“I wrote 63 songs this year. They’re all about Jeter.” Just kidding. The game we love, the players we hate, and more.

Culture and Criticism

From Norman Mailer to Wendy Pepper — everything on film, TV, books, music, and snacks (shut up, raisins), plus the Girls’ Bike Club.

Donors Choose and Contests

Helping public schools, winning prizes, sending a crazy lady in a tomato costume out in public.

Stories, True and Otherwise

Monologues, travelogues, fiction, and fart humor. And hens. Don’t forget the hens.

The Vine

The Tomato Nation advice column addresses your questions on etiquette, grammar, romance, and pet misbehavior. Ask The Readers about books or fashion today!

Home » Culture and Criticism

The Burning House: Grab and go

Submitted by on August 20, 2014 – 8:54 PM34 Comments


I had a review copy of Foster Huntington’s The Burning House sitting on my to-read shelves for at least a couple of years.

It got wedged behind some beast of an art book that itself hadn’t made it out of the shrink wrap, and that only got moved because, after a year of marriage, Dirk and I finally moved in together.

…Okay, we lived together, obviously; we’d functionally been living together since three months into our relationship, and his utter failure to arouse strangly feelings after 36-48 hours in the same one-bedroom is one of the reasons I knew he was the guy. But he still had his place, four blocks away, across the street from the most hideous Christmas window in the entire borough, and now and then we liked to go there and sleep as long as we wanted without a feline spotting the first rosy finger of dawn and meowing inconsolably until “someone” (…Sarah) got up to feed and adore it.

Finally, though, we admitted to ourselves that we never used it, Dirk notified the landlord, and we started doing the mingling of possessions, and I have to tell you, it’s not the worst idea to get married first and then do this, because it’s harder to throw up your hands all “fuck this, I can’t” when the left hand has the ring on it and whatnot. I had a surprisingly hard time with it; trying to get rid of my stuff to make room for Dirk’s stuff brought up…all this stuff that had nothing to do with the particular items and everything to do with boundaries and control.

Anyway, in the course of weeding all the bookshelves and finally getting rid of all the college classics I for some reason needed to remember I’d survived, as if anyone’s ever going to come over and check to make sure I read and margin-noted Gogol, I pulled down The Burning House and put it in the “go” pile, but it was at the top, and I ended up leafing through it…and then I couldn’t put it down, because at the same time that I was struggling to make room for this person who is my favorite, and for all the things he loves, and having to think about why I get attached to things and why it’s scary to give them up, here’s this book that’s all about what people would grab on their way out the door, and it was fascinating to me. I mean, not all of it, because the idea is that people photograph what they’d take with them, so you get a lot of photographers as contributors and sometimes it’s samey with all the Nikons and French bulldogs named Ansel, blah dee blah.

But sometimes the samey-ness is quite wonderful. You have a lot of pictures of the pets, and a lot of the pets have hilarious names or are sleeping on top of the other stuff in the portrait. You have a lot of random rocks and tangled necklaces and a lot of pairs of old shoes. You have a lot of people who would take a lot of stuff, unrealistic amounts and unwieldy shapes, old typewriters that weigh a ton, framed posters. And what really got me, just as I was thinking, “How could these people carry it all? I’m throwing the cats in a tote bag and running for my damn life,” was page 46. Sandra would take her bird, Horus, and her computer…and possibly not even that, thanks to cloud storage. Sandra actually did suffer through a house burning down back in the ’70s. “Word to all the folks with big piles of stuff: you have way less time than you think,” she says, and I looked around at the books and the boots and the whatnots in their legions of piles, Yes, Maybe But Probably, Probably Not But Let’s Think It Over, No With An Asterisk, No Until Dirk Turns His Back Then Hide It In MBP, and I was like, that’s exactly right. Here’s what I need: my creatures. Dirk, cats, all other Buntings in domicile. They make the home. They can’t be replaced. If I can’t grab my grandma’s watch, it doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other.

The book is legit thought-provoking, I’d say, though I read it at a coincidentally meaningful time; you can also read and submit to the blog. Have you read it? And what would YOU take?




  • BMA says:

    I tend to think of completely practical things. Things that would be just a pain to replace: Passport, External hard drive, Safe Deposit box key.
    That’s really it, assuming I’m dressed (enough), wearing my glasses and all other living creatures are out of the building. I’m wracking my brains to think of anything I couldn’t stand to lose and I can’t think of one darn thing. (Hmmm, perhaps I should purge some of the crap I have around).

