The Shed Philosophy
By Sean Lindsay
A few months ago I decided to leave my old life behind. I moved out of our four bedroom home and into the backyard. My new home is a 10 foot by 8 foot plastic shed that I assembled with my own hands. I bought it at a hardware store, carted it home in a box, and raised it that same day. It may sound like a joke, but it’s exactly what I want. Now it’s just me and my shed. No more electronic gadgets and cluttered rooms, or spending time with people I don’t like.
Naturally my family was confused, especially when I said I was taking a leave of absence from my job with the bank. Jacqueline, my wife, wanted to know how long I would be without paid work. I answered honestly: as long as possible; I can’t stand my job and I want to be in my shed. Jacqueline responded by reaming off our list of debts: the mortgage, two car payments, utilities, and the children. Jacqueline and I have two daughters: Mary (nearly eighteen years old; sarcastic and indignant) and Emma (ten years old; curious and naive). Both are big consumers, and neither understand my new philosophy. And why should they? It took a long time for me to accept it, so of course it’s a shock for them. For the sake of my marriage I agreed to stop my experiment after one year. The truth is that I want it to go on forever. I want to live in my shed, read books and keep a diary; commune with nature, write poetry, and stay away from people.
I keep the following items close to me: a raised cot and sleeping bag (to keep from freezing in the winter), a laundry bag of clothes, books, toilet paper, and a few bottles of my favorite whisky. I have my diary, pencils and a pencil sharpener. No electronics. Anything else and my shed would be too full. It would become the jumbled world I left behind. Naturally I visit the big house from time to time for essential goods like food and water. I’ve used the downstairs toilet a few times, though I have a nice spot of my own behind a black walnut tree. When Jacqueline catches me in the house she says things like, Are you finished with your fantasy life yet? Or, Has the lost man returned from the wilderness? She has a thousand funny phrases. Sharing a house with my family is out of the question because they drive me crazy. Truth be told, I drive them crazy, too. If Jacqueline was more open-minded, she would see that the shed philosophy is a better situation for all of us.
An unexpected bonus has been my connection to the local wildlife. For instance, a few nights ago I woke up to the sounds of large animals. It was likely a family of raccoons, but it could have been coyotes, which have been known to stray into our suburb. (Fact: coyotes eat small dogs. They even stalk small children, so look out.) I don’t know what time it was because I gave up wearing a watch. I slipped outside to the back of the shed in my work boots and long underwear and had a pee in the bushes. The leaves were crunchy under my boots. It felt like camping. The unfortunate part was the temperature. It was almost cold enough to snow and my man parts were numb. I’ll need to solve this problem because winter is nearly here.
In the morning I stepped outside to inhale the cold air. I noticed a black squirrel sitting in the pear tree, watching me.
“Hello, Mr. Squirrel,” I said. I kept my tone friendly. Squirrels are easily distressed and prone to heart attacks. (Fact: a squirrel’s heart can beat up to 400 times a minute, especially if it sees a cat.) It made a chirping sound, and I chirped back. I slipped back into my shed to get warm inside my sleeping bag. I ate crackers and peanut butter, and jotted down a few lines of poetry. I looked out my plastic window and there was Mr. Squirrel, observing me from the pear tree. What was he up to?
As winter crept closer I had to adapt. My sleeping bag kept me warm but the shed wasn’t insulated. In the mornings the edges of the plastic floor were covered in frost. Popping in and out for a quick pee was becoming dangerous. I sat down and crafted a warm lining for my penis out of an old leather mitten. I kept it in place with an elastic band. It wasn’t pretty, but it was functional. I decided to wear it all the time. I remembered a documentary about a Polish mountain climber whose nose turned black from frostbite before dropping off. I wondered what Jacqueline would say if she found out my penis had dropped off. Serves you right, she’d probably say; you and your crazy shed life. I began wearing all my clothes, day and night: toque, winter coat, long johns, sweatpants and work boots. Winter temperatures can be cruel, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Over time my clothes became smelly. My sweatpants were stained with peanut butter. Also, my underwear needed a wash. And when had I last showered? I looked at my reflection in a window, and saw that my beard had grown wild and gray. Parts of it were streaked with dried peanut butter.
One evening I slipped into the house for supplies, and everyone seemed shocked by the sight of me.
Emma said, “Dad, you look like a mountain man.”
Mary added, “More like a homeless man. And you really smell. It’s disgusting.”
