Since the beginning of this year, when I hatched a plan to divide the utility costs between the two halves of my duplex, I have been spending the majority of every day - when I'm not at work - managing "stuff". Physical possessions.
At least, it feels that way. If I go wading into the details I remember all the interesting things I've done this year that weren't stuff-oriented. I got to visit my sister
for an extended time, and help with a science fair project
. Got to participate
in a "March For Science
". Did fascinating tours of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum
, the Japanese Tea Gardens
, and Cal Academy
. Had a blast at a video arcade
. Finished up two
good music mixes
, and my long-running Arthur C Clarke series
. Ate a lot of great food
. Read a lot of great books - mostly nonfiction - some of which inspired interesting thoughts I'd like to write down sometime. Went through a huge collection of old family photos
and put them online -- something that feels very important to me.
But still, the idea persists. Why am I spending so much time managing "stuff", especially when I appear to have so little of it? In fact I've been concentrating on reducing the amount of "stuff" I own for what seems like forever, but here it all is. Heaped around me. Being stuffy.
Furniture, books, clothes, pots and pans, wires, bicycle parts, paperwork, candles, pictures, appliances, camping supplies, tools, more bicycle parts, spices, sporting equipment, musical instruments, posters, tupperware, rugs, cat toys, batteries, bags, even more bicycle parts, and more bicycle parts on top of those bicycle parts, packed away in cabinets or arranged in little piles for sorting or disposal or use in some ongoing project. It's like a Weird Al song in here. And I have to admit it's mostly just the everyday materials of middle-class living and I can't actually get rid of it all. Yes, I really do need cups. Yes I really do need clothes. No, I can't get rid of ALL of my clothing, though sometimes I am seized with the urge to just empty my closet out into the street. Most of this feeling probably comes from the fact that I've crammed my existence into a single room, in order to save money. The less space I occupy the more there is to rent out.
But I've been living for three years like this. I think I may have reached a minimum viable size for my possessions, and now it's just refusing to get any smaller without extreme measures, or some kind of fundamental attitude change. Mind you, it's been a pretty great three years. I've just been living a lot of it outside the house. I've also saved a boatload of money and am now in a much better position to consider my future and retirement. The duplex is actually managing to pay for itself at this point, or at least it would if I wasn't constantly maintaining or improving it. It certainly helps that I've refinanced my loan four times
, ridding myself of mortgage insurance within the first year, then ridding myself of a home-equity line of credit, then ridding myself of most of a percentage point in interest. I ain't really complaining here. I'm just pointing out a condition I've picked up: I feel like I am constantly surrounded by "stuff" that needs dealing with in some way.
Now that I think of it, this feeling is almost entirely due to the house. Dividing the utilities in this place means installing a second electrical line, water line, gas line, water heater, and furnace, along with additional pipes and wiring in the walls. Getting estimates on that, deciding exactly how to do it, and following up with that project has been the biggest piece of "stuff" in my life. That project has also kicked off a whole family of related projects that have collectively dominated my free time. Actually, let me try to describe this whole demented family tree, so I can get it out in front of me.
Last week a utility inspector came out and told me that I had to clip some tree branches away from my electrical line before they could get to work. Their work is blocking the contractor's work, so this is top priority. I called the handful of landscape and tree specialists I knew, and they were all booked up for the next six weeks. I wasn't gonna wait that long. Since I'd already gathered estimates for trimming all the trees on the property, I knew that particular job would cost at least 100 bucks. I did some research and found the tool I need to do it myself: A sixteen-foot-long extendable pruning hook for 90 bucks. So I went out and bought that.
Standing in the driveway, with a big hat on my head, dancing around under this incredibly awkward device like the world's worst street performer, I realized that sixteen feet was still not long enough. So I opened the gate and backed my van into the driveway, then climbed up on the roof of the van and tried again. The jasmine vines threaded around the bay tree kept tangling in the blade, and I nearly dropped the contraption several times, but after an hour or so I had all the branches cut away from the power line. I smelled like a giant bay leaf afterwards and just about sneezed my face off, but the job was done.
Now my special house toolset includes a 16-foot pruning hook, propped against the shelf next to the bolt cutters, the hedge trimmers, the reciprocating saw, the sledgehammer, and the axe.
That stuff is all in the basement. That's bad, because I have to empty out the basement completely for the contractors to do their work, and after they've installed the furnace and water heater, there will be almost no room in there for tools. They also need a wide path to the basement, which means I need to empty out the garage. That's where I've been living - or at least keeping all my stuff - for the last three years.
So I've been feverishly reducing the stuff in the basement and the garage, with the knowledge that at some point I'll have to stuff it all in the bedroom next-door, and also sleep there while the work is being done. That will be grossly uncomfortable unless I get rid of everything I can. The good news is, "everything I can" is just about equivalent to "everything I should".
