Somewhere, in one of the four piles of junk on my desk, are the column ideas I've been saving for just such a slow news day. I can't find them. I can't remember what they are, or even what they look like. But I know they are here. Why else would I have saved all this stuff?
Some people (including a disconcertingly neat-desked colleague who insists that he never handles a piece of paper more than once) are convinced that the reason I frequently cannot find what I'm looking for is that my desk is a mess. They look at my desk, roll their eyes heavenward, and pretend to hide their air of superiority. They say they find it hard to trust the intelligence of people who don't file everything neatly away.
That makes us even. I don't trust people who keep their desks perfectly neat. Either (I suspect) they don't have enough of substance to occupy their time, or else they overwork their secretaries. They may even be sick. You know the compulsive types who wash their clean hands, iron their underwear and keep their desks looking like displays in a furniture store.
I'm not contemptuous of them, as they are of me. I just feel sorry for them. They go through life imagining that they are orderly and decisive. A piece of paper comes across their desk and, if they can't use it immediately, they either toss it or file it. Orderly mind, orderly desk, they'll say--than which nothing could be further from the truth.
It is my considered opinion that a clean desk is the mark of a closed mind for which everything is black and white, which harbors no sense of dilemma, paradox or subtlety. Show me a person with a clean desk, and I'll show you a person who cannot admit that maybe you've got a point there, a person who never says, "But on the other hand . . ."
Messy desks are the natural concomitants of open-minded and cheerful lovers of humanity. I've never visited their offices, but I'll bet you that Mike Royko has a messy desk and that George Will has a neat one. Jesse Helms and Jimmy Carter, being quite sure of everything, would have pristine desks. Hubert Humphrey and Charles McC. Mathias, ever willing to entertain the other person's point of view, would have messy ones.
President Eisenhower, I believe it was, used to give the impression of neatness by clearing his desk every night. But he did it by sweeping everything off into an open drawer, bringing it out again the following morning, which means that he had it both ways. No wonder everybody liked him.
I already hear the neatness freaks among you saying, "Well, why don't you just file the stuff?" The answer is simple enough: if I'm sufficiently sure of what it is to file it, then I'm sure enough to either use it or toss it away. The piles of stuff on my desk are not so much fileable facts as possibilities.
I'm perfectly willing to grant that most of the things that start off as possibilities become, after a time, worthless. The problem is that, by then, they are at the bottom of the pile and discarding them creates more havoc than it cures.
Which is why I'm working on this idea. Instead of free-form piles, the stacks of "possibilities" would rest on springloaded racks (similar to the devices that hold cafeteria trays, raising the stack as trays are taken off the top) with a small vat of acid at the bottom. The weight of new papers would push the old, outdated papers down into the acid, where they would be destroyed.
It's the perfect solution to the messiness dilemma, and in fact, I've already done the preliminary sketches. They should be right here . . . no, maybe it's this pile, or perhaps . . .