Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Notes from the Malevolent Heart of Packing

You may think you already know why moving is such a miserable experience for just about everyone: it's a buttload of work, you have to stuff all your belongings into boxes and then drag them into a truck and then drag them out again, and then you don't know where anything is. And all this is true! BUT these are not the only reasons. Many other life experiences are extremely labor-intensive, nay, even painful (labor itself comes to mind, for one example) and yet they're not remembered with the utter horror that creeps into the visage and tone of anyone who's talking about Moves They Have Moved.

Last week I was sorting through my old New Yorkers and found, serendipitously, a terrific essay about...sorting and packing all one's belongings in preparation for a move. Of course I settled down amidst all the boxes and chaos and read it. My favorite sentence:

"By the fourth day, we have begun to enter the dark and malevolent space that lies at the true heart of packing." (Oxenhandler, Nicole. "Object Lesson." The New Yorker, August 7, 1995, p. 40.) Doesn't that just sum it all up, right there?

Oxenhandler's theory is that packing is so awful because inanimate objects resist being constrained and controlled. Also because we invest our lives and memories into our objects, and then we have to sort through them all and throw some away, and it's like throwing away parts of ourselves.

And all that is true, too. But, speaking from within that dark and malevolent space, I think there are some less poetic, more pragmatic reasons that moving--specifically, packing--is essentially impossible.

Here they are:


Packing consists mostly of taking all your belongings and putting them in boxes, thereby rendering them inaccessible for a period of time. Like, if the first thing you pack up is your stereo, and your packing takes two weeks, then you can't use your stereo for two weeks. Which is fine unless you NEED your stereo to, say, play CDs. So then you either end up a) unpacking your stereo again, which kind of defeats the purpose of packing, or b) creating some kind of work-around which makes your life more difficult, or c) living without your stereo, which is sad and annoying.

No problem! You might say. If you're organized, you can pack the things you don't need first, and then save the ones you need for the last minute! To which I say: HAHAHAHAHA. HA. Fine. We packed up our books first. And then some knincknacks and things. But most of the things we have, we have because we use and need them. If we packed all the things we really need at the last minute, that last minute would have to last for about a week and a half.

Also it turns out that as soon as you pack something, even if you haven't used it for months, you will need it. It's like a Murphy's Law of packing.


We got rid of the couch. We got rid of the bed. We got rid of the piano. We got rid of the rolling dishwasher. And even so, the filled and unfilled boxes are creeping into the bare minimum of space that we need to function: to get our clothes in the morning, put them away at night, prepare the little food left in the fridge, crawl into the beds we have left and sleep the sleep of the exhausted. This makes no sense, because presumably all the things we are packing and stacking in boxes had to come from somewhere, and so they should be leaving open spaces where they came from and not taking up any more room overall than they did originally. But somehow it doesn't work that way.

If we had another place to live, and just came over here during the day to pack, it wouldn't be so bad. And we do in fact have another place to live. The only problem is that it's in Canada, and we have to pack up our stuff to move there.


Much of packing consists of putting items into categories-- into actual boxes, like a literal incarnation of the ones teenagers like to rant about not being put into--and closing those categories. No mushy "it's really more than one thing, it's a floor wax AND a dessert topping" here; no multiple tags. If it's a memento, it goes in the Mementoes box. If it's a kitchen item, it goes in the Kitchen Items box. That egg cup I made RW at the Paint-Your-Own-Pottery place back when we first got together? Memento or kitchen item, baby; it can't be both, or you risk descending into utter chaos and never finding anything when you get to where you're going.

Of course, items don't fit neatly into categories any more than people do. So, you do what good catalogers do (and both of us have done our share of cataloging): you approximate, you improvise, and you label as well and specficially as possible.

But all cataloging is iterative: sometimes you don't know what the category is until you've gone through the complete data set. Is there enough stuff to make a box of Kitchen-Related Mementoes? Maybe. But you won't know until you've gone through and packed all the kitchen stuff. And all the mementoes. And then--hah! Too late! Unless you want to start all over again.

If that sounds too effete (who really cares what it is as long as it's wrapped in enough bubble wrap?) consider the fate of the lone CD found after all the CDs have been packed. Where to put it so it won't get lost? Maybe in a box marked "Miscellaneous," thus rendering all its contents impossible to identify? Hmm, yes. maybe so.

Of course those last-minute things are also generally the most loved, the most special, the ones you use the most (see Point #1). And they're the most likely to get lost from their categories and never found again.


Vision is distorted when you're in the depths of packing. You find things you haven't laid eyes on for months, and think "Oh, I forgot I had that! It's the perfect thing for [x activity]!" Then you pack the heretofore forgotten and probably useless item away, confident that this thing will be an essential part of your new life, while tossing the stuff you're really going to need in some poorly-labeled box of Miscellaneous (see Point #3) or discarding it altogether.

Case in point: a year or two ago, my dad kindly mailed me a box. Back in 1990, when I first moved to Seattle, I had apparently carefully packed, numbered, and labeled this box, but had somehow neglected to bring it with me.

I opened it eagerly, excited to see what treasures I'd felt worthy to accompany me into my new life but had been somehow unaccountably surviving without for the past fifteen years.

