From the desk, orders issue forth. Bits of paper and ideas settle into orderly stacks. Drawers open to reveal white paper, envelopes, pencils and pens, erasers, rulers, paperclips, checkbooks, random rubber bands and ephemera relevant to the civilization of mind.
The top of my father’s desk curved down at the front and back in a streamlined Art Deco style going out of fashion in the mid-Forties when my mother bought it for him. She purchased the desk new at a hardware store in Rogers, Arkansas, two years before I was born. It remains in the family household seventy years later.
The image of him sitting there with his big stubby fingers busily typing away on his massive old Royal typewriter stays in fresh my memory. Curses muttered in his deep rumbling voice signaled a mistake that required laborious erasures. Sometimes the errors ran so deep that the paper would be ripped from the carriage, accompanied by a mechanical zipping sound as the cylinder spun.
How satisfying, that ripping sound. The end to it, for once and for all! A new sheet of paper! A new start! And then the keys would tap again, clickety-clack, as he pursued the project at hand. A letter to a band parent? A notice to be posted on the bandroom bulletin board?
A bold red band graced the top border of his Bi-State Music Festival paper. It came in wrapped reams redolent of printers’ ink. Documents issued forth—letters to other band directors in the region, schedules of competing bands, ensembles, and soloists. I remember the watermarks on the heavy bond paper, the matching envelopes, the anticipation permeating our house as the festival neared. This was my father’s prize project for his years at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Then there were the hours, late into the night, that he bent over pre-lined manuscript paper with his quill of India ink to join the lines into a musical staff. His practiced flourish produced treble and bass clef signs, quick jots of ink for quarter notes, and quirky flags at the top of the note stem designating its status as eighth note or sixteenth. The side of his hand brushed the heavy manila paper as quarter note rests took shape or as a long slur line arced over two measures.
His concentration palpable, his cigarettes burned down to the filter in the wide glass ashtray. There were the groans and curses when his efforts went awry, when the ink bottle spilled or the muse stopping whispering in his ear. When real life demanded his attention to wife and children, the lawn that needed mowing, the bills past due. An artist at heart, he never fully accepted his role in the world of the mundane.
Command center to the world around us or doorway to the ether of creation, desks are the place where business is done. Here I utter my own curses at the petty requirements of temporal life. Can’t you see I am far away, the whispers of characters and scent of distant meadows flowing from my fingertips? Yet the desk is not only the arena of creation but also where I organize my world, establish schedules for my time and finances, and write letters to compliment the helpful and excoriate the stupid. Here I sit to stare out the window as memories and worries rush onward, ever onward, in my unruly thoughts.
Now the world unfolds on my computer screen. Words scroll across virtual paper, easily erased and corrected. No more ripping paper from the typewriter. How much more music could my father have written with the tools of modern times? Playing a simple phrase on a digitally-connected keyboard would have produced perfectly crafted notes on a virtual page, no ink required.
Maybe the result of such ease in the mechanics of creation is that we are now drowning in a sea of mediocre art. Perhaps we were better served with pages ripped from typewriters and music penned with India ink. When the need to tease out a deeply held emotion, find words that best describe, or form scenes that best reveal, I drag out the paper. It sits expectantly on the desk, this thick pad of white paper. Sometimes even the use of a pen is too facile, and I dig up the Number 2 lead pencil. It makes a satisfying sound as my hand forces the tip over the paper.
What I write on paper with pencil is different from what appears with keystrokes on a digital keyboard. The words are more carefully chosen. The shapes of letters carry significance. The words have real weight and I use them in new ways, unexpectedly poignant.
I am at my desk with paper and pencil. I can see my father bent here, his profile etched against the dark of night in the light from his desk lamp. His quill scratches across the page.