Jacqueline never mentioned my appearance or smell. Her comments were mostly
financial. Utility bills, winter tires, and how we couldn’t survive without my salary.
“Look at this.” She pulled out an estimate from a garage. It was going to cost fifteen hundred dollars to repair the exhaust on the S.U.V. Two sensors needed replacing and they were three hundred dollars each. It was so frustrating. Cars have hundreds of parts and all of them break. What was wrong with electric bicycles? Retired people used them every day. Did they ever fall off and get hurt? Never. So why not make the switch?
“Maybe if we sold one of the cars we wouldn’t have to worry about money,” I said.
But we were a middle-class family. Even little Emma needed outrageous amounts of money for her expensive sports equipment. Cutting back on consumables would be no easy task. My family kept wanting more, while I wanted less. Conversations about money left me anxious, and I usually retreated to my shed where I could read fiction (The Hobbit, Game of Thrones) and sip whisky. I enjoyed the whisky, maybe too much. It warmed me up, but I had to be careful. I didn’t want to end up a drunk, like my grandfathers. All those holiday dinners, watching them drinking and swearing and crying; it wasn’t pretty. Watching a drunk grandfather pee his pants is a childhood memory that sticks with you. Becoming an alcoholic is not part of the shed philosophy but it might become an unexpected side effect. Another side effect: I think I’ve lost weight. I have no scale, but my legs and bum seem more bony than usual.
One afternoon there was a knock on my door. It was Jacqueline. She was standing in the yard in her winter coat, looking annoyed, holding a glass of red wine. My first guess was that she was drunk and ready to yell at me about money.
“We have a visitor coming this afternoon,” she said. “If you aren’t too busy doing nothing in that shed you might join us.”
“A visitor? Who is it?” I said.
“It’s Nelson Cummings. I’ve asked him over to speak with you.”
“Nelson Cummings? What’s going on? Does he want to analyze me?”
“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask him. Just try to be a grown-up, if that’s still possible.”
Nelson was a psychiatrist, a friend of ours who I didn’t like. Jacqueline on the other hand liked him quite a bit. She’d always been impressed by his intellect. In the old days he would pop over without being invited and lounge around our house, drinking our wine and putting his feet up on the coffee table. He was a fussy, academic know-it-all. Jacqueline had obviously convinced him to question me about my shed philosophy. I asked her if she wanted to lock me in a cage to make it easier for Nelson to probe me. She said I already lived in a cage, I just didn’t realize it.
When she went inside, Mr. Squirrel appeared, as if he’d been waiting for her to leave.
“My sanity is being questioned, Mr. Squirrel. My wife has called in a professional.”
Mr. Squirrel rubbed his little paws together. “We’ll show them who’s the sane one,” he seemed to say. Exactly, I thought. Just because a man wants to change his life does not mean he’s lost his mind.
Later that afternoon Jacqueline banged on the shed door. Nelson had arrived. I slipped inside the house through the deck doors. They were sitting on the living room couch, laughing and drinking wine. Nelson stood up and shook my hand.
“Well well well,” he said. He looked me up and down, like I was an exhibit in the Berlin Zoo. He reached to touch my beard, but I showed him the palm of my hand, causing him to step back.
“Nelson, you would be wise to keep your opinions to yourself,” I said.
“But I haven’t shared my opinions,” he said.
“And you had better not.” I knew I looked intimidating with my scraggly beard and dirty clothes, and I used it to my advantage.
Jacqueline set down her wine and stood up. “Conrad, for god’s sake. Quit acting like an idiot. Nelson is here to talk.”
“Is he charging an hourly rate? Because I’m not paying to hear any nonsense,” I said.
“Calm down, Conrad,” Nelson said. “Let’s talk about this new philosophy of yours.”
So we did. I told Nelson how I wanted to escape my cluttered life, with its anxieties and rampant consumerism and financial worries.
“But why live in a shed? Why not engage with people?” he asked.
I explained that living in a shed was nearly ideal. I didn’t want to engage with people because that sort of engagement left me feeling anxious.
“But what about your family?” he asked. “You left the family home. How do you think that makes Jacqueline and your daughters feel?”
“I left home because it’s better for all of us. When I lived in the house we spent all our time bickering about money and holidays and what to watch on Netflix. It was never-ending. Now that I’m in the shed those troubles are gone. We all have our space.”
Nelson took a moment to consider what I’d shared. I suspected my views made sense to him, but he would never admit to it in front of Jacqueline, not if he wanted to continue drinking our wine and lying all over our couch.
