Monday, May 25, 2009

Distractions and idiocies

I'm back. Break was good. More about that later. But I want to write about something that I had been thinking about, that an offhand comment of my dinner companion on the train kind of brought to a head.

Perhaps you are as sick as I am of the "new frugality" news stories. Or the "surviving the current recession" news stories.

I was frustrated by them when they first came out. Because so many of them were what I might term "Oy-doy*, Captain Obvious!" stories

(*I don't know what you said when you were growing up to indicate something that was really stupid. We either said "Uh-DUH!" or "Oy-DOY!" depending.)

Stories like, "Oh wow, you can, like, save SO much money if you take your lunch to work instead of eating out."

Um, duh. I've been doing that SINCE I WAS FIRST EMPLOYED. Part of it is frugality, true, but there are three other reasons I carry a lunch:

1. I can eat exactly what I want - I just have to pack it in the morning. So I can boil up a few eggs at the start of the week, or buy the berries I like, or even take a container of cereal and a little thing of milk if THAT'S what I want to eat. The restaurant choices here are not so broad - the choices are basically something fried, a hamburger, or some kind of salad. And I get sick of salad.

2. It's healthier. See the fried things above. I can take more fruit or vegetables if I want. I usually take plain yogurt because I like plain yogurt and it's easy, but it also means I get a bit more calcium in a day than I might otherwise. If I have some kind of good salad made up at home (I have a black bean/corn salad I like to make), I can throw a little jar of it in my lunch and have that. It helps me use up leftovers.

3. I can avoid the giant sucking sound on campus each noon - the exodus of cars to the local eating places, the giant traffic jam leaving and coming back. I can eat in the peace of my office and either check my e-mail or just listen to music or maybe even read over something I've written and think about it.

And really, those reasons more than the frugality one are why I carry a lunch.

So a lot of the early stories on "how to save money" made me roll my eyes because they seemed so dumb and obvious - stuff I did already, stuff that I would think a reasonable person would figure out on their own if they decided they needed to save money for some reason.

But now, the stories seem perhaps a bit more insidious to me.

And here's where the comment the guy I ate dinner with on the train last week makes sense.

We were talking about gardens. I remarked that my mom had a big garden every year; she's good at getting stuff to grow, and she lives in a good climate for growing stuff. And that I had less success; either bugs got my plants, or it got too hot and dry, or something. And he kind of laughed. "Yeah," he said, "my wife and I tried growing a garden one summer. I couldn't believe how much it cost for tools and sprays and all of that. In the end we probably wound up paying more for each tomato we got than what we'd pay at the grocery store."

And then he thought for a moment.

"You know," he said, "I wonder about all these stories on the news where they're talking about people planting gardens, where they're encouraging gardens as a way of saving money...I wonder if it's sort of, you know, a distraction."

And I think he's right, there. If you like gardening, if you enjoy the process and the product and all that, God bless you and go with it. But telling people who have never gardened before - or people who (like me) have gardened a little but not done much - that they "need" to have this neo-victory garden in order to save money or eat local or some other nebulous goal - well, maybe that is kind of a distraction.

The other thing with gardening - it takes time to be successful. For my mom, that's great - she's retired, and as I said, she enjoys gardening so it's like a hobby for her. But I work full time - in the summers, as well. I don't have the hours to pour into a garden to make it work to feed myself on a regular basis. (Even the Ingalls family didn't have a garden sufficient to feed themselves - in the Big Woods they hunted and foraged, and a lot of the time on the prairie they existed on cornmeal and beans from the store). Telling people who are already working long hours that they need to add this on as well seems...well, it does seem like they're being distracted from something else.

And then my dad showed me an article that he got from one of the online services he uses. "Four weeds you can eat!" it trumpeted. Yes, another "recession busting" article - this time telling people to go out and forage for wild greens as a way of reducing their food bills. (I hope they can find neighborhoods where the lawns aren't too heavily sprayed). Again - if a person enjoys this kind of thing, if they see it as an adventure, well and good. But telling ordinary Americans to go out and learn what purslane and lamb's quarters look like so they can go and pick them and cook them up and eat them....I have a bad reaction to that. (And not just because I've TRIED lamb's quarters).

