Tiny house simplifies life

Illness led her to downsize–drastically


The Resale Evangelista

I have a “thing” for tiny houses.

That’s always been true, though I think their pull is stronger at the moment as I’m selling my current home–which is not so big. There is a purity of function to a tiny house. Nothing unneeded–or at least, not much that’s unneeded–is allowed to take up precious space.

I’m sure it’s because that’s how I would like not only my house, but my mind, to function. Edit away the superfluous to focus on the essential. I’d elaborate but I have to get back to the house and finish cleaning out the closets before I move out for good tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s an article from the New York Times about a woman who, upon learning she has a chronic and serious health condition, pared down to the minimum. And I do mean minimum–she downsized from a three-bedroom house to an 84-square foot cabin she built herself. It’s built on a truck bed, so it’s mobile. This reminds me of the gypsy wagons I saw long ago in Ireland.

The little house that Dee Williams built is a bit too minimalistic for me–it has one propane burner for a kitchen and no shower. She’s parked the house in the yard of close friends in Olympia, Washington, and uses one of their houses if she wants to bake or take a bath. The arrangement has created an intimate community of fewer than 10 people.

I haven’t had a chance to find her book, but she’s written a memoir–The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir (Blue Rider Press)–about her diagnosis of cardiomyopathy and how it caused her to reassess her life. “I started seeing ‘congestive heart failure’ in my health records,” Ms. Williams told the Times reporter.  “If you look it up online, your life expectancy is typically one to five years. The notion of paying a 30-year mortgage didn’t make sense.”

I’m looking forward to reading it and contemplating what’s next–as soon as I get rid of the queen size mattress still lingering at the house, and finish dumping whatever is in the boxes still tucked in the back of the closets. Here’s my advice to any of you thinking you may move in the next four, five, 10 or 15 years–start culling now!



A reporter unravels a family mystery…

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 8.18.26 PMDoreen’s grandmother, Luz, and Aunt Cecilia

“We can change the story we tell about ourselves and, by doing that, change our future.”

Doreen Carvajal, author

The Resale Evangelista

What is the burning question in your life?

I’m asking because I think the search for an answer–whatever the question–creates a sense of passion and purpose in life. I’m envious of those who not only have such a question (and recognize it), but summon the will, the energy and the resources to pursue the answer. In the process, those people experience a deep sense of satisfaction and, I think, come to know some fundamental truths about themselves.

My friend and former roommate, Doreen Carvajal, is one of those people. (She wrote a guest post last year for Resale Evangelista, about furnishing an old stone farmhouse in France with great finds from auctions and flea markets.)

Doreen grew up with nagging questions about her family. Daughter of an American mother and a father born in Costa Rica, she was raised a Catholic–complete with fish on Fridays, regular Sunday Mass and plaid, parochial school uniforms. Why, then, did her paternal grandmother and great aunt explicitly forbid having priests officiate at their funerals? It was a puzzle, one among several mysteries enveloping, like a persistent mist, that side of her family’s history.

This much she knew: Her ancestors fled Spain during the Inquisition, finding refuge in Costa Rica. Now a Paris-based reporter for the New York Times, Doreen  decided in recent years to unravel the mystery. A dogged reporter and a lyrical writer, she put those talents to use digging up her family’s history–and uncovered a secret kept for hundreds of years, generation after generation, that caused her own identity “to shatter and shift, changing who I am.”

She tells the tale in “The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity and the Inquisition” (Riverhead, 2012). “We were the descendants of secret Sephardic Jews–Christian converts known as conversos (converts).”

Even after the book was published, Doreen kept digging–and uncovered more detail. Her ancestors were investigated by the Spanish Inquisition in 1486 for secretly maintaining their Jewish identity.  One ancestor clashed with Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, finally achieving moral victory on his deathbed, when he refused last rites and commanded the Church’s representative to “Go to the Devil!.”

