The desk set
For many, the work space is an extension of their personalities
Joan Parker sits at her late husband’s desk in their Cambridge home. Robert B. Parker, the best-selling author of the hard-boiled Spenser detective series, died last year, and his widow has left the desk where he wrote 10 pages five days a week pretty much the way it was. It’s a manly space, large and dark, with a nameplate “Spenser for Hire’’ and a mousepad of
Then there’s Teddy, a tiny tattered bear. “I’d come home and Bob would be sitting at his desk with Teddy tucked under his arm, absent-mindedly rubbing Teddy’s ear,’’ says Parker, who now uses the desk. “He loved that bear.’’
For Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, it’s giraffes who take up the prime real estate on her desk — and, like Parker’s Teddy, they go back to her past.
Car magnate Ernie Boch Jr., who has his own band, keeps a lot of music mags scattered around his desk at his Norwood headquarters. But he also keeps a bottle of Mango Peach Tango Hot Sauce made by his friend, Aerosmith rocker Joe Perry. “I love it,’’ he says. He puts it on sandwiches and salads, eaten desk-side.
Those of us who work in an office spend an average of six hours a day at our desks. To some, desks are purely utilitarian: files, phone, computer. But to others, desks are an extension of their personalities, with telling talismans and idiosyncratic objects that serve to remind and rejoice, amuse or inspire.
“A desk says a lot about the person who sits there,’’ says Peg Donahue, whose New Hampshire business, Feng Shui Connections, is based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of providing positive energy to various spaces. “The content of your space is a mirror image of what is going on within you.’’
For Robert Parker, the teddy bear, which turned up decades after disappearing, represented a security blanket he needed as an only child. It first showed up in his Easter basket when he was 5. When Parker went off to prep school, he left the bear behind because he knew he’d be teased. To his dismay, when he came home, Teddy had vanished.
Fifteen years ago, when his mother died, the Parkers were cleaning out her Marblehead home. Joan Parker heard her husband shout, “Oh my God, it’s my Teddy.’’ For the rest of the day, he held on to the bear while he cleaned. Then Teddy got a permanent spot on his desk, despite the fact he was threadbare, wobbly, and had been patched up more times than a bad bullfighter.
Coakley has always liked giraffes: “No two have the same spots, and they stick their neck out.’’ As chief of the child abuse unit in the Middlesex district attorney’s office in the 1990s, she’d often use giraffes to break the ice with children during interviews.
“For some of these kids, it was difficult to talk about what happened, and about going to court,’’ says Coakley, who keeps stuffed and carved giraffes on her AG’s desk. She’d talk to the children about how people, like giraffes, sometimes have to stick their necks out, and how each, like a giraffe, is unique.
“It’s a good reminder for me, too,’’ says Coakley, who as a prosecutor has been involved in controversial cases and campaigns.
A big Roosevelt fan, Coakley keeps a framed photo of Eleanor on her desk with the former first lady’s pronouncement that: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’’ The photo sits on a file holder that FDR used for his papers. “I find them both inspiring and as a couple, very interesting,’’ says Coakley.
Boch knows his desk should be cleaner. “I’m not really like a hoarder,’’ he says, “but I just get so much stuff in, it piles up.’’
Boch’s got kid art and an “I love you, Dad’’ note taped onto his computer, and he keeps a framed photo of him with daughter Kelsey on his desk. There are also gold wings — with two guitars on them — from Boch Aviation, the luxury hangar at Norwood Airport where he keeps his own jet. And a tour schedule of his band, Ernie and the Automatics.
Frank Santo, who owns the restaurants Isabella in Dedham and The Local in West Newton, has a desk in the basement of Isabella that can charitably be described as a mess, with the daily business receipts, which add up to the weekly receipts, which add up to . . .
Maybe that’s why he also has bottles of wine on his desk. “Wholesalers send them all the time,’’ says Santo. He can pour the stuff into a Riedel glass that sits on his desk. Why is there an American Heart Association flier? “Employees have to take an anti-choke class and an allergen awareness class,’’ says Santo.
Donahue says those who want positive energy around a desk should clear it off and put things back on it “mindfully.’’ It’s OK if your desk gets messy, she says, but at the end of the day, it should be straightened out. “If it’s complete chaos,’’ she says, “then my bet is they’re experiencing a bit of that in their life every day.’’
So what does she keep on her own desk? A philodendron, a “treasure box’’ of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that her brother got her in Bahrain, a piece of amethyst “for prosperity,’’ and a photo of her husband and her in the back right corner: “That’s about partnership,’’ says Donahue, referring to the back right corner providing positive energy for a relationship. Each object is placed in a prime spot for optimal energy, she says.
Janet Powers’s desk is in Woburn, where she runs her online business divatoolbox.com, a network that connects professional women with potential clients. Powers herself followed Donahue’s advice regarding her desk. In feng shui, red is a symbol of wealth and prosperity, so she keeps a red bowl on her desk, and she drops loose change into it daily “so that my wealth builds.’’ She also has tied nine red strings around her portable phone’s antenna to make her phone ring.
Well, have the red bowl and red strings helped? Powers says her business has grown and her phone does ring. “I like red, it’s pretty. So what the heck, what have I got to lose?’’ She adds with a chuckle: “I’m petrified to take the red strings off because my phone might stop ringing.’’
Colette Phillips also relies on a bit of feng shui in her office. Phillips, who started her own public relations firm 25 years ago, has a three-legged wooden frog on her desk — “in Chinese culture, it’s good luck’’ — and this one has a penny in its mouth. Has it worked? “I figure when I started my company, Wang and Digital were in business. They’re not in existence anymore, and I am, so the frog must be working.’’
Phillips also keeps photos of her parents, who also were entrepreneurs, on her desk. And there’s a silver cube inscribed with what she calls the core values necessary for a PR business, including “teamwork,’’ “positive values,’’ and “integrity.’’
If Eric Reeves, an expert on Darfur, ever needs to be inspired at his desk, his eyes linger on a photo. It’s a distant shot of a young boy sitting alone in the middle of a desert in eastern Chad. Reeves, an English professor at Smith College, has spent countless hours in the past dozen years studying and writing about Sudan and the Darfur genocide.
He’s been to Sudan and has seen thousands of photographs of the suffering there. “But this picture of the boy is the one that moves me most,’’ says Reeves. “I try to imagine what it’s like to be a 6-year-old in the middle of a desert by himself. I imagine him looking toward Darfur. He may be an orphan.’’
Reeves has undergone his own suffering, battling leukemia since 2003. “Pictures like this boy remind me that things have been tough indeed but it’s been a lot tougher for a lot more people in Sudan,’’ he says.
When Joan Parker had her husband cremated, as was his request, she and their two sons thought about cremating Teddy and putting its ashes with those of its rightful owner. “But we couldn’t bear it,’’ says Parker. “We had gotten so used to him, we decided what Bob would want was for Teddy to stay right here on his desk.’’
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.