Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What do you hoard?

My moving company has provided me with a list of “non-allowable” items. For instance, nail polish is listed under “Hazardous Materials” and may not be shipped. (Farewell, OPI.) Don’t even think about packing fireworks, even if they were “Buy 1, Get 4 Free.” You also have to leave behind chemistry sets, weed killer and household batteries.

Kiss all those half-empty (half-full?) bottles of salad dressing good-bye as well. “Perishables/Personal/Sentimental” items are no-nos. This intriguing category includes produce, checkbooks, wedding photos, car keys, plants, laptops and cash. Oh, and frozen food.

The latter restriction once led to my storing the top of a friend’s wedding cake in my freezer when she moved. She also asked me to keep a container of frozen soup. Her father had made the soup. He was no longer living and the soup was beyond old, but she could not bring herself to throw away the container. I made room in my freezer for almost a year, and then drove her frozen foods – tucked in a cooler, of course -- to her new home.

I helped this same friend pack for her move. Her husband had already left for his new job in their new town. One child, now grown, was out on her own. The other two often were busy with friends and summer jobs. Besides, my friend was eager to sift and sort, and not simply box up everything and cart it off into the sunset.

Or so she said.

I promised not to reveal her name here, but I am going to tell what she hoarded. One afternoon, I was put in charge of packing the contents of a large metal cabinet. The cabinet, she told me, held "art supplies." This cabinet was filled with scraps of construction paper, colored pencils (nubs as well as full length) in every shade and crayons – hundreds, maybe thousands, of used crayons.

“Why do you have 963 crayons?” I asked. (I made up that number, but it wasn't far off the mark.)

“We bought each child a new box at the start of every school year,” she called out from the kitchen, where she was packing utensils, baskets and kitchen towels, all past their prime.

“That was very generous of you,” I said. “But two of your kids are in college and one has graduated. Surely you don't want to keep this stuff. Every last crayon has been used. Some are broken, and many have lost their wrappers. I’ll just toss them all.”

Silence from the kitchen. Then: “No. Let’s not throw them out. You never know…”

Ah, yes. You never know. That sentence will effectively plug up any sifting and sorting operation, and the next thing you do know, you’ll be looking for a spot in your new home to store 963 used crayons. That’s exactly what happened.

My friend is not alone in her hoarding behavior. I hoard beauty products. When I learned that Sally Hansen’s “Radiant Hands, Nails & Cuticles Crème” was being taken off the market, I bought eight tubes on line. The previous year, I had scooped every last tube of the hard-to-find Glysomed Hand Cream off a grocery shelf. (Do let me know if you are in need of any good hand cream.)

One friend hoards hair products. When she learned that her favorite would no longer be available, she bought a good-sized stash. However, she soon found she was reluctant to use any of it.

“If I used it, soon I would be down the last tube and then there would never be any more,” she said. Over time, she experimented with half a dozen new hair products. When she found one she liked even better than her old favorite, she raced out and bought a dozen, just in case the item might be discontinued in the future.

You never know...

What do you hoard?

More to the point: If you move, can you take it with you?

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Will he come today?

That is my waking thought every day. (I allow the gender-specific reference only in deference to Samuel Beckett.)

Will the right buyer show up today, offer a contract and buy the condo so I can pack up and head for San Francisco?

Today, eight people came to my realtor's Open House here. That's good. We'll see.

Meanwhile, I walk through my rooms eyeing Stuff. "You're going," I say to the Madcracker poster. "You're not," I tell the photograph of the teen-age moose. "What?" I imagine the moose saying. "You would opt for an old poster over a real photo of a real moose?"

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe I will sell both.

To help me sort it all out, I am reading Julie Morgenstern's book "When Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life." That acronym stands for:

* Separate the treasure.

* Heave the trash.

* Embrace your identity.

* Drive yourself forward.

Sounds like more of a workout than water aerobics.

I am not, as some friends have pointed out, particularly attached to my stuff -- at least until I stare at any one item and try to determine whether to take it or leave it.

I do know that I am not my stuff. I know that my stuff does not define me.

Had I not known, I would have found out in Morgenstern's book. Still, I'm not sure that my inner bohemian is ready to shed every last item. The trick seems to be choosing what will make the journey and what will go to the down-sizing sale.

