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The Five Immutable Laws of Moving House

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Last Saturday, Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman informed his 1,300 some-odd Twitter followers: "Just moved house. Took 11 hours. Nobody should ever move. Everybody just stay where you are."

My heart went out to the man. Of all human endeavors, few are as tedious, as unpleasant, as garment-rendingly annoying as moving house. I can think of a few things I'd rather do less, but only a few. Like undergo surgery without anesthetic. Or be waterboarded. Or watch a running loop of John Cusack romantic comedies.

Organization books and self-help gurus will tell you the only thing standing between you and a flawless moving day experience is careful and deliberate planning. This is a lie. The laws that govern moving are as universal and unyielding as those of entropy or gravity or inertia. Do what you will, frail human, your plans will be dashed upon the merciless rocks of the Five Immutable Laws of Moving House.

1. The Law of Possession Diffusion

This law states that, regardless of how many boxes you have and how many items you have discarded while packing, the amount you have left to pack will expand to fill and exceed the storage containers available.

If you purchase 50 boxes, you'll find you actually need about 70. If you purchase 70, you'll find you're about 20 or so short. And so on.

One reason for this odd discrepancy between the amount of possessions you have and the amount you perceive yourself as having was described beautifully by E.B. White in "Goodbye to Forty-Eighth Street": "A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day — smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly."

Imperceptible until you are required to put it into a box for transportation to another locale.

2. The Law of Transportation Insufficiency

In accordance with this law, it matters not how many or how large of a conveyance you manage to hire/borrow/blackmail out of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or casual acquaintances. It will, regardless of its size, be insufficient to transport the amount needed in one trip. Two trips will be required, minimum. Perhaps three. Or more.

This law has a corollary: Very few people share similar ideas as to how a moving van should be loaded. Regardless of who you badgered into loading your particular conveyance, each will hold diametrically opposed views as to where certain items should be placed. They will argue these views with a passion comparable to a Baptist minister on the final night of a revival in which no souls have been saved.

Several traumatic moves ago, the gentlemen loading my particular conveyance had nearly completed the deed when a brother-in-law arrived fashionably late. He convinced the loaders they were going to do irreparable damage to my household goods unless they were packed in the exact opposite manner. Before my astonished eyes, the troupe unloaded the entire van and rearranged it. This fun little diversion increased the moving time by a good three hours. Ever tried to return a U-Haul van before the magic clock ticks over to the "You now owe more money" time? Even with your foot pressing the gas pedal firmly to the floor for over an hour, those vans move awfully slow. I know this. I've tried.

3. The Law of the Essential Missing Item

Packing is a delicate business. Most items are fine packed days — even weeks — in advance. In fact, if someone came along and tossed them into the river when you weren't looking, you might not ever notice or care. There is a certain group of items, however, that, if packed carelessly or too early, will create great havoc by their absence on moving day. Things like your wallet, the keys to the car, toilet paper, fall into this category. No matter how hard you try, you can be assured that at least one of these items will be unlocatable when you most need it.

On one memorable moving day, my male relatives wrestled mightily with a washing machine and, after, subduing it in the laundry room, asked for soap to wash off the grime of victory. Soap, I thought. Soap? I searched my mental data banks and came up with "File not found." I upturned every box labeled "Kitchen" or "Bathroom." I found all manner of items — shampoo; olive oil; bubble bath; cinnamon; sanitary pads; rubbing alcohol ("Why the hell do I have a huge bottle of rubbing alcohol?") — but no soap. I finally found it two days later, nestled cozily between a bottle of gin and Citron vodka in the "Adult Beverage" box. Getting ideas above its station, I suppose.

4. The Law of the Final 10%

This law, like the Bermuda Triangle or the location of Jimmy Hoffa or the popularity of Richard Simmons, is a mystery for the ages. It states that the final 10% of items left to move out of a home will take a disproportionately long time to pack and transport.

Beware of these words: "There's just a few things left at the house. It'll only take like an hour or so to get it all. Then we'll be done."

Five torturous hours later, you will be ready to pay your brother-in-law to start an accidental fire, to walk away and leave the contents of your hall closet to an uncertain fate, to curse God and die.

In my experience, the final 10% of items in a house cause more anguish than the other 90%, hands down. The trouble is, that 10% always seems to be stuff you actually really want to keep.