Here is what was in the box: My beloved childhood sewing kit (Nice to see you, old sewing kit, old pal! I've acquired other needles and spools of thread in the meantime, but nice to see you anyway! Though I notice you still have that big grease stain from when I insisted on taking you with us to the restaurant that time when I was 9. Hmm. Perhaps I am no longer as charmed by you as I once was).

Also in the box: an extension cord, a 5" floppy disk, a power cord for an unidentified appliance, some small boxes of tissues, and an unremarkable piece of driftwood which, if it ever held any memories, no longer does.

It was like a message in a bottle from my 23-year-old self. And the message was: "HELP! PACKING IS DRIVING ME INTO MADNESS!"

And, what do you know? Seventeen years later, here I am again.


Blogger witchtrivets said...

Oh Elswhere, I feel your pain. We did the same thing almost a year ago. And moved to an apt we had never seen in a city we had never been to. And for 6 months used one room of the apt for boxes we decided not to unpack. Then we moved to this house we are renovating (that is, making livable) and so have not bought furniture or unpacked. Last night we put up the new CD rack. I lived one year without CDs, all my music in boxes. It helped I guess, that the CD player we hauled all the way from NC to OR died on Christmas eve. And no time to replace it until a month or so ago. All this to say, I know that of which you speak and I send calming zen packing thoughts your way. Have you reached the point where you are seriously considering just setting the house and partially packed boxes on fire yet?

8:48 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Els, my time is a bit constrained, and yet I say to you, I feel your pain, and would you like me to see if I can find some space do come and sit with you and enbubblewrap things and make soothing noises at you and swap horror stories?

Wiredferret @ gmail dot com

10:33 AM  
Blogger ALG said...

As someone who recently underwent a kind of crazy move, I feel your pain. Crazy because I moved out of one apartment on August 2 and was supposed to move into the new one on August 15, but it wasn't ready until yesterday, August 22. So I spent almost three weeks living out of suitcases and now I've just moved in and am surrounded by boxes with no time to unpack them. The packing was made slightly more bearable by the fact that one roommate had moved out two weeks before my move, so I had half of a bedroom to stack boxes in. I would pack them near my stuff and then haul them and stack them up very high to leave a lot of extra room--the stacks were as many as five or six boxes tall.

So, my only advice is: stack. If at all possible. The reason that the things take up more and more room is because the furniture empties into boxes, and then you have furniture + boxes. You can also put boxes back into the furniture where possible.

I so feel your pain about labeling. I didn't have time to label most of my boxes, so I have no idea what's in them (except for the book boxes, which are sort of obvious anyway). I am going to have to unpack every single solitary one to find my good pillow.

Good luck!

11:19 AM  
Anonymous ppb said...

I am printing this out for the next time I think about moving across town in order to save a hundred bucks a month in rent.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous some middle aged guy said...

wow, i had no idea some people went through this much agony moving. for me it's quite simple (but maybe my memories of the last move - 6 years ago - have been squeezed into the denial area of my brain). i tend not to acquire too much junk i don't need because i didn't have a car until recently. my last move was done mostly on foot as i moved only 5 blocks. then i hired too really big and strong dudes with a 5 ton truck to do the rest. best $200 bucks i ever spent. but enough about me - good luck with the rest of the move, soon it too will be just a bad memory....

1:13 PM  
Blogger Doctor Science said...

This is why the worst corporate slogan in the history of ever was U-Haul's old one, "Adventures in Moving". It always made my blood run cold every time I saw it going by on one of their trucks.

1:59 PM  
Blogger jo(e) said...

This is why I am never moving again. I plan to stay in this house until I die, and then my kids can sort through all those boxes in the basement that I never unpacked after the last move.

(Great post.)

3:09 PM  
Blogger susan said...

To quote (I think) from Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, one of our favorites lately: Wow. Just Wow.
This is brilliant. I'm sorry you had the occasion to write it, but this is totally brilliant.

And I, too, will be printing it (not to mention looking up the NYer article) as we begin packing around here, which seems likely to be happening sometime in the next year. At least we hope it will. Although reading this, perhaps I should be hoping it won't.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Arwen said...

I read this as I was out the door, but your number 3 thrilled me deeply because you're a programmer and don't even know it. They teach you to be insane about sets in CompSci. Now, I am forced to donate the last most important uncategorized things or find their boxes, pronto. It drove everyone insane, but I couldn't help it.
I finally settled on an 'unpack this first' box. That sort of helped.

9:23 AM  
Blogger chichimama said...

After our last move, I told my husband that he would have to bury me in the back yard. Even though we did in fact live close enough to pack a box and drive it to the new house and unpack it in the same day. And it was still an awful, awful experience

Best of luck to you, and may you come out the other side intact and magically unpacked...

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post made me laugh like a person unhinged by packing, moving, and unpacking.
I didn't move my residence THIS year, but we moved our whole campus this summer and most of my teacher things spent the summer packed in a container.
School starts Monday and....aaahhhhh!
Half of the boxes in my room are books, yet one really needs to see ALL the books before planning where they go. Which is also an exercise in futility because what 5th grader is going to return a Marguerite Henry book back with its fellow novels?

10:00 AM  

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