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the story so far

23, December 2011

My name is Hallie, I live in Portland, and I keep up this blog (very irregularly) because I’ve always enjoyed small living and I like to share ideas with other people who are also fascinated with tiny houses and living small/off-grid/scraping by in unusual ways.  There seem to be enough of us out there that it’s worth writing about.

I had a fairly normal compulsory school career, by which I mean I didn’t hate every minute of it, but I didn’t have a lot in common with the folks I went to school with.  College didn’t appeal to me in general after that baloney, so instead of enrolling right after high school with a direction and a major like many of us did, I got a series of poor-paying jobs, took a few elective classes on the side, and generally spent the freedom of my 20s trying to figure out who I was and what I actually wanted.

It didn’t take very long working for near-minimum wage for me to figure out that the capitalism game was not designed for very many people to win it.  This annoyed me, in the same manner that playing Monopoly with cousins who were older and much savvier than I was had in the past.  It didn’t seem fair that some folks had a natural advantage in this system – unlike what we’d been taught in school about hard work paying off, it immediately seemed obvious that your advantages had a lot more to do with how well you were born than how hard you worked.  Disgusted, I started looking for ways not to play the game at all.  My first move in that direction was to go on rent strike.

At the time I started my journey into Radical Mediocrity, I was working at a coffee shop.  I’d had a series of roommates over the years since I’d left home, all in the interest of economics, but because I’m a sensitive snot in a lot of ways, this wasn’t an enjoyable way to cut living costs down to size for me.  I’d been living in a tiny studio apartment alone and working a close-to full-time schedule, but noticed that I rarely had money left over beyond my basic expenses to have much more fun than I could buy in my immediate neighborhood.  Wanting more adventure than this, I looked at expenses looking for things to cut.  My rent payment attracted immediate attention due to its percentage of my income, and I quickly decided that it was an expense far out of proportion to the enjoyment I got out of renting, e.g. sleeping in a solitary location and fueling my new days with caffeinated beverages that I made at home.

I was single and unencumbered otherwise at that time, so having a fixed foundation wasn’t incredibly rewarding – not ‘$500 a month worth of rent and bills rewarding,’ anyway, when I made less than $8 an hour.  Lavish surroundings aren’t required for sleeping or making tea, so I figured I could do these things just as comfortably while living in a cabover camper.  The next thing I did to advance my radical new life, then, was to search the newspaper ads.  (This was the early 90s, so yes – newspaper ads.)  I found what I wanted for about $1,700 – a Ford F-250 farm truck and a 14’ Rollalong camper – signed papers for a car loan to pay for it, and moved into it that week.  I painted it purple with the help of some friends later that month, banked several paychecks, quit my job – and lived in the purple camper for three years.

Part of the time I lived in the camper, I worked.  Part of the time, I traveled.  Part of the time, I slacked off around town, doing not a lot of productive anything … practicing guitar, going to bookshops to read, enjoying the company of my friends, taking meals in pubs and ranting on political issues (there was then, like now, a lot to rant about) and writing – a lot.

I enjoyed a much slower pace of life when I didn’t have a work schedule to revolve around.  I met SuperG during a period of living in Eugene, with whom I would spend the next 13 years.  Our life started with his moving into the camper with me and us living there together for the next year and a half.  SuperG was quite a bit older than I was, and he appreciated the self-directed life I’d made, but eventually tired of living in the camper and changed the course of my journey.

SuperG made a compelling argument for moving from my rotting, 30-year-old wood-framed camper to a place with a foundation, running water and central heating – after 18 months of off-the-grid living in various inconspicuous parking locations around town.  I wasn’t completely convinced at the time that this was a good idea, but because you’ll do strange things for people you love, I relented and we moved into a rental house together, again with roommates.  In order to afford our share of the rent, I went back to full-time work at an office, while he continued working as well.  We spent a lot of dough trying to make ourselves comfortable in this situation, but I quickly found that I hated this version of life every bit as much as I remembered from earlier.  To get out of that rental arrangment, I bought a house.

Buying a house seemed like the grown-up thing to do, as I was now 25-years-old and in a position where I felt like I had to establish myself as a proper grown-up.  SuperG and I had now been together three years, and I wasn’t interested in getting married or having children or doing anything of the other things that I felt at that time would automatically qualify me as a grown-up in the conventional definition.  Buying a house, by contrast, counted under ‘survival’ anyway, since it is shelter, and conveniently seemed to legitimize my other non-traditional choices as irrelevant – at least, in my mind.  I’d like to think that appearances didn’t figure into my choices, but in retrospect I’m sure they did.  I’m also sure now that my perception of how much other people actually cared about any of this was inflated.

