Right-sizing the “tiny” in “tiny house”

3.17.2015


(Back from India. More on that soon. But in the meantime, random musings, cross-posted at Boneyard Studios.)
I have a confession to make: I don't actually live in a tiny house.
Oh, sure, my house is small—very small by relative standards. But is it tiny? Hardly.
We Americans tend to do everything in excess, including the words we use to describe our very lack of excess. Way back in 2008, when the big house movement was bursting (or, depending on your metaphor, collapsing under its own gargantuan weight), the New York Times ran a little article about a then-little thing: it was called the small house movement. Not tiny, just, well, small.
Or not. The piece also featured the word tiny eight times, including one of the first recorded uses of "tiny house" in novelty-new quotations. Its sidebar offered to enlarge images of unlarge homes floating over captions like "the Lilliputian life." Four years later, when Boneyard Studios had its own press debut, the Washington Post ran with the headline "Home, Squeezed Home." "The people aren't really tiny," the article began, "but their homes are."
I'm not here to chastise those who use the word tiny. It's a cute word and a human-interest-story-friendly word and probably not too harmful a word overall, but it is a silly one, a word that I hope—excuse the kinda-sorta pun—we will all soon outgrow. To call something tiny is to call it "extremely small," "unusually small," "diminutive." It suggests that living in something that offers a great big one- or two- or three-hundred square feet of space is "extreme." Over-the-top words like Lilliputian and squeezed make matters even worse.
Here's the thing: I've lived in my house—my small house—for nearly three years, and I've never really felt "squeezed." I've never felt like big oafy Gulliver stumbling around the court of Lilliput, nor have I felt that a queen-sized bed (large enough for royalty, apparently) and ten feet of counter space underneath five-foot windows was an "extreme" lifestyle. Yes, I've made space sacrifices, but I'd be lying if I said my house was diminutive. It's just smaller than most.
I got back from India a week ago, where for over a month I walked by flimsy fortifications of tarp and twig. These were tiny. They housed families of five or ten in half the space my own home afforded, and I imagined the residents of these little hamlets building thin roofs of old magazines and newspapers printed with stories of Americans "giving it all up" to "live tiny." I imagined what they would think.
But this is hardly the point. Sure, tiny is a privileged word for a privileged people (myself among them), but more dangerously, tiny actually accepts the American housing norms and agrees to live within them. It doesn't present itself as a spark to the system, a disruptive force here to stay, but rather a fringe outside the walls of the mainstream: something for the extremists, the misfits, the freaks. It's a word that begs to vault itself over the swollen bell curve and just keep going, to soak itself up in novelty until it's simply too saturated to be taken seriously.
To call a 150-square-foot house tiny is to accept that 3.000 square feet of home is normal, and frankly, it's not normal. It's unnecessarily and unsustainably large. Calling a few hundred square feet small, on the other hand, suggests a whole different degree of deviation from the norm. A slighter deviation. It imagines something a little more compact than what should be. It is the right-sizing to tiny's down-sizing—one a proud reality, the other a subtle apology to the status quo.
Does this mean we're going to re-label Boneyard Studios a "small house community"? Probably not. Does it mean we're going to stop using the word tiny? Doubtful—it has already escaped my lips so many times I'm sure I'll never fully flush it from my system. Does it mean you should do the same? Not at all—you do you, and if it means calling your less-than-large house "tiny," so be it, and congratulations to you for having a less-than-large house to begin with.
But it does mean I'm going to be more conscious about what tiny really signifies, and more appreciative of the great abundance of space and storage my small house offers. It means I'm going to do my small part to remind folks that one-hundred-and-fifty square feet isn't "extremely" anything—it's just, you know, a perfectly right-sized space for my right-sized needs.
My house isn't tiny. And it's definitely not "micro" or "Lilliputian" or some other silly, hyperbolic, PR-packaged superlative. My house is just plain ol' boringly circa-1910 or circa-2015-in-most-other-places-around-the-world "small," and that's something I'm more-than-a-tiny-bit grateful for.
Big enough for love is big enough for me.
Big enough for love is big enough for me.

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