Not much to say about not saying much

The first thing you should know about The Minimalists is that they’re huggers. “Can I grab a hug?” self-appointed minimalism expert Joshua Fields Millburn asks in one scene. Sometimes he skips the consent part altogether and just tells people he’s “a hugger.” It’s sort of the slimier cousin of the Free Hugs campaigns that plagued the late aughties/early ’10s, but these hugs aren’t free; they’re part of the package that Millburn and his cohort Ryan Nicodemus are selling. The rest of the package is… minimalism.

I started watching the Minimalism documentary on Netflix last night and was about one hug away from turning it off when Joshua walked into the middle of a salt flat and started reading a woe-is-me college entrance essay about being sad in Ikea, and I decided to stick around for the cringe factor, since it was clear that – pardon the pun – I’d be getting very little else from the documentary. That’s the thing about minimalism – there isn’t much to say about it.

The irony of the film is that it hinges on the presumption that most Americans are living either in a never-ending state of purchase-induced mania, or in quiet desperation amid a mountain of empty Amazon boxes set against a backdrop of Times Square ads. If you were a person whose entire conceptualization of American culture were one you’d gleaned from, say, Netflix, you might very well assume that most Americans have enough disposable income to have such problems. But even the most superficial investigation into the microeconomics of the typical American household would lead you to an entirely different planet than that which The Minimalists purport to inhabit – one where people are indeed more concerned with putting food on the table, paying off medical or student loan debt, and/or making rent than they are with buying new televisions or having storage space.

For people whose financial woes are very real (that is to say, not the white liberal Silicon Valley types who are [exclusively] featured in the documentary), a quick lesson in minimalism – a bit of a Marie Kondo – might be a very good jumping off point for tightening the pursestrings. But Millburn and Nicodemus can’t exactly sell books, tickets, or Patreon subscriptions to poor people, can they? So their target demographic is people who are fortunate to be able to, for instance, travel around the world as “digital nomads” or live in nice but sparsely decorated homes in good school districts in the Southwestern suburbs.

At the risk of repetition, how much can one really say about minimalism? Either you can’t buy very many things, or you choose not to. If you choose not to, there isn’t much pontificating you can do on the matter of minimalism without sounding like, pardon me, a sanctimonious fuckwit. I’ve purged my life of Stuff on multiple occasions, but not because my stuff was making me unhappy, because my life sucked and I wanted a new one. And the privilege of having that choice – to pack up and move to another country and live off of my savings for a while – exists fully because my parents weren’t always rich, and when I was a kid I watched them make frugal choices so that they could pay for me to screw around a little in around in my twenties without worrying about paying bills or racking up debt.

So maybe the big takeaway from the documentary isn’t that having less shit makes us happier, but that having more economic freedom does. One would think that a film about having less stuff might attempt to address how poor people live, both in America and elsewhere, but that would of course put into stark relief the fact that the Minimalists are literally selling Very Little as if it’s a brand and not the default. They’re selling ideas, but one wonders if they’re selling the equal and opposite ethos of that which they decry – one borne of a profound emptiness.


If I was supreme dictator of the whole entire universe, I guess I’d start with cargo shorts. I find them distasteful. I know it’s pretty low on the scale of societal malignancy, but it seems like a waste of fabric, and honestly, when you’re supreme dictator, you ought to start somewhere benign before you start chipping away at the big stuff. It’s the foot-in-the-door method of totalitarianism.

The thing about cargo shorts is that they’re ugly and only seem practical. People don’t walk around with things in the pockets of their cargo shorts because physics dictates that the contents of the pockets would flop around on one’s leg and pull the shorts down, exposing one’s Fruit of the Loom brand underwear. Cargo shorts haven’t been fashionable in a decade but people buy them thoughtlessly in the same way they buy the brand of margarine spread their mom always bought even though it tastes like wallpaper paste. No one would be sorry to see cargo shorts and margarine spreads thrown into an active volcano.

So I’d definitely start small. I’d find other things to throw into the active volcano, things that people wouldn’t really miss after a few days. Car fresheners that hang from the rearview mirror? Volcanoed. Anything that bears the likeness of Bob Marley? Vaporized. Home decor that has inspirational wording on it? Incinerated. You’re welcome.

You can get rid of those kinds of things and people won’t really fuss too much, and no one would call you an evil dictator if you paired your megalomania with one of those minimalist philosophies that people like Gwyneth Paltrow champion on lifestyle blogs as they hawk rose gold bonsai trees. “Does it bring you joy?” I would ask, dangling a Blender Bottle over the gaping mouth of a gurgling volcano.

The next step is more difficult; the more obvious I am about my loathings, the more people will call my character into question. Window decals that memorialize the dead – my approval ratings would plummet if I threw the In Loving Memory of Chad factory into the bowels of the Earth. “You think a sticker remembering my dead child is distasteful?” they would ask. I wouldn’t really have a good answer; I guess I would subsidize garden plaques.

