Monday, March 25, 2019

Why Simplicity is Hard

In many lines of work, professionals will tell you that the simplest tasks can be the hardest to really master.

I've usually attributed this to exposure. A band of fourteen screeching electric guitarists can hide issues/problems more effectively than one spotlit dude introspectively strumming. Lamb stew may conceal many a shortcut and still be delicious, but a decent spaghetti carbonara requires meticulousness. There's simply nowhere to hide when you're doing something simple.

But as I recently reheated some leftover lasagna (lasagna!!!) with brutish vapidity (belying the many years of experience behind my reheating choices), thunking the cold carby slab into a nonstick skillet at medium heat, drizzling a tablespoon or two of chicken stock into the pan, covering, and cutting heat back to low at first sizzle, I experienced a flash of self-awareness, showing me how Philistinian I looked.

Not a pretty picture. I appeared like some elderly British pensioner futzing around mournfully in his bathrobe, dutifully executing a series of tasks beginning with the opening of a reeking can of cat food. This is not how magic conjuring is assumed to look (yet again: magic is messy).

But then I transferred the lasagna to my plate and beheld a thing of beauty. The bottom was just starting to crunch/caramelize, and the rest was perfectly melty and moistened. As is often true, my reheating turned out better than the original. So-so lasagna was transformed into something that could make you weep. All via my dull, dutiful, uninteresting actions (it reminds me of Von's inability to account for the magic of his legendary cookies cooked from the recipe on the oatmeal box).

But thinking back on it, I realize that I'd done one really clever, advanced, amazing thing: I stayed out of the way. There are infinite ways - many of them smart-seeming - in which I could have made it worse, and I did none of them. Very few people can downshift to this lowly level of utter brutish vapidity. No one wants to be Nigel in his shabby bathrobe. They all want to be brisk, confident David Copperfields. They want to execute moves.

Simple things are hard because of the exposure, sure, but, just as much, it's because we're sorely tempted to screw things up with counterproductive complexity.
My favorite Yiddish word: "undgepotchkied", the term for something hopelessly over-tweaked. It's a subset of FUBAR.
In fact, the very essence of being human is the inclination to fuck up simplicity via heavy-handed complication. It's what we do.

As I wrote in my explanation of why god lets bad things happen:
Consider America. After millennia spent desperately seeking cheat codes for this world, figuring the whole while that things would be so much better if only we could purge the illness and lions and warlords, the famines, draughts, and extreme poverty, we've done it! This richest of rich-world countries has expunged the vast majority of its nemeses! Yet look around you. Most of us spend most of our time building needless drama, stress, and sorrow for ourselves. We are far more depressed than any human beings anywhere, ever. We build internal towers of brooding discontent, and spend vast tracts of time lost in tumultuous TV shows and video games and sad songs and memories of pain and worries of loss, desperately seeking out whatever snatches of drama we can find to identify with. Having finally slayed the monsters, we are bored, discontent, and hellbent on creating new monstrous worlds to inhabit as deeply and as continuously as possible. Virtual reality technology is right around the corner, and one senses that the public can hardly wait. Do you imagine we'll use it to build lovely realms without violence, pain, or menace? Of course not. We like those things! We plainly crave them! Even in our "real" offline lives, we creatively find dire stress and drama amid our ridiculously safe and comfortable American existence!


Display Name said...

Wait you have a cat? :) Very timely post Jim. After having to go to the IRS in person to prove who I am awhile ago the refund came at last today! I splurged by going to Bova which is a wholesale place open to the public for lasagna fixings and also their frozen raw pizza dough. When I reheat that lasagna a few days from now I will try your technique including the required bathrobe. I usually just nuke or gently reheat my lasagna in the pan in my convection oven. Gotta wait though as first I have to make meatballs in sauce before the lasagna gets made.

Jim Leff said...

I don't have a cat, and I'm not an elderly Brit named Nigel, either.

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