14 March 2013

The NYTimes "Living With Less" opinion writer is silly, privileged

A fluff piece in the New York Times explains that living in a tiny, sparely furnished bachelor pad is better than living in a big house full of stuff.

Here at Rowhouse Livin', we had a few thoughts. To begin with, it sounds as though the author doesn't have any family members living with him. I don't necessarily mean children -- I'm not "mommyjacking" -- but I'll start there. Clearly, kids need stuff, and in a lot of ways they need more stuff than adults do. You may be fine with a minimalist wardrobe, keeping all your reading material on an electronic device, and working out at the gym. But a kid will need a variety of clothes for multiple seasons and activities; they'll have schoolbooks and homework; and they may choose gear-intensive sports like lacrosse or football over cross-country and swimming. As for other family members, though a number of people do shoehorn families into tiny homes, it's probably not realistic for most families. And what if you're the primary caregiver to an invalid?

Is adopting the tiny home lifestyle one way to avoid being the family member tasked with caring for elderly parents, or a close family member who needs extraordinary care?

It also sounds as though the author doesn't keep a lot of emergency supplies, or really much of anything, on hand. I mean, unless he's storing food and sundries on shelves along his ceiling, I can't figure out where he'd put everything he needs in 420 square feet. This choice raises two issues. One, for meals he has to go to the market, get take-out dishes, or eat at restaurants every day. This lifestyle will end up costing him far more than would preparing all his meals at home. The author is a dot-com millionaire and serial entrepreneur, though, so presumably costs are not as pressing a concern for him as they are for me. And two, he's not ready for an emergency where he loses utilities, or where he's too ill or injured to leave the house for a time. Again, if you're not keeping supplies on hand, then you're choosing expensive contingency plans -- stay in a hotel until the problem is fixed; hire a helper until you're feeling better. Outsourcing these kinds of things is expensive. The author has a blind spot: he has ready-cash privilege.

To look at this personal outsourcing another way, I used to have a neighbor who hated doing dishes and enjoyed a pristine kitchen. He bought a paper cup of coffee from the coffee shop every morning on his way to work. No coffee maker taking up space on the counter, no coffee mug to wash every night. While he supported a local business with his daily custom, every year he generated over 200 dirty paper cups and spent about $500.00 on this coffee. This is "living with less"? Less what?

Further, the author's wardrobe of "six dress shirts" suggests that he doesn't have a job where he has to worry too much about his clothing. He's not getting filthy doing manual labor. He's not working in an environment where dressing the same every day would be objectionable (a lot of business offices) or weird (teaching). He's not required to wear a uniform. He's not coming home covered in food, chemicals, paint, or axle grease. In short, he's a guy who doesn't have to change his clothes when he gets home from work. A person who has only a half-dozen dress shirts to cover his torso is not a person who has to work outdoors or wait for buses in the winter, either. Does he have a car in his building's garage, or a doorman to call taxis for him? Not to set up a false dichotomy. He likely has both.

Of course, there's a happy medium between the huge house full of consumer goods and the 420-square-foot studio apartment. But the author's opinion that anything more than the tiny home is "inessential" and "excess" is flat wrong for those of us who don't have a wallet full of platinum cards and a streak of dot-com successes behind us. And I don't buy his assertion without proof, at the end of his piece, that he's "limit[ing his] environmental footprint" merely by living in a small space. Is he purchasing carbon offsets for his take-out and restaurant meals in addition to his airfares?

The happy medium at the Rowhouse Livin' homestead is two-fold. You can take my wall of books when you pry the shelves out of the studs we screwed the uprights into. And: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."


Lindsay Harris Friel said...

Well said. Clearly, something is wrong with this guy if he doesn't need books, sweaters and soup.

JRoth said...

One of my heroes, Malcolm Wells (father of underground architecture), lived for a few years in a 16'x16' house in rural Cape Cod - Four season living, and neither restaurants nor bodegas to feed him. There are compromises in that living style, of course, but no more so than the compromises that maintaining 750 square feet per occupant require.

Not denying that this guy is being a wanker - Mac's house assuredly wasn't spare and empty within - but compact living isn't some trick of the affluent.

PS - your emphasis on emergency supplies seems weird to me. I live in a big, urban house, and I don't think I have the kind of supplies you seem to view as a space-consuming necessity. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

It least he didn't bring out George Clooney's backpack from the movie Up In the Air.

Anonymous said...

It seems to be a New York City 'thing' not to cook in one's apartment. I find it odd. Awhile ago I read an article about a young, seemingly not wealthy couple with a new baby, and they were looking for ways to economize. One of their decisions was to switch to nightly takeout instead of always going to a restaurant.

Anonymous said...

Touche! How droll and oh so hip is the NYT "Living with Less" dude. Have enough bucks in the bank and one can "rough it" to prove that it can be done by anyone. Really, the US has changed in such weird and uncool ways since my youthful days in the 60s. It's just twisted to think the NYT has someone write an article telling everyone else how living with less "can be done" not "is the sorry fucking lot in life that's been dealt". How many people reading that article have ever had to "live with less", unless it's a choice instead of an inescapable fact of life. He should have written an article about how the US can certainly afford to structure its social architecture so people have to deal with "living with more", and I mean the poor and underprivileged.

magurakurin said...

Everyone, including the author of the opinion article, would be stunned at your arrival in Japan. 420 square feet would be a 3LDK apartment in Japan, and that's about as big as they get. Tens of millions of people live with their families in apartments smaller than 320 square feet...and believe me...those apartments are absolutely filled with all kinds of stuff. So yeah, privileged.