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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Are you my counterculture? or: How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the struggle

I read a couple of articles recently that struck me in different ways. One was Karin Kallmaker's "Okay Lesbian Boomer--Diaspora and Other Rewards" (don't you love it that Karin spells out "OK"?) 

The other was about a simultaneous appearance of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified in the U.S. Senate against Brett Kavanaugh when he was nominated to the Supreme Court last year, and Professor Anita Hill, who testified in the Senate against Clarence Thomas when he was nominated to the Court in 1991.

It is not a coincidence that these observations are being made at the same time. While the diversity in the LGBTQ community—or what writer Kelley Eskridge, and I love this too, nicknames “quiltbag”—is a sign of growth and the many changes in wider society, the appearance of Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill together reflects a time warp in U.S. society. Because for all the differences between 2018, when Ford testified, and when Hill testified more than 25 years earlier, both Kavanaugh and Thomas were confirmed as justices. Both sit on the Supreme Court today.

It’s a funny thing, the Supreme Court. Hard to explain to people outside the U.S.A., how much power this unelected institution has over people’s everyday lives. The 2016 election was fought over many things, but surely one of the motivations that got such a high percentage of white evangelical Americans to the polls for Donald Tweeter was the kind of men they expected him to nominate to the Court. A Court that is now, in all probability, closer to reversing Roe v. Wade (the abortion decision) than it was during George Bush, Sr.’s presidency.

Even many Americans don't know that their gay and lesbian fellow citizens, our quiltbag community, do not and have never had equality under U.S. law. Laws about housing and employment discrimination do not protect us in almost half the states, and there is no protection at the federal level. This is one of the matters on which Tweeter’s Supreme Court is expected to rule, and his administration has already made it clear that they oppose our rights. The Court on which Thomas and Kavanaugh sit has the power to keep us second-class citizens in perpetuity.

Why is the Court, if possible, constituted to roll back more even than in 1991? Because of the vacancies filled by Tweeter, including the one that became vacant during Barack Obama’s presidency but was blocked from even being heard by the Republican Senate. This is powerful stuff. 

Worldwide readers may also remember that it was the Supreme Court, that unelected body, that ultimately ruled in George Bush, Jr.’s favor in Bush v. Gore, making the loser of the 2000 popular vote the president of the United States. In that case, Bush was represented by Theodore Olson, and Gore by David Boies. Famously, Olson and Boies later teamed up in an unlikely partnership to challenge Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. The case ran all the way to the Supreme Court and ultimately led, in 2014, to something many of us never expected: the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

Let’s leave aside for today the fact that in 2014, the Court was constituted very differently; this type of wacko left-wing result is exactly what drove the Senate to block further Obama appointees, and Republican voters to give us the president and Court we have now. My interest is in lawyer Theodore Olson, the conservative who’d represented Bush, and why he advocated for marriage equality as a civil rights issue.

In the film The Case Against 8, Olson explained that as a conservative, he was a big supporter of marriage. Marriage is a conservative institution. The more gay and lesbian Americans are participating in marriage, as I see it, the more included we are in a conservative vision for American society. 

And here's my point. While from one end of the telescope equal marriage seems to be a tremendous leap forward from just a generation ago, from the other end, it reflects how conservative U.S. society persistently tends to be. Compare the end of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. On the one hand, it gives us a new generation of out, proud veterans, like Pete Buttigieg, who is on the presidential campaign trail introducing his husband. Who saw that coming 25 years ago, including me?

On the other hand, the military, like marriage, is a conservative institution. Gay and lesbian activists in the 1980s and ’90s—the people who resisted the Reagan and Bush administrations, which we believed were letting thousands of Americans die of AIDS—did not prioritize marriage or the military. Many were deeply skeptical of the former, and regarded the latter as, primarily, the ongoing, violent misadventures of the U.S. in Latin America and the Middle East, conflicts we opposed. 

My point is not, of course, that we shouldn’t honor veterans, or celebrate marriages. My point is that the range of people doing so is a much wider range than we would normally expect to agree. Most Americans loved Ronald Reagan. Is it really that surprising that three decades later, a substantial minority of them voted the way that they did?

