Packing hacks

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, August 7, 2016

The only perfect bag I ever pack is the carry-on for a France trip, carefully engineered (by me, at my brief zenith) to contain not only clothes but gifts for the entire French family. This is the same bag that gets mixed up in Denver and ends up in Portland because I pick up someone else’s identical bag, a silver bag I somehow feel no one else will purchase but me, even though I’ve made this purchase at Target, which has about 2,000 locations in the U.S. alone.

This bleak scenario (already documented) finds me on a layover in New York, stunned to flip open a suitcase full of brochures and men’s underwear, which then requires a payment of nearly $400 to FedEx for an overnight swap so that my relatives can get their chocolates, scarves and soaps from someplace other than Paris. A shooting star of packing mojo thus becomes an expensive disaster, and I return to default mode.

There’s no explanation for the way I pack, especially as the one beside me uses a simple, infallible equation of socks, tee shirts, shirts, pants and a dopp kit to get himself right where he wants to be every time. What’s so hard about it? You, too, can Google proportions, placement, even best bags for success.

But, each time a trip, short or long, rolls around, I feel myself falling, falling eerily backwards into the mire of organizational rebelliousness, throwing things in at the last minute and then staring at them in disbelief as I arrive at my destination. What was I thinking?

So then, you take a person who is obviously handicapped and give this person a task of moving not once but two times in two years. The first time around, she adjusts by moving slowly, taking an entire month to sort, get rid of and then shove things into boxes, labeling only part of the time whimsically and the rest of the time mostly straightforwardly.

In storage, however, these imperfect boxes get moved into even more imperfect places. She loses her winter shoes two winters in a row, in a place where winter lasts seven months. She begins to forget what the storage unit is storing except for what’s closest to the door. She makes do. Well, there’s beauty in that, right? Who needs anything at all, anyway?

Two years later, she is packing another house up, even as the first house set of contents slumps yet further down in storage. Her single rule for this move: “The better the boxes, the better the packing.” Things devolve. They devolve from a notion of Category to a notion of Location. “Winter clothes” becomes “Winter clothes — guest room.” So there are winter clothes in the entire box line-up. Boxes represent not a portion of a life, but a microcosm of all of a life. Theoretically, she should be able to do a little of everything by unpacking one box.

Why does this happen? Is she missing a gene? She knows all about organized people because she’s read about them. They’re goal oriented, in control, conscientious. They capture, calenderize, prioritize, pare down and prepare. They reap the benefits.

Not surprisingly, in unpacking the giant mound of boxes, things get a little screwball. Some things turn up (“Wow, summer clothes!”) and some things go missing — favorite market basket, a gallon of maple syrup, an engagement ring.  Who cares that she still has the uncanny knack of knowing where everybody else’s stuff is, that this part of her brain is mysteriously functioning at an extremely high level? What about her stuff?

A month later she finds the ring safely stowed in the nightstand, which is one of the first pieces of furniture placed in the house. And even without the Find My Syrup app, the gallon turns up, in the pantry, behind the olive oil, safe and untampered. No one has carefully selected a ring and a gallon of syrup to abscond with, not this time.

All that is left to say is that if Shakespeare were in charge here, this story would take place in Venice. The suitcase, of course, would not be from a discount chain, it would be upholstered and contain a renaissance ring that would somehow get lost even though two people were to have been betrothed on their vacation away. The story would remain in Italy, but domiciles would change, along with roles, alliances and costumes. Someone’s cousin would appear with a mysterious liter of sweet syrup that put everyone to sleep temporarily, but when they woke up, after a few famous soliloquies, the ring would be back on her finger and all would be well — without ever having once exalted organization as one of the great virtues of man- and womankind.

Ripespans

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 24, 2016

A half pint of raspberries sits on the kitchen counter.

These are the tiny variety, handpicked by someone who cares a lot, maybe someone deep in blissful connection to nature as the midsummer sun beats down, a heat interrupted only by the occasional thunderhead lumbering across the sky, laying its blue shadow down.

The purchase price of this basket is far too little ($3) at a local farmer’s market. Rather than that berry-on-steroids look of today, this sampling has a soft, dusty appearance, as if modestly hiding the fullness of its color. Are these wild, actually? Who knows.

(Poured onto the counter for inspection, one particular berry rolls off to the left, toward the potted fern on the kitchen island, succeeding — almost! — in hiding itself under the shade of a frond. After coming to a complete stop, it moves another inch, on its own, and bumps ever so gently into a coffee mug.  A micro sigh is released.)

MCW (moving closer in, seeing one of the berry’s hairs move slightly): Hello?

(The raspberry, emitting a tiny blur of sounds, then rolls back the length of a single drupelet — the nodes that comprise the whole drupe.)

MCW (looking around for husband in vicinity): I realize this is the magical part of July, but seriously. Are you for real?

RB: I’m real. Geez. (The voice is a pipsqueak’s. Not a cartoon character’s, or even an animated anything’s, but a lovely, sweet, squeaky sort of drawling voice the loudness of, say, a baby bumblebee.) Flesh and juice. Oh, and 6 percent fiber by total weight. Which is very high.

