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The Where They Were

the deskYou work and work, and then one day your job is done, or you are done with it, or they are done with you, and – whether it be through resignation, retirement, reorganization or death, physical or psychical ­– you are out that door, a lump of he’s-a-jolly-good-fellow sheet cake in your gut, and gone baby gone.

Except … there are some people – whether because they were beloved or admired or projected a force of personality that transcended the quotidian quiescence of most workplaces – who leave behind their “ghosts”: They, or their tenets, or their echoes, remain in the room. And where they did their work seems to have achieved a kind of placeness that borders on the haunted. That desk, that cubicle, that office – these seem to be theirs and them, and it’s difficult to imagine that they will not be occupying them any longer, and so people leave them alone, stay away, don’t touch a thing and cast glances there every now and then as if to spy them, in their past poses, and thus to reacquire the comfort of their presence, and to return that tilted world to a balance. It is not quite a cargo cult, and not quite a wish, or a prayer, but a feeling or a need.

We humans have an innate propensity toward sanctifying the places where the bigger-than-life have labored, and imprisoning them as if in amber. Douglas MacArthur’s office, Cesar Chavez’s office, Churchill’s underground bunker, others of personages either widely famous or locally known – we freeze those rooms at a certain point in the past, a date or year or period or heightened significance or benevolence or creativity, sometimes in situ, sometimes moved and reassembled in a museum setting.

It is not that the famous or near-famous are there, again, or ever will be, or can be – it is that they were, and that they touched the things there and walked among them , and that the work we know them for was done there. It is like a contact magic. As posed or arid or clinical or hokey or even phony as these places are – somewhat like the real-estate equivalent of taxidermy – they have, in a secular, past-revering and -distorting, celebrity-obsessed society, the power and the function of shrines.

The only such place that to me ever actually felt holy, with a natural and overpowering placeness that was both artless and art-filled, was Jackson Pollack’s studio, on Long Island. Wearing little booties to help preserve the wondrous splatters that explode all over the studio floor, the visitor feels, strongly, palpably, that he has arrived while Pollack has stepped out for a few minutes – paint cans sit open, brushes still upright in them; the only thing missing is a cigarette curling smoke, long ash dangling – and that if he waits long enough the artist will walk through the door and wonder what the hell this interloper is doing there.

But, closer to home: Within 10 days recently, the place where I work saw the departures – planned, if not joyous – of two office leaders, each with 30-plus years in the job and a staff that not only relied on them but looked up to them. We had our parties, said our “auf Wiedersehens,” looked on with envy, pity and fear ….

Now there is the matter of their desks. Theirs are in good locations, one in a prime spot. We have people who would be better served by moving from where they are now to these now-vacant stations. There is no reason for them not to move.

But nobody can bring themselves to do it.

Everybody is steering clear of these two workstations. One of them was cleared, cleaned and neutralized by its recently departed tenant; there is nothing there to indicate that this person ever spent time there. It is ready for anyone to take over. But it sits empty – it is Kevin’s place, still. And the other desk? Well, it’s nearly the way it was when Vince sat there; he walked away without removing much – books, papers, even his favorite green drinking cup are still there. Drawers are still full. No one can even imagine removing the artifacts – it would be blasphemy, desecration. It’s Vince’s desk, and likely to be for a while. And, hey, the way it looks – maybe he’ll be back. You know?

books

When is it time to remove the bones? Is there a respectable period – of mourning? – after which these places cease to exude their placeness and return to simply desk and chair? What is the shelf life of reverence? When does “too soon” become “OK, now” – like finally taking the clothes of deceased loved ones out of the closet and packing them up for Goodwill? Will it take an ignorant, inadvertent newcomer to simply plop down in the spot, and that will be that?

And what is it in us that believes in ghosts and “haunted” spots, that lets the specters of friends and colleagues past rule sensible acts – that imbues a place were we knew someone to be with the continuing characteristics of that person and the emotion or respect that we felt for them?

It is, like most things, inexplicable, and vapors.

empty

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Inside the Box

In passing a number of packing, shipping crates lately that seem to be everywhere – on city streets, in suburban enclaves – it looks as if everyone is relocating. It got me to thinking about boxes.

 

Obviously, Donald Judd was thinking about boxes long before this synapse occurred in my brain. His boxes are definers, forms, containers for space. I think he was prescient and profound about their metaphor for life because our lives are defined and contained by boxes. Cradle to grave.