Halos of Camera Flashes

Ariana Grande’s whistle tone chirps over a symphonic refrain – “imagine… imagine… imagine…” The song culminates abruptly in an upswing of modern gospel – a life cut short. Throughout the song, in spite of by-now nauseating cultural references, like “skrrt skrrt” and “click click click and post / dripped, dripped, dripped, in gold,” the song manages to fuse the balladry of mourning – that keening whistle note and the cathedral-sized interludes – with R&B and well-placed silence and sultry verses.

It’s the fusion of the light-hearted appeal of Hollywood and Tragedy; the compassion and chatter on Twitter, the tributes and the triumphs and the trials of The Known Class – they’re versions of ourselves but with more money. But the personal life of a celebrity is something that’s immortalized on a Wikipedia page. It’s something that can make or break a person’s career; it can be a boon or a bust, and there’s no stepping out of it like there is in other industries. They’re branded for life, their own names and faces either haunting them or making paychecks.

That inseparability – of the public and the private life – has transformed pop music into a goldmine of genuinely personal work.

The pop music of the late 90s and early 00s was filtered through record execs and management teams and paparazzi and stage parents. The music was infectious and remains memorable, but the fact remains that teams of producers and songwriters and hordes of industry buffs were in collusion churning out radio-friendly, semi-salacious, auto-tuned bullshit, much of which was a blatant and bad reinterpretation of the hip-hop that the decade was blessed with several years prior.

Today, the genre is sprouting YouTube and Soundcloud talent, and that competition is driving the big names to capitalize on not just their music but their stories as human beings. An album is equal parts spin-story and sound. Artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Drake have at once capitalized on and suffered within their music, their lives exposed, during vulnerable moments of heartbreak and tragedy and scandal.

How could the music not address it? They, and the industry at large, directly capitalize on folly and downfall and death. A catalogue that doesn’t address the tabloid fodder would be inherently dishonest.

Is this the idolatry of our time – the myths behind the art, fallible and suffering but untouchable and divine, in halos of camera flashes? Consumption culture riding as disembodied Gucci Tennis Shoes on the back of a line about Cane and Abel. Tiffany’s and “red bottoms.” The smiles and pap walks, the pouts and press and ever-presence.

Beyoncé is perhaps the master of the untouchable pop culture goddess — one recalls a recent video of she and Jay-Z standing in front of the Royal portrait of Meghan Markle, actress and duchess, thanking fans for honoring them with a Brit Award for Apesh**t. That was itself was a callback to the music video for the lead single from their collaborative album THE CARTERS, the third installment in the Carter Family saga (the first being Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated Lemonade, the second Jay-Z’s 4:44). The trilogy addressed the rumored marital problems between the untouchable couple in art, nullifying the cultural value of the infamous elevator scuffle that sparked the rumors.

There are now enough celebrities to epitomize virtually every positive and negative personality trait; and it should perhaps come as no surprise that, in a cyclone of reality TV and politics, we’ve been smited by a Charybdis posed as a pseudo-dictator. The noxious side of pop culture, with its Twitter clarion calls and capricious tantrums, has been crystallized on the head of a spray-tanned and unclothed emperor.

Merch is a wearable anointment, a garment; the concerts and interviews and rallies and speeches are churches made available in our pockets and purses. Legions of worshippers watch as their rulers, their idols, take up arms online, in verse, in real-time. The feuds and failures turn the lens back around on us – the viewers, the consumers, the supporters, the followers. The followers.

Follow. It’s a word that succumbs easily to word fatigue, but it’s a term commonly applied to Christ Himself. It’s been turned into a monetized button, a tithing, and a near-perfect barometer of public interest.  “I’m so successful,” boasts Ariana Grande. Follow. It’s a measure of clout, an accomplishment in and of itself – to be known, to be heard. To be heard. One of the latest phrases in our cultural back pocket is just that: “I hear you.”

It’s infectious, isn’t it? The music, in its accessibility and the personas in their imperfection – but most of all the idea that a single human life is something that ought to be heard by others. The clout so easily begets, in a PR shitstorm, notoriety; the fame begets infamy; the fortunes ride the coattails of indiscretion. But their worst-of-times croons nevertheless echo our own.

Our expectations of pop music now reside in our expectations of its makers, and our demand is reversible and forever at-odds – humanity and perfection; a tug-of-war between the self and the icon.

On Teachers

It had been one of the great mysteries of my lifetime – one day she was there, the next she was “sick.” Days went by, then weeks. Lincoln Logs rose and fell, and before we knew it the year was over and our substitute teacher had become our real teacher. She even appeared at the top of our yearbook page.

