IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Live In A Dumpster

My daughter's friends don't believe her when she tells them, "Daddy lives in a dumpster."

May 1, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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These days, a lot of us know the divorce drill. For my ex-wife and me, it started how it often starts -- seven years into our marriage, my wife browsed through my text messages and found a few things she wasn’t all that thrilled about. (I still maintain my innocence.)

A few months later, my daughter and I had our last story time under the same roof, and I moved into a 500-square-foot apartment with a handful of worldly possessions -- a few pieces of clothing, my futon mattress from college and my espresso machine. After another six months (and a couple of trips to IKEA), our marriage counselor told us we might as well call it quits.

That’s when things started to get weird.

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Some might chalk it up to a classic mid-life crisis, but I would argue that it’s more complex than that. I wanted to challenge the limits of my life in a big way. True, I bought the stereotypical, post-divorce convertible (a Volvo -- my mom always had one), but that’s where the stereotype ends. When my apartment lease ran its course, I decided I still had more space than I knew what to do with, so I sold everything I owned for $1 apiece and illegally moved into my office at the university where I was a professor (an untenured one, at that).

Selling everything I owned and secretly living in my office was pretty out there, but it was tame compared to what I did next. About nine months later, I moved into a used dumpster.

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Let me stop right there and explain a few things (lest you think I made a quantum leap from mid-life crisis to a cloud of clinical insanity).

My dumpster home is an educational experiment with a purpose that goes far beyond my own personal narrative. I’m an environmental science professor, and I’m working with a group of students, engineers and designers to create the world’s smallest, hi-tech home outside of a manned space capsule.

Why? We’re testing the hypothesis that I call "The New One Percent" -- i.e. that one can have a pretty good life with 1% the energy, waste and water of the average American home. To up the challenge, we’re trying to hit those goals in a space that’s also 1% the size of the average new American home. At 33 square feet, the dumpster fits the bill perfectly.

During the three months that I’ve lived in my completely trashed-out abode, I’ve played a character called “Professor Dumpster” (think Bill Nye meets Oscar the Grouch) who teaches kids how to filter lake water and run a PlayStation Four off a 2x3 solar panel installed in the dumpster roof.

I can see you shaking your head in horror, but honestly, I’m just as comfortable in my dumpster as I was in my 3,000 square foot home.

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There are perks. My home is completely paid off, leaving me a bit more "disposable" income. I’ve got WiFi. At night I can slide the roof back on a clear night to see the Austin stars, or more recently -- a lunar eclipse. My false plywood floor has hidden compartments where I can stash my three pairs of shirts and pants. Since I’m on campus (behind the women’s residence halls), I can "commute" to work in less than 30 seconds regardless of traffic or weather conditions. I can practically stick my hand out the “window” and yank fresh plants out of the dumpster garden.

Plus, I can freely exercise my obsession with feng shui -- a major point of marital contention between my ex-wife and me. Our home foyer was the epicenter of the dispute -- why did we need another vase on the coffee table? Wasn’t it obvious that flat surfaces should be devoid of all but one object? We never signed a peace accord on the issue.

Feng shui aside, the Dumpster Project has presented some other interesting challenges -- particularly when it comes to raising my 6-year-old. She doesn’t understand why Mommy, a Brazilian scientist, won’t let her stay in Daddy’s dumpster.

For a kid, the dumpster is pretty much the ultimate fort.

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I want her to have the dumpster experience, but I don’t want to end up in front of a Child Protective Services judge who glares down from the bench and says, “Let me get this straight. You made your daughter sleep in a dumpster during her weekend visitation?”

My daughter does have a stack of my Professor Dumpster business cards in her Hello Kitty backpack so that she can prove to the playground kids that her dad really does live in a dumpster (no one believes her at first). At this age, she still thinks I’m the coolest dad ever. Time will tell if she’ll always think I’m cool for living in an oversized trashcan.

I hope she does, because the dumpster is slated to undergo a series of design phases over the course of a year. I’m not moving out anytime soon -- and even when I do eventually end my dumpster lease, I don’t see myself returning to any kind of traditional dwelling space for a long time to come. The experimental life has become my new normal and there’s no going back.