 

There is the large box we inhabit, whether it be apartment or house or office cubicle. A rectilinear world surrounds us, encases us. If our homes can’t contain all of our belongings, we rent a storage space – another box – unless we have a garage, also a box. If we are moving to a different location, a structure is supplied in the shape of a  pod, referred to as “container-based moving,”  and it is a box for your belongings. Then we move and we find a place to live in that needs remodeling, so we bring in a Dumpster, a huge rectangular box to fill with debris; the unwanted stuff gets boxed and carted away. Often, too, the wanted stuff gets boxed but stays with us – look at all the plastic storage boxes you can buy at big-box stores. Many of our furnishings are, face it, boxes that hold other belongings.

Our cars are just shiny, molded boxes – containers to move us from place to place – also with as many of our belongings as we can carry. Overseas shipping containers are huge boxes that fit on boats, train cars and 18-wheelers – and they float. And, too, smaller boxed items are shipped everyday, everywhere by many competing shipping companies.

Proposal rings come in small boxes, gifts come in boxes of all sizes; England and Canada, among others, celebrate Boxing Day. Books and DVDs come in boxed sets. Box seats are desirable to some theater-goers, if they can afford them. In the sport of boxing, somehow, the square stage of the event is called a ring, but we all know it is really a box. Heck, these days, even liquids come in boxes. A typical day could involve starting off with boxed cereal, working with text boxes and going out to check your post-office box before sending off a box of chocolates to an admiree and grabbing a Bento box for lunch unless you have brought along your own lunch box, then off to the box office to get tickets for a performance.

Why do shoes come in boxes? Mass production, it seems. Funny how they can become stashes for treasured items like seashells and love letters.

If you get on your soapbox, it may elevate you in a crowd but its useful life as a container happened before you came along; unless, of course, you might argue that it helps form and package your thoughts for a public forum. But beware, you might inadvertently open up Pandora’s box, resulting in a crowd-displeasing pummeling by round rather than square objects. Boxed ears can occur.

Ultimately there is the last box. It can be made of wood, metal or cement. It can be lined or bare and it will contain for eternity, only this container must be contained by non-rectangular earth cut into a rectangle to receive the box. A fitting end for a square peg.

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Physical Plant

When blood-siphoning hedge-fund greed and the declining fortunes of what young techno-Turks sneeringly label “legacy” media forced us out of our old offices, among the things that new management said we could not under any circumstances transfer with us to our clean and green and ergonomically astute new offices were our potted plants. The news came in the form of an item in an emailed newsletter from the image-makers involved in the Big Move; here is the notice:

Puzzling, this. One would surely assume – and, thus, one would be so utterly and completely wrong – that plants could only be good for an enclosed work environment, that their beauty and pet-like quality might help soothe those toiling in a pressurized and deadline-driven occupation, that the oxygen produced by personalized in-your-face photosynthesis might bestow on sleep-deprived and lung-capacity-diminished journalists a puff of non-caffeinated alertness, that having to occasionally water a bit of philodendron or petunia might demand a certain level of responsibility and interest in something other than self rare in this ego-drenched and cynicism-thick atmosphere. The owners of the building in which we now lease space expressed concern, apparently, that plants might add something unbalanced to the filtered and formulated air, and that these undocumented aliens might harbor insects that – what? – might ruin this year’s 3rd-floor-office peach crop? We were assured that professionals would be determining and providing the proper flora, and that they would maintain them with perfect light and hydration as only professionals can.

OK. But, first, a bit of necessary background: The newsroom from which we were deposed by squeeze-the-corpse-dry owners – that storied, classic, fabled, memorable newsroom – was, let’s face it, a subterranean, black-lung-dispensing pit with carpeting that had not been vacuumed in anybody’s memory and twice that long for the cleaning of the air ducts (the most frequent sound in the place was not keyboards clacking but everyone sneezing), with oozings and droopings and ashy moundings and vending machines that dropped down items already chewed on by mice. Natural light came into this room only on the side of a beer can, and then it was spelled L-I-T-E. The idea that we bad-news bearers might have the urge to bring illicit contraband potted plants with us to the new clean-room office stumbles on the reality that the old office was so toxic it barely supported human life let alone pansies. The main reason we would not be bringing our plants to the new place is that we had no plants, in the way that sensitive couples decide not to bring children into this terrible world.

(But we would not tell management that turning the new digs into the equivalent of the California border’s agricultural Maginot Line had no meaning for us leafy green-less deportees – we might be able to use it as a grievance come contract negotiations.)

And, so, when on a Friday we bade farewell to our beloved Superfund site and on that following Monday arrived for work in an entirely new environment, one so scrubbed and kilowatted and boxy and soulless, that not a one of us – trying to find our cubicles among the rat warren of minimum-security cells – gave even half a thought to potted plants.

