Tag Archives: workspaces

Buried Treasure

At the beginning of December, after spending nearly fifteen years living in a little town in Maryland — we had taken care of our main task, namely ensuring that our daughter got out into the world safely and successfully — Barb and I sold our old farmhouse in Damascus and moved about 80 miles south to Fredericksburg, Virginia. As you can imagine, packing up fifteen years worth of stuff required digging through every nook and cranny and drawer and box.  Lots of stuff got thrown out — user manuals, old atlases, plenty of random cables that didn’t connect to anything any more — as we made our best effort to simplify and downsize.

That can be tough work for me — I’m notoriously sentimental about things, and I’ve been known to hold onto receipts, guidebooks or business cards for decades. But I vowed to try my best to carefully sort through the countless boxes, bins and files in my office and throw out anything I thought might be considered clutter. And I did pretty well, too — or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise, then, when my wife — who is famously non-sentimental about things — looked at my pile of stuff to go into the trash and said, “Don’t you think you might want to keep that?”

She reached into the pile and pulled out this:

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It was the pile of assorted drafts for Jim Henson: The Biography, going all the way back to my first handwritten notes and outlines from early 2010. It wasn’t everything, but it was some of the earlier versions I’d written, printed out, proofed, then filed away as I moved on to the next draft. I was trying hard to be remarkably stoic about them, but when Barb pulled them out of my pile, I have to admit it I very eagerly put them into a banker’s box, on the side of which I scrawled JIM HENSON in fat black Sharpie.

As a bookend to the story, while unpacking in Fredericksburg, I opened a small wooden box — one I hadn’t actually looked in while packing, and had instead just thrown it into a larger box with some other stuff — and discovered another little bit of buried treasure:

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Much of this predates those early drafts shown above, as this is actually the proposal for the Jim Henson biography, which I was calling at that time, Ridiculous Optimism: The Life of Jim Henson (a title I still like a lot, but I totally understand the need to give it the shorter, clearer title under which it was eventually published). You can see at the top corner I’ve written “March 2010 — Proposal and Chapters Pitched.” The sample chapters, in case you’re interested, were eventually massaged into the much more greatly expanded first two chapters of Jim Henson.

Now flash forward three years or so, and you’ll arrive at the roughly bound book sitting on top of the proposal: the first reading copy of Jim Henson, containing the first round of edits from Ryan Doherty, my editor at Ballantine. This version still had to go through another round of editing and a legal read, and there’s not a single photograph — we were still working through photo clearances with Disney. All of this, too, went into that same banker’s box with the early drafts, with Belloq’s admonition from Raiders of the Lost Ark ringing in my ears: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”

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In Media Res (1991 Edition)

Speaking of workspaces . . .

I opened my e-mail this morning to find a photograph (seen below) from my pal Marron, with whom I shared an office in my first years on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s.  She and I (and usually two, sometimes three, others) worked in this office in the U.S. Senate Dirksen Building — a building that had all the charm of a 1960s-era high school — from 1990 until about 1995. It was here that we first learned that airplanes were on their way to the Middle East for the opening volleys of first Iraq war, where she and I answered phones over Columbus Day weekend during the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, and where we generally worked long into the night when the Senate was in session. Marron and I could also get into quite a bit of trouble together; we took great delight in pranking our fellow staffers, and each other.  (Marron once crashed our office phone system by forwarding every phone in the office to my direct line.)

Anyway, if you think from watching television or movies that the life of a Hill staffer is glamorous, and that we all work at enormous oak desks in offices lined with gigantic bookshelves crammed with leather-bound books and framed prints of the Founding Fathers on the wall, well . . . not so much.  Here’s me in my workspace in 1991 or so, as photographed by Marron from her desk across from me (you can see her own inbox in the foreground):

(Click on it if you want to embiggen it and enjoy me in all my twentysomething glory.)

Yeah, that’s me with a head full of hair.  Shut up. Given the way I’m dressed, the Senate was likely in an extended recess, when we didn’t have to wear our usual suits and could come in a bit more casually dressed.

Sitting on the desk in front of me is one of those gigantic old IBM desktop computers.  Back in the early 1990s, the only people in our office who had desktops were the low folks on the totem pole — and that’s because we were using them to draft responses to constituent mail, which we could then save onto an inner-office network, where anyone with a desktop could pull them up. And let me tell you, we worked those things hard, responding to about 10,000 pieces of mail each month.  (And as Marron reminded me in her e-mail  accompanying this photo, it wasn’t too long after this picture was taken that my computer monitor actually caught fire.)

All other office business — including a rudimentary e-mail system — was carried out on computers we called The DeeGees — old green-screened Data General computers, hooked into a central system that made it possible to share files and send messages. Mine was on the desk’s return,  just behind the clunky IBM.  (If you think your computer currently takes up too much space on your desk, try having two.)

The bookshelf to the left in the photo was my filing system — and you can see that, even then, I was still a black binder kinda guy. There was an old dot-matrix printer in the space just behind the bookshelf, where our assistant press secretary would print out wire stories once each day, making a loud zzzt zzzt zzt! for about 30 minutes.

The television you see — which we used to monitor the Senate floor — wasn’t mine or Marron’s;  it belonged to another staffer we all called Joe T, who had one of the two desks next to the window. And on the wall?  Not Founding Fathers, but Georgia O’Keeffe prints (the one behind my desk was a painting of the Taos Pueblo)  and framed photos of New Mexico scenery.  And it looks like I also had a small promo poster for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta taped to the wall just above my DeeGee.

Finally, it appears there’s a pile of papers on the desk in front of me.  Some things never change. Apart from the hair, of course.