Tiny House and the Decline of Leisure

235453657_c1bd7da44d_z
A 500 sq ft house in my town that predates the Tiny House movement by about 80 years

This weekend I read an exquisite article on the decline of free time by Stephanie Buck entitled “Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it.” In this essay, Buck reasons that the rise of hobby-based careers has eroded the peace we once enjoyed through pursuing leisure activities. Now that some people have made a living through their hobbies, there is a pressure to make a profit from such activities.

I am part of Generation X, and this article helped me make sense of several culture changes I’ve witnessed over the years. Back in my day, some of us went through a Peter Pan phase of sorts in which we hoped to eke out a living by writing novels or releasing albums on indie labels like Sub Pop. I don’t remember hearing that anyone was hoping to throw over a profession like teaching or engineering to sell cupcakes or fusion tacos for a living, yet these sort of dreams are widespread now. I think the Tiny House movement is related to the decline of true leisure, too. Let’s downsize to the point where one can leave a disliked job and live off a monetized hobby, and that hobby could be selling the story of building and living in as super small house.

I think the Tiny House movement does have value, but I also believe it’s strange that people are pressured into monetizing that experience by blogging about it, etc. Tiny House is crucial because in that movement we finally have an antidote for something we call McMansion here in the U.S., where people built 4000+ square foot homes based on mass-marketed building plans just because they could afford to do so. I think of McMansion as the terminal point of the conspicuous consumption of the late 20th century. Other signs of this sort of consumption were skin-tight Sergio Valenti jeans, watches with solid gold wrist bands and sports cars like the Mazda Miata that had little muscle under their hoods.

Someone needed to stop this mania for buying more and more just to show others one could afford to buy those things. While it is regrettable that there is now an expectation that one should profit financially from a hobby, at least we are moving away from the trend of consumption and spending as a measure of success. It is possible that my grandparents’ generation (born in the 1920’s) had it best in striking a balance between work, leisure and consumption. I think of my paternal grandpa in particular. He worked on the railroad, never drove a car and helped raise five children in a 846 square foot house. His hobby was carpentry, and he used that hobby not for profit but to help furnish his home and give gifts. When I look at the bookshelf he built for me and my siblings, I hope I live to see an era where his sort of life would be considered a great success.

Stone in Love

My husband collects vintage bicycles, and he had a nap dream this afternoon in which he had acquired a Journey-themed bike. All of the bike needed restoration except for the head badge and its screws. He said that the head badge was roughly as large as a beer can, and he was puzzled at determining how he’d reattach such a large badge to the bike, especially since he dropped one of the screws from this pocket while trying to fix a two story high tar paper roof. I asked him if the badge included the scarab beetle featured on many Journey album covers, and he replied that it had little detail but the band name Journey in large red letters.

I recall a dream I had almost twenty-five years ago that featured the Journey scarab beetle. It was one of those instant sort of dreams that seems to flicker to life as soon as your eyes close. I saw the scarab beetle’s progression through history, that it was merely borrowed by Journey as Gru had hired the Minions. Unlike the Minions, the scarab beetle lent itself to just one cause, the glory of Journey. As the dream progressed, the scarab beetle revealed all of its guises in a silent montage saturated with color beyond the spectrum visible in waking life. He concluded by revealing the next Journey album cover, which was not to be released due to friction within the band.

A couple years later, I heard a DJ introduce a Steve Perry solo single with the disclaimer that Neal Schon would not be indicted because he played no role in the song’s creation or recording.

I leave you with what I believe is Journey’s finest song. I imagine that the album cover shows the scarab beetle’s awakening from a dream of this song, before it was written in our reality.

Ice Cream Tonight

14509128420_bc2c812c49_z

I noticed that Ben and Jerry’s has a pun-intended ice cream flavor called The Tonight Dough. If I were to create a frozen treat, I would call it Ice Cream Tonight: Dough, designed to be eaten upon a 3 am, PMS-fueled awakening. The ratio of dairy to dough would be an inversion of the usual cookie dough ice cream, with just enough slow churned ice cream added to make the dessert pliable upon direct exit from the freezer. When one awakens in the night with pressure of such a hunger, there is not enough patience to wait a few minutes for ice cream to thaw enough to keep spoons from bending or to find an ice cream scoop in the darkness. When I was a teenager, all of the spoons in my parents’ kitchen looked as if they’d been lent to an Uri Geller spoon bending summer camp.