My desire to buy a house came in the magical year of 1999, a time when mortgages fell off the trees like leaves in fall.  It was one of those poor-person loan programs that was designed to financially kill you that got my into my first house: down-payment assistance and an ARM loan.  At this unique point in history, I won the gamble: my mortgage adjusted upward 1% the first year, then adjusted downward every year thereafter.  This was completely unprecedented, as far as I could tell.  It was like winning the mortgage lottery.  After eight months in the house, I got rid of the camper and sold the truck.  I decided my days on the road were over.

These miraculous economic circumstances allowed me to sell my house in 2006, at what later became clear was the peak of the market.  I sold it after seven years of struggle to stay employed in some fashion that would allow us to make the payment on it every month, and I was worn down.  Even more miraculously – when I sold it, I wound up getting almost every penny we’d paid on it back in profit.  I couldn’t believe my luck, or my good timing.

At the time of the sale, I had been very sick for years and struggling just to get to work and back, and though I had health insurance and the advice of professional doctors, none of us could figure out why I felt so tired and foggy.  For some time, I’d theorized that the stress of living like a normal person was killing me off, so I concluded that selling the house and going back to a smaller way of life would probably help.  In 2006, after years of Dubya, the economy was now firmly in the tanker and though that led to the drop in interest payments, it also meant that all seven years were a constant struggle to work enough to pay the mortgage, and the last year, I was paying the mortgage alone:  SuperG had moved out and we were struggling too as a couple.

For a little over a year, I lived in a Harry Potter room in my sister’s house.  I’d planned on building a tiny house on a trailer in her driveway.  She’d given me the idea by saving an article in the bOregonian’s Home and Garden section with the inspirational Dee Williams on its cover.  I thought it was the coolest small living idea since the purple camper, and immediately went to work drawing what I thought would be my ideal tiny-home layout and moving furniture around in my sister’s family room to look at the effect of my drawings in 3-D.  Then my mum revealed she had cancer and I fell into a black hole.

SuperG had left Portland to take a job in Tahoe City, California; we’d been together for over ten years.  I was still coping with the loss of my home – it sold just in time to avoid financial disaster, but sold under financial duress even so – and I was now living with my sister under the cloud of my own undiagnosed illness.  I’d gotten rid of most of the things I’d owned – a process that I would have found draining even if I’d been completely well.  My mum was now critically ill and undergoing radical treatment.  I had a meltdown at one point during that long, hard year.  My circumstances were stressful, for sure, but I wasn’t coping with them in a normal way even for the circumstances.  When I came back up for air it was necessary to my survival to pay cash for medical care that I hoped would reveal what was wrong with me.

Eventually with the help of a naturopath with experience in endocrinology, we learned that my thyroid function is low, and that medicating it helps a lot.  I’m now also well read on the effects of mercury poisoning, which is a common antecedent for thyroid disease.  As a result of the years of research I did, I realize I’ll continue back down the spiral until I get my amalgam fillings removed carefully and have an opportunity to recover from the heavy metal poisoning that provoked the condition I now have.  Since most medical insurance doesn’t cover such treatment, I’m in a position now where I have to save up to have the dental work done on my own.

While all this was going on, the clock was ticking on the one-year limit my sister and I had agreed that I would live with her before moving on in some fashion, and I had lost steam for the building of the little house I’d wanted.  I’d run out of energy (literally and figuratively) and was stuck in the pre-planning stages and considering just buying another camper much like the one I’d had in 1995.  When I went through ads to find a replacement though, I realized that my heart had moved on from camper life, and I needed to advance in a different direction.  Thanks to my medical problems, I’d become interested in non-toxic digs of my own making, where I controlled the building materials and I selected the least toxic ones I could find and afford.

SuperG moved back from Tahoe, bringing his construction savvy with him, and built most of the house himself while I art-directed the project and slowly recovered under proper medication for hypothyroid function.  In July of 2007, in gratitude for his hard work, I used about half the proceeds from the sale of my home to buy SuperG his dream – a live-aboard sailboat, Columbia 34 model, which was docked in Newport, Oregon.  In October of 2007, with the little house enclosed and roofed, we pulled it on its debut voyage down to a friends’ barnyard outside Corvallis, where it would remain for two years.

SuperG and I divided time during those two years between the Columbia 34 and the little house, working on the house at some times and escaping to the coast when the weather was horrible or to take a break from living under a pile of construction debris.

