Creating "new" from old has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time, but turned into a full-time adventure in building and living in a tiny "reclaimed" house. Beginning in 2012, I will live in this 120 square foot space for the length of my PhD studies in Literature and the Environment, and perhaps beyond. In this way, I hope to live a little smaller, leave a little lighter, and learn in what ways formal study can be acted in the every day.
Portlandia (the oft cited – and frequently maligned – reason many people are flocking to Portland) will be airing a spoof of tiny living on their show this week. See the clip here. Their spoof gets at, in part, a “rub” between the romantic idea of tiny house living and the more crude realities of having to confront our shit (figurative and, ahem, literal). I take this satire as proof that not only has the tiny house movement definitively reached a level of popular mass, but also the movement is being more complexly represented. Such satire shows the movement gaining greater critical awareness, correcting some of the lapses I tried to discuss in my recent chapter.
“Status is always ripe for satire” – Stephen Colbert 🙂
Keep the satire sharp, people! (“when it hurts, you know it’s the right thing.” – Milk Carton Kids, a long standing musical obsession of mine)
LESSON: Never underestimate the complexity of achieving simplicity. For me, any work on the tiny house, no matter how small, has always seemed to replace with three steps what once was only one. *that was meant to sound complicated 😉 This summer’s example: a simple propane regulator replacement led me to swap the busted one with an unfortunately-recommended model which blew my stove and heater (thankfully, two different repairmen and three weeks later, Jerry’s reimbursed the $400 of service charges that the error cost. Really incredible business. Patronize it.). I didn’t get it all fixed until about a month ago. The most recent example: I have been trying to get some small remodels done on the tiny. They were minor changes I could have done myself had I had the tools and time, but I decided to holiday-gift myself the hiring out of the work. The primary changes were:
A new bench top, widened by 5” with a 2” lip to hold the pad in place. This was so that bench would be more comfortable for lounging and hosting
A moveable side for the bench so that someone could lean up against it as a couch.
Rewire a new light over the desk (a Christmas gift from my grandmother from a local artist in Eugene, made out of an upcycled glass jar and some solder.)
Move my ladder to the far side of the wall and fill in the wood holes.
First, I spent weeks trying to get someone arranged, but I finally had a contractor out three weeks ago. Despite specific instructions, I came home the day of the changes to find most every project completed poorly in some way. No need to rehash the details, but suffice to say after some brief panics, venting, and unscrewing unsanded low-grade plywood by hand, I finally called a friend for help. He was gracious and talented enough to not just fix all the problems, but better the tiny with a beautifully carved back piece for the bench that perfectly matched the interior wood of the whole house. the complexity of achieving simplicity is that it’s hard, it’s imperfect, and takes more patience than I typically have to give. but I’m learning. The hands of craft are sometimes not the same as those of occupation, and space is only bettered when we honor it.
And the beautiful bench:
* $20 for one new pillow on-average! STUPID. so I thrifted five used ones as well as three flannels and two old sweaters for sewing into covers. Spent $25 total for five betterthannew pillows. And my sister-in-law recovered the bench seat for me out of the kindness of her heart, while I cuddled with my nephew. WIN!
LESSON: Degrowth grows. I presented on the tiny house movement in the U.S. at the Fourth Annual Conference for Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig, Germany this summer. It was incredible in so many ways, but here’s the slim-down and the beautiful-dirt-y:
The city is in close competition for my favorite place in the world
The people at the conference, and that I met in the place, are lovely in radical ways. I was truly inspired by the diversity of lifestyles, living choices, and community structures. I was also heartened to see the thousands upon thousands of people so fervently committed to modeling alternatives in their actions (exhibited even in dance moves). Examples: the many bauwagenplatz (just for example, here) and Garten Anna Linde
Degrowth as a concept, for me, is much more useful than “sustainability,” “leave no trace,” or any wilderness romance or geo-engineering heroism (I group the last two together because they seem bound by the same fundamental escapism).
I was able to stay at the beginnings of a pemaculture collaborative and met some truly wonderful people. Our last night, I had a short-but-very-sweet conversation with a stranger, and stayed up singing a two line song with new friends, drumming and humming and laughing and sighing. It wasn’t meant as a send off, but it was a glorious one.
Degrowth is based on the active growing of communities, spiritual, political, and material. Nothing happens without action.
LESSON: tiny house corners make sharp criticisms. The chapter that I wrote about tiny houses (info here) was published in November of last year. The chapter reads popular media accounts of the movement and uses individual examples as indicative of some larger trends in the movement itself, some of the movement’s misleading or less-than-responsible rhetoric, and the movement’s more productive potential. As with any sort of cultural critique, my chapter risked offending some in an effort to prod a more nuanced debate around environmental sustainability and community ethics. The chapter made explicit it was not commenting on individuals, but trends, and that its particular argument arose out of pure love for the movement and the people in it. However, intentions are not always received as clearly as they were thought to be articulated. Such was the case with a recent e-encounter with a person whose project makes an appearance in my chapter. The individual who shall remain nameless launched a series of emails grossly misreading my reference to his tiny house, my intentions, and my overall message. I made the decision to engage him in an attempt to clarify, correct, and more generally converse about the work that I do. But, I didn’t sleep so well that night, or the night after, and had to do a lot of self-talk to let it go. Ultimately, I have come to realize that just as the tiny house itself makes sharp the corners of day to day living, so too does engaging with the movement inevitably run a person up against fundamental differences in definitions of ethics, community, and what we do in the academy. And that has to be a good thing. I am counting this experience a clear reminder of how we never can tell where our work will end up, nor control whose eyes will fall harshly or generously on it. The best thing we can do is be honest, open to constructive critique, and responsive to the communities to which we belong. Blessings from my communities to yours, April