“One more question,” he said. “Jacqueline and your daughters have seen you talking with a squirrel. What’s that all about?”
That was a hard question to answer. Having conversations with a squirrel could be seen as strange. I decided to blurt out a simple truth. “I don’t like people,” I said. “Spending time with a squirrel is relaxing.”
Nelson wandered around the living room, considering my admission and gathering his thoughts. “I think I understand. It sounds like classic introvertere,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“It’s Latin. It means you have turned inward, my friend. You have withdrawn. Hence the shed. You’ve locked yourself away.”
“But I haven’t locked myself away,” I said.
“Yes you have, and it’s not healthy.”
“You’re searching for something that isn’t there, Nelson. I like my shed, but I also love
“Relax, Conrad. I’m here to help. You’re not being judged.”
“Why isn’t he being judged?” Jacqueline said. She was on the sidelines, rooting for Nelson, worried he was losing ground.
“I don’t like people. I’m better off without them. That’s why I live in a shed,” I explained.
“Conrad, this reeks of a midlife crisis. Maybe you’re tired of raising children. Do you feel like you want to run away? You wouldn’t be the first man to feel that way, believe me,” he said.
“He did run away,” Jacqueline said. “He ran away to his shed.”
“I love my wife and children,” I said. “I just can’t bear to share a house with them. Is that so wrong?”
I gave him a list of the ways they drove me around the bend, whether it was their need for a TV in every room or the time they spent on their thousand-dollar cell phones. When I finished talking I felt drained. Then I remembered the comment about a midlife crisis and felt insulted. I decided to head for my sanctuary. “I’m finished here. I’m off to read The Hobbit,” I said. “I’m on a journey, just like Frodo.” I could hear Jacqueline shouting after me, telling me to stop acting like a child.
I sat on the end of our deck in the cold, trying to calm down. My eye drifted to my neighbor’s yard. Old Ken Winters was standing on the other side of the fence holding a rake, ready to bundle the last of his leaves. Ken was a retired fellow who lived with his wife Daisy in the big house next door. They had left plastic containers of dried biscuits for me when I first moved into the shed; they assumed Jacqueline had kicked me out.
Ken spent long days in his backyard, usually with a shovel, planting flowers that never survived. He lacked practical skills, like how to grow tomatoes, or build a deck that didn’t collapse. I did like the way he puttered around his yard, looking for tiny adventures while he hummed a tune.
“Hello, Conrad,” he said. “Happy Remembrance Day.”
“Hello, Ken.” I’d forgotten about Remembrance Day because I no longer used a calendar.
“Are you planning on living in your shed all winter?”
“Yes, I am.” I felt proud, saying this out loud.
“What about the cold?”
“I have a sleeping bag. It keeps me warm to minus ten degrees.”
“What about when you have to do your business in the middle of the night? You might freeze solid.”
“I’ve got it covered,” I said.” I reached down my pants and pulled off my liner. I showed it to him.
“Holy smokes. Is that what I think it is?”
“It’s for the really cold nights, but it’s nice to wear during the days as well.”
Ken looked impressed. “You’ve thought of everything. I wish I’d had one of those when I fought in Korea. Cold winters over there, let me tell you.”
Ken looked ready to go on about Korea but he lost his train of thought. (Note: Ken may have dementia. He rarely finishes his thoughts and sometimes wanders into other people’s homes.) He said, “Oh well, better get ready to ship out,” and returned to his leaves.
When I looked up I saw Mr. Squirrel. He was sitting on a branch of the pear tree.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Squirrel. How are you today?” I said. I mentioned that it was Remembrance Day. He seemed interested so I told him about poppies, and The Great War, and how soldiers had lived in trenches. Some of them developed trench foot and had their feet amputated, I said. I told him about the Second World War and the French Resistance and the plight of the Jews. No one was safe, I explained; Hitler committed war crimes. People never got over it.
I paused at different points because I kept traumatizing myself. With history, there’s usually a dreadful ending. People die in horrible ways. It made me wonder why more people hadn’t adopted the shed philosophy. If they did, there would be less warfare and more time to appreciate nature.
Mr. Squirrel sat through my lesson, looking puzzled. What a species, he must have been thinking; to kill your own fellows. And for what?
Ken’s voice drifted over the fence. He had returned, but now he held a spade for digging holes. He said, “Conrad, are you talking to that squirrel about Remembrance Day?”
“Yes,” I said.
Ken nodded. “Well, don’t forget to tell him about Korea. That was my war, did you know that?”