My friends’ family, including their four children and a flock of chickens, seamlessly integrated the little house and myself into their lives, and I’m always thankful that they put up with me at a time when I wasn’t always fun to have around.  SuperG and I were falling apart after many years together; the pressure of living in spaces that constantly needed mechanical attention was so different from my previous experience of living small (the camper was finished when I moved into it) and building the first house either of us had ever attempted resulted in a lot of bickering at times.  I’d read stories about the construction of Dream Homes ending in divorce, but since SuperG and I never wed, I thought it wasn’t relevant for me.  (ha!)  In truth, we would have fallen apart in any case; construction just acted as a more efficient tool for prying us apart than coasting along as we were would have been.

SuperG and I split up for good in 2009, with the house still unfinished.  I moved with the little house back to Portland – the little house was then sided, mostly insulated, and partially plumbed – and my recovery to a normal metabolism made it possible for me to go back to work part-time.  I spent my days re-adjusting to a life of bike-commuting from the remote village of Sellwood, enjoying being single again, and re-acquainting myself with nephews I’d barely seen for two years.  After a long time living in very rural circumstances, I reveled in being mere blocks away from the library, the pubs, the spectacular farmer’s markets, and the restaurants that Portland has to offer.  The fall leaves rained down on my metal roof, putting me to sleep and gently waking me up.  Though I could only find part-time work to start with, my rent was cheap; I’d moved into the side yard of a family who wanted an hour a day of help around the house (and their four children) in exchange for the right to park there, and this low-financial-pressure situation made it possible for me to survive in an area that has a notoriously high cost-of-living.

About six months after moving back to Portland, a friend invited me to join her in Scotland for the summer to help out in auntie-fashion with her two young girls, and I leapt at the chance to enjoy an adventure again after so many years of feeling tied down with mortgage payments, then chronic illness.  My ticket was as good as in the mail when I stumbled over my future husband, Capital-A.  I was looking for someone crunchy (read: hippie) enough to enjoy possibly subletting my still-unfinished little house while I was away, and read my now-husband’s ad late at night, when I was feeling impulsive.  I knew the little house wasn’t the situation he wanted (he was clear in his ad about not liking to move, and the sublet would only be temporary) but I liked the way he described himself and his dog and I was in a mood to be a little daring.  I asked him out in a flip one-sentence email, and he answered back in the same disarming, casual and funny voice that his ad had been written in.  We wrote back and forth several times a day for a week, pages upon pages of prose about our hopes and dreams and what we wanted out of life, and met a week to the day after we first wrote to each other.

Our first date lasted all weekend.

Capital-A and I spent as much time together as the clock allowed until my date with the international-departures terminal of PDX – and then didn’t see each other again for four months.  We continued to write epic tomes, volumes and volumes of emails, back and forth, for the entire summer I was in Scotland.  At the end of my trip there, I sent a ticket for him to come join me, we hiked the length of the West Highland Way together, and then came home to Portland.  For six more months, we lived half in his rented room, and half in my little house, and to our surprise – even with his dog joining us and staying there for a week at a time with no central heating or running water – we never felt cramped or lacking for personal space in the little house.

We spent the holidays that year with Capital-A’s family in New Zealand’s summer, which included a tour of the converted bus and RV on display in their farmyard.  I came home inspired, then looked around and realized it was still winter in Oregon.  My inspiration to finish my own house evaporated as the cold winds blew and the rain poured down.

Capital-A and I worked hard to come up with another place to park the little house (the family I’d been parked with weren’t prepared to take on two more living creatures at their property), but at some point soon after I proposed marriage, we gave up looking, got married, and moved into an apartment together in the inner Eastside.  The little house is now staying on a friend’s farm, still unfinished, while we continue to bike-commute and enjoy married life together in the city.

Recently, I was cruising the RV ads, seeking the perfect home on wheels yet again, and realized I was in a way looking for a way out of finishing the project I started.  It’s been a long road for the little house – over four years have passed since SuperG and I finished framing it up and rolled it down the freeway to its first live-aboard parking space, and five years have passed since I took the first step and bought the trailer that we would eventually build half my life savings worth of Dream upon.  I haven’t given up, but it seems that I have lost some of the momentum I’d had when I started.

I think that if I had been well, I’d have been better-equipped to take advantage of the Year of Free Rent that I’d started with.  I could have made more progress on completing the house I had scribbled down in those early days.  For now, it’s just a lesson learned that any project that is drawn-out for too long risks becoming obsolete before it’s finished.  If I had finished the house I designed, it would still be obsolete for my new needs, but it would be finished as its own work of art.  This journey has made me think about design in a new way – how to design living spaces that can be simple and affordable for single people who have very minimal housing requirements, without making them impractical for those same people after their lives have changed – by age, or marriage, or kids/pets – whatever.  I’ve seen a lot of incredibly inspiring stuff on the topic of small spaces in the years since I started my little house.  This is an exciting time to be living small, with so many creative minds working on the same problem – a need for smaller living spaces and less spending on housing – the number and quality of ideas out there to borrow from is amazing.  I feel inspired every day by new things I see.

