Pilgrim’s Progress

In the past few weeks I’ve had little time for bit-playing; I’ve been playing with atoms instead. I’ve been sorting and packing and toting atoms, then hauling them, rearranging them, offloading them, storing them. Lots and lots of atoms: maybe 1029. Bits are so much easier to handle. My bitly possessions—some hundreds of gigabytes—fit comfortably in a shirt pocket. My atomic chattels are a bulkier burden.

I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man clothed with Raggs standing in a certain place, with his face from his own House, a Book in his hand, and a great burden upon his Back.

All this atom-pushing was done in the course of moving my household from Durham, North Carolina, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’ve moved before, but this time the experience was unusually physical. In vacating my Durham home, I carried all my belongings out of the house and onto a truck—and I did it without helpers and without the use of carts or dollies or other wheeled implements. In other words, everything I own (except a car) I have now lifted up, cradled in my arms, carried 50 feet or more, and set down again. It took a day and a half.

What a goofy thing to do, eh? I even turned away offers of help. I guess I’m just a do-it-yourself kind of guy. In a strange way the labor was worth it: The process gave me a vivid and visceral sense of how stuff accumulates over a lifetime—how my possessions possess me. Late in the afternoon of the second day, as I loaded up the last few items and shut the door of the truck, there was a bright glow of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Yet I never want to do it again. When I arrived in Cambridge, I did not refuse the generous help of a younger, stronger friend. (Thanks, Mici!)

The total weight of my load was roughly two and a half metric tons. At least two tons of that mass consisted of “information goods”—books, periodicals, manuscripts and proofs, file drawers full of paper documents, photographs, musical recordings in various formats, art works. And this was the residue remaining after a two-year effort to lighten my load, mainly by transforming atoms into bits. In particular, I had scanned 22 drawers full of files, converting paper into PDFs and then recycling all the cellulose.

Before I lug my belongings out of this dwelling, I vow to jettison another ton or more. If only I could figure out how to digitize my clothes or my pots and pans.

As for my new home, everyone knows that Cambridge is the intellectual capital of North America. But I didn’t quite realize how high the standard had become. The sign in the photo below is on the garden gate next door.

Dogs: Keep Gate Closed

The literate local canines seem to comply with this order, since the gate is always closed.

This entry was posted in modern life.

5 Responses to Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Elwood Downey says:

    Wow, so you’ve been moving. I understand the effort.. I’ve moved, let’s see.. 15 times in the past 36 years. About a third of those I expected to be the last time. Life is like that. Hope you enjoy your new home.

  2. Cody says:

    I’m one town over, in Somerville, but welcome to Massachusetts and the Greater Boston area!

    I too have moved all my things (though I’m younger and certainly have accumulated much less–27 years old and I have virtually no furniture), but I too found it very satisfying to move everything I own by myself.

    I’m curious, did you estimate the mass of your belongings by the number of trips and how much you can lift? Or did you weigh the truck? You have me wondering how much mass I own.

  3. I’m glad that you are back on the blog, Brian.

    The amount (and type) of the belongings of a household varies a lot from
    country to country, see


  4. brian says:

    @Cody: I started out with the intention of weighing every item (on a bathroom scale) before loading it on the truck, and recording the weights in an inventory. After the first 50 or so cartons of books, I realized that I could guess the weight within a few pounds just by hefting the box, so I started recording estimates on the inventory. That scheme lasted through item 93, at which point the inventory listed a total weight of 3,709 pounds. By then it was getting late in the afternoon, I was running out of time and daylight and stamina, and I abandoned the inventory, throwing things on the truck willy-nilly. So the total of 5,500 pounds is partly guesswork. The listed total of 3,700 pounds accounts for about half the load by volume but much more then half by weight (including almost all the books).

    @Stephan: Yes! I was thinking of Peter Menzel’s book (though I couldn’t remember the author or title) as I was hauling all my stuff out the door. And there was another thought much on my mind: Possessions are a mixed blessing for those of us who move from home to home, but they are even more problematic for those who have no home at all. If you live on the street, do you carry everything with you all the time? If not, where do you stash things so that they’ll be secure and out of the weather? These are logistic challenges most of us never have to deal with.

  5. Phil H says:

    The sign reminds of the signs here: http://oddlyspecific.com/