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Get a Grip

by Karen Ackland

 "Get your grips," my grandmother used to say when she came to pick me up for an overnight visit to her house. On the evening before a trip, a grip is what I need.

I enjoy traveling and believe that I possess many characteristics of the ideal traveler. I'm easily amused, can sit quietly in small spaces, have a high tolerance for boredom, and a strong stomach. For months before a trip I read guidebooks, search the Internet, and plot the ideal route between destinations. I study maps obsessively, hoping that eventually the irregular lines will reveal the area's secrets and it will become obvious how to travel from Chiang Mai, Thailand to the border town of Chiang Khong.

What I hate is packing.

Once I open my suitcase and start to pack, the anticipation I have enjoyed for months will disappear and I'll wonder why I ever thought this was a good idea. I agonize over including one unnecessary article of clothing. Now that I work at home, I carelessly wear the same thing day after day, but I cannot predict what I will feel like wearing as I tour the temples of Angkor or walk the streets of Berlin. I want clothes that are smart, slimming, and will call the right amount of attention to myself. I want something that will look good in photographs. On the evening before a trip, it seems I do not own anything that fits this description.

As soon as I start packing I am overcome with the need to organize my closet, hem the pants that have been held up with masking tape for the last year, and polish all my shoes. Suddenly I feel like ironing. There is no time like the present to address the resolutions I make each January to lose weight, learn Spanish, and start an herb garden. It is tempting to think that if I would just cancel this one trip I could finally become a slim, Spanish-speaking gardener.

My husband has no problem packing. He opens his bag, counts out a pair of underwear for each day that he is going to be away, adds a random number of clothes, and zips the whole thing shut. The process takes no more than 30 minutes. He feels no compulsion to travel light and he always packs too much, which I always point out to him. He does not take this in the helpful spirit in which it is intended.

Sometime around 11:30 on the evening before a trip, my husband will take the pillow off his head and ask in the aggrieved voice he usually reserves for eating vegetables if I am ever coming to bed. I cheerfully tell him that I am almost done, although in reality I have not made much progress in the last two hours. It strikes me that this would be a good time to catch up on my email. I am tempted to write my parents and apologize for having been a teenager. I could finally finish last year's Christmas cards, or at least steam off the stamps from the envelopes I addressed but never mailed.

A friend emailed me last night with her own packing blues. She claims she develops octopus suckers on the day before a trip and wants to stick to her furniture, her kitchen, even her keyboard. Obviously, I identify.

It's not that I'm afraid of flying. Eventually someone else will need to clean out my underwear drawer, but that is not a worry I associate with travel. I may say the wrong thing, pay too much at the local market, or spend a day within sight of the nearest bathroom, but none of these are sufficient reasons to stay home. If only I didn't need to pack.

A friend recommends that I pack in advance, but that would only prolong my discomfort. Another friend suggests Beatles music, played loudly while dancing around the house. I cannot imagine this exuberance. Packing is my penance, the price I pay for leaving my shortcomings behind.

Because once my bag is zipped for the final time, the extra pair of heavy socks stuffed in the outside pocket, I can turn my back on my procrastinating ways without regret. No point going on a diet now. It's silly to learn Spanish on my way to Japan. The pile of clothes on my bedroom chair that reproach me each morning with their need for buttons will just have to wait.

I'm a traveler now. Leave a message if you like. I won't be checking in.

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