A beginner's guide to downsizing, part 4: Books and the rest

4.09.2014

We keep most junk around for economic reasons: because we think we'll use it, because we think we'll need it, because we can't accept a sunk cost or because we can afford to buy knick-knacks of no value. The last breed of junk, however, isn't economic; it's emotional.

#5: Books (stuff that you've read once and will probably never read again)

I should begin by noting that I am nothing if not a bibliophile, a lover of literature and the limitless knowledge and entertainment books contain. But loving literature is not the same as loving books.

I have great friends with lovely libraries, cabinets and cases of texts and tomes, paperbacks and publications, hundreds and hundreds of bindings containing thousands and thousands of pages. It's beautiful wall art.

But is it functional? Hardly. Think of all the books you've ever read. If you have a library, think of how many books you own. Now think of how many of those books you've read a second time. Some? A third time. A few? A fourth time. Maybe two, one, zero? Practically, personal libraries are overwhelmingly underused: a book purchased, read, and then shelved, never to be opened again. With over 130 million different titles in existence, the reader rarely returns to her collection. Rather, she adds to it—buy, read, shelf, repeat—and the library grows.

Many books, lots of space.

So what's the harm? Space, for one—libraries take up a lot of room and are a pain to move. Finances—buying books costs money. And then there's the environmental cost: books are, well, made from trees, and every new copy of a book requires new pages, new trees. My simple back-of-the-napkin estimate of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, for instance (200 million copies at an average of 500 pages each, with a single sixty-foot pine tree yielding about 80,000 pages), has required nearly 1.3 million trees to produce over its long print-cycle—about 3% of the Amazon's (the forest, not the retailer) present inventory. And remember, that's just the impact of one (very high-selling) book.

But space and money and planet aside, perhaps the best argument for ditching the library is sharing. As with just-in-case junk (for what is a library but just-in-case-I-want-to-read-this-later junk?), everything we have is something someone else can't have. When we hoard five hundred books just in case we want to reread five, we're keeping 495 books from our community, 495 books that can be read not later, but now—right now. And let's face it: if we care about a book enough to keep it, isn't it inherently something we think others deserve to experience as well?

But how do we go about reading without amassing a library? Simple. We begin by donating our books—all those but the few we really, really, really believe we'll read again—to real libraries, public libraries, libraries with free and open access to all. Or we build a little free library in our neighborhood and stock it with our best. Or we pass on our collection to a used books store, perhaps even sell them on Amazon (the retailer, not the forest) for a fair price. We keep the revolving door revolving.

Then, we get a library card. We check books out and check them back in, or we buy new books and sell them back when we're done. Maybe we get an e-reader. Me, I'm partial to the Kindle Paperwhite (though I trust they're all very good), finding it to offer quite a few benefits over the paper book:

  • It's light. At under 8 ounces, an e-reader weighs half of an average paperback, and that weight doesn't change for the epic novels. Infinite Jest and Cannery Row not only weigh the same, they weigh the same together—8 ounces on a Kindle, 2 pounds in hand. For travelers, e-readers are phenomenal; one can easily pack 100 books for a multi-month excursion, and stuff the whole collection right into their back pocket.
  • It's ... light. Speaking just for the Paperwhite here, it's an absolute pleasure to read in the dark. With a soft, adjustable backlight that's easy on the eyes, reading lamps, flashlights, and strained lenses are a thing of the past.
  • Books are affordable and available for all. With thousands of titles in the public domain—and many more free to download if you know where to look—e-readers have the potential to truly close the literary gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Growing up with neither the money for books nor someone to take me to the library regularly, it's heartening to see such open access to literature growing and evolving, but it depends on the support of all of us to continue doing so.

Of course, I've heard the arguments against them—but I love the feel of a book!, they smell so good!, or the entitled and illogical ramblings of Jonathan Franzen—and for a while, I believed them too (maybe not the Franzen bit). But the truth is, first you try an e-reader, then you get used to an e-reader, and then you prefer an e-reader, and the bookworm inside of you thanks you for it. The minimalist in you does too.

Many books, little space.
#6: Sentimental junk (stuff that we may or may not hold dear)

I won't ridicule sentimental junk as I have junk's other five forms, for our sentimental items are often those we're most sensitive about. We give them value that transcends currency; often, we consider them irreplaceable. These treasured bits of ​our very selves adorn our home and warm our hearts—the very type of thing I've advocated for keeping around in the past—so I want to be clear that what I'm talking about here is not the urn or the photo album, nor the old rocking chair passed down through the generations. Sure, these are sentimental, but they are not sentimental junk.

Sentimental junk are those items we keep because we feel they should have value. Old holiday cards with more matter than message, ticket stubs we plan to scrapbook one day but never do, letters from lovers long gone, a final draft of a senior thesis or a diploma itself. In my own downsizing journey, these were the most difficult items to part with. But after the hesitance, recycling my diplomas and burning old correspondence felt cathartic, freeing, leaving my past alive in the only place it really exists and the only place it can be truly treasured: my memories.

And then, of course, there's digitization. Yes, we can burn our letters and toss our photo albums and discard our physical encumbrances, but that needn't be our only option. For we live in the digital age, an age of uploading and archiving, an age when the contents of a shoebox or a trunk can be preserved on a chip smaller than a fingernail. Perhaps flipping through digital albums isn't quite the same as passing an afternoon in the attic perusing old photobooks, but hey: at least you don't need an attic.

This post is the fourth of a series on living simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.

Old adventures, new adventures

4.04.2014

It's springtime—maybe—time to wake from hibernation, to leave the little shell I've built, to seize the day and embrace the season. Time for adventure.

Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz, California.


I'm off to a good start, just yesterday returning from a lovely week in California with good company: climbing through Joshua Tree, celebrating nuptials, following the great Pacific from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Once again eager, and excited, for travel.