I never knew what happened to my Kindergarten teacher until many years later when I was ringing up my boss’s wife’s soy milk at the health food store I worked at during high school. She was a veteran Kindergarten teacher at the same gradeschool I’d attended, from the days before the peanut butter sandwich was a chemical weapon. “Oh wow, you had Mrs Gerber? Huge scandal; the poor old woman had a pill problem.”

And just like that, the greatest mystery of my lifetime had been solved. I felt a deep sense of loss; life ought to be full of mystery and wonder and pointless conjecture. In the time it took to apply a paltry employee discount to a dairy substitute, I’d been robbed of fodder for my wayward imagination (a feeling which lasted until 2014, when my conspiratorial gears creaked into motion again following the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370.)

I recall the ceremonial meet-and-greet before the first day of school. I was staring at the kind of linoleum that would serve as the stage for the next 17 years of my life. My mother pried me off her leg and made me “say hello to Miss Gerber!” Miss Gerber was old, her skin mottled with sunspots, her hair an unkempt space helmet affixed to her head by gaudy geometric earrings. Her left arm was in a cast slung across her matronly midsection. She looked at me with glassy eyes and tightened her features across her face in one of those closed-mouth smiles that kind old women make.

Ms. Gerber had been in a car accident and broken her wrist and had subsequently been prescribed opioid painkillers. She was positively swimming through the first 6 weeks of the school year. She spent most of her time doting on us rather than teaching. “Oh, you’re all so special,” she would say. “Just wonderful.” I’m sure we did seem like an awfully special class since every other class for the past 30 years of her career had been presided over in a state of dull sobriety.

Then one day Ms. Crock showed up. “Ms. Gerber is sick,” she said. “I’ll be your substitute teacher today.” Ms. Crock was nice enough; she was younger and seemed – well, sober. She did a good enough job reading children’s books and disciplining Christopher Suppelsa, who had a habit of cutting off his shoelaces with safety scissors. The administration offered Ms. Crock a permanent position. By the end of the year, our inquiries about Ms. Gerber had slowed to a weekly occurrence rather than hourly. Still, the mystery loomed over us. It reinforced the youthful delusion that the adults in my life lived only in the moments spent in my presence – if Ms. Gerber was no longer in my classroom, she ceased to exist. Matters of object permanence aside, a goodbye would have sufficed.

Constance Blair’s character flaws were obvious enough that there could be no conjecture about her status as a basketcase. She was my second grade teacher and an absolute sadist. If you had the misfortune of having a birthday between August and May, you were liable to find yourself braced against the ledge of the chalkboard, ass facing the class while “the Blair Witch” delivered “birthday spankings” using a wooden ruler. She didn’t cause any physical harm, just the kind of emotional trauma that starts as a salty burn deep in your eye sockets and spreads to the top of your skull and down to your sternum until all 40 pounds of you is hot and inside-out and and inflated from holding back the confused rage for which, by second grade, you feel you’re too old.

One day, I spilled a drink and I found myself kneeling on the cold floor and swabbing ineffectively at the spill, using dozens of shitty recycled paper towels while the entire class watched. Mrs. Blair stood over me and criticized my technique, which was to push the mess around and wait for this defining moment in my childhood to be over. My face burned and my eyes started leaking into the mess. The saving grace of this memory is that I and my peers had not yet reached the stage of pure sociopathy – that would come in a few short years. We all understood on some level that she was deeply flawed and emotionally unstable. Their sympathy aside, the feeling of smallness stuck with me and worsened with each of her many acts of classroom sadism.

My middle school employed an elderly woman who occupied a useless administrative position that left her with enough free time to “watch” us when a teacher had to step out of class unexpectedly. She would amble in and spend the first few moments threatening repercussions before plopping down at the teacher’s desk and slipping into a sound sleep. Her head would tilt back, falling away from her jaw to reveal a quivering uvula. We behaved, for the most part, but tested the sonic limits of her unconsciousness – if the noise level got too out of hand, she would come to and claim to have been watching us the whole time. Had we been a few years younger, we might have believed her to be some kind of mystic, but we were old enough to know that she was suffering from a health condition that made it impossible for her to be fired.

My memories of school are these supercuts of wonder and embarrassment, lunchroom laughter and tears choked back; fresh pine woodchips in the fall and honeysuckle nectar in the spring. As for teachers, I remember the good, the bad, and the weird. The good teachers are the ones who love their jobs, who give a shit about their kids. The ones who cultivate a sense of wonder in us.

In elementary school, Mr. Avery handed out oil pastels and made Van Goghs of us. In middle school, Ms. Smith demonstrated her love for her job that I all but forgot that I hated math and, for once, felt capable of it. In high school, Mr. Glenn, aware that I was perpetually stoned and disinterested, woke me up by blasting the Grateful Dead’s Box of Rain and launching into a lesson on transcendentalism. The common denominator among these teachers was this intuition about what exactly it is that makes a kid feel capable and cared-about. They knew how to ignite our curiosity and make our failures feel less like failures and more like learning.

