Some Notes on Ron Swanson and the Church of Minimalism

A number of threads have been floating around my head of late, and I don’t know whether I’m forcing something by connecting them, but here goes.

When I worked in the entertainment division of Conde Nast, the walls of our floor were adorned in machismo inspirational quotes. “Don’t half-ass two things; whole ass one thing” was the favorite of our then-GM, who went on to become the company’s chief digital officer, as is the wont of charismatic single men with a knack for speaking in silver-tongued aphorisms and an ability to command a room as easily as they command their custom suits. At the time, I rolled my eyes at the quote’s earnestness but not its substance. Putting your all in something: what could possibly be objectionable about that? It was only recently, when my husband and I were watching Parks and Rec and I heard it en situ, that I thought: bullshit.

Listen, I am a case study of one, and obviously biased towards my own experience, but: what parent can whole-ass one thing? Even if you are devoting your waking hours to the care of your children, you are, what, whole-assing two things? Those things being your parental responsibilities and your relationship with your partner/friends/self/cat? From my limited powers of observation, I would say: no. Maybe you give 80% to your children and 10% to yourself and 10% to your partner during your children’s waking hours and then those percentages adjust when the little demons are finally asleep. And that’s before an interest or passion project or a 9-5 (hahahahaha do 9-5s even exist in New York?) enters the equation.

There are four five six staples of my life these days — my child, my husband, my writing, my job, running, my friends — and at any given moment, I am half-assing one of them because my thoughts are partially with another. Writing, as I am now, with one ear to my son’s room, anticipating his indignant cries. Working as the skyline darkens and my simultaneous itches to get home and to exercise increase. Running home from the office over the Manhattan Bridge and watching the taillights of cars on the FDR change out for the uninterrupted gunmetal of the river and feeling like the run needs to be over and also like it needs to extend for another hour. Having dinner with friends while nursing a feeling of guilt over my husband having handled two bedtimes in a row. Etc.

“I don’t know how you do it all,” is something both my grandmothers have told me, one half-wistfully, the other with not a small amount of blanching. Between them, my grandmothers raised eleven children. My mother’s mother did so while playing a vital role in various charities and throwing and attending what seem, in photos, to have been extremely glamorous, Mad Men-esque parties. Today, at eighty, she never sits still. My father’s mother raised her four with no help while my grandfather, a journalist, went off on the sort of high-adventure, medium-danger trips that provided him with an endless bank of stories, such as hiding in a trunk in the Soviet Union during the 1980 Olympics. “I don’t know how you did it either, ” I said, both times, and I meant it. Coworkers have spoken along similar lines, and to them, my response is: I don’t work until eight, nine, ten every night. (Or any night. If you happen to be a twentysomething reading this: wait until you’re in your thirties to work at an agency. Your twenties are for living!) Anyways, the point is, we all have one pie; we’ve just divided it differently.  

Recently, everything I’ve been reading seems to be a story of this division. We read, for book club, The Blazing World, which depicts, in non-linear flashes, the life of an artist whose work only achieves fame when it has a man’s name stamped across it. I don’t know enough of the art world to say whether this is fair, though I think of Reno, in the Flamethrowers: visible only on the arm of a lesser artist, and valued only for that connection. It seems fair, but it also seemed like the story of a woman who couldn’t decide, early on, whether to commit to being an artist or to commit to being the wife of an adored gallerist, and the mother of his children — and who, critically, saw this choice as binary. And continued to see it as such, casting off much of her role as mother when, later on, she threw herself back into her work. I saw the same binary in I Don’t Know How She Doesn’t (well of course), and in Caitlin Macy’s wonderful Mrs. Wonderful — I mean, really! Macy’s writing has a Salinger-quality to it, deeply observant and wry to its core — but most of its titular chorus have abandoned careers for the pointy elbowed vagaries of Upper East Side nursery school pickup. There is a line about how the truly powerful fathers also deign to come to pickup on occasion — as a demonstration of just how powerful they are. That just about killed me with its aptness, although the same can hardly be said for pickup at my own daycare, where fathers and mothers are in rushed, half-gloved attendance in nearly equal rates.

I can see, on the one hand, how accepting motherhood and careers as binary makes life simpler — from a logistics standpoint if from nothing else. But on the other hand, nothing is binary. We carry our past selves with us; the best we can hope for, I suppose, is that they are not wistful, or worse, bitter.

We who occupy this city’s working privileged, thirty-something strata are often prostrating ourselves at the intersection of intention and distraction. For so long, we equated busyness with making it; now that we’ve made it, we are tactically and mentally unable to be anything but (I think again of Charlie Ravioli, the friend of Adam Gopnik’s young daughter, who, though imaginary, was forever canceling plans.) And yet, we know from reading blogs and listening to podcasts and looking at the ads on the subway that mindfulness is in. Journeling, which is not a word, is in. Self-care is in. $5,000 wellness retreats are in. Marie Kondo’s name has become a verb, the ultimate honor. We know we are supposed to live in sunlit minimalist luxury, in surfaces of matte marble and blush pink. We are supposed to use ladders instead of closets, and drink mushroom tea and know what collagen is. We are supposed to eat sustainably while wearing the tails of arctic foxes to shield our serumed and masked and moisturized faces from a climate that rarely dips into the teens. The websites and ads that extol the value of these things have themselves shed visual weight, added suffused light and spacious typefaces with just the right amount of kearning. I get it. Who doesn’t want to feel cosseted and yet unburdened of choices, apart from the right ones? Who doesn’t want to walk our dirty blocks in impervious serenity? But if whole-assing one thing seems impractical, the cult of mindfulness seems, in its insidious push to get us to replace our thoughtless cheaper things with a never-ending spate of small-batch expensive ones, almost immoral.

I’ve started this post multiple times; I don’t know if I’m forcing this link, between mindfulness and whole-assing, of if they are just, at this particular moment, thorns in my side. A few weeks ago, I took my son uptown, to my great-aunt’s apartment. This apartment has more visual wonder in a square foot — artifacts from many decades of travel, oil paintings and family photographs and venetian paperweights and, in the kitchen, a real-life Aga stove — than can be found in an entire minimalist home tour. It is proof that maximalism takes work, or, rather, takes living. How that fits in with my current hodge-podge of sundries, I’m not sure, but it is something to aspire to.

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