I KNEW TIMES had changed when I stood in Francescas yard and stared at neat rows of Italian arugula, red-leaf lettuce, carrots, and collard greens. Francesca used to be a master of the universe, wheeling and dealing in the media world. Contracts worth millions passed through her hands. Yet here she was, in her little patch of green, unemployed and giggling over a Victory Garden.
Its scary outside these days. I look out my front door and realize that the four guys in the four houses across the street dont have full-time jobs. (Luckily, three of the wives do.) In fact, up and down the block, there seem to be a heck of a lot of people roaming about during the day. I thought my brother-in-law in architecture would be fine since he was designing for the real masters of the universe -- in Dubai -- but even they have halted projects. My husbands family is in home building. The less said about that, the better, although my husband is pathological about reading aloud the latest dire news from the construction front over breakfast -- and he wonders why he has indigestion.
At Christmas, my cousins husband stood on the balcony of a family lake house (not his or mine, alas) and shook his head as he talked about the state of things. He is building shelves in his garage and hoarding canned chicken, peanut butter, and just-add-water noodles there. He doesnt expect the end of the world or anything overly dramatic like that, but he does worry about job security. (Hes not big on handouts, hence the peanut butter.) Yet even Mr. Doom and Gloom sees an upside to all of this. Regardless of whether our worst fears are realized, he says philosophically, we are all going through a positive thought process to reevaluate what we do with our time and money. We are reevaluating our excesses, reevaluating our time with family.
Im hearing a lot of that these days. Sure, the urge to throttle the nearest master of the universe remains, but most of us seem to understand we chose to get on this roller- coaster ride -- and trust it -- when it pulled up to the platform. Now, chastened, we are newly determined to live within our means, hunker down with family and friends, and find new ways to stretch the leftovers in the fridge.
The Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 should have been my first tip-off that new mores were needed. One night, after a depressing day of reporting in New Orleans (no grocery stores, no hospitals, no doctors, no progress), I dropped by the house of a friends dad. He is in his 70s and married to a woman in her 80s. They were gutting their house by themselves, ripping out drywall and flooring. As the sun set each day, they would settle down in their mobile home for a couple of gin-and-tonics. They were stubbornly, wonderfully self-reliant.
I was determined to follow their example. On weekends, when I wasnt reporting in New Orleans and guiltily snuck home to Texas for a hot bath and hot meals, I started developing a list of supplies for my own private Katrina: generator, solar-powered cell-phone charger, gas cans, water cans. How stupid I was. If the worst does come, there wont be gasoline for the generator, and cell-phone service will die, just as it did in New Orleans. I had failed to see the real lesson of New Orleans: that we have to rely on ourselves and on those around us. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Pulitzer Prizewinning author John Matteson called this the twin, paradoxical necessities of self-reliance and interdependence.
My husband gets it. Hes rediscovered hunting, for food, with a friend named Hunter (seriously). Hunter refurbished my husbands old rifle, fit it with a new scope, and took him deer hunting to stock our freezer. Surprisingly, I cheered him on. Texas did, after all, have an abundance of deer during the most recent deer season. Were having pasta with game sauce in our house this spring, thanks to our friends. I, on the other hand, have not done so well. There wont be any homegrown veggies from my garden. The squirrels seem to think the area where my tiny crop of arugula and basil grows is their own personal sandbox.
Instead, Im the new frugal. Half-empty bottles of sauces long forgotten in the fridge are pulled out and examined for compatibility with meats languishing in the freezer. I bought my gas for $1 recently, thanks to my grocery rewards program. Much to my stepdaughters horror, I even use restaurant coupons. And four free cooking pans, booty from another promotion, will soon come in handy as wedding gifts. (Oops, spoiler alert on that, Shanda!) Yeah, yeah, I know that Mr. Doom and Gloom is right: Inflation is inevitable, so stocking up now is better. But throwing old Thai peanut sauce on leftover mystery meat makes me feel pious.
These days, Francesca, whose Victory Garden started out as a preschool experiment for her son, is sharing the bounty from it with us at long dinners followed either by too much vino (if the market gyrations are over five percent) or by cards and games with the kids (if our losses look normal). Whats valued in hard times are friends, she says, and then adds rather fiercely, and the old-fashioned, fun things.
Did I need a financial meltdown to remind me that self-reliance is required but community is better? Did we?