So Much Stuff

A Silver Lake estate sale.

Over at Granola Shotgun, a blog you should follow if you don’t already, Johnny has a post on what happened to all the stuff he and his tenants stored in the basement during an earthquake retrofit. Spoiler: it exposed the hoarding tendencies of even the most committed neatniks in the building. Here’s what Johnny had to say,

Wow. So. Much. Useless. Crap. I was designated as the guy to transport the donation items to Community Thrift and organize the bulk trash pick up. Getting up close and personal with other peoples stuff made me relax about any suggestion that I was a hoarder – a term that’s tossed my way on a regular basis. KonMarie wasn’t up for this job. I needed battlefield triage. Even the minimalists in the building had ridiculous things salted away that I know haven’t seen sunlight in a decade. Honestly, I think this is what almost every American has packed in their dark corners. Clothes that will never be worn. Broken things that will never be fixed. Sentimental objects that will never be fondly looked at or ever touched.

Estate sale in Altadena.

We had a similar experience this summer. I had to clear the house and box up the contents of three rooms so that we could sand the floors and paint the walls. Not once during those months of restoration work did I pop open any of those boxes. In the past week I’ve spent a lot of time going through the contents of those infamous boxes, a process that has made me exceptionally cranky. Why do I lack the courage to just pivot and dump all those things in the garbage? If I could write a letter to my younger self I’d say two things: don’t accumulate anything, especially sentimental items and failed artistic efforts. It may sound harsh but why should any of us be defined or burdened by the things we own.

Glassware at Altadena estate sale.

Last weekend I went to an estate sale, not to accumulate any more crap but just to see the inside of a majestic old house next to the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s. At the sale snarky hipsters laughed as they tried on the clothes of the deceased former residents. This has become a new momento mori for me. The less stuff I leave behind the fewer giggles there will be at my estate sale.

To that end I’ve taken to looking at pictures of estate sales as a way of reminding me of the importance of doing with less. Think of this as a gentler form of the late Medieval cadaver tomb. There’s nothing like a pile of seldom used glassware or blank stationary dating the 1960s to scare you away from a trip to Costco or make you want to drive a stake into the cold, vampyric heart of Adam Smith.

Food Storage Revisited

Kitchen spice pantry at the Joseph D. Oliver House, 1946. Photo: Library of Congress.

My post on de-cluttering our food storage hit a nerve proving, yet again, that the most direct path to the deeper issues of our culture is through the mundane details of our daily lives. Through the neglected field of home economics one can address collective vs. individual action, city planning, capitalism and, gasp, even eschatology.

To clarify my original post, I was not arguing against keeping a pantry stocked, rather that our pantry had accumulated a lot of useless items. I also contend that the storage in our house, built in 1920, is adequate for our day to day and emergency needs without having to add more shelves. In addition to the cabinets mentioned in the post on Monday, our house also has storage under the seating in the breakfast nook as well as built-in cabinets and drawers in a hallway adjacent to the kitchen. And there’s another set of cabinets that hold our dishes. I should also clarify that if you live out in the country and have a big vegetable garden you will need a larger pantry or basement. We are urban dwellers with, at best, a tiny vegetable garden (which has been neglected this year while I work on the house).

That said there are some big differences between the kitchens of the 1920s and the kitchens of today that present new challenges. Some of those changes:

  • We have a lot more kitchen gadgets and consumer electronics.
  • With the ascendancy of the personal automobile we have fewer small neighborhood markets in walking distance.
  • Pervasive cable TV food porn that pushes us all to turn our kitchens into the next elBulli.

Helms Bakery delivery truck alerting us all to the dangers of baking at home!

One thing that went away during the mid 20th century and has now returned is food delivery. In the 1920s lots of things were delivered: milk, baked goods, ice etc. Food delivery has returned in the form of services such as Instacart and Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. Unfortunately, many of these new services rely on gig economy serfdom, which has made me uncomfortable about using them, though Instacart was handy when my mom could no longer drive herself to the market. I suspect we’ll see a lot more food delivery in the near future and can see how helpful it is to busy families with young children or elders to take care of. I’d just like to make sure that the folks delivering the food can also afford to buy that food.

I think if I could “immanentize the eschaton” of our 21st century pantries I’d see those shelves holding useful, healthy staples always ready to turn into basic meals. While that sounds simple, it’s not. Can we please bring back those home economics classes and make them co-ed?

On the Problem of Food Storage and Hoarding

Food pantry before and after.

If there’s one thing that life in this bungalow has taught me is that what we call “minimalism” is simply the way people lived in the 1920s. The original inhabitants of this house made do with one small closet and a few built-in cabinets. If there’s another thing I’ve learned it’s that building additional storage always leads us down the path of over-consumption.

If the Food Network ever makes a foodie hoarder reality show, we could have been on an episode thanks to the shelves we added to the utility room. Those shelves quickly filled with aspirational but never used ingredients such as tapioca flour as well as mediocre food preservation projects that I just couldn’t admit defeat on.

Our kitchen’s ample built-in cabinets.

When it came time for our painters to work on the utility room we decided to take down the shelves and try to live with the storage built for the original inhabitants of this house. Now I’ve noticed that when I go to the market I’m more conscious of the choices I make knowing that we don’t have the room for ingredients that won’t get used much.

Transportation nerds have a phrase for this phenomenon, “induced demand.” Build extra lanes for a freeway and those lanes will fill to capacity and you’ll end up with worse traffic jams than the ones you thought you were preventing. The same goes for storage space. Built it and you’ll end up with a lot of crap you don’t need.

Of course, if I followed this pre-WWII logic to its extreme, I’d have to start dressing more sharply and stop walking around what, in the 1920s, wouldn’t even pass for pajamas. Hey Kelly where did I put my spats?

The Return of the Apron?

Kelly got me an apron for my birthday last year which I thought might be taken as a hipster affectation in my semi-public, sidewalk-adjacent workshop. But on the very first day I wore it I dropped a sharp chisel in my lap and realized that this garment, made out of sturdy canvas, actually has a purpose. Then there’s all those pockets in which to put rulers and pencils.

A quick perusal of the interwebs will show you that, at one time, all of the trades had their own aprons. In addition to safety and tool holstering, aprons are from a time before the cheap, disposable clothes we now wear.

The decline of the apron could also be about our modern world’s distaste for visible signs of physical labor. We’re all supposed to be spending our days in front of glowing screens. Speaking of which, I’ve got to get back to work . . .

For more on the history of the apron which some nice examples, see this article by Delores Monet.