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Simplification, Part One — Confessions of an Underpants Gnome

September 25, 2011

You may have heard of the Gnomes, aka the Underpants Gnomes, from the animated series  South Park (you can watch the full episode by following this link).  The Underpants Gnomes were entrepreneurial types, who had a very compelling business plan.   They were marching around in the middle of the night, singing a work song reminiscent of a deranged version of the dwarve’s work song from  Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, stealing underpants from the drawers of South Park residents to fulfill the first part of the following simple three phase plan.


Phase 1.  Collect Underpants

Phase 2. ?

Phase 3. Profit

The Underpants Gnomes are well on their  way to becoming a serious cultural metaphor, along the lines of “Catch 22”, or “Houston, we have a problem”, or  “He made him an offer he can’t refuse”.

While I was desperately trying to clean 30 years or so of accumulated clutter in preparation for selling my house, I began thinking of myself as an Underpants Gnome, with the following business plan:

Phase 1. Collect clutter

Phase 2. ?

Phase 3. Profit

Let me explain …

I’ve never had expensive, ostentatious tastes, and certainly don’t crave the largest items available.  Likewise I’m not an early adopter of electronic gadgetry.

I don’t want a Chevy Suburban or a Bugatti Veyron,  a yacht or a bass boat.  I don’t have an iPhone, and iPad, a kindle or a nook.  When I replace a cell phone I don’t get a smart phone, and in fact strive to get the stupidest phone possible (“Will it alert me when a call comes in?  Does the plan have voice mail?  No, I don’t want a camera, or texting, or anything extraneous to the core function of a telephone”).

However, if I allow my natural impulses to hold sway, I’m a serious pack rat.  I can hang on to broken, obsolete, or seldom-to-never-used items as if I’ve been in a lifetime audition for the TV show Hoarders.  The hoarding of objects also has characteristics which cause the process to accelerate.  When you exceed a certain number of discrete items in a finite space, keeping up with any one item becomes nearly impossible.  So if there’s an actual need for the item, the fastest way to deal with the problem is to go out and buy another one.  Hence, as I was cleaning out the house I was selling, I found several number 2 Phillips screwdrivers, three blenders, and multiple copies of “Diet for a Small Planet”.  It struck me as hilariously ironic that I had multiple unused copies of a book on environmental issues.

For any given item, there might be a plausible reason for hanging onto it.  Practical reasons, such as “I made need it someday”.  Sentimental reasons, which is fine unless I get to the point of having hundreds of badly stored sentimental items.  Environmental reasons such as “I know I can donate or recycle this item”.  The insidious thing about the environmental argument is that it’s true, but often irrelevant unless that commitment to recycle or donate is practiced habitually, over time.  If I accumulate a sufficient quantity of junk, it’s going to wind up in a landfill some day anyhow, either arranged for by me while I’m alive,  or my surviving family after I’m gone.

I did manage to get the house cleaned out.  I also donated and recycled as much of the stuff as I could without bogging down the project to the point that it never finished.

Now I’m poised to carry the process further, and pare down my belongings to the point that I don’t have anything that doesn’t serve a real purpose.

I wrote a post last week entitled Tiny houses, close proximity, and simplicity.  This post is the introduction to that part of the series dealing with simplicity.  I wrote it as a confessional to acknowledge that I’m struggling with that issue myself, and that I’m not really a simplicity guru.

If I had to choose someone for that title, I’d probably pick Leo Babauta, whose wonderful website Zen Habits is a treasure trove of resources on simple and minimalistic living.

If you’re interested in starting a campaign to simplify your life, I’d begin by browsing through the articles in the Start Here section of Zen Habits.  The articles are simple, straightforward, practical, and highly readable.

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