  • Lynda says:

    Great post! I have read this book already, I think I saw it on Good Reads as a book I could win, and when I didn’t, I got it from the library.

    I agree with you, it’s an interesting read, but I also got irritated with the sameness. (Yes, fine, your collection of cameras and lenses, good for you, what about the *pictures* you took with those cameras? Those can’t be replaced.)

    Me, I’d grab my husband, the two cats (Sunny & Sherry, who are brothers), and my purse. Not sure why my purse, exactly — everything in it can be replaced, but it’s always the one thing I grab before I leave the house, so… force of habit?

  • cayenne says:

    I actually put together a fire bag – one of those accordion files that looks like a shoulder bag (useful when hitting the staircase & need the handrail) – that contains all my important papers: home insurance info, deed, mortgage stuff, passport, etc., as well as a backup hard drive that I update weekly. I also dump all my files on Dropbox every couple of days, but in case its servers get zorched in some massive (and hopefully very localized) EMP, I have everything I need to rebuild. If it turns out I have a minute during a fire alarm before the evac alert, I also grab the laptop & any other devices I can stuff into a tote.

    I don’t currently have a pet, but when I did, I had a carrier with an over-the-shoulder handle. When the alarm went off then, I would grab the fire bag & my purse, stuff the cat into the carrier, and hit the stairwell (the laptop didn’t make the cut then). While there are some books and personal items I would certainly miss if they went up in a big puff, they’re mostly replaceable as long as I have my insurance info with me.

  • C-C says:

    Kids, husband, recipe binder (has all our favorites and notes), kids fave stuffed animals (one each). All irreplaceable.

    If I had a miraculous amount of time to spare, photo and wedding albums too (also irreplaceable).

  • Ellen says:

    The painting I have propped up on the mantle, it was painted by my grandmother and is a very tangible reminder of her.

    Up next would probably be the photo album my friends started for me when I moved to another city, which I’ve since added to with pictures from a few big trips.

    And probably my purse out of force of habit.

    Everything is replaceable… except that painting, its the only one like it in the world!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    The cats, of course, and my purse out of habit and whatever book is in the purse, and my husband.

    Just catching the damn cats is going to take up most of the precious seconds I have, I’ll be lucky to have one shoe on, let alone pants.

  • lsn says:

    My son, my husband, the backup hard drive which has all the photos on, and the NICU diaries. My husband, meanwhile, would be frantically rescuing guitars.

    I’d also hopefully have shoes on – after having to evacuate from a London hotel I was staying at in late November I cannot overstate how good shoes are. Also jackets. Man that was cold – to the point that one of the group asked if we could go back in the “burning” (it was a false alarm) building as it was warmer there.

  • Amy says:

    We started thinking about this recently; 5 of the 8 units in the building next to ours went up in flames this summer. What if there’d been one good puff of wind and the flames had jumped to our building? Yikes. And even more thinking when we found out 3 of those 5 families WEREN’T HOME when the fire started. Could you imagine not even having a chance to save anything? Just coming home to … 10 firetrucks from 8 different surrounding towns, all spraying water on YOUR HOME? Double yikes.

  • Kizz says:

    My mother is a hoarder. Like, she could be on the show but she wouldn’t let them in because they’d make her give up her stuff. I have a copy of this book. I either won it in a giveaway or it was a book, I can’t remember. I’ve leafed through it but an actual sit-down read hasn’t happened. I imagine it will be just a wee bit emotional for me. You’re inspiring me, though. I’ll give it a try.

  • GracieGirl says:

    I have personal experience with this; back in March 2001 my roommate and I escaped a fire in our apartment building. We woke up at 5am thanks to the screaming of one of our neighbors – bless her and her high-capacity lungs. My practical teacher roommate thought to grab her coat (Ohio and still winter), her purse, and her laptop bag which contained her lesson plans and her grad school applications. I picked up a laundry basket, swept all of my framed pictures off the top of my dresser, and threw in a couple of my favorite stuffed animals. I might have run out the apartment without my shoes if I hadn’t tripped over them.

    While my bedroom was the only part of our unit that actually burned, we lost a lot of belongings to smoke and water damage. The kitchen stuff survived okay – plates and pans wash up just fine – but all of our furniture was ruined, the smell never really comes out of clothing, and our TV was always a bit glitchy afterwards. Even going through it and learning first hand that stuff is just stuff and can be replaced, I occasionally find myself missing something particular that I lost. Or thinking about something I own now and would be sorry to lose.

