Thursday, January 25, 2007

Going Small

Written in May 2006, before the move. Still holds up.

It turns out that my wife and I are radicals. We may seem like ordinary suburban commuters expecting a second child, but we are doing the unthinkable: we’re downsizing. Next month we’ll be moving from a modestly-sized home — by today’s McMansion standards — to a 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom cottage. To some, it’s an oversized dollhouse.

It made perfect sense to us, but our colleagues, friends, families, neighbors and realtor all thought we’d misspoken: “You mean a larger house, right?”

Some of them are actively worried about us.

Although living in a smaller house is a healthy environmental strategy, I admit that we’re mostly buying smaller for financial reasons; this house is cheaper than the one we live in now. It’s got more character, too – built in 1915, its proportions and stone foundation embody an early 20th century aesthetic. It’s in a great location. We love the town. And did I mention it’s cheaper?

To our people, however, we seem a little tetched. Despite the growing voices of progressive environmentalists, the heaviest weight of society is still against personal downsizing. The accepted trajectory at our age is to Go Big: our exurban neighbors pursue bigger houses, more land, larger TVs with louder speaker systems, and bigger Hummers to drive to BJ’s for bulk-pak potato chips while wolfing down super-sized fast-food meals and gallons of soda. If it’s not stuff, it’s money – who wants to earn less next year? If it’s not money or stuff, it’s prestige. My kid is the highest scorer, my office is bigger than yours, I oversee the largest department. Mothers and fathers compare their children's height, weight and cranial circumference – ostensibly checking to make sure they’re within a healthy range, but secretly proud of any numerical edge. If it’s not money, stuff, or prestige, it’s quantified experience – bagging the most peaks, shooting the biggest bear. And as you get older, it had all better get bigger, or you’re a failure.

It is an insidious and attractive dynamic. You need only look at a tape measure or a speaker wattage or a bank statement to know precisely where you stand. But quality becomes meaningless: when you’re racing to die with the most toys, you don’t have time to care whether they’re any good.

Even more disheartening than that cheapening of taste is the poverty of opportunity that comes with oversizing. Put simply: the less space you take up, the more there is to explore.

Einstein said “the environment is everything that is not me.” To expand on that, the world I can reach out to, learn, and revel in is everything that is not already in my house. This isn’t an abstract concept. It’s not even about ecology. For instance, our new home sits on a third of an acre – a generous lot by most measures, but half the size of the one we’re selling. Next door is the public library and a big park with baseball fields, pools and a playground. If every private lot around the park was double its current size, there would be no park. It would all just be…yards. I suppose someone would have the biggest one by a few inches, but you couldn’t play baseball.

Every ounce of surplus food I don’t purchase and consume could theoretically find its way to a mouth that needs it. Every time my car fits in a single parking space, someone else gets to go to the movies. For every ten square feet of space that my new house doesn’t encompass, ten square feet of the planet remains available.

Some of the people who question us choose to live bigger, but they are intelligent and self-aware, raise great kids, care about their neighbors and value open space. It’s just that one summer I lived in a tent for six weeks; I spent another summer in a car. Eleven hundred square feet is big enough for the four of us.

Physics tells us that the universe is finite but unbounded. So external space, be it the earth’s surface or my neighborhood, can get too crowded, too congested — too full of me — and thus needs to be conserved. I suspect that the space within — within my family, within my friendships, within my spirit and my mind – is bounded but infinite. I aspire to find out.

Will we huddle together on tiptoe, sacrificing all comfort and sense of place to leave the smallest possible footprint? No. To live is to assert one’s presence. But to live compactly, efficiently – to live Big Enough – is a moral goal and an increasingly less radical one. And to live Big Enough while in pursuit of quality – that sounds like a sweet life to me.


wcs said...

Very nicely said. I made a similar change, exchanging a stressful career and home in San Francisco for a different life in the French countryside nearly four years ago. No regrets.

Sane living. It's good for you.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent piece of writing! Europe has changed the way I view the world and the mark I leave on it. I ride my bicycle everywhere. We buy things with little or no packaging. (Fridges and stoves are way smaller and use less energy.) People don't buy in bulk or Super Size things. I buy my food fresh every day and I don't throw out hardly anything. I hope I can continue to incorporate this way of life when we move back to Canada. Although riding a bicycle in snow really ain't that safe. :)

Bill Braine said...

wcs: Regrets? Who has time? Sounds great. I still haven't exchanged the stressful career, just moved a little further away from it.

jayne: a shift in perspective is just the thing to make your own place better. Good luck!

Thanks for your comments!

Primer1 said...

going small, vacation home edition. not sure vacationing in a box when you've bought 160 acres qualifies as going small. they do, however, share some of your sentiment.

Bill Braine said...

Ah yes, read a little of this. For the record, I don't think the four of us could manage in 160 square feet, except for maybe a weekend.