Category Archives: Household

The Most Subversive Thing You Can Do Is…


Wait, what?  Nothing?

Yes, that is right, do nothing.  I do not mean do nothing in a political or activist sense.  Good lord no, please make sure that your elected representatives know very clearly what you think of their behavior in office and how that is going to make you vote in 2018.  Make their lives unpleasant by actually showing up to their town hall meetings—assuming they actually schedule town halls in their districts unlike Rod Blum—and let them know how displeased you are with their proposed legislation and Donald Trump.

When I say do nothing I mean stop participating in the consumer driven shell game.  Our consumption of stuff just feeds the beast.  We can rail against the political machine in Washington D.C. as much as we want but as long as we are filling our shopping carts the wheel will keep on spinning.

Do you think Exxon Mobil really cares about protests?  Not really.  They would care however if a measurable percentage of their customers stopped buying gasoline because they were commuting by bike.  How many?  Enough to flatten their growth curve and cause investors to panic.  Looking at the current state of oil markets a drop in demand of 5-10% is enough to cause major perturbations in price.  Could you reduce your personal consumption of gasoline by 5-10%?  Heck, all of us could probably do that without thinking.  No one is saying that you need to stop driving entirely, just reduce it by 5-10%.  The upside is that it costs nothing to do less driving.

Do you think WalMart really cares about anything other than its quarter versus quarter results?  Not really.  However, given that the counties that supported Hillary Clinton account for ~64% of the nation’s GDP if those voters were to stop patronizing WalMart the results would be staggering.  Remember, the game is now about growth and if companies cannot show a path toward growth the market will punish them.  Look at coal companies.  Once these companies could no longer show a clear path to growth, never mind declines in demand, the market punished the companies by withholding capital and the coal companies began declaring bankruptcy.  It costs nothing to not shop at WalMart.

Political activists constantly harp on us to “vote with our wallets,” but it is much more effective to vote by not opening our wallets.  Just shifting our spending from one faceless corporation to another is not going to create any kind of meaningful change.  If over a short period of time there was a measurable decline in consumer demand for stuff you would see some real change.  Granted, Republicans would probably start trying to pass legislation that guaranteed WalMart a certain amount of income because they love welfare when it is for corporations.

Doing nothing when it comes to consumerism is subversive because it goes against the dominant paradigm in modern America.  Heck, when we were facing the greatest existential threat to the United States in a generation George W. Bush implored us to go out and shop.  A stirring call to action this was not, but it does represent what passes for action in the minds of modern politicians.

Step back from the cash register and do nothing.  Put that book down and check out something from your public library.  Avoid that trip to the mall and see what unused items lurk in your closet that would be better served as a donation to the Salvation Army.  Resist the urge to go out for dinner and be truly revolutionary by cooking dinner for a group of people.  Heck, that may be the most revolutionary thing you could do because nothing smacks of “commie socialism” like sharing a meal with a group of people and expecting nothing return save for good conversation.  I can read the tweets from Donald Trump already “Sad.  Dinner without tableside service so un-American.  Mar-a-Lago will always be tremendous.”

Stop Buying Water for Your Shower

We all know that bottled water is bad.  It’s usually just tap water put into plastic bottles and dropped off in pallets at our local grocery store.  You end up paying dollars for something that costs cents when it comes out of the faucet in your home.  Add in the plastic waste and you get a bad environmental actor that no one wants to defend.

But what about your shampoo and shower gel?  Look at the first ingredient.  I am betting dollars to donuts that the first ingredient listed is water.  How much water?  Seventy to eighty percent depending upon the formulation. [1]  Shower gel is in the same boat and considering its rise to prominence over bar soap I am guessing that most people have multiple bottles of what is mostly water in their showers. [2]

Every one of those bottles of shampoo and shower gel are just a step up from buying bottled water.  I have always been a bar soap guy finding the entire loofah and shower gel combo unsatisfying on a number of fronts.  Foremost among those is what wondering what is lurking in the folds of that loofah that do not get clean.  Sorry for that image, folks.

Bar soap is the easy answer to shower gel.  Hell, it’s also one of the easiest things to get from a local provider because almost every farmers market I have been to over the past decade has a soapmaker or two.  Or you could get the soap that I like the bestPacha’s Dirty Hippie.

The shampoo angle seems a little harder until you do a little digging.  I would not have thought twice about it until a friend re-gifted me a Lush Seanik shampoo bar.   All I could remember thinking was why I did not come across this concept sooner.  Now, I do not care to afford Lush’s products although I do love their ingredients and social bent.  Once the Seanik bar ran out I bought some J.R. Liggett Old Fashioned shampoo bars and I am working through them currently.

Bar soap and shampoo bars come with none of the packaged plastic waste that comes from shower gel and liquid shampoo.  If we really want to make a change in the way we consume things we really need to examine the nature of the products that we buy and the packaging that those products come in.  A little paper wrapper seems like a much better solution than an empty plastic bottle.