Now that I am entering the territory of perimenopause, the periodic fire of my early days is waning. Over the years, I have written so little about this subject. I don’t know if I was caught in worrying that I would sound sexist in talking about how deeply my cycles have affected me, or if I was giving into a social taboo on menstruation. What I do know is that there is a great degree of variation in how deeply these cycles affect individual women. For some women, the differences in their moods are so insignificant as to merit no reflection. For a few women, like me, the experience was more like a periodic natural disaster. Since for every occasion or topic there is a song lyric that can be bent to usefulness, I will quote a line by The Killers and tell you that my PMS was like riding on the back of “a hurricane that started turning when you were young.”

My ride began on July 3, 1984. A couple of my cousins claimed that anyone who flipped off the haunted house in their neighborhood would bleed within 24 hours of that offense. We hopped on our bikes and dared that haunted house to make us bleed. The timing of this ritual was impeccable for me. I remember riding home the next evening from the fairground fireworks and singing along with “All I Need” by Jack Wagner with my friends, pleased that there was no silence to fill with the news of my first change of life.

Thirty-two years later, I am easing into the end of all of this commotion. I can still imagine a perfect PMS snack and know that this is another endeavor in which perfection cannot be attained. If I actually had PMS, I would not have the patience to make such a meal. My perfect 3 am snack would be a plate of hot french fries that have about half the potato skin peeled before frying, topped with crumbled bacon, beer cheese sauce and lowbrow Mexican restaurant salsa. Scattered on top of all of this would be a dusting of cold romaine lettuce. My dessert would be Ice Cream Tonight: Dough, with a few butterscotch and semisweet chocolate chips sprinkled on top.

 

Elegy in a Court Churchyard

1-prOWMZ7qJ6wvD16D5dCsWA

There is nothing like having three neighbors, a friend and a sister-in-law die in the span of year to bring the subject of death to mind. This morning I remembered being wrong about the title of a poem on death by Thomas Gray. Between my hearing loss and dyspraxia, I heard the title as “Elegy in a Court Churchyard” but thought that “Elegy in a Church Courtyard” was more likely to be the appropriate title. I imagine Gray arising from his grave and shaking off the dust on his starchy, ruffled suit to tell me, “No, I called my poem ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’!”

My confusion over a title of a poem on death is a preview that my thoughts on death could be just as strange. I don’t know if anyone else feels like I do on this subject. There is no graceful way of asking someone, “How do you reconcile that some deaths mean more to you, despite that all lives ultimately have equal value?”

This dilemma brings to mind the closing words of the film Slacker, “Strangers die every day.”

Although it may seem callous that we regard some deaths with indifference, it is possible that this emotional blindness is one of the greatest mercies we know. How would we survive if every death imposed a wound of the heart?

Within the last 12 months, I have had five occasions to reflect on death. Two of my neighbors took their lives in dramatic ways. Then my next door neighbor died after a long bout with breast cancer. Like the first two neighbors I mentioned, my friend also committed suicide. Added to all of this was loss of my sister-in-law Genie, who survived nearly two years with Stage 4 lung cancer. I did not meet Genie until after her diagnosis. I wish I had known her when she was well, too, and I feel like her life was stolen from her.

My feelings about these deaths run a wide range based on how well I knew the decedents. One of the suicides of my neighbors had an omen of sorts. My husband and I were going for a walk and stopped to talk to this neighbor as he stood in his driveway wearing no shoes, which for me brought to mind the rumors about Paul McCartney being dead and replaced with an imposter. One of the signs of his death was supposedly his barefoot appearance on the cover of the album Abbey Road. A few days after we talked to our barefoot neighbor, we saw a roll-off in his driveway in the rain with rust running from it. The roll-off was overflowing with what must have been the great majority of his worldly possessions. I told my husband that I wondered if our neighbor had died and mentioned how his running around shoeless in the driveway could have been a sign of his coming end. My husband said he was probably evicted.

It turned out that both scenarios were true. He had been evicted and then shot himself in an abandoned building downtown.

