Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Salad Days

When I moved into my first apartment, I was heady with the power of being able to live on my own terms. I could go to bed when I wanted, eat what I wanted, listen to what I wanted, wander around in my underwear if I wanted. It was my space. My place. But what I wanted to do was save jars and use them for glasses and keep a festering bucket of pulp in my kitchen into which I chopped up old newspapers and junk mail which I  used to make my own paper on the weekends. In a time before curbside recycling, I assiduously rinsed out containers and found uses for them. I cooked massive vegetarian meals and served them with herbal sun tea made in old pickle jars - bra-less and barefoot in the back yard. I made my own cleaning supplies from magical recipes that I found on mimeographed fliers at a head shop. My dad called me bohemian, my mom called me nuts, my downstairs neighbor called me all sorts of things for using her picnic table and clothesline for my paper-making without asking. I was young and dumb and on my own for the first time. I was broke and hungry and trying to make the best of what I could scrape together. I didn't realize I was playing the tuba for the frugal living bandwagon.

Frugal is the word on everyone's lips these days. In one of the nicer reactions to our economy's downturn, it seems a lot of people have decided to take matters into their own washing machines and start learning how to do without, do with less, do for themselves. Why pay Dow Chemical Company or Proctor & Gamble (remember when they were Satanists? Are they still Satanists?) for your laundry soap when you can whip some up yourself for pennies on the dollar with common household items? It's like my 18-year-old self is finally vindicated. I wasn't a freak, I was ahead of the curve. But actually, what I was, was broke. Which is what a lot of people are finding themselves now. The fact that we have the internet to share these brilliant ideas has only added fuel to the frugal fire. Inexpensive, recycled, sustainable fuel that you bought with a coupon, that is. The upshot of this is that when, on days like today, I finally decide I'm bored enough to dust and have no furniture polish, I can Google "homemade furniture polish" and come up with a variety of recipes without ever setting foot in a head shop or getting purple ink on my fingers. Brilliant. And that's just what I did. Bingo. Found one that called for ingredients I had around, threw it in a spray bottle, and I was off. [Side note: the Hooligan watched this activity suspiciously and then said: "Whatever it is that you're doing, I do not want to help you."]

So there I was: standing in my living room, spritzing my economical, self-assembled Swedish furniture with what is essentially a bottle of salad dressing and listening to the harmonium of sanctimony swell up in my personal soundtrack (everyone knows the harmonium is the most sanctimonious instrument) when I had an epiphany. One minute I'm feeling all snazzy-razzmatazz and oh-so-belt-tightening and the next I'm feeling like a greasy schmuck in a Morrissey sweater rubbing condiments on my furniture. I wasn't doing this because I had to. I could have driven or walked to any one of the 5 retail establishments within a few blocks from me and purchased a bottle of furniture polish the old fashioned way. This wasn't an adjustment made out of necessity or any sort of lofty principles, it was just something to do to make me feel better about myself. I wondered what my 18-year-old self would make of me: the hipster housewife, reluctant PTA mom, over-educated and under-worked, feeling like the Good Samaritan while she polishes her entertainment center in her middle class home in a nice neighborhood in one of the most upper-middle-class cities in the country. I kind of know what she'd make of me, being me and all.

It's not a bad thing to want to cut costs, to make do, to try to be good stewards of our resources. Not at all. I'd prefer this sort of mass reaction to economic downturn than some sort of Johnathan Swift-esque baby-eating reaction. It's not a bad thing to want to be good to the environment. But is it because those are actually things that we understand and believe in? A lifestyle choice? Or are we just belching and farting along on the tuba in the wind section of a particularly appealing bandwagon? What happens when the price of eggs and milk and gas and houses go back down again? When jobs are stable and available? When benefits and bonuses return? When -as these things are known to do- the cycle shifts and we're on the upswing again?

What happens when the salad days return? Will we still be dusting our furniture with salad dressing?

25 comments:

  1. I hope to make some bio-diesel soon, as soon as my restaurant friend gives me some WVO.

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    1. You make me laugh. Tell me how this works out for you.

