Feng shui has always been part of my upbringing, like eating won ton noodles and burning incense at the ancestral altar.

My family never practiced Chinese geomancy formally. We didn’t arrange our furniture according to where the sun rose, and we didn’t run around our condo high-rise with a divining rod to uncover buried waterways. Certainly no color guide was ever consulted when my sister and mother insisted on painting our tiny, windowless kitchen and bathroom fuchsia (it took three months before they abandoned the bordello look for plain white).

Instead, bits of feng shui folklore were randomly tossed out, like the time when my mother came home and blamed all our bad luck on our narrow balcony, a repository of my father’s urban flotsam. The glass building across the way reflected this disorder, which multiplied our ill fortune. We hauled off rusted iron plant stands, white plastic buckets and, mysteriously, a door. I didn’t notice any better luck, but at least we no longer looked like the set of “Sanford and Son.”

Art of placement

Feng shui, or “wind water,” employs intricate formulas that, depending on the school, can involve variables such as a person’s birth date. Grossly simplified, the art of placement tries to integrate people with the advantages of their surroundings. While superstition can become entangled in it, feng shui is basically a form of environmental psychology. While I agree with the principles, the formulas are beyond me. So, when I heard that the Los Angeles Times’ feng shui columnist would be willing to assess a cubicle, I volunteered.

In the last 15 years, Western converts to feng shui have grown from architects and decorators to animal caretakers and New Age wizards. To my relief, Kirsten M. Lagatree did not fall into the last group. A slender reed of a woman with sleekly cut brown hair, she doesn’t do consulting, but has written “Feng Shui at Work: Arranging Your Work Space to Achieve Peak Performance and Maximum Profit” (Villard Books, $13.95).

“I try to keep it practical and positive,” says Lagatree as she fuels herself with Peet’s. Feng shui, she explains, employs common sense, but does go into areas which that require one to suspend disbelief. For instance, a key tool is the bagua chart, an octagonal map denoting compass points and the proper allocation of elements (wood, water, fire, metal) and colors in your life areas (career, health, family and so on).

Down to the basics

While negative areas can be softened by items such as goldfish and crystals, she stays away from the curative gewgaws churned out by the profitable feng shui marketing machine. A home office should be productive, not “like a New Age curio shop.”

The buzzword in the age of information and materialism is clutter, and the mantra is how to manage it. Clutter, I know, fogs up one’s chi, which, to grossly simplify, involves the energy inherent in all living creatures. “You stop seeing the clutter and adjust your eyes and access around it, but it still impedes you,” Lagatree says. On a psychological level, “it hinders your focus.”

Except for emptying my recycling bin and stowing Scooby-Doo Burger King toys in my drawer, I hadn’t prepared my desk. I figured I’m relatively neat, and I’d look good sitting next to Pat Craig, the Times’ theater critic. While he had conducted a momentous cleaning last year, the resultant vacuum has since sucked in several mounds of papers, four telephone books and a 1997 Willows Theatre Company ornament ball still in its box (the 1999 is on the floor).

Sure enough, Lagatree shifted her attention to the desk next to mine. “Someone’s chi is being blocked by Pat’s clutter.” Pat, though, points out the Rolling Stones vinyl collection in his Southeast corner, where wealth reigns. “Wow, you’re cool,” she says.

Trouble in the southeast

Meanwhile, my Southeast corner has an empty orange candy tin and a dusty Brita water filter. “What is this?” Lagatree says accusingly, picking up the filter. “It’s junk.” To enhance that area, she recommends purple and the number 4, like a quartet of irises.

My problems have just begun.

My back faces the front entrance, leaving me vulnerable to surprises. “You would not know things as soon as people who have better access,” she points out. This may explain why I’m usually the last on the office gossip food chain. A mirror atop my monitor might help. Underfoot, my two recycling bins are in my South/fortune direction, which means I’m trashing my fame. More red could stimulate me and pump up my profile.

My West meets with her approval. “All the right sort of things are happening here,” Lagatree says. The metal file sorters are the perfect material, and the silver one coincides with the preferred gold, silver and white color scheme. This bodes well for my goal to improve creativity. However, my trash can is eating up my Northwest travel corner no wonder I’m always chained to my desk.

Meanwhile, I was sure my three healthy bamboo stalks would find favor with the universe. Close, but not quite: They should move slightly East, where green governs health and growth. Lagatree points out that the scrap of red ribbon tied around the stalks is acting like fire, “supposedly burning into the health and growth.” I have been tired lately, and prone to constant colds. I take off the red and add to my list “green ribbon.”

High-tech solutions

Sometimes feng shui can be high-tech. Lagatree recommends a curved, ergonomic keyboard, which incorporates flowing design with health-consciousness. In general, she urges a hard look at everything, and to stow away things you don’t use more than once or twice a week. Ideally, as few things as possible should be on the desk.

Of course, I don’t work in an ideal world: I work in journalism. Also, Lagatree says all this decluttering and goal-planning does one no good unless they’re paired with a priority list and good intentions.

With these words, Lagatree hurries off. I move my recycling bins next to the family and health writer. I clean out my brochures and maps, dumping, among other things, a 1996 SamTrans bus system route map. The English language desk reference goes to a bookcase, my red-covered dictionary and thesaurus head South.

The next day, I couldn’t stop. I rearrange the contents of my desk drawers. I retrieve the garbage can I had kicked over to the art critic’s desk, but compromise by sticking happy photos on it. Later, I buy a mirror and some plants.

At first the bareness was unnerving, but I’m getting used to it. That weekend, even though I hadn’t been exercising, I went on a 13-mile jog and walked only four miles of it. The long-postponed great American short story hasn’t been started yet, and my boss didn’t beg to give me a raise. The point, though, is to get reacquainted with what I want to do and be comfortable with what’s around me.

I notice Pat’s desk is looking a little cleaner, too. I have feng shui; he has the Rolling Stones. The gods should be smiling upon us.

Times events editor Vera H-C Chan has already thwarted two ambushes and escaped a heavy assignment, thanks to her mirror.