But first, I have a house to finish. I have no true hopes of burying my hammer by the end of the month, but I am pleased with the progress this March has brought, thanks to Dave and thanks to Tony: new furniture—real furniture—a place to sit, a place for food and a place for wine, a place to hang my coat and my gear. And, oh, a bathroom, a fully working bathroom with a hot shower and a simple toilet, a bathroom with a door and lights and mirror, and with the very world plastered on its walls. There's little left to do—finishing touches, really—one more couch and some cushions and a little paint here and there, then some solar for the roof ... the end, it most certainly seems, is very much in sight.

Yet sooner than I think, I'll be off again—flights booked and rail pass in hand. On May 9, I'll depart for Madrid; on August 9, I'll return from Dublin. How I'll spend the ninety days in between is beautifully unplanned, spare a small excursion to Cairo and Istanbul, a few weeks accompanied by a wonderful friend, and a June 9 show in Amsterdam by one of the loveliest musicians to ever grace the face of a vinyl. I've packed my bag, over and over, reducing and lightening my load, aiming, in the immortal words of Thoreau:
... to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Bottomless rail pass in hand.
And yet, I fear I crave more than a jaunty backpacking trip around Europe, no matter how small the pack. I have a new expedition brewing—this, my ultimate adventure in simplicity.

Next winter, I shall find myself a little island: tiny, uninhabited, undeveloped. I shall row to it, kayak or boat perhaps, and with me I will bring nothing but literature, a knife, first aid supplies, and—if the island won't provide it—drinking water. And there, I'll spend thirty days with nothing but the sea and the forest and my thoughts and my books, thirty days of reducing life to its lowest terms and, if it proves to be mean, then getting the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if it be sublime, then to come to know it by experience.

I'm terribly excited, more excited than I've been for any adventure of late. But weary, too. It's a strange thing to be exhausted by the mere prospect of more travel, but here I am, planning for four months of minimalist nomadism within the next ten, and a sliver of my self begs for something more grounded.

Candidate 4 (highlighted) for home, 2015.
And this brings me to my final adventure—not my final ever, just the end of my visible horizon—a simple one, or so I think: the birth of a café. Though the last thing this city, my city, any city needs is another place selling coffee, what my surroundings severely lack, at least in any acceptable number, is a gathering place, one with open seats and open doors, a place for community and conversation and, yes, hot beverages for garnish.

I do not want to be a business owner; I do not wish to start a business. For profit, money, expansion: these are the very enemies of simplicity and community. And so Walden Pond—for what else would it be called?—will be a non-profit, donation-based establishment, serving simple teas and simple foods, serving the community, an aspirational model of fair, responsible, ethical development.

More to come—on all of it, always, more to come.

Life with a loft

3.04.2014

The Matchbox, like nearly all tiny homes, saves on space with a sleeping loft: forty square feet elevated roughly seventy-eight inches off the ground, just enough room for a mattress and its occupant(s). Having spent my fair share of nights in the Matchbox's queen-size loft, let's take a look at the the good, the bad, and the ugly of loft living, from safety to sustainability to sex—and everything in between.

The Matchbox and its spacious loft, with the skylight adding a feeling of great openness.












To begin, lofts are cozy—like, really cozy. When designed right, with ample headroom and a generous skylight and soft linens, the loft is a lovely place to read, rest, or watch the clouds drift by. A hideaway flatscreen (like the one featured in the Matchbox) can transform the space into a tiny cinema, and the removable skylight provides quick egress to the roof—important for safety, but also a lovely place to sit and contemplate on those warmer summer nights.

The loft does great in the cold as well. Because hot air rises, a loft will always be the warmest place in a tiny house, so running the fireplace a short time before bed is typically enough to keep one comfortable for hours: no need to use electricity the whole night through. And when things get a tad too toasty, easy access to the skylight allows for heat to be vented up and away at will.

Then, of course, there's the space savings: forty square feet elevated means forty square feet of surplus down below, or forty square feet less altogether, allowing for a tinier, simpler, cheaper, greener home—though one not without a few admittable tradeoffs.

Brian designed Minim House without a loft, as he found the elevated bed useful only "if you're young, don't drink much, can handle rain noise, and don't get too creative during sexytime." Some fair and very valid points: loft ladders are more physically taxing then simply rolling into bed, for starters. When I had surgery last year, I had to spend a week away from the Matchbox because I couldn't make it up the loft, and after a long run or a full day of rock climbing, lifting myself into bed is something of a chore.

They also, indeed, require more sobriety to climb. I'm a responsible drinker, so I've yet to find myself in a serious liquor-versus-ladder showdown, but loft safety more broadly is a serious concern. In testing a (failed) method of securing my ladder to the loft this winter, I fell off it twice while climbing, fortunately making it back to my feet with only a few bruises. And while my memory foam mattress and calm sleep demeanor protect me from rolling right off the bed while asleep, most tiny house lofts do lack railings, and thus are a terribly dangerous idea for he-who-tosses-and-turns or she-who-sleepwalks.

To Brian's third concern—rain noise—I can't say I ever recall being bothered by the crash of rainfall, but perhaps my fondness for nature's dearer sounds leaves me biased. I won't, however, rebut Brian's final claim: a loft does, indisputably, limit your intimacy options.

I'll admit that in designing my loft and choosing its height, "maneuverability" played a key role. I'm quite satisfied with the way the loft turned out; I find that between the queen-size mattress, the flat ceiling, and the raised skylight, there's more than enough space for a roomy romp. But there are limits, of course: prohibited positions and the occasional bumping of the head and a mild awkwardness that demands that one, well, have a little familiarity and shared sense of humor with one's loft guest(s). It's a tradeoff, sure, but one with a simple solution, if need be: just take it downstairs.

Getting downstairs is, in itself, something worth noting. Life with a loft means no more rolling out of bed. Waking up and descending into productivity becomes a careful, deliberate action, and when really tired, it truly is the last thing you want to do—when the loft is nice and warm and the space below cold and unforgiving, even more so.

***

So there's the good: lofts are simple and cozy, they take advantage of thermodynamics to save energy, they provide easy access for escape (essential or otherwise), they save considerable space, and though the athleticism required to climb in and out of one daily is sometimes a pain, there's something to be said for a loft doing its small part in keeping you young, both at heart and in body (the edge of the loft also serves as a perfect pull-up bar, I should add).

