Moving Again

Hal Howland

© Copyright 2020 by Hal Howland

Picture with Robert Frost.
Harold E. Howland, Hal, Robert Frost, Charles Howland, and Elizabeth Howland.
taken at the Howland home near Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1961.
Two or three moves ago, I decided that the single most depressing thing you can do in life is to relocate from one home to another. This of course is a Virgo’s immediate response to the massive but short-lived disruption that a government brat calls business as usual. The most practical lesson I learned from that life of continual uprooting is this: Always hire professional movers.

The inconvenient week of meals in restaurants and living out of boxes is nothing compared to the foolish false economy of renting a truck, bribing a few friends with pizza, and helping them damage your family heirlooms as you schlep them from place to place. It’s always better to pay someone trained, qualified, and insured for this backbreaking work than to spend the rest of your life trying to forgive bandmates who accidentally dropped your piano down a flight of stairs.

Looking back, I realize that to date I’ve moved seventeen times: (1) from a cool old house in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., to a new but much less interesting house in Vienna, Virginia, 1959; (2) from Vienna, Virginia, to Kfar Shmaryahu, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel, 1959; (3) from Kfar Shmaryahu, Israel, to Falls Church, Virginia, 1961, a brief rental while destructive tenants vacated the Vienna house; (4) from Falls Church, Virginia, to Vienna, Virginia, 1961; (5) from Vienna, Virginia, to Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1967; (6) from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to a future college classmate’s house in Vienna, Virginia, 1969; (7) from Vienna, Virginia, to Ocean City, Maryland, 1969, a pre-college vacation; (8) from Ocean City, Maryland, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1969, for college; (9) from the dorm in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to an apartment in Bridgewater, Virginia, 1972; (10) from Bridgewater, Virginia, to an apartment in Harrisonburg, Virginia, 1972; (11) from Harrisonburg, Virginia, to Vienna, Virginia, 1973, for graduate school; (12) from Vienna, Virginia, to Thurmont, Maryland, 1977, only to learn one month later that the homeowner would kick my girlfriend and me out so he could move back in; (13) from Thurmont, Maryland, to Alexandria, Virginia, 1977; (14) from Alexandria, Virginia, to an apartment in Vienna, Virginia, 1980; (15) from the Vienna, Virginia, apartment to the 1959 Vienna, Virginia, house, 1981; (16) from Vienna, Virginia, to Sugarloaf Key, Florida, 2000; and (17) from Sugarloaf Key, Florida, to Key West, Florida, 2013. All of these moves involved a professional moving company except moves six through fifteen, which conjure nightmarish memories I’d rather forget.

But relocating because you have to and relocating because you want to are two very different things.

During my exploration of Catholicism in the 1990s, a young Vienna priest who happened to be a fellow musician told me that seventeen is an unlucky number. This was his way, having learned that Sugarloaf Key is seventeen miles from my then office in Key West, of trying to talk me out of quitting his folk-mass choir, which, if it had a name, might have been called Twelve-string City.

The Catholic symbolist might reply, “That’s one string per Apostle,” but I’d bought my first 12-string guitar as a once and future pagan in Holland in 1968.

I recently looked up my former spiritual advisor’s presumably Christian reference to seventeen-year locusts and discovered instead pages of unrelated superstition: (1) the biblical flood started on the seventeenth day—In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened (Genesis 7:11); and in the seventh month on the seventeenth day of the month the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat (Genesis 8:4); (2) Homer’s Odysseus floated on a raft for seventeen days after leaving the beautiful nymph Calypso; (3) modern Italians retain ancient Rome’s aversion to the number 17 because rearranging its Roman numeral XVII can create the Latin word vixi, which means I have lived, that is, I am dead or my life is over; (4) the tarot card number 17, the card of the stars, symbolizes wishes that will come true, unless you turn it upside down, in which case it indicates low self-esteem or unfulfilled dreams; (5) the Civil War Battle of Vienna, Virginia, took place on June 17, 1861; (6) poorly educated Andrew Johnson, the racist seventeenth president of the United States, landed his job via Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and was the first president impeached by Congress; and (7) Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918. A fear of the number 17 is called heptadecaphobia or heptakaidekaphobia.

Benign references to this pair of deadly digits involve the location of the White House, on Pennsylvania Avenue bordering Seventeenth Street; Ohio’s place as the seventeenth state of the union; the atomic number of chlorine; heptadecagons, or seventeen-sided figures; the seventeen-syllable poem called haiku: “Number seventeen/So awesome and powerful/Best number ever”; the apparently seventeen ways a wallpaper pattern can repeat itself; St. Patrick’s Day, March 17; Constitution Day in Norway, May 17, in South Korea, July 17, and in the U.S., September 17; Janis Ian’s hit song “At Seventeen”; the sacrifice of your humble narrator’s virginity at that advanced age; and, most important, the claim that you need seventeen muscles to smile.

Twisted logic aside, move number eighteen will surpass all its predecessors by many gorgeous Florida sunsets.

When this past spring I told a former Holland high-school classmate that I was moving “in the fall,” she recalled her own lifetime of perpetual disruption, as another teenage globe-trotter and later as a flight attendant anticipating at least two more transcontinental relocations, and wondered aloud whether she’d have the energy to do it again.

The girlfriend mentioned in the first chapter, whose innocently bad advice precipitated the 2013 move, introduced me to a neighbor who owns the Florida Keys’ best moving company. His crew got me from Sugarloaf to Key West without a scratch, and, when I know exactly when my new home will be ready, they will get me and my substantially reduced inventory of stuff nine miles back up the road.

(I finally moved in on February 4, 2020. For that story and much more, see my new book True West: A Cultural Reckoning.)

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