Wednesday, April 05, 2006
I’m still not ready to do any fresh-and-original posting, I’m afraid. Still working at the day job. But I see from the meter below the AltWeeklies ad that this adjectival blog will host its three millionth visitor today, just three hundred and sixty-four days after hosting its one millionth visitor, and I really shouldn’t let the occasion go unmarked. Last year, to celebrate the milestone, I posted a long essay about disability, abortion, and end-of-life care. This year, I’ve decided to be a little more lighthearted. The following is an essay I wrote just after moving to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2001, but, for various reasons, never managed to publish anywhere. In fact, I don’t remember exactly why I wrote it. Perhaps just to sort through the experience of moving, or to tell myself that Phase I of the moving process was now complete insofar as I could sit down and write about moving. Anyway, the essay has been sitting quietly on my hard drive for over four years, waiting patiently for its big moment. And that moment is now! The stage is yours, unplaced and long-forgotten essay! Get out there and entertain my three millionth visitor!
War. The death of a loved one. Divorce. Moving. Apparently these are the four most traumatic life experiences available to citizens of advanced industrialized nations—in that order. I don’t get it; I actually kind of like moving, in some ways. This makes me an awkward conversationalist whenever people good-heartedly try to sympathize with me about how terrible an experience moving is, but then again, it makes me a good person to have around when you need to move.
I like the physicality of it, the sheer clarity: you pick up furniture and put it in trucks, you sort through books and dishes and toys, you tally up all your longings and belongings and worries and debts. You are compelled to account for your every possession, however hideous or forgotten it may be. You work all day, and you can see your work the next morning. You might even learn things about your things before you’re done—like the fact that the office desk you assembled in 1995 weighs seven hundred pounds and, even when broken down into three parts, will not make it up a flight of stairs and around a corner. And you might learn things about yourself as well, like the fact that you don’t like asking people to do things—moving that desk, for example—that you can’t do yourself.
In 2001 I completed a major move that usurped an entire summer: an academic couple in mid-career with two children, 15 and 9, and a small dog, age and species indeterminate. The move itself was thankfully “uneventful,” in the sense that the tractor trailer hauling our household did not encounter any low-hanging bridges which open trucks like cans of sardines and leave their contents strewn over hundreds of yards of highway like . . . um, like sardines. We were Illinois residents on Friday, Pennsylvania residents on Monday, with all our furniture and paintings and photographs intact—even Nick’s ten-thousand-microscopic-piece Lego creations, popcorned and boxed and shipped alongside my drums and Jamie’s stuffed animals and Janet’s guitars. An amazing thing, really.
But the preparation and aftermath were another thing altogether. All summer I found myself writing to people, “I’m so sorry I can’t get you that essay after all—first May disappeared, then June, and my dog ate July, and oops, there went August.” I remembered an email I’d gotten from cultural theorist John Frow, who’d moved halfway around the planet from Brisbane to Glasgow in 1999, telling me that the move took a year out of his life. And I realized that very little has been written about the phenomenon of the academic move, even though, sociologically speaking, there’s really nothing like it. It happens to be a curious kind of adventure generally reserved for the most and least fortunate inhabitants of academe, only the former of whom do it voluntarily—and only a small, odd fraction thereof do it often.
When Janet and Nick and I moved to Illinois from graduate school, in Virginia, we had a “moving allowance” that just barely allowed us to rent a U-Haul. Now, twelve years later, we were being moved by professional movers for the first time in our lives, and we had an official inventory: 337 boxes, not including furniture and appliances and desks. One hundred and ten of those boxes contained books. I know, I know: among academics, let alone academic couples, 110 boxes is a light load. Janet and I simply don’t own enough books, partly because (as we admit to ourselves only when we move) we simply haven’t read enough books. But in the world of professional movers, 110 book boxes is quite enough for any ten people; there wasn’t a single mover, on the Illinois or on the Pennsylvania end of the deal, who didn’t walk through our inventory and whistle or gasp or curse. Boxes of books have very high weight-to-volume ratios, so our movers retaliated by individually boxing every one of our lampshades—thus decreasing the average density-per-box, and giving us billions of cubic feet of packing material to dispose of in central Pennsylvania. And then we had to declare our valuables: crystal, china, jewelry, furs, guns. Checking “none,” “none,” “none,” “none,” and “none,” we thought that this was as useful an emblem as any other for the academic move: 110 book boxes, no valuables.
