Packing for trips

Let's talk about contemplation

There’s a standby in magazines, in the part of a magazine that editors call “front of book,” or early pages, to feature a bag of some kind unpacked, its contents arrayed, the entire thing photographed from above.

I never turn past one. I like to read them slowly and stare at each item. It can be a movie star’s handbag, a mountain climber’s haul bag, what a professional tennis player carries on court. I don’t care what the contents are, though I’m not disinterested, but I’ll linger, staring (especially if I’m reading the magazine on a plane), the same way I absorb paintings while some spot in my mind lights up and begins to buzz.

When this began to manifest in a fondness for packing luggage, I don’t remember. Is it because my mother packs days or even weeks before a trip, laying out what she’ll need: probably. But the anticipation of packing is even better than the packing itself, at least for me. Considering the right jacket, the right shoes, the right arrangement of jacket and shoes. A few years ago, I found what I considered to be the perfect bag for my needs, and then I have other bags that go inside it, and then bags to go inside the bags – layers of grouping, association, organization. It would be pretty comical (or just stupid) if it didn’t bring me such a tingling sense of contentment.

The novelist Tom McCarthy’s first book, Remainder, tells the story of a man who suffers a head injury and receives a massive insurance payout, which enables him to bring a fantasy to life: modifying an apartment building and hiring actors to live inside, simulating scenarios he recalls from his past. Someone cooks liver in a pan. Someone repairs a motorcycle. He runs the scenarios around the clock, but eventually doesn’t even want to watch them (or smell them); he’s contented being somewhere else, knowing they’re going on. I remember reading the book when it came out; bells rang with every page. Yes, it’s about control, being controlling, other ways of going about the world, but I connected with the details most. The fantasy of things occurring off-camera. I’m someone who, when I’ve got the house to myself, likes a stereo or radio playing in every room, different stations or playlists on each one to set a special mood in each corner – and I’m also someone who fantasizes of throwing a party only to leave before it’s halfway through, so I can go to a bar around the corner and order a drink and imagine everyone back at the party, picturing what they’re doing. What it suggests is a manner of avoiding disappointment. It shows the fear of the loss of control. Truthfully, I’m not sure it says anything good about me (except I’m odd). But writing books, especially novels, in the early drafts, is pretty awful. The same way that gasping up a mountain is an exercise in not quitting, not yelling at the sky how aggravating it all is. I mean to say that anticipation alone – the performance of packing, the act of dialing a radio to a certain station in case I should pass it a few hours later – wouldn’t be very fun if I did nothing and sat around stoned all day. Because I do enjoy seeing things through to the final draft, the summit, the end.

But to linger in the preface of an experience, to appreciate a sense of order before any disorder really starts – call it contemplation, call it packing – is one of the more beautiful ways I know of passing time.


Some things from tomorrow’s “Sunday Supplement” for paying subscribers: camping equipment for your phone, my favorite way of thinking up good ideas, and the pleasure of sharp knives:

Last weekend, we went to a dinner party where we were enlisted to become part of the cooking crew. Terrific, I love to cook. My task was to make a chimichurri sauce, which involved a lot of chopping of things, but unfortunately all of the knives in the kitchen were dull. The process was instantly annoying and slower; the sauce did not turn out the way they should. I’ve only been cooking for about 15 years, but wow – there are a lot of little things that make cooking more fun, and sharp knives are at the top of the list.

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What the what? “Meditations in an Emergency” is a weekly email newsletter published Saturdays by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin about things he finds beautiful. “The Sunday Supplement” is his weekly recommendation bulletin for paying subscribers.

Rosecrans’s new book, Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, is available from BookshopAmazon, or your local store. Any other books mentioned in this newsletter are featured on this list.