  • RC says:

    I compulsively sleep with my laptop in its bag next to my bed (I’m usually on it at night anyway yes I know bad habits) in part because if something went down then I could just grab it and go. The cats are the only other “must” and I have to hope that in a fire scenario they’d go into freeze-freakout mode rather than run-away-freakout mode, because otherwise none of us are getting out.

    Sars, who is the new kitty??? Cute!

  • RS says:

    Cats, husband, instruments (they’re small), quilt my mother made, painting by my friend’s father. Practically, I’d probably also grab my ipad or wallet, but those are the things I’d be running for.

    Also, only slightly related, but for reasons long and complicated my husband and I live in a two family house. His stuff is in the top one bedroom, mine is in the bottom, which means while we live together, we are cheating – no choosing of the artwork, sharing of closets, waiting for the bathroom, etc. We each have our own FRIDGE, for heavens sake. We sleep upstairs one night and downstairs the next due to cats who cannot be friends, and while we keep talking about moving…somehow we never do, because this situation does not actually suck.

  • Kristen says:

    Water damage is another one of those events that could mean you lose everything. A plumbing issue flooded our entire house top to bottom 5 years ago, and I’ve never been so thankful that the photo albums were on the top shelf of a closet upstairs instead of in the basement in a box on the floor. We didn’t lose anything that couldn’t be replaced, although the biggest regret was losing an original Darth Vader helmet from Empire. I’m not sure that one would make my list for a fire, but it is pretty high up on the “not replaceable” scale. Today, the top of the list would be my kids, DH, pooch, and Cloud drive. Geoffrey (a stuffed giraffe) and Blue Bear (…self explanatory) would probably be in there, too.

  • Liz R. says:

    Cat, laptop…… jewelry box? I think? Good thing to think about. I’ve been meaning to prepare a go bag for ages.
    Off topic, is that a new cat? S/he looks sweet!

  • attica says:

    I had a move last year, into a place that was at once more comfortable but had lots less storage capacity. Aaaand I had, like, a week to move. So so much pitching had to be done.

    On the one hand, getting rid of stuff you didn’t even realize you still had and therefore won’t miss is lovely, freeing, satisfying. On another hand, getting rid of family pieces because there’s no room and the family member who would notice/object to them gone is…gone, well, that’s a bit thicker to get through.

    Mostly, tossing crap is a pleasant process for me. (I tend to not dither.) But not always. Bye, gram’s butter churn! Snif!

  • Beanie says:

    Out here in tornado country, we like to say, “Never cry over anything that can’t cry over you.”

    Words to live by. :)

  • polly says:

    Humans, passport, driving licence, wallet with cash and debit card, house keys, coat, shoes.

    I went to a school with frequent fire drills and a sensible headmistress. If your house really burned down, you would need cash and ID immediately and for the next couple of weeks.

  • Wendy says:

    I know in the end it’s just *stuff*, but… I don’t know that I can even bear to think about making that choice. So many lovingly inscribed books and CDs, so many irreplaceable musical instruments (the artisan who made my crumhorns passed away years ago, for instance), so many pieces of art by my husband, step-daughter, and daughter… argh!

  • Kay says:

    Hmmm. Do my cats survive being in a tote bag together or do they kill each other?

  • ct says:

    My family home burned down two months ago, almost to the day.
    We were away at the time, so no person or pet was harmed. But that also meant nothing was saved.
    As grateful as I am that everyone is safe ( I am grateful beyond words), I still mourn a little bit the loss of our house and the things in it that made it feel like home.

  • DriverB says:

    During the great post-grad school funemployment period, I made a point of digitizing the multiple shoeboxes of photos from high school and college, and my baby photo album. So my grab-and-go got a little lighter on that account. I’m with all of you on the ‘stuff cat in bag, take passport’ team. But I should really work on making a folder with copies of the ‘important papers’. It would be great to be able to keep copies of all that online, but I’d also be worried about keeping it secure. If anyone has examples of how they back up such things, please share!

    I also have a pre-packaged earthquake emergency kit (thanks California!) that has some basic things like matches, a space blanket, etc. all stuffed into a large water bottle. That could use some beefing up, but I might grab that too just in case. It’s next to the cat bag anyway.

    Also, thanks @Sars for mentioning how challenging it can be to merge all your stuff in addition to your lives. I’m soon coming to this stage in my current (wildly happy) relationship, and I think we both have some trepidation about it. It feels weird – it’s just stuff! We’re adults! We love each other! – but it’s also NOT just stuff at the same time. Thankfully we’re both aware that things could get tricky, but that doesn’t automatically make it easier. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one!