(Doreen’s story, reported in the New York Times, is fascinating not only in and of itself, but also because it reveals that bureaucrats haven’t changed much over six centuries. Doreen found details of her ancestors’ daily lives and their epic battle with Torquemada in Inquisition folder 1,413, No. 7, housed in the Madrid national archives. Bureaucrats can’t help themselves–record-keeping is in their blood!)

What I admire just as much as Doreen’s story is her persistence in uncovering the details, solving the mysteries. As she said in one of her articles, “We can change the story we tell about ourselves and, by doing that, change our future.”

I think I’ve come to know what the burning question is in my life–though I’m not yet ready to share it. I haven’t decided how to pursue the answers, or even if I have the will to pursue them. Until I do, I’m not sure how fully present I can be in my life, and that’s something I have yet to figure out.

I don’t think every burning question has to be personal. I wrote recently about a journalist who spent the bulk of his professional life tracking down a despot who ordered the deaths of millions of Cambodians. And maybe we don’t all need burning questions to know our purpose or our passion. But it is worthwhile to ask: “What is the burning question in my life?”

Life, I think, would be both more simple and more rich if we focused on those questions, regardless of the answers–or lack of them.

As an unknown someone once said, “There is no answer. Pursue it lovingly.”







Winding Road through Cherry Blossoms

Winding Road through Cherry Blossoms

Bethesda’s Kenwood neighborhood is famous for its cherry trees

The Resale Evangelista

I’ve settled into my temporary digs in Bethesda, after a little more than three weeks. Found a community center with a weights and aerobics room, joined the Eunice Shriver aqua center, and located the nearest Trader Joe’s. I’ve also made it to Kramer’s bookstore on Dupont Circle and plan to see the American Art exhibit at the Phillips Collection later this week. If I get myself moving, I may yet make it today to the Smithsonian’s craft fair at the National Building Museum.

Cloud of Cherry BlossomsRibbons of cherry blossoms wrap Kenwood streets

As you can see by the photos, it’s cherry blossom time. Last week was cloudy and intermittently wet, but the weather turned perfect yesterday, just in time for all the flower festivities. I am making a dogged effort not to get entangled in the traffic snarls caused by the parade. I did, however, visit the nearby Kenwood neighborhood where the streets are lined by a thousand 100-year-old cherry trees. I hate to say it, but it must be a pain to live there during the peak blossom week. The curbs in front of all the houses are dotted with “No Parking” signs.

Cherry Tree "foot"Old cherry trees have big “feet”


My house…

…is sold!


County Hills Drive


Yes, folks, barring complications–which are always a possibility–my house in St. Louis will soon belong to someone else. I accepted the second offer within a few days of putting the house on the market. Three years of clutter-clearing, painting and other touch-ups paid off with a fast sale, so the effort was worthwhile. The closing is scheduled for late April (knock wood).

I’m on the East Coast, where the weather is snowy, sleety and blustery. Nonetheless, I hung a small bird feeder outside the sun room window yesterday and spent this morning watching small gray-blue birds–probably juncos–and the occasional cardinal fluttering in for a bite to eat. Not to mention a squirrel that just couldn’t quite figure out how to get to the feeder. But, when I checked again around 5 p.m., the squirrel was hanging upside down by what appeared to be one back leg and snarfing down bird food. Who says squirrels aren’t smart?

More later.






Something different–a journalism tale

Nate Thayer, crossing a river in Cambodia

Nate Thayer, in Cambodia

Sympathy For The Devil

A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge

“It doesn’t matter whether you have a letter from the Pope, if the guy with the AK-47 has been told not to let you in, then you are not going anywhere…”
Nate Thayer
“He chews tobacco, has a five-o’clock shadow, and knows his weapons. Nate Thayer is a swashbuckling reporter who has a reputation for landing himself in the middle of the action … And no one who knows Thayer was surprised that he was the one who landed the big story.”
The Boston Globe

I haven’t met Nate Thayer, but I’ve been following his blog and reading excerpts from Sympathy For The Devil for several months. I never wanted to be a war reporter–my ideal foreign bureau would have been London or Paris, since I don’t even like humidity, let alone slogging through jungles or being blown up by landmines. But Thayer’s accounts of the years he spent covering Cambodia and tracking Pol Pot are, by turns, heroic, absurd, tragic and hilarious. It is, or should be, every journalist’s dream to have so much influence and so much fun covering a beat with so much passion.

