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

“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 simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Adventures in Simplicity.

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

“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 simply. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Adventures in Simplicity.

Matchbox video tour

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.

take action: final comments on DC zoning changes

DC’s zoning has not been comprehensively updated since 1958. After 6 years of drafting and public input, the Office of Planning is about to finalize a new set of zoning regulations that could transform the city by allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU’s- carriage houses and microhomes behind an existing house, or basement apartments), as well as development of residential structures on alley lots.  If done correctly, this would be a huge boon for affordable housing in DC, and allow smaller housing units across town.

BUT! While the current draft is ok, it could be even better. There are conservative forces that would love to do away with any new affordable accessory dwelling units in the city, and the current rules are rather restrictive. So DC Residents, we need your help, this week! Once these final comments are in, the Zoning Commission will vote on the final package.  Please help by:

A: Signing the Petition from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
They have been on the forefront of advocating for progressive change.

B: Submitting written testimony to advocate for specific changes we need. Here is an easy testimony template with specific language changes we need (note these are my (Brian’s) views on ADU’s and alley lots).  Zoning Commission will only accept emailed comments in PDF format, which must include your signature. Email signed PDF to: zcsubmissions@dc.gov .  Subject line of email must include the case number (08-06A) and the subtitle or subtitles that your testimony refers to (Subtitle D).

C: Testify at the Wards 1-8 public meetings around town this coming week. It’s easy, and the Coalition folks can support you.

Thanks- zoning is the DNA of a city, and it’s a rare moment when we can act to positively affect the character of our city for years to come! With thousands of us connected through Boneyard Studios, we can really make a difference.

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

“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 itjust 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. More to come soon.
Cross-posted at Adventures in Simplicity.

The Postcard Underground – supporters of the tiny house movement

Unless you’ve built a tiny house, you may not realize that it can often be a very lonely and discouraging process.  Sure, it’s fun and exciting, but there are many things that are challenging and frustrating about the build process as well.  Yet it seems that for every challenge, there is something positive that keeps you going through the build.  For the last two weeks I’ve been struggling with this nasty flu – for a whole week I hardly left the house, and then the second week of it, I only made it into my work twice.  Yet those two days that I did make it in to work last week, I was pleasantly surprised to find postcards waiting for me from an organization called the Postcard Underground.

A google search revealed several organizations who had also been recipients of their postcards.  Through this search I found out that the Postcard Underground sends anonymous postcards with encouraging messages to individuals and organizations who they believe are doing inspiring work.  Even though I don’t know who is behind this effort, I feel so fortunate to have been the recipient of a few of their postcards.  They came at a time when I really needed some encouragement, and they made me remember the joy it is to receive snail mail in this age of emails and texts.  The fact that the postal stamps are from Minnesota, my home, makes me even more appreciative of their effort.  Thank you, Postcard Undergound, for your support of Boneyard Studios and the whole tiny house community!

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