  • JenV says:

    Kay, I bet it would be fine. I have two cats who kinda hate each other but they don’t seem to mind being in a carrier together. They might even find it weirdly comforting, based on the fact that driving just one to the vet means a plaintive meow every 15 seconds like clockwork, but when I take both of them in one carrier they are silent.

  • kategm says:

    Cute kitty!

    I collect fountain pens and have kept paper journals since like, 1993. People always assume those would be the first things I’d grab in a fire. I’m like, “no, there are these wonderful things called insurance and policy riders. And I’m not hauling a fabric trunk full of books out of a burning building, especially when I haven’t been able to read the books for fifteen years.”

    So I’d make sure my people are out first and hopefully, I’d be able to grab my purse/wallet and passport too. Because like others have said, it would suck big time to not have those items.

    This thread is reminding me to look into disaster prep for important documents.

  • GracieGirl says:

    @ct – I’m so sorry to hear about your home. It’s been 13 years since the fire in my apartment building and there are still moments when I miss things that I lost. And though I should know better, I still allow myself to get attached to things I own now. I think a little of that is natural as long as it doesn’t take over or prevent a person from moving on. Best wishes to you and your family as you continue to re-build.

  • Leigh in CO says:

    This is an appropriate topic for me these days, too. My mother passed away suddenly this past spring. She was still living in the house we all grew up in, so there was an (emotional) exercise with me and my siblings dispensing the contents of the house. It was an incredibly strange seesaw of “it’s just stuff” and “I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I never saw that object again.” I brought some of the things home, and while I am so very glad I do get to see or use them every day, I am even more cognizant of it all just being stuff. It is stuff my parents were proud of, or was meaningful to them or to us kids, but still just stuff.

    So, despite the fact that now I have in my possession more emotion- and memory-soaked belongings than I know what to do with, my answer is: meowy Achoo-cat, husband, purse if feasible.

  • Kay says:

    Excellent. Then the cats join me and the husband!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The cat is Pearl. She is very cute; worse, she knows it.

  • Rbelle says:

    Man, I feel callous. Kids, husband, cat if he’s easily grab-able, I’ll try to leave an escape route open if he isn’t. I love him and I’d absolutely hate for him to die in a fire, but not to the extent that any of my humans gets to stumble around in a burning building trying to figure out which bed he’s under.

    When it comes to stuff, there’s pretty much nothing I’d put on the list. If we didn’t have to go out a window, I might grab my wallet for the ID. And if I was in the middle of a peak work cycle and could get to it, I’d grab my backup drive, because nobody wants to redo two weeks worth of editing when they’ve just lost their entire house. But I feel like as long as I have access to a computer, there’s pretty much nothing practical I couldn’t replace. And anything sentimental that I’d remember enough to miss having, I’d at least have the memory of.

  • Jaybird says:

    Hubby, our two boys, and the framed print of Klimt’s “The Kiss”, which is inscribed (inside the glass) with a poem my husband wrote me when I was pregnant with our first son. It would be cumbersome, but most other stuff, we can replace. Especially that ceramic rooster napkinholder his mom gave us. Fleh.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Hey, I’ll take the rooster. hee.

  • Eagerly says:

    Are Pearl and Mabel buddies?

    On topic: I would grab my husband and the cats.
    Unfortunately Wolfie runs and hides when he is
    Scared which is a problem.

    But really, all of our stuff is replaceable.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Pearl wants to be friends but Mabel is not having it — so we have a cat on each floor right now, which is fine, but I’m hoping for a detente/snuggle pile when the cold weather comes.

  • Clover says:

    My patched tabby, Mitzvah.

    My husband and stepkids.

    My bag, which contains my phone, wallet, passport, ID, etc.

    If there’s time, my grandmother’s engagement ring and the quilt my mother made for me out of all my old race shirts.

  • Tyliag says:

    Anything within arms reach that reminds me of my son, because he’s no longer with us and I have to have something of his. Maybe his ashes, but definitely the hat he use to wear that’s perched on top of the urn. My daughter, my husband, but not the dog, because he should be outside already. I don’t need him startle-pooping on the floor while we’re having a fire. That would just be wrong on top of wrong.

Leave a comment!

Please familiarize yourself with the Tomato Nation commenting policy before posting.
It is in the FAQ. Thanks, friend.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>