Recently I led a book club discussion for second graders on Polly Diamond and the Magic Book, a tale of a precocious and imaginative young girl who loves to write. She is given a magic blank journal containing a benign but very literal wish-granting entity that will incarnate whatever Polly writes. She thus conjures a new version of her house that is unfeasibly large, transforms her own room into a live aquarium, and other hijinx. Polly very much on purpose transforms her annoying little sister into a banana, and the banana is almost eaten by the narratively disengaged babysitter. That macabre interlude aside, Polly finally restores her home by remembering every concrete detail about the house and writing it all down, setting the scene so clearly that the book obligingly returns everything to normal.
I talked with the second graders about the usual “show don’t tell” writing tropes and the power of description, and I had everybody try to describe their own homes with as much detail as possible. One kid really ran with this exercise, telling the group all about where every piece of furniture and knicknack was placed in his living room, each detail paired with color commentary about what he thought of that chair, or the size of the TV, or his beloved video game console, or the stack of papers he often messed up. He talked 10 times longer than any other kid, so clearly this descriptive exercise really resonated with his creative vision.
This talk reminded me of a similar obsession with detail I once indulged when crushed under absolutely stultifying boredom, daily, while working as a managing editor at a university press. The organization was creaking out of a decades-long senescence serving as a vanity press for faculty, finally broadening its list and inching toward a modern acquisition and production process. But there was a long way to go, and academic publishing is a phlegmatic game at the best of times. Coming from the more rapid pace of trade publishing, I found I simply worked faster than those colleagues at both my inputs and outputs, meaning that I typically finished my week’s worth of labor by midday Tuesday. And let me just state for the record that I was not working particularly fast.
This was the golden age of Blogging, or one of its golden ages, and also happened to set the scene for my anonymous stunt blog Gawkerist which opened the escape hatch from university publishing to the spinning sawblade festival of Gawker Media. But before that I just blogged for fun, or more commonly as way to pass the time regardless of any actual fun to be had. On one particularly bad day I was so bored I decided to minutely describe everything I could see from my office chair, which resulted in a neolithic blogging example of TL;DR that I am pleased to reproduce for you below. Enjoy the creative oppression!
The Six Planes
The floor is short institutional carpet. Its main color is dark gray, veined with black and green and light blue and dark red, not unlike the flesh of a corpse drowned in water heavy with tannins. The floor tilts north, toward the center of the building. This tilt means my desk is crooked, leaning backward as it were, which causes the keyboard drawer to slide back underneath the desk when left to its own devices. To stop this retraction, I wedge an old keyboard wrist rest into the left track of the drawer. The long sausage of silicone gel dangles obscenely, sometimes brushing my left knee. The office administrator is in the office directly below. She's so corpulent that she rarely comes upstairs unless summoned. However, she's gotten very good at detecting the presence and movements of upstairs staff based on our footsteps above her head. Frequently I'll walk into my office and my phone will immediately ring, as she calls to ask a question. My chair is a vintage 1970 office classic, boxy with wooden armrests and shoulder-height green-and-white plaid back. It swivels, leans with a Victorian creak, and rolls on its five casters as far as the loose and bunchy carpet will let it.
I face the north wall most of the day. Like all the walls, it's covered with light wood paneling. Directly in front of me is the computer desk, or "hutch," not to be confused with "Starsky and." This desk-hutch holds the computer and printer, a lamp, a few documents I rarely consult, stationery and envelopes I have never touched, one reference book I use about once a month, a desk calendar with many concerted markings for off days and few markings for work-related tasks, and various desk doodads (pens, pencils, a dagger-like letter opener) which are mainly there for idle twirling purposes. The north wall also has a stout wooden bookshelf, a little over six feet tall, that holds stacks of paper relevant to last season's book projects. Throwing these stacks away, bidding goodbye to tedious and pointless books singly and en masse, is one of my principal pleasures. On the other side of the north wall is the office of a coworker covertly known as "Merlin" for her diaphanous and garish self-made gowns, scarves, dashikis, ponchos, and other fluttery garb. She is often consumed with various personal and professional obligations, real and imagined, which keep her out of the office, which is a good thing. A steady stream of interns marches in and out of her office, apparently not substantively contributing to aggregate work progress.