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Professor Dumpster and his girlfriend

The only other question is: where does a dumpster-livin' man find a good-hearted woman? It's not easy finding a companion who's both down with the dumpster and someone I can bring home to mom. After taking a post-marriage breather, I joined OkCupid and re-entered the dating scene for the first time in eight years. My first OkCupid date was cool with the dumpster concept, but she collected beard hair in jars as a hobby and my clean-shaven face didn't pass muster. My second date asked me to sleep in her brother's bed and have tea with her mother in the morning (her mother's bedroom, I later discovered, was just down the hall).

Luckily, third time was a charm. A girl named Clara sent me an OkCupid message with the opening line: "Diogenes was my favorite ancient Greek troublemaker. You have to respect any guy willing to live in a barrel in the middle of Athens."

Somehow, she wrote those words without knowing a single detail about my "living situation." I was smitten. Still, for the relationship to move forward I knew I had to come forward with a few things. What would be most risky to reveal about myself? That I had a kid? That I was divorced? Or that I was crossing "live in a dumpster" off my bucket list? I think it went divorce, dumpster, kid, but I can't really remember.

Either way, Clara decided to take the dive and we kicked off our romance with our own wild experiment in Eastern Europe. Hopefully she'll stick around for whatever I come up with next. After the dumpster, I could probably make do with a van down by the river, a bomb shelter, or maybe even an 80-gallon barrel.

That's romantic, right?

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Editor's note from Mandy: Dr. Wilson asked to respond to the criticism in the comments, and we are giving him that opportunity. Here is is his response:

Both The Dumpster Project and my trip with my girlfriend to Europe have received thousands of helpful "improvement" comments over the past six months, and I have made a rule-to-self not to respond, even though I do read them.

However, when xoJane asked me to write a relationship article on the project there was a shift in the seas -- the cloud of comments began to focus on hateful misconceptions about my relationship with my daughter in a way I don’t want her to ever read without her father’s side of the story being made clear.

So I am breaking my no-comment rule.

“Where is my small space porn, A-hole?” – Skirt

To start, many have asked where the cool design features of the "tiny house" are. Let me clarify that this is a multi-phase experiment around living in (and on) less. We are currently in the "dumpster camping" phase (imagine you are in a dumpster-tent at Yosemite) and my team of professors and students will not have the space completed until winter of 2014. For more on the actual project see the NPR story here or the actual website for the project here.

“Congratulations to your ex-wife.” - CaponeAnonious

My ex-wife and I broke up after years of drifting apart (a slow death), eventually sleeping apart and falling out of love along the way. We didn’t want our daughter to grow up thinking that a "normal" relationship was one where mommy and daddy slept in different rooms and didn’t speak much to each other. So we decided it was best to separate and eventually divorce. It was painful for us, but there was no drama in front of the child and she doesn’t actually remember us being together when I ask. My girlfriend and my daughter have a strong relationship and I feel the divorce outcome was about as good as it could be. And I’ve never missed a child support payment.

“So you chose living in a dumpster and making a statement over raising her.” - Brigitte

Now, to my 6-year-old daughter. "Why can’t I live in the dumpster with daddy?" When I am with my daughter every few weeks we spend every night together outside the dumpster in another location -- my mom’s house, a friend’s house, or perhaps camping somewhere. Yes, she’ll help me decorate the dumpster (painting mostly), with the garden (she loves the gnome) or go to events with me. She’s actually proud (and her friends jealous) that she has a cool dad that does interesting stuff. I won’t ever disrespect my ex-wife’s request to not have my daughter in the dumpster no matter how bad my daughter wants to.

I feel that a strong, loving, trusting relationship between father and daughter is the most important relationship (and the most at risk) in terms of how our society operates and flourishes. I really don’t care much about my health, publicity, my finances, material goods, or housing as long as my daughter is happy, healthy, strong, confident and her own person. Shortly after my ex-wife and I split, I was on a plane next to a divorced guy with four daughters. I asked how they were doing and if he had any advice. He said this: “Daughters need to know two things: (I) that their fathers love them unconditionally, no questions asked, for life, no matter what they do or don’t do; and (2) that their fathers ALWAYS want to be with and around them.” Then he said this: “Buy her a cell phone (I did, even though she was 4) and call her every morning no matter what time zone or continent you are on (I try though she doesn’t always pick up).”

I still think about her every day and I want her to know that her father will always love her and always want to be around her. And I’ll call. Every day.

And of course, if you want to write me -- here is my personal email: jeff_g_wilson@yahoo.com. I’d love to open a conversation on how someone can be a good dad and still experiment with his life. Or if you just want to call me a dirty, bad-daddy hipster, that’ll be fine too.