And then the bad: they're not the safest sleeping solution (a fall or two is to be expected), and they are a bit of work to climb down from after a long night of slumber. They limit sex—not prohibitively so, not at all with a little creativity, a well-placed skylight, or a descent downstairs—but they do, incontrovertibly, make some of its manifestations a touch inconvenient (I won't argue that Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay" wouldn't have quite the same ring to it were that big brass bed switched out for a tiny house loft). And they do bite a chunk out of ceiling height in the bathroom (atop which they're usually placed), perhaps making it difficult for the taller among us to shampoo and lather without bumping a hand or elbow against the bottom of the loft.

Finally, I haven't forgotten the ugly. Up to this point, I've been discussing a well-designed loft, a loft like the one with in the Matchbox (exact size 66" x 88" x 39"), with a flat ceiling and a wide skylight and a queen-size mattress and three-and-a-half feet of space to sit up in. Or like the one in the Pera House, with shallow dormers and loft windows and lengthy dimensions. Most tiny house lofts, however, are designed with little thought toward livability, a casualty of a gabled roof design that looks cute on the outside but feels like a coffin on the inside.

A typical tiny house with a gabled loft—cute, but not necessarily comfortable.


I spent a few nights in the loft of a Tumbleweed tiny house—thankfully, before I began constructing the Matchbox—and reacted so strongly to the claustrophobia of a gabled loft (that is, a pointed roof with a thirteen-degree pitch on either side) that I changed the Matchbox's roof design to a flat one the very next day. Yes, they look mighty spacious when photographed at the right angle with a wide-angle lens, but sleeping in a steeply gabled loft is a bit like camping in a tent: fun for a few nights, but clearly not built for long-term comfort, and certainly not built for two.

Richie Tenenbaum's yellow tent, which affords more space than the typical loft (though the same level of discomfort).
















***

Of course, there's no right answer here: for some, a gabled loft will do just fine; for others, any loft whatsoever would be absurd. For me, I'm more than happy with the Matchbox's loft—despite its drawbacks, it's the best thing for the space and for my needs. And as always, for a chance to check out a variety of tiny house sleeping solutions in person, where you can get the truest sense of scale and suitable sizes, feel free to come by any of the upcoming tiny house tours at Boneyard Studios.

A beginner's guide to downsizing, part 3: Oh, the utility

2.14.2014

“Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things ... Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods 

We've already discussed two kinds of junk—just-in-case junk and component junk—that we keep around because we think we'll use it in the future. But what about junk you simply know you'll never use, yet keep around anyway?

#3: Sunk-cost junk (stuff that hasn't yet earned its value, and never will)

That sweater you bought that ended up looking better on the mannequin than it does on you. The Vitamix you splurged on when you were committing to a life of kale smoothies for breakfast, before you realized you don't like kale—liquefied or not—and never leave yourself enough time for breakfast anyway. Or those heels that go so exceptionally well with your favorite summer dress, spare the minor detail that you physically cannot walk in them. Sunk-cost junk is a microeconomic quagmire we all find ourselves in at one point or another: we paid money (often a lot) for something we deemed worth it, before later realizing the purchase wasn't worth it, and because we spent so much money to begin with, we refuse to give up the good and swallow the sunk cost.

I won't talk about this variety of junk as much as the others because it's less pervasive and often more obvious, both in its physical form and in its solution. It's not difficult to find your sunk-cost goods: just check the closet for anything with a tag still on it, explore the drawers for any items still in their original packaging after way too long. Sunk-cost junk and just-in-case junk may manifest themselves in the very same form depending on the intentions of the owner. Whereas one person may view their untouched skis as just-in-case junk they haven't yet put to use but hope they someday will, another may be stashing their own set of skis because they spent so very much on them and would hate for that money to go to waste—that they have sworn off snow and never want to hit the slopes again is besides the point.

As for the solution? Sunk-cost junk is just like sunk-cost anything: holding onto it, more often that not, will only increase the cost, whether in the form of fiscally-taxing storage space or mentally-taxing clutter. So swallow the cost once and for all and be done with it.



#4: Filler junk (stuff that is, frankly, entirely useless)

We acquire sunk-cost junk because we misjudge our intentions: we think we'll use something we've decided to buy, and then things change. Yet sometimes, we buy things already knowing that we'll never use them ... because they're inherently useless.

A ceramic bowl of wicker spheres. Anything non-edible in a bowl, really. A tabletop statue of Buddha purchased at a local Target, or a stack of old Washingtonians, or a little bubbling fountain of superglued pebbles. Filler junk often goes by another name—decor—which makes it sound cultured and necessary and regal, though it's often anything but.

Because we generally live in dwellings larger than those we need, we inherently have surplus surface area: bare plateaus of oak and pine, an archipelago of coffee tables and endtables and accent tables and mantles, vacant corners and even vacant rooms, all which need "filling," lest we look like squatters or fugitives.

And so we buy, not for function, but for fill. We need something to go on that table over there—doesn't really matter what it is. Volume over value. We buy books we'll never read ("coffee table books"), candles we'll never light ("show candles"), and wicker balls we'll never use for anything because, well, they're wicker balls.

To be fair, decor does serve a function—decoration—these accessories, we think, make our homes look warm and inviting and full of cultured character. Here lies a copy of the latest New Yorker, look how learned I am! Oh, this chessboard with its pieces arranged in a mid-game configuration? Yes, our family is a chess family and we must have just left it just that way, midgame and all. Ah, these wicker balls: yes, I wickered them myself, because I like to work with my hands.

Decor that tells tales of who you really are is good: souvenirs from your travels, your adventures, your life. We keep these by the bedside not because they fill up space but because they fill up us. Decor doesn't give our homes character, we give our homes character, and our homes are but a reflection of us, character and all. As such, purchased decor, mass-produced decor, is often—not always, but often—not a reflection of who we are, but a deception of what we hope to present to the world, to our house guests, to ourselves.

