Airports are some of the best places to observe all the different ways that people handle crunch times and stress points. Every emotion will be exhibited, from excited laughter to cries of reunion to full-blown temper tantrums. Every mode, from utter boredom to casual routine to scattered panic, will appear somewhere. Airports are really where the benefits of minimalism, time management, and organization pay off.
I like to sit with my husband and people-watch. My outlook changed after I sprained my back and dislocated my hip and one rib around 20 years ago. I went to an osteopath and a chiropractor. I started becoming aware of the posture and gait of everyone I saw. Suddenly it was like cartoon arrows appeared in the air above people’s bodies, pointing directly to the places where they carried the most tension and pain. Weariness, limps, uneven shoulders, shifting from foot to foot, pinched expressions, all spoke to me. It wasn’t difficult to see the way that different weights of bags or styles of footwear contributed to these coping mechanisms. If there is one place where people carry heavy bags while wearing uncomfortable shoes, the airport is that place. Why do we do this to ourselves? Of all the challenges to take on in life, why choose neck or back pain?
We don’t choose it, of course. We usually don’t make all the connections we could be making between our behaviors and our results. What we’re doing when we drag huge heavy bags around is simply trying to bring what we think we need. We don’t just do it when we travel; we do it every day, or at least some of us do. Women are trained to carry purses (and groceries, and diaper bags, and gym bags, and…) Many men carry laptop bags, backpacks, or toolboxes. One man in my acquaintance was carrying around all his important daily items in a paper lunch sack, rather than risk looking effeminate, although I would venture that a man with a beard can probably carry something with hot pink sequins and still be identifiable as a male human. (And if he can’t, who cares? Do what you want, that’s what I say). We spend so much time hunched over our desks and steering wheels, huddled over our electronics, and pinning our tiny flat phones to our shoulders, that it’s tragic when we drag heavy straps around on our shoulders, too. We just stop noticing. We don’t notice how we’re sitting or standing, and we stop noticing what-all we’re carrying.
What’s in my laptop bag today? My laptop, my phone, my Bluetooth earpiece, a spare pair of earbuds in a candy tin, sunglasses, my wallet, a nylon shopping bag, a packet of tissues, a wet wipe, four keys and a whistle, two pads of sticky notes in different sizes and colors, a screen wiper, a packet of brown sugar (oh lord), a backup battery, a connector cable, a penny, a thumb drive, a hair tie, an empty zip-lock baggie, an eraser, two different kinds of paperclip, spot remover, a mechanical pencil, a container of extra leads, three ink pens, a highlighter pen, two business cards, five postage stamps, receipts for sushi and Thai food, a gift card, two lip balms, a tube of hand lotion, a packet of blank index cards shuffled with some writing notes, my Toastmasters books, two bookmarks, a wadded paper napkin, and two separate doodads for holding books open. Oh, and this loose film from the index cards. Ye gads, what a mess. This is why I work out: so I can walk around town dragging my own mini garbage dump. Hawt.
There’s a trick to it, though. I never go anywhere alone unless I can run up a flight of stairs with what I’m carrying and the shoes I have on. I’ve been physically attacked on the street more than once. Being able to flee to safety was… well, it was the kind of reinforcement that will give a permanent habit to anyone. In my experience, screaming and running away are highly effective ways to end a confrontation. Yeah, I carry a lot of junk that I don’t necessarily need on a daily basis. It’s contained, though. When I’m navigating around town, I keep my head up and my eyes scanning around. If it’s dark, I watch my shadow in the streetlights. I. NEVER. MESS. WITH. MY. STUFF. That thing they tell you, about carrying your keys in your hand to use as a weapon? That’s not why we carry our keys. We carry our keys so we’re ready to get inside. We need to open and shut our car doors or front doors as efficiently as possible. Walk up to door, unlock door, open door, go through door, lock door behind you. Click, click, click, click. We can’t afford to have our eyes down while we rummage in our bags. Having hands free can be a matter of life or death.
One night I dropped my keys down an elevator shaft. My phone was locked in my car. That was a rough few hours! Ever since then, I’ve been hyper-aware of where my keys are. I’ve also smashed my phone screen at least six times now, including once when a bicyclist crashed into me and rode off as fast as he could go, looking over his shoulder at me. Anything we habitually carry in our hands IS going to get dropped, smashed, splashed, lost, grabbed, or otherwise impacted by entropy. Look around one day and notice how many people are encumbered by, oh, here’s one: a woman holding her purse, an iced coffee, and a shopping bag, while clenching a wrapped straw between her teeth. We’re juggling sunglasses, keys, drinks, and bags, while texting at the same time. We’re constantly one second away from a spill, an etiquette incident, and a wardrobe malfunction.
Back to the security line at the airport. Part of why those lines are so long is that so few of us are well organized. I like to point out the most obviously experienced travelers, as they lope confidently along, carrying one slack tote bag or deflated backpack. See the flight attendants and pilots as they bustle along at a 3 MPH pace, towing their sleek small wheelie bags. Watch the rest of us, dragging the overstuffed suitcases we had to sit on to zip closed. We’re trying to walk while hunched sideways, the weight of the world on one shoulder, rolling a juggernaut on the other side, dragging our jackets and sweaters unnoticed along the carpet. The time I flew to New Zealand, I had to walk up to my suitcase where it was circling alone on the conveyor belt, with a missing handle, half a bra hanging out, and a bumper sticker on the side reading ‘OVERWEIGHT.’ Yep, that’s me, the girl with the loser luggage. I had to kick it down the concourse until I could find a cart, because it was too big and heavy for me to lift. I had practice from doing the same at LAX, because the missing handle was my own fault. I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you.
I’m a one-bag traveler now. I carry less luggage than my husband, who is twice my size and whose shoes are, too. I’m the one who zips through the pre-check line. I skip the escalators and trot up the stairs, alone, because those stairs are always empty, with my trusty under-seat bag in one hand. What do I need, really? What can I truly not live without during those vanishing moments when I’m away from home? What can I really not substitute, borrow, or buy at my destination? I’ve learned to quit worrying so much about my STUFF and keep my hands free, ready to grapple with whatever life brings me.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.