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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely put: You don’t pick it up simply through intimate contact with someone who has it. The turn of phrase is one I will remember for a long time.

But some remarks by ordinary folk are more than just apposite and memorable; they encapsulate valuable insights about life. One such was vouchsafed to me a month ago as I walked on the Braid Hills near Edinburgh with a friend, the computational linguist Barbara Grosz.

She knew I was going to need the insight. I was about to head for California to clear out 30 years of miscellanea stored in the garage of my former home in Santa Cruz. Two weeks of dirty, tiring, and emotionally draining work (I just got back from it). Furniture, appliances, utensils, gadgets, tools, garments, fabrics, boxes, cabinets, books, papers, files, correspondence, mementos, souvenirs, photographs, paintings, ornaments. … It all had to go. The items deserving shipment to Edinburgh had long ago been shipped. Very few would find room in my suitcase when I left. Almost every item had to be sold, donated, burned, or taken to the dump. Yet the temptation to linger over each rediscovered object was strong.

Barbara Grosz had faced an analogously stressful situation many years earlier. In 1986 she resigned her research position at SRI International in Menlo Park, and accepted a professorship in computer science at Harvard. Everything essential in her office had to be shipped to Massachusetts.

Of course, the thoroughly modern academic of today can stash essentially all of her library and research life on an iPad. But back then researchers’ offices were complexly organized ecosystems of precious concrete objects. Libraries of books shelved according to intricate and idiosyncratic systems; temporally stratified piles of hard-copy correspondence; usually a three-year-old stack of documents waiting to be filed; often a few boxes of miscellaneous documents with no clear filing rationale.

And also a litter of desktop toys, ornaments, knick-knacks, and trinkets: an art-deco pen holder; the small carving of a Norseman that a departing Icelandic postdoc left as a thank-you; a tiny green vase presented as a gift by a Korean visitor; an engraved glass paperweight physically instantiating some minor award or recognition of service.

Sorting Grosz’s office into the relinquishable and the essential, and packing up the latter sensibly, was ideally a task for the office occupant herself, over a full month or so. Maybe two months. But in the end, of course, time ran out. Dr. Grosz of Menlo Park had to become Professor Grosz of Cambridge swiftly and smoothly without any intervening months of sifting and decision making. Professional removal men were called.

The two men who arrived were big guys. The office felt crowded once they were both inside it. And they didn’t want her inside it while they worked. So she gathered up one or two technical reports she needed to read, and told them that if they had any questions about how to tackle the task they should come down to find her in the unassigned office on the right at the end of the hall. They nodded agreement, and off she went, slightly nervous.

After a while one of them did indeed come down the hall to find her. She looked up as his huge frame filled the doorway.

“Yes? You have a question?”

“We’re done,” he said.

It didn’t seem remotely possible. How, she wanted to know, could they possibly have packed up the whole of her office–all those shelfloads of books and filing cabinets of papers and piles of documents and miscellaneous office bits and pieces—in what seemed to her to be such an incredibly short space of time?

The huge man looked down at her almost pityingly; the experienced professional confronting the amateur. She might have an abstract understanding of algorithms for solving the computational bin-packing problem, but she did not have true packing insight.

His response to her helped with clearing and packing situations throughout all the decades at Harvard that followed. It came back to me many times as I was clearing that garage last week. I’ll always be grateful for it.

What the man said was: “Lady, we don’t reminisce.”

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