The Magazine

Keep It Simple

’Tis the gift, if you follow these suggestions.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By JOE QUEENAN
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The national conversation about simplifying modern life continues unabated. 

Queenan

Recently, the New York Times reviewed not one, but two books about simplicity on the same day. This comes on top of all the other books and magazines and blogs about streamlining and de-cluttering your life. It’s the same spiel over and over again: There are too many regulations, too many options, too many apps, and too much fine print. The public, neo-Shakers say, is in backlash mode; it wants life stripped down. Trader Joe’s succeeds, the Buddhists of Suburbia argue, because it only stocks 4,000 products. Everyone else stocks 10 times that many. By comparison, Trader Joe is a piker.

I personally do not believe that Americans want to simplify their lives. I do not believe that the vast majority of Americans want to “hit the reset button” and go back to an austere, uncomplicated way of life, before texting and email and tweeting. They only like to talk about that stuff, the way men like to talk about helping out around the house and junkies like to talk about getting clean. But none of them will ever go through with it because they like things just the way they are. 

It was the public’s idea to expand Starbucks’ simple menu to a gigantic list of offerings. It was the public who clamored for multiple rounds of playoffs; nobody cares that the baseball season ends in November. It was the public who demanded an infinite variety of craft beers and craft cupcakes and craft gnocchi and craft guitar straps. The public doesn’t think that a million apps for the iPhone are too many; they think it’s too few. The public likes complexity. The public likes choice. Especially the young public.

But even if people were serious about streamlining their lives, the proposals for simplifying things are never terribly useful. Get rid of any credit cards you don’t need. Which ones are those? Cut down on your magazine subscriptions. Thanks, big help; it was those extraneous subscriptions to Cosmo and Popular Mechanics that deep-sixed this family. Focus your energies on what’s really important to you. Well, for most of us, that’s making money—which is a complicated issue, especially when you’re out of work. 

The biggest problem is that the professional simplifiers chronically fail to address the changes that would make life much simpler. Here, then, are a few plausible, worthwhile suggestions for making life really, really simple.

1. Feign more comas. Man, does this cut down on the phone calls and texts and emails and surprise visits. Comas totally freak out people; they can never tell whether it’s appropriate to bring flowers. Obviously, you can’t overdo this one; maybe one coma every 18 months, mixed in with some virulent, highly contagious disease. For optimal results, keep a log of the diseases you claim to have suffered from. Avoid hygienic clutter. Double-dipping with the exact same disease you had last year is poor form.

2. Stop giving money to charity. It just encourages the bastards. Give them a nickel and then the phone calls start pouring in at dinnertime, and then you have the earnest college kids knocking at the door asking why you don’t care more about polar bears and nuclear war and torture. Not to mention all that junk mail about fracking. For best results, develop a reputation early in life for being parsimonious and uncompassionate. Never give anything to anyone that can be traced back to you. If it makes you feel good to be charitable, go ahead and toss some spare change to the homeless. But don’t give much and don’t do it very often. And never give it to little kids.

3. Die earlier. Unconventional, yes, but it really works. 

4. Purge your friends. It worked for Stalin; it can work for anyone. I have 65 close friends, but I could easily get by with 10. Maybe 6. Three in a pinch. When purging friends, make it official—just like Stalin. Send out registered farewell notes to friends you no longer need. Do it with really nice stationery. “Thinking of You—But Not that Much, and Not that Affectionately” is a good thing to write on sign-off postcards. It’s a nice, civil way of getting old friends ready to feel the axe. They’ll appreciate the classy gesture.

5. Be mean. Like, really mean. You’ll have a far more compact social circle, and your neighbors will never ask you to watch their house or water their lawns or feed their mangy curs while they’re on vacation. Much less babysit their kids. If you really want to clear your dance card, meanness ranks right up there with leprosy.

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