But at the same time, I have to think that this move was somewhat more complicated than your standard academic-couple affair. Jamie’s early-June tonsillectomy and multiple tooth extraction was a two-week horror during which Janet and I force-fed juice, soda, antibiotics and Tylenol to a deeply puzzled and fiercely resistant nine-year-old. And when Jamie finally began to recover in the third week of June, having lost eight of his 65 pounds, his reward was this: he got to watch all of his possessions disappear day by day in no particular order.
Ah, but everyone knows how difficult it is to move with young children, and you know what? Everyone is right. On this point I have no trouble at all bonding with people who hate and fear moving. In 1989, upon receiving that job offer from Illinois, I promptly embarked on a massive psychological-prep program with then-three-year-old Nick, readying him for the move away from his birthplace and his many playmates. I showed him Illinois on the map; I made up songs for him about the U-Haul truck and all the states we would drive through; I told him all about his new house and his new room. And I did this for a full six months before we packed up.
It worked beautifully: Nick was excited about moving, and after we got to Illinois that August, never uttered a peep about missing his friends and familiar places. Couldn’t have gone more smoothly, I thought, and congratulated myself on my sagacity and my rapport with my child. Then two months later, in October, my patient little boy innocently asked me, “hey Dad, when are we going back home?” and I said, “oh no, sweetie, we’re not going back to Virginia, we’re going to live in Illinois now,” and he exploded all over the kitchen—little fragments of red-hot toddler flying all over the appliances. What a mess, and what a cleanup. I’ve tried so far to make Pennsylvania seem like a cool new adventure to Jamie, and it helps that he’d already visited a few times before moving. But we shall see, shan’t we. As for Nick, he’s been thoroughly bribed with his own room, his own Internet connection, and his own cell phone. Apparently we’re getting off easy; another couple we know bribed their teenager with a swimming pool.
And then there is the house itself, and all the politics of houses. We were first-time home-sellers, and therefore complete rubes. We could have been told that one-tenth of our sale would be eaten by the debenture rate inspection allotment tax, and we would have believed it (in fact, I’m not at all sure that we weren’t told this). But first, even before we listed the house, we had to learn what kind of people we are. I’m not kidding: the realtor’s initial task was to determine what sort of buyer might like our house, and this entailed determining who the sellers were. So now we know: we’re “Krups people.” That’s what the realtor declared, we’re Krups people—a classification more precise than any devised by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. This despite the fact that our actual coffeemaker is a Mister Coffee. Apparently, we’re in that class/taste fraction in which people own good books, drink strong coffee brewed in pricey German coffeemakers, rent foreign films (you’re kidding, right? we own Total Recall and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), and paint their walls distinctive and vibrant colors. We had gold in the living/dining area, olive green in the master bedroom, purple in the upstairs bathroom. “That purple may be a problem,” said our realtor. “Most people around here stick with white or off-white for bathrooms.”
Well, this was no surprise—when it comes to interior decorating, you’d think the state color of Illinois was bland. When we moved into that modest split-level in 1993, it had off-white walls and rat-gray carpet everywhere. After five years we decided to enliven the kids’ playroom by replacing the dirty and dingy floormat with a no-pile carpet variously described as “paprika” or “persimmon.” Whatever its name, it was as if we needed a municipal zoning variance before we’d be permitted to install the stuff. Carpeting people tried vigorously to dissuade us from buying 400 square feet of it, claiming (a) no one had ever manufactured 400 square feet of such a color, (b) we might be hurting the resale value of the house, and (c) they had some lovely beiges that might work. If only we’d known the lexicon three years earlier, we could have said simply, “we’re Krups people—give us our aesthetic flourishes and get out of our way.”
