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.

How to build a house (part 1)

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 10, 2016

At eight years of age, my best friend is a little girl named Minnie who lives not too far from our house on the shores of Lake Washington, in Seattle, a friend with whom I spend the majority of my days, outside, making stuff up.

We make up a language and we make up a club, of which we are the only members. We create a clubhouse in Minnie’s backyard among the Northwestern azaleas and rhododendrons and we sit there, squatting, serving things on leaf plates and pretending we understand our language, which consists of only two words put together in different ways. It is deliciously cozy and consumes our days. We feel sheltered not only by trees and shrubs but by the insular, hermetically sealed world of best friendship.

In contrast, the house I live in with my family — that speaks the normal language of dysfunction with too many words put together in too many ways — is vast and contains rooms that each have their own particular vibe. The dining room rings of precision and order, the kitchen of Mozart (my mother’s single obsession), the TV room of my father’s uninhibited laughter (heard only late at night with each one of Johnny Carson’s jokes). The living room has a stiff shirt-and-shoes-only feel, and the cellar, of course, off-gasses fear.

My room, which is covered in red and gold Chinese wallpaper (dad’s choice and I am not allowed to tack up or move things), is, at least, a smallish room, and it is carpeted. I hide coins under the corners of the carpet and sleep with my two stuffed snakes, each one flanking me snuggly like a sentry. I don’t feel particularly safe in this house, as big as it is; this being said, though, I still dream about it, and visit it occasionally, as if, really, it has always inhabited me.

Aside from the crucible of my eighth year are all the other houses and homes I live in during my life, from the last of the antique-filled dorm rooms in a small So-Cal college to the last hippie house off Dupont Circle in D.C. to one of the last of the sweeeeeet ski-bum houses in Telluride (right across from the current library), which rents for $250 a month in 1990.

In 1993, we buy a house at Lawson Hill when the development is still young, and we stay put, feeling it fill out with life, our child’s life. I construct a tree in her room, up to the ceiling, and plop a freezer-sized playhouse down beside it. The actual trees on the property get bigger and so does she, and when I finally sell the house, her loss is large enough that I know we have been successful in creating a home, and not just one that will stalk her in her dreams.

I am remembering, too, a tiny, impeccable woodsie home we stumble upon some eight or nine years ago while tromping through the aspens in summer. Lock and key, doormat and door. Clad windows. We find the key and trespass, slowly peeking in then stepping in completely. There is barely room for the three of us who stand there, dumb and in wonder, at the care and completeness of the surroundings. Sink, tiny bookshelves, bed, closet, windows with a view. Everything is in its place. What more could be needed in life than this? Silently, we compare it to our relatively very large house, and then, one click up, compare it to the mega-homes higher on the hill. What is shelter? To sleep, eat, read, stay warm, all in the company of trees, while mosses grow on the shingled roof?

Now, on a brand new day, I am in yet another house, one that we have helped build with our own hands, one that we have, with some help, designed and laid out. One that saw every cliché of house building come true despite our cavalier dismissal of generalizations and of pitfalls only others would encounter.

I am standing here on a floor I helped lay, humbled in every way by the process. I ask myself what it is I want to feel here — the deliciousness of my Minnie-days Diggity-dog club, the coziness of the woodsie, a delight in waking up and seeing the sun pour in, the peace and security of a cherished space. I want to cultivate gratitude for the daily miracles of comfort, beauty and light.

Already, I can tell you there is one thing I feel an enormous appreciation for — uninhibited joy and a profound sense of well-being, even — and that is that after over 30 years at altitude, I now have enough BTUs on the range to boil water well every time. I will never, ever take this for granted — which is a feeling I hope will spread in contagion to all the rooms of my life.

Dzubble dzutch

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, February 21, 2016

Dear 11-year-old self,

I’m writing you a letter about jumping rope — double Dutch, to be exact. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about the last 10 years, for whatever reason. Yes, 10 years. They go by fast. I have not been cogitating on jump rope, but rather I’ve been noting its recurrent presence in my consciousness. (No, I’m not dumbing this letter down for you, by the way. You’ll just have to do your best with it, big words and all.)

I’m writing you because I know you’re out there somewhere, suspended in time like a hologram, even though it’s beyond me to comprehend how. Nothing is showing up under this rubric on Wiki-How — one of my favorite places on something called the Internet — where you can learn pretty much everything there is to learn. But not quite.

Wiki offers an intro to astral projection, for example, which would take me out of my body to look down on my current body, which might eventually get me to some overview of all the different selves in time. There’s a Wiki explanation on how to embrace your inner child — but that also is not the same as sending a missive to your ever-present pre-teen. They have “How to send a message forward in time,” but nothing about sending one backwards.

Anyway, if you get this letter, you’ll know your 57-year-old self has found you, and you’ll get a sense that maybe every version of your/our self is fully realized somewhere in the Big Right Now. For you, it’d be like an episode of the Twilight Zone, which scared you so much, you’d watch with your hands over your eyes. If you get this letter, you’ll go, “Wow, I’m 57? That’s ancient!” And because I’ll attach a photo (because memory doesn’t work both ways), you’ll then go, “Whoa, too much information!” Believe me, it’s not. What’s too much is how fast time goes by and the mystery of our life’s trajectory, which is like the flash of a comet’s tail streaking across the sky.

As I write, I see you in my mind’s eye. I see the scab on your knee right below where that jumper Mom made you hits. That red and blue plaid jumper you wear all the time. Zipper up the back, white blouse underneath. You don’t wear any jewelry — nothing. You’re either wearing sneakers or some Oxford-type shoe, and they’re pretty well worn. Your hair’s short and tousled and your eyes, notably different colors, have not started to even out yet. Next year, things will all change with Converse and Adidas and Pumas and hot pants and ripped jeans, but that has not happened yet, not in 5th grade. Your 6th grade teacher, Mr. Singleton, has not yet had a heart attack and died in the middle of the year. You haven’t started feeling either super cool or utterly wretched yet.