For example, I really don't need a gigantic beat-up faux leather armchair. Especially one that I bought used for 60 bucks. Nobody on Craigslist wanted to buy it, so now it's out on the curb. I really don't need a hideous glass-and-particleboard coffee table, either. That vanished weeks ago. I don't need a pile of hundreds of 35mm slides, sitting around inside a plastic bag, not useful or visible to anyone. So I scanned every single one of them, at very high resolution. It took weeks. Those are in a box, ready to be sent back to Roseburg, after I finish scanning the prints and yearbooks that accompany them. One less thing taking up space on a shelf.
The closet in the bedroom is much smaller than the closet in the garage, so I've culled my clothing mercilessly. All the pants that don't fit went to Goodwill. All the shirts that looked good went to my nephews. I don't need six sweaters; now I have three. I don't need five pairs of bike shorts; now I have one.
But wait, before I move anything, I need to take advantage of the bedroom next door being vacant. So, while I'm waiting for the contractors to be ready, I'm sprucing up the bedroom. That means repainting the walls and trim, replacing the crappy blinds, and replacing the carpet. At first I wanted laminate flooring, but after touring several stores and bringing samples home, I couldn't find a color or texture that suited the room. That was weeks of research, with nothing to show for it. I eventually decided to replace the carpet with newer carpet. But, it makes sense to do the painting first, of course, and once I'd settled on a color and bought supplies I realized that I should also repaint the rest of the rooms.
This has been an exhausting process, especially the prep-work. I had no idea it took so much time to apply painter's tape to trim and windowsills (and sockets and mirrors and lights). I'm done with the walls but now I need to purchase more paint and touch up the trim. But before that's done I need to get primer, to paint over the chunk of spackle I had to apply near the bathtub, to repair an ugly water stain that appeared last winter. Oh yeah, and speaking of the bathtub, I need to redo about a third of the grout, and all of the caulking as well. It looks grody.
Meanwhile, the trees in the back yard need trimming. I consulted with a couple of arborists, and along with the estimates, I got some advice. They both agreed that the cherry tree on the left side of the yard is just the wrong kind of tree for that spot. It's grown straight up, and started rudely poking at the eaves and windows of my house and the neighbor's house. It's only produces a handful of cherries each year, which makes sense because the temperature has to drop below freezing for a cherry tree to be inspired to fruit. Fat chance of that happening here in Oakland. So I decided to have the tree removed.
The estimate to do that was 400 bucks. That's serious bucks. Besides, I own an axe and I like chopping things. I couldn't handle the whole thing by myself though, so I had some folks over for a picnic in the back yard one weekend, including my pal Andy, and he brought his chainsaw, and we threw ropes over the top of the tree and cut a notch in the trunk and pulled the sucker down in two sections. Plus there was pizza thanks to Kerry, and chips and the board game Tak, thanks to Alex. And Andy's kids raked a whole bunch of leaves and earned ice cream from Fenton's for their work.
The chunks from the cherry tree have been going into the yard waste bin ever since. Probably three more weeks before it's all gone, along with the stuff from the front yard. That's just two trees dealt with -- but there's two more. The plum tree in the front yard needs pruning, and the apricot tree in the back yard is leaning heavily on my fence. Oh yeah, and the fence itself was knocked almost sideways by the stormy winds last month. Turns out it was built without proper cement footings. I've got to figure out how to add those, hopefully without rebuilding the entire fence. Maybe Andy can help, though he has plenty of projects of his own to attend to.
Oh and I totally forgot about the time the dishwasher broke, and I tried to fix it but couldn't, and eventually called a repairman. And the time the garbage disposal broke, and I replaced it myself. And all the hazardous old paint supplies I found in the basement from the previous owners. I had to take that stuff to a disposal center on the South side. I also massively reduced my camping supplies, rerouted the home network, rearranged the kitchen, and inspected the roof. That last item was pretty fun: I flew my drone up over the house.
I sold plenty of extra bicycling gear in a bunch of separate transactions, meeting strangers in coffee shops. A coffee maker I bought from a guy standing outside an apartment complex six years ago went to Goodwill. I only bought it because he included it with a blender I really wanted. (I'm keeping that.) I got rid of a huge mass of extra cables and gadgets by sending "care packages" to my nephews, who picked out what they liked and disposed of the rest. Somehow I ended up with an extra space heater. That went to Carlsbad. An air purifier I don't use went to Sacramento. A huge cooler I don't need went out to the sidewalk, and was gone after 20 minutes. For about a decade I've been hauling around a bunch of DVDs in binders. I've been copying those onto the RAID array and throwing them out. I think I've done about a hundred. There is one binder left, and it's half-full.
It feels like this sort of activity has been my life this year. I know it hasn't really, but it still feels that way.
Ugh. Just describing it all has overwhelmed me. I'm going to take a break from writing and go next door and remove more tape from the bathroom walls, and screw plates back onto electrical sockets for a while.
When will this chaos resolve itself into order? A nice, clean, low-maintenance household. That's worth pursuing. Why does the pursuit feel like a hamster wheel?
I wonder how much I could get for a hamster wheel on Craigslist...