This is the first in a new series of short interviews with individual members of the Forum.
A few weeks ago, a number of Forum members began discussing spring cleaning and how they planned to declutter and tidy their living spaces. One member, binje, wanted to make room in her life for two new Shop Bags, and said the following:
“I have huge problems throwing away things that still have life but aren’t really good enough for thrift stores. So I was bemoaning my large collection of cheapie shopping bags until my husband suggested that we challenge ourselves to fill ALL of them with things to donate. So we’re doing something we’ve done successfully before. We each have to chose three items to discard every night until the bags are full.”
We thought that this was a unique challenge and wanted to follow up with binje, and she was kind enough to tell us more about her project and how it’s been going.
Forum name: binje
Location: Southern Appalachia, U.S.
Forum member since: 2014, though I started lurking in late 2013
Favorite TOM BIHN bag: I’m at a grocery store or farmer’s market several times a week so my Shop Bags get a workout. But I just acquired an Aeronaut and it’s strange how much joy I got from packing it for an imaginary trip. It’s supposedly the same size as the duffel I used to use for air travel, but it holds so much more and carries so easily. I can’t wait to travel with it for real.
Q: What prompted you to undertake a decluttering project of this magnitude?
A: My spouse and I have moved twice in the past two years, once from 1000 square feet (and a 10×10 storage unit) to 450 square feet with another 400 square feet of storage on-site (and the 10×10 storage unit). Then on to 1300 square feet with a full basement/garage. And somehow, even with various yard sales and donations, the stuff we have seems to fill the available space. It’s kind of ridiculous.
Q: You’re doing this project with your husband. How has that been? Do you have similar or different ideas of what to let go of, for instance?
A: As far as decluttering is concerned, we agree on almost everything, though he’s been letting go of some of his family and childhood things and that seems to make me sadder than it makes him. Things like his grandfather’s briefcase, even though it’s in poor condition and is of no use to us.
Q: Is there a big difference in your living space now?
A: We’ve managed to keep our living room and bedroom clutter-free for a whole month and those spaces feel calmer. Also, I no longer have to squeeze my clothes onto the closet rod, which has to be better for my clothing. During the process, for better or worse, I moved everything that needs to be evaluated/sorted/filed into our office so that room is borderline unusable. Still, it’s good to have all of the loose ends in one place demanding to be addressed. I’m going to sit down with the shredder and recycling bin in the next couple of weeks. I have to—I need my work table back.
Q: Has this project changed your buying habits and/or the way you think about possessions?
A: With bags of stuff leaving, I went through a “now I have room for a _____” phase. But that wasn’t the point. So I’m working hard on developing deliberate buying habits. Before I buy anything, I try to look carefully at what I have. Do I already have something that does essentially the same thing? If I have something that is supposed to do the same thing but I’m not using it for some reason, why am I not using it and what makes the new thing better? I’m also trying to be less sentimental and less fixated on whether something has been used enough to consider giving away. If I haven’t used it, it doesn’t need to stick around, no matter how much it cost, who gave it to me, or how good a bargain it was. Plus, I’m trying to invest in a few items of quality (hello, TB bags!) that will replace lots of marginal items (goodbye, cheap rolling suitcases, totes and duffel bags). Occasionally, I catch myself fixing a predatory eye on a random something in the house and thinking, “That has GOT to go.”
Q: You replaced your old grocery bags with TB Shop Bags. What in your opinion makes them better than the bags you had before?
A: They reduce stress. Really! I buy a lot of heavy things, like bags of flour and milk in glass bottles. I used to be nervous that one of my old grocery bags would split open on my way across the parking lot. I can load a Shop Bag with anything and everything and walk worry-free. I reach for one pretty much any time I need to carry something. The padded shoulder straps and the wine bottle-sized interior pockets are pure genius.
I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem.
― R. Buckminster Fuller
As product designers, we get to live in a world of “what if”: we look at how things are, and we get to imagine new ways they could be. We analyze existing tools, processes, features, and functionalities. We ask “what works?” and “how can it work even better?” And then (Tom likes this part best), we go out to the workshop and make some prototype bags. We take them on the trail, on a road trip, or a plane ride. We use the bags in situ to see if we’re headed in the right direction.