Deciding about big stuff is easy. I'll sell the bedroom furniture, the dining room furniture, the office furniture. I really like my loveseat and the matching chair-and-a-half and ottoman. I can't leave behind my purple shell-shaped chair.

I've looked at used furniture on Craisglist. People are eager to shed --- er, sell -- lovely kitchen tables, desks and bedroom sets. I'll buy those when I get to San Francisco. People also are eager to sell lumpy, discolored couches and chairs. The guy from the moving company said if I leave behind my living room furniture, I'll save $295.

Ha! I can't replace what I have for that. I will take my upholstered furniture, and be happy that I did.

"Just take your purse," said my friend Gail.

Another friend, when I told her Gail's advice, commented, "She's got a bigger purse."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Watering St. Joseph

In the past month, three people recommended that I "plant" a statue of St. Joseph to expedite the sale of the condo. I had heard of the practice, but not seriously considered it. After all, I was already working closely with Ganesh, the Indian god who specializes in removing obstacles, and I had contacted Sekhmet (the lion-headed Egyptian goddess) for extra courage.

Still, three is a magic number. Some years ago when during a 10-day period three people invited me to go to Egypt (no one had ever asked before, ever) I forgot all the reasons why I could not go and booked a trip. The tour was remarkable; memorable in so many ways.

So after a third friend spoke in favor of seeking help from St. Joseph, I looked on line for guidance. Talk about your cottage industries -- many web sites sell the statues, ranging from $2 to $14. Some sites hawk whole kits for would-be home sellers that include official "burial bags" and copies of special prayers, available in several languages.

Moving to San Francisco will be expensive. Instead of shelling out any money for a statue, I dug around in the boxes of Christmas decorations until I found the manger from my childhood. The set came from Woolworth's, and the prices --stamped on the bottoms of the figures -- were quite reasonable. A kneeling angel cost 19 cents. A tall shepherd with a sheep draped over his shoulders went for 29 cents. The camel was pricey, 39 cents.

None of the figures is in good shape. Joseph used to hold a thin metal cane, but his fingers broke off decades ago. From the look of it, his other hand has been glued on repeatedly. He does have his head. One wise man has lost his -- literally. A standing angel that I used to "fly" above the manger (I used a bit of kitchen string and some tape affixed to the grate over a fireplace that no longer worked) looks terrific, but apparently angels don't have the same home-selling powers as St. Joseph.

With great care, I placed the four-inch statue of St. Joseph in a Ziploc bag. With a spoon, I dug a hole in the biggest of the three geranium pots on my deck. I stuck him in, covered him over and patted down the soil. "Do your thing, Joe," I said, and headed back inside. A day later, I watered him, right along with the flowers.

"Did you bury him upside down and facing east?" asked my friend Susan.

I did bury him upside down, but I regularly turn the geranium pots so all the leaves get equal access to the sun. Sometimes, he will face east. Other days, he'll face in other directions, perhaps inadvertently coming to the aid of other would-be sellers in my neighborhood.

Susan also counseled this: “When the property sells, you must dig up the statue, clean it, and carry it with you to your new home, where it should be kept in a place of honor. Failure to do this will lead to trouble with the sale or trouble with the new home or property.”

Susan read that on the Internet. She also reported that one web site admits that burial methods may vary. Here are some of the options:

* Right-side up pointing towards the front of the house
* Upside down facing the street
* In the backyard near the rear property line
* Close to the For Sale sign
* Face up, looking toward the heavens

The person responsible for interment also may opt to say a prayer or sprinkle holy water on the spot.

Another web site warns that if you do not follow the right protocol (never mind that “right” is clearly relative), bad things may happen to good people who mess with St. Joseph. For instance:

* If your statue faces the wrong way, your neighbor across the street may suddenly get a buyer, even if the house is not for sale.
* If you lose patience (and maybe a little faith), dig up your statue and throw it in the trash can, you may be responsible for the sale of the city dump.
* If you neglect to dig up your statue before you move, your home may go on and off the market for years.

One practical site gives the nod to burying a statue but also recommends a good realtor, aggressive marketing tactics, appropriate preparation so your property shows well and a price that reflects the true value of your home.