There's a beauty in the bare surface, the unshelved wall, the clean hard lines of simplicity. Were your house burning to the ground, this filler junk is likely the last thing you'd think to save from the inferno, valueless as it is, so rather than spend money buying it, time dusting it, energy flipping through catalogs searching for just the perfect thing to go in-that-corner-over-there, let the filler come to you. Accumulate accidentally, possess passively, obtain unintentionally and you'll find, in time, that those spaces will fill themselves: not with all the latest from Pottery Barn's spring line, but with all the most cherished from your life's fondest memories.

This post is the third of a series on living simplyClick here to continue to the fourth part.
Cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.

A beginner's guide to downsizing, part 2: Basic cables

2.07.2014

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods

When looking to simplify, identifying one's junk is a good first step, and there's no better place to start than with just-in-case junk, that whole host of things we hold onto for the rare occasion in which we might need them. But just-in-case junk is not the only type that might be hiding in your house, so let's continue our taxonomy with yet another of junk's (easier) disguises.

#2: Component junk (stuff you're pretty sure belongs to something else)

That bag of wires with their strange and one-of-a-kind connectors, the box of owner's manuals stuffed away in the closet, tiny little plastic pieces that are part of something—you know that much, but nothing more—component junk is perhaps the easiest type to identify, as it tends to quickly gather with its own kind, tossed into the ever-growing heap of parts-that-I-don't-need-right-now-but-that-I-may-need-later-on (in this sense, component junk is a close nephew of just-in-case junk).

Everyone, myself included, has a container of component junk of some size. Smaller collections might be limited to a mysterious remote, an outdated adapter, and a few tangled wires, whereas broader assortments will often boast 90s-era phone lines, splitters from the days of dual dial-up, and about twenty-seven of those three-pronged cords that used to plug into the backs of printers and computers but have since faded into obsolescence.



The problem in eliminating component junk is that, often, it's so indistinguishable from its neighbors. It works like this: we buy a new appliance or device and we rip open the box and we set it up and we find that, for whatever reason, we can get it working without all the included parts (whether they're spare parts or unnecessary parts doesn't really matter). We think the component is useless, but rather than toss it, we stash it away just in case we find that the device actually does need it to perform some crucial (or secondary) function later on. And so in the box it goes with the rest, where we quickly forget what it is and what it's for—it's simply absorbed into le components—and as such, it regularly outlives the devices themselves.

Sometimes we deliberately add to component junk: if we're scrapping an old printer, we'll strip it of seemingly "useful" wires: USB cords, power plugs, and those terribly expensive printer cables—into the box they go just in case we need them to serve another master in the unforeseen future.

However it gets there, technological obsolescence—often planned obsolescence—suggests that the lifespan of those accessories won't be long. Technological standards are a good thing, and it's wonderful to see the industry moving toward them and thus extending the life of the ordinary USB cable, but for that proprietary and outdated hardware that has undoubtedly congealed in your crawlspace over the years—the monofunctional remotes, the cords that were clearly made for one (and only one) device, those red-yellow-white cables that used to tie the audiovisual universe together, the phone lines—they're probably good to go. If you haven't needed them within the first month you've been using an appliance, you likely never will. This goes for non-technological bits and pieces as well; component junk also includes the screws and brackets and nuts and bolts that were for some shelf or cabinet or table but were never actually called up to serve.

Because component junk practices strength in numbers, the best way to combat it is to keep it all separate from the get-go, leaving those random accessories in whatever packaging your item came in, so that when you're ready to toss the box, those pesky components go with it. If you really want to hold onto things a bit longer, bags or bread ties are a great way of keeping components divided and labeled for what they belong to, ensuring that you're not later tricked into thinking some cable is for something you, say, still own. Of course, the best way of limiting component junk is buying less junk in the first place, and when purchasing non-junk, buying quality items that will not only last, but that adhere to industry standards.

As for tossing that old box of wires? I'll talk more about actually getting rid of junk later in this series, but for now: most of the components mentioned use resources that are both limited and hazardous, so a landfill generally isn't the best place for them. Ask your local electronics store about their recycling program; many larger businesses (like Best Buy) will accept nearly anything electrical and ensure its parts are being either reused or safely discarded.

This post is the second part of a series on living simplyClick here to continue to the third part
Cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.

Matchbox video tour

2.06.2014

A few weeks ago, Deek Diedricksen from RelaxShacks came out to Boneyard Studios for a tour of our tiny houses. His crew put together a video of us walking and talking through the Matchbox—probably the most thorough video tour of the space I have to date. A few things have already changed since the video was shot (new bench, new plans for the back corner), but for those who haven't yet seen the Matchbox in person, here's a quick peek at what's inside.



Many thanks to RelaxShacks for the visit—and as things near completion in the tiny house, I'll aim to get more video posted soon.

A beginner's guide to downsizing, part 1: Junk in the trunk(s)

2.05.2014


“A lady once offered me a mat, but as I had no room to spare within the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods

Living simply means living with less—not less happiness, or less comfort, or less company: just less stuff. For a tiny house dweller, it's an imperative; for others, it's still an invaluable journey. Possessions weigh us down—physically, financially, mentally—and for all the good the right device or gadget might do, we all have scores more widgets that are simply junk.

Last week, I gave a talk about living simply that relied on a taxonomy of junk I began creating several years back but never actually got around to posting, but which might present some value to the fledgling minimalist looking to downsize—to downsize perhaps just a little, perhaps a whole lot, perhaps enough to fit comfortably into a tiny house. And the first step to downsizing is recognizing one's junk, so let's get started: a (multi-part) categorization of the various species of junk one may find in their closets, drawers, chests, cabinets, and trunks.

The first step to getting rid of junk is recognizing it.
#1: Just-in-case junk (stuff you're holding onto just in case you ever need it)

That sabre you've held onto just in case you ever decide to take up fencing, the denim jacket you've been stashing in the back of your closet just in case you get invited to another 80s party, those ice skates you eagerly purchased because they were such a steal at that garage sale that (though you don't know how to skate) you couldn't pass up just in case you one day decided to switch careers and become a professional ice skater. Just-in-case junk is the most pervasive form of clutter, and we hold onto it so dearly due to a psychological trait known as loss aversion: the tendency for humans to feel twice as bad about losing something they might have used than the relative joy they felt in receiving that item in the first place.