Until we saw them. In our area, 6 of them.In dark ceramic pots. About 6-inches tall, including the (now that we look closer at it) possibly ceramic pot. Looking for all the world like half a dozen packs of wheat grass waiting to be juiced. Aligned in two perfect rows atop facing walls across a work-station aisle from each other, they seemed – how you say? – disappointing? No – insignificant. Negligible. Puny. Absurd. Hilarious.

And, preternaturally odd. Something …

I tried to pick one up, to see how heavy the pot was. I could not pick it up – it seemed, all several square inches of it, to be as densely weighted and gravity-redolent as a black hole. It was then I discovered that the pot – indeed, all of them – was glued to the surface, as if it were the Hope Diamond in a museum setting, held in place to thwart that menacing band of roaming wheat-grass thieves.

The grassy stalks were so lushly green, so perfectly trimmed – I ran my hand across their crew-cutted top – so … artificial. Plastic. Plastic wheat grass. The perfect plant for this unliving George Tooker-ish office.

It is somehow depressing to consider that these tinted and decorative bits of petroleum byproduct will almost surely outlive the enterprise that they have been drafted to decorate. The newspapers will be the stuff of memory and mold when these perky simulacra will be, unchanged, ever unchanging, the belles of the landfill.

However, I have noticed something of hope. Recently, secretly, colleagues have begun to stick things into the artificial grass, and place things atop them, in ways that can only be deemed clever or, at least, anarchic. First it was candy balls – a sure sign of simple rebellion, but a serious one, because I know of no journalist who readily or easily lets food out of his mitts. Then there was the wag who, in a nice film reference, stuck a packet of artificial sweetener into the stalks: Splenda in the grass. Just the other night I became aware of tiny toy reptiles placed to lend a kind of jungle air to the thick growth – and, in a way, the plastic animals made the plastic grass seem more real.

This is all good news. What is happening to these green accessories is what happens to statues on campuses that become the targets of student pranks and hazing requirements – old Civil War generals or figures personifying virtuous values suddenly, in dawn’s light, seen to be wearing sweaters or painted blue or holding a leashed goat or sporting a tattoo. Our wheat grass has become the equivalent of this sort of ritualistic nose-thumbing; I can envision them becoming the repository of little Halloween costumes and Christmas ornaments, office supplies and all sorts of offensive stuff that will give vent to journalists’ sarcasm, darkness, insubordination, mistrust of authority and general screw-you pissed-offness. In other words, in some strange ironic way, these artificial plants will have brought something very natural into the newsroom, and given it a place to thrive.

Just don’t add water.

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Holding a Higher Office

For the past five years, 10 months and two days, I have worked at a desk in a large open space without interior walls or cubicles, surrounded by a small cadre of co-workers who are practically within arm’s reach of me. Despite the lack of privacy, the loud voices, the distracting smear of sluggishly moving bodies in my 180-degree line of vision, the occasional emission of bodily sound effects (theirs, not mine … I think) and the fear of one of the bosses catching me as I check the Internet for another job (something I have been doing for the past five years, 10 months and 1 day) –  despite all that, and more, it has been a fine way to work. A manageable way to work. An acceptable way to work. OK – it is what it is. Besides, the job I do requires more-or-less continual interaction with my colleagues, as they hand me documents and I, in turn, hand them back, or off to someone else, and so it makes more sense to be out in the field swishing tails with the herd than mooing in my solitary corral. Under a fluorescent glare bright enough to alter one’s circadian rhythm, and possibly one’s DNA, I am one of the cogs.

Most of the time.

Because, of late, I have taken on a new job. Actually, a new task – an addition to, not an instead of. It’s what’s happening everywhere, in this time of retrenchment and collapse: doubling- and tripling-up on duties that have come available because of staff “realignments,” which is just another way of saying layoffs, buyouts and flat-out decimations. “The living will envy the dead,” is what Kruschev said about nuclear war; it’s not quite that in workplaces, but the living can certainly empathize. Anyway, the new “opportunity” that has come my way takes up the first three hours or so of my shift, after which I return to the same Bat Time, same Bat Channel that I have ruminated in for the past five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 32 minutes. There’s a bit of squealing and sparks flying as the gears shift, abruptly, as I go directly from one of these “jobs” to the only-semi-related other. But, here is what’s different and odd about this new thing I do: It comes with an office.