Part of it may be the fact that I remember the story of one of the professors at one of the universities I attended: he had grown up Jewish in the 1930s in one of the countries (Poland? I don't remember for sure) that Hitler invaded. He, his family, and some friends fled into a large forested area and hid out there until they were able to escape to a country where they could get asylum and get to the US safely. They survived by eating wild mushrooms and the weeds they could find.

And part of me goes: as a country we are not yet reduced to that. We are not yet in such dire straits (and God willing, we never will be) that we have to hunt in the hedgerows and the by-ways for greens that we can eat.

Perhaps my reaction to the story is overblown, mainly because of my knowledge of what the man I mentioned above experienced, but I feel a certain revulsion about being told I need to go out and find dandelions and purslane and other wild plants and cook them up and eat them, because times are "so bad." I can find other ways to economize if I have to, thank you very much.

And again, it brings up a pet peeve that I have: the idea of the one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps for some people, going out and foraging for wild food is exciting, fun, and worthwhile. For me, with my sometimes-oogy stomach, and my weird food sensitivities, and my allergies, it could be a very dangerous exercise. Likewise the suggestion that we dry our clothes, sheets, and towels on an old-fashioned clothesline. That's GREAT for some people - it's cheap, it gives things a nice smell, maybe stuff wrinkles less. But for someone like me, with serious pollen allergies - well, hanging my sheets and pillowcases out to dry would make me very miserable. (In fact, many of the anti-allergy guidelines warn specifically against drying stuff outside on lines).

I do know that some people do have lots of difficulties going on. For a lot of people, it's necessary to economize. But somehow, I think these news stories - the sort of "oh noes" type commentary and the breathless pushing of how "wonderful" some new time-consuming thing (like growing a garden) is, without consideration of the costs or the consequences, I think it adds to the problem. Not just the problem of people feeling fearful and uncertain, but also adds to the problem of people beginning to say, "Something must be DONE!" and that "something" turns out to be governmentally-mandated, and it turns out to come with all kinds of unpleasant side-effects. (I am, for example, dreading this new credit-card business going into effect. As someone who pays off in full on time every month, I expect I will be one of the ones either assessed an annual fee or in line for the "interest starts from the moment you purchase something." Which means I will have to learn once again how to live without a credit card - which will probably make travel very difficult and will require me to do things like drop my beloved Amazon Prime service, because you can't mail off a check to Amazon to pay for your books.)


Alli said...

I think a lot of the recession busters you've mentioned are aimed at people with strange priorities. The people they've shown on the local news have been people who still have cable, cell phones, computers, etc but are choosing to eat land grown roots to "beat the economy".

The whole thing is strange.

Christina Martin said...

As a longtime real hardhearted frugality beast, I find those articles annoying at best. They interfere with my desire to find real ideas, and frankly they are aimed at people who will spend an extra two dollars a pound for something so that they can feel like they're saving. Then they can say "I'm making my own baby shampoo for only $16/quart. See? Not only am I don't my 'part' but I'm a superior human being! See? I DESERVE my SUV. All the little people who shop at Wal-Mart are so icky and inferior, don't you know.

Dave R. said...

There will always be media sources anxious to tell us how to live our lives and, worse yet, plenty of human sheep equally anxious to be told.

That you clearly resist falling into either category is one of several reasons why years ago I bookmarked your blog, which I had first encountered accidentally.

The really bad news is that the aforementioned human sheep are usually the people who decide how elections turn out.

The Fifth String said...

We garden too, but it's more because we love homegrown tomatoes than for any cost savings (which don't really exist). It's a tiny garden because we don't have the time and energy to do it big.

And yes, I'm sick of reading the cost-saving tips about the gobsmackingly obvious stuff, like don't go out to lunch every day and don't go to Starbucks every day.