A Secret Order

Behind the scenes

My name is Susan, and I have a very messy desk.

I’m hoping that out there is a chorus of people shouting “Hi, Susan,” in recognition, solidarity and non-judgment. Though I’m sure some looking at the actual, real-life photo of my desk that accompanies this blog will be recoiling in horror and disbelief.

I’m a washout in the clean desk brigade. Before anyone calls the health department based on the above picture of my desk, I’d like to say that my appalling ability to allow clutter to build up around me does not extend everywhere in my environment. My used dishes are put in the dishwasher (mostly), my floors are dusted (periodically) and my bathroom is clean and clutter free. Though full disclosure requires that I admit a significant part of that is due to my very tidy husband, who never met a piece of paper he didn’t want to throw away.

The inability to maintain workspace order is a lifelong condition which has followed me from messy lift-top desks in grade school to overflowing desks in college and continued on to extremely cluttered work stations in my various places of employment. The situation became even worse when I was given my own office with a door I could close when the desk was no longer in condition for public viewing.

When I’m working, whether on a fifth grade book report, a grad school thesis, or a mystery novel, silently, unknowingly, unintentionally I begin piling up detritus, until my desk appears as it does now, in the throes of writing the sixth book in the Leah Nash Mysteries series. At this point my work area includes, as the sharp-eyed among you can see:

  • An oversize mug for water
  • A reference book for the writing software I use, sitting on my printer
  • Colored markers (underneath which is the charger for my Fitbit)
  • A small notebook
  • A camera
  • An open file drawer
  • A cup full of pencils
  • A small cactus
  • A file stand filled with folders I want quick access to
  • A family photo
  • An empty can of sparkling water
  • A stapler
  • A stack of notebooks, reference books and reading books
  • Lots of sticky notes
  • Reading glasses
  • A discarded sweater
  • A pile of yet more papers

However, there comes a point in each messy desk growth cycle when the scales tip, and my  need to hold that thought, capture that phrase or write that chapter is outweighed by my need to find my cell phone, locate a hastily scrawled message, or retrieve a lost earring. At that juncture, I regroup and declutter by tossing, filing, discarding and/or returning to their proper places all the leavings I’ve deposited, and reclaim my workspace, restoring it to a place of order instead of chaos.

I always intend for it to stay that way, but it never does.

I have finally come to accept that something there is [in me] that doesn’t love a clean desk, and sets about festooning it with notebooks, pens, books, manila folders and piles of paper and doesn’t stop until it once again resembles a hoarder’s paradise.  But I take some solace in Carl Jung’s observation, “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”

However, to all those who shut every drawer they open, re-file every document they review, discard every used item in its proper receptacle, and sit down to a well-organized workspace every day—I salute you. But I am not one of you, nor will I ever be.

Note: This post first appeared four years ago. I’ve updated the photo, the list of items on my desk, and the reference to the book I’m working on, but sadly, nothing else has changed.

You’ve been warned …

When writing, I go to my office and close the door. When seriously writing, I put a do not disturb sign on the door handle. When I am on a get-5,000-words-done-or-else deadline, I do both, and add in a firm warning to my husband Gary to forget I exist until I exit my office.

You see, Gary, unlike me, is not a procrastinator. He is a man of action–for him, to think is to do. He is also equal parts persistent and persuasive. So, unless I’ve steeled myself against the unstoppable force that is Gary, I can find myself typing away at my computer one minute, and the next I’m in the backyard helping to move a pile of stones.

On a recent day when I was struggling with a plot point and really, really needed uninterrupted writing time, Gary had plans to do some internet research. You might think that was a happy coinciding of activities. I would be busy, and he would be busy, and neither would interrupt the other. However, Gary is to computers as I am to arts and crafts. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And when something goes wrong, he wants it fixed. Now.

Knowing this, I suggested he wait until I had finished writing for the day, and then I would be at his disposal. Soon, I was immersed in my plot, writing my lead character out of a tricky situation. After a while, I dimly heard sounds of frustration coming from downstairs, but I kept on working. Then I heard footsteps coming toward my office, and Gary speaking loudly into his phone, “I tried that. It won’t work. The warning won’t go away. The screen is stuck!” 

I opened the door. He handed me the phone, saying, “It’s Apple Support.  This guy keeps telling me to click something, but I can’t find it. There’s a warning on the screen. I didn’t do anything. He needs to talk to you.”

