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.