Happily, however, we did manage to find some other Krups or proto-Krups people to buy the house. We also managed to get everything packed and out of the house, even though some boxes consisted of loosely classified items like “all the stuff that was within a fifteen-foot radius in the playroom when the movers arrived.” I wondered whether I would ever find the CDs I hurriedly stuffed into a spare suitcase filled with pillows, and I wondered what form of madness or sheer laziness had led me to organize a whole shelf of books under the heading “books that people gave me.” Surely, I thought, all this would get straightened out on the other end, when we would actually have to think about the things we owned—and find someplace to put them.
Yet on the other end, we found to our dismay that although we’d spent three months frantically throwing or giving away boxes and boxes of stuff, even contemplating renting a house-jack that would tip our house on end and pour its contents into a dumpster, we still owned, as Janet put it, “an incredible amount of crap.” The first two weeks of moving in consisted of a curious mix of mental and physical labor, shuttling around furniture and all those book boxes while creating dozens of file folders for receipts and new family business (I spent an entire afternoon doing nothing but going through Jamie’s schooling records and audiology reports since 1995). Weird thing about putting away books: it provokes every kind of academic anxiety—and potential marital strife over whose books go where (and whose books are whose: my iron-clad claim to Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood has thus far gone unrecognized by the marital council), and yet when you’re done, after many days’ labor, it doesn’t look all that different from randomly stacked books on unorganized shelves. Twelve years ago, our major question was what to do with Nietzsche: philosophy or “literary theory”? Oh, for the days of such simple problems. This year, everything was up for grabs: fiction and poetry together? All pre-1880 literature in a separate room? Theory and criticism (lots of Michel Foucault in there, and lots of Frank Kermode too) together with “general interest” books by Susan Faludi and James Fallows? A whole bookcase just for the French Revolution? A new heading for disability studies? And bracketing all these questions was a more basic problem: where were we going to stash all these books while we stained and/or repainted the bookcases?
In bookshelving as in so much else, though, we were invigorated by the promise of starting anew and getting everything right this time. “Getting everything right” doesn’t only mean trying to fix everything broken or torn or irrational in sixteen years of marriage, mind you; it also means finding the best way to cope with everything that still goes wrong. Not a day went by, for three solid weeks, without a telecommunications crisis. The cell phones didn’t work as we drove to Pennsylvania in two cars, and the land lines didn’t work in the new house, and every call to Verizon and Verizon Wireless made things worse: we would call to complain that they hadn’t activated Janet’s phone, and they’d respond by entering the wrong account numbers and requiring us to get a new phone number, or (more simply) by “accidentally” dumping our voice mail altogether. For two weeks we couldn’t even get a phone book in our new place; we learned, during one of our many morning-long phone conversations with the operator who allegedly took our call in the order it was received, that it would take eight to ten business days for Verizon to give us phone books. Plaintively, Janet asked Verizon whether we could drive to one of their offices and pick up a book. “We don’t have any public offices,” we were told. “Good thing, too,” she replied, “or you’d be overrun by townspeople with torches and pitchforks at sunset.”
We had our share of marital communications crises, as well. Many of these I defused by doing my impersonation of Al Gore in his second presidential-campaign debate with George Bush, and repeating “Ah agree with the governor” until things settled down. But the worst of these crises involved a long debate about air conditioning that was (obviously, I thought) a veiled debate about class and taste. I wanted four wall units for our steamy old house, and Janet wanted central air—sensible enough, I remarked, if we were to find twenty thousand dollars in a paper bag on the street. Wall units, I assured her, would do the job for now. But over the course of three days’ discussion, Janet told me they were noisy, ugly, excessive, and a drag on the aesthetics of the house. Well, I haven’t been doing left-wing cultural analysis all these years for nothing, so after a while I stopped attempting rational arguments like “newer wall units are nearly inaudible” and “they’re cheaper and more energy-efficient than central air, so there’s no available sense in which they can be called ‘excessive,’” and started suggesting instead that Janet’s aversion to wall units was class-marked. “It’s like this,” I patiently explained to my by-now-fuming mate, “central air lives in Westchester and drinks gin and tonics after a bracing 18 holes at the country club; wall units live in Flushing, Queens—not far from my old neighborhood, perhaps—and drink Rheingold from the can in a lawn chair in the little concrete backyard while watching the Mets game in a t-shirt. You just don’t want that Rheingold in your house, that’s what it is.” Happily, this bracing, original analysis restored harmony and order and cool, cool air to my household, thus proving once again that left-wing cultural analysis, properly applied, is good for families and for the environment too.