5. The Law of the Astoundingly Dirty House

If X equals the amount of time you think it will take to clean your old residence, and Y equals the amount of time that it actually takes, the Moving House Cleaning Equation would look like this:

Y = 3X

It's astonishing how dirty houses get. Even if you are scrupulous about being as tidy and spotless as possible, you really get a look at what a filthy creature you are when the furniture is gone and you are standing alone in your newly naked Old Home. Where the couch once stood are huge, anemic patches, blinking in the bright light of day, about five shades lighter than the surrounding carpet. The shower doors look like they have been through a hurricane. You peek in the oven and wonder if someone broke in overnight and poured all that black stuff everywhere.

Now is the time to determine if Y is equal to or greater than a) the amount of money you will lose for the deposit, or b) the amount your pride will suffer if you simply walk off and let the new owners deal with your past filth. Like practically everyone else does.

This last time I moved, I mishandled everything that could conceivably have been mishandled, except for one thing. Instead of ordering insufficient amounts of pricey pizza to feed the ravenous beasts transporting my worldly goods, I made a tremendous pot of beef stew. There is something about beef stew — particularly when coupled with large amounts of garlic bread — that nourishes the soul like nothing else. It isn't fancy, but it reeks of homeyness. Which is just the thing you want when moving into a strange new abode. (Particularly if you have a sister who points out, when you repeatedly try to walk into a wall, thinking the hall goes to the left instead of the right, that you may have just moved into the House of Leaves. "Be sure," she helpfully advised, "to take a ball of string with you if a corridor opens up there." Thanks for that, Victoria. And for the first sleepless night in my new house.)

I offer this recipe to anyone getting ready to or struggling to recover from moving house. This makes enough for at least 10 movers to eat heartily, with seconds. I'd recommend a Burgundy to go with it. Though, if you're like me, and have family members who consider alcohol to be the devil's drink, you'll have to provide inconspicuous cups to serve it in. I use mocha cups. They're like an invisibility cloak. People see them and instantly assume I'm drinking espresso. No wonder why people always want to drink mochas at my house — they see how I act and think, "I'll have what she's having."

  • 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons chili powder, divided
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 4 – 6 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 cans (28 ounces, each) stewed tomatoes, undrained
  • 21 ounces beef broth
  • approximately 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 6 – 8 red potatoes, cubed
  • 6 – 8 carrots, sliced
  • approximately 20 ounces corn (if canned, drained; frozen is fine)

In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the flour, paprika, 2 teaspoons chili powder, salt, and garlic powder. Add the beef, a few pieces at a time, and shake to coat. In a large soup kettle, brown the beef in oil in batches. Stir in the onions, tomatoes, broth, cayenne, and remaining chili powder. Boil. Reduce heat, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the potatoes and carrots. Cover and simmer 35 – 40 minutes longer or until the beef and vegetables are tender. Add the corn and heat through.

People will eat this stew as if it were their last meal on earth. They will eat and eat and beg for more. This last time I moved, after 12 plus hours of unmitigated moving hell, I limped into my new kitchen to see a nephew and several relatives forlornly scraping out the bottom of the pot into some dog-eared bowls.

The combined efforts of three male relatives could not unravel the intricacies of my satellite television, though a cousin managed to get the DVD player hooked up and running. Someone put in my latest acquisition, Blue Planet. We sat on the carpet, eating deliciously cold beef stew, listening to David Attenborough narrate the brief life of a young humpback whale migrating thousands of miles with his mother. The killer whales got him in the end, after hours of concerted effort.

Moving house is a horribly unpleasant experience. You'd think none of us would do it, ever, as Mr. Grossman advises. Yet we all do, repeatedly. Perhaps we all hope that, in our new surroundings, we will become new people, able to mold ourselves to new thoughts and experiences. As always, Mr. White says it best: "In every place he abandons he leaves something vital, it seems to me, and starts his new life somewhat less encrusted, like a lobster that has shed its skin and is for a time soft and vulnerable."

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About Michelle Kerns

  • Miss Lindsey Walker

    This was funny. I was in search of moving tips. Good thing I have a smarty pants sister. I figure this is about the most inappropriate place to inform you that I am returning to the mainland. Write something about flying overseas with two young children.