A documentary about the tiny house movement caused Pat Brothwell to have a mini-existential crisis . The epiphany that followed is far less dramatic than any writer could hope for.
It really is amazing how quickly one could shuffle through topics in even just a fifteen minute internet session. This afternoon, I meant to go online for ten minutes to check my bank account and pay my car insurance. I quickly found myself on Facebook, which then morphed into my new obsession,www.cabinporn.com, and through some form of internet black magic I ended up researching the “small house movement” for well over an hour.
The small house movement is a building and social movement advocating living simply. Smaller homes are less costly in building, taxes, utilities and maintenance. They encourage you to live a simpler, less cluttered existence and reduce the impact on our environment. They take the term “small” very literally; the typical “small home” doesn’t exceed 500 square feet.
I spent most of my time on the homepage of TINY: A Story About Living Small, a documentary by Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller, a couple in their late 20s living in Colorado who built an 124 square foot home in 2011. They discuss downsizing, stripping away consumerism, the nature of what a home means and the changing American Dream. Since the 1950s the average house size in the United States has doubled, while the average family size is decreasing. Younger generations are placing less emphasis on settling down in traditional large homes, opting to rent or downsize, and questioning why they need this much space if they won’t be housing many people. This is partially how the tiny house movement got spawned.
Unfortunately I was not able to view this documentary, which aired on Al Jazeera America in November, mostly because my television conked out and I’m not really in a hurry to replace it until the Game of Thrones season premiere. I am curious to watch the whole documentary and it definitely was cause for reflection.
I like the rationale behind what these people are doing. I like to think of myself as a mostly non-materialistic person. It certainly wasn’t always this way. It’s embarrassing how much money I spent on clothes and shoes and Abercrombie & Fitch cologne in high school; it’s the sole reason I try not to role my eyes and accuses students I have of being vapid. It was college that taught me I’d rather spend my measly income on booze and 2am pizza, which doesn’t sound any less vapid than the A&F cologne, but ended up becoming the “pay for experiences rather than things” attitude that I try to live by today.
I could get behind this, I thought. I could probably stand to simplify a bit. I actually get disgusted seeing the cookie cutter developments and townhouse complexes that are arising from the once picturesque Lancaster countryside and I find whole keeping-up-with-the-joneses aspect of the technology game, updating phones and MacBooks and iPads twice a year, to be completely ridiculous. I even started recycling recently, trying to do my small part to help out the environment. I admire these people for focusing more on living than on the size of their home, but then I looked around my bedroom, my 320 square foot bedroom, where I’m sitting here typing this. I started feeling guilty for the sheer amount of, well shit, I own.
I also started feeling like a fraud. Every time I found something that made me feel a tiny tinge of camaraderie with the non-material tiny housers, I found two things to eradicate that. I still sleep in a twin bed because the size of a mattress has nothing to do with success, but it is covered with a Ralph Lauren bedspread and expensive Icelandic wool throw. My dresser and armoire are old pieces that I refurbished, but the drawers of said armoire are literally bursting with pajama bottoms, Under Armour workout gear and an alarming amount of socks. I rested my eyes on my trusty winter boots, which I’ve literally been using since 2003, yet next to them is a brand new pair of Nikes and no less than three pairs of Topsiders. I’m one of those materialist bastards, I thought, I just don’t express it with mcmansions, I express it through boat shoes (which might be the saddest sentence I’ve ever written about myself). Why was I thinking I was socially and environmentally conscious?
My funk didn’t last long though, because, well I stopped being so dramatic and came to a conclusion that I was already well aware of: things and space are not indicative of character of fortitude. I’ll never be a small house person. I respect it, but I can’t do it. I have an entire upstairs closet that I hadn’t even contemplated. I keep things like luggage and golf clubs and camping equipment and my cross country skis up there. Those are my hobbies; those are the things that bring me joy. Getting rid of them would serve no purpose, plus I’d then spend more money just renting equipment.
I have over 20 framed posters and pictures on my wall. That definitely wouldn’t be conducive in a tiny home yet, yet most of them hearken back to some memory or experience. There’s a canvas of the Cliffs of Moher from an amazing trip to Ireland, a Dropkick Murphys concert poster a kind bartender had let me take before seeing their show in a Philly a couple of years ago and a professionally shot picture of Elk Mountain my mother gave me for Christmas this year. Not only was that a gift, but it’s where I grew up. My book shelf is big and bulky and there’s literally hundreds of dollars worth of books up there, but that was a project my dad and I did together last summer and I reread and lend out these books frequently. Giving up these things wouldn’t necessarily make me a better person. It would definitely make me inauthentic.
Furthermore, a tiny house wouldn’t be conducive to the kind of home I’d someday like to have. I grew up in a decent sized home. It’s not gaudy or too big but we could have survived on less had we needed, but then my house wouldn’t have been able to be the place my friends and I always gathered growing up. My parents wouldn’t be able to host a huge Thanksgiving dinner and smaller ones for Christmas and New Years and St. Patrick’s Day or barbecues and drinking sessions for family from out of town when they come in. They wouldn’t be able to let 6 of my college friends visit and crash comfortably for a weekend. I want to someday be able to have that gathering space of my own. I value hosting and getting people together.
So while I enjoy the romantic notion of the small houses and do respect those who can live in that manner, I don’t think I’ll ever be less than a medium sized living space type of guy. No harm in that. And I did just fill two garbage bags up to donate to goodwill. A lot of socks. No Sperries though, I like those guys.
You can visit the documentary’s website to see where you can see it on television as well as upcoming screenings.