Simplifying Life Would Be Much Too Complicated


The omnipresent clicketyclack of computerized innovation got you down? Is your life built of and voicemail and “quality time” and “comfort zones?” The solution is simple. No, I mean, really simple. Simply get simple. Seem too simplistic? Well, a lot of baby boomers (will someone please retire that term?) don’t think so. They’re leading a “voluntary simplicity” movement.

This newest permutation of New Age-y trends, it seems, is aimed at turning back the clock to a more bucolic day when streets were full of horse dung and people read books by sputtering tallow. It’s not such a bad idea, really. Anything that might result in the death of cell-phone driving and “Suddenly Susan” is OK by me. Do I oversimplify? I don’t think so. It’s already happening.

In Ohio, there is something called the “neo-Luddite” sect. This is a back-to-basics, nonreligious group named for weavers who smashed power looms in 1812 while England industrialized. The members--former librarians, teachers, executives--favor horse-pulled buggies and human bank tellers and eschew TV and e-mail. They make only one concession to technology--that monument to ingenuity, the flush toilet. Outhouses are just a little too simple, apparently.


Then in Seattle, there is Cecile Andrews, kingpin (er, queenpin) of what is termed the “voluntary simplicity” movement. She even wrote a book about it, “The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life” (Harper Collins), and has lead “simplicity circles” since 1992. A “simplicity circle,” as near as I can tell, is where people sit in a circle and have long, convoluted discussions about how to get simple.

Well, who can really blame them? I read yesterday that a local shoe store offers 650 kinds of sneakers--650! Footwear for every type of human activity: playing basketball, bird-watching, walking out to pick up the morning paper, running from cops, skeet shooting, campaigning for president, shuffling obsequiously. . . .

It made me think about many of the things that make our Millennium Eve world so confoundedly, exasperatingly complex: female mud wrestling, cigarette companies that claim tobacco is harmless, Michael Jackson, Grateful Dead brand nonalcoholic wine, tongue studs, men paid tens of millions of dollars to hit a ball with a stick, cattle fed on the ground-up corpses of cattle, Prince Charles’ fascination for Camilla Parker-Bowles, Prince’s name, O.J.’s defense, HMOs, Kathie Lee Gifford’s popularity, armor-piercing bullets, Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner, car alarms, Elvis’ face on Mars, comets that drive masses of Web site specialists to suicide, Oprah Winfrey’s mysterious power to define important literature. . . .

It’s enough to drive anyone back to the compost pile, right? I certainly had my fill of complication long ago--probably when that pastor told me that God has an attitude, and heaven, a condition (just what a 12-year-old wants to hear). Or maybe it was later, when people started answering phones with “Holdplease” and then disappeared, or dispatched you to the “press one for more options” labyrinth.

I found myself wondering, might I qualify to join the neo-Luddites? Voluntary simplicity? Where do I volunteer? I checked Andrews’ book, which revealed 10 “key questions” that would tell me if I need to get simple--if I need to “Zen it up,” as all those cool people say in Hollywood script writing conferences. I did my best:

1. What is going on in your life that attracts you to the subject of voluntary simplicity? I can’t get simple involuntarily.


2. What negative educational experiences have you had? High school, college.

3. What is something that you bought that you regret buying? Why did you buy it? Vegan cheese substitute. I was trying to lower my cholesterol.

4. Is there something in your life that is a constant theme that you have always loved to do? Well, yeah, but gee, it’s a little embarrassing.

5. What are ways you have already earned money doing what you love to do? I once played drums in a band, and got $300 for a recording session. The music wound up in a so-called adult video.

6. When you recall a time in your life when you experienced community, what are the central elements that made it meaningful? I worked for a couple of newspapers. I got a regular paycheck, and it was easy to meet girls.

7. What in our society discourages community? How could we encourage community at work? I think television discourages community, because everyone stays home and watches it. How could we encourage community? Create churches built around television worship. Oh, wait--I guess we already did. They’re called sports bars.

8. What are some of the negative consequences of rushing? Yes.

9. What are some of the ways you would like to change your work situation? I’d like to make money, and to work for more people who are not demented.


10. What societal changes would bring about a reduction in people’s greed? Oh, a giant asteroid slamming into North America, causing atmospheric debris that would blot out the sun, and result in the extinction of Homo sapiens.

How ‘bout it, Ms. Andrews? Do I pass? Am I good simplification material? I leafed through her book, hoping to find an answer. It was an impressive tome, too--256 pages, with a nice, simple cover, going for a simple $20. I felt momentarily sorry for the author, whose life must now be all gummed up with profit money, as I scanned the chapters. Part Two was entitled “Getting Clear,” with segments called “Seeing Clearly,” “Clearing Space” and “Getting Clear.” Clearly, this seemed a likely place to find clarity.

Getting simple, Andrews advised, “means different things to different people.” Ah-ha! Now I was on to something. It could mean, she continued, “to remove clutter from my life.” (Yes, but I’d have nothing left.) It could mean “to let go of commitments that are not fulfilling to me.” (Good, I can stop working, shaving and making conversation.) It could mean “more time for reflection, more time to be human.” (Well, I don’t think I need more time to contemplate how screwed up everything is. As for being human, this was a fine idea. I can quit shape-shifting into wolves and panthers.)

It could mean “to express my inner self.” (That’s probably not such a good plan, especially when I’m behind the wheel of a car.) It could mean “to want what I have, feel grateful and content.” (Yes, I hereby resolve to really want a cheesy apartment that’s too hot in the summer, too many bills, and a car that breaks down once a month.) It could mean “to follow my passion.” (This is a just plain lousy idea, in my case. I’d wind up a broke, highly mediocre musician, or a painter of unskilled, undistinguished abstract paintings. Besides, I tried “following my passion” with writing, and look where that got me.)

“Everyone can simplify their lives in some way,” she wrote. (That was encouraging!) “Even the small things people do are important and fulfilling. They learn there is no one way to simplify: Rather, each person’s unique way grows out of analysis of his or her own life.”

I repeated it over and over in my mind . . . there is no one way to simplify . . . each person’s unique way . . . grows out of . . . an analysis . . . of his or her own life.


What? Analyze my life?

I think I’ll stick with complexity. Much simpler.