Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Why We Don't Simplify

“Simplify.” It means “to make things easier.” And, nearly everyone is for it. Or so they say.

Simplifying life has become a popular idea, a billion dollar industry, via books and tapes and how-to-manuals and $99 seminars produced mostly by those who have never simplified anything, because if they had, they would have never subjected themselves to the hundreds of hours it takes to write a book, to deal with anxious agents, sullen editors, or have their every body cavity searched on a daily basis to make 3-a-day seminars in 12 cities. Like most how-to books, they are written by those who only wish they knew how.

Even those who haven’t yet adopted simplicity as their mantra curse the complexity mainlined into today's harried lives No one says, “My life is too simple, easy, comfortable, and stress-free. What I need are more bills, more insurance, more taxes, more credit cards, more telemarketers, more bosses to jerk my chain, and another cell phone to stick in my other ear. I want to look like a high tech sideshow freak with a digital communicator on one hip, a sky pager on the other, and a Palm Pilot for a belt buckle. I want more mutual fund statements to agonize over. I want more decisions to make. I want more people to hound me relentlessly and takeover what interstices of time that remain. I want every hour of every day to be filled with as much activity as possible. I want a longer commute. I want to spend more time worrying about being downsized, resized, and other euphemisms for being tossed into the street because what you did for 20 years was never really important after all. And, yes, I want more pills to take for my blood pressure which is not near high enough yet and I want various electronic gadgets to beep when it’s time to take those pills, especially the state-of-the-art serotonin reuptake inhibitors that my shrink tells me is necessary in order for me to sublimate my strong desire to put a gun in my mouth.”

No, you don’t hear anyone pray for more hassle, even the self-nominated Successful, who run around like Pit Bulls on gun powder diets, the folks revered as “organized, together, efficient,” those who can’t piss without being reminded to unzip by a pop-up window on their laptop, who leave early and stay late, the self-important who wear their busyness like a badge, but who couldn’t identify their own children on a wanted poster, who finish a day and look like soul-dead convicts staring two life sentences in solitary to be served consecutively.

To the contrary, what we do hear, and often say is, “I need to simplify. I want more time for me, for my family, for my friends, for my neighborhood, for my community. I want to get up in the morning and ask myself, ‘What do I want to do today?’ And, then, I want to do it. I want to be able to turn over and go back to sleep, or take a walk in a park, or read a book under a tree, or make a picnic lunch and share it with someone I love.” The General Public recites these fickle fantasies relentlessly, sharing their simplicity-thought-of-the-day from generated by their computer calendars via e-mail with friends they haven’t seen in a while – friends who erase the e-mail before reading it because they’re “too busy for that bullshit right now” what with the cell phone vibrating them back into reality.

Such is our dilemma, or at least one of the big ones. We’re wound up tighter than a 38 knocker in a 34 bra, know it, profess to despise our plight, say we want to change it, all while the chasm between simplicity and our complex lives widens, at least until the day our hearts seize up, and we grab our chests and say, “Shit, I should have simplified!” Did you know that “Shit” is the most common last word for those who see the light at the end of the tunnel was a train after all? “Shit” would indicate that in the moment before death, we are generally, and probably specifically, remorseful about something we’ve done, or something we didn’t do, and likely both.

We, the Still Alive And Very Busy On Our Way To Being Dead, who work hard so we can lament our fate and buy Starbucks and the newest “How To Simplify Your Life” book at Barnes & Noble over our fifteen minute lunch hour, keep running on the treadmill pretending that if we run long enough, we’ll actually get somewhere when we’re 65 or 70, that we’ll one day, when we're old and sick and can't get it up anymore, that we'll be comfortable, that those relative handful of minutes before death are more important somehow than all the moments that have come before. But, that said, we don’t turn the treadmill off long enough to ask, “Why am I running at all?”

And, a lot of life simplification texts write off our inability to simplify as simply being too busy to think about it. Bullshit. I sense there is something more to our desire to simplify than just being too busy to give it a passing thought.

No, the ugly, but altogether real truth, is that we don’t really want to simplify our lives. We want to talk about it, but we don’t really want to do it. Or, better said, we want something else more than we want simple lives and that something else we want makes our lives complex.
What's that something else?

Stuff. We want bigger stuff. We want more stuff. And, because more never becomes enough in the hierarchy of desire, if only because there is always more, stuff requires more struggle, more work, more time, and there always seems to be more, even though there is never enough.
Examples? They are legion.