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  2. I was never *ahem* 'bohemian', but I made some efforts to be frugal. Now that I'm a full-time student with four young kids to feed, clothe, etc., I'm doing without and making a lot of my own as well. As much as I consider myself an optimist, I suspect that things will not really change in the long run, for most people- convenience is king. Speaking for myself, though, I am embracing frugality as a lifestyle.

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    1. I am, too. I don't really even know how not to be. Some would call me "cheap". I think we are so saturated with convenience that there's no escaping it, ultimately. These are just things I wonder about sometimes.

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  3. I, for one, admire your optimism, in that you think things WILL get better again. When I see the DOW rising along with gas prices, I have to wonder who they're getting better for.

    There are two sides to the frugal coin. When we DIY, we're not spending money on products. Granted we're still spending money on ingredients, but obviously not as much. Does this contribute to the economic downturn, while shoring up our household bottom line? And is that good or bad? Food for thought …

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    1. That's an interesting point, Debbi. Does the effect somehow become part of the cause at a certain point?

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    2. Interesting point, indeed, Debbi. Thanks for stopping by! I love your blog, by the way. I don't know if things will ever get back to something previous, but history has shown that these things are cyclical. I have been chewing on all of this sort of thing for the last several months. There are no easy answers and we may find out decades down the road that some of our "solutions" have created new problems. I have no answers, really. Just a lot of questions and mysterious bottles of homemade cleaning supplies and a truckload of white, middle class guilt.

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  4. Making your own cleaning agents is one way of being frugal. I personally go even further--I ignore many household chores altogether. ;)

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    1. That is my solution a lot of the time. Sometimes things reach critical mass and it's time to bust out the salad dressing.

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  5. I'd say we're frugal out of necessity, but also because I get a rush from finding a really great bargain. I LOVE thrift stores and the great finds I can get there. My husband has asked me if we ever became wealthy, would I still shop at thrift stores? I'd have to say yes. It'd be nice to afford the new stuff, but I'd miss that rush.
    (I've never owned furniture polish in the 20 years we've been married. Only because my husband is a cabinet builder and refuses to let it in the house.)

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    1. Drew Barrymore thrifts. She found a cute dress in a thrift store in Texas, and wore it on the red carpet. I'd say if I were rich, I'd definitely thrift too. It's frugal fun! ;p

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    2. Yet another reason that Drew Barrymore is awesome.
      Jewels - I'm kind of in your boat, too. Necessity drives it to a certain extent, but mostly it's just something I do. I'm intrigued why the cabinet builder refuses furniture polish. What should we be doing instead?

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  6. I was going to comment on how, not spending money can make it so the economy never rises again, but Debbi beat me to it. I believe there needs to be a balance in all things, especially in spending money.

    On the other hand, I'm loving all this frugal business, it's wonderful to stir up creativity.

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    1. "The economy never rises again" sounds like some sort of battle cry. Yeah, I don't know. Seems to me our economy got this way because too many people were buying too much stuff with money they didn't really have.

      I do love the creativity involved with all the frugal business.

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  7. I don't make my own salad dressing...I mean, other than for my salads but I also subscribe to Masked Mom's frugality philosophy and just don't dust.

    I love finding new ways to be frugal. But, unless I'm desperate, I'm probably not going to make my own detergent or paper (unless it's for a craft and then lord help us).

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    1. OK, so the detergent is a snap and very nice. I may never go back. I don't think I'm saving the world with it, though. It's just fun.

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  8. I like frugal - it becomes a kind of hobby, something you can be good at, something you can take pride in. My husband spends hours fixing things that we could easily replace - and feels fulfilled (and just a bit clever) when he's done. It kind of ties into the "Shop Class as Soul Craft" thing.
    Thanks for the blog - glad I found you.

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    1. Hello Jane! Thank you for stopping by! I like frugal, too. It is like a hobby and it's a fun hobby sometimes. I love to see people do things with their hands. I love to hear what things people come up with. And it is fulfilling in its way. Your comment has firmed up some things I've been rattling around for a while. Thank you!