Sometimes our best design is but a chimera: what is called for is some sort of “Klein Bottle” (or perhaps a Klein Bag?)—something we can imagine but no one can actually make. Sometimes we suffer from what Tom calls “Kevenhüller Syndrome” (from Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling’s Saga): maybe we can make one of something, but it turns out to be impossible to mass-produce. At the end of the day, we are not simply product designers, we are manufacturers as well. We must create things that can be imagined and then manufactured.
Like other kinds of birthing, taking a nascent idea for a bag and turning it into a finished thing can be messy. We put lots of thought into what features are truly essential for a particular design, and what features are extraneous. We try to be thoughtful, careful, and conservative. And when we release a new bag, we then listen closely to the feedback we get: are people liking it? Are they using it as we intended, or have they hacked it to do something we didn’t even know was possible? We realize we can’t please everyone, but we try to see how close we came to hitting our mark.
Do we get it right every time? Certainly not, so we often continue tweaking, refining, and fine tuning our designs, sometimes forever. In the design process, we challenge ourselves with some tough decisions: sometimes, adding a feature or a specific functionality would detract from some other utilization, or add substantial or unjustified weight, bulk, or cost, so we might forego it. Sometimes there might be several good ways to achieve a certain utility or aesthetic, and we must choose between them. It’s a fun challenge, and we’re glad you’ve come along for the ride.
The top pocket of The Guide’s Pack is great example of such a challenge. It acts primarily as a flap that covers the drawstring opening, protecting the contents of the main compartment from the weather. The pocket is designed with a zipper along what we think of as its “front” edge, where it is convenient to access when you’re not wearing the pack. However, the orientation of the pocket, and therefore the relative position of the zipper on the pocket, varies depending upon how full the main compartment is or isn’t.
When the main compartment is empty or not very full, the pocket—or flap, if you prefer—will swing down, sloping away from the wearer’s back, its front edge coming to rest lower than the rest of the pocket. Thus, when the main compartment is less than full, the front zipper is indeed effectively at the “bottom” of the top pocket.
When the main compartment is full, the pocket is more or less level and the zipper is now at the front edge of the pocket. And when the main compartment is more than full, or if something is stuffed under the pocket, atop the main compartment’s drawstring top, the pocket will swing upwards and the same zipper opening that was previously at the bottom of the pocket is now at the top of the pocket. It’s important for the sake of this discussion to note that in all these orientations, the weather flap that covers the pocket zipper is still doing its job of protecting the zipper from rain/weather.
It is somewhat counter-intuitive (and yes, sometimes down-right inconvenient) that this zipper is at times at the bottom of the pocket. The only way around this would be to move the zipper to the opposite edge of the top pocket, the edge that would be the “top” when the bag is less than fully-loaded. Though this might be an obvious “solution” to this design challenge, placing the zipper on that other edge of the pocket just reverses the whole thing: now the zipper is at the bottom of the pocket when the bag is over-loaded. Plus it creates yet another challenge: if you’re going to put a weather flap on the pocket’s zipper (which the aesthetics and functionality of the Guide’s Pack dictate), then you must decide which way that flap goes. In one orientation, the flap will protect the zipper from rain and weather when the bag is empty (or nearly so) but will actively channel water into the zipper when the bag is full or over-full. Flip the zipper flap the other way, and the choice is simply reversed: weather-proof when full, the opposite of weather-proof when empty.
This is a good example of the trade-offs that designers often need to consider. When we were looking at vintage backpacks that were the stylistic roots of the Guide’s Pack, that top pocket zipper placement was done both ways. We choose weather-proofness over the inconvenience of the sometimes “upside down” pocket zipper.
Note that Tom uses the Guide’s Pack several times a week. He says, “Yup, that zipper placement on that top pocket is a compromise, all right. But it’s the best compromise in my opinion.”
