Friday, March 20, 2009

A fillip of frivolity

The economy has dealt a downturn, though not a death blow, to my business. I've gained more leisure time than I've had since I was fifteen.

At 60, I see that at some point I might not have the health to
enjoy free time, now I do. I feel like a visitor to a far-away country: so this is what it's like there. What do I notice?

1. My house is a lot grottier than I ever saw, despite our regular cleaning lady. Four adults can put grime in places a routine once-over can't reach.


2. I had too many clothes. Gave three trash bags to Goodwill, with more to come. I hadn't had time to maintain all that stuff anyway.


3. Too much food, too. Last night I threw away two pounds of moldy green beans we forgot to eat; don't think I even knew they were there. We've excavated prehistoric remains from the chest freezer.

Despite this new consciousness about consuming, I am not celebrating how lucky we are, now that we can learn to be frugal again as the self-satisfied Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote recently. One doesn't feel so lucky when, as many people have had to do, you tell your kids they must drop out of college, or inform relatives who depend on your contributions that you can no longer help.

I don't think frugality confers wisdom, kindness, or any moral brownie points. It's just how you run your life, eithe
r by choice or (mostly) by necessity.

We've latched on to frugality as our salvation, but sometimes frivolity offers something too.

I once read an anecdote that's stayed in my mind. A woman was recalling her childhood in England during WWII. One evening, after a plain meal, she sat with her grandmother by a scant fire in a cold house. Her grandmother sent her to fetch the
sugar bowl, and the girl carefully carried the precious contents to the woman.

Her grandmother took a heaping cup of sugar and threw it on the fire, for the effect, a brilliant display of coloured flames. (My parents called this "fairy fuel".) The extravagance convinced them that joy and beauty were still relevant to their lives, that they were able to do something for the pure pleasure of it.

Frugality, from Wente to Oprah (and therefore to the planet) is presented as "the new normal", as at least a full generation brushes up on home economics. But taken too far, frugality squashes the juice out of life like a psychic tourniquet.

Frivolous is not the enemy of frugal, and need not involve spending. In the midst of a late night thunderstorm, when the whole house is awake anyway, get the kids up for a popcorn picnic and their favourite music, sensible bedtime be hanged.

Stage a kazoo parade for a friend's happy occasion.

Instead of a computer-printed birthday card (or even worse, e-card), haul out a stack of old photos and magazines and create a silly and sentimental collage.

And sometimes it does involve spending. The other week I gave $20 to a busker playing a soaring "Suzanne" in the subway, and it felt great. A dear friend turns 60 in May and I know what she yearns for... and I'm not saying more right now. Today we're buying a pair of great tickets to see Ricky Jay (appearing in my city this May), a steep price, but it will be special.

We need bright moments of levity to lighten the load and remind us that life is a gift, and not one wrapped in plain brown paper, either.

17 comments:

Nancy (nanflan) said...

Amen! Frivolity is especially important in times like these.

Frugal Scholar said...

In spite of my nom de plume, I totally agree with you, Duchesse. I am frugal so that I can be frivolous when I so desire. My acquaintances who are mired in debt are paying off frivolities from the past (and the interest keeps accruing). I'm scheduling my usual trips this year.

And you are also right that we're not "lucky" to experience this. Those of us who are not facing the stress of unemployment are lucky, I suppose, but it is not fun
to witness this stress in others. Also "lucky" is that a lot of the corporate malfeasance is being discovered now, rather than later.

Definitely food for thought.

Deja Pseu said...

taken too far, frugality squashes the juice out of life like a psychic tourniquet.

I so agree with this! Having spent many of my early adult years on the economic margins, it was those insane little splurges that saved my sanity and made me feel a part of the world. I call a lot of what I see from the financial scolds on Oprah and the like, "Fiscal Anorexia."

I've been hearing a lot of people recycling the line that "a job is the new status symbol." Here in CA we're up to 10% unemployement, so I'm taking nothing for granted.

Anonymous said...

La sagesse d'une femme. Bravo Duchesse!


Orane

materfamilias said...

So glad you said this -- I've composed and composed posts about "the new frugality," just never found/taken the time to actually write them. While there are certainly people who are generous and thoughtful in/with their frugality, these tend to be ones who, like Frugal Scholar, have wise, mindful, conscious spending patterns at their core -- they know how how to do "More with Less," as a favourite old Mennonite cookbook classic promises.
Too many others, and I admit Wente is a journalist I love to hate, smugly embrace the new frugality, often at the expense of others.
I'll stop now, before I ending up writing here the post I never got to at my place. Thank you for saying it here, so well, using the positive side of frivolity to make your post!

bonnie-ann black said...

i concur with the whole "frugality does not equal morality." i went to london in february and got so many frowny faces from friends who are struggling right now to hold onto houses and pay mortgages and car loans. but see, i never had a mortgage, or a car loan, and i take public transportation or walk whenever i can. i don't buy expensive items that are merely throw-aways. i save my money for frivilous things like trips to london. i have a job, but refuse to fall victim to the grovelling gratitude that so many of my friends have displayed. i owe my hard work to the firm that i have helped to make millions over the past 5 years. i did my job and did it well. they reaped the benefits, now i should too.

thanks for saying what needed to be said.

lagatta à montréal said...