How Does it Burn?

A while back I wrote about a little gadget that came my way to make logs or briquettes from paper.  All right, it was a long time ago and I have slacked in updating some of my projects over the past year.

Anyway, a stack of paper logs that my son and I made last year spent all spring, summer, and the beginning of fall seasoning in the garage awaiting a new outdoor fireplace.  The original chiminea on my patio finally crumbled after three seasons.  Fired clay is probably not the best material for an outdoor fireplace in Iowa.  Even if it is garaged during the winter and spring.  I digress.

With a new cast aluminum chiminea on the patio I got to burning the scraps of wood that have accumulated in my garage from several projects.  This past weekend we finally threw a paper log on the coals:


So, how does it burn?  Pretty well.  Better than I thought it would considering that it was made from pressed office paper and junk mail.  A single paper log lasted about fifteen to twenty minutes before needing a replacement.

The one downside is that the paper does not leave a bed of coals to keep the fire at a nice low rumble.  I would recommend alternating a piece of solid wood with a paper log to keep a nice bed of coals for a long night of warmth.

The next experiment is to try and press a log from newsprint that has not been shredded because that would significantly reduce the workload and mess.

Irony in the Mail

This week irony was delivered in the mail:


Who thought it would be a good idea to promote a cover story about playing more and buying less while including a winter buyer’s guide in the same mailing?  Just saying.

One Thing Out Every Day

One of the many ways that downsizing experts suggest a person reduce their household consumption is to follow a “one in, one out” model of purchasing.  If you want to bring something into your home it should replace a similar item that finds itself on the way out.

This is a great way to approach household items like clothing where a new pair of shoes replaces a worn pair or a new computer replaces a malfunctioning unit.  You get the idea.

What if your goal is to not end up renting a mini-storage unit?

A lot of people have gotten hold of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing to answer this question.  I find it somewhat fascinating that a person selling people on decluttering as a pathway toward some sort of life changing epiphany is selling an actual physical item.  Always beware of the person selling you the solution to your perceived problem.  Skip the book and take the highlights if her pathway is your bag.

I have a different way to tackle the stuff in my home that is cluttering up my physical and mental life.  Instead of “one in, one out” I am embracing “one thing out every day.”

The concept is simple.  Every day I get at least one thing out of my house.  One day I might take a bag of old clothes to Goodwill.  Another day I may donate a few unwanted books to the public library. If I am particularly motivated I will decide to tackle the collection of medicine and mini toiletries that seems to grow by itself over the course of a few trips.  How does one end up with a dozen mini bottles of lotion?

Slowly, it becomes a game of sorts.  You begin to want to look into the dark corners of closets and storage areas for long forgotten items in boxes.  You begin to free yourself from stuff that you may have moved several times without ever having removed it from a box.  How many t-shirts do we have that we no longer wear?  How many boxes of old books do we have that we will never read again?

Some people may choose to go the blow out route and have a garage sale.  Trust me, I have had two in the past three years and I amazed each time at how much unnecessary or outdated stuff we have acquired.  Even my two children got into the act the last time by culling their toys down to what they actually cared about playing with.  Everyone feels better when they are not weighed down by so much stuff.

The trick is not to bring anything more into the house while getting rid of things.  Otherwise you have nullified your effort.  This becomes a game as well.  You begin to start counting days between purchases.  If I exclude groceries it becomes an exercise in recall as I now go weeks between purchases.  Maybe I am embracing an increasingly ascetic life in search of meaning, but it feels better than blindly whipping out a credit card and hoping that a purchase will make me feel whole.

Live Like We Did in College

On vacation I got the chance to sit down for a few beers with an old friend from college.  While our children slept with dreams of Walt Disney World swirling through their heads and our beers dropped enormous rings of sweat from the thick central Florida air we came to pose a question to ourselves, “Why can’t we live like we did in college?”

Now, two mid-thirties fathers of two children apiece asking that question while sitting on the balcony of a hotel room at Walt Disney World may seem a little out of place but bear with me for a moment.  Granted, it all feels a little bit like the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime.”

I have always thought of my friend as someone who is relatively far down the road of “green” enlightenment.  He has never fallen for the trap of more expensive status cars as his income has grown, his house is definitely not in line with his peers at work, he commutes to work a few days per week by bicycle even in the dead of Minnesota’s winters, and he generally seems to live a life free of constant consumer drive to buy things to fill a deep pit within one’s soul.

As we pulled back the layers on his thought process it became apparent that he wondered if he had gone wrong somewhere along the way in a fundamental way.  His thesis was simple, “Why can’t we enjoy life like we did in college?  Why can’t we enjoy just getting to go out to eat once a week instead of being upset that we did not get to eat at the fancy, new place in town?  Why can’t we be happy spending a night with friends drinking some beers and not worrying about doing something?”

