Sunday, February 26, 2006

Discipline and Organize: A Hazy Outline for Becoming

Any proud slayer of gloating demons will be happy to know that today it is actually raining in sunny California. It’s coming in small drops, taping like transistor static on my skylight and the flat roof of our warehouse abode in West Oakland. Outside, water swells into the bike-menacing old train tracks that snake through the industrial corridor I now call home. Tufts of weeds poking though the buckled cement shuckle and stagger in the intermittent showers. The Semi-truck cabs that line our street stand mute in the grey weekend repose, beads of water dripping from their curly red coils onto oil-spotted patches of road. The yowling stray cats have too been quieted.

The house is cool and quiet and dark. It’s taken to pouring once an hour so I’ve pretty much resigned myself to never leaving the house, obtaining the cup of coffee I’ve been dreaming about seemingly since last night. I move through the spacious room I am subletting from my friend Nat, thankful for its special variation. I spend an hour on the little couch reading, and then migrate up the shallow staircase to “the office” where I contemplate the onerous chore of organizing my defunct email address book, or attempting to cull together the little mini videos I took in Mississippi and sending them to Hank for his screening.

Perhaps not since the 8th grade have I felt so inspired to organize my life. Like 8th grade, this desperate quest for self-improvement hinges obsessively on the acquisition of a common material object: a planner.

Most of you know this, but in case it’s not readily apparent, I failed out of school my entire life until I got to college. My memories of school are dominated by mornings spent in the principle’s office or a locked supply closet (yes, that is true, it was a private parochial school- they could do that there) and slews of failed organizational and behavior modification regimens (the gold stars, the daily reports, the threats, the entreatments). I was forever losing or forgetting my homework or plain refusing to do it. I engaged my haggard teachers in power struggles, which ultimately, we both lost. I suffered from a terrible lack of confidence but this might not have been outwardly apparent; rather, I came off as rather unlikable kid. Defiant, petulant, stubborn, lazy.

My parents begged me repeatedly to “get with the program” to learn how to “play the game” so I could be happier and live up to my vague, lofty potential. Despite harboring such deep, misplaced anger for my authorities, and myself part of me really longed to succeed. I didn’t really like failing. When I think back on the late-August ritual of school-supply shopping, it’s a freighted sort of ceremony in my memory. I selected my pencils, trapper keepers and packs of pristine ruled paper with hopeful solemnity. Every fall was a clean slate. A chance not to be a fuck up.

The planner is a kind of scholastic coming of age object. It enters the panoply of academic accoutrements roughly around middle school. The planner signifies that one is adult enough not just to organize and manage her responsibilities, but to recognize this process as some meta-scholarly project in and of itself, possessing its own merits as milestone of intellectual development. It was not that the planner would simply allow me to remember I had a vocabulary quiz on Tuesday; it was that the manager of an effective planner had a handle on the broader scope of her life. She was prepared. She impressed kids and adults alike. She had the tools and the ironclad will to see her ideas through from whims to realities. She didn’t just get by, she got things done.

The planner became a magical talisman or sorts. I always picked out nice ones, which my mother, ever hopeful, always agreed to buy. I would inhale the crisp, acrid scent of the rubber-binding, stroke the Velcro closures and as I penciled my name and contact information into the appropriate slots on the first page, I would think to myself “ This is the year I get organized. This is the year I do well.”

Of course it never worked.

In college I evened out somewhat. I found my voice and got better at playing the game. Suddenly, teachers didn’t hate me anymore. They were no longer my adversaries but fountains of knowledge I could badger giddily with questions in the hall, office-hour drop by’s. I became a good student but only by virtue of my enthusiasm, never by my habits. I still lost and misplaced things. Forgot things. Missed things. I never flaked out on the important stuff, yet I was never as prepared as I should have been.

School is done now (for the time being), so my anguished disorganization seeps out, oozing unfettered into all other aspects of my life. I think I already lost one of my w-9 forms so how am I going to do my taxes? I sent my transcript request to my college fully a week late (because I couldn’t find an envelope for three days and contemplated making one out of paper but then couldn’t find tape) and had to then concoct an apologetic lie for the scholarship committee; this blog still looks like garbage because I keep saying I’m going to hunker down and really learn some web design but never do it; Shayne and I are supposed to be starting a Clean cover band called “Tidy” but have yet to actually sit down and work on the songs. Our Hot Toddy cocktail recipe book is already meeting a similar purgatorial fate.