When I planted St. Joseph, no one had looked at the condo for 12 days. Three days after I made room in the pot for the statue, my realtor brought by a couple who really like my place. Maybe if I water St. Joseph again tomorrow, the couple's intention to buy will grow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everything will be all right

Friends have said so in the past, on several occasions, and usually they were right. Truman Capote said the phrase is exactly what we want to hear. In "Other Voices, Other Rooms," Capote wrote:

"What we most want is only to be held...and told...that everything (everything is a funny thing, is baby milk and Papa's eyes, is roaring logs on a cold morning, is hoot-owls and the boy who makes you cry after school, is Mama's long hair, is being afraid and twisted faces on the bedroom wall)...everything is going to be all right."

I say it when I've spent too much time playing "What If."

What if this is all a cruel hoax and no one buys the condo and I've given away all my books and I never get to San Francisco? What if someone buys the condo and I can't find anywhere decent to live or I overlook some major monthly expense and end up worrying about money? What if...

You pay to park in San Francisco. Apartment dwellers are charged anywhere from $50 to $275 a month (maybe higher in pricey neighborhoods)to park a car. If your place doesn't offer parking, you pay the city for a public parking permit, and you park on the street. I've heard that cars are stolen off the street sometimes -- probably so the thieves can get a place to park.

Some people have urged me to sell my car. No one needs a car in San Francisco, they say. I do. I need a car in San Francisco so I can go to Muir Woods and Stinson Beach and wine country and Yosemite and Bodega Bay and the drive-through redwood tree near Eureka and other places I haven't yet discovered.

I'm taking the car, so I will need parking. I also want a place where I will feel safe. I want a washer and dryer on the premises. I'd adore having a dishwasher. I'm keenly interested in a place with a cross breeze. I'd like a quiet place, with nice neighbors. A view would be terrific, but if I don't get one, I'll just walk out the door and there will be plenty of scenic vistas close by. Mostly, I want a new nest, a good home.

Everything will be all right, I tell the cat.

When I look on Craigslist for an apartment in San Francisco at a price I can afford, plenty of possibilities pop up. Say I'm looking in the Inner Sunset -- and I am -- maybe 46 listings pop up. If I click on the tab that finds apartments where cats are permitted, the selection decreases to maybe seven places. Plenty of apartments pride themselves on being smoke free (hurrah!) and pet free. In response to that last information about pets, my friend Gail retorted, "What??? Then California should not be allowed to be a state."

Some places that take pets charge pet rent -- as much as $75 per month. Others require a hefty security deposit. Some places go so far as to post ads saying how much your pet will enjoy frolicking with dogs, cats and goodness knows what else (ferrets? rhinos? great-horned owls?) in the complex. A few places are specifically cat-friendly. My favorite listing read: "No pets. Cats only."

Everything will be all right, I tell myself and the cat. The other night, I resorted to comforting both of us with a song from "West Side Story." I stroked Maggie's head and sang, "There's a place for us. Somewhere a place for us..."

Once we are there, everything will be all right.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Go West, says the family

One sunny day in May of this year, I was sitting on a beach in Marin County with my son, his fiancée (now his wife!) and her mother. I was waving at the cormorants, talking to the pelicans and wishing a whale would swim by. Susan, the bride’s mom, asked if I had ever thought of moving west. I replied that I have loved the ocean my entire life and once tried to move to Oregon, but failed. (I was offered a job at a 60 percent salary cut…)

Susan looked at me and said, “You might want to consider it again.” She glanced toward our grown children.“You would be part of the family mix, and not have to hear about their lives over the phone.” What a compelling sentence! As my plane landed in St. Louis the next evening, I looked at the abundance of beautiful green trees and thought, “I’ll miss spring in Missouri.”

Then a series of eerie events occurred.

I didn't realize the time sequence at first, but that beach picnic took place on Mother's Day, the day my brother died when he was 9 and I was 14. I called my aunt on May 12 -- the date my brother died -- to say I had made the decision to move. Three days later, the realtor told me he would have the condo on the market Friday, May 22. That's my brother’s birthday. Oh, and the realtor has the same first name as my brother.