He relished the role of “larger-than-life swashbuckling reporter,” but earned respect for routinely reporting what would have been for other journalists once-in-a-lifetime scoops, according to Urban Lehner,  who was executive editor of Dow Jones in Asia while Thayer reported for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. “His editors never knew where he was but they knew they could count on him for major scoops,” said Lehner. A staff writer for the New Yorker described Thayer as a combination of “a slightly spooky, great raconteur” and “hardcore investigative journalist.”

All of which is to say, I think it’s worthwhile for you to check out his blog and consider supporting his efforts to finish and publish Sympathy For The Devil.

After all, isn’t having a driving passion one way of defining a simple life? This post is adapted from Thayer’s website, Nate-Thayer.com.

The Resale Evangelista

Nate Thayer is best known as the freelance journalist who emerged from the Cambodian jungle in 1997-98 with the last photographs, the last interview and then with definitive evidence of the death of Pol Pot, the despotic and deposed leader of the Khmer Rouge. (Although last year, Thayer stirred up a widespread publishing world kerfuffle—one of his favorite words—when he complained about the financial exploitation of freelance writers by big-name, for-profit publications.)

His Pol Pot coup, published in the Far Eastern Economic Review (and around the world in other publications) was the culmination of nearly two decades reporting and writing about Cambodia.

Thayer, now living in Washington, D.C., is finally getting around to chronicling his quest to find and confront Pol Pot regarding the slaughter of 1.8 million Cambodians.

“I was convinced that, one day, I would meet Pol Pot face-to-face and he would have to answer the questions that haunted his broken countrymen,” Thayer writes in Why Journalism is Better than a Real Job: Excerpts from Sympathy For The Devil.

“I was always encouraging, maneuvering for, and poised to take advantage of increased and higher level contacts within [the Khmer Rouge] ranks. I approached it as an endless chess game, requiring long-term strategy and patience and an intimate knowledge of one’s opponent. By the mid 1990′s, obstacles were being removed and I was advancing. I knew from viewing their chessboard that I was closing in, however slowly, on their king—Pol Pot.

“For many years, my biggest fear was that Pol Pot was going to die on me before I was able to meet him. I would wake at night, my stomach in knots, with the thought of years of effort abruptly extinguished with Pol Pot’s last breath.”

Nate Thayer

No doubt, Sympathy For The Devil will fill in a significant chunk of history, largely unknown to most Western readers. Thayer hopes to raise $67,500 in direct crowd-sourcing to fund completion of the manuscript and related materials. He says he will provide explicit records of donations and expenditures to anyone who asks. More information and a video can be found on his blog, Nate-Thayer.com.

But the book also promises to be a rollicking account of a bygone era of journalism, when reporters were colorful characters who nonetheless possessed serious intent and influence. The remarkable thing is that Thayer did it as a freelance or contract writer—which is akin to what someone once said about Ginger Rogers, dancing with Fred Astaire: “She did everything he did, but backwards…and in high heels.”

For anyone who wants to know how journalists work—or used to work—Sympathy For The Devil will be something of a handbook. Not to mention, fun. Thayer’s writing is laced with cynicism and idealism, with dark humor, pathos and outrage.

Consider How–And Why-The New York Times Didn’t Interview Pol Pot, Thayer’s account of outfoxing a reporter from the New York Times who attempted to muscle her way into his hard-won jungle appointment to meet Pol Pot.