A generation ago, no one expected that most of U.S. society would be supportive of us, whether that meant our relationships, the fight against AIDS, or opposition to the Gulf war. Most Americans strongly supported the U.S.’s military actions, and we can confidently expect them to support the next war, too. Wherever it is and no matter who orders it.

Our mistake has been to imagine that, because we are so much more “out” and widely recognized now, the broader progressive agenda has won. When I read old Dykes to Watch Out For comic strips, I am struck less by nostalgia for those pre-online days of lesbian bookstores and bars, and more by how much the struggle is the same. The wider U.S. society is still, largely, a conservative one, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s mired in some of the same issues, perhaps even worse in this loser of the popular vote's era than in the Bushes’. 

In 1991, it was countercultural to oppose the war. It would be countercultural today. Somehow, quiltbag people have come to expect that the larger society should be in harmony with us. But just because young people don’t care whether someone sleeps with the same sex doesn’t mean that the culture isn’t still, broadly, against many things I deeply believe. In many ways and not just in one country, the culture is warlike, it’s misogynistic, it’s destructive of the planet Earth. 

These points will not be agreed with by conservatives and nor would I expect them to be. Our mistake has been to expect some kind of consensus in society. When having same-sex relationships, in itself, ceased to be the most controversial issue, that did not mean we had succeeded in changing the culture. 

We should not be surprised when our fellow Americans, perhaps relatives or people we grew up with, are perfectly happy for us to have a same-sex partner—or spouse—but then vote for an administration that opposes our rights, and a great many progressive causes, as well. For those voters, there is no cognitive dissonance. They are celebrating our marriages just like their own. (That’s what we said we wanted, right?) They are honoring gay and lesbian service members, because they honor service members. But as for broader questioning of those conservative institutions, of the militarization of our society and police, of resistance to even the most modest advances in Medicare, we can expect nothing like that from conservative voters. They have not become our allies. We have become theirs.

I look back at 1991, when Anita Hill accused now-Justice Thomas of sexual harassment, and at 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford accused now-Justice Kavanaugh of sexual assault. In many ways, the social context was very different. I don’t mean in any way to minimize the difference in response. The nationwide groundswell of women speaking up in solidarity with Ford looked very different from the pre-Internet America of 1991, when the Senate had only two women and its Judiciary Committee was made up of 100% white men. Back then, we watched the confirmation hearings (actually, I read about them in The New York Times) and wondered why an exclusively white male panel got to judge between two African-Americans, a woman and a man. Up to that point, I’m not sure I’d wondered about it before. I knew that, on paper, there was no reason women couldn’t hold any office in our government, but I was used to it not happening.

So a lot has changed in a generation, but let’s take a moment to note what hasn’t changed. Equal pay, for instance. Did young women growing up when I did seriously believe that by now, decades later, Western countries would still not be close to closing the pay gap between men and women? It may seem like we’re pretty far out, with our quiltbag diversity, but we don’t really need to convince younger people of the struggles we went through. To a remarkable degree, those struggles remain for them.

And the most important issue, not just for young people but (it should be) to all of us, is how to preserve the planet itself. Generations who are going to have to live with all the damage caused are understandably going to be aggrieved if their elders are preoccupied with pensions (which they will never receive), gender and sexuality (which they do not perceive as a big deal), and other issues that distract from the very life of the human race. 

Young people do not have to know or remember what we went through because, to a shocking extent, they are still going through it. Equal pay! How basic is that? And as of 2016, it was still not possible to elect a woman to the presidency, even when she was opposed by the least qualified man ever to run.

Younger people may not know or care what Anita Hill went through, but they don’t have to. Because ultimately, the outcome of Hill’s and Ford’s testimonies was identical.

So no matter how you identify, eat a power bar or something. We have a long way to go.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Coda: Tennessee



1aa concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structure

ba concluding part of a literary or dramatic work

2something that serves to round out, conclude, or summarize and usually has its own interest--Merriam-Webster Dictionary

T. and I left our house on the 19th of May 2017. According to our original plan, we should have been on our way back from the eastern United States two years later. We were going to travel to New Orleans and work our way through the Deep South, up to Washington, D.C., and ultimately Chicago. Among other things, we would follow a trail of African-American history and visit sites of the civil rights movement.