We spent some time thinking about this and remembering our college days.  Some of it good and some of it bad.  Trust me, neither of us was suggesting that we trade in our hoppy IPAs for quarter draws of Natural Light.  There is something to the idea, though, of looking back at a time when you did not have very much discretionary income and seeing what made you happy.

No one cared about cars or houses when we were in college.  Sure, we all knew people who drove new cars and lived in the nice apartments but those were seen as auspicious outliers.  Most of us drove cars that were running on borrowed time and living in houses that hopefully could pass an inspection if the city every decided to crack down on your landlord.

No one really cared where you went out to eat because getting to eat out anywhere was a welcome relief from pasta or ramen noodles.  There are few dinners more satisfying than being able to sit down to a plate of chile rellenos and happy hour margaritas on a Thursday night. You felt like a king for an hour.

Maybe our college experience at a mid-sized Midwestern state university was different from someone who went to a prestigious Ivy League school or a mega-sized football powerhouse.  Maybe the intervening years have fogged our memories and we remember things through the haze of nostalgia rather than through the lens of reality.

Regardless, there is something about trying to recapture some of that economic innocence at a time in our lives when we are supposed to be avid consumers of an upper middle class existence.  Wouldn’t we all be living a “greener” life if we worried less about buying a bigger house and filling it with more stuff or a new car to park in that oversized three car garage?  Wouldn’t we all be a little happier if we spent our Friday nights on the decks with a few friends enjoying a cool night over a few beers rather than chasing entertainment somewhere trendier?

I think the answer is that we would all be in a better place if we just tried to live a little simpler.  Now, I am not going to trade decent coffee for that gas station swill I used to drink in college.  There are some things that are just a bridge too far.

The Weight of Our Stuff

This is not about the physical weight of our stuff, which has got to be a dramatic number if anyone ever took the time to calculate such a figure, but rather about the psychological weight of our possessions.

In the United States the average size of a household in 2015 was 2.54 people compared with 3.33 people in 1960. (1)  In the United States the average size of a single family home in 2013 was 2,598 square feet compared to 1,725 square feet in 1983.  (2)  Think about those diverging trend lines for a moment.  As our households have gotten smaller, our homes have gotten significantly larger.  Why?

Probably because we have so much stuff.  We have so much stuff that it does not seem like developers can build self-storage facilities fast enough.  Depending upon who you ask, self-storage or mini-storage will be an $30 billion dollar industry in the near future with the United States accounting for more than 90% of that market.  That is more than $27 billion dollars to store stuff that we cannot fit into houses that are a lot bigger with fewer people living in them.  Huh?

I wish that I had the ability to visualize development like Johnny over at Granola Shotgun.  It is a skill I really wish that I had as I watch multiple mini-storage facilities being put up on my short drive home from work.  At the moment I can count three large mini-storage complexes being built on development parcels that are within city limits, near major arterial roads, and near the region’s major employers.  Does it seem crazy that we would build storage for our stuff on these relatively high value parcels of land?

Remember, this is stuff that we do not need on a regular enough basis to actually store in our homes.  Even worse is that someone is going to pay money on a monthly basis to store this stuff that they do not need regularly enough.  Heck, there is an entire legal canon dedicated to determining when a mini-storage unit is considered “abandoned.”  Storage Wars this is not.

Seeing these mini-storage complexes being built near me and speed reading several blog posts about Marie Kondo—thank you Root Simple—got me to thinking about the stuff in my house.  My wife and I are by no means hoarders or even great collectors of stuff, but I think we have become inundated with stuff that does not add value or joy to our lives.

It is quite easy to end up with boxes of stuff you do not necessarily care about or know what to do with.  When parents age out of housing or pass away a large quantity of family “heirlooms” generally finds its way into the possession of the next generation.  The irony of this passing of stuff is that if there was a true “value” in the items no one would pass them on until they passed away.  Yet, you will find yourself with boxes full of baseball cards, depression glass, mismatched flatware from the old country, and binder after binder filled with old pictures.  Most of this stuff will sit in boxes in a storage room or, god forbid, a mini-storage unit you make monthly payments on until your own children are old enough to become the caretakers of this heritage.  And so the cycle goes.

Take for example a set of custom oak bookcases that I inherited from my father when he passed away several years ago.  I did not part with the bookcases when I sold my father’s home following his death because I felt that there was some connection in the item.  Both of my parents were professors and, for a time, I chased that goal but that was more than a decade ago and I no longer harbor any desire to be a member of academia.  The books lining the shelves represented a different life and most had not been touched in years.  Now, I am getting rid of both the books and bookcases.  It does not feel sad.  It feels good.

Piece by piece I intend on evaluating all of the stuff in my house so that I do not end up paying a monthly rental fee on a mini-storage unit.