There is a fabulous George Carlin comedy routine from the 1970’s or 80’s that has always made me laugh from the moment I heard it on vinyl. It’s entitled “A Place for Your Stuff.” [You can watch it here at your own risk. Explicit language at the end.] Little did my young self realize that I would one day come to embody Carlin’s insightful sense of stress over the concept. Every time I travel I feel like I’m living his words.
He starts out saying that a house is really just a place for your stuff. When you travel, you pack an even smaller version of your stuff. “And then your buddy says something like, ‘Hey Hawaii is great, but let’s go over to this island for a couple of days. You won’t need much stuff,’ and just when you’ve got the smaller version of everything unpacked, you have to pack an even smaller version of your stuff.
I’m currently on a plane bound for San Diego with my bare essentials divided between the bag under the space in front of the empty middle seat (score!!!) and my wheel-aboard in the overhead bin. All my other stuff for 5 days of site seeing is hopefully(!) in a bigger bag in the belly of the plane. I’m a tag along on this journey. It’s my husband who is attending a conference. I’m in my intermittent strategic planning and marketing role but with some free time. Sadly, when these trips pop up, I actually have to think twice before saying yes. Travel fatigue, you see. It’s not the glamorous adventure it was when I was a child. It’s more of a fun but exhausting time bookended by claustrophobia and allergy attacks.
Last night, despite having mostly packed two days early and owning two of many things like hair dryers, chain nose pliers, and Caran d’Ache 2B pencils, I made my typical frantic relays between studio, bedroom, and dining room (the only room with floor space enough for a large suitcase) placing various items in their designated bags and vowing not to do this ritual, freak-out, micro-decision dance to myself the next trip.
Narrowing down the choices of what to work on and what materials I’ll need is just how I roll, be it a work trip or a vacation. Each trip, I stand in my studio, faced with the paralyzing choices of books and pigments. Whatever I take adds pounds to my load and wear and tear on my shoulders. Whatever I don’t take taunts me, reminding just how much I will miss that book I’m reading or that little bottle of ink I’d have to cram into my quart-sized zip top bag with my 3.4 oz or less liquids gels, and aerosols. Who packs aerosols anymore??? Oh, right. Me. Asthma inhaler.
I pack not only smaller versions of my stuff but I also pack in a way that I’ll be OK should my checked bag not arrive with me. I nest bags within bags, purse within “personal item” (as if my checked suitcase isn’t personal, o dear airliners and TSA?!?) jewelry within clear bags within boxes within clear bags, watercolors within boxes within “The Mobile Studio” within the compartment of my carry-on. In the event some petty tyrant of a gate agent (hello, Delta) insists on gate-checking my carry-on, I can whisk my purse out from my personal item and fling the can’t-live-without items from my carry-on into my even more personal item that is now my carry-on.
I also carry a travel bag scale that my sweet son bought me one Christmas so that never again do we have to wonder if I’ve bought too many books on a trip for that suitcase to be under the 50 lb limit. – The Strand in NYC and Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, I love you both! – The answer is usually ‘yes,’ so the scale becomes an invaluable way to distribute the books among everyone else’s bags. It’s good my family loves me.
I pack like Jane Jetson, complete with metaphorical fold out kitchen sink.
It’s brilliant…until I have to pack to come home, and it’s like putting the toothpaste back in the tube.
For workshop trips I ship most of my tools and materials for students ahead so as not to stress about loosing a checked bag, but I always carry on all my sample pieces and my own Eastern repousse tools (non-sharp tools under 7” still pass. Just don’t even think about carrying on a drill bit unless you want to watch TSA people Freak Out).
Still, the morning of a trip, I remember all the odd things I’ve forgotten and run around packing them before getting into the shower, which I inevitability do too late not to rush and panic while getting ready. Alas, shaky hands and liquid eyeliner do not mix.
At one point I became so tired of deciding days ahead what clothes I’d want to wear a week from Thursday, that I had a medium sized stash of clothes on hangers that I’d zigzag fold into a big suitcase so as to have all my options. I’d come home, launder them, and pack the same ones again next trip. Fewer decisions, yay. Until, that is, I realized at the end of each workshop when everyone would gather for the class photo I was inevitably wearing one of the same two shirts from coast to coast for over a year. It’s difficult to pack light and be boho glam.
The sizing down and temporarily divesting of stuff is not limited to packing. Once I leave home, all those things I agonized over not taking stay behind. This often includes one 20-year old son and two Sheltie puppies.