We didn’t manage it, at least not on this trip. But just before 19 May I did squeeze in one more place, where I was born and spent the first seventeen years of my life. First I had to negotiate Manchester airport, which was mostly fine. The guy at security pointed to the latest addition to my daypack—the flag of the first country we traveled to, Wales. “That’s mine!” he said. On the other side of security, prominently placed, was a water bottle refilling station. I was glad to see it. This was the first time I’d been able to refill my bottle after security in a U.K. airport. Think of the thousands of plastic bottles people don’t have to buy now.

The backpacks are always a talking point. I was glad to have plenty of time to make my connection in Atlanta, where the agent who printed my boarding pass wanted to talk about the relative merits of my Osprey bag or the 40; “I was thinking of buying one!” And an agent in Tri-Cities said she had the same bag as mine, and had carried it on no problem. So had I on the way out.
Tennessee state flag--not to be confused with the other one. The three stars represent East, Middle, and West Tennessee. 

On the plane I had time to watch The Hate U Give, a movie I’d wanted to see since we were in Toronto. The story of an African-American girl who witnesses a police shooting, it did an excellent job of showing the character, appropriately called Starr, and the pressures she is under from all sides. I found it surprising and moving, and it also set me up to observe my home state. I went to East Tennessee to visit my parents, of course, but I’ve been traveling long enough also to want to look at it through new eyes.

Whenever I mention Tennessee to someone who has never been there, I get one of two responses: “Memphis?” (the largest city) or “Jack Daniels!” These are the Tennessean things people have heard of, but they have no connection to my experience. Carter County, outside the Elizabethton City Limits, is dry (for that matter, so is Moore County, where Jack Daniels is distilled). Tennessee whiskey was as foreign to me as England; I don’t honestly remember seeing a drink of alcohol in my home state the whole time I was growing up. As for Memphis, the state of Tennessee is so long from east to west that I felt more connected to Cleveland, Ohio, where my parents and their accent came from.

One of the cool things I did on this visit was go on a road trip with my mom. We went to Knoxville for the day, and in both directions, stopped at a rest area. On the way down, a bunch of women in the restroom had pulled the “closed” grate down in front of them and were screaming for us to take their picture. “This is the beginning of our girls’ weekend!” one explained. It was Wednesday!

We were going to Knoxville because my maternal grandmother, who is 94, lives there. She is in residential care and can’t really see, but there are glimpses of the old Mam-ma, chiefly when she smiles, or plays her keyboard! After tapping out “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?,” she asked, “Who sang that?”
Mom guessed Patti Page (who did make the song famous), but Mam-ma’s roommate kept saying “Doris Day” loudly from the next cubicle. And she wasn’t wrong. This was Mom’s cue to ask if roommate minded us singing and playing guitar, which we always used to do for Mam-ma and Pap Pap. Often, we did it for ourselves too.

On the way out of Knoxville we stopped by the downtown public library. Twenty years ago I made my living there, and there are still a few colleagues from my day, so it was fun to say hi to them. One asked what I’d been up to and after I had (briefly) summarized our travels, I said, “I guess this is the climax. East Tennessee, I mean.”

“Oh,” she said, “I thought you meant the library!”

The rest area along the freeway also had a historical sign about the nearby Greeneville Convention. This was one of multiple attempts by East Tennessee, after Tennessee had joined other states in seceding from the U.S.A., to secede from the rest of the state. In other words, East Tennesseeans were by and large unhappy being part of the Confederate States of America, and wished to remain part of the Union. The East Tennessee Convention failed because of political dominance by the rest of the state, and because of occupation by the Confederate Army.  

It is therefore doubly ironic to see the Confederate battle flag around East Tennessee, as one sometimes does. It’s ironic first because East Tennessee was Unionist, and second, because the Confederate flag is usually flown by the same people who wrap themselves in the American flag. That one flag represents a country defeated by the other seems lost on the flag-fliers. But I understand where they are coming from, because I once had a Stars and Bars myself, hanging on my bedroom wall.