I took the phone, but having just been wrenched from a cemetery in Himmel, Wisconsin, I needed a minute to reorient to the real world of computer problems. But the man on the other end of the phone plunged right into instructions to click here, enter this, check that. It wasn’t until he said, “So now, I take control of your computer,” that my writing-induced brain fog lifted.

“Wait a minute, tell me again what the problem is.”

“Your system is operating illegally. You did not pay the renewal fee for firewall protection. I will need to fix your computer and …”

That sounded very like a scam. When I pressed him further, he hung up. Then I did some research and discovered it is indeed a scam, and a fairly common one. You can fall into it if you inadvertently click a phony link on a search results page. A message will pop up on your screen that says something like “Apple Support Alert,” in alarmingly large and bold letters. The message warns of dire things that will happen if you don’t call the fake support number immediately.

If you try to close the window to clear your screen, you can’t. The screen is locked. So, lots of people, Gary included, call the number, and that’s when the scammer on the end of the line says he can help, but he needs your credit card number to pay for the repairs. If he gains access to your machine, he may also drop malware into your system that can harvest other personal data. I had our favorite IT expert (who makes house calls!) check out Gary’s computer just to be safe, but it was clean, and we hadn’t given out any credit card information.

If you run into the scam (and it’s all over the internet) never call the support number, just force quit your machine, and you should be fine. This public service announcement is brought to you by  Gary and Susan, who have each learned an important lesson.  

Gary now knows how to recognize a scam and force quit his computer. Susan now knows to take Gary’s laptop and put it in her file drawer while she’s working.

If it talks like a duck …

Quite often we have a gathering of ducks on the lawn in our backyard. Once they make their ungainly trek up from the edge of the river, they settle themselves in small clusters on the grass. They seem equally content on both sunny and cloudy days to sleep, groom themselves, and get up for an occasional waddle across the lawn or a periodic reentry into the water.

It’s quite peaceful to watch them blissing out in the sun, and nice to think of them each pursuing their separate needs—sleep, food, feather fluffing—while remaining part of a companionable group.

But inevitably one of the group will begin posturing, quacking, and making menacing head-lowering moves at a fellow mallard, for no obvious reason. Sometimes, the surprised duck under attack will take a stand and quack back, darting into the aggressor’s space, but he rarely gets any help from the crowd. 

Instead, the other ducks either stay neutral or they join the bully duck in chasing the hapless victim away. The alpha duck then beats his wings in the air and struts back to his place on the grass, while the neutrals return to grooming and sleeping. Until the next bully picks on a new victim.

I’m thinking of that today because I’ve been spending a bit more time on social media than I usually do, and I’ve noticed how often a seemingly innocuous or well-intentioned post or Tweet is met by the human equivalent of a madly quacking flock of ducks. If the poster attempts to explain the comment, or parry the thrust, it only intensifies the incensed quacking. Eventually the poster retreats to the margins to lick his or her wounds. It’s disheartening to see.

I get that we’re never going to always agree about everything, or even ever agree about some things. But we’re never going to get anywhere randomly squawking at others like deranged ducks, which seems to be the state of much of our online discourse these days.

And I’m not excluding myself from the problem. While I’m not prone to joining flocks or herds or social media mobs—as a committed introvert, I rarely join anything—I can be quite insistent on promoting my own point of view, both “in real life” and on social media. Which in turn means that I can also be quite resistant to ideas that conflict with it—and sometimes loudly enough to drown out information that doesn’t support my position.

Certainly staying off social media is an option—though it comes with the cost of less, or even losing, contact with people not in my immediate circle. Sticking only to “safe topics” is another, but sometimes we have to speak out. After all, there is that whole the-only-thing-necessary-for-the-triumph-of-evil-is-that-good-men-do-nothing thing to consider.

Instead, I think I’ll try making an effort to refrain from throwing stones in my particular glass house—and to avoid the online feeds of (and the real-life contact) with—people who substitute personal invective for persuasive evidence. If I falter, and an exchange of views has devolved to the point where I’m about say, “You are a moron,” I will substitute “Quack, quack,” spoken at a very low volume, as a reminder to myself to step away from the crazy. Wish me luck.

