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Two Very Different Lifestyles

The world, it seems, is divided into two camps: the messy and the neat.

I am firmly planted in the messy category. My desk is piled so high with papers, folders, files, and books that getting to the top requires a sherpa. And digging to the bottom? An archeologist or mining engineer.

messy

Why do I prefer clutter? I’m not exactly sure. It does not seem to be genetic.

Messy Is Ungodly

My mother, of German heritage and a nurse by profession, was meticulous in the extreme. When my dad once hired a cleaning lady, my mother rose several hours before her arrival … to clean our house.

One of her favorites sayings was, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” The implication was that messiness left you a considerable distance from the divine deity.

My dad was also tidy, at least in his dental office setting. He also kept his various boats over the years ship-shape. His great sin was tossing newspapers on the floor, expecting they would somehow find their way to a bin on their own. 

Finding My Comfort In Clutter

Whatever the reason, from a very young age I preferred a cluttered desk to an empty one. Ipswich public school, prep school, university — my penchant for clutter followed. This lasted most of my career — a fact I was reminded of last week when a former colleague, Peter Landry, emailed a photo to me taken in February 1980.

Bob Waite in Sen. Bob Dole’s office

I was Senator Bob Dole’s press secretary at the time. After meeting with the Carter White House, Peter dropped by the Russell Office Building to say hello. Amused by what he saw, he quickly snapped a picture of me at my desk to prove to people back at the Chronicle that nothing had changed.

In my defense (and in the defense of those of you out there who are similarly afflicted), I argue that the clutter never got in the way of productivity. I was always able to quickly burrow down in the piles to find exactly what I needed, be it a quote, a factoid, or notes from some long-ago interview.

As proof, I offered the day the Dole office put out nine press releases. Aided and abetted by my equally cluttered assistant, Bill Kats, we tied a record previously set by Tom Southwick, Ted Kennedy’s press secretary. Tom, a former Berkshire Eagle reporter, was also a member of the messy desk club.

Two Opposite Spouses

If I seem defensive about all of this, understand that my spousal unit, Karen, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. An engineer by training; a CFO by profession; a superb organizer by inclination; and Japanese by heritage, she abhors clutter. 

Fortunately, thus far she’s opted to hate the sin but not the sinner. Her most withering retort is to call me a “Swamp Yankee” — which, having grown up with a swamp in our South Green backyard, I take as a compliment.

For my messy compatriots, take solace that no less an authority than Albert Einstein once said, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what, then, is an empty desk a sign of?”

And if that does not work, there’s always Aristotle: “Nature abhors a vacuum.” And we all know you do not want to get nature abhorring you if you can help it.   

Does Clutter Equal Creativity??

There’s even scientific evidence that messy desks can be a good sign. According to Dr. Kathleen Vohs, who conducted a study published in Psychological Science, “Working at a cluttered desk positively influences people’s creative thinking ability.”

(Dr. Voh’s study also said that people with tidy desks tended to be “more conventional, more generous, and make more healthy choices.” But what does she know?)

There is one final point I want to make … but I need to find my notes, which are buried somewhere in these piles. Does anyone know how I can reach a mining engineer? One trained in explosives?

*Bob Waite admits he once kept a clean desk. He was working at a bank that was very strict about leaving confidential information laying about. He did not have an original thought for six years

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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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