The Day My Son Taught Me How To Create A Spreadsheet

November 3, 2016

My adult son is going to teach me how to make a spreadsheet. This is my own fault. I asked him for help.

This is a person who color-codes everything. His schedule. His fantasy football teams. His grocery list. He creates multiple spreadsheets that display facets of his life highlighted in a variety of colors according to type. Academic, social, personal. He categorizes his assignments, his commitments, his recreational sports practice sessions. He probably has a spreadsheet of phone calls to his mother. Past, current and future (one can hope).

I was not aware of his penchant for spreadsheets until he went to college.

“He organized his wardrobe by fabric weights,” I worried to my husband, who’d failed to notice the tri-color paper spreadsheet taped to the dorm room wall. My husband shrugged it off, citing the kid’s superior grades and vast social network. “Look at his social spreadsheet!” he said. “He’s busier than a beaver.”

I returned to my desk this Monday morning after a brief vacation and was stupefied by the mess. In my absence, the pages had reassembled themselves. Research notes had disbursed, scattering among the magazines saved for various reasons like design ideas for my one-day bathroom renovation, also for work. Invoices infiltrated the correspondence pile normally situated at ground zero, a prime real estate location at the edge of the desk. Pages of my novel in progress, once secured under a half-filled coffee cup with a Post-It stuck to the handle reminding me to schedule an appointment with the dental hygienist, had taken flight like geese leaving a pond, shooting out in every direction. None of those pages were numbered; many had notes affixed to them like panicked remoras, stuck to the host page with tape, staples, gum.

I found a scrap of paper (read: dinner napkin) with a medical dictionary definition scribbled across the once-folded seam in green eyeliner pencil under the wheel of my desk chair. Index cards listing current and intended work had fled the workspace entirely. Some were on the floor. Some were in the potted plants. One was trapped in the partially-lowered window blind, as if ensnared while trying to escape to the outside. I found an index card in the extra toilet paper bin in a bathroom two rooms over.

I needed help. “Can you teach me how to make a spreadsheet?” I texted him with a slightly out of focus picture of the chaos that was my desk.

He replied: “One or two.”

“One or two what?” Perhaps he hadn’t heard me. I reiterated my interest in creating a simple system of maintaining order, now that my confetti method of filing had failed. “I don’t need an engineering schematic,” I said. “Just a simple chart.”

“Two spreadsheets ought to be enough,” he explained. “You’ll need to categorize the materials and sort them according to importance.”

Immediately my mind fled. Before I could categorize anything I’d better tend to some other really important stuff. Like checking my chin for hairs. Or checking in with Judge Judy.

My computer chimed. “I’m sending you a sample form,” my son said. “You can use this as a template, until you figure out how to set up your own criteria and sorting system. Click on the link.”

I clicked.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing. A blank screen.”

“It’s faint. That’s on purpose,” he said. “Put on your glasses. You should be able to see only the slightest outline of the lines and columns. Do you see them?”

I put on my glasses, and squinted. “Nope.”

“Are you sure? Look closer. Tell me exactly what you see.”

I looked closer. “I see nothing. My screen is black as the inside of a cat.”

He did not bother to restrain a snort of disapproval. “You’re going to have to wait,” he said, “until I come home to take care of this. And I’m pretty booked up right now.”

I’m comfortable with waiting. I made a few feeble gestures toward creating categories. I clumped the photocopied research excerpts into a semi-formed stack and tucked them neatly behind the potted fern. I swept the invoices into an empty nectarine box and trapped the torn-out pages of magazines under the jar of marmalade I keep on the desk for emergencies like when my toast is naked.

I sought out similarly-shaped materials and created zones: The index card zone. The half page zone. The legal sized zone. The odd-shaped items zone. Finally, I corralled the irregulars: napkins, lunch bags, wrapping paper, the backs of menus — anything marked with my handwriting — and deposited them into a bread-loaf Tupperware container. I snapped down the lid with a congratulatory Voila!

It’s not color coded, but it’s sure easier than Excel.