Just-in-case junk comes from everywhere—old gifts, act-now deals and discounts, emerging hobbies quickly forgotten. We don't use this junk often, and typically not ever, but because we have—rather, because we think we have—the space to store it, we don't mind holding onto it just in case our circumstances change.

And change they might. For a hundred just-in-case possessions, a good few—maybe a dozen—will be proudly used again some day, not just justifying their existence and earning their storage, but seeming to validate the entire notion of just-in-case junk, the other 88 items that will never be used but just very will might be.

We keep just-in-case junk because we think we have the room for it. Yet we often forget that we chose our present house or condo or apartment because in addition to housing us, it came with all this room for all our stuff!—walk-in closets and under-stair cupboards and overflow storage in the basement. We typically think of our storage space as extra, surplus, more space thrown into an already attractive deal, yet as we shop for our space, our belongings come with us, and hey, they want a room of their own.

And sometimes our (growing) spaces still can't contain our just-in-case junk. Americans pay $25 billion each year for nearly three billion square feet of self-storage space—indeed, the industry has grown nearly 800 percent in the past two decades—with a tenth of all US families now trekking out to an oversized cinderblock villa, a Public Storage or U-Haul or CubeSmart, to establish a tiny colony of additional just-in-case junk, junk that is so just-in-case that it can be sealed up in a steel container thirty miles from home with anyone yearning for it for the great majority of the year.

Every year, about 25 million Americans spend $25 billion on 2.5 billion square feet of storage space.

The financial, the consumerist, and the environmental arguments for doing away with just-in-case junk (and the storage demands that come with it) are strong, but perhaps not as immediately pertinent as the utilitarian one: for every good we have tucked away under a bed or in a trunk or out in our self-storage container, there's probably someone who can make much better use of it than we presently are. That sabre? You might need it if you take up fencing, but there's certainly some aspiring swordsman out there who could do wonders with it right now. That denim jacket? You might get a chance to rock it once more next Halloween, but placed in the right thrift store or donation box, some young retrofashionista can undoubtedly give it more wear than you ever will (perhaps even unironically). And those ice skates? No doubt a nearby skating rink could put them to good use as a trusty rental.

In an age where it's hard to perceive scarcity—where money buys goods, no questions asked—it's easy to forget that every object we have is an object someone else doesn't have, that it creates a need for us to further tax our overtaxed planet and further expend our overexpended resources and further work our overworked selves to create yet another, and that by putting our just-in-case junk in the hands of those who do have a case for it—a case, a use, a need, a real want, right here and right now—we can help not only ourselves on our path to simplicity, but others on their path to pursuing whatever passion or adventure they may be after. As the old saying (sort of) goes: one man's junk is another man's treasure.

This post is the first part of a series on living simply. Click here to continue to the second part.
Cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.

North America, in photographs

1.31.2014

The (many) remaining photographs from last year's Scooter Diaries (finally): click here for the full set or scroll through for a random few.

Bodie, California
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

























Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona



Arches National Park, Utah





Taos, New Mexico



Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado










---
"In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes)—which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball: I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the [universe] circulate through me ... The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature." — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Mini-house mini-update

1.30.2014

Progress on the Matchbox has obviously slowed since my return from the road, and our recent cold snap has certainly delayed a few parts of the build. That said, autumn and the start of winter have brought many changes to the tiny house.



Kitchen

Two (induction) burners, a working sink with triple-filtered rainwater, shelf room for 25+ spices and 70+ jars, built-in compost and recycling pails, a (mini-)mini-fridge, ample counterspace for chopping and food processing, two full cabinets for bulk food storage, and a floating fireside dining table with seating for four all make for a pretty decent kitchen in such a tiny space. Beyond a few small finishing touches here and there, the kitchen is the first true realm of the Matchbox to be considered complete, and with its five-foot windows letting in both cool breezes and natural light, it's an absolute pleasure to cook and eat in.

Bathroom

Arguably the most important part of the house has also been the slowest to materialize, but thanks to some great work from Robin and Tony, the 2' x 4' bathroom now has a custom concrete showerpan, four enclosed walls all sealed up with caulk and exterior paint, and a fully-operational low-flow showerhead that offers heated rainwater (nearly) on demand. The bathroom's outside walls—which will be covered in a floor-to-ceiling world map—still need work, and the toilet is far from complete, but I'm proud to say that the bathroom is making great strides toward, well, full functionality.

Loft

Not much has changed up here beyond the linens. The solar-powered skylight blind has done a terrific job of keeping heat in (or out, depending on season), and a few built-in boxes around the mattress are on their way. I've also built a frame for the atrociously-large flat-screen, around which the very talented Katherine Tucker will be painting a canvas that will hide the television's dull façade with something (a lot) more beautiful for those many hours and days when it's not in use.

Living area

Having finished work on the Minim House several months back, Dave has graciously been helping piece together some seating and storage furniture: a full couch and bench, along with a coffee table and a few other items. Though it acts as little more than bike storage now, the living area will soon be able to comfortably seat up to seven for casual dining, games, or lounging.

Closet space

The back-right corner of the Matchbox formerly served as a mini-office with a full-sized desk and 23" computer, but having recently upgraded to a much more portable 15" laptop—and subsequently removing the desk—that precious corner has been repurposed as daily wall storage, with two brushed aluminum pegboards on the way to keep clothing, camping and climbing gear, photography equipment, and assorted odds and ends all within arm's reach.

Elsewhere on the Boneyard, we recently said goodbye to the Lusby (and have been exploring other options for that space), congratulated Lee for making fantastic progress on the Pera House's interior, and began planning for a new studio shed to replace our trusty shipping container, while otherwise doing our best to stay warm during this frigid January.

(I recognize this post is a bit short on photos, but rather than delay an overdue update any longer, I'll just aim to get those added soon.)