As a new teacher, I fall somewhere on the spectrum of utter mediocrity. At this stage, I’ll likely be forgotten completely, as are most average teachers. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough that I’m remembered the way I remember the good teachers in my life. In any case, I’m not a sadist, a narcoleptic, or otherwise afflicted with something that will forever etch me in their memories as a whackjob. For now, I’ll probably forgotten like yesterday’s breakfast. And for now, that’s okay. I’m happy to leave each of my lessons having learned more than any of my students.

Lunch in Katy, Texas

Viewed from space, Houston, like all cities, very nearly resembles a malignant cancer or a slime mold. But it’s different somehow; it’s a pernicious kind of mold unique to the green prairies of America. Houston is a prime example of induced demand – the highways always reach capacity no matter how wide and plentiful they are because humans will always move in on empty space. It’s the microeconomics of Manifest Destiny.

You scream or sputter along the arteries of this megatropolis on massive freeways, flyover interchanges supported by beams emblazoned with a star of Texas, and for miles you see a landscape heaving with big box stores and fast food restaurants and malls and megachurches; strip malls of culture; retail space measured in football fields, parking lots big enough to land jetliners; consumable, retouched, gas station tchotchke faith. It’s a vast Mecca of a particular kind of consumerism unique to America – doubly evocative in that Houston is built beneath the burping smokestacks of oil refineries.

I stopped for lunch in the suburb of Katy. Katy is a place where the earth is systematically scraped clean of all vegetation and replaced with the empty promise of happy families. Pine scaffolding and insulation and sheetrock and a facade encase the promise and massive tracts of land are geometrically organized in such a way that streets lined with mailboxes and trash cans wind gracefully into cul-de-sacs. Once a suburb has been carved into the earth, a landscape designer will plop tiny little saplings onto the earth and adorn The Promises with visions of the fully grown tree. “It’s a new build!”

I stopped for lunch just as Church™ got out and stood haggard and underdressed among the faithful in line for overdressed salads. At the register, Manicure thumbed through her patent leather pocketbook as her flailing blond-haired son flung his limbs and farted his armpits. Behind me, a floral skirt flitted just above a pair of diabetic ankles crammed into orthopedic pumps. The woman living above the skirt looked down in purse-lipped judgment at the flailing limbs and then at my shoes then my pants and then my shirt and then my unmade face. I smiled. Her pursed lips creaked into a small smile. Her nose crinkled. There was a geometry even in the way our gazes had started at each other’s shoes and met at each other’s self-righteous smiles.

I sat at a table in the corner and watched heads bob up and down to meet forks and spoons. Each head was attached to it’s body by a necklace or a collar. Up and down. They were swans. A Russian ballet of head bobbing, pecking at You-Pick-Two™ specials, jaws churning, adams apples floating up and down on strawfuls of sweet tea. Broken crayons and defrosted french fries accumulate under swinging bobbysocked feet. “What did you learn in Sunday School?” Her tongue stuck out as she tried to color inside the lines. She broke her crayon.

An hour before they had been an audience, a congregation, each of them a pastel-colored scaffolding around which promises are built. An hour before their single-family homes had sat empty while they sat by the thousands in multi-million dollar stadiums of Osteenian faith. Pressure-washed faith; stripped of last millenium’s gothic pomp in favor of clean lines, light shows, and showmanship. At 606,000 square feet, it’s a formidable display of American values – Big Box Glory of God.

23 March 2017

Yesterday I walked into a restaurant and got in line at the register. There were two men in front of me in line. Middle aged, New Balances and tube socks, khaki shorts, potbellies stuffed into polo shirts. They seemed to have just run into each other right then and knew each other through some business venture.

“Did you get the deal?”

“No, I didn’t get the deal, did you?”

The cashier was trying to get Khakis 1’s attention and Khakis 2 kind of looked at her and looked back at him and was trying to figure out how to navigate the situation. The cashier said, “Okay, I guess not” and threw away his receipt.

Khakis 1 all of a sudden became aware of her again.

“I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“I figured you didn’t need your receipt so I threw it away.”

Khakis 1 made that pathetic face that middle aged men often make when they realize they’ve behaved very stupidly. Eyes wide, mouth agape, internally searching for the right thing to say.

When I finally got to the register I laughed for a second and the cashier laughed and we had that silent moment of commiseration about oblivious old dudes who take up space in New Balances.

When I left the restaurant, Khakis 1 was arguing with his wife in front of their kids while the suicide doors of the Tesla waited to whisk them away to a Hill Country McMansion.