Actually that’s not what happened. What happened was that we were hit with a heat wave, and Janet ordered me to get us some wall units and install them before noon.
But the real lesson of this move wasn’t delivered until Todd and Hayward arrived, just as our books and AC were in place, and began a dizzying week and a half of home improvements for us Krups people. Todd is Janet’s sister, a brilliant artist/ writer/ interior designer; Hayward, her boyfriend, is a contractor who knows everything about every mechanical device that humans have devised since the wheel. Together, they gave us Ten Days That Shook the House. They (and we) tore apart the kitchen ceiling tile by tile, ripped off all the wallpaper and chair rails and molding, redesigned the living room, installed a dishwasher and whole-house water filter, hung curtains, created a new paint color, redid the wiring and lighting fixtures, and built new furniture. And that was for starters.
The day after Hayward and I put up the new ceiling (Armstrong 1240—it looks just like a tin ceiling, and apparently almost no one in central Pennsylvania stocks it), I wanted to start painting the walls with the gorgeous periwinkle that Janet and Todd had picked out, only to learn that after I’d finished priming and painting the tiles (in antique white) at around 3 am, Hayward the perfectionist had stayed up until dawn re-compounding and re-taping the wall with the dexterity of a sushi chef so that none of the wall’s flaws would show through the new coat of paint. That meant I would have to spend the day sanding the compound and re-priming, not painting, while Janet and company trucked off westward to initiate some complex intercultural exchanges with the Amish. Sanding the compound is a nasty job; we’d already done it once, a few days earlier, and I was by now very, very tired of moving and improving. I was not in the mood for scouring an entire room full of compound and producing an inch or two of fine microdust to coat the appliances and coffee cups, not to mention the sander’s eyes and lungs.
Hayward tried to make it easier for me, telling me I could use a sponge instead of the sander, if I wanted. But within minutes it was clear that sponging wouldn’t do the job right, and I strapped on the face mask and began to scrub, inch by awful inch. “The trick,” Hayward said, “is to vacuum as you go, so you don’t get overwhelmed by dust. And remember, whatever you do, you can’t make it go faster.”
You can’t make it go faster: what a wonderful warning. It became my mantra for the day, my mantra for the move, and my mantra ever since. Once I began to think that I couldn’t find any short cuts merely by being diligent or clever, I began relaxing into the minutiae of the job, letting it take just as long as all the bumps on the wall required. I didn’t set any time limit for when I wanted to be done, and consequently I wasn’t disappointed or impatient or furious when my imaginary limit was exceeded. The sanding job took five hours. The subsequent priming took two, the edging took two more, and the painting went from 9 pm to 2 am, whereupon Hayward got out the thousand-watt bulb and I got the tiny brushes and we went around the room looking for nearly-imperceptible mistakes until about 4.
The kitchen now looks great, but that’s not the point. The point is that you can’t make these things go faster. It’s true not just of painting and priming and sanding, but of moving in general. And, a fortiori, of living. It may sound like simple common sense to you, but I’m an exceptionally impatient person, and so far it’s changed my attitude toward every tedious, unpleasant task life has to offer. What three years of meditation didn’t teach me, two months of moving did: you can’t make the traffic any better, you can’t reassemble the desk more quickly, you can’t organize the books once and for all, you can’t press the button that makes essays write themselves and children clean up after themselves. That’s not to say that we should all aspire to the serenity of the still rock in running water; Jamie does have to get dressed and driven to camp, and we’ve still got to call the Verizon service number and demand to know what happened to all the voice mail they dumped. But moving? We’re nowhere near being “moved in” yet. Moving takes about ten years. And we’re not going to try to make it go any faster.