MCW: By the grace of summer magic, I am speaking with a raspberry. My favorite fruit.

RB (waving all her hairs, acknowledging compliment): Well. Except for plums, though, right?

MCW (blushing deeply): I mean, I like plums so very much. But …

RB (interrupting): I admire their color, firmness and versatility, as well. (RB rolls a single drupelet again, toward the human in checked pajamas, who is scanning the counter for reading glasses.) But we are a bit more sensuous, you know? Plums hold it all in; you don’t get that feeling with us.

MCW: So much more sensuous! I mean plums are, when you bite into them. Anyway. Sorry I lied. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. And now, seeing you like this, I mean you easily might be my favorite fruit of all time. Even given the little I know of your personality. Your voice alone …

RB: I’m a Leo. Most of us wild raspberries are, in this part of the world. Born in late July or August. So there’s a little ego and pride there, as well as a fixation with our “manes.” (RB makes her hairs stand up).

MCW: You are adorable. Can you do the hair trick again? And do all of you speak?

RB (waves hairs): Goodness, no. We’re born mute. Aside for the sounds we make when we grow, which are not audible to humans. And the sound we make when we either fall to the ground or into a container. Sounds made by mouths eating us don’t count. Me (she topples into a cavity-down headstand), I arrived with a passion for languages. English will probably be the only one I learn, though, since my ripespan is really only two to three weeks.

MCW: Your ripespan. (MCW nods slowly.) What a concept.

RB: Right?

MCW: What is it for humans, I wonder.

RB: Most of you would say youth. But youth is not ripeness, now, is it?

MCW: It’s just so obvious for fruit. You ripen, then fall.

RB: At the height of our glory. As sweet as we can get. (RB slowly rolls toward the human hand on the counter, then bumps into it, like the softest, gentlest raspberry breeze.) So sweet it makes even animals swoon.

MCW: Animals … swoon?

RB: In private they do. (RB presses her hairs into the human flesh.) And you can, too, emceedubs.

MCW: You know my name? And you want me to eat you, now? The first fruit friend I’ve ever had?

RB: You have given Rubus idaeus— raspberries are from the rose family —the first voice they’ve had since, oh, I don’t know. Findhorn? Camelot? Atlantis?

MCW: Wait. Are you saying …

RB (giggling a drupelet completely off): I’m playing with you. But, see, I’m falling apart in ripeness. Pick me up and lay me down on your tongue. It’s my time.

(On the human tongue, the raspberry becomes quiet and utterly submissive. The human bears down, feeling the drupelets give, bursting in flavor; and, for a moment — a brief transcendent moment — summer’s own ripeness, a mysterious mix of heat and sugar, implodes in glory.)

Lessons from baseball?

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 29, 2016

Aside from hearing the cheers from the old Seattle Sicks Stadium (where Jimi Hendrix played in 1970) down the road a mile from the house I grew up in, I’ve only ever rubbed up against baseball a few times in my life. It just has not been part of the curriculum.

My dad was a football and tennis player. One brother was a runner. The other was a brain. My sister lettered in boys. I was not allowed to do sports on account of their toll on academics, so any knowledge of baseball for me was strictly anecdotal, academic or from television.

It’s 1981 in New York. I reconnect with one of my oldest friends in the world, and he invites me to a Yankees game, complete with press passes. I never understand how this particular friend, an actor, wrangles things, but he always does. I am excited to be drinking a free beer as tall as my head and the afternoon passes by in a pleasant, sunburn-y blur, the sound of fans cheering and bats cracking in the background. So this is baseball, I think to myself. Nice!

Because I’m not really a drinker, I manage to get on a #6 express train going the wrong way, deep into the Bronx. I slump onto a bench not noticing much until someone with a bike gets on the train, urgently points out my mistake, and tells me to get off at the next stop and find some NYPD blue to escort me to the other side and onto the right train. Which, sobering up quickly, I do.  Baseball game #1, lesson learned: Drinking and not driving don’t necessarily mix, either.

Fast forward 20 years, to 2001, back in Seattle now and buying tickets for a Mariners game. Along with the rest of humanity, it seems, we take public transportation down to Safeco Field. We think we are arriving in good time, but as we wend our way up to the Everest-level nosebleed section and are about to pop through the door-hole, there is not a single sound to be heard. It is utterly, eerily quiet: somehow we have arrived dead last, the stadium full to the brim and the first pitch about to be thrown that very second.

Celine, 8, who has never seen 40,000 people gathered before, stands frozen, and we have to drag her to the seats, explaining, as if to an alien, how baseball works. I note the differences 20 years have made. A big screen. The wave. Salmon burgers instead of hot dogs. Baseball game #3 (or so), lesson learned: It’s fun occasionally to blow a child’s mind, especially inadvertently.