And, so, whereas the first action I would take each workday was to make the Bataan march to my desk and say hello to my co-workers, put down my carry-bag, sit down and turn on the computer, now I arrive at my desk, say hello to my co-workers, but then keep on going to my office, which, along with every other office in the place, sits along the perimeter of the big room. My office (how quickly we make or, at least, label something in a possessive way) is, as are most of the others, nothing special. In fact, were it not for the computer, you would expect to see cartons of copy paper stacked in it. What distinguishes it – if distinguish is not too strong a word to apply to a 10-by-12-foot cube full of nothing – is one wall that is mostly glass, so that it looks out on the larger room and all the empty desks that once held workers. It is a furnitured but barren aspect, as if a neutron bomb had hit (and, in a fiscal way, it has), and the only humans who come into view are those headed to the photocopy machine, which sits directly outside my door (you see – the door is already “mine”).

In this office, of which I am now the latest temporary dweller, there are two tables, a two-tiered computer station, a few chairs clumped together as if huddled against the storm of ultimate repossession, an empty bookcase, an empty file cabinet, a floor fan whose purpose one can only imagine and a cork board, on which there is nothing but what is likely not even cork. Every way that art has depicted the corporate work environment – from George Tooker to “Joe and the Volcano” – is in this office. I have not yet “personalized” it – I’m still working on personalizing myself, actually, an action that has gone on decades longer than five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 47 minutes – although I have brought in a lamp to cast a more humane, incandescent light on what I do; in my beige and blank area, the Greek-columned desk lamp feels like an anarchic act of revolution, and it makes me feel warm.

Where all this is leading us, in this blog’s focus on placeness, is this: While the office means almost nothing to me – in fact, I feel a bit embarrassed sitting in it, partly like a fish in a bowl, partly like Eichmann in the glass booth, partly like a Dickens middle-manager – others in my workplace now accord me a certain elevated status, one that never came from them to me (and for good reason), now merely because I have this office … this crummy office. Whether they are drawn by the open door, or the soft fire-in-a-cave lighting, or the incorrectly perceived increase in power accorded me less by my new tasks than by where I am doing them … whatever: People who never spoke to me before are turning up to say hi and to chit the chat; my longtime co-workers have stopped by to gaze admiringly at my new digs, nodding almost subserviently with something akin to approval, if not grudging respect, as if I were not in this enclosed workslot but, rather, lounging in a hot tub in Bill Gates‘ rec room, or as if they were homeless waifs with noses pressed against a frosty window, their fervent breaths steaming it, watching me, the one who got adopted from the orphanage, sitting in a warm and glowing room about to dive into a hot 8-inch-high freshly baked apple pie; and those who actually do have higher status in this operation still observe me through Eustace Tilley pince-nez when we meet in the aisles, but burble in intimate and inside-joke tones when they enter my office – my sphere, apparently. But, oddly, nobody actually “enters” my office – they speak to me from the doorway, hugging the jamb, as if to step more forward would propel them through the stargate – as if awaiting an invitation to enter “my” space, or that they are not worthy to enter this hallowed ground, or are afraid to track mud into this pristine environment (although tracked mud could only lend the joint some character). 

I have not changed. Indeed, when I lock up the office (maybe a place you can lock up behind you, or even with you in it, is the source of this strange status power) and return to my open-air workspace, I am the same nothing-special functionary that I have always been. Yet, let me walk back to my office and sit in it, and suddenly, immediately, I am hot stuff. The room has a placeness that has nothing to do with beauty, or empathy, or history – it seems to have everything to do with a social contract we make when we begin our work lives: offices are private, and a thing apart, and important things are done in them by people more important than the mass of workers. And the bestowing of this respect occurs, as it did with me, simultaneously with inhabiting the space, without actually having to do anything that merits respect. Maybe it’s like what William Goldman said about Hollywood, that nobody knows anything, and those who get movies made must “know,” must have the juju; I must have an office because I know something – how the game is played, how to move ahead, how to read the tea leaves – and I must know something because I have an office.

Does having an office ultimately change you? Do you become what having an office implies? Does the mere act of walking to a door with a key in hand, turning the handle and walking into a space that you can keep people out of empower you in other ways, especially creative ways? Or are you just a bookmark until they actually do move in the cartons of copy paper or, as is more likely, just shut off the lights and put the “For Sale” sign on the front door? And then how important and empowering is that office, eh?

I don’t have the answers. Ask me sometime around 6 years, 3 months and however many days. If we’re still here. But if we are, don’t presume to come any farther into my space than the doorjamb, without invitation. Hey, this is my office.

