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John Kelly's Washington

A Moving Tale for Our Times

By John Kelly
Friday, September 10, 2004; Page C09

I have spent much of the last week in that sort of punchy, fatigued state that comes from moving house.

Experts say moving is one of the most stressful things you can do, right up there with the death of a spouse or a divorce. I've come to see how moving can be so stressful as to lead to the death of a spouse or to be grounds for divorce.

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Not that it ever got that bad in our house, though I'd like to point out that My Lovely -- if maddeningly overefficient -- Wife decided last weekend that it was time to pack the dishwashing soap. We ate for days on paper plates. I guess I should be grateful she didn't just make us scarf slices of luncheon meat over the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.

That's how it's been recently, as pictures came off walls, carpets were rolled up, boxes were filled. Every day, we learned to live with a little less. It was like camping, but like camping with a clock ticking in the background, the knowledge that a truck was coming and everything had better be ready.

Much of the stress of moving, I think, comes from hoping that you won't just transplant your failed lifestyle to your new house. Moving is a fresh start, a clean slate, a chance to begin anew. Before the ink was dry on our mortgage, I had already told my children that in our new house they were never to leave their castoff shoes by the front door in an unsightly pile or leave their backpacks on the dining room table, the contents strewed about like the guts from suppurating pig carcasses. I'm sure they will obey me.

That's why I felt so bad that so much of my packing was just shoveling my tired old life into new boxes. I spent hours in the basement confronting the clutter that comes from living in one place for 14 years and slowly accumulating more and more stuff that at one time seemed absolutely essential.

I should have torched it all, or pretended to be dead and allowed someone to run an estate sale. But the archivist in me worried: How will a future biographer ever hope to write the definitive book about John Kelly if he doesn't have access to my junior high science fair participation certificate and my grease-stained copy of a Chilton's repair book for an automobile I briefly owned?

As I stood at the workbench that I'd buried under assorted crapiana -- screws and epoxies and wire nuts -- I tried to muster the will to just throw it all away. But then I imagined that one day I might have need of a hollow wall anchor or a fluted masonry nail and I would resent having to spend 39 cents to replace something that I once had in abundance.

So I packed it all, thus guaranteeing that my new workbench will be as much of a disaster as my old one.

At least I was making "progress." Some things are easy to pack -- books and LP records, both of which we own in hernia-inducing quantities. Other things don't fit so easily into boxes, and so as I packed I would set them aside. What to do when confronted with a straw golf hat, a pair of maracas and the front brake rotors from a 1968 Datsun? Put them all in the same box or absent-mindedly pull out a photo album from 1992 and waste 20 minutes flipping through its pages?

I did the latter, which was why I found myself oddly nostalgic. My eyes tearing from the smell of raw cardboard, I realized that this old house wasn't mine anymore. I'd never again change the furnace filter there, or mow the lawn, or jiggle the key in the backdoor lock. I was moving and I wasn't coming back.

Ah, well. At least I have my masonry nails.

School Support

Washington's Ballou Senior High School was in the news a lot last year, not always for the best reasons. In a year when violence claimed many young lives, Ballou was hit especially hard.

But there was one bright spot: Ballou was the school that Post readers were invited to help out via their Giant Bonus Bucks and Safeway Club cards. By designating the school, readers of this column raised $13,084.51 for Ballou.

And now it's time to do it again. If you haven't linked your card to a certain school, I invite you to support Margaret Murray Washington Career High School. We picked M.M. Washington because it was the D.C. public school that posted the best increase in attendance from 2002 to 2003.

"We've worked hard to upgrade the program," Josie Paige, M.M. Washington's principal, told me. The school, at 27 O St. NW, offers career training in health care, education and culinary arts.

This year, we're adding two grocery chains. If you shop at Harris Teeter, just link your VIC Card to Margaret Murray Washington. If you shop at Food Lion, link your MVP Card. (Giant and Safeway are up and running now; it may be a week or so before we get the school signed up to Food Lion and Harris Teeter.)

And although Whole Foods doesn't have a similar program, when I called them up they offered to purchase a computer for M.M. Washington.

Principal Paige said she's excited to hear that her school has been picked, not just at the prospect of receiving donations but because of the message it sends to the kids.

"Obviously, any time students are encouraged by the community, that helps," Josie said.

Your boss told me to tell you it's okay if you want to participate in my online chat, at 1 p.m. today. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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