At Southwest’s curbside check-in, I hand over the larger bag. Now I’m free to walk with only two bags past the closed TSA pre-check entrance nearest Southwest’s terminal entrance so I can trudge half-way around Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport as it happens (yes, even busier than Heathrow, which comes in a close second), in order to gain access to the pre-check entrance for Delta’s terminal, then snake through endless cordoned lines like at Disneyworld but for a ride that is not nearly so fun. You can literally be dropped off right in front of the door and walk a mile at HJIA before you ever get to security.
Once through what Seth Godin aptly calls the “Security Theater,” bare essentials (hopefully) reclaimed, it’s time to gather, regroup, figure out where my watch and drivers license fell down inside my personal item, put on my belt, and restack the personal item on top of my carry-on. – My friend Cynthia Eid was once traveling through a smaller airport and saw a sign for this zone that said ‘Recombobulation Area.” Perfect. – Now to the escalator for the Plane Train (actually what ATL airport calls it) where people stand just inside the doors and belligerently block anyone getting on or off at any of the seven concourses. They are undoubtedly natives because that’s how obliviously Atlantans drive as well…while weaving, speeding, and texting.
It is on this escalator to the Plane Train that I begin divesting of my mental stuff, the endless projects and admin tasks that make up my supposedly creative days. I delude myself into thinking there isn’t too much going on after this trip, so when I get back I’ll have plenty of time to focus on ____. Someday, the part of me that agonizes at leaving books, sketchbooks, materials, and tools behind will figure out that the other part of my brain which surfaces on that escalator is something about which to look forward with eager anticipation. I’ve been trying to get them together for years, but they refuse to be match-made.
There is an old joke that if you’re going to Hell, you’ll have to change planes in Atlanta. It doesn’t matter my domestic destination, my gate will be at the far end of Councourse C, which lies a train ride or a 3 mile walk away, and I’ve always suspected, is actually somewhere in the state of Alabama. After awkwardly getting off the Plane Train, I take another escalator out of Middle Earth and head to the ladies’ room to put on my metal detector unfriendly jewelry. I fill my water bottle, maybe grab food then walk the rest of the miles to the gate.
There is a final letting go on the jetway, that sense of no going back, of having left things behind but not really having left yet. The jetway is the Bardo of real time travel, a transitional space for passengers to move through, where one is not yet on the journey. If no one is moving on the jetway, or the plane sits at the gate for more than 45 minutes. It’s just plain Purgatory.
After getting assaulted on a flight home from California in 2018, my favorite way to travel is with my very broad shouldered husband. Not only is he my favorite date and brilliant and fun to have around, he lifts my bag into the overhead and silently, profoundly discourages anyone from picking the middle seat between us on Southwest’s open seating aircraft. In a sans assigned seat situation, no idiot would dare to mistakenly target me again.
On trips with my honey, upon arrival, there is the hotel check in process that takes only slightly less time than the eons one can spend at a car rental desk. Next it’s time to enjoy the view in a nice hotel and hope the cleaning fluids used in the bathroom don’t set off our asthma.
Truth be told, I almost said no to San Diego. Yes, ok, who in her right might would do that and in winter no less, but that thought of packing is a total downer. My family and I joke about how many times I can fly over the turbulent and queasy inducing Rocky Mountains in any given year, so all flights west come with careful consideration. Put all that with all the airport drama, and you might understand why I have Post Traumatic Travel Disorder. Seriously.
Does this stop me from saying yes to organizers eager to book me for a workshop? Oh, hell no. Or from a trip to NYC to see my friend Heather, shop at to The Strand, see amazing art, and eat at Tea and Sympathy, one of my most favorite restaurants on the planet (and not requiring crossing said Rockies)? Definitely not. Cali though…it’s a long and bumpy flight. Ditto Seattle soon for a long weekend and Las Vegas next month.
Besides getting to spend some time with my honey, it was Harriet I thought of missing if I didn’t go to San Diego. She’s a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo and a complete muse for my miniature illuminations. Since giraffes hate to lift their legs to step over anything, one can get unbelievably close to their low enclosure at the zoo, unlike their space at Zoo Atlanta, two blocks from my house. Hariette and I had a long conversation on my trip there in 2016. I talked; she stared in total comprehension and modeled for my photos as elegantly as any gorgeous human might.
My husband has aspirations to retire to Cornwall, UK and spend most of the remainder of his days throwing pots on the wheel. I concede a 5-year plan, and after which we move our cold and aching joints to Fiji. If I have difficulty deciding what to take on a 5-day trip, imagine how I’ll feel wondering if I should ship my Orion micro-TIG welder and the Leica microscope and stand with my GRS Gravermach overseas. Let’s not even talk about the tail-spin my brain goes into when I think about which books to pack.
Still, I actually do love going places. My willingness to brave airports every 4 weeks or so must be absolute proof. Getting to see the world and capture my experiences in my artwork is a privilege that I may bitch about but never ever take for granted.