Recently, we find ourselves driving past Coors Field in Denver and on a whim walk down and buy cheap tickets from someone hocking them right outside the gate. The seats are really low and right behind home plate, and we get ready for a walk down memory lane.  Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible game (hence the great seats), we find the Jumbotron overwhelming, with its contests and advertisements and the cameraman’s relentless crowd scanning. In the purple and black fanscape, the one food I notice a lot of is nachos. Pumped cheese and corn chips. Oh, and gigantic sodas, even for little kids (what are they doing here on a school night, anyway?).

Stop being so critical, I tell myself. Stop being so old school and enjoy this scene as if it were a fascinating movie about people who seem normal but already live in a science-fiction future where men with beards and knickers are worshipped for their prowess with a cowskin-covered orb and a stick.

There are a lot of foul balls. The most exciting thing by far about this baseball game is imagining catching one of these right out of the sky, like the lucky stiff who actually does to the right a couple sections. Baseball game #5 (or so), lesson learned: Pay attention to what is actually exciting you.

From Buzzfeed (a popular social news website) I learn that in the pantheon of baseball fan archetypes, I am The Completely Clueless Fan, the one who understands 14 percent of the rules, whose motto is “Why did he do that?” Yes. And, for me, the takeaway is always something completely unrelated to the actual game. But there is this one thing I really, really, like.

I like it when the super successfully thwacked up ball snaps every single person to attention — when, in the same breath-held moment of anticipation, they are captives of the present moment, in a state of suspended animation, jaws slack, eyes riveted, poised. As if anything could happen. Obviously, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, if you’re a baseball fan. But for a clueless one, not bad, right?

 

Cat interpreter

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, March 20, 2016

Wills, our willful orange tabby who just turned ten, has an interspecies interpreter at home. That would be me. I am the language specialist who delivers in English what this feline is “thinking” — or whatever crazy, mixed-up thing it is they do with their 30 grams of gray matter, which is, actually, organized quite a lot like the human brain

I come by the genes honestly, as my mother worked intermittently for the French Consulate in Seattle doing both written translation and simultaneous interpreting. It was superb job for her: She probably had the most academic brain of anyone in the family despite a schooling career cut short by the financial necessities of her family. She joined the Paris workforce in 1936 at the age of 15 and never looked back.

Though she flunked English in secondary school (bad teacher chemistry), she was meticulous and had a natural command of the language, which turned her into a really good translator. She’d also had the first 10 years of married life in the States to practice her writing skills, since she was writing to my father — who was in large part away, on tours of duty — nearly every night. Those who have learned a foreign language know that writing is an ocean away from conversation.

Besides all that, she could think like a lawyer, carry on like a diplomat and pull things off (she successfully presented herself in court as an attorney in her twenties while working for an insurance company in Paris). I remember her telling me later in life that for the sake of the meetings she was facilitating, sometimes she would soften or bend the translation to make sure that those speaking had the best opportunity for success.

At the time, I thought it was dishonest, that the clients were being cheated, misled. Now, of course, I think it was brilliant: the idea that relationships need mediation in the real world. How about when two people actually do speak the same language? Or how about when the two in the relationship are from different species? All brilliant!

Yes, I do realize I’ve written about this particular cat before. The cat from hell, the princess, the boss. The one who gets cream in the morning. And housemade cat food. The cat sitters I’ve had to cajole into caring for her. The long explanations about how her hissing is an everyday sort of sound. The one who can’t be down for the night unless she’s in her own room, with the door closed. The one who will stand at the top of the stairs waiting for her bedtime escort, preferably the man of the house, to take her down, but only after nice words are spoken and in the correct tone.

Sure, there are plenty of cues that are easy to interpret. She stands at the sink if she wants the water turned on. She actually hangs on the ledge of the door if she wants out (sometimes continuing to hang as it swings open). Putting her paw on your lap if she is going to attempt blessing a human lap with her kneading paws and an eventual plop-down.

But what about the more subtle things, things maybe only a person who has served her continuously for ten years could know? A short while ago, after some slightly erratic but not unfamiliar behavior, I tell my husband the cat is embarrassed.

-Embarrassed?

-Yeah, she’s embarrassed. Because she asked you to open the door but then couldn’t make herself go out. So now she’s pretending to go nuts, but it’s just a cover. She’s mad at herself. Embarrassed at being such a wimp.

This elicits a delighted sort of snort. Weeks later he works cat embarrassment back into the conversation.

How I can overlay my human emotions on this eight-pound whack job in a cat suit? Whatever I’m doing, I seem to be doing it more the older she gets, maybe as her curlicue tendrils of thought become more familiar. Maybe as my mind is cat-melded into deeper comprehension. Or maybe it just makes all her ridiculous behavior somehow more acceptable to me, if I parse it out into a Henry James or Jane Austen version.

Ten years after going to pick her up in Norwood (on account of my daughter’s 13th birthday and her desperate need of an orange cat and a notice in the paper that very day that said “Free orange tabbies”), I am still trying to get a handle on this redheaded dictator who showed up without an interpreter.  I’m doing whatever I can, and as I know my mother would have had it, to make sure we have the best opportunities for success.