A week later, for a freelance assignment I interviewed five women preparing for a group Bat Mitzvah, women ranging in age from 75 to 93. At the end of the session, the eldest, a beautiful blind woman, called me over to say she appreciated that I had not only listened to what the women said about this experience, but that I had heard them, believed in what they were doing.

She asked if I would be offended if she gave me a Hebrew name. I said would be honored. (I was christened Catholic, saved at a Baptist revival, shivered in the presence of Shiva in Bombay and spoke aloud to a statue of Sekhmet in Egypt – so why not?)

The woman said my Hebrew name would be Penina, and that she would call me “Penny.”I gasped audibly, startling the woman. I told her that I grew up hearing that my mother had intended to name me Penelope, and call me Penny. Daddy had agreed at first, but when he filled out the birth certificate, he wrote a favorite family name instead. Suddenly, 60 years later, a 93-year-old blind Jewish woman gave me the name my mother (who died in '72) had chosen for me! I asked what Penina means. It means "pearl." The pearl is my birthstone.

Two nights later, I was sitting in the cheap (relatively) seats at Opera Theatre. At intermission, a woman in the row behind me tapped me on the shoulder. She said she thought she recognized me. Then she said this: "Your father rented an apartment from my grandparents on Arco Avenue in the late 1940s." Indeed he had. My father died in 1982, and strangers rarely bring up his name.

All these coincidences occurred in just 13 days.

Believe what you like. I choose to conclude that my whole family is supporting this move.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Better late than never

If you're going to San Francisco in 2009, you're going 41 years late -- at least if you hoped to be part of a social movement that shaped the lives of Baby Boomers across the nation.

Still, is it ever to late to shed the muted fabric of a peaceful life and wrap yourself in colorful new beginnings?

I'm a writer. I've had occasion to reinvent myself in the past, so I know the transformative power of letting go of old habits, old behaviors, old beliefs and slipping into something new, even when that seems scary. Scarier, to me, is never changing, clinging to what was instead of investigating what could be, waiting for change instead of initiating it.

So, after 61 years in St. Louis, I am moving to San Francisco.

Never mind that my condo is sitting (quietly, stubbornly) on the market or that the contract for four new books fell through or that my financial advisor is nervous about the cost of living in San Francisco. I'm not figuring out whether I can go. I'm concentrating on how to make it work.

I take up a lot of room in St. Louis. My condo offers 1700 square feet of comfortable living space. In San Francisco, I will be able to afford a lot less space, and it won't be space I'll own. Renting at this point in my life appeals to me, makes me feel somehow more free. Then again, what I'm doing here is ripping up deep roots, taking a chance on building a new life in a new place, and that's all about freedom.

My first step, after listing the condo, was to stop hoarding books. I have -- had -- many, many books. About two years ago, I started to become annoyed at all these books sitting on all these shelves in all these bookcases, just collecting dust. No one was opening the books, reading the books, learning from or laughing at the books. Isn't that what books are for?

Still, I did nothing except continue to be annoyed about the number of books.

When I moved to my condo almost 11 years ago, I brought eight boxes of kitchen stuff and 48 boxes of books. That's over. So far, I have given away 37 boxes of books! I gave books to the Vandalia Women's Prison (where they have a library but no budget to stock the shelves), to the women's studies program at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, to a local high school, to the Morris Library at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, to a church rummage sale,
to my friend Jenny (a college student) and to the St. Louis Book Fair.

Goodbye, books!

Somehow, I still have a lot of books. I'm holding off right now, but I think a final sweep will eliminate another three boxes or so. I've also hauled out seven trash bags of papers and detritus from my home office, and took three bags of clothing to a resale shop. Occasionally I walk around the condo and speak to the art on the walls, the appliances on the kitchen counter, the knickknacks on the mantel. "You're going with me," I say to some. "You're not," I say to most.

When I'm not sifting and sorting and pitching -- or talking to my possessions -- I'm prowling around on Craigslist/San Francisco, looking at apartments, checking out used furniture (I found a great purple bookcase -- oh, the irony!) and keeping track of freelance opportunities. Much of the time, I'm working, completing writing and editing assignments so I can fatten up my Moving Fund.

I am moving to San Francisco, and I've decided to write here about the process.

To follow me on this journey -- and help along the way -- click on the link at the bottom of the page.