Saturday, November 15, 2008

The new normal

The picture: Jizo in the Zen garden, unconcerned about the change of seasons.
"You know, poverty isn't so bad." I can imagine a character in an off-Broadway production saying it to a friend, with a lilt of surprise in her voice. The play wouldn't be about real poverty, of course, the grind of hunger and bad sanitation, unsafe neighborhoods, no medical care, no hope. It would be about the new poverty many middle-class Americans are facing. You could call it the same old simplicity. We are getting down to basics.

Sales of paper towels have fallen off, I see, 11%, not as much as sales of women's fragrances (47%). It is fairly obvious that perfume is a luxury, maybe not so obvious that paper towels are not one of life's necessities. In fact - here comes some reminiscence - I believe they didn't even exist when I was born, though I don't feel inclined to research the history of the paper towel on this lovely, slow rainy day.

How did you wipe up spills? With a dishrag. With rags, which were torn out of old, old unmendable white sheets, sheets from the day before sheets had pattern and color and lace, yet were functional, and felt wonderful when they were freshly washed and had hung in the sun to dry.

You wiped up spills with dishtowels. I recall my shock the day I noticed in my aged parents' garage a neat package of store-bought rags. My parents were born poor in 1920, and they were thrifty. I'd never thought I'd see the day when they would waste money like that, but I guess neatness at last trumped thrift.

Many thoughtful people have always lived on the sceptical edge of the consumer society, being careful about consuming trees, for instance, using cloth napkins and discussing whether that is really a savings. It might depend on how often you wash them. I recall reading somewhere once that the Duke of Windsor was quite surprised when someone explained to him that napkin rings were used to keep the person's napkin in place from one meal to the next. "You mean they don't get a fresh napkin with every meal?" He really couldn't imagine.

So much of what we are now giving up was unsatisfying, and often experienced as stress. I think of family dinners at cheap sit-down restaurants, because Mom's too tired to cook; hectic travel; all that Christmas. Keeping up that big house, and the cottage on the lake, and the boat, and the cars.

When Tom went into pulmonary rehab several years ago, his class was taught to learn "your new normal." It's hard to adjust to being dis-abled. We had once been able, able to do what we felt like doing, and we resented the loss. There is truth to the grief, fear, frustration we feel in any loss, and we need to acknowledge it. It will pop up its ugly little troll-like head now and again.

It's also true that for many of us the present moment is pretty much alright, warm and dry, the larder stocked. Oatmeal is delicious in this weather. The library has some excellent DVDs, and if you don't buy books you don't need to dust them. The grandson has always preferred macaroni and cheese to just about anything else, and enjoyed learning to play Parcheesi, a viable alternative to his Gameboy. It's amazing how well he remembers the rules, and the outcome of every game.

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