Such an admission, I guess, will preclude me ever having a career in politics (though nothing seems to be disqualifying anymore). It’s appalling now—as appalling as homosexuality was in that time and place, including to me. I got the idea from my beloved fifth-grade teacher, who said that generations of Southern children had played with a Rebel flag in their treehouse. She made it sound as innocuous as a pirate flag, and for white children, I suppose it was.

Not until I was an adult did I think about, or try to imagine, what it might have been like to be a black child in the place where I grew up. I knew black students, and I don’t remember hearing any abuse directed towards them; but I did hear racist terms. Not by any means from all white students, but certainly from kids who knew better. I remember one who was my friend, and another who later turned out, like me, to be gay. I wish I could say that I spoke out against the n word. In high school, I was concentrating so hard on denying my sexuality, even to myself, that I guess I wasn’t paying attention. But one oppression does not excuse another.

I mention this now because another of the things I got to do on my trip back “home” was see some girls with whom I went to high school. There were people at this impromptu gathering whom I had not seen since I graduated, and one of them was in my first grade class. Seeing them brought home a truth: The place has changed, and so have the people who lived there. And the change I observed was for the better.

I could not have imagined going to my tenth or even twentieth high school reunion. As soon as I got to Chicago and turned eighteen, I came out as a lesbian, and that was not a self I could imagine taking back to my high school. Let alone a partner.
I had the Apple-achian!
Getting together with this unprecedented group of acquaintances opened my eyes. For one thing, we were in Erwin, a nearby town that has long had a reputation of being more racist than its neighbours. (When I still lived at home, a young woman from Erwin told me that she grew up in a county where black people dare not be found when the sun went down. Lynchings were recent history.)

One of the girls remarked that when she was on our high school basketball team, the star was a girl we all remembered, one of the few black students. “As soon as we crossed into Unicoi County,” she recalled, “the bus would get egged.” The fact that we were talking about this was a step forward from what it had been like in high school. But so was the fact that I was there, everyone knowing I have a female partner and, as far as I could tell, no one minding at all. “How is your—wife?” one of the women gamely asked. Another chimed in, “I didn’t even know you were gay!”

I cannot convey in this short space how inconceivable it would have been, for me in high school, to come back to my hometown and have the kind of normal conversations I have now. And that gives me hope. So does seeing a person of colour on a billboard (the first I ever remember seeing along that particular highway), and a Spanish-speaking Baptist congregation, and the presence of Mexican-American residents, not just migrant workers picking strawberries. The place I grew up is still different from other parts of the country, but it’s also different from how it used to be. And after all, today’s white-supremacist-in-chief is from Queens.
The Christian flag flying, for once, above the U.S. flag. The latter was at half-mast because of yet another school shooting.
Some things are different, while others stay the same. A car wash advertised “He is Risen!,” sort of like the Jesus is Lord minibuses in Tanzania. On the other hand, what used to be an unassuming veterinary clinic now sells New Age soap and other products. And the Blue Circle Deli is now called “Poor Trav’s” instead of Poor Jim’s.

Another friend, with whom I closed the bar (downtown Erwin not being especially exciting), was Sheila. I hadn’t seen Sheila since we spent a summer together in Chicago more than twenty years ago, but she’s part of the inspiration for our travels in Southeast Asia. Sheila grew up in Thailand and Penang and was always up for Thai food, and talking about the country, especially the area around Chiang Mai. When we were there, I often thought about Sheila and her observations of everyday life, not just tourist things.

There is one thing that draws a lot of outsiders to visit East Tennessee, at this time of year in particular: the Appalachian Trail. Every year, more and more people attempt to “through-hike” the entire trail, north from Georgia to Maine. On our day hikes, Mom and Dad and I encountered many of them, as well as others who were just hiking sections. It’s pronounced AppalATCHian around here, by the way. Like hatch, not like H.
White blazes mark the Appalachian Trail.
In all, we hiked on five different days—close to what we were doing in the national parks last summer. Considering all the health problems and pain Dad had several years ago, this was a wonderful development. Indeed, hiking in adjacent North Carolina was what Mom wanted to do for Mother’s Day! She also asked for Carolina BBQ on the way back. Boy, did we miss T.

