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It's real simple - My life as a simpleton

Call it a knee-jerk reaction to e-commerce and the web and cell phones, but articles, magazines, and television shows have a "let's return to things basic and simple" focus to them lately. There are web sites and magazines, and a plethora of books that hype their council on the simple life of less rush and fewer tasks, in the hopes of finding that most elusive of experiences at the dawn of the millennium: serenity.

My own life is anything but simple, anything but stress-free. I am a solo parent with three sons, I work from home in a proverbial home office, and in the space of six hours each day, I try and cram in family, my work as a freelance writer and baker, friends, domestic life, baseball coaching, the odd private tango lesson, and a page or two of "that novel" of mine. I am a prime candidate to take on the Simple Life.

Recently, I began freelancing for a unique "back to basics" mail order catalog which is billed as the "non-electric" resource for the Amish and those dedicated to the simple life. Hand tools, butter churns, candle making molds, crankable radios, and bicycle-powered generators, energy-saving devices of all sorts. Stocking up with just a few non-electrics should see one through, simply, anything (never mind that the catalog is online and the head office has a mega dish).

Each time I contacted them by phone, I was advised not to bother calling, just to e-mail features. The inconsistency was lost on my editor - or was it was me who missed the proverbial (steam) boat. At any rate, e-mailing articles on time-intensive, hands-on sourdough bread by high speed modem for an audience that coveted a fresh glass of buttemilk while standing in their corn fields, had its irony. It started when I decided to redecorate my suburban home to resemble the set of Oklahoma. I wanted rural. I wanted gingham.

I looked into Flea Market Magazine with the hopes of outfitting my home with bargain- priced "country" antiques, only to find that this publication as well, kept referring to resources on the net. The net flea market circuit got me involved with eBay and rather than taking things easy in my new "simply life" I became harried just making sure I got my bids in for the speckled blue graniteware turkey roaster and the vintage cast iron mini skillet set. Then, I would wait, watching my
e-mail to see if my bid was bids were accepted. Bidding, confirming my purchases, and procuring them became my new day job. I stopped only when I realized that buying a second-hand Gap sweatshirt via eBay would probably cost me triple the price of a new one, and I found twig furniture could be purchased at the local hardware store.

Then came Real Simple Magazine. Aha! Articles on the joys of linen, meditating while ironing, the merits of roasting your own coffee, fourteen (count 'em) nifty new meals based on bowtie pasta, a better way to arrange spices, schematics for making home-made quill pens, and ten ways to better organize your makeup. Real Simple's debut issue featured a riveting feature on "The Three-Quarter Rule". The three-quarter rule is about stocking up on household things before you run out - once 1/4 of your supply has been exhausted.

Less is more. However, I'm always in a hurry and I tend to gloss over things. I read and interpreted the three-quarters rule to mean you wait until 3/4 of your supply has been exhausted. Presumably, restocking before then is a waste of energy, time, space. Well. This worked for two weeks. I saw our household supplies dwindle before my eyes. Did I get tense or worried? Did I replace them? Heck, no! I was living the simple life. The Three-Quarter "golden" rule.

I saw domestic items on sale, store sale coupons flooded the door, still, I did not relent. One morning, there was no milk. "Where is the milk?" asked one of my sons. We are living the three-quarter life now. "What about laundry detergent?" said another "What about tomato soup?" said another. In the following days, we ran out of butter and sugar, vacuum cleaner bags, foil and wax paper, canned tuna, cheese, cereal, even gas for the car. I re-read the article in Real Simple. Three quarters full. Not three quarters empty. That did it. I had failed to master the simple life.

Since then, we have restocked. The garage looks like a cross between survival camp and Walmart. I'm never running out of paper towels again! I have stopped buying kindling for my outdoor stove. I find shredded copies of Real Simple Magazine work well.

Recently, Oprah began hosting shows about "Celebrating Your Spirit" - counting your blessings. Pretty soon, I had a book by each and every one of Oprah's self-help gurus on my shelf. There were daily affirmation books, I-like-myself-as-a-woman diaries, managing your money and freeing your sprit, finding time for yourself, etc. I began living at the bookstore and the library. I began reading around the clock. Soon, I found I was reading about living, rather than living.

I began writing (by candlelight, with quill pens) to friends (who lived around the corner) about the value of friendship. I spent hours learning how to videotape Oprah's show. I began reading Oprah's book of the month club selection in the hopes of being one of Oprah's guests in Chicago to dine and talk to the book-of-the-month author. Had Oprah's show been a university correspondence course, I could not have worked any harder, nor been more diligent. After three months, I fell off the wagon. I missed the "which mask is the real you?" show. Instead, I took a bubble bath, read an old, sappy romance, and I took my sons out for pizza.

Where does that leave me in my quest for the simple life and its simple values? Last mother's day, my sons bought me an indoor fountain, otherwise known as a "Serenity Fountain". Bless those lads. The fountain was set up in a corner of the living room. I decked it out with spruce branches and bits of bark. After a while, the sound of gurgling water drove me nuts. I tried to get used to it. Most of our guests seemed charmed by the fountain. My caustic webmaster noted that he could have furnished the same effect simply by not fixing the upstairs toilet for us. Bless him. The pump in the gurgling "bibelot" stopped functioning after a few weeks. The pump was replaced three times thereafter. This, amidst the schedule of regularly refilling the fountain and re-arranging rocks to assist with water flow. I became a slave to the fountain. This was neither simple nor relaxing. Now, when guests come by and ask "Is that one of those serenity fountains?" I answer "Ummm, no. It's a bowl of water. With rocks." I douse candles and incense in it. Sometimes I water plants with it.

Did I fail to grasp the principles of the simple life? I prefer to think I am simple in my own. A natural. If you pay too much attention to the gurus, you will find there are many routes to the simple life. How simple is that? The simple life is too much hard work.

I'm going out for a walk and then, I'll have a cup of coffee (grown, roasted and ground by someone else). When I return, I am going to make out my grocery list. Seems we're down to 20 cans of tomato soup.

Marcy Goldman

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