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  9. I have waited until now to chime in, because our situation is not normal, whatever that is. We moved up here on our ridge thirty years ago, come May. There is no electricity, so we have solar panels; we developed our own water source, get firewood from downed trees on the property, raise our own fruit and veggies, meat, make our candles, and craft what we need out of wood, cement, rock and re-bar. We have been examining our ecological imprint since sitting in alternative energy classes at San Jose State in the mid-seventies. Sorry, Suzanne, I'm with Masked Mom. No need for furniture polish, either home-made or store-bought. We are currently working with manzanita wood though; it is gorgeous stuff and so malleable as it grows. It makes exquisite furniture. I love the fact that we do not have a corner on the conservation market.

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    1. So Mark, I have to tell you, I was thinking of you and your Annie when I wrote this. I really admire what you have done, the choices you have made. In my own little addled mind, it seems that is the only logical conclusion to my ideals and beliefs without being hypocritical. It's not a lifestyle for the faint of heart, though. I have a lot to say about this. Perhaps a whole other post's worth. But thank you. I love what you and Annie have been doing up there on your ridge. It gives me hope.

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  10. This was a beautifully (& brutally) honest self-assessment...
    What are our motivations for doing certain things?
    Do we do it to be sanctimonious or from an honest wish to conserve?
    Or maybe a bit of both.

    Only we know our truest intents & it's not a bad thing to question them... keeps us from being insufferable jerks. Haha
    I don't think there's anything wrong in being proud of lifestyle choices, so long as "bragging rights" aren't the primary motivation.
    Of course, as you suggest, conservation is a good thing, no matter what the motivation; so long as whatever you are doing is still an effective means to an end which in this instance that you cite here may be 6 of 1, half dozen of another. Buy the furniture polish, if you need it. Vinegar & lemon juice can make leave veneers a bit sticky. :)

    This was brilliantly written.

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    1. Thank you. I really appreciate that you got that this was a self-assessment, not an indictment of others.
      I may buy the furniture polish next time. It smells of vinaigrette in here.
      You're a gem.

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  11. Been the week from hell and I am so late in coming to the discussion but you rock, Suzanne -- I am about frugal - love the challenge - love the notion of NOT collecting more junk - I think twice before making purchases though I am not as good as I could be. And I buy way too many books (though second hand as often as possible). I tell myself I will get better when I am not working so much - right now, I buy the detergent, for example, b/c in my imagination it is a time saver. Probably it's not but that's what I tell myself. The little mister is first and foremost a science teacher but specifically an environmental educator . This weekend I will write a post about the man who introduced us thirty plus years ago. You will fall in love with Uncle Frank. You wait. And you inspire me! Mark and Annie so damn right on about so much - I tend to like our small town life more than I think I would like their isolated country life but, let me tell you, they have such beauty up there. I would not be able to hack the daily commute to work - when they were working in the school district, they traversed five miles of dirt road to get to the main highway and then another 11 miles to get into town. me? I walk or ride my bike three blocks to work. I don't like taking the buggie out of the garage. Thanks for posting this inspiring piece.

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  12. This is inspiring in so many ways. I've been slowly migrating toward a bohemian/environmentally conscious/frugal kind of lifestyle. And by slowly, I mean ... wow, couldn't get much slower.

    I see the points about contributing to the economy and I agree 100%. And, I also believe there is no way 100% of a population would ever stop spending the money, so, meh. I can be frugal/creative/recycling, etc if I wanna be. It's not actually going to affect the economy, particularly if the money I save being frugal with this kind of stuff means I spend more money on other stuff. Like travel. I love me some road trips.

    So there's an issue, yes? Every 6 weeks or so, I drive 800 miles (round trip) to attend a book club meeting with a bunch of women I barely know, and am getting to know more, and am really loving. We eat, we laugh, we chat, we finally get around to talking about a book. I hang around a day or two and drive back home.

    Environmentally friendly? Um, no. But, I do drive a hybrid. Still not environmentally friendly, but better than a gas guzzler, right? Maybe?

    I want to try homemade detergent. And toothpaste. Because I think there's crap in those things I buy from the store that I can't identify and I don't *know* what it's doing to the environment. PLUS, I think homemade stuff usually tastes/works/smells better!

    I need to be a stay-at-home cat mom. I'll let you know how that pans out.

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Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!