I had not befriended my other neighbor who committed suicide. He ended his life in a public place, so we discovered the manner of his passing in the newspaper. I had seen so little of him that I did not recognize him from his picture in the paper. When I saw him while he was alive, I had no idea of his suffering. I was blind to it despite my history of depression. He reminds me that I once had a dream about the difference between those who attempt suicide and those who complete the act. The difference was that the second group already thought they were dead and were resolving a conflict been their state of mind and reality.

My sister acknowledged the recent string of celebrity deaths by making the hashtag #2016theyearofdeath. Unfortunately, every year is the year of death, for both the famous and the rest of us. Stated otherwise, #(n-1, n, n+1 . . .)theyearofdeath. When my brother was in high school, he composed an essay about life in 19th century America in which he wrote, “People died more often back then.”

I recall wondering how this could be true given that everyone dies just once.

Death impacts us to different degrees based on how close we were to that person. Sometimes we can feel some grief for a stranger’s passing if someone has taken the time to tell that person’s story. It is like they are brought to life through words and then taken away as quickly, and we feel an echo of grief. These echoes of death are a taste of what is to come for us all eventually. As I reflect on the deaths of those around me in the past year, it’s as if I hear a doppler effect of it.

When I think about the variations in our reactions to death, I remember my college philosophy professor saying that we swallow spit all day and think little of it, yet if all that spit were poured into a glass, we would be horrified at the prospect of drinking from it. Like our feelings about spit, our reaction to death is very much grounded in context. Without context, the event has little meaning, but we grieve death to the degree of intimacy to the person who has passed. When I heard my professor’s point about spit all of those years ago, I did not think of how death could be similar. Instead, I wrote a paper about Doink the wrestling clown and how clowns are symbols of white, male privilege. While clown narratives don’t really evoke posh conditions, the fact that a male with a painted white face usually gets to tell those stories implied privilege. At the time I strove to insulate myself from any important personal breakthroughs, without knowing it.

Closer to my heart was my sister-in-law Genie. The effect of her passing was more emotional for me than I expected. Since she lived out of state, I was only able to spend three weekends with her while she was alive, yet her death impacted me as if I had known her for much longer. She really was a fundamentally lovable person who encountered no strangers. She had a great clarity about her impending death, and I believe she gifted all who witnessed her struggle. When I went to her crowded funeral in Kentucky, the preacher told us that Genie said that when it was her time to pass that her late father would come for her. I thought of my grandmother, who had last seen her father in 1936 when he died in a car accident, his extended family unknown. When I heard the preacher’s words at Genie’s funeral, I vowed that I would solve that mystery unless it proved impossible to do so. With help from my aunts and cousins, I was able to find the truth and family of my great grandfather.

When I think of Genie, I know it’s inevitable to reflect on death despite that it’s going to come some day whether I think of it or not. Spending mental energy on it will not control its character or timing. We can depend on three things in life, that we were born, that we will die and that we will change in between that beginning and end. In my childhood, I wondered many times about my birth, about why of all of the billions of combinations of time and place that could produce a person, how did I land where I did? To what purpose was I meant in being me, out of all of the billions of people one could have been? Eventually, I accepted there were no answers I could find alone to such questions about my birth. Likewise, death is a matter that we see “through a glass, darkly” in this life.

 

Successful Aging?

Untitled

One of the assisted living facilities in my area is airing a TV commercial that mentions workshops on successful aging. I won’t blame this local facility for coining the term, for it seems to be the invention of a shadowy Illuminati designed to make us feel inadequate and ready to buy remedies for our shortcomings. Perhaps the same folks who decided to oppress us with BMI goals are now suggesting that we could fail in our twilight years as well. The term successful aging implies that someone could fail at it. Everyone since the dawn of humanity has succeeded at aging for as long as their lives have lasted. Furthermore, no one who had a short life should be considered a failure based on their lifespan.

I recall watching Cheek to Cheek on TV last year, an impressive duet performance between Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. I remarked to my husband, who has aged successfully for sixteen more years than I have, “Tony Bennett has an amazing voice for his age. I don’t think most people his age can still sing.”

My husband said, “Most people his age are dead.”

