Tiny Houses

My newest obsession is tiny houses.

It’s ridiculous. We are not minimalists. I have six big bookcases full of books. I have papers I wrote in college. My husband has every specialized tool for every esoteric job that could possibly be done in an apartment garage. We own six bicycles.

Still, even my husband is interested in a wee little house.

Our current space isn’t huge. We downsized from two bedrooms to one, and we lost a lot of closet space. But it’s still over 1000 square feet, I’d guess.

So we issued a challenge. Get rid of all the stuff. The esoteric tools, the unloved books, the papers, the clothes left from our last climate. The goal is to see how much excess we can cut out before we start to feel the pinch, and then we can pick our next living space accordingly.

My goal isn’t for the tiniest of tiny houses–I’m not interested in less than 200 square feet. Realistically, I’m claustrophobic and we have a dog who couldn’t climb a loft ladder, so I think the 500 square foot range is as small as we could get. Purists probably consider that “just small” rather than “tiny,” but then a lot of purists don’t live in their tiny house year round. I also think that giving up a full sized kitchen is entirely counter to my deeply held beliefs about food. I’ve cooked “my way” successfully in the smallest enclosed kitchen that could possibly hold full sized appliances, but I’m not willing to give up four stove eyes and at least a reasonable refrigerator. (Dishwasher, smishwasher. I use the one we have now to store dog toys.)

It also won’t happen any time soon. We aren’t ready to buy a house, and we don’t live in a place where tiny houses are just sitting around to rent. I’d like to be able to rent a smaller space for our next move, and then buy something, possibly tiny, on the move after that.

So, tune in. I’ll be posting here about getting rid of things, and what we did with them, and what we decide is indispensable. Plus, I’m sure, my usual over-thinking of things.

On Reading and Writing (In Books)

I have a former life as an academic. It’s only somewhat awkwardly behind me–it hasn’t been fully relinquished, but I’m no longer (if I ever was) on the “tenure track.”

In any event, part of my awkward semi-break with academia has been my awkward semi-break with reading, which was for the first thirty years of my life my defining state.

I have a vivid memory of watching a Donald Duck cartoon as a kid, in which his nephews buy him a box of cigars for his birthday. Donald, outraged that the boys are buying cigars to smoke for themselves, forces the boys to smoke the entire box. Nauseous and horrified, they’ll never smoke again. Graduate school was like that with books. After reading twelve hours a day, I was left with a vague discomfort around the book as physical object. How do I interact with this thing, now that it isn’t “work”?

Electronic books stepped in to fill the void, to some extent. Devoid of physical form, e-books are somehow separate from “book books” and thus that vague, lingering feeling of “work not play.” I’ve torn through fifteen “fluffy” fiction books electronically in the last six or seven months, but the real book (just as non-serious) that I’ve been reading over the same time period is still languishing on the end table.

I realized lately that the problem is writing. The physical separation of a “fun” book from a “work” book is whether or not I have a pen in my hand. “There will be a quiz later” it screams. “You’ll be expected to remember this.”  With an electronic book, there is no possible reason to hold a pen. No pen, no quiz, no paper to write later, no labor.

Oddly, though, the electronic book has been covertly working to bridge the gap. My choice of reading matter lately is heavily biased toward non-fiction, practical things. Mostly books about dog training, sigh, because I have the world’s most neurotic dog. They’re actually a terrible choice for reading electronically, because you need to flip to a certain section for reference later, but the prices are more dramatically disparate than fiction books.

That’s how I found myself obsessively using the highlight feature of my e-reader. And suddenly this very arbitrary but important division between fun books that I read electronically and serious books that I read in print has collapsed. I suspect that it’s partly the act of writing itself that has shifted–since there isn’t a physical book to “damage,” I can highlight anything I want in any book. There’s also no pen to track down and keep up with. I caught myself digitally highlighting, willy-nilly, in a “not serious” book yesterday. Writing in the margin has quietly become a thing of its own, not a marker of labor.

It’s early to say how this will play out. This morning I picked up a very serious book off my physical bookshelf, without feeling like it was “work.” I’m hoping that it’s the beginning of a trend. It’s certainly been long enough.

The New Year

We didn’t stay up late on New Years’ Eve. We almost never do. Crowded parties aren’t really our thing. Instead, we were trying to get up early. The husband, you see, wants to get fit(ter) before bike season starts, and I gamely agreed to be his exercise buddy. The predetermined time for this exercise was 5:30 in the morning. He has to be at work early, and the evenings are already full. So, we went to bed early, hoping for sleep.

Then we had the worst fight we’ve ever had, over the dumbest thing of all time, as it usually goes. Sometime just this side of midnight produced an extremely uncharacteristic screaming match, because he wouldn’t quit flopping in the bed (he doesn’t just roll over, you see, he bodily lifts himself up and throws himself back down. I can sleep through it, but he has to be still enough for me to go to sleep first.). I don’t remember what it was that I was doing to generate my half of the fight–probably nagging him to lie still. At two or three in the morning we finally went to sleep.

The phone rang at 5:15. My grandfather, who had been steadily deteriorating since a stroke in July, had passed away. New Year’s Day. First thing in the morning. If he’d been a more dramatic man, I would say that he wanted to make sure no one forgot. If he’d been a more contrary man, I would say that he wanted to inconvenience the family as much as possible.

As he was dying, he got angry with my mother. He wasn’t entirely himself anymore, and he had never regained the use of his left leg. One night in the hospital, he wanted to get up. Surely, he said, there was some work to be done somewhere in that hospital. Some sheetrock to hang or something he could do. He never did entirely believe my mother when she told him there wasn’t. Like all very active men who are suddenly debilitated, he was a terrible invalid.

I had to be the strong person at the funeral, which I can now, if there was ever any doubt, put firmly into the “Do Not Want” category of adult human activities. My own father is still very weak from his last medical crisis, even though his long-term prognosis is better now than anyone expected. He wasn’t physically able to do all those things that he’s quietly done at all the similar crises. I took my mother to buy the flowers, sat with her at the graveside, made sure she was away from the cemetery before the casket was covered. After the funeral, I took on the work of hostessing, making sure the coffee pot was filled and an endless stream of guests could find the bathroom and the food and whatever else they needed. Fortunately the post-funeral traditions in the American south are alive and well and largely self-regulatory.

When something happens on New Year’s Day, it seems to carry an extra weight. The superstitious human brain always tries to ascribe meaning: “Is this a sign for the next year? What does this mean for the future?” The death of a sick, elderly man who lived a good life is impossible to interpret in a single way: a beginning of grief and an ending of suffering. Like all cleverly constructed portents, it is inherently difficult to read.

And so begins the new year.