I resolved to focus on this insignificant detail and remember it for as long as possible. I would remember it was a Thursday, and the rebellious button in question was the fourth one down. (I made no such resolutions to remember the content of the class, which is, predictably, totally lost to me now.)

It was an experiment I set for myself in a moment of boredom, and for the most part, it worked. Every so often, even more than fifteen years later, the memory of that lone button comes floating to the surface of my mind. While it doesn’t mean anything in and of itself, the intention behind it somehow does. I can’t remember why I set myself the task of remembering, and I’m not a hundred percent confident that I have the day of the week or the location of the button correct, but the general memory remains in tact.

It’s a curious thing to me that something as insignificant as a button could be so easy to recall, and yet twenty-five percent of the time I walk into a room I can’t remember why (though a safe assumption is that I’m looking for snacks). And more often than not, the brilliant ideas I know will stay with me forever vanish into smoke the next time I try to recall them. I definitely can’t remember what the lesson was on The Day of the Button, nor can I remember most of what I learned in fifteen-plus years of schooling.

But the button remains.

I’d like to think I have the same capacity for focused intention that I had back in that moment in ninth grade. That if I really, truly wanted to commit something to memory I could do it. Fourteen-year-old me was not yet subject to the distracting twenty-four-hour tyranny of screens, so perhaps she had a strategic advantage when it came to remembering things for more than six seconds. Still, the potential for focus is surely buried somewhere in this jumbled mess of sensory input and occasional original thought I call my mind.

It may require throwing my phone out the window or feeding it to a bear, but I’d like to carve more time out of my life to commit to the practice of focus and intention. In a world of constant stimulation it can be hard to sit still; my eyes ping-pong inside my head all day and have gotten dry from staring, and almost every tidbit of knowledge I Google in a moment of curiosity is forgotten a minute later. When journaling, too many times I find myself unable to form a complete thought, much less write a complete paragraph, and in fits of frustration I think, ‘There has to be a better way!’

If that button is any indication, there is a better way. I just have to get back to it. I just have to get quiet, even bored, again. And from there…F O C U S . Make a point of it. Continue the experiment.

And, of course, remember to check my buttons before leaving the house.