Once at Dulles Airport, I saw a trio of young women madly unpacking and packing their suitcases. They were sprawled next to a scale positioned near United’s international flight check-in counters, and I knew instantly what they were doing: They were trying to get all of their bags under weight.
By the look of things, they weren’t having much luck.
They’d been at it a while and had long since abandoned trying to keep their belongings neatly folded. Now they were just grabbing ragged piles from the contents disgorged around them and desperately packing them in different combinations. They’d shove stuff into a bag, drag it to the scale, weigh it, whimper, then start over. It was like that brainteaser about trying to cross a river in a rowboat with a chicken, a fox and some grain.
I kept thinking: If you’ve got three suitcases and 160 pounds of crap, no amount of repacking is going to get you three 50-pound suitcases. Matter can be neither created nor destroyed.
I thought of those women every time I talked to my daughter Beatrice in recent weeks. While going to college in London, Beatrice had managed to accumulate 200 books. And now that she had graduated, it was getting time to bring them home.
Actually, she didn’t buy all of them in London. Some of them she bought here and took to England singly and in pairs after trips home for the holidays. Some of them Beatrice hadn’t even read. It was as if she had taken them on a European vacation.
Frankly, I had no right to criticize Beatrice, even though I did. Haven’t I always encouraged book owning and book reading? Didn’t Henry Ward Beecher say, “It is a man’s duty to have books”? (“And a woman’s,” his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe might have added.)
And haven’t My Lovely Wife and I shown similarly poor planning? In 1998, we moved the family to Massachusetts for a year, trading our three-bedroom house for a two-bedroom apartment. It would have been a good idea to bring only as much as we needed. Instead, we filled a moving van with our possessions — including books (and LP records) — the result being that once everything was moved into our apartment, we could no longer see the walls.
The same thing happened in 2007 when we moved to Oxford for a year. We brought too much stuff, stuff we didn’t touch once while we were there. We brought our softball equipment: gloves, a bat and a mesh bag full of balls. We don’t even play softball.
As our departure approached, we jettisoned possessions like passengers trying to lighten the load of a plummeting hot-air balloon.
Beatrice insisted that she did the same thing. She gave away a lot of books. But that still left plenty of heavy, heavy tomes, the dense manifestation of a liberal arts education.
It is no longer possible to cheaply ship things across the ocean. You can’t buy 1/200th of a Conex shipping container, or if you can, we never figured out how. That meant our choices were to mail the books home or fly with them. Neither was a good option.
In the end, we bought extra baggage allotments for Beatrice and then paid overweight penalties. Would it have been cheaper to abandon all the books in London and repurchase them here? I don’t want to think about it.
Beatrice has been home a few days now. She still hasn’t completely unpacked. The five big, rolling suitcases are too heavy to lug up the stairs to her room. And so they are scattered just inside the front door, looking like toppled Easter Island heads, weighty testaments to literacy.
There are books at Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area, though frankly they are rainy-day emergency supplies. The campers would rather be in the pool or on a hike or playing games.
And who can blame them? The idea of the Fauquier County camp is to give urban kids a taste of the great outdoors.
Your financial support makes this possible. To make your donation, go to www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attn: Accounting Dept.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.