Friday, June 26, 2020

Office leftovers from a life in science

My office at Geophysical Lab, 2012

There is a general rule of thumb when doing deep cleaning and winnowing out old junk. Save 25% and pass on the rest to others, recycle, or landfill. Popular home guru Marie Kondo has made a career of advising others on how to weed out stuff. She says, “If it doesn’t give you pleasure, give it away!” (except in Japanese). When my mother downsized from a large 4-bedroom house to a small apartment, I helped her make those decisions, oft times deciding for her using the 25% rule.


Scientists rarely winnow the junk out of their offices until absolutely necessary. Colleagues my age and older have offices weighed down by ridiculous piles of papers and notebooks. We’ve held on to paper copies of journals, often having shelves of them going back twenty or thirty years. One colleague of mine had shelves of old computer code. Many of us have large format topographic maps, too precious to just throw in a bin. I was tasked several times to clear out the offices of Geophysical Lab colleagues who had died or were unable to come in to the Lab anymore. I vowed when it was my time, no one would have to do that work for me.


When I left the Geophysical Laboratory at the end of 2012, I pared down substantially. I had four tall filing cabinets filled with Xeroxed copies of articles, data sheets, and correspondence. I got rid of half of the paper, dumping it gleefully into the blue recycling bin. I had two full floor to ceiling cases with samples in my office, some of them from the early 1980s--little vials with peeling tape flags on them. About half of them were pitched out, the remainder boxed up. There were four bookcases of books, reprints of my papers, and memorabilia. I had some of my original early 1970s college textbooks along with more recent collections of isotope papers. About a third of the books went into the Lab’s “Free Box”, a large plywood box where we put old books and household goods to give away.


That was an exciting move! Off to California on a new adventure to start a new life. The office cleaning was a lot of work, but I did it with vigor.


   1st office at UC Merced

My first office at UC Merced was in a remote building 11 miles from the main campus. I was given a nice corner office with wrap around glass windows, but I had to beg and steal to get file drawers and bookcases. I had grown accustomed to a “supply closet” at the Lab, where anyone could pick up a notebook, pens, and stationary when it was needed. Not so at the University. I had a stapler but no extra staples. I had one pack of post-it notes, a couple of pens, but no scotch tape. When I asked where the printer was, the staff replied, ”Don’t you have your own printer?” An old one was pulled out storage and setup on my desk.


When I talked to my former GL colleague Anat Shahar, I told her about the lack of supplies. She rustled up a box from the Lab and sent them out as a Care Package—pens, pencils, note pads, staples, erasers, and Sharpies. I showed the box to the administrative staff and they were impressed. For the next few new faculty hires, they pulled together similar care packages, a very nice gesture. When I moved to main campus a few years later, I needed to pack up my office again. This time, I just shoved the stuff in boxes and unpacked them on campus easily.


One of many mangrove photos

Not long after, I moved to UC Riverside. I winnowed down my books once again by about a third. I put the discards out on a shelf in the hallway near where students sat and studied. I critically looked at my photographs and threw out all duplicates and about a third of the photos I had of mangrove trees. [I had seemingly hundreds of photos of mangrove trees.] I pared down my paper files from two file cabinets down to just one. I guarded all of my supplies carefully and packed up every single one.


Cleaned out UCR Office

I’m retiring this coming Monday, ready to take time for doing other things while still keeping engaged in things that are important to me. This week, I “packed up” my office remotely with assistant Jeanette Westbrook doing all the packing. What to keep and what to throw? I had been working with Jeanette to scan important letters and papers starting in 2018. We had made substantial progress working through 75% of my “papers.” Last week, the last remaining files were scanned and hard copies recycled. Once again, I winnowed old PhD dissertations, notebooks of data, and broken eyeglasses.


It was a strange feeling doing this remotely.


And maybe for the best.


I think if I had been there, I would have sat, meditated, most likely shed several tears for a life well lived and much fun had. “Walking” out of places for the last time, because they are no longer accessible, is something I’ve had to do too many times in the past couple of years. Every time is rough. And tough.


Those office pens and pencils, stapler, and supplies are traveling to my small home office, making their way another several hundred miles to rural Mariposa. I will have more time now to look at my voluminous old, unpublished data, thinking up new ways to try to get that information out in public. And figure out how to integrate the possessions that have given me joy.

Home office in Mariposa


Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...