On my own house, I changed the layout of the interior once before SuperG and I had even gotten the interior sheathing up, because my needs had changed already (I hadn’t planned before on the constant company of four children and their attention to the house I brought with me).  Now that I have a husband with a dog, both whom I’d like to have living full-time in the little house with me, and that husband has a full-time job and a love of showering as part of his necessary wake-up routine, my needs have changed again.  I never planned for a shower in the little house, but my goal has now morphed from parking it somewhere on the cheap, to finding permanent land for it, so that I can satisfy my unforeseen needs with a few outbuildings (bicycle storage, bathing, an outdoor kitchen, etc.) and leave the design of the main house as it is.

Capital-A works at a job he cares about and I work with children that I care very much about too.  My life has changed a lot since my early know-nothing 20s, and yet I remain the same person – and I’m still seeking a way to live more of my life with the people I love, and less working for money and the accompanying stuff that goes with that.  Because the apartment we rent is dark and architecturally not my style, I’ve spent a lot of money on furnishings and eye candy that I never had when I was living more simply.  I still have a need for the space I live in to be beautiful and comfortable, and when we’re both working for most of the week, it just takes a lot more money to do that.  It wasn’t practical to move us both into an unfinished tiny house on a trailer and continue our work lives as-is, so for the last year, the finishing of the little house has been on the back burner.

It’s winter as I write this, and my energy has historically been turned inward during fall and winter, while spring seems to energize me for starting fresh and taking on new projects.  I’ve had a year now to settle into my new life as newlywed, as a person with near-normal energy levels (for the first time in a decade), and as someone who enjoys some professional satisfaction in the context of my work for the first time in my life (I have a part time job at a preschool, and my shift ends in time for me to get to enjoy the company of my nephews after school now while my sister is at work).

I still can’t help looking at small homes and converted trailers and fabulous tents on the internets.  There are so many amazing ideas out there, and so many inspired artists who made these spaces, and so much is great about all of them, it is hard sometimes for me to distill all that I’ve seen and been inspired by down into one 8’ x 20’ space, and finish that space and make it mine.

This coming year will be the year.  I have to say that if I want it to come true.

Thanks for reading.  Please feel free to share experiences of living small with me by email; I love the idea of building a community of like-minded people here in Portland.

That Thing I’m Always Afraid To Say

2, November 2010

I’ve been feeling sad. It is now autumn. These things seem to go together in my world, which is inconvenient because I love fall. I love watching the leaves turn and snow down from the trees every time the wind picks up – whoosh! — another drift of them come down and cover my doorstep. The colors are amazing, the weather is crisp or damp or stormy or weirdly warm, or whatever it is, but it isn’t boring. Things are changing, everything in nature seems to be slowly winding down and turning inward and preparing to stick out another winter.

My schedule doesn’t change, because it operates by the clock and is buffeted along by a social engine that presumes every week is equal to every other week (holidays excepted) and that the shorter days just mean we’re active during more of the dark hours and we turn the lights on more often.

This feels completely wrong to me, but because I chose the work situation I’m now in, there isn’t an easy way to honor my need to slow down with everything else. I keep going at the pace demanded of me for my work schedule, and because I do this, I start to feel tired and dragged out, and I start doing less socially. Then eventually I start taking shit from people who have more energy than I have about how I never show up to things anymore or how I’m going to bed so early.

I’d prefer to do less in the way of working and instead preserve my energy for people I care about, honestly, but I didn’t find a way to do that this year. So consequently I’m tired and the tired feeds the sad, and because my family already long ago lived through two suicide attempts of mine, they’re understandably wary of hearing about normal depressed feelings from me. I don’t mention it to them; it seems kinder not to. Fall is not a good time for me to embark on any significant changes. Fall is for hunkering down and hibernating.

Being busy during the summer feels natural – the long, shining days are the perfect excuse to stay up too late and go out too often and try to get too much done. The bounty of summer inspires excess. Whatever is ripe only in summer I will happily eat until I am sick. Whenever a sunbeam falls into my space, it is a welcome one. Whenever a friend drops by, I’m happier for it. Any time a road trip is proposed, I am on board. Summer is for going off like a firecracker and running until you collapse, exhausted.