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The Office

We are disassembling an office, one that has been used as such in the same way for decades, but there is more to it than putting books in boxes and chairs in other rooms. It is not about the death of creative dreams; there is that, of course, a little, but most of the dreams that were designed to be dreamed in that room have been dreamt, and, truly, it is a time of dream transition. It is time to do other things in that space, and to do in other spaces the things that were done there, and to move on with differed, not diminished, lives.

But there is something about shutting down and clearing out an office – especially, particularly, a home office – that has not a little of the whiff of dying to it, and is very much like the deaccessioning of art, for a personal office is nothing if not a work of art.

Putting together an office is not, as comparisons go, like building up a shape using clay, or chipping a figure from within a block of stone, or putting paint to canvas. It is a different sort of artistic endeavor: one less planned (at least after the initial move-in phase) but no less intimate and revealing – a kind of installation art that, over the years, just keeps getting installed or installing itself, adding layers, subtracting space, telling more. In a way, an office is a sort of work of art in which art of a sort is made.

The corporate office – the one provided for a worker in a building that one has to leave home to get to – is a different animal. The chair is their chair, the desk it their desk, the carpets, the light fixtures, the color on the walls – all theirs, and not necessarily your taste, and not particularly conducive to you doing the best work you can do. That is why there are so many unavoidably unsatisfactory and incomplete attempts to “personalize” one’s office space: pinned-up photos and cartoons and fortune-cookie slips, desk borders – like the edges of a boxing ring – populated by stuffed animals and action figures, framed snapshots and a pale, gasping philodendron. All these: all attempts at remembering who you are in a location that does not encourage it – in fact, actively discourages it or any individuality.

But the home office … well, for starters, it does have the word “home” in its name, and that goes a long way to making you feel good about it from the get-go. Second, and directly following: It is in the home, thus making convenience a given, commuting a minor perambulation, lunchtime a refrigerator raid. In many cases, the occupant will have chosen the room, in the house or apartment, designated to be the office, and for a reason: sometimes because it is the only room available – that space in the basement, that second bedroom, that corner of the kitchen; sometimes because there is a certain “feel” to a space, a familiarity, a feng-shui thing, even an odd empathy, as if one “gets” this space and knows it and knows that this is the place where good work can be done and destinies could be met.

But more: Since the space is not “theirs” but yours, it can become what you want it to be  (while, in return, you become what it says you are), to look how you want it to look, and to behave in a manner that you determine. In other words, it is the you that contains you as much as it reflects you. And, if you are lucky, it will make you a better you, at least creatively. (Physically, those barbells will not get used enough to affect even one ab. Trust us.) You like that old, awful-colored rug? Drop it on the floor, anywhere. That mobile from your college days? Tack it to the ceiling. Want your cat there? Absolutely. Want it dark, with just a pool of light on your task? If that’s what you want. Loud music? If it helps, rock on. (If it distracts, go ahead, too. Distraction is incubation.) You have the freedom (within marital parameters) to make this office the best room for you, one you will find yourself drifting to even in nonwork hours. It can become your sanctum sanctorum, an arena, a cave, your room with a view, a womb. And as you work in it, and things expand to fill the spaces – as the cork board seems to have sprouted paper barnacles, as once neatly-lined-up books seem now to have been frozen in mid prison breakout, as your once-spacious desk appears to have been miniaturized and your once-ergonomic seating device has now the comfort of an Inquisition torture tool – it is here, and then, that the unconscious art has taken over: an unwitting, subversive expression of self – like automatic writing – and what the self is capable of, and capable of tolerating with the tunnel-vision goal of worthy accomplishment in mind.

And, then, to take it apart … and, where instinct and happenstance made a work of environmental and performance art, now focused intent is making it disappear, so that it can become … what? The next step. The new chapter. The second following the present breath. This needn’t be a sad moment. It could just be that what you did there you now feel better doing someplace else, or not at all. A space, dear to you, as dear as you are to yourself, which has – face it – lost its energy, even its raison d’etre, is getting a chance to be the next new you. What you do now doesn’t require what this space is now.

Things change. People change. Rooms change. Artists emerge from blue periods and become Cubists. Representationalists become Abstract Expressionists. Writers become editors. Art changes as the artist changes, and so does the workplace. Futures create memories. People get older, or wiser, or just different. And – to invert (and convolute) Lillian Hellman’s famous phrase to the HUAC witch hunters – sometimes we won’t or shouldn’t cut this year’s fashion to fit last year’s style.

We move on. So do our spaces. But, in a corner, in the way that that same old light glances through the window, by the familiar creak of that well-trod-on floorboard, in the dent in the wall that only you know the history of, there is continuity. And placeness. And comfort.


 

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