Monday, September 22, 2003


I love that word, it's so evocative. Imagine, if you will, that you're walking down the street, minding your own business, pondering the imponderable, meditating on the mysteries — when suddenly, out of nowhere, somebody whacks you in the face with a big white feather pillow: Baffle.

That's now I often feel, how I feel today... a prolongation of that moment of disconnect when all of your senses are physically blocked by an enveloping white softness, your mind blanked out by surprise and sensory deprivation and disbelief.

The other day, a gentleman of literary bent shared with me his perception of my emcee-ing style, during a discussion of the last time I emcee'd the Living Sober Follies (in which I forgot people's names, forgot what I was going to say, and forgot who was next in the lineup), which he described thus: "Like an ambassador's wife who discovers herself at the wrong cocktail party." The sort of confusion and disbelief, covered with smiles and charm and self-deprecating giggles, of a society dame confronted with an unexpected situation.

Apparently, being baffled is part of my charm.

Last night I was pretty damned baffled as I co-hosted "Cookie After Dark," where I got the lineup mixed up twice, where I forgot what I was going to say three or four times, where I was reduced to helpless giggles when Cookie made a poo-poo joke, and where I forgot the words to the song I sang. And people loved it. Go figure.

Exacebrating my usual bafflement, it was about a hundred degrees inside, with all the people and the lights and everything, and there I was in a wool sweater-dress and a fox wrap, all ready for winter. I had planned the outfit weeks ago, little thinking that it was late-September, the beginning of "Indian Summer," the only truly predictable season in the Bay Area, the only time of year when you can really count on warm weather. Fortunately, my second outfit was chiffon and quite cool. And today, in chinos and a polo-shirt from Banana Republic, I feel fairly comfortable in the heat, but I'm still hot and I don't like it.

The heat is killing me. It's baffling in and of itself. One would think that after thirty-five years on this untidy little planet I would have learned to deal with it. But no, each time takes me unawares and leaves me stupid, disconnected, and uncomfortable.

On the plus side, this afternoon I will be working in a very cool place, my basement. However, every rose has its thorn, and I will be peforming a most necessary but loathesome and laborious chore: cleaning out my drag-room. And my only consolation is that at least my drag-room isn't in the attic.

Regular readers will have cottoned on to the fact that I am the poster-child for acquisitve materialism run amok. I have too much stuff, and I live only to obtain more. In my bedroom, where I keep my regular clothes and my jewelry and my books and my magazines, it's fairly difficult to keep up with the shuddering piles of stuff that take up most of the floor-space; but, since I have to live with these things, I tend to edit the content a little more frequently... about once a year I go through my closet and get rid of clothes I don't ever wear or can no longer wear, and I periodically archive my magazines in order to come upon them as a pleasant surprise at some future time. These magazines, as well as boxes of books and videotapes that were moved to make space for new items, are usually stored in the basement next to my drag-room.

And since I don't have to live in my basement or in my drag-room, there isn't so much of a drive to keep the area liveable or even navigable, so there are vast repositories of stuff that need to be gone through, weeded as it were, and the refuse sorted out into garbage piles and donation piles in readiness for the Big Junk Pickup on Wednesday (our local scavenger company does this once a year, and then one of the donation companies, usually Saint Vincent de Paul, comes by later the same day).

My plan of attack is to go through my drag first, since it's the messiest, and get rid of anything I can't wear and haven't managed to give away to friends, and donate those to whoever comes by. Then I have to go through the two dress-racks and edit and organize, so that I can dismantle and discard the broken rack that leans like the Tower of Pisa (but not so elegantly) and lighten the load on the larger and stronger rack. Then I have to put all the things that don't hang up into nice boxes. And then sweep and mop and gather up debris and sort out refuse and all those horrid things. Then I will have more room to restack the boxes and crates of books and magazines that I want to keep (I'll never throw those things away, never).

The last time I cleaned out my bedroom closet, I counted how many sweaters I had left after the purge, and I'm still not sure if forty-four sweaters is really excessive (and I've probably bought twenty more since then). I am anxious to do a similar count of my evening-gowns, and see how many of them there really are.

When I'm down there looking for a particular gown, or trying to decide which gown to wear for any given occasion, I don't really appreciate the scope and scale of my drags... but other people, when they see the jumbled sty of my drag-room, are often vocal in their amazement at how much stuff I have. There are gowns that are too big and need to be taken in, and gowns that are too fabulous to be worn lightly and are being saved for a special occasion, and all sorts of skirts and tops that I've simply never managed to match to each-other. It will be interesting to instill some sort of order on the mess, maybe even a written inventory that I can consult when I'm thinking about what to wear.