The west wall has the door, two chairs, and a closet. The door is white, in the right-hand corner of the wall, and extremely thick and sound, as befits a former Jesuit dormitory. There is a silvery gothic "Q" on its face, reason unknown. A plastic coathook on the back holds my coat, if any. There's an intercom panel next to the door, which allows me to buzz in people who ring our main door two flights down. 99% of these people are not here to see me, but they mash every buzzer button, quickly and in sequence, just to get inside. I hear the buzzers in other offices go off, one after another, closer and closer, until they get to mine. I used to hate this, but now I get up and buzz them in just to stop the jangly racket. In the hall outside, you turn right for the bathroom or go straight to other offices. This intersection is most frequently traversed by myself and the production editor--the man who turns finished manuscripts into bound books--as his office is across the way. The two chairs sit side by side facing me, against the wall, and between the door and closet, one dark brown and the other light tan. They are heavy, wooden, armless, and shiny smooth with years of wear. They likely have served one purpose or another on this campus for decades. The tan chair, on the left, is where I usually drop whatever lunch, coffee cup, magazine, newspaper, or other miscellany I happen to have with me when I arrive. The brown chair, right next to the door, is where the very occasional visitor instinctively sits when talking to me. This is because I have a giant behemoth of an old schoolteacher's wooden desk between me and the door, at a right angle to the north wall. The desk contains many files and papers from my predecessors that I have not bothered to examine or maintain. There are usually a few stacks of paper on the desk related to current projects. These stacks either get briefly reviewed by me before being remailed somewhere else, or perhaps they are tossed onto the heaps inhabiting the bookshelves or closet. When someone comes into my office, I turn 45 degrees to the left and observe them with the disinterest of a Kremlin basement bureaucrat, circa 1957. Few dare venture fully into my office, preferring to hover at the threshold or to sit immediately in the brown chair. The only person to actually approach the desk is the director emeritus, who is hard of hearing. Merlin will sometimes attempt to come around the desk to point out something to me on a paper she's brandishing. I strongly discourage this practice with body language, scowls, and the evil eye. If that doesn't work, I jump up to meet her in the narrow space between desk and wall, and she retreats, as well she should. In the left corner of the north wall is the closet. It is shallow, with six rows of shelves supported by a bracing central plank. In this closet are stacks of paper related to the most future-distant season of book projects. As a result of the room's tilt, the entire north wall cants downward as you look from left to right. This crookedness made it impossible to close the closet door, which I didn't like having to deal with anyway on my occasional scrounging missions among the stacks of paper inside. So I called the facilities department and had them remove the door and take it away. No explanation was required for this maneuver. Sometimes I wonder what they did with the door, as it had a triangle of wood sawn off its top to accommodate its half-collapsed frame. It would not have fit anywhere else.
The south wall has a useless window and a bookshelf. The window actually does have one use, in that it holds the window-unit air conditioner. This device is all that keeps me alive in summer, as this ancient building absorbs heat like beachside asphalt and has no central air. Otherwise the window faces the administration building. Sometimes there are classes of some kind in the room immediately opposite. Occasionally I am startled by a wave of laughter coming from that room. Other times a bird will land on the air conditioner with a loud thunk, then flap away. The bookshelf against the south wall, imposing at eight feet tall, holds stacks of paperwork related to current book projects. Even these are rarely consulted, as everything I do is just a matter of routing, scheduling, emailing, calling, cajoling, and herding people and paper around. Much like anyone else.
The east wall is my favorite. It has a metal horizontal file, used for committing freelancer resumes to the uncharted depths, never to be seen again. There is a torchiere lamp, and a trashcan, and an accursed radiator that spits and pulses with hell-borne heat. There are critical notes posted detailing holidays and paycheck dates. But mostly there is the window. Ah, the window. It's five and a half feet tall. Directly outside is a small courtyard, home to a middling tree and prowling and yowling cats. Then there's a two-story yellow building which serves as nameless adjunct office space. Adjacent is a two-story house or apartment building with a patio. Somewhere in this building lives a woman, never seen, who on warm days makes a rhythmic yipping sound which both disturbs and cheers me. It sounds like "eeeeeee-YUU! oooooo-WEEE" with the length and intonation varied a bit. At first I thought she was calling to a pet. But it's more like some kind of springtime devotional. She also plays Cher, which I like less. To the left of the yellow office is a huge parking lot. Right now it's filled with cars covered with snow from today's mini-blizzard. Insufficiently winterized people are trudging around, scraping frost of their windshields. Beyond the parking lot is a road, then the New York Botanical Garden. It's the best thing about this view, at least when not obscured by swirling snow. I can see a hump of a hill with thick woods and grass, then a seemingly impenetrable treeline beyond. Boulders and shale protrude through the turf here and there, even in the snowfall. The window rattles in the wind and, thank God, can open to its full height. Opening this window is my only means of survival when the radiator turns on. It's cracked open about three inches right now, despite the cold and weather.
The nine-foot-high ceiling is a pitiless grid of old, white acoustical tile. Probably WWII era. Probably all that protects me from its asbestos fillers is its thick coating of high-lead paint. There's a piss-colored fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling, but I never turn it on.