Y a la pluie qu'est passée chez Dior
Pour s'payer l'modèle Soleil d'Or

C'est le Printemps! (Léo Ferré)

Wente's piece reeked of smugness, but that is nothing new. Sure, she had lost some money on investments, but she hadn't been bilked out of her pension, and is rare among journalists and other people in the writing business these days in that she actually has a real job. A lot of us are looking at the slump with utter terror.

Despite this, the first day of spring is a fine day to celebrate frivolity. Though it is chilly here today, scarcely above 0c, it is sunny, bright and dry and there are many stylishly turned-out cyclists, and happy pedestrians. Some brave souls even shivering at an outdoor café, with hands around their cappuccino...

I've retrieved my old 6-speed Raleigh Sprite from the bicycle doctor's... She is black, and very elegant.

And Renzo, also black and elegant, is sleeping on the wooden floor of the office, in a patch of sun.

Completely Alienne said...

Hear hear. You don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good time. Perhaps where we are lucky, in a funny sort of way, is in being old enough to remember the time before this materialist and wasteful society became the norm, to have grown up when times were hard and to know how to cut back and be frugal. Without having to read smug articles about it.

Fritinancy said...

Ricky Jay tickets? You go, girl. The man's a genius. Me, I'm going to settle for seeing him in "The Great Buck Howard," which just opened--and which stars John Malkovich as a bonus.

I've cut back on a lot of things without feeling deprived. On the other hand, I've been splurging without guilt on the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcasts of live performances, held at local movie theaters. Wednesday evening I saw "Madama Butterfly" with Patricia Racette and a troupe of heartbreakingly expressive bunraku puppets. For a movie, it's expensive; for opera--up close and personal, no less--it's a bargain. Not to mention an enchanting escape from $2 trillion deficits, 10% unemployment, and diminishing prospects.

Oh, and I'm finally watching "Slings and Arrows." Fabulous. You Canadians get all the good stuff!

lady jicky said...

I am frugal in certain areas of my life so I can be a little "silly" in others - especially my perfume which gives me so much joy.
Now there is Frugal and then there is MEAN - some cross the line. I feel sorry for them as life is not a joy.

Imogen Lamport said...

Wow - such a great and thought provoking post Duchesse.

I come from a background of frugality, and honestly, if often felt like the life was sucked out of everything. Even down to the "I don't buy you soap because you use it too fast" sentimentality, and the diet of 'salt free, sugar free' bread free bread.

Absolutely I think it's necessary not to be stupid and wasteful with money and resources, but we don't always have to suck out all the enjoyment of life. It's a very negative way of living.

Food for thought.

sallymandy said...

I agree with everything that's been said. We need to make a conscious effort to keep things lighthearted and enjoy the frivolous, because it's not frivolous!

It's maybe easiest to sing the praises of being frugal when one doesn't really need to be. For me, the fun starts to wear off after a while. As a historian, I think it's going to be really interesting to see how we're all feeling if this continues for a year, two years, ...?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this reminder. We've long lived below our means (small house, no mortgage, ancient shared vehicle) so that we can sometimes live well above our means (month-long vacations abroad). Even before the economic melt-down, we encountered covert and sometimes overt hostility from our debt-riddled co-workers and acquaintances who seemed unwilling to do the math as to how we could possibly afford such frivolity.
In retrospect, I'm glad I "tossed some sugar in the fire" rather than buying into the mindset of the times, buying large houses and cars I didn't need.

Duchesse said...

Fritinancy: Those opera broadcasts are a delight; I've been to ballet ones, too.
lady jicky: Brava! What do you wear?

sallymandy: Good point; I';m already hearing people say they are sick of it, and some retailers are having a very weak revival.

Imogen: If not absolutely necessary, that is a tough way to grow up.

anonymous: One of my all time favourite quotes: "Debt is the slavery of the free man."- Karl Marx

ma: Wente is a prime exaple of "false consciousness".

lady jicky said...

I am a big classic Guerlain fan - so Jicky (of course) , Mitsouko, Nahema and I loved the discontinued Parure.
I am fond of Annie Pliska , a USA perfume and there a few Goutals and Rosines that are lovely too.

Mmm - I wonder what you wear?

Duchesse said...

lady jicky: Oh, I love Nahema! Right now wearing Quartz (Molyneux), La Reine Margot (Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier) Norell, and Caleche (Hermes).

lady jicky said...

Oooh, I see you love a good "classic" too!!!!