Riding the rails

1.13.2014


Travel is never simply about the destination, but always the journey. How one gets from point A to point B (or point Z, as the case may be) is every bit as important as what those points are.

Circling North America by scooter was a magnificent way to do it, but one 15,000-mile struggle against high winds, heavy rains, biting cold, and bumpy roads is enough for me, at least for the next few years. So despite the utter romance of taking Rousseau abroad for another lengthy jaunt, I decided to go about my European sabbatical with a calmer mode of transportation.

Enter the Eurail. It's no great secret that Europe has a fantastic train network: affordable, high-speed, hundreds of stops across the continent, but it was only recently—after the goading of a few well-traveled friends—that I gave much thought to the Eurail's Global Pass, which affords virtually limitless travel along the tracks of Europe. At about $1,500 (youth pricing I'll be eligible for only for another year), the pass is no light investment, but for the three months of bundled travel it'd afford while skipping about from corner to continental corner, it seems a monumentally worthy purchase.

Europe and its marvelous rail network.
Obviously, this decision makes travel planning far simpler: I don't need a route, I don't need a vehicle, I just need a map and a timetable to plan my next stop and a good book to keep me company while riding the rails. I imagine the overall trajectory of my travels will follow my prior course to a point—hugging the Mediterranean coastline, skipping from Greece to Turkey and then working my way up toward Scandinavia, then back down through Europe's center before curving up toward England, Ireland, Iceland, home.

I'll be leaving May 2, I think, and definitely packing light, and definitely around to meet up with whomever may be contemplating a summer adventure of their own somewhere across the pond.

More (including a long-overdue update on the Matchbox) soon.

A farewell to a year

12.28.2013

Dear 2013,

I haven't known you very long, but I'm going to miss you. You were so full of wonder, of new discovery and new adventures and new ways of thinking, of realized dreams and sparkling new aspirations and limitless learning, each day spent with you an invaluable education to the ways and the worth of the world.

You taught me things I never knew: my own strength, the astonishing kindness of others, the precise hue of crimson the sun makes as it reflects its rays off the red rocks of the great Southwest. You showed me things I'd never seen: canyons so deep and trees so tall and nature so beautiful, endless roads and starry skies and grassy plains that stretched for days.

And perhaps most importantly, you reminded me of things I'd forgotten: appreciation, humility, gratitude. You reminded me of the power of love and the value of time and the fragility of life, of the necessity in making every remaining minute count, of the depths of the human mind, of the cosmic fabric that holds each and every one of us together.

You brought me friends and you gave me gifts that I'll always treasure, you built me a home and you blessed me with ample time to enjoy it. You were kind, overwhelmingly kind, and I'll never forget that. 

I promise to stay true in your absence, to continue living the deliberate, examined life. I've set goals and I've pledged resolutions: I'm going to finally finish the house; I'm going to finally see for myself what lies on the other side of the Atlantic. I'm going to take my minimalism to a new level, and I'm going to pepper my time with smaller adventures and explorations: the trials of a freegan, of a neo-Luddite, and more, climbing ever toward the dual apexes of self-sufficiency and of simplicity. And I'm resolving to be better: a better person to those around me, one who listens more and talks less, a person better at compromise, at attention, and at maintaining those relationships I cherish.

I'm going to miss you, 2013, but I hope I'll still make you proud in the year that follows. Thanks for everything.



Making a packlist: 12 things for 90 days in 30 countries

12.05.2013

Last time I took to the open road, I aimed to pack light—and failed considerably in that pursuit. Sure, I made it by with no more than what could fit in a fifty-liter pack and a very small scooter trunk, but still I felt anchored by my stuff, always dragging it along on my back, always cramming items within Rousseau's under-seat compartment. I brought what I thought were the essentials, but really, I brought far more than that.

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a story about two adventurous travelers who took to Europe for three weeks with nothing more than the clothes on their backs—and, well, a few miscellaneous accessories:
Passports, credit cards and iPhones made the cut, as did a small notebook, a toothbrush and a clipped map of the Balkans.  Jeff stuffed his core items in his pockets. My dress lacked adequate pocket space, so I substituted with a small shoulder purse that allowed me space for a few additional toiletries, an iPad Mini, and the awkward-looking retainer I’ve been wearing since my braces came off 10 years ago. 
That was it.
Instantly, I was inspired. Three months in thirty countries is certainly longer than three weeks in eight, but still: the thought of simple, (nearly-)weightless, unencumbered travel—ultraminimalism—shook my foundations. And so, I've made my list.

Caveats abound: for one, I'm bringing more than nothing. In addition to the clothes I'll wear when departing DC on the fourth of May (with pockets containing a phone, headphones, wallet, and passport), I'll carry along a small backpack with some non-essential-but-really-really-desired electronics by which to document the journey, and hygiene products to keep me (semi-)fresh. And I'm not opposed to picking up a few more things once I cross the pond: a windbreaker in Oslo if it gets chilly, a pair of sunglasses in Fez if the sun's a touch too blinding. And of course, as May nears, I'm sure I'll make a few tweaks—additions, I fear—to the list below.

But for now, here it is.

  1. GoPro camcorder. For documenting sights and sentiments.
  2. Roll-up wireless keyboard. For blogging on the go.
  3. Kindle. For reading in the most weight-efficient way imaginable.
  4. Fork, spoon, and knife. For eating on the go.
  5. Sleeping bag. For sleeping on the go.
  6. Tent. For sleeping a little more securely. 
  7. Toothbrush (and toothpaste). For hygiene.
  8. Deodorant. Ibid.
  9. Second pair of socks and underwear. Ibid.
  10. Hair trimmer. For grooming on the go.
  11. Water bottle. For staying hydrated.
  12. DSLR. For more serious photographing. Still ambivalent on whether to bring.

With the exception of the tent, all of these items can fit together in my daily messenger bag with room to spare, ensuring my travels east of Edinburgh won't be bogged down by heavy luggage or random junk—and packing won't take longer than a minute.

Am I forgetting something?