Cars. Today, more means to take the number of driving-age adults and children in the house and add 1. Are those enough cars? No one knows. 6-car garages are no longer uncommon. How big? No one knows. The Ford Expedition was obscene just a few years ago, but it’s baby shit compared to the Hummer, once an armed personnel carrier used by Navy Seals to attack, well, whoever needed it. It's wider than most streets, a 4 ton behemoth that comes standard with a step ladder, a vehicle with enough torque to snap a giant redwood like a toothpick and a 10,000 pound winch for a reason no one knows, except that it looks cool. It's not for Seals anymore. Now, it is a way to the office that looks like a tank, rides like a tank, sounds like two tanks, and on a good day will get 6 or 8 miles to the gallon of premium gasoline. Without the optional machine gun mount, you can have one for only $116,423, plus tax, title, license, options and gas guzzler tax are, of course, extra. Along with it, you get a payment book, an 856 page manual much of which is dedicated to how to change a tire, an insurance policy that accurately classifies your vehicle as a “weapon of mass destruction,” and, oh yes, you get the point of the purchase – an admiring neighbor whose Ford Expedition suddenly looks puny.

Houses, likewise, are more and bigger. How many houses? Dual home owners have tripled in the last decade, and it was only 25 years ago that the average house built in America was 1,200 square feet. It had 2 bedrooms and 1 bath. Today, a lot of garages have 2 bedrooms and 1 bath, because you need a place to relax and clean up after venting your spleen on an unsuspecting, but altogether-admiring General Public, in your new Hummer before entering the real home – that 4, 5, 6, or 8 bedroom monument (to yourself) that tells everyone that you either won the lottery or have great credit, but mostly that you’re an idiot.

You know you’ve made it when you wander through your house and say, “I don’t remember this room,” and mean it. You know you have it all when you can pee in two different counties and never leave the main house. You know you’re somebody when you live in a neighborhood where everyone is so afraid of someone stealing your shit that they you and your neighbors get together and wall yourselves in and hire rent-a-cops with orders to kill anyone who doesn’t have an authorized retina scan or a lawnmower with an intent to use it.

More? Cars, houses, vacations, entertainment, the list is as long as the advertisers want it to be, to-wit, never ending.

The good news is that the biggest house hasn’t been built yet and the last gallon of gas hasn’t been used. The bad news is there is nothing simple about big, more or most. More is complicated, if only because it never becomes enough and the incremental addition of more to our lives adds more hassle than it is worth. It’s not more, but the fallout from having more and wanting more, that we bitch about. “Oh, my life is sooooo complicated.” No shit. It gets a bit tense when your Hummer is in the shop, leaving the garage feeling empty, the security system goes on the blink and you can’t sleep at night for fear some wannabe is going to come take your dead animal pelts, the pool boy is humping your daughter or maybe it’s the locksmith, and you can’t find your Prozac because you don’t remember where that bathroom is.

To “simplify” would mean to give that up, or at least the dream of it, and to sell it, give it way, or even better, buy a gallon of gas and some matches and set a good insurance fire. “Simplify,” by definition, means to get smaller, to have less, not more, to worry about, insure, store, repair, protect, and otherwise fret over. It means trading the Hummer in on a used Sentra, and living in a house that has only one bedroom per person, on the altogether logical assumption that you can only sleep in one room at a time. It means sending your kids to public schools on the theory that you’ve already paid for them with your taxes and as a good will gesture to all those dumb children who come from people who work for you. They might actually learn something from your children, but more likely your little cretins will learn something from them, like how not to obsess, for example.

Simplify means not having the latest stainless steel Viking range with enough BTU’s to melt solid titanium, and in its place put in a $300 gas range that can cook an egg or two in the morning. It means firing the pool service because you decided you didn’t want a pool that no one swims in anyway. It means turning off the 24-hour advertising machine, the TV, which makes us stupid and tells us repeatedly what turds we really are if we don’t own the newest 400 horsepower kitchen mixer with a bowl big enough to make cookies for a battalion. Face it. You don’t have a battalion to feed. You will never have a battalion to feed. Instead of pretending you do, be thankful you don’t.

Net-net what simplifying means is to stop wanting more. It means looking around at what you have right now, this minute, and saying, “Do I really need all this shit?” “Is all this crap making me happy or is it making me crazy?” Simplifying means making the very conscious, openly articulated decision not to want one thing more – to say, “Screw the advertisers. I’m not going to be manipulated another day. I’m cutting off the catalogs, HSN, and I’m not going to Sam’s Club like it was an entertainment experience. What I have is enough. I don’t want anymore because it is going to make me spend more, use more, work more, and take more of those pills I know I left in one of those bathrooms.”