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Published April 28 2012

Swift: Journalist’s desk just another fine mess

When my former fourth-grade teacher friended me on Facebook a few months ago, one of the first things she asked was what my desk looked like.

I assured her that it was spectacularly messy, just as it was in 1974 when I was 9 and working out of the baby executive model in her classroom at Sacred Heart Catholic School.

She replied with something like: “You had the most disorganized organized desk I can remember.”

It’s true. Everyone else had neatly organized desks with all their spiral-bound notebooks and books stacked in tidy pyramids and their pencils obediently corralled in pencil boxes.

But amid all that neat suburban conformity, my desk stood like a wild-game preserve.

I made periodic, teacher-enforced attempts to be clean and tidy, but before long, my workspace would incubate crumpled worksheets, orphan cough drops and old art projects. Oddly, this Lilliputian landfill perfectly reflected the percolation of my brain. As such, I usually could find what I needed.

Even so, my stubborn squalor must have been quite a trial for my teachers. Two years later, my sixth-grade teacher shamed me in front of the whole class for my messy desk. She assured me that I was lazy and would never get anywhere if I didn’t straighten up and fly right. (Never mind that I was reading “David Copperfield” on my own volition; that was time better spent than alphabetizing my Trapper Keeper.)

I grew older and (slightly) more organized, but my workspace stayed messy. Fortunately, I usually worked in newsrooms, which are not known for their clean, chic lines and minimalist décor.

I was somewhat comforted when I interviewed a professional organizer in my late 20s. She assured me that there were “visual thinkers,” who needed a constant visual reminder of what they should work on next. As such, they would forget anything that was tucked away in a file cabinet or drawer.

This was all the Tammunition I needed. From that point, I proudly and brazenly kept piles on my desk. If anyone took a jab at my disorganized workspace, I would snap, “It’s how my brain works!” (I now realize I sounded much like the clients on “Hoarders” do when they justify why they need to keep all those used Q-Tips.)

In fact, when our editor treated the newsroom to a viewing of the fascinating documentary, “Page One – Inside the New York Times,” a few months ago, I learned how cyberspace has forever changed print media. But my biggest takeaway was that even the nation’s most elite news-gatherers had really messy desks.

But lately, the disorder of my desk has even bothered me. So it was a relief when one of our uber-organized newsroom assistants planned an official “newsroom clean-up day” last week. The best part: She was offering a candy- apple-red Swingline stapler to the person who found the most unusual item in their desk area.

I had to win.

And so it was with great pride that I entered some of my favorite finds, including doctor-prescribed liquid medication for ulcers (expired in 2009), a letter from a Minnesota correctional facility, the dome to a countertop chicken cooker, a Leif Garrett album cover and a Stryper poster.

Even so, the competition was stiff. Nobody gets sent weirder things than journalists do. Among the other items entered were canned rhubarb jam from 2008, a colon health check kit, a used Taser, a rapping cowboy DVD, a wrestling novel titled “Body Slammer” and a petrified orange.

In the end, I took home the red stapler. The found item that sealed the deal: a giant livestock aspirin.

You see?

This is no “overnight some mess” story.

I’ve been preparing for this honor for most of my life.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or tswift@forumcomm.com