All in Good Time, My Pretty

I’ve been watching the cardinals outside my window–don’t tell anyone, they think I’ve been working on book 6 in the Leah Nash series. 😉 It’s made me wonder if I’ll see a repeat of what happened a few summers ago …  
IMG_2551_optWhen I was a kid, I’d sometimes go with my father to visit his favorite aunt, Florence. Though lively of mind and loving of heart, her body had begun to fail her and she spent her days in a wheelchair. She was often seated in front of a large window from which she could see the birds that came to feeders in her yard. She’d tell me little stories about their antics and how much pleasure it gave her to watch them. I’d smile politely and murmur something about how that must be fun, but inside I was thinking If watching birds ever becomes my idea of fun, shoot me.

But now, many years later, though I’ve not yet achieved her advanced age—nor her kind heart—I have discovered my inner Aunt Florence. A wide variety of birds visit the feeders in our yard every day, and as I’m prone to staring out my office window when I should be writing, I see many of them. One in particular caught my eye this summer and I’ve been on a journey of sorts with him.

I first noticed an odd-looking bird in the yard about a month ago. With its small, dark head and reddish feathers, it looked a little like a tiny red-bodied vulture. I’d never seen anything like it before, so I Googled to try and identify it. To my surprise, my exotic bird turned out to be a cardinal

I know what the judgmental among you are thinking: Really, Susan? You didn’t know what a cardinal was? Because that’s exactly what I’d be thinking, were I reading someone else’s story of a mystery bird that was actually one that most grade schoolers could readily identify.

In my defense, I present exhibit A. IMG_3031_opt

Now, seriously, would you recognize him? I did some further research to learn what caused his “hair” loss, and what his future might hold. His bald head, I discovered, could be due to head mites, which cause incessant scratching and subsequent loss of feathers. Or he could be one of the relatively rare birds who experience complete loss of head feathers during molting season. If the cause was head mites, the prognosis wasn’t great for full recovery of his crowning glory. If his baldness was just his normal molting pattern, he should recover quite well.

I found myself looking out the window more often than usual to catch a glimpse of the bird, to see how he was faring. He  seemed to come only in the early morning and evening when there were few others of his kin around—almost as though he were embarrassed by his looks. As one who has suffered more than her fair share of bad hair days, I empathized. As the days and weeks went on, his appearance didn’t change. I showed his photo to family or friends and if they laughed at his odd appearance, I felt quite protective of my feather-challenged friend.

When a pert female cardinal with a very perky crest of her own gave him short shrift one day at the feeder, I was downright indignant. Didn’t he deserve love, a family, respect from his fellow birds, no matter what he looked like? I did additional online research to see if there was something I could do, some kind of special feed, maybe, that might speed his feather regrowth.

It appeared there was nothing to be done but wait and see, which as a recovering rescuer, I find exceedingly hard to do. I want to fix every problem I find, whether mine or anyone else’s–regardless of whether they want them fixed or not. Then, about a week ago, I caught a glimpse of him that showed me he was clearly on the road to regrowth. IMG_3198_opt

Finally, today, he posed quite jauntily at the feeder and it appears he’s well on his way to a full crest again. Reminding me that sometimes all you can do is wait, and sometimes, that’s all you need to do. A valuable lesson for cardinals, and for people, too.IMG_3204_opt

The Only Constant

field of daisy flowers

Not long ago I saw one of those posts that periodically make their way around social media, asking you to cite your favorite song, or TV show, or book. This one asked for a favorite quote.

Now, one of the things I like best about reading is the way you can suddenly come upon a sentence that makes you pause and say, “This. I feel exactly like this.” The books I own are rife with highlights, underlines, notes in the margins, and circled page numbers indicating I found a treasure there. So, I was ready to jump in. But I don’t actually have one favorite quotation. Instead I keep a collection of them on my laptop in a folder marked “I love this.”

When I looked through the file, I came across a quotation I hadn’t thought about in a long time. It’s from The French Lieutenant’s Woman. A character in the story is strolling through a meadow not far from the sea. His senses are awakened by the sight and scent of a colorful profusion of flowers, the melodious songs of birds, the blue sky above, and by the sunlight playing on the water in the distance. He feels a thrill at the lovely moment, but at the same time he also feels a wave of melancholy. The author describes the sensation this way:

“His statement to himself should have been ‘I possess this now, therefore I am happy,’ instead of what it so Victorianly was: ‘I cannot possess this forever, therefore I am sad.’ ” 

And that is me in a nutshell. I have lots of reasons to be happy, and I am, but that happiness is almost always tempered by the knowledge of and the resistance to the inevitable passing of the moment.