A Money Saving Tip

Serious Conditioner

I have a simple strategy for saving money: shop less. When I hear a commercial about how I can save $10 off a $50 purchase this weekend only, I consider that I can save $50 by not going to that store at all.

I do not write this to imply that I look down on consumerism in general. I am part of a capitalist economy, where I can’t completely escape the principle stated so well by Bobbi Fleckman in the movie This is Spinal Tap, “Money talks and bullshit walks.”

I am not above wanting to enjoy the fruits of my labor through buying something special I want but do not need. I have found that shopping less is the quickest route to getting those things. Instead of having lots of things I bought at a good price but didn’t really want, I have less things that satisfy me more. Over time I have bought less because I have grown to feel like I have bought everything I ever wanted. Before I buy anything, I consider if I would purchase that item if it were not being sold at a discount.

Consider all the things you have that you wouldn’t have bought at full retail. Imagine still having all the money you spent on those things.

I used to be caught in a trap of stockpiling deals, clipping coupons and watching sales. The result? Less money to buy the things I really wanted, less satisfaction with the things I had and certainly less gas in my gas tank. I was stuck in a vicious cycle of wanting and buying more.

I was so ruled by getting more at the best cost that I actually used it as an excuse to stay in a dead end relationship. At the time, my daughter was just a baby, and I devoted a lot of my mental energy to the task of buying as much food for as little money as possible. I was driven to stock up against some future calamity, such as her father losing or quitting his job. I buried my unhappiness with him by chasing deals. For a couple months, I made the excuse of staying in the relationship because in leaving I would abandon a deep freezer full of meat and dinner deals.

When I ran out of room to hoard more bargains in the kitchen, I then made a silent ultimatum, that I would wait until the deep freezer was empty to see if this relationship would become tolerable. By the time the freezer was half full, reality intervened, and I ended the relationship. I also decided to part with 90% of my possessions because I was beginning a new part of my life where I would no longer let my attachment to things drive important choices in my life.

I remembered, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself” (Matthew 6:34). I have not regretted my choice. I am not burdened with an unhappy situation or tethered to so much junk.

The Chickeny Sugar Cookie Disaster

Untitled

I have told my daughter that she should heed my advice on matters regarding food and grooming because there is a great chance that said advice is based on something I learned the hard way. While my past reminds me that I am sometimes not the sort of person who profits from experience, there have been consequences for some of my actions that could not be denied. I have learned that I should not use both aerosol deodorant and hairspray, for in using both I take the risk that my upper arms may stick to my sides as my hair looks as if it has been sprayed with artificial snow. I know that I should not color my hair at home and then get a salon perm a few days later unless I want a crew cut in two weeks.

Over the years, I have run a true ultramarathon of food trial and error. Despite that I am very fond of reading recipes online and in magazines, I still struggle to resist the siren call of adding a mystery ingredient or an unlikely side dish to a meal. Usually these experiments are based in economy rather than originality. If I am missing an ingredient and have something that is going to expire soon, I will sometimes substitute what is in excess for what is not on hand. I do this even though the first time it happened the result was an utter abomination.

Back when I was around 12 years old, I visited one of my neighborhood friends, and we decided that our time together that day would not be complete without baking a batch of cookies at her house. Since no brown sugar or chocolate chips were available, we opted to bake sugar cookies, and we did not let an absence of an appropriate fat stop us. The closest thing on hand to butter was a bowl of roasted chicken drippings her mother was saving in the fridge. We figured that any solid fat could work in the cookies, so we creamed it with the sugar and plowed ahead with making the cookies.

By the time we finished baking, I needed to get home for dinner, so I did not try the cookies until I reached my house. As I walked in the door at home, I proudly unwrapped the plate of cookies for my mom to show her that I’d succeeded in baking without parental supervision for the first time. She tasted one of the warm cookies first and asked how in the world I’d created such a flavor. When I tasted one, I was horrified by its sugary chicken leg taste. I have not willingly eaten dark meat chicken in all of the years since.

As my daughter begins her odyssey of meal creation, I hope that she trusts my cooking advice. There is no need for another generation to discover that cabbage is not a good side dish for cheeseburger macaroni or that broccoli and chili should not be served together. Above all else, do not bake cookies without the right kind of fat.