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Excavating the office

Themes/topics: Autobiographical, quick, OCD

I’m a pack rat. That should not surprise anyone who has seen my office or lab [1]. I like to accumulate things. And I like to keep them. I also get sad when I get rid of them [2]. But sometimes things get overwhelming. In an ideal world, I organize them and put them in the right place. But the world is not ideal. So more frequently, I pull out a box and dump things into it. The stack of mail that has gathered in my mailbox. The various junk that has accumulated on my desk or on a chair or has fallen on the floor. Things like that.

But I’m trying to get better. One thing I’ve done is to hire an assistant to meet with me one day per week do straighten the main work area and, if we have, to start going through the boxes of various things. I believe we’ve done four or five boxes this year.

Yesterday, we reached what seemed to be the last box in the front half of the office [3]. It was labeled Sort Me. I don’t recall being in a Carrollian state of mind when writing that, so it was likely a serious suggestion. The top few layers seemed to be papers from the past two years or so. Below that was a large stack of folders, most of which seemed to have been around for much longer. Then we reached some more papers. Those were dated 2003 and 2004. We had clearly reached a chance for finding archival treasures.

Unsurprisingly, the papers were mostly things that I did not need any more and we either recycled them or shredded them [4]. But we found an interesting piece of paper or two. My favorite is the car pool schedule for when Middle was in the College preschool. Because I am a cruel father and because one of the other kids in the car pool is at the College now, I posted it on my door. I also found old envelopes from when we were just a Department of Mathematics; they had the mating slugs on them.

Below the papers [5] was a bunch of random small things, which I either dumped off of my desktop or, more likely, threw into the box from a drawer. 2004 is early enough that it may have been when I moved from my 2nd-floor office to Noyce 3rd or perhaps when I switched desks at some point. A lot of it was easy to throw out: a bottle of acetaminophen, some old candy, some broken crayons. I was tempted to test the hundred or so pens that were in the box, but something sensible in my brain said, 14-year old pens generally don’t work any more; it’s not worth your time. So those went out [6], as did the loose staples and such. I kept a bunch of keychains, some metal letters I was going to use to label shelves. And there were a few treasures. Let’s see ….

  • We found a copy of my original business card from the College. It lists me as an Assistant Professor and as Director, Grinnell Laboratory for Interactive Multimedia Experimentation and Research My lab still has that name, but I don’t think I’ve put the directorship on my business card since then.
  • We found a stack of Gadabouts cards from Second Semester 1944. I have no idea what the Gadabouts were [7]. I have no idea what purpose the cards served. They have eight boxes on the side labeled Feb. 5, Feb. 12, Feb. 26, Mar. 25, Apr. 1, Apr. 29, May 13, and May 20, so it appears that the Gadabouts ran some series of events. I have no memory as to how I acquired a stack of them. But the cards are now stashed away on my Grinnell bookshelves [8]. If you know what they represent or if you want one, let me know.
  • We found Rachel Heck ’01’s name badge for when she worked in Glimmer labs. One of her best friends will be on campus in two days. I wonder if he’ll take it to her.
  • We found a small piece of what I think is scrimshaw. At least it’s a small oval of ivory-colored substance that has a ship carved into it. I’m sure that it was attached to something else at one time, but the glue has separated in the past decade or so.
  • We found a small tin for Altoids Strips that I put in my pocket as a talisman of sorts.

All in all, it was a successful mission, not least because we recycled or threw out most of what we encountered.

Over the long term, I hope that our missions uncover my UofC watermarked paper [9], my last paper for Gerald Mast, and some of the printouts I made as an undergraduate. But those excavations probably be far in the future. For now, we probably focus primarily on things that I set aside in the past few years [10].

[1] Youngest son and I were visiting a colleague at another institution last week. They apologized for the messiness of their office. My son told me afterwards that it was hard not to laugh, since that office was cleaner than mine has ever been.

[2] I still regret giving away my Star Wars laserdiscs.

[3] There are also four or five boxes stacked next to the desk and some behind the desk. After that, we can deal with the twenty-plus boxes in my lab.

[4] I make it my practice to shred most student work.

[5] Yes, there were layers of sediment. This activity clearly represents true excavatory work.

[6] The voice took awhile. I tried a few. I even tried the technique of sucking on the tip to get the ink flowing. The next student to walk into my office told me that I now had blue teeth.

[7] Google tells me that the Gadabouts were a campus social committee at Grinnell College. For example, has some newspaper text that says Susan Spence, daughter of Mr, and Mrs, John D. Spence of 4N151 Briar Lane, Bensenville, has been named chairman of Gadabouts, a campus social committee at Grinnell college. She will have the responsibility of planning and supervising the all-campus formal dances for next year.

[8] Yes, I have a full set of bookshelves for books and other works by Grinnellians. It includes works by faculty, by alumni, and by presidents. Like most things in my office, it is over full.

[9] I worry that my summer research students, in helping clean out the lab in past years, decided to recycle that. Young people these days don’t understand cotton bond like they used to. I know this, in part, because they started to use another stack of 100% cotton bond for scrap paper.

[10] Or at least things that I think I set aside in the past few years.

Version 1.0 released 2018-04-04.

Version 1.0.1 of 2018-05-09.