One of my sisters and I had a conversation about whether or not we would take a test that could definitively determine whether or not a person will develop Alzheimer’s disease, knowing that there is no cure at present.

My sister said yes without hesitation—that if she knew Alzheimer’s was inevitable, she’d spend all her money traveling and enjoying life before it was too late. I’d like to think that would be my response as well. But I’m pretty sure that instead of packing my bags, grabbing my passport, and heading for adventures unknown, I would be busy crushing the life out of any joyful experiences under the weight of my knowledge of what was to come. Sadly, I’m pretty much back in the meadow with the Victorian guy in the quote.

Still, I continue to strive to accept that the only constant in life is change. And that it’s not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a necessary thing. That’s why I chose this Chinese proverb as my favorite quote of the moment.

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls, others build windmills.” traditional Netherlands Holland dutch scenery with one typical windmill and tulips, Netherlands countryside

Bob’s your uncle

Silent Fighting

Silent Fighting

Probably all families have a store of catch phrases–familiar “in house” sayings that serve as shorthand for getting a point across, or calling up a common memory.  Some are universal, like “Don’t make me come up there,” or, “Do you want me to stop the car?

But others are particular to an individual family’s experience. My mother would often put an end to a litany of our desires for things that weren’t going to happen– I wish I was an only child; I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes; I wish I had my own room–with the proverb “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” And my siblings and I still say it, with a smile and a silent nod to Mom.

Recently my daughter mentioned that she’d wrapped up an explanation on how to complete a task with the words, “And Bob’s your uncle.” She was met with a puzzled stare. The phrase is old-fashioned British slang, meaning “you’re all set.” It caught my fancy years ago. The first time I said it to my young children, the words sent them into fits of giggles because of our dog, Bob. The thought of dog as uncle was quite hilarious to them (did I say they were quite young?). They  picked up the term and used it, until it became part of our store of particular, and perhaps peculiar, family expressions.

Other adages we use that others probably do not developed out of specific family situations. On an afternoon that had been filled with petty arguments and tears, I sternly told my children that I didn’t want to hear another fight that day. About half an hour later, my youngest daughter, Brenna, wailed in frustration, “Sara is silent fighting with me!”

She then proceeded to demonstrate the loophole her older sister had found in my edict. By mouthing words without sound, accompanied by fierce expressions and menacing hand gestures, Sara proved it was possible to tease and annoy without breaking silence. The phrase “silent fighting” thus came into general family use.

Another go-to family aphorism is the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” It comes from the Herman Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” wherein the title character refuses all requests with that simple, but implacable, response. I had always liked the subtle insubordination of it, and used the decree both in jest and for real, depending on the circumstance. I didn’t realize Brenna had adopted it until at age 5, she answered a request from her teacher with the words, “I would prefer not to.” Which I correctly read as a harbinger of the quiet but steely force of will lurking beneath her blue-eyed, curly-haired angelic demeanor.

In the eighth grade, her older sister Sara made another contribution to the family lexicon, when she chose an ambitious topic for her first research paper, the Watergate scandal, which was akin to ancient history to her. The concluding line of her paper revealed both her boredom with the topic and her hope that an abrupt ending would be attributed to forces beyond her control. “Nobody knows what happened to the Watergate Seven.”

To which I had to answer, “Yes, Sara, yes they do. Quite a few people know exactly what happened to them, and I think you need to find out, too.” She completed her assignment, received a respectable grade, and added another axiom to our family. It’s still our go-to phrase for any half-formed effort or ill-conceived project that dies aborning, as in “Nobody knows what happened to … Susan’s 6 weeks to fitness challenge.”

The language of families is a strange and wonderful thing. Rejoice in yours.


Bob, gone but not forgotten.

This post first appeared two years ago and is back because it popped up in my Facebook memories feed at just the moment when I’m battling an epic cold that turned into a respiratory infection. The drugs to combat it have left me a little fuzzy-headed and low on creative writing juice. 🤧A new one next time.



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