To Europe

12.01.2013

2013 has been a spectacularly great year for me, and it all began with one firm pledge: to commune with the wide open road, just me and my pack and my scooter, and explore North America, to discover and appreciate its treasures, its sheer awesomeness, its natural beauty. In the words of Thoreau:
I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived ... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
In this pursuit, I succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I could never fully explain just how valuable, how vital, how necessary those 15,000 miles of adventure were to me, the life-changing transformations that occurred during my sixty days on the road. Never had I made a wiser use of my time, never had I learned so much in so few days.

Time for round two.

I've never been to Europe. I want to go to Europe. So this summer, I'm going to Europe—to the Old World, to England, to Germany, to France and Spain, from the magnificent Mediterranean to the captivating cathedrals and cobblestone corners and cozy conviviality of Copenhagen.



I'll get started in Morocco—that much I know. And I'll end in either Turkey or Ireland—that much I think I know. The rest is marvelously undetermined to date. Oh, I most certainly have destinations: dozens and dozens, Stockholm and Hamburg and Amsterdam and Munich and Lviv and Budapest, as far west as Lisbon and far west as Istanbul, as far north as Oslo and as far south as Casablanca, and as the months race forward, I'll be once again circling a great winding route 'round a continental map, but for now, 'tis all up in the air.

I'll leave in early May. I don't know how I'll get around. For months, I've flirted with the idea of bringing Rousseau abroad, getting another two continents under her belt, reuniting for yet another epic adventure. But truth be told, as much as I loved the scooter part of the Scooter Diaries, I'm not sure we'd both survive another go with the open road, so this time around, I think I'll be leaving her at home. Instead, I'll be flying into Casablanca with nothing more than my pack, my wallet, and whatever ingenuity I can muster, and I'll find myself alternate transportation northward, to Spain, to Portugal, and beyond.

I'm excited, but I'm also characteristically unprepared, so please: recommendations, advice, cautionary tales—let me hear 'em.


Giving thanks

11.27.2013


Growing up, I was perpetually troubled by Thanksgiving—a day in which we celebrate one of the world's most catastrophic genocides, in which we repaint history for our own untainted conscience, in which we demonstrate appreciation and gratitude for what we have by demonstrating that we simply can't have enough, stuffing our faces until the supermarkets are empty and emptying our wallets until our minivans are stuffed, literally trampling others for a fifty-percent-off Blu-Ray player or a buy-one-get-one HDTV. I never cared for the food nor the football, and when it came to flan, I was never a fan. Thanksgiving is a day in which we allow ourselves to feel good about pardoning one turkey though we've killed fifty million more, in which we feel good about breaking bread with a few Native Americans though we've, well, killed fifty million more.

And still, not much has changed—it's still an orgy of food and floats, of traffic and television, of self-interest and self-indulgence, American hubris and American portion control.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Thanksgiving—when stripped of all its cultural baggage—is nothing more than a day to give thanks, to truly appreciate what one does have, a reminder of how fortunate we all are each and every day. So today, obligatory pontification now out of the way, I want to take a moment to say thanks.



I feel so blessed to live the life I do, to have the privilege of yet another year, to have the opportunity to have spent that year so fully and so well. From tremendous progress on my tiny house to an unforgettable and life-changing two months scootering across the continent, from the incredible ability to have my thoughts and passions broadcast locally, nationally, and worldwide to simply relishing time spent with irreplaceable neighbors, friends, and community, I really couldn't ask for anything more.

Thank you to every individual who has lifted a hammer or hammered a nail for the betterment of the Matchbox, to every inquisitive soul who has wandered through Boneyard Studios for an open house, bonfire, concert, or story. Thank you to those who have supported my tiny house adventure from near and afar, to the many who have guided me along with their encouragement, advice, and wisdom.

Thank you to those who spent countless hours with me sharing maps, detours, and cautionary tales before I left for the road last May—I have you to thank for my safety, security, and spectacular sights. And thanks to the immeasurably kind souls who provided lodging and food and warmth and friendship during cold, lonely stretches of safari, to the friends, friends' friends, and absolute strangers who never thought twice about opening their doors to a weary traveler—I have you to thank for my affirmed faith in the awesome generosity of humanity.

Lastly, thank you to those who have been there for me during all of life's unplanned adventures, who have kept me company over a bottle of wine, who have taught me new things and made me a better person, who have taken care of me when I needed being-taken-care-of and who trusted me to do the same when it was my time to return the favor. Thanks for making my life all the richer, all  the better, and all the sweeter—thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for being part of it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

(Uneventful) autumn update

11.17.2013


As I sit on my porch watching the last of nature's crimson leaves fall to the calm, quiet grounds of the Glenwood Cemetery, it occurs to me that it has been a full two months since my last update.

Autumn leaves in Glenwood Cemetery
These past sixty days have been nothing like my long, arduous sixty days on the road, all stuffed and coated with wonder and adventure—no, the peak of autumn has found me moving more slowly, with no prized goal in mind, no pursuit nor powerful passion to race toward. This is a good thing, I think, perhaps just for a short while: not a weary malaise, but simply a relaxed contentment.

And with that contentment has come both a lack of new (big) adventures and a lack of new (big) adventures to report on—in other words, a consequent lack of blog updates. But in the interest of writing something, allow me a brief update on home, travel, and life:

The Matchbox

I've often heard it said that the last ten percent of any homebuilding project takes ninety percent of the time, and this has certainly rung true in my case. The Matchbox has little left to do to be considered complete—a few remaining pieces of furniture, some painting, a few rainwater touch-ups, a bathroom, and a solar array—but progress this autumn has been slow, if only because a spending a day sitting with a good book beside the fire is so much more tempting an option than climbing under the sink and fiddling with filtration.

Boneyard Studios from within Glenwood Cemetery.
That said, I'm setting a new (and, I hope, final) target of January 2014 to, once and for all, wrap up Matchbox construction, so expect a more substantive update soon.