Ken went off to dig. I watched Mr. Squirrel shimmy up the side of the shed and rest on the roof. He was staying close, like a loyal dog. It wasn’t my imagination: Mr. Squirrel had grown comfortable with my company. And unlike humans, he didn’t suck the life out of me.
One sunny day my family and I had dinner together on the cedar deck. It was cold but we didn’t care. It was wonderful, but only for the first fifteen minutes. Jacqueline and Emma carted out a fold-up table from the garage along with four plastic chairs and blankets for our laps. Jacqueline carried out a steaming pot of beef and barley soup. Mary joined us shortly after we’d started eating. I noticed she’d plucked her eyebrows to the point of no return; she looked like she’d been tortured. I was reminded of Golum from The Hobbit, but I was smart enough to keep that to myself. She stared into her soup, and I could hear the grinding of her teeth. I realized that she and Jacqueline were fighting; the kind of fight where they ignored each other. A mother-daughter dust-up. Good for you, Jacqueline, I thought; I ignore Mary’s nonsense by living in my shed, while you give her the old-fashioned silent treatment.
I tried to catch Jacqueline’s eye but she seemed to be ignoring me as well.
Emma said, “Dad, can we play road hockey after supper?”
“Sure, why not,” I said. A bit of sport with Emma would be a pleasure. My youngest was one of the few people whose company I enjoyed.
Emma studied my face. “Why did you grow a beard?” she said.
My beard. I kept forgetting that I had one, especially as I had no mirror.
“You look like a sasquatch,” Mary said. She cringed when she said it.
“I think it looks nice,” Emma said. She touched it with her fingers, and smiled. “It feels like wire. It’s almost cutting my fingers.”
“Mary’s right,” Jacqueline said. “You do look like a sasquatch. Or a homeless man.”
“I have a home, so I must be a sasquatch,” I said.
“An unemployed sasquatch,” Jacqueline added.
Mary stood up and left the table, disgusted. It was probably my beard she didn’t like, or maybe the stains on my clothes. Or just everything. We’d never know.
Emma watched Mary leave. She said, “Mary’s a pain in the neck, isn’t she.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement of fact.
“So, what’s wrong with Mary this time,” I said.
“I don’t know the details,” Jacqueline said. “And you wouldn’t know either because you live in a plastic shed and don’t communicate with your family.”
What Jacqueline said was true, though she needn’t have spelled it out in such harsh tones. Jacqueline didn’t think much of me these days and neither did Mary. I had overheard Mary and her friends talking about me a few nights before when I was in my shed and they were on the deck. Mary told them I had gone crazy, that I was living in the shed with squirrels and weasels, and that Jacqueline wanted me institutionalized. She called me a loser and her friends laughed. I have to say, her words stung. No father expects to be ridiculed by his own daughter. I’m not trying to hurt Mary, and I don’t want her to hurt me. I don’t need to be institutionalized. I just want a simple life.
Emma and I played road hockey until it was too dark to see the tennis ball. When we were packing up the nets she said, “Dad, is it true that you don’t like people?”
“Where did you hear that?”
“That’s what mom told us.”
I looked through the kitchen window of our family home from the driveway. Jacqueline was standing in front of the sink. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but she probably looked frustrated, married to a man like me.
I looked my daughter in the eye. “Well,” I said, “it’s complicated, but yes, it’s true. I don’t like people very much at all. It would be wrong to pretend I do when I don’t. I pretended for over forty years and I regret it.”
Emma looked concerned. I didn’t want her to feel hurt or unloved, because I loved her more than anything.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll always like you. You and I are quite similar, in case you haven’t noticed. We both like road hockey and reading and putting salt on our oatmeal. Besides, I may need someone to change my diapers when I’m an old man.”
Emma looked disgusted when I said that but she still managed to laugh. The truth is that I’ll probably have to change my own diapers. When you’re a man who lives by the shed philosophy, changing your own diapers is to be expected. Such is the fate of solitary people everywhere.
It will be hard to share my decision with Jacqueline and the girls; that I plan to live the rest of my life in the shed and never return to work. It will be even harder to explain that the longer I live apart from them the more I love them. I don’t know why that is. It doesn’t make complete sense to me and it won’t make sense to them. But it’s who I am, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.
Sean Lindsay is an educator who lives in Kitchener, Canada. He has written short stories for Fifteen Stories High, subTerrain, and other journals. He's fascinated by stories about people who wander off and get lost. He is currently writing a novel on that very topic.