When I am “home” on a Sunday, which is not often, I like to visit church with my parents. It was not our church for most of my growing up and I never joined it, but I still know a lot of people there. And just like outside the church, there have been changes. One change was the renovation of the building to make it more accessible, in more ways than one.

A few minutes before the service started, an old friend, who was celebrating Communion that morning, asked if I would be the fourth person serving at the table. I agreed without having time to think about it; I’ve done this many times at Holy Trinity in Toronto. I’ve participated in Communion services that vary from going up to the altar rail and kneeling to receive from the priest, to passing the elements from person to person—and that’s just within one denomination! But as I finished, someone thanked me and said what I had done was important.

I remembered then what a big deal it was when I first saw a woman serving Communion. I wondered then if an openly gay person had ever served at this church before. Or if that was why I’d been asked. It’s just as well I hadn’t had a chance to ponder any of this beforehand, because the same person was now offering the prayers of the people: “for our president Donald; our governor Bill; our senators Lamar and Marsha.” Powerful people named familiarly. I could not have gotten a clearer message about praying for leaders, which we are supposed to do even if we are not happy with them. Perhaps especially then. 

God can do what we cannot do by ourselves; if we don’t believe that, why are we in church?

Several years ago Dad retired as a professor at Milligan College. Growing up around the campus, I knew a lot of people he worked with—the overlap with the church was and is very close. So when a luncheon for retired faculty happened to coincide with my visit, I was looking forward to going. I’d planned to wear my sandals, but it was cool enough I wished I'd brought that pair of Converse (the one time I hadn't packed them!) I did catch up with lots of folks I remembered, including our old friends whom some blog readers will remember, Roy and Joy Lawson.
The Lawsons stopped being permanent residents of anywhere a year before we did, and they're still going. We may be younger, but we can't keep up with them!

There was also a professor nicknamed “Rabbi,” for his knowledge of Hebrew and other Semitic languages. Years ago Dr. Gwaltney and I had a professor in common: he learned Arabic from Norman Golb, who taught me Judaic civilization at Chicago. Norman Golb is gone now, but I got to tell “Rabbi” Gwaltney that, as I was about to finish the Books of Chronicles, I would be concluding my long-term project of reading the entire Hebrew Bible. “It’s only taken me 22 years,” I said.

“I hope you haven’t been reading Chronicles for 22 years!” (No, but it feels like it.)

At the end of my trip, perhaps because of Mom, I found my bags stuffed so full that I had to check the larger backpack. When I asked to do this at the airport, the agent was taken aback by what the British airline wanted to charge. “Meet me at the gate,” she said—this is a small airport and she was it. Not only did she gate check my bag for free, but she checked it all the way through to Manchester! As easy as it is to complain, people are nice, including at airlines.

On the flight back to England I was sitting next to a lovely Welsh couple (booked the aisle seat; totally worth it). They’d been on a whirlwind trip from Nashville to Memphis, Natchez, and New Orleans, and now back to Atlanta. I told them they’d seen about as much of the South as I have!

But in the Atlanta airport, where I’d had several hours, I came across one of the free displays, quite by accident. This one was on loan from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is associated with places in Alabama, which T. and I had planned to visit, but he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. There were pictures of his childhood, items that had belonged to him, and this original program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963).

One of the greatest speeches ever delivered, King’s “I Have a Dream,” is listed as simply, “Remarks.”

So, a coda to a coda. It seems I caught a glimpse of civil rights' promised land after all.

“Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see…”
—Reginald Heber
Save the Humans.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The things I carry

So, after nearly two years living out of our backpacks, I’ve finally got the packing thing down. Just in time to move back into the house! I’ve been converted, though, and plan to continue packing this same way for every future trip, short or long. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Ball cap, Alaska (when I was missing my hat) It clips onto my daypack so didn't add to luggage.
1. No matter what size bag I start with, I always manage to fill it.

Years ago it was a big wheeled suitcase; now it’s a backpack, and at a push, it is carry-on sized. According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, nail clippers, tweezers, disposable razors, and even sewing kits are all permitted in carry-on luggage! Disposable razors are terrible for the environment, but if you want to shave…

Or a train
So start with a bag that meets carry-on requirements, and you will manage with less. It doesn’t have to be a backpack. If you’re more comfortable with a roller bag, go for it! But it should not be too large, or heavy, to go in the overhead bin on a plane.