In other tiny house news, the Matchbox and the rest of the Boneyard Studios crew recently got some attention in Dwell and Inhabitat, with a little more press forthcoming. Brian's fully-completed house has been getting a bit of notice from the architectural community, and Lee has been making some great progress finishing siding and insulating her interior. Meanwhile, I've kept myself busy starting a catalog of photographed and identified wildlife lurking about the alley lot.

The Scooter Diaries

Taos, New Mexico.
Sorting through and processing nearly two-thousand photographs from an extended road trip is a mind-numbing experience, so I've taken a rather lengthy break from that task. Having finally whittled the collection down to nearly a hundred, however, I'll aim to share those photos soon.

But as I wrap up the aftermath of one trip, I begin planning for another. I hinted a few months ago at a continuation of my scooter journey across the pond, a summer 2014 trek through North Africa and Europe. I'm still deciding on a few key things—like whether I'll be roughing it aboard Rousseau yet again or perhaps getting about by car this time around—but I'm kicking planning into high gear this winter, so I'll have more on that in the coming months.

Life

As a fed, I enjoyed a serene sixteen days of furlough this October, which afforded me ample time for reading, running, and relaxation. I learned to knit, took up rock climbing, was temporarily infected with a nasty bout of the Netflix, and have generally had no trouble these past few months keeping myself busy with the simpler pleasures of life ...

... to which I now return. :)

Differential grasshopper in Boneyard Studios garden.

America the Beautiful: Scenes from the Scooter Diaries

9.17.2013

As I work to sluggishly—ever so sluggishly—bring a close to my cross-continental scooter trip, here are a few more photos from the rolls:

"Purple Mountain Majesties," Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado.
"Voyeur," Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
"House of the Rising Sun," Bodie, California.
"Ribbons," Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, California.
"Descenters," Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
"Adobe Abode," Taos, New Mexico.
"Wide Open Spaces," Arches National Park, Utah.
"Yuccamania," Joshua Tree National Park, California.
"Forager," Zion National Park, Utah.
"Progress," Bodie, California.
"Red Rocks," Arches National Park, Utah.
"The Narrows," Zion National Park, Utah.

Summer in the city: Matchbox tiny house build update

9.08.2013


I suppose it has been nearly four months since the Matchbox's last build update, so now that I'm back and well-settled in from my recent trip, let's just go ahead and get right into it: what's new (and what's still-to-do) in my effort to build an off-grid tiny house.

The Matchbox's nearly-finished façade, September 2013.
Siding

When I last reported, siding was nearly done. It's now totally done—thanks to some tremendous help from Tony once I left—and after a few months of weathering, the charred shou sugi ban cedar looks terrific.

Rain catchment

A few cedar boards, some EPDM rubber, and twenty feet of double-looped aluminum rings later, the Matchbox is now sporting a fully-functional rain catchment system. Here's how it works:

  1. First, it rains. Precipitation hits the roof and gently runs down the house's two-percent grade toward the front of the house.
  2. The runoff falls into the gutter, an 8' x 6" x 6" box of red cedar planks with an interior wrapped in EPDM rubber, and drops into one of the three-inch holes drilled into the bottom of either end.
  3. The rain then works its way down the rain chains, an old Japanese technique of funneling runoff that is far more minimalist and beautiful—particularly the dynamism of the chains as they catch a little breeze—than traditional gutters.
  4. The rain chains drop the water into a pair of planters, where it trickles through a few handfuls of sea glass and a mesh screen before entering the plumbing underneath the house. Immediate overflow is pushed into the other side of each planter, which houses a variety of herbs.
  5. Underneath the house, the rain slides back to a pump, which then shoots the flow right up to the conjoined twenty-gallon tanks in the microshed 'round back.
  6. Shower water is then run though a small water heater (more on this part once the shower is up and running), and sink water is filtered through a double-cartridge micron filter before emerging from the pedal-operated sink faucet.

Note: There will be a few enhancements made to the rain catchment system, such as a pre-pump holding tank for downpours, so don't consider this a definitive system explanation. More details (including photographs) to come.
Matchbox & friends. Rain chains are on each end of the Matchbox's façade.
Countertops

Natural, bright beech wood butcher block does wonders in brightening up the very neutral-toned space. They're not yet permanently installed (nor oiled), but that's high on the to-do list.

Decor and furnishings

Jar racks installed, photographs hung, and other cosmetic touches on the interior are making the space feel a lot more like home. There's still lots to be done, but it's getting there.

Matchbox interior from front door.
Also: curtains! Designed and sewed by a good friend, the billowy drapes do a great job of keeping out light and providing a little privacy when needed.

Additionally, the loft skylight was letting in a lot of heat this summer, so I went ahead and ordered a solar-powered skylight blind from Velux that opens and closes at the touch of a button. The navy blackout blind does fabulous work of keeping out early morning rays and as much as forty percent of the heat hitting the glass.

Air conditioning

To make it a little easier to power the Matchbox on nothing more than rainbows and sunshine (precipitation and solar energy, that is), I was hoping to get away with a simple fan for all my cooling needs. Alas, I returned to DC after my two-month sabbatical in the dead of a heat wave, and a ninety-degree breeze did little to keep me feeling refreshed. So I broke down and purchased an adorably small window unit, tucked neatly away on the floor at the back of the house, which performs admirably—in partnership with the curtains, blackout blind, and skylight vent—in cooling down the small space.

Refrigerator

I had also aimed to get by without a refrigerator, but after growing spoiled by a mini-fridge on loan from Lee, I decided a tiny cooling chest couldn't hurt. The fridge I ended up with is small—at 1.7 cubic feet, really small—but for the rare items my vegan diet requires it for, it should provide more than enough room.


Matchbox interior from underneath loft.

Elsewhere on the Boneyard, Brian recently wrapped up construction on his gorgeous Minim house, Lee has been putting our communal green space (and the Matchbox porch) to good use with her summer concert series, we've gotten a little more local love from the media (and more forthcoming), and our monthly open houses are still going strong.

Still to come: A bathroom, installed countertops, rain catchment updates, a couch, a bench, a few more miscellaneous furnishings, lots of seating, and a solar array. Expect more soon!

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