Summer is now past. It’s fall. And that means I’m sad. I’ve never been good at talking about it (see Suicide Attempts, I and II) – when I’m sad, I’m not reflective, I’m just riding the waves and working hard to stay on top of them. It’s become easier since I’ve gotten the right medication (thyroid; your mileage may vary, but it’s been an amazing help for my mental state); instead of feeling punishing inadequacy and guilt about the way I feel, I just feel it and there’s no judgment attached to it. It just is and I just live with it. Believe it or not, the sadness is completely survivable, it’s the mental gymnastics I used to do to make myself a terrible person for feeling awash in sadness that made me so miserable. Sadness alone just is what it is. Misery is a side dish that didn’t have to be served up with it, and now that I’m free of the misery I find I can live with the sadness. It comes, it stays as long as it needs to stay, and it lifts on its own. I just slow down while it’s here and it lives a natural life and dies like everything else does, and then I go on.


Something I’ve been working on for a while, a little social and math problem that I need to solve, is this: I built my tiny house and my reduced-bullshit life just big enough for myself to fit into it. I carved it out of the wood I had, essentially, and now that there’s someone very special to me whom I would like to include in my life, I’m finding it very difficult in a practical way to make that work. People are different, we need what we need, and because my downsized life was only ever designed to fit me, it’s been hard to make room for someone else. Not mentally, and not in my heart, but practically – because I have exactly what I have just because I personally needed it; I didn’t overbuild by a single inch. That was by design, and I would never have been able to guess what a person I’d never met would need me to leave room for, anyway.

As it turns out, the person himself will fit just fine.  I built tall enough and wide enough, it’s that certain aspects of living like very fancy camping — aspects that do not bother me in the least – are unappealing to my love to live with while he continues on his own life trajectory, which for him very happily includes full-time work and therefore an understandable desire to live with more luxury during the workweek than camping entails. I want my love to be able to live with me, and it is now fall, the season of snuggling, and not having him here full-time with me feeds the Sad a little more than the regularly scheduled Fall Sadness would. At the same time, I have no energy to pursue new things, the daylight fades earlier and earlier, and I just need to curl up in a ball for a few months and wait for hopeful green shoots to appear and inspire me to spring to action.

But I do love fall. I really, really do. Watching the leaves come down in swirling drifts the last few days has been amazing. I hear them rattle on the metal roof, I shuffle through the piles on the ground, I break out the sweaters and the fuzzy socks, and I make tea more often. I buy more chocolate. I nap when I can get away with it. And fall marches on toward winter.


1, January 2010

Winter is when I like to read things that are heavy or dark or thought-provoking or deeply emotional because the weather sort of matches my mood and it gives me something new to drift away with when I’m staring out the window at the pouring rain and bracing myself to go out into it, even when it’s never as bad to go out in as it looks like it’s going to be from my warm cozy place on the sofa.

Recently I’ve tried reading McSweeney’s again, which is something various people keep telling me I should read, even when I have never quite felt like I get it.  I wonder if I’m just missing some inside joke, or if there’s some academic background I have to have to follow along, or what, and probably I am missing some of those things because I was far too cheap to stay in college, and also not fond of taking direction from professors or completing assignments or learning anything that didn’t appeal directly to me in the moment.  But there are some really talented writers there, and I’m a fool for anything well-written, so I keep giving it another try.

McSweeney’s had an interview with Kurt Vonnegut a few years ago (he’s now dead) which intrigued me, so even though fiction isn’t my thing – even less so science fiction – I have the library two blocks away and so it’s easy to try on books that I normally wouldn’t.  I checked out Timequake, and since the premise that blew my mind is right there in the prologue, I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anyone to discuss it here.

The timequake is an event that happens in February of 2001 (book was written in the 1990s) that sends everyone back in time to a day in February 1991, and everyone has to live their lives over exactly in the way that they did the first time through, only with the awareness that they are living it a second time and can’t change anything about what they did.  If someone died, you couldn’t save them – unless you did it on the first go-round; if you hurt someone, you would hurt them again with the full awareness of what you were going to do and exactly how it would turn out, and you couldn’t change anything.  If you married the wrong person and wasted any part of that decade with them, you would do so again.  The part where you’re aware of what’s happening, of living in a constant state of deja vu, that is the part that hit me so hard I had to put the book down and examine for myself the horror of what it would be like to go through the last decade of my life … or especially that particular one, the one in the novel – 1991 to 2001 – again.

I am thirty-five, so the last ten years have been pretty eventful for me.  So much happened to me as a human being in that decade, it would be really difficult to watch myself have to grow up again that way.  But however horrifying that idea may be, going back to 1991 would have been many thousands of times more difficult, because 1991 was the year of my second attempt at suicide, and I was still in high school.  Going back to high school is a recurring nightmare I’ve had that only recently mellowed out, to the point where in the dream itself I would realize it was only school, nothing that happened there really mattered, and anyway I didn’t have to go to class when the bell rings after all, I could wander the halls alone or leave entirely – really, I could do whatever I wanted while everyone else was in class and no one could arrest me or make me stay or do anything else.  Doing my own thing is fine, whatever other people choose to do with their time or whatever rules they like to follow.  That seems to be the message of peace I get from that dream, and it’s only changed for the better this way in the last, oh, five years or so.