When it comes down to it I think there are two fundamental types of people in this world. People who can get things done and people who can’t get things done. It’s difficult to convey how desperately I long to change camps. I’m hoping that circumstances are conspiring to help me.

In a surreal turn of events Kate Braverman , an author
I’ve long admired has hired me as her personal assistant. She’s a brilliant artist and a volatile personality. Already she’s been hurling me scores of assignments a swirling maelstrom of PR phone calls, Internet research, and emotional support. I’m ecstatic. I am also scared. Here, a famous person, an intense personality, is placing faith in me as person capable of organizing and managing her affairs. At first I was terrified by her brusqueness, her barrage of demands, but then it mellowed into a strange kind of inspiring comfort. I need to become the kind of person who will not put things off or let them fall through the cracks. I need to become that person in order to help someone else. And in the process, hopefully, I will grow more adept at my managing my own life.

I walked around the mission all day Friday with my friend Karl drinking coffee and catching up on life, dragging him into every book and stationary store on Valencia Street. In my mind I had the image of the perfect organizer I need to pull this off. It would be kind of like a moleskin notebook, a substantial but portable size with a hard damage-resistant cover. In the back it would have an address section where I could keep and easily access the numbers Kate has me digging up and calling (The web master at the Bay Guardian to demand a link be created from her interview with William T. Vollman to her website, the events coordinator at a prominent Berkeley book store to set up a reading in May etc.) As an ideal sort of bonus it might have a little pocket where I could store clippings and scraps of dubious note. Finally, it would be beautiful and expensive (like $12) because whenever I saw it I wanted to feel good about it.

I grew increasingly frustrated leafing through a million notebooks that were not the one I wanted. I dismissed them for offenses like narrow pages, cheesy San Francisco themed cover art, lack of pleasing, swaddling, elastic binding loop. Eventually, I gave up on my dream of the Address book/notebook combo and settled on a delightful, marble-covered number that meets all the other qualifications. I have decided to designate 26 pages at the rear and make the appropriate markings in Sharpie Marker. My dream is to be able to close each day with a little ‘to-do’/’done’ list on a page of the notebook. I will keep running tabs on the tasks I’ve accomplished and those I’m still working on.

I have bought the notebook, but of course, have yet to do any of the other stuff. I went so far as to peel off the giant sticker on the back but in all honesty, Shayne actually did that because he likes peeling stickers off of things.

I need to break a quarter of a century of poor organizational habits. I am trying to become a different kind of person. The kind of person who actually gets things done. I welcome your encouragements and your suggestions.


Blogger Saerah said...

Wow. The whole "this year I'm going to get it together" thing really struck a chord with me. I've always been somewhat of a slob (though a slob that prefers things to be tidy), but I do find that compartmentalizing large tasks into groups of smaller ones can help get me over daunting tasks (like getting the apartment clean when I've only been doing surface straightening stuff because I've been depressed). I keep a planner of sorts, but it's just a notebook with the date written at the top of the page, and maybe the next few days written in when I'm really optimistic. Of course, I don't have anything important to plan, just grocery lists and housework, so you probably need a more advanced system than that, heh. I think as long as you are dedicated to whatever list/planner system you have going, and and do not let yourself get so far behind that it seems too daunting to get anything at all done, that you will be fine. And learn how to make one really great dessert for when you get stressed out :) (Buttermilk cake with Mocha frosting is mine. Beating butter into submission can be surprisingly relaxing)

5:16 PM  
Blogger mar-mar said...

Congratulations on the j-o-b! your girl has been getting a lot of press recently, as i'm sure you know, partly for having been a screw-up herself in her formative years. so fear not. have compassion for yourself. try hard. enjoy.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't get it together to buy a ticket. I'm glad that I'm not missing nice weather, but sorry not to have visited you. So I'm stuck here. Supposed to be grading papers anyway.

As someone who has just finished a full eight-hour day of procrastination, I can almost promise you that the not-having-it -together is something which will not manifest itself at all in your work. These organizational failings are usually based on some kind of neurosis with regard to onesself and do not necessarily imply professional incompetence. It may turn out that you are an amazing organizer and there's just some block preventing you from doing it in your own life. This has been my experience with cleaning, organizing, planning things, etc; what I can do at work I still fail to do for myself. And fail to do it for school!

1:45 PM  

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