We needed something durable that would be surprisingly comfortable and leave our hands free. Osprey backpacks met all our requirements and were well worth the expense. (They also come with a lifetime guarantee—and no, I’m not affiliated with any of these products.)

Many bags, some very expensive, are sold with lots of features and organization designed to let you carry everything in one bag. I am not a fan of this approach, for the simple reason that no plane has room for everybody to put this size of bag in the overhead bin. In fact, smaller regional or propeller planes routinely check bags at the gate, and you often have to put your bag under a bus, etc. too. For this reason, I recommend:

2. Always travel with two bags.

Merino wool (shirt, New Zealand) means you can
wear fewer items more often and in heat or cold.
The smaller bag should be what airlines call a “personal item,” i.e., it should fit under the airplane seat in front of you. Bear in mind that if you actually put it there, it will cut into your foot room—so the smaller, the better! The type of bag is up to you (handbag, laptop bag, or a packing cube you can pull out of your main bag); the important thing is what’s in there. Anything you need with you at all times, whether that’s valuables (passport, credit cards, etc.) or things you need in transit—entertainment, medication, sleep mask, whatever. If you’re flying, a change of clothes. 

The reason for the smaller bag is not to pack more stuff! There are two reasons: A) Even if you plan to carry your main bag onto a plane, if there is no room on board, you can still check it at the gate (for free). And B) You need something to carry things around in at your destination, without lugging your main bag. I always carry a small backpack (daypack) but many people prefer a purse- or messenger-style bag.
Buffs (mine from Uluru)--one of the most versatile items you can take on your travels.
Having the things you need already packed in this day bag means you don’t have to scramble in a line at the gate, and when you get to wherever you’re going, you can lock your main bag up at the place you are staying.

3. Since I always fill my bag no matter the size, I follow the one-in, one-out rule.
  1. Handmade Ecuadorian shirt--thanks, Ines!

    Two of my best purchases--pajamas from Chiang Mai
    (top) and a market in Kuala Lumpur (bottoms)
    I picked up quite a few things along the way, but because the amount of “stuff” in my bag had to remain constant, they had to replace something old.
    Replacement shorts bought in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France

    T-shirt from Llama Path, Cuzco, Peru

    4. Some travel-specific items are a waste of money—but not all.

    Definitely worth buying were: a microfibre travel towel, a universal adaptor (for plugs in various sockets around the world), a portable hard drive, and the backpacks themselves. 
    Our bags could travel anywhere--on our laps on buses in Africa,
    or on boats in Asia.
    These were travel-specific expenses that paid for themselves many times over. There is no substitute for the light, quick-drying towel, and it’s hard to find at your destination—few items meet these criteria. The adaptor was also essential, and much less bulky than carrying different ones for different types of outlets. We found portable hard drives (along with an online backup such as Google Photos) essential for all the hundreds of photos we took, as our laptop wouldn’t store them all and the peace of mind was priceless. It’s not much use having everything in digital form if you can lose it all in one place.
    Rash guards from Hanauma Bay, Hawaii; travel towel (on mangrove), and khanga from Tanzania (like a sarong)

    Handy, but you needn’t go out and buy them: a sewing kit (I already had one); travel-sized liquid container; packing cubes; an RFID-safe money belt; and “travel” underwear/sports bras. T. used the sewing kit mainly, to sew flags onto my daypack from each country.
    Sewing on board the slow boat, Mekong River, Laos
    These were  my souvenirs and, because they went on the outside of the bag, didn’t take up any space inside.
    Travel-sized liquid containers are handy for meeting carry-on requirements, but you could just squirt your favourite shampoo into a hotel container, or buy a solid bar. 

    New Aran sweater from Ireland--better fit in a compression bag!
    You could also use plastic bags instead of buying packing cubes, especially if your gear needs waterproofing. But we found the cubes really useful for separating our clothes, etc., and for pulling things out of the backpacks without unpacking everything. Compression bags are useful if you need to take clothes for multiple climates--e.g., compress your winter jacket, sweater, etc. and only unpack when you get to cold weather.