2001 by contrast was two years after buying my first house and a year after I bought a grand piano to fill up one corner of it.  By then the color of my path was starting to become more clear to me, and some of the most enjoyable times I had with friends were 1995-1998, when I lived in the camper, and I would get to relive those, but I don’t know if that would make up for going all the way back to high school.

So the premise alone of this book is enough to give me a lot to think about, which will come in handy because I’m packing to go off to Quiet Weekend at Breitenbush today, and there won’t be a lot of social chit-chat to fill time with.  Since it’s my friend Lisa I’m going with and we are unreformable chit-chatters, I think it’s going to be very difficult to behave ourselves with the chatting.  Since we’re both nannies, there’s something about adults-only and silence that is very appealing when we make our vacation plans.  And we have the whole drive there and back as well, during which I fully expect we will wear out the timequake idea and chatter ourselves hoarse in the bargain.

What I think makes this book so amazing is the thoughts it provokes.  How would I have lived differently, if I knew I would (or even might) one day live it again just as it had happened the first time?  What would I wish I had done that I didn’t do? How would I wish I had steered my life, knowing I would do it again exactly the same way?

Because no one who knows what the afterlife is like – assuming there is one – is capable of coming back to tell us, we have to work out for ourselves what to do with the time and the body we’re given.  Everything is improvised.  You get one shot at your life, which happens in moments, tiny individual moments that you can only barely plan for and which you can only grasp in the slightest possible way before they are over and you have another, and another, and those moments are strung together like beads in a design you won’t see the pattern of until it is too late to change your mind about what the end product will become.  You never get to change what’s already done, only what comes next, and what comes next starts to race faster and faster past us as we go along.  I’ve definitely felt time picking up speed lately, I don’t know if it’s because I’m older, or because the kids around me are getting older and marking time for me, or because the universe itself really is expanding at an ever-faster pace and I’m tuning in to it, but wow.  I had to put the book down for a whole day before I could get back to it.  Vonnegut was in his seventies when he wrote this book.  I would love to have the kind of perspective now that he had then.  This book is just a little peek through the window of what my 70 year old self may feel and think – and I don’t even know if I will live that long.

There’s a parable about death that I heard recently, I can’t remember how I stumbled upon it but it seems to have come into my life because I’m working for a family where the mom is living with cancer and I can’t help thinking about her small children who may or may not be old enough to remember her when she’s gone.

The parable takes place in a pond, where dragonfly larvae are talking among themselves, and every so often one of them bursts to the surface and never comes back.  And the ones that are left behind keep asking each other, what happened to that one?  Why don’t they come back and tell us what it is like up there?  So they make one of their number promise to come back, and tell the story, again and again, but none of them ever does.  And of course the dragonflies above keep looking down into the water at the babies and wishing they could keep their promise, and they can’t, but from what they know, they aren’t worried for those left beneath the surface, because their turns are coming, and when they do come above the surface, all that they need to know will be contained in that one golden instant, and the mystery will be solved.  And meanwhile the wondering gives them something to think about – what do you do with the moments you have, knowing someday that your turn is coming, that everything changes, and that you’re not coming back to what is familiar to you now?

The more I learn, the more I realize that I really don’t know anything.

a little new year’s eve outrage

31, December 2009

Okay, this bullshit makes me crazy.

Specifically, the commenters who are willing to blame the truckers for being a tiny cog in a completely broken system.  The same truckers who were robbed in 1980 of the option even to unionize, which in a just world would be, at the very least, an obviously violation of ‘right to free assembly’, right?

We keep blaming the wrong people.  The truckers themselves are working the side of the game board that was set up for them.  They didn’t invent this shitty system, they’re just living with it.  The government that enforces this bullshit is made up of crooks that WE put in office, and the modern robber-baron corporations are the ones that WE pay by buying their crap.

So just to get this straight: for every braying jackass who thinks the truckers should just go work elsewhere (flipping burgers?  Are you fucking kidding me?  Who’s going to deliver their restaurant supplies, then?), here’s an ethics assignment for you:  When you know that a large group of people are being taken unfair advantage of by a system, the least you can do is refuse to feed it.  Because unlike moving the problem from one misfortunate poor guy to a different one, it actually addresses the problem directly.  Your behavior as a consumer makes a bigger difference even than unionizing, because the Feds can’t pass a law (yet) that tells you where to spend your money, while they’ve been very effective historically at busting every attempt for workers to organize.

