The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Simplify! Simplify!
By Steve Watkins

September/October 1999

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Back in January, benumbed by the impeachment trial, the New York City garbage being shipped to my home state of Virginia, Jerry Falwell’s anti-Semitic sermons, and our local newspaper’s calls for a return to the Great Depression, where we godless Americans might rediscover, through extreme deprivation, our moral center, I turned to my wife, Laurie, for help with the political column I write for that same local paper.

She sniffed. “Write about what making Rice Krispies Treats for a Super Bowl party means to you as a man,” she said.

As it happened, I was at that very minute fussing over a large mixing bowl, worrying a lava flow of melted marshmallows onto six heaping cups of Snap, Crackle, and Pop. “And the political significance of that would be what?” I asked.

Laurie was all over the kitchen as we talked—rolling out dough for an apple pie, stirring tofu into homemade miso soup, gutting red peppers to roast in the oven—not for any Super Bowl party but for our family. “You’re the columnist,” she said. “You figure it out.”

Ever since Laurie started reading that Henry David Thoreau last year, things have been this way around our house: enigmatic, with surprising questions, zen koans, challenges to me and our two daughters to look beneath the surface of ordinary things, to turn away from the noisy, jangly business of the modern world.

Advice from Thoreau: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts, of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

And Laurie’s favorite: “Our life is frittered away by detail. . . .  Simplify, simplify.”

In the summer, we gave away our old lawn mower and bought a reel mower—the old-fashioned kind that can’t pollute because it doesn’t have an engine. We decided to maintain our 13-year-old Subaru rather than buy a new car. We got rid of the tv upstairs in the girls’ room. We disconnected the cable to the tv downstairs, so now it’s videos or nothing.

The other day, after 10 months of tv deprivation, our younger daughter asked if we knew what she missed the most about television. We said no, anticipating the worst.

“Gilligan’s Island,” she said. So we sang her the theme song, lamented the fact that the professor and Mary Ann never hooked up romantically, and wondered, as millions of others have wondered, why the Thurston Howell the Thirds and Ginger brought all those clothes for what was supposed to be a three-hour cruise. Then we read aloud to one another from the classics of Western literature.

Actually, what we did was plug in a video of old Chris Elliott “Get a Life” episodes and laugh ourselves sick.

I wish I could report that simplifying our lives in modest ways has made us better people, but it’s a pain in the butt to have to get out the sling blade and hack down those weeds that our new reel mower just can’t handle. What’s more, the agéd Subaru leaks oil all over the carport, and some of the videos that turn up in the house are worse than the stuff on television.

Maybe it’s true, as our daughters sometimes allege, that by getting rid of television we haven’t done anything but narrow our lives. The other day they complained to a friend that their dad’s idea of family time is Scrabble games or group house-cleaning. But I’d like to think that maybe we do read a little more, talk a little more, hang out a little more in the late afternoons after work and school are over and it’s not quite time to fix the dinner or race off to the next dance class or swim practice or meeting.

I never did figure out what making Rice Krispies Treats for a Super Bowl party meant to me as a man—I’m reading cookbooks these days for guidance—but I do know they were a low-rent hit. At the party I saw one guy dunk his in beer, and they were gone by the time Cher finished singing the national anthem, the only part of the Super Bowl telecast our girls showed any interest in.

Then, not long after the opening kickoff, I thought I heard Laurie muttering a line from Walden: “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” When the first quarter ended, we left for home.  Getting out of the car, we stopped and looked up at the stars. Thoreau, as usual, had the last word:

Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact!”

Steve Watkins is an associate professor of English at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and author of The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire.

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