Ah, fall. The crisp mornings, the bonfire-bright hues adorning every tree, and a perfect opportunity to hit the road or take to the skies for an adventure, large or small. Fall is also a season of change, and while some may consider these autumnal months heralds of year’s end, they also announce beginnings—the turning over of a new leaf.
It’s the ideal time to re-introduce the Aeronaut 45. It’s still the nimble and consummately versatile travel bag it’s always been, but with design updates that make it even better:
- Zippered dividers replace the snaps in the main compartment, which, depending on your needs and what you’re carrying, allow you to use the Aeronaut 45 as a one, two, or three compartment bag.
- The formerly open-top end pocket has been replaced by a more secure zippered pocket. You can never have too many zippered pockets!
- The Aeronaut 45’s YKK Aquaguard waterproof coil zippers are now sewn “right side up,” making them easier to open and close and helping them to last even longer.
The updated Aeronaut 45 is available for pre-order. (Don’t want to wait? The “old style” Aeronaut 45 is still available for a limited time.) If you’re looking for a slightly smaller bag with all the same great features as the new Aeronaut 45, consider the Aeronaut 30. If you can’t decide which size Aeronaut is for you, check out this video, which compares how much stuff each model can hold and how they fit on people of different heights:
We’re also stoked that the updated Aeronaut’s also ringing in a brand new color: Verde 1050d Ballistic nylon. It’s vibrant and bright (think of our Olive 1000d Cordura fabric, but greener), and just the thing if you’re looking for a little jolt of summery freshness that’s welcome on any journey, at any time of year.
Questions? Thoughts? Post them in itsablur’s “What Once Was Lost, Now is Found(er’s): A Video Review of the Founder’s Briefcase” thread in our Forums. See also: the Founder’s Briefcase
Those who might be wondering about the benefits of adopting a more pared-down lifestyle could find a compelling answer in Tsh Oxenreider, who is part of the vanguard that harnessed the internet to promote simple living amongst a global audience. Tsh, who hails from Texas and now lives, for the time being, in Oregon, writes about the ways in which the acts of daily life (work, play, parenting) gain a certain clarity when approached slowly, deliberately, and unencumbered by physical and mental clutter. The Art of Simple, which began as a one-woman operation in 2007, now boasts over 20 regular contributors and a thriving online forum.
Very shortly, Tsh and her family of five will begin a 12-month journey that will take them around the world. They will chronicle their experiences on their travel website, which also discusses their pre-trip planning. The Oxenreiders’ commitment to living simply and intentionally carries over to their philosophy of travel: they will travel slowly so they can gain a fuller experience and appreciation of where they are each day, they will use their resources wisely, and all family members will be full partners in the travel experience (this means, in part, that everyone carries his or her own stuff, even the 4-year-old).
Amidst all the packing and organizing for the first leg of their trip (China!), and even though it was her birthday, Tsh kindly agreed to answer some questions for us.
TOM BIHN CREW: First, happy birthday! I have a couple of “with age comes wisdom” questions for you. One: what advice would you give to your 27-year-old self? What about your 17-year-old self? and two, what is one great untruth, mindset, or perspective that you believed or held that you are proud to have let go of?
TSH OXENREIDER: I tell people that my favorite thing about getting older is realizing how little I actually know. Ten years ago, I just became a mom, and even though I knew I didn’t have parenting figured out, I think I still had this idea that I had some semblance of control over her personality, over who she’d become, over her preferences. I’d tell my 27-year-old self that my job as her parent is to give her both roots and wings—grounding, values, and love, yes; but also the freedom to discover and explore who she really is.
I’d tell my 17-year-old self that life honestly really gets great around age 30. Yes, the teen years and twenties are important, but use that time to discover who you are, meet lots of people, take calculated risks, and try things you’d never dream you’d like. That decade is when you have the most freedom and the least amount of responsibility—wield it wisely, because it goes in a blink.
And I’m terribly proud that I’m pretty aware of how little I know. Back when I started my blog (seven years ago now), I was much more certain of how black and white life worked. I’m happy to let go of that certainty, and to welcome life’s mysteries and questions, and that listening well is one of the best qualities you can develop. It’s by listening that we learn, and everyone has something to teach us. It’s actually funny you should ask all this, because I have an ebook about this very thing—the twenty things I’d tell my twenty-something self (it’s free for anyone who subscribes to our travel blog).