“I was goddamned if I was going to be beat on this story by a Washington-based NYT reporter in high heels, a short skirt, enough luggage to require a bellhop and a luggage cart, who flew in from Washington with letters from senior U.S. officials…requesting she be given assistance in her reporting efforts.”

“I excused myself from my whiskey and notebooks…and simply called the chief of staff of the Khmer Rouge army and inquired whether there were other journalists scheduled to come into Khmer Rouge territory the next morning with me. He said no, there was not. He further assured me–being the man in control of all the guns and check points accessing their control zones—that he would immediately put out a directive that no one else would be allowed access the next day except for me and my team.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have a letter from the Pope, if the guy with the AK-47 has been told not to let you in, then you are not going anywhere…

“On the other hand, if you have slept in the jungle with the field commanders and his troops, and for a decade talked about what a drag malaria is, compared medicines, shared your food over jungle campfires eating rice and bugs, and commiserated together on how you haven’t been laid for weeks…and how the food sucks and you are tired of getting shot at and not getting paid shit, when it comes time [for the guys with the AK-47s] to raise the bamboo pole, the chances are considerably greater you will be allowed access.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 5.02.39 PM“Nate was arguably the most knowledgeable and experienced foreign journalist covering” Cambodia, according to David E. Miller, a former service officer for the State Department in Phnom Penh.  “His writing was informed by a strong sense of justice and the belief that those who perpetrated the wrongs that the Cambodian people had suffered deserve to be exposed and punished.”

Thayer’s time in Cambodia was not all about Pol Pot. Check out The Night I Lived, his account of nearly dying when the truck in which he was riding with guerrilla fighters ran over a double-dose of land mines. It’s a vivid illustration of the absurdities and tragedies of war and wartime journalism.

“There was a severed leg lying across my face. I held the leg up and looked at it. It was not connected to a body. …

“I needed to know whether it was my leg I was holding in my hand. But I was very scared to find out. I reached down and ran my hand over my left leg and it was still attached to my body. I did the same with my right leg. It, also, was still attached to my body. …

“A few feet away was the young Cambodian truck driver, moments before with whom I was laughing and smiling and chatting. Life, for both us, would be, from that moment on, very different. His would be much shorter than mine.”

And, if you read no other excerpt, don’t miss Spies and Journalists, in which a distressed Prince Chakrapong—who has attempted a coup—calls upon Thayer to save him from the armed government troops who have surrounded the hotel in which the Prince has taken refuge.

“In the preceding hours, Chakrapong had fled his home to a hotel with nothing… but his 22-year-old mistress. He begged me to come right away. Chakrapong was hiding in the false paneled ceiling of his 2-star hotel room with his mistress, with no bodyguards and no guns.

“I called three people. My friend, the American station chief and told him there was a coup underway and it would be great if he and some of his people could come down because I thought an American citizen’s life might be at risk—specifically, mine.

“I then called Prime Minister Ranarriddh’s top aides and told him I was in the hotel room with his hated brother and to please shoot carefully if or when attempting to enter.

“And I called my editor in Hong Kong to tell him I thought I had a very good  story… a great fucking story.

“That was my job. Get as close as I could to a story, witness it and report it. I loved that life.”

Check it out at Nate-Thayer.com

Letting go, with mixed feelings

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

I’m sitting in my newly streamlined living room, candles burning, music on the stereo, drinking bourbon from a beautiful, heavy highball glass, with the computer on the Chinese leather trunk that serves as my coffee table. I didn’t think my house was over-furnished or over-decorated before but I have to admit, it seems more peaceful in this somewhat minimalist version. Maybe it was overly stimulating before.

So I’m taking a break from the packing. I figure I need it, having dropped the big-screen television the other night as I tried to move it, alone, from a high space to a lower space. Blam! It fell forward face-down. It was only an 18-inch drop, but enough to reduce what had been a scene from Downton Abbey to an artful kaleidoscopic display. I didn’t even bother to curse. The mishap solved a dilemma I had been pondering–whether to sell the (relatively new) television or try packing and moving it. Problem solved: I’ll just put in on the curb Friday for bulk pick-up.