So if you said, “These people need to go get a different job,” in any form at all, here’s a social homework assignment for you: YOU go out YOURSELF and stop spending money at big box retailers – or any other place – that ships all their shit from overseas.  Buy locally made everything you can, or do without.

Oh, you can’t manage that?  It’s too much trouble, you say?  It’s impossible to find what you need, made locally or too expensive for you when you can find it?  Well halle-fucking-lujiah – you just figured out what it’s like to be a small cog in a system that is DESIGNED FOR YOU TO FAIL AT ESCAPING IT.  Welcome back to reality.  Jesus Tapdancing Christ.

But go ahead and make the small changes you can in where you buy things, because it actually does make a fucking difference.  Yes.  It really does.  Half the city of Portland proves that it really does work.

instruction manual

27, December 2009

So a while back I joked about writing a book that would lead others down the path of Radical Mediocrity that I now tread.  It was to be entitled, “How To Get Out Of Working For The Man” and subtitled, “Hope You Like Camping!” but I don’t think I can call it that after all, because once you’ve read the cover that would be pretty much all I had to say.

Last night I was sitting in a very familiar place, at the dining table of my Other Mom, the mom of the two girls I grew up next door to, the woman who gave me high-minded ideas that I was not exposed to at home, such as the idea that dinner could be served in courses and contain ingredients that were foreign to the authors of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, such as capers.  I still do not know what the hell capers actually are, but they do compliment home grown tomatoes very nicely with a little olive oil.  Up until my Other Mom served tomatoes this way, I considered them mainly as projectiles for late-summer target practice and as the sort of demon that took over our entire home in August because no matter how often my mum grew tomatoes, she would always plant more than our neighborhood could consume and we’d resort to taking full paper shopping bags of them to church to unload on unsuspecting fellow parishioners.

Anyway, I’ve spent many hours at this table before, discussing matters of great social importance with my Other Mom, because unlike my own mother, we can enjoy these chats because we occasionally agree on some things.  Or at least, the values we use to steer by are more common, and so the chats are more enjoyable.  Also we’re both relentlessly snobby about our food, so that makes us good company for each other.

Last night we were discussing some churchgoing weirdoes who have a particular way of running their families, and they’ve been in a news a bit recently.  I’m not going to go into specifics about these people, because it distracts from the point, but the point (which ultimately, we agreed on as usual) is that whatever choices you make in your family  – indeed, in your life – are yours to make.  There’s really nothing anyone can say about the choices you make for your family that are going to reach a lot of people, because frankly, the person living most intimately with your choices is you.  Even parents are entitled to make mistakes, because everyone else is.

There are plenty of people who will call you a baby murderer for daring to eat sushi as a pregnant woman, believe it or not, and those people will actually have enough science in the world to back them up so that they don’t sound completely loony if they’re looked at in the most charitable possible light.  But I have no sympathy for those people because unless it’s their own pregnant body to which they are referring, they have no right to intrude on someone’s private experience of life.

All of life is a risk.  Every action you take contains some level of risk.  The risk to accept is the one you personally can live with.  That’s all there is to life at all: everything is choice, and all else falls away.

What do I choose, in this moment, to do for myself and the world around me?  I’m thinking I may as well be generous with myself while I have self to give.  We’re only borrowing consciousness for the little while we’re here.  Eventually, we give it all back, all at once, and whatever we didn’t use goes with us.

What I got tired of was wasting consciousness on managing my Stuff, because every time I went through a junque shop I would see household items that saw everyday use that lasted far longer than the original users of those tools could ever have had need for.  The Stuff will outlive me.  I don’t need to worry about the Stuff.  The Stuff will take care of itself.  I don’t need to collect it, or own it, or use it, or save it, or maintain it if I don’t want to.  I do have to give something of myself before the last day of my life arrives and it becomes too late to do anything worthwhile but tell the people I love that I loved them, and not because they haven’t heard it often enough, but because it should be the last thing a person does (I think).  And I only even get to do that if time and circumstances allow.

So why do I live like this?  Why do I cram myself into 160 square feet and bike everywhere and make tea on a camp stove and avoid shopping for almost anything that is in my power to avoid and spend ridiculous percentages of what little money I do make on traveling to see friends and family?  Because when I think about what I care about in life, what I enjoy about being alive, this is the only path that my choices lead me down.  It just makes me happy to do this.  Happy is all I need.

back from the dead

13, November 2009

For personal reasons, I had to take my blog down for a while.  Thanks to everyone who came looking for me to find out if I was okay, if the blog was moved, etc., especially from people I’ve never met.  It is a nice feeling to be missed.