TBC: The Art of Simple reaches tens of thousands of people, but some readers may not recognize that you’ve been blogging/writing online for quite a few years. Can you talk about your blog’s evolution and the community that’s grown out of it? Have there been any big surprises?
TO: We’ve been around for a long time—late 2007, so basically when the Internet was still written with chisel in stone. When we started, there really weren’t many blogs about living simply, but now they’re everywhere (a good thing, in my opinion). So since we were one of the few voices, we originally focused more on the science of simple living—how to pay off debt or how to have a paper-free kitchen, for example. Now, we focus more on the art—the why, the encouragement, the you-can-do-this the hooray-for-living-unconventionally. It’s our strength, and it’s really the heart of everything we write. We exist to encourage people that they can say no to the status quo and live according to their values, they can do things like travel. It just takes planning, intention, and resolve. We also used to be a network of several blogs, covering everything from food to homeschooling to design. Now, we just focus on both simple and unconventional living, with an emphasis on travel on the travel channel (though we still technically own several other blogs dedicated to things like food and parenting).
TBC: Many of the posts on The Art of Simple have to do with relinquishing certain ideas or assumptions in order to do what is more real or true for you as an individual. Yet, many of those assumptions are linked closely with values and subjectivities that have developed over the course of history, whether of a culture, a country, a family. What are your thoughts on the concept of “tradition”, especially when there’s a tension between wanting to uphold some practices or beliefs (traditions) and divesting yourself of others?
TO: I definitely don’t think tradition is a bad thing—I’m a big believer in family history based on from generation to generation, and I realistically understand that we really can’t divorce ourselves from our own culture and worldview, much of which comes from a passed-down history and tradition (even if we’re unaware). One of the reasons I remind people that there’s no one right way to “do” simple living is because we’re all different, and we all come from different cultures and perspectives. For some people, tradition is more important than others, so they place a higher value on living life the way they were taught as a kid—and I’m okay with that. The problem lies, I believe, where we just don’t think about the why behind anything we do. We just tow the line and never question, “Hey—does this actually make sense for for my family, for me?” If it does, great. But don’t just live life on autopilot. Question whether you’re in pursuit of a stable, 9 to 5 job because it’s what you want, or is it just because you think that’s the definition of a responsible adult?
TBC: You’re about to embark on several months of round-the-world travel with your family. You have written about downsizing, decluttering, and preparing mentally for the shift in day-to-day living that will come with full-time travel. Can you talk about a challenge or set of challenges you and/or your family had to overcome during the process of this experience?
TO: Well, we’ve always been big fans of living simply and not having clutter, so we didn’t have to get rid of a ton of stuff we didn’t want (though there was some of that still!). I think the challenge was more mental—believing that yes, we really can risk trying to live out of backpacks for a year, and yes, it is worth forking over a TON of money for those plane tickets. It’s easy to start second-guessing yourself, even though it’s something you’ve planned for years. There’s also just a lot of nuts and bolts to handle here—we sold our house, put stuff in storage, my husband’s parents are carsitting our minivan, most of school this year is via iPad and Kindle, etc., systems need to be in place to keep the blogs running on the go, etc. None of those things just happen. Lots of moving parts.
TBC: Your website promotes living simply as an art, balanced with practicality, a theme that carries over to your travel site. What items are you bringing with you that will help you maintain the artistry you apply to life? What items have you learned are must-have and quantifiably practical for you when you travel?
TO: Ooh, I love this question. Well, I wrote about my clothing and my kids’ clothing, and hope soon to write about the “other” stuff we’re packing. I’m a big fan of packing light, because it helps me pack light mentally and emotionally as well—one thing that’ll hopefully help us is our Scrubba washbag, so that we can do laundry on the go and pack fewer clothes. We’re also streamlining the kids’ school and doing a lot of it on the iPad, and though I never thought I’d see the day, the older two both have Kindles so they can stay solid readers. I’m also big into natural beauty and health care products, so things like a GoToob full of coconut oil can be multipurpose, as well as olive oil to clean my face, etc. This sort of light travel allows more room for things like my husband’s water coloring tools, a small DSLR camera, sketchbooks for all five of us, and the like.
