Tuesday, 7 October 2014

aggressive divestment

The Imperfectionist
DAN HO likes to get rid of things. For the past eight years he has committed himself to a project of aggressive divestment, letting go of houses, sofas, refectory tables, electric mixers, Georg Jensen silverware and a collection of ceramics. Earlier this year, a failed marriage behind him, Mr. Ho, 40, decided to reduce the sum of his possessions and eventually winnowed them down to about 55. Motivated neither by debt nor by environmentalism but simply by a compulsion to unburden himself, he moved from a 1,200-square-foot house in Portland, Me., to a rented apartment one-quarter the size in Greenwich Village, where he now lives with two roommates (one of them a retired judge who sells purses), 47 items of clothing and a backpack, suitcase, television, computer, bath towel, single set of sheets, toothbrush and bottle of witch hazel.
As an emerging prophet of household governance, Mr. Ho is a happy man who would be made happier still if affluent Americans, obsessed with their wine fridges and upholstery swatches, would simply adopt his vision of chic parsimony. To this end, he has developed a practicum in the form of a new book, “Rescue From Domestic Perfection” (Bulfinch), and a television program on the Discovery Health channel, “The Dan Ho Show,” which made its debut with a special on Tuesday (to be repeated on Sunday) and will appear regularly beginning in January. On the show, he will talk people out of needless redecorating and into setting their tables with newspaper.
“When people say they want red walls, do they really want red walls?” Mr. Ho asked rhetorically over coffee one afternoon recently. “Do they really want red walls, or do they want impact? Chances are, what they really want is recognition and what they’re really, really looking for is recognition from themselves.”
Mr. Ho delivers his message in Vreelandesque aphorism. “Perfection is a cheap caricature of style,” he writes. “Candles don’t set a mood, people do.” The index to his book contains an entry headed “Myths, enslaving.” One of them, he thinks, is the idea that you should always be ready for drop-in guests. “No, you shouldn’t,” he counters, “unless you’re running a bed-and-breakfast.”
At the core of his philosophy is the belief that our relentless attention to renovation and reorganizing, to building and rebuilding, distracts us from the more demanding work of becoming better partners, caretakers and friends. Style, in Mr. Ho’s view, is unstudied, capricious. Specifically, it is a rubber ducky placed on a plain wooden table, a loop of twine hanging from a bathroom sink instead of a conventional toilet paper dispenser. It is the good sense not to replace chipped heirloom china with something flawless and new, and the wisdom never to waste countless hours building a trellis when a plant displayed in an old sausage tin, or whimsically in a child’s sand pail, will do.
“What I hate is our whole culture of trade-ups-manship,” Mr. Ho said. “No one ever seems to be happy in the house they actually buy. You visit someone’s new place and you say, ‘wow, this is great,’ and inevitably they’ll say ‘well, it’s O.K. for now.’ And that drives me absolutely crazy. We abide by all of these prescriptions that are essentially visual, ‘you build a dream kitchen and the soul of your house is established.’ Well, no, it isn’t.”
Mr. Ho received his first traumatic lesson in detachment when he was 9 and his family home in a seaside village in Guam was destroyed in a typhoon that meteorologists named Pamela. “We had gone down into the basement and battened down the hatches,” Mr. Ho recalled. “We were shaking for eight hours, it was like being under a train track, and then when it was over we walked out and up to the sky.”
For the next few months, Mr. Ho, his parents and his siblings lived in tents until a sturdier house made of concrete was completed.
When he reached college age, Mr. Ho’s parents sent him to Chicago to study at Roosevelt University. At 25, he married a local chef, Jenny Smith, and a few years later the couple moved to the resort town of Lakeside, Mich., where they successfully ran a restaurant together. They built a big house in the Prairie School style, and Mr. Ho grew afflicted with the desire to add on and acquire. He collected tools; he traveled abroad to buy furniture.
“You build a house, then you put in a pool,” he said. “Then you need a peony garden. Then you watch ‘Martha Stewart’ and you realize a peony garden needs a fence. Then you think, ‘I should also have a rose garden, too, and if I’m going to have a rose garden, I have to have 30 varieties.’ I once bought a $3,600 cedar tree because, you know, I needed something for the corner to create a transition from the oak tree to the anemone because the sedum on the brick walk just wasn’t going to cut it. People think like that, and I did.”
And then, abruptly, he didn’t. One evening in 1998, while checking the stability of a ceiling fan in the restaurant, he suffered a seizure and slipped out of consciousness for 20 minutes. “The background went black and these white blades were taunting me with a kind of resolved madness,” Mr. Ho said. After a series of tests, doctors found nothing wrong with him, but the experience sent Mr. Ho into a depression, one result of which was the decision to live a less-encumbered existence. He and his wife sold the Michigan house and much of what was in it. He kept, for instance, only one of his six sofas. In Maine, where they had enjoyed vacationing, he would write and his wife would make rugs.
Mr. Ho first tried to bring his anti-consumerist ideas into focus through stand-up comedy. It was then that he changed his name from Dan Drilon to Dan Ho, because Ho, he felt, just sounded funnier. He hoped to have a radio program, but that didn’t happen, so in 2003 he started a witty, sporadically published magazine called Rescue, which he funded himself.
He filled it with thoughts on food (slice open a baguette and stick a chocolate bar in it), cleaning tips (pass a paint brush over your computer keyboard every now and then) and folksy admonitions: “If you have enough sheets, towels and blankets to warrant an entire closet I can guarantee that you’ve missed some really good opportunities to do something else.”
IN Portland, he was considered an eccentric. “When I met him, my first impression was that he was utterly certifiable,” said Monica Wendel, a friend who worked with Mr. Ho on the magazine until he folded it to work on his book and television projects. “Everybody says be yourself, be fearless, but I’d never met anyone who actually lived that way.”
Mr. Ho’s big mop of hair remains his only excess, although most of the time he keeps it tightly tied back. While living in Maine during most of the past five years, he shed himself not only of many purchases, but of much of his own weight — 120 pounds. One aspect of the “Dan Ho Show” will have him preaching fitness.
What he disavows is inauthentic simplicity. From his perspective, no one should go out and buy drawer dividers to better organize their socks; they should have fewer socks and throw them in a drawer with enough room to distinguish the black ones from the navy ones.
Mr. Ho’s elevation of restraint is cheeky and moralizing at the same time. He calls to mind the preeminent Victorian Isabella Beeton, whose popular book of household management held in high regard Samuel Johnson’s idea that frugality is the parent of liberty.
Since he moved to New York in February, after his divorce and with virtually nothing, Mr. Ho has indeed felt free, he said. But eventually, he will look for an apartment of his own and perhaps buy a few pots. And maybe even, he said, a sofa.