I recently moved my tiny house to a neighborhood where there’s a formal complaint process if you don’t like what your neighbors are doing, and one of the neighbors filed a complaint against my house because they assumed I was living in it.  Living!  In a house!  Can you imagine?!  Right here in this neighborhood!  Obviously the world is going to the dogs.

So the very reasonable city inspector came out to look around and confirm that the house is just being *stored* at this location – which is all fine and dandy!  Totally legal, even! – and then the complaint was settled and that was that.  Until someone else launches a complaint, which could happen at any time.  So I’m taking a risk by putting this back up, because this is not an anonymous blog.  But I decided that I don’t care, because (a) everything written on this blog is hearsay, because I’m just now telling you that it is; (b) hearsay isn’t admissible in court; and (c) this lot happens to be zoned for a triplex.  So the density that is the inevitable fate in a town with an urban growth boundary restriction is more aesthetically served, in my opinion, by a certain snotty neighbor getting down off his high horse and appreciating the fact that a construction crew isn’t here leveling everything in sight and making a horrible racket day in and day out for the purpose of achieving the maximum density allowed by law in a far less neighborhood-character-preserving fashion.

Because it’s all about the law, right?  The law says I can store this here in the very place where it is, as long as I don’t spend time enjoying the space.  Storing absolute loads of stuff, metric tons per capita, is the American way.  But living small isn’t.  There is a minimum square footage permitted when you go to approve your building plans, but the maximum is determined by setbacks and sometimes by height limits.  You can build as big as the laws of physics allow, but you can only build so small.  America’s official motto: We honor consumption above economy.

I happened to move here just in time for a Jewish holiday that I’d never heard of, which was explained to me this way by my host family:  “It’s all about feeding hungry people and living in tiny houses made of wood and branches.  In honor of [biblical figures I can’t remember] wandering the desert for 40 years.  So this is perfect timing!”  I almost feel protected by that coincidence, because even after the crazy neighbor fracas, I never experienced my usual urge to sage-smudge the place of any bad juju that was circulating around, though I admit I moved a few mirrors in observance of the principles of feng shui.

I’m making a big deal out of this small thing because I have Irish ancestry, and this is what we do.  I’m also making a big deal out of it because it’s completely immoral for the city to have and to enforce laws that prevent people from living. Just living.  No one said I couldn’t store this here, or have whatever I wanted in it, or paint it to resemble an explosion of a Grateful Dead concert, a disco ball, and the wardrobe of the Bay City Rollers, which is very much like what the camper I previously lived in looked like.  I’m not noisy, I’m not manufacturing methamphetamine, I’m not prank-ringing the neighbor’s doorbells at odd hours of the night.  But apparently, I can’t live here.  The main house can have as many roommates as they like, because they own it and there’s no landlord to limit them.  And so now I am a roommate.  For all you or anyone else knows.  (Hearsay hearsay hearsay.)

I keep a tiny glass model of a flying pig hanging in one window, to remind me that with art at least, anything is possible.

The neighbor who isn’t happy about my house being here stands alone in that category; everyone else who has anything to say about the house has been complimentary and interested and friendly.  The complaint process is supposed to be anonymous, but this neighborhood operates exactly like a small town.  It is isolated from the rest of the quadrant of the city by various man-made and natural barriers, and also is delightfully self-contained.  We have the hardware store, the library, the post office, the grocery stores, at least three banks, the community center, the pool, several parks, a wildlife refuge, a bicycle repair shop, dozens of excellent restaurants, and on and on.  There’s no practical reason to leave the neighborhood for the business of daily life, unless your job takes you there.  It’s tiny, a very small part of a much larger town.  It’s almost a perfect microcosm of Portland as a whole.  But there is no such thing as anonymity.  You either have to start driving a lot to do all your errands and shopping in another part of town, or you have to suck it up and find a way to get along.

I’m doing my best to be a good neighbor.  I’m friendly and considerate, I worked hard to design a house that was aesthetically pleasing, I recycle everything I can, and I buy as much of what I need from local businesses as possible.  Whatever you think of the size of house I prefer to live in, I am the neighbor you want.  There are plenty of perfectly legal scenarios for this tax lot that would be less enjoyable to live with.  Believe me; I moved here by way of: a neighborhood salted liberally with crackheads, and; a rural farm area that was liberally hosed down with dangerous pesticides and polluted by pulp mill stack vents.  In other words, I lived next door to the people you really would hate to have for neighbors if you value your life much, and I’m so much happier to be here.

but really, enough about me

16, September 2009

I’m curious to know if there are any lurkers out there who read my blog because they have their own small-living thing going on and what small living looks like to you.  If this is you, and you’re feeling brave, tell me something about your small-living path in the comments.  I’d love to hear about you.

[ETA: even if you’re not living small yourself, step right up.  The bar is open.]


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