Monday, October 10, 2011

Paring down

Graham Hill's TED Talk about living in small spaces is making its way around the internet--a good friend sent it to me and I've seen it featured on The Simple Dollar.  I have thoughts.  Many, many, thoughts.

First, the idea is a good one.  Pare down your belongings to only the things you use and love.  Get rid of a lot of the extraneous stuff and consider living in a smaller space.  (Though I have to say, the small amount of square footage that Hill decided to not to buy is worth more than my condo will ever sell for, but that's another post.)

However, the designer in Hill kind of overtook things and he showed how they tricked out his place, making everything automated and fold away and he could still have it all--beds for guests to sleep in, seating for ten dinner guests, a large screen to watch movies and shows on.  I mean, it was great, and it is a wonderful way to do your place if you have the money to create that and maintain it (it's ironic that this was presented in a way would lead you to think this is for the very affluent), but I am here to tell you that you can still pare down and live in a small place without those bells and whistles.  Though you will have to give some things up.


If you are not the city-living kind and you are rather handy (or you have $40K or so saved up), you can build or have someone build a tiny house for you.  Unlike Hill's apartment, you will not be able to have it all.  Think bar sink and dorm-sized fridge.  These homes are under100 square feet at their biggest (larger than that gets into "small homes" not tiny homes) and because of their size, there is no foundation.  They are on wheels and you can take them with you.  It's like the hipster/hippie version of a trailer.  Apparently, some people buy these for second homes/guest houses on their yards.  Also, these homes are the size of many people's walk in closets.  (Not my closet--I do not have a walk-in closet.  Some of these comparisons leave me a little. . .cold.  I know there are people out there who have stuff like large walk-in closets but most of us dont.)



If neither of those options are appealing, you should know that this is still quite possible.  No flash apartment or tiny house required.  You can live in a small place quite comfortably with far fewer things; the thing is, you are going to have to accept that you can't have all of the things you would have in a larger place.  (No seating for ten.)  I lived in Japan for 3 1/2 years; trust me when I say that you learn how to pare down stuff there.

First, over there, a lot of people sleep on futons.  Not the "California" futons we use here in North America; these were very thin folding mattresses and comforters that you took out of the closet and laid on the floor.  That's what I slept on.  You hang them on your balcony to air out (I didn't see any place that didn't have some balcony or window area for this purpose and laundry) before putting them back in your closet. 

I had a two-burner stove (no oven--they aren't big into baking over there, it's not a part of the typical cuisine).  I had friends in studio apartments who had one burner stoves.  And while the bathtubs were heavenly, the overall size of the bathroom was small.  And it's not like you had these huge linen closets.  Most places had washing machines (mine was on the balcony, yes, that's right, the balcony)--you did small loads of laundry and hung them to dry.  The spin cycle was pretty intense so the wash came out slightly damp when all was said and done.  (Also, keep in mind that I came back here in 1998, so things may have changed.  Also, I did know people who lived in pretty large homes and had plenty of room but--it was expensive.  And it was so common to live in a small place that it's not like anyone gave others static for doing so, because, hello, mega-city.  You just live differently there.)

Now, I don't live like that anymore.  (And I don't feel particulary bad about it--studios are few and far between in the burbs, and they cost almost as much to rent in the city as a one or twe bedroom place in the burbs.  Trade-offs, we make them.)  Where I live in a rather blue-collar suburb in the US is palatial compared to where I lived in Japan, but I was just as comfortable there as I am here.  It's just that you get used to doing things differently when your living space (and everything else) is smaller.  You don't have lots of people over, you all meet at a bar or restaurant.  You don't own a lot of stuff because there's no where to put it, and you don't think about creating new designs to organize the mounds of stuff you want.  It's not really sacrifice as much as it is practicality.  When you've only got  a small room (or say, 400-600 square feet for three people or more), you don't tend to bring a lot of stuff home (or at least, I didn't).  You adjust your life and your habits to your living space.  We certainly do that when we live in larger spaces--we fill them with stuff, have parties, get things that would be useful but not completely necessary.  Well, in a smaller space, you socialize differently.  You entertain yourself a little differently.  You may think something would be useful but unless it's really necessary, you're not going to bother.  Here's the thing: in a studio apartment, I would probably not own a deep freeze.  I would not can things.  It just wouldn't be practical--I would have to store the canning supplies which would take up valuable room.  I'd have to find a place for a freezer in a small place, which just would be more trouble than it was worth.  I would have to grocery shop more often, but the tradeoffs would be worth it to me if I had decided that is the way I wanted to go.

And that's the take-away, as far as I'm concerned.  Not that you have to live like a typical resident of Osaka or have this tricked out place like Hill's, not that this sort of thing is only something for single, urban hipsters.  Just that if you decide to go whole hog, you should know that there will be trade offs.  You cannot have it all, and really, most of us can't afford to.  And if you don't want to go whole hog, that's okay, too.  (Look.  I like having a four-burner stove and an oven.  I use them.  And I have people over all the time.  It is one of my greatest pleasures to cook dinner, hang out with friends and family, and relax.)  You can still pare things down, decide what is truly important to you, and give yourself some (literal) breathing room. 

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