10 comments:

frugalscholar said...

Sometimes I think that aggressive divestment is as compulsive and unhealthy as aggressive acquisition. I remember reading about this guy back in the day. Love the Samuel Johnson ref: frugality is the parent of liberty. Must check that out.

Gam Kau said...

Very true FrugalS, divestment seems to be about control and acquisition seems to be about avoidance, but really, it's all diversion in the end.

pao said...

verrry interesting.

Shelley said...

Dan Ho sounds a bit too Gung Ho for me (sorry, couldn't resist). I don't disagree in theory, but as I own a TP dispenser, I prefer it to a piece of twine. The advantage of having a place for drop in guests is that when you know you need to bed down 3 couples at Thanksgiving you don't have to figure out how you're going to do it...

Don Ho's story is kind of interesting - I like the 120 lb weight loss the best, myself - but I'm thinking his writing and TV and whatever is about acquiring more money. No one seems averse to doing that!

Gam Kau said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gam Kau said...

Pao, interesting only in that it is a change from the ubiquitous consumer driven lifestyle.

Shelley, I agree he is rather intense with is lifestyle, but I like that he went from a very zealous consumer driven life to a more thoughtful one. I'm all for acquiring money, I'm just not keen on how most people use it!

Bmore Bungalow said...

Fascinating read Gam. I am definitely not as extreme as the author, but could definitely relate to his approach to life. If ind personally that for the most part, the less I have, the freer I feel.

Gam Kau said...

BB - me too, I found it very freeing to pare down my possessions, but understand not everyone feels that way. People like their stuff. :)

Stephen Andrew said...

I would bet that the luxurious contents of my linen closet. It's less than his divorce. And I would also bet that my organized closet cost less than the printing equipment for his book (maybe sans te Louis Vuitton luggage).
:) but hey, I'm not one to throw stones. If it works for him and he feels good, fine by me. But I did roll my eyes a little!

Gam Kau said...

Lol Stephen. Nothing like luxurious linens! :)