    New T-shirt, Wyoming
    I used a money belt for my “other” passport, cards, and cash, mainly on transit days. When out and about, I mostly locked this up wherever we were staying. The Ex Officio was pricey for underwear, but I found it worth it for its wicking properties and the ability to dry it quickly after washing it out. For a short trip, or if you’re not doing any hiking, don’t bother.

    If you are doing specific activities, some items are probably worth taking. For hiking, I found I needed trekking poles,

    a water reservoir
    (e.g., Camelbak) and a few clothespins or binder clips to hang socks up to dry. We also found a couple of carabiners (“carbonaras,” as T. calls them) useful for clipping things to backpacks. Most travelers could make do with a reusable water bottle—which I strongly recommend. I also wish I had thought to buy purifying tablets at the beginning of our travels. In places where the tap water is not safe, boiling water or using these tablets means you don’t have to buy plastic bottles, saving both money and pollution.

    Insulated water bottle (from Bernie in California)
    & water bottle holder from Aguas Calientes market, Peru
    Travel-specific items that I could have left behind: a “Point It” guide, full of pictures that you can point to when you don’t speak the language, to communicate with people in another country. I already had one that Eurail sent me years ago and had read that they were useful, so I threw it in. I ended up never using it. This surprised me, but between English, a few words of the local language, and nonverbal communication, we always managed. If something like this is available on your phone, I guess it doesn’t take up any space, though.

    Sweatshirt + down jacket = layers for glaciers!
    Travel laundry soap was also a waste—heavy liquid and it got all over everything. If you’re using a washing machine, you’ll need to find regular detergent when you get there (preferably powder). And if you’re washing things out in a sink, just use shampoo. Most hotels provide this free.

    I did occasionally use a universal plug stopper. Lots of sinks don’t have plugs and this is very small and light, so it was worth the few dollars I paid.

    I took a small portable USB charger, but it probably wasn’t worth it. Most places you can charge things and the few times I did try to use it, it was likely to be out of charge itself! I charged it up specifically for my mountain climb, when I’d have no other opportunity to charge a camera, but the only real use I got out of it was that when I lost the cord for my old phone, I found that the charger’s cable happened to fit it. 

    Toiletries bag (and long-sleeved shirt from flea market), Sydney.
    T-shirt from Mauritius.
    Finally, I’ve kept my passport in a holder for years, but I don’t think a cover for your passport is necessary. More useful is just to keep it in a Ziploc bag, as not one, but two passports of mine have been water damaged over the years. In fact, take a bunch of Ziploc bags with you, as they’re incredibly useful and surprisingly hard to find on the road.

    5. And last but not least, everyone, including me, has a luxury (or two) that’s worth the weight of carrying. You just have to know what it is.

    A distinctive luggage tag is a good idea, and doesn't
    take up any room in the bag.
    Lots of travel sites advise you to ditch the camera because your phone can do the same thing, or not take any books because an e-reader/tablet is so much lighter, etc. But everyone has their luxury item(s) that make them feel at home, whether for a short or long trip.

    Wind/waterproof jacket from Vancouver.
    Plus warm hat (toque) and balaclava!
    My phone doesn’t have any “apps”—it’s just an old BlackBerry that no one would ever steal. I borrowed T’s Kindle from time to time, to read a book I couldn’t find in print form, but it just doesn’t do it for me. I prefer a physical paper book. Apart from a guidebook, which could be downloaded or, in some cases, just the chapters I needed cut out to save weight and space. I needed a book to read and so there were always two books in my bag. Something heavy that you use every day is worth more than something light that you would never miss.
    Real winter boots, on the other hand, had to be mailed back.
    T’s luxury was a proper camera that took up space, weighed a lot, and really made her stand out. So what? She never had any problems in 20 months, and took so many really great pictures. For some serious photographers, a camera bag is a good choice for their smaller “personal item” bag.

    T. and photographer friends, on a 4x4 to visit elephants, Thailand
    What about you? What are your packing challenges? Stuff you never end up using, or wish you’d taken? What luxury would you not travel without?