TBC: Also related to packing: when people ask “what are you packing?”, they generally mean “what physical items are you taking?” But what intangible things will you bring with you? What skills, knowledge, and attitudes do you think will be most valuable on this journey?
TO: I think one thing our family does well is embrace the idea of “home” being “wherever we are together.” We’ve lived in a lot of places, so while it’s not always easy to say goodbye, we’ve learned the fine art of doing it well. The Internet helps enormously in us being able to move about the cabin, so to speak, so our kids have already experienced and understand the beauty of things like Voxer to keep up with grandparents and friends. So we pack with us a flexible idea of home, making it all the easier to embrace a mobile mentality.
Our kids have also packed with them patience that I hope leaks over to me. They’re so great about waiting in lines, at bus stops, and airport gates—I wish I had as much capacity as them to go with the flow and embrace a “whatever” sort of attitude about schedule. They teach me! And they remind me daily how resilient kids actually are.
TBC: There’s a thread of religious or theological discourse that runs through your posts on The Art of Simple, and you’ve mentioned that your life follows “a liturgical pattern.” Can you explain this in greater detail, and how being conscious of this works out in practice?
TO: From the beginning of my blog’s existence, one of my favorite compliments is, “Well I’m not a Christian, but I love your blog because I still feel like I can be myself.” The Art of Simple honestly has one of the most gracious, thoughtful community of readers I’ve ever seen online, and I love them so—they give me the freedom to be myself, which includes some of my thoughts on liturgy and the blurred lines between secular and sacred. I think of our year-long trip as a bit of a spiritual pilgrimage, but if I’m honest, I’m pretty sure that’s what all of life is about. I believe in God, and I don’t believe in a distinction between holy and ordinary, which gives me great hope that my daily life matters for good. My laundry folding matters. How I parent my kids matter. How we interact with the world around us matters. And to acknowledge the daily liturgy, the rhythm, of our lives, gives nod to a Creator that spins the globe on an axis of rhythm—seasons, days, patterns in life. Imbibing that truth helps us live simpler, because we’re moving with the natural flow of life, instead of trying to fight it.
TBC: What are your favorite noun, verb, and adjective? How do they relate to one another, and why are they important to you?
TO: Noun: bailiwick. Verb: caterwaul. Adjective: ubiquitous. The most obvious way they relate is that they all sound really great rolling off the tongue, and they’re also unusual but not high-brow. They also describe my kids well: they each have a particular bailiwick (Star Wars, Pokemon, and the like), they’ve been known to caterwaul from time to time, and they’re most certainly ubiquitous—there’s three of them, after all. And though you didn’t ask, my favorite word to use while stubbing my toe? Mutfak (pronounced ‘moot-fauk’). It’s Turkish for ‘kitchen,’ but it makes a great and family-friendly expletive.
Mason captures the golden hour with a little help from his Night Flight: “It’s a fantastic camera bag and just the perfect size. I’ve only had it for two days but I think it’s probably one of the top bags you’ve made and already a favorite. Truly awesome.”
Questions? Thoughts? Post them in itsablur’s “A Tale of Two Aeronauts (or my Video Review of the A30, compared to the A45)” thread.
Better late than never, Boolie has posted a thorough review of his ID bag. He writes:
“While I’ve been driving to work the past few years, most of my time with the bag has been spent walking or on the train. It’s about a 20 minute walk home from the train station and, living in Portland, I’ve been rained on countless times, from light drizzles to out-and-out downpours. Snowed on a few times. One day I even trudged home in a freezing rain, finally arriving home to find the bag completely encased in a thin sheet of ice. But nothing has ever gotten wet.”
Note: the ID messenger bag isn’t currently available for order because our Seattle factory is totally busy making other bags right now. It might be available for order in the future, but if it’s not, that’ll be because we choose to replace it with one of the new messenger bag/briefcase designs Tom is working on.