Today I took a signed oil painting to the Miriam Shop, a non-profit organization that sells donated home furnishings and art. The proceeds benefit a school for learning-disabled children. The painter was an art professor at Washington University in St. Louis, the subject was a matron with a stern expression–probably a widow, judging by her grey dress and black-veiled hat. My ex-husband and son both considered the woman scary, but I gave her credit for her mustard yellow gloves. They were the tip-off to either some repressed strain of rebellion or dark humor, I’m not sure which. The painting was very good and, in the past, I would have made the effort to sell it. But I decided instead to just let it go. I hope she finds a good home with someone who appreciates the cuffed yellow gloves.

I also dropped off a partially finished needlepoint canvas of seashells, and the yarn to finish it. It’s pretty clear I wasn’t going to get around to completing the piece–I started it in college and have been carting it around the country for, what, more than 30 years? My good friend Lee and I used to sit and needlepoint and talk while eating iced sugar cookies we snitched from Lee’s roommate, Leslie. It probably wouldn’t have taken much time to finish the needlepoint–I’d done most of the complicated parts–but if it hasn’t happened so far, it’s time to admit I’ve lost interest. Until now, it’s just been too easy to pack up the basket of yarn and carry it on to the next port. If it’s meant to be finished, the task will have to go to someone else.

The standing gilt Buddha I inherited from a friend who died of AIDS is now wrapped in tissue paper. He, too, is bound for the Miriam Shop, along with a pressed-tin barrel-topped chest my college boyfriend refinished for me. I’ve been using it to store wrapping paper and, let’s face it, I don’t wrap that many gifts anymore.

I’m kind of amazed at how easily I’m letting go of things. When I first started editing my possessions, each decision was fraught with emotion as I considered who had given me the item or been with me when I acquired something, the events surrounding my acquisition, the family history I might be discarding. Now I seem willing to let things slip away rather effortlessly.

Maybe it’s because the associations are so long ago, like the wrapping paper trunk and my college boyfriend. Or that I don’t need the needlepoint to remind me of the pleasures of sitting with Lee and chatting. Or that I internalized the artfulness of my friend, Donna, who died of AIDS and her Buddha is extraneous. Those people and events are part of me, not a garment I have to wear to remember them.

Is there magic behind the blue door?

Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista

Tiny house in Santa Barbara artists colony

There is something mysterious and welcoming about this tiny house in the foothills behind Santa Barbara. The tumble of rocks, the brick pathway, the capacious window and stout chimney. And, of course, the promise behind that big blue door.

I can just imagine writing there–the best writing spots, I find, hold me close and keep me focused, but with a comfortable, not constraining, embrace. I could slip into this artful gem with ease.

Just 500 square feet, it was crafted from handmade adobe bricks, reclaimed lumber and other salvaged material in the 1940s, part of what became known as the Mountain Drive Artist Colony. The Bohemian denizens of the colony became known for, among other things, their annual wine-making festival and the fact that they invented the hot tub.

Breakfast under the trellis of artist's cottage A perfect place for morning coffee

What I call the Blue Door Cottage is one of just three of the originals that have survived the ravages of wildfires over the years. The Coyote Fire, named for the road on which the cottage sits, roared through in 1954, followed by the Sycamore Fire in 1977. The last, the Montecito Tea Fire in 2008, consumed 210 homes, including 22 from the Artist Colony era.

But it was fire that made the colony possible in the first place. The writer Bobby Hyde bought a large swath of charred land in the late 1940s, which he later parceled out to like-minded friends. One of those was architect Frank Robinson, who designed and built many of the houses in the neighborhood of unique homes. When a new resident came along, everyone worked together to help them build, including making bricks from the soil excavated for the house.

