My Voices of Central PA. Column for February

“The End is nigh: The Less-intelligent-than-average-American Guide to Downsizing

My Cousin Marvin called last night from California to tell me his life was ruined. You have met Marvin before, as I often use him as an example of someone who has genuine goodness. Marvin is soft-spoken, level headed and a pleasure to be around. His wife, Mildred, is cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, neither Marvin nor Mildred pay much attention to time zones, so although it was just after 11 PM out in Palo Alto, it was just after 2 AM here when he called.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me this was happening,” he asked? I could tell he was very upset as his voice had risen to just above a murmur—louder than I had ever heard it before. “Everyone we know is doing it and we had no idea.” “Doing what,” I asked reasonably? “Downsizing and preparing to move on,” he said with a groan. Marvin and Mildred had finally gotten around to reading The New York Times article entitled, “Easing Into Leisure, One Step at a Time,” by Robert Strauss, which talks about pre-retirement people downsizing and moving to smaller places as they age.
It turns out they had talked about the article at their local bridge club yesterday and not only had the people there read it, all the club members over the age of fifty were doing it. “We often wondered about the people who were clamoring about our neighbor’s house at all hours,” Mildred said, “But it would have been rude of us to ask.” It turns out they have been planning their downsizing for the past two years with a “reduction consultant.” The people in and out of their house had been the consultant’s group and people with skills as varied as museum curators, librarians and thrift store operators. “You’ve seen our house,” Marvin quietly wailed. “What do we do now?”
I have seen their place, and the one thing apparent to me as I hung up the phone was that it was much like our place. Sure, at one time we had six bedrooms, a two and a half car garage, a walk up attic and a walk down basement, both the size of the house. But we haven’t been able to force our way into the basement or the attic in years, as they are loaded with stuff. We have no room for the car in the garage and two of the six bedrooms are impassable. What are we going to do if we chose to downsize and move on? A good question? Certainly. And that is the reason, we at Stevieslaw, have published, “The end is nigh,” The Laguide to downsizing. In the guide, you will learn to:
1. Change your worldview about possessions: Consider that over the past 30 or 40 years you have moved a truly incredible number of things into your home. In fact, if you look at your possession over a lens of 40 years, you will easily come to realize that the things you have acquired are more or less a completely arbitrary bunch of stuff. With that in mind, you must rid your house of stuff with the same great care you have used to acquire it. Each time you and your significant other are about to leave the house, you must close your eyes, grab one item, and carry it to the trash. Remember the cardinal rule—what leaves the house can never return.
2. Have a serious conversation with your heirs: My wife and I once mentioned to our son that we wished to sell a piece of oak furniture, who replied that it was his legacy. Of course, you don’t want to toss out your heir’s potential legacy, but a realistic conversation is in order. It might go something like: “Little Suzie, What things do you want us to save for you that will fit in your 156 square foot apartment near the Bowery in New York City.” She might leave with a snack bag full.
3. Charge for storage: Anyone with an accessible basement, garage or attic has, over the years, been called upon to store “priceless” items for friends and relatives. The plan is to store it until…hell freezes over? At which point they will be over to get it…no later than forever? Listen, your Uncle Eddie is never going to willingly come by and retrieve that hideous dining room set with twelve chairs from your attic—unless, you start charging him for storage. In the guide, we suggest that you look up self-storage rates in your local area and then charge your freeloading friends and relatives at twice the rate. You don’t need the money. You need to unload.
4. Have a continuous garage sale: Advertise a downsizing—everything must go sale and take your pricing model from the highly successful dollar stores. Make everything a dollar! Then make it known that you are willing to bargain, bargain, bargain. Make me an offer and move it on out!
5. Have an open house: No, not that kind of open house. We mean that you must leave your house unlocked and tell everyone that this has always been your habit. Make a few dozen door keys and leave them (with an address) at the bus and train stations and the local pubs. Take a month long vacation and advertise it daily in your local newspaper. For example, “The Smiths are still away, the security cameras are disabled, and the doors and windows are wide open.”
Buy the guide and have some downsizing fun. Or better yet, pick it up the guide at our house—the door is always open and there is never anyone home.

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