I have a feeling, though, that I will waste a couple of hours just sitting there, baffled by the size of the job, unable to even think of where to start. That often happens when I'm cleaning or tidying anything in our house. I'm not the only one, you see, who has too much stuff. I come from a long line of horrendous packrats. Four generations of packrats have lived in our house, filling it with stuff.

My great-grandmother left boxes and boxes of things in the basement and attic... suitcases of old clothes, a Stanley steamer-trunk filled with doorknobs and drawer-pulls from the Old House, tins of ancient rice flour and blocks of antique tea (she died in 1948), bottles of Chinese medicines and folk remedies, crates of ginger and soap.

My grandfather, her son, left behind cases of correspondence from paid bills to Christmas cards, every shoe and garment he ever wore, every issue of National Geographic going back to December 1931, the contents of his office-desk when he retired, cigar-boxes full of miscellaneous unlabeled keys and locks, trays of salvaged screws and nails, mysterious tools and rusted shovels and elderly lawn-mowers, camping-equipment that looks as if it might have been used by the Pharoahs, and an immense hoard of unused wallets, lighters, handkerchiefs, and manicure-sets received as gifts over the eighty-seven years of his life.

My grandmother has filled the cupboards and cabinets with great big boxes of unfinished craft projects like paint-by-numbers sets and rug-hooking sets and crewel-work sets and fabric-painting sets, huge laundry-baskets filled with fabric-scraps for unrealized crazy-quilts, old pots and pans and utensils that are "still good," fruit-crates of cracked pottery and old plastic strawberry baskets intended for potting plants "someday," an unimaginably vast collection of Tupperware and Avon from her career in home sales, boxes upon boxes of old family photographs going all the way back past the beginning of the century, as well as boxes of never-opened photo-albums into which all of those photographs were intended to be archived (again in this mythical "someday"), and of course every shred of clothing she's ever owned.

My father and aunt and uncle have also left their marks, old toys and boxes of school-papers and trunks of souvenirs, clothes and books before they went on to stack up their own homes with their inherited packrattism (though they have managed, through age and experience and tidy-minded spouses, to cure themselves somewhat of the awful family curse, none of them have anything like a half-empty closet or a spare room in which a guest larger than a Pekinese spaniel might be accomodated, and only one car is ever parked in any two-car garage).

My generation is well-represented, as well, though only my sister, my cousin Jamie, and I have lived with Grandmother for any extended period of time. Jamie pretty much left behind everything she'd brought into the house at the time she graduated from high school (essentially everything she owned) until she graduated from college, so her entire teenage life is archived in the garage; my sister, on the other hand, who is probably the worst packrat of us all, took most of her stuff with her... still, "most" is not "all" and there are boxes and bags and barrels of Suzie's stuff still down in the basement where she lived for two years.

And then there's me. When I moved back in with Grandmother in the summer of 1992, I brought with me a milk-crate full of books, a trunk full of papers and souvenirs, a small box of objets d'art (I use the term lightly), a cardboard tube of posters, and two garbage-bags of clothes. Eleven years later, I possess all that and much more, and it would take a moving van of at least 500 cubic feet to convey my innumerable possessions out of the house; and I don't even own much in the way of furniture or housewares... pressboard bookshelves and a dresser, some coffee-mugs, some sheets, a TV and VCR and stereo, my computer and desk and chair, a couple of mirrors and two framed pictures. The rest is all clothes and books and magazines and videos and jewelry-boxes and porn and knick-knacks.

There's something gothically glamorous about having a family curse. Like the House of Usher or the Baskervilles or what-have-you. I envision a pulp novel entitled The Curse of the Manners Packrat, luridly illustrated with a craggy-faced young detective menaced by a careering tower of Samsonite and Tupperware. And if we can keep it up for a few more generations, we might be of interest to a future archaeologist, or maybe even the Smithsonian.

In the meantime, I have to go through it all and separate the trash from the treasures, and then organize the treasures as much as possible. And fight the Manners Curse as best I can when I feel compelled to save the receipts and shopping bags and laddered stockings and stained gloves out of my drag room. I will be baffled by the enormity of it all, but at least I will be cool.

Baffled. Such a great word.

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