Hyde and his wife, Florence–known as Floppy, were “green” long before the term was coined. They were also the original hippies. Santa Barbara architect Jeff Shelton told a local writer that the Hydes and their neighbors advocated the concepts of “salvage chic, sustainability and simplicity.” Tiny house with fireplacePull up your chair and soak in the warmth from the stone fireplace

They also staged frequent celebrations, including their annual Wine Stomp, conceived in 1952. The men filled a large wooden vat with grapes and selected a Wine Queen while the women prepared a feast. After the meal, the queen–wearing only a grape leaf crown–stepped into the vat and began the ritual wine-making. The rest of the crew, similarly garbed, soon joined her.

The wine reportedly was terrible. But the Stomp left its cultural mark–when not used for making wine, the grape vat doubled as the original California hot tub.

I didn’t know a thing about the Mountain Drive Colony until I saw a listing for the cottage on my last visit to Santa Barbara. The asking price was $1.19 million–which raised eyebrows even in Santa Barbara. You know the saying: Location, location, location. After all, Oprah paid $50 million for her slightly larger estate nearby. The cottage–hot tub included–is no longer on the market.

Not that I could afford it, but I just know there is magic behind that blue door.

My Bad….

I shouldn’t have…but I did!

Susan Caba
The Resale Evangelista


What can I say?

As I’ve mentioned before, a friend with a store–A.J. Brewington (it’s her fault!)– often had a top hat, a bowler and a short top hat displayed in her late, lamented store in the Central West End. I always thought it was cool, so Magritte.

Matt Musial, dressed for the Oscars in top hat and T shirt

I succumbed to the urge to buy a top hat when I saw one at Rung.

Last week, I was visiting another resale shop–more about it in another post, later–when I saw a bowler. Now, how often does one come across a bowler? Especially at the bargain price of $35?

If for no other reason, I had to buy it as a means of price-averaging the cost of the top hat!

Anyway, I can only exercise so much restraint. It’s not my biggest strength.

Two prongs or three

Grounded outletOld outlets are a drag

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

I love old houses, I really do.

But I’ll tell you what I won’t miss about this old house–its wide variety of electrical outlets.

I am so tired of going to plug in the vacuum cleaner, which has a three-prong plug and finding that my intended outlet is a two-pronger (I know, I know–it’s called ungrounded). Or buying one of those multiple-outlet thingy’s, getting it home and finding out it is mismatched to the outlet.

Worse, the configuration of some of the outlets in this house are completely unfamiliar, weird combinations of slots and holes. Try finding the adapter for one of those.

It would also be nice to have more than one outlet on each wall–or even in each room. And what about lights in the closets (but that’s another rant).

The next place I live will have consistent electrical outlets. I may go so far as to have them all replaced at once, before I move in. Then I’m going to ditch my collection of adapters, extension cords and surge protectors.

A simplified life means never needing an adapter for plugs


Hey you! Yes, you! Stop and say Hello

DSCF1065Havana Taxicab

Visitors from far-flung places pique my curiosity

Susan Caba
Resale Evangelista

I was just looking at the summary of where visitors to Resale Evangelista live.  I was intrigued to see that I’ve had visitors–just a few–from countries as far-flung as Slovenia, Ghana, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bangladesh, Malta, Romania, Serbia, various European, Latin American and Asian countries, the Ukraine, Egypt and others.

Most, by far, come from the United States.

But there have actually been eight visits from one or more Australians, six from Slovenia, three from South Africa and three from Ghana, among others. Just one each from Thailand, Serbia, Romania and the Dominican Republic. Fifty-two countries, in all.

Maybe these visits are just flukes. Maybe you inadvertently landed on Resale Evangelista. But, as a world traveler myself, I’m curious about you. So please, the next time you stop by–say hello. Tell me what brought you to my site, even if it was an accident.

What’s going on in your life, in your country? Are you interested in design, in simplifying life? Found any bargains lately? I’d love to hear from you.


Susan, the Resale Evangelista