It’s May in Seattle and it’s breezy.  Despite Vietnam and Woodstock and Nixon and Apollo 11 and the very inception of things like the Internet and microprocessor, things are a lot simpler in 1969.  For you, even though a certain essential quality of childhood has started to fade as puberty begins its sneaky approach, things are still rivetingly adamantine. Look the word up.

I remember your infatuation with that boy, M.K. I remember recess, with its obsessive sessions of tetherball, foursquare and Chinese jump rope and double Dutch. The concrete of the playground, its yellow lines, its jungle gyms and the garbage blown up against the outsides of the chain link fence, where we’d reach our fingers through to pull out gum wrappers for making those chains, also zealously crafted day after day after day. Girls huddled together and then racing around like little flocks of birds. The intense focus of endless days of Chinese jump rope, and then double Dutch.

Nowadays, there are double Dutch championships all over the world. There are kids whose feet move so fast, they hold one riveted, in rapt attention, as if the world’s state of balance is directly dependent on their solid footwork.

So here we are heading for spring, and I’m thinking of double Dutch again.

I am conscious of the incredible poetry of two ropes going opposite directions and a jumper hopping in — jumping, jumping, jumping as the rope’s arc peaks and then drops to touch pavement before scooping it all up again. The beauty of arms rhythmically moving in circles, catching bits of sky and bringing it down as the jumper keeps perfect time. Dzubble dzutch. Dzubble dzutch.

Just asking you to hold that one in your heart.

Sincerely yours,

Me/you

[Author’s note: “Dzubble dzutch” were words coined in 1981 in “Double Dutch Bus” by Frankie Smith and later The Gap Band. Classic!]

EXPLETIVE, yeah!

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 17, 2016

We’re at a dance party.

The DJ is talented, the people have come — even on a school night — and the birthday girl is happy. At 65 years old, she has a certain amount of defiance stored up, especially when you factor in a family escape from East Germany at a young age, a penchant for rock and roll, a love of leather, camo and militia boots and that inscrutable Germanic black-and-white-and-primary-color view of things. That’s reality, you know? Cut to the chase. Tell it like it is. Get in someone’s face if it will make a difference.

At some point, the mic is in her hand and she’s giving a spiel. How she never saw Jimi Hendrix (the great regret of her life), but how she managed to see Queen twice (while no one in the audience has ever seen them at all). How EXPLETIVE happy she is to see everyone at her party; how when they turn 65 maybe they will find it in themselves to EXPLETIVE think of her because chances are at that point she will have been dead a very long time….

That now, however, it is time to EXPLETIVE dance.

Yeah. She pauses. EXPLETIVE, yeah!

One fist shoots up in the air.  It’s one of those movements I’ve never been able to pull off — that I might have to try out in the privacy of a bathroom or something before liberating it. More likely, it is one of those body-words better left unarticulated by me. She, on the other hand, can pull it off, no sweat, because it comes naturally, like a sneeze. It’s one of her go-to physical articulations. You know, you can feel the essence of the fist up even when someone else does it; it plays sort of like a micro-anthem, a bird getting out of a cage. She works the crowd to get their fists up.

I’ve been to a lot of dance parties with this woman. Some with three people and some with a hundred. I’ve danced to the Stones, and Prince, and the BeeGees and Ricky Nelson, and Pearl Jam and French rockers from the ‘60s. I’ve done line dances, gotten on tables, done the twist, shimmied, bumped. Gone in costume (many of them from her closet), gone in jeans, even pajamas. We’ve danced with our daughters who grew up together — right up until the point that they started rolling their eyes at us. Then we kept on dancing anyway.

It’s gotten hot. The mostly middle-aged crowd, already dripping with sweat, is really beginning to let it rip. You got your people shakin’ it, your people grindin’ it. You got rockers slamming into each other. Your couples occasionally swinging too hard and twirling too much. You got your lone free spirits expressing grandly; your ladies-with-husbands-at-home pulling it off, inner fists up. There’s an audience participation version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a big group in a huddle singing every word as they stare into the mirror of each others’ faces. There’s a make-way-for-dancers version of Night Fever.  Hips instead of lips get looser.

Birthday girl, in her black jeans and black top and punky shag-spiky black wig, is moving through the crowd to be everybody’s partner.  In “Moves Like Jagger,” she’s got her hands behind her back in chicken wings, homage to her man, Mick.

What a blessed thing to see 22-year-olds and 70-year-olds and everyone in between on a dance floor! I feel happy to be dancing, especially happy to have a husband who loves to dance. But dancing has always given me this gift. I feel happy in fifth grade in ballet class. Happy in sixth moving onto Michael Jackson. I feel happy in college in a ballroom dance marathon, happy in New York learning Martha Graham technique with zero prior training. I feel happy in ‘80s aerobics classes, happy in Zumba, happy back in my own living room cranking the Motown and funk. Dancing is one of the few things that roots me in the present moment with instant and unequivocal joy.

So Baerbel, happy birthday!

I wish you many more opportunities for fist-up, smile-on, Jagger-moves dancing. And from the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all those moments together on the dance floor — from the tiny patches of cleared-out living rooms to the bigger stretches of scuffed up, drink-sticky parquet. Thanks for loving and worshipping music’s ability to raise blood temperature and bring joy, and for creating a space for me (and lots of other people in your life) to turn up the volume, peel off a layer or two, and get real. [Insert fist-up here]