Cognitive Note:
Focus and Distraction
29 April 2015

Now, a good storyteller would know how to fashion entertainment out of the tedium that carpeted yesterday afternoon, but, thinking back on it, all I see is tedium, and I want to change the subject. Waiting for furniture deliveries in a building with tight restrictions on access to the service entrance by non-residents (certificates of insurance are required) is a miserable business, and when, at twenty to five, the truck has not yet shown up, and a call to the agent (who only yesterday promised delivery between one and five) is routed straight to an office in Chicago, because “the system is down,” and nice women at other telephone numbers, out on Long Island, are sympathetic but unable to help — ! At least one of them mercifully granted my request that she not put me on hold any more, and spared me further exposure to the looped assertion, made by a vixenish voice of unplaceable British-Australian provenance against a retro jazz background, that “We deliver what others promise.” I wonder what the great existentialists/absurdists would have made of being not just kept on hold but forced to listen to endless assurances that “your call means a lot to us.”

Just when I had reconciled myself to the non-appearance of a wide but shallow writing table that would be perfect in the dining ell, serving as both sideboard and as house desk; just when I had dragged in one of the picnic benches that we held on to in the move, and set it up where the writing table would go, simply to have a surface on which to place house-desky things — an oval desk box (stuffed with, inter alia, recipe clippings and two books, one by Elizabeth David and one featuring 101 things to do with bacon), a small printer, a ream of paper, a few clipboards, and the bargello-covered bean bags that I use to prop up reading material when I’m eating by myself; just when I’d started the Tuesday laundry — just then, the truck driver called me. It was now about 6:40 PM, and he said that he was “on 38th Street.” He would be at my place in forty-five minutes. I told him that I’d have to see if it would be possible to take delivery at this hour, and that I’d call him back.

The service entrance was closed for the night, as I expected, so I went up to the lobby and approached a favorite doorman. When he was assured that I’d be carrying the “small piece of furniture” in through the main entrance all by myself, with no help from alien truck drivers, he winked. I began wondering in earnest how I’d ever manage to lug in a desk said to weigh eighty pounds. We had been told that some assembly would be required. Would the desk really be in a box, waiting for someone to screw in its legs? I was hoping so.

The driver must have meant 38th Street in Brooklyn, it took so long for him to show up. (Kidding!) I declined his offer to roll the box up to the door on a dolly and rather severely undertipped him. It was impossible not to think of Jesus during the ensuing minutes. Seeing my exertion, the doorman brought out a luggage cart. The luggage cart was obviously not roomy enough to accommodate the box, but the doorman body-Englished it aboard, and whisked it off to the service elevator (not to be confused with the service entrance). From the fourth-floor landing, even without the luggage cart, it was mere shlep to our front door.

A more comic writer would make the most of the agony of using an Allen wrench, not a screwdriver, to tighten the screws that attached the legs to the desk-top. What with cunning structural brackets running on the diagonal, the Allen wrench could be turned through no more than a sixth of a circle at a time. Slow going! On my poor old knees! With sweat dripping onto my glasses and my glasses falling off my nose. Such fun. But presently, done.


What is a house desk, you ask. I don’t yet know the details, but the purpose of a house desk is to provide a room of one’s own for household affairs. The desk is in the dining ell, but it itself is the room.

The desk itself has three smallish drawers. Not very practical for holding household materials, you say, but I don’t believe in lots of drawers. Drawers tend fatally toward the tomb-like. As with all convenient containers, it is much easier to drop things in than to sort them out. I have pandan boxes for some things, and shopping bags for others, but my idea is to get everything onto Evernote. As I empty that oval desk box, I shall know better just what I am doing — and exactly how virtual the house desk/housekeeping room can be. The piece of furniture itself will always look like and function as a sideboard when we have dinner guests. Laptops will be folded up and put away; the printer will be made to disappear somehow.

But when I am working on household matters, I will not be sitting in the book room. I will be sitting in a much brighter space, adjacent to the kitchen.

How to continue without using a word that I have come to loathe: creative. “Imaginative” will do. Writing, as in reading and writing, requires one kind of imagination, or rather it calls for putting one’s imagination to a rather narrow and focused use. Your typing fingers are driven by an imagined vision of what the world really is, or what it might become. Neither is apparent to the senses. The world that you actually inhabit must be left behind, or at least ignored. When you are writing, the real world is nothing but a cornucopia of potential distractions. Many people find libraries to be ideal places for shutting out distractions. But nothing is more distracting to me than the presence of other people, and that rules out Starbucks as well. I must stay at home. Anyway, all of this stuff about focus and writing is well known. That’s why there are artist’s colonies.

Keeping house calls for an exactly complementary use of the imagination, for housekeeping is nothing but a matter of distractions. In a well-run household, no single matter is either important or urgent, but just same-old. This does not mean, however, that housekeeping doesn’t require thought. It does: just not the kind of thought that occupies philosophers. It requires attentiveness to all the contingencies of here-and-now. The pressure must be kept low. When I write, tension can build to explosive levels, as, every now and then, I totter on the edge of an insight that I’m not yet capable of reducing to words. When I think about keeping house — when I consider new recipes, or remember what’s in the fridge with a view to making dinner, or try to fix something that’s broken, or sort through old papers, or pen a note to my grandson, tucking in our monthly contribution to his allowance — I have to stay relaxed. Focus is not helpful: it blocks out the interconnectedness of everything that belongs to the household.

I know lots of men capable of compartmentalizing their lives. They could, presumably, run a house from the office. Strangely, however, very few seem to be at all interested in running a house. Surely a house runs itself? Surely there’s an app for that? These men do not set much of an example.

Nor does the East Wing.

So I shall have to learn how to make the house desk work; how, without accumulating a clutter of “things that I shall get to someday,” the house desk can help me with the very different kind of thinking that housekeeping calls for. A mind of its own.