“In writing about Benjamin Percy’s werewolf novel, Red Moon, Roxane Gay’s review transforms into a fascinating essay with bite. She sums up the challenge authors face when examining the militarization of everyday life since 2001: ‘It’s a tricky thing to address pressing issues of the day in fiction without making prose do the work of preaching.’ Artistic success has eluded great authors who took the subject head on and Gay suggests that allegory is the platform that can let the author speak loudest. When I started writing my novel The Blondes I didn’t know that is was about these same subjects but by the time it was finished the world had crept in.
“Since writing a novel about a worldwide calamity and how its narrative unspools through the media, I’ve been haunted by its resonances with real events, but tragedy and unspeakable crime have always been documented. Today, we crowd source reflexively filmed camera footage to solve cases, but in the aftermath of the Second World War a Hollywood contingent hunted down and sifted through the propagandists’ own footage to build evidence against the Nazis for the Nuremberg trials. Budd Schulberg was a morally complicated screenwriter and author of the classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? In ‘Budd and Leni’ Bruce Handy tells the story of how Schulberg arrested director Leni Riefenstahl. The story is complex, the material is harrowing, and the facts sometimes blur into strange humor, such as the Communist guard who is also a film critic.”
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The episode that really pushed me over the edge was one where a single father was looking to move into a tiny home with his tweenage daughter. Frankly, it was a bit repulsive and unseemly, but the father tried to make this bizarre choice palatable by sharing that he and his daughter wanted to use the money they would save traveling around the world. Having traveled a fair amount, I was, as I watched this episode unfold, quite certain there is no wonder, anywhere in the world, that would merit this kind of domestic sacrifice. Alas, the choice was not mine.
Tiny House Hunters isn’t just about judging strangers’ choices (although it is partly about that). It’s also a mechanism for papering over dismal American economic realities.
Often, though, couples and families want to downsize to save money. They say they need or want less space, but what goes unsaid is that they likely can no longer (if they ever could) afford the mortgage on their traditional home. Or they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities where the median price of a home is more than a half-million dollars and well out of reach for a lot of folks.
There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.
The dream of homeownership, now with composting toilets.
Mark Sundeen, writing for Outside, traveled to the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs last summer and talked to some of the tiny house movement’s pioneers, including its “godfather” Jay Shafer. Over a cigarette break in the woods — away from all the tiny space swooners, wannabe-minimalists, and sales reps — Shafer tells him a bit about his design philosophy and the purpose of material objects.
Shafer was raised in a large suburban house in Orange County, California. “I never had a true sense of home,” he said. After attending the University of Iowa, he got a master’s in fine art in New York City. But urban life didn’t suit him. He returned to Iowa City, where he taught art, living in a pickup and later an Airstream. Although he considers himself secular, as an artist he was drawn to sacred symbols and icons. “I got tired of building shrines I couldn’t live in,” he said.
I asked him if he’d been on any of the tiny-house shows.
“I was on Oprah.”
“What was that like?”
“Like watching Oprah on television, but in 3-D.”
During a commercial, she told him that he had inspired her to get rid of one of her mansions. “I wish she would have said it on camera.”
Shafer went on to describe design in a language I had not heard at the Jamboree—or anywhere. “Integrity is my word for God,” he said. It was wrong to conceal structural elements or disguise materials, and purely ornamental features were like a comb-over. Both attempted to convince us that the homeowner (or the hair owner) felt secure but of course revealed insecurity. “My best designs come only when my ego gets out of the way, when the higher power flows through me.” He had a sense of humor about it all, too. “I spent weeks trying to design a dining table that would convert into a coffee table. Finally, I figured out that all I had to do was turn the thing on its side.”
He described himself as a “meaning addict,” always looking for higher significance in material objects. “A gate in a picket fence that opens onto a narrow path that leads through a yard to an open porch that covers a door,” he said, “is a set of symbols we recognize as signposts guiding us through increasingly private territory toward the threshold of someone’s clandestine world.”
I finally got it. I had not understood why Williams’s house felt so authentic while so many of the blocks on wheels felt awkward or false. This subculture, although it seemed to be about nifty gadgets and Murphy beds, was at its heart the expression of our longing to find our place in the universe, to become as beautiful and functional as nature itself.
To understand the tiny house movement, Mark Sundeen attends its big annual gathering—the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs—to learn from its luminaries.
Here are four pieces exploring different approaches to space and home—from living on wheels to escaping the grid.
For my husband and me, 2014 has been all about downsizing: we got rid of 80 percent of our belongings, moved out of San Francisco and into my parents’ home, and are currently building a 131-square-foot tiny house on wheels. While this path to minimalism is winding, our goal remains clear: to experiment and create a home that makes sense for us. Here are four pieces exploring different approaches to space and home—from living on wheels to escaping the grid. Read more…
[Fiction] A family of children escape starvation in North Korea:
“The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a beached cart, above the lintel of the post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.
“The younger brother Choecheol ran ahead. Like a child, Woncheol thought, frowning, though he too was still a child, an eleven-year-old with a body withering on two years of boiled tree bark, mashed roots, the occasional grilled rat and fried crickets on a stick.”
Does anyone still remember Unhappy Hipsters, a Tumblr blog born in 2010, just months after the Great Recession officially ended? The concept was simple and irresistible. Each post contained a photo of a domestic interior from a Dwell-like magazine (or, just as often, from Dwell itself), and the photo had to include a person: a teenager lounging with a book on a nordic-looking wooden bed, a couple having a silent breakfast in a vast, concrete-floor kitchen. A caption accompanied each image, projecting a mix of smugness and existential angst onto the people occupying these impossibly streamlined spaces (“So focused on erecting a structure that would be impervious to atmospheric whims, he’d forgotten the obvious: an exit,” read a caption below an image of a man standing on a balcony of a glass-and-steel stilt house).
There’s nothing new about wanting to catch a glimpse of other people’s (nicer-than-yours) houses; what Unhappy Hipsters deftly added was an extra layer of vindictiveness to an otherwise common, aspirational voyeurism. Revisiting some of these old posts today, they feel at once naive and prophetic. In the intervening years, owning a house and designing one’s own space haven’t lost their allure as class markers and so-called #lifegoals. But they’ve also acquired a tinge of bitterness: you either can’t afford it (millennials, meet avocado toast!), can’t do it right (unlike everyone on Pinterest, Instagram, et al.), or risk trying too hard (at which point: surprise! You’re the Unhappy Hipster — in 2017, when both “unhappiness” and “hipsterism” have lost just about all meaning).
The way we organize and reshape our living quarters has always reflected, in some way, desires, hopes, and anxieties that transcended individuals. It was true when married couples started sharing the same bedroom and outhouses began to disappear in favor of indoor plumbing; it’s true today when we buy a vintage lamp or encounter a luxury bathroom almost the size of the bedroom it adjoins. Where does the current unease around the spaces we inhabit come from? What is unique about our attitude toward a supposedly universal concept like “home”? Here are four recent reads that try to address these questions.