Monday, February 20, 2012

Encountering Frugality in the Garden of Forking Paths

Uncle Scrooge

Winter Fundraiser 2012, Day One

Our quarterly fundraiser is the Löbel Bastion of the Gates of Vienna enterprise, the last redoubt holding back the janissaries of poverty. It’s been breached and battered and patched back together out of old masonry, shattered wood, miscellaneous structural rubble, and anything else that comes to hand.

As the First Quarterly Fundraiser of 2012 boots the wolf from the door, this stout defender is asking for a name and a raison d’être.

Fortunately for us he’s not unexpected, so I give him his badge and a cup of coffee. At the moment this one is sitting meekly in the parlor, acting as though he were the resident expert. Let’s see how often he actually shows up once we get rolling.

Truth be known, we begin with a theme, but sometimes the bleg begins to run the show, ditching our theme, throwing away that badge, and pushing pedal to the metal all the way to the end. Let’s see where this one goes once we move into the Garden of Forking Paths.

We’re in mid-conversation here. Frugality is the “theme” and it’s a subject the Baron and I have been pondering since we met — often misunderstanding one another’s implicit communication. Example? The day we met, the Baron almost immediately told me he was a landscape artist. My interpretation? He was bragging about it, and oh, heavens, would I be able to ‘interpret’ his paintings? As I later learned, by telling me what he did, he was trying to warn me he was a starving artist. And I worried for nothing: it isn’t hard to interpret hay bales when they’re rendered in such detail.

Another early example, this one a… umm… discussion. Yeah, that’s what it was, a discussion. It would become emblematic of these talks. The subject was parmesan cheese, the mise-en-scène our grocery store. And the meta-discussion turned on how one categorized parmesan cheese: luxury or necessity. What’s your take? Is parmesan cheese a necessity?

Marriages have a better chance of success when the partners come from the same cultural milieu. We were fortunate that ours intersected at enough points to allow for mutually intelligible meanings. But the ride would get bumpy at those places where our meanings were polarized, or where our characterological differences made our perspectives 180 degrees out of synch. That’s where learning the rules of communication is essential.

And that’s why the subject of frugality has been a marriage-long entertainment. We’ve been poor and we’ve been “comfortable” — but mostly we’ve been poor. It’s a strange amalgam more common to this generation than to previous ones: having the luxury of education and the ongoing education of poverty. We loved the luxuries good pay allowed, but during those fleeting good times, the salary he earned always felt like Monopoly money to the Baron. Not that we didn’t squirrel away most of what the future Baron’s education didn’t eat, not that we didn’t turn from shopping at thrift stores to perusing catalogues, not that we didn’t enjoy sudden vacations… but these good things never lasted long enough to become Necessities.

Tip jarAnd still we had Discussions. The Baron claimed we were rich. I laughed and said, “We’re only rich to us. The rest of our world thinks we’re living in genteel poverty.” We never had the opportunity to lay that one to rest, since our fall from grace back to what we’d always considered Reality came on with the first wave of mergers and down-sizing.

We weren’t nearly as traumatized as others, since we were so new to the game of prosperity. Neither of us ever believed we were cut from Middle Class Cloth, though we’ve accumulated some patches of it here and there.

On the roundabout to our theme: Frugality. Frugality is fraught, for sure. Fraught and fungible. Is frugality by chance, by choice, or cultural? Think of the cultures you know which are stereotypically proud of their frugality. Scotland is one. Scrooge McDuck is one of its American icons. Norway is another, though I didn’t know that until the Danes told me some stories to prove the point.

And even within frugal cultures, there are points along the line from Luxury to Necessity where people claim their perspective is the true one, even as they save rubber bands they’ll never use and wash out margarine containers for use at some future time that never quite arrives. I have postage stamps in my correspondence drawer that my mother removed from letters she’d never mailed, back when first class postage was a dime.

As inflation sets in, which it has again for some items, value (as related to the frugal life) becomes confused. Each generation has its set point regarding what everyday items “should” cost; as the train gets further from the station of their emergent adulthood, the prices get steeper and less meaningful. Consider it part of the stress of losing your youth: losing your price perspective.

Each culture’s foundation is economic. Man is the animal who barters and bargains. Some cultures (and sub-cultures) play fair — e.g. the Quaker businessmen in England whose intramural ethics revolutionized business behavior in general when the advantages became obvious. Meanwhile, some cultures consider bargaining a vitally entertaining pastime and those who refuse to play as cowards or poor sports.

Each economic class within a given culture has strict (if unwritten) rules about the use and abuse of money or barter. What constitutes correct behavior in one class is considered almost criminal in another. And in most cultures, money divides people into their respective classes. Or rather, money has come to constitute class, usually within a generation or so (see some of Takuan Seiyo’s ideas on this). No doubt intelligence will often prove the boost up to the next stratum, but I’ve known too many high I.Q. folks who couldn’t maintain in the face of a quotidian reality. So character and initiative and energy remain critical components.

Some of us straddle those fences, at least in the moment. The Baron can don his bespoke suit and set off for Washington D.C. looking like any other substantial bureaucrat — as long as you don’t examine his car closely, or check his socks (the shoes will pass). That much gets him in the door when he needs to be on the other side, which is not frequently. And it may be that eventually his late-chosen career as truth-teller will make him persona non grata once on the other side of those doors with his real name in view.

So be it. You pays your nickel (surely a dollar by now) and you takes your chance.

Does frugality exist anymore? Sure, especially for the unemployed or those with children, or those who want children. Does it even make sense? Yes, unless you have a trust fund; then it’s irrelevant if you don’t look too far down the road.

For the very very poor? Not so much. Frugality depends on a foundational sense that what one does with one’s time and talents makes a difference. Not everyone shares that reality. A poor person wins on a ten thousand dollar lottery ticket and his benefits dry up. The money is a burden until the spend-down brings his eligibility back.

During this First Fundraiser of 2012, we’ll be walking in the Garden of Forking Paths (if it’s not snowing too hard) to contemplate some of the incidents and accidents of wealth, poverty, and frugality. Theories of abundance and scarcity and which one appeals to whom.

We’ll examine again how little we understand one another — no matter our good intentions — outside our own enclaves.

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gsw said...

"Is Parmesan cheese a necessity?"

Olde Englishe Saying:
Do not spoil the ship for a hap'th (half penny) of tar.

New English Saying:
Do not spoil the Spaghetti for a few cents of Parmesan.

Nilk said...

Speaking of cutlery, the wonderful Professor Bunyip a suggestion to do with forks.

Small amount headed your way. I'm currently in the middle of downsizing here, too. Tomorrow I sign the lease on a little place that's half the size of this one at most, and costs way less to rent also. No more humungous yard to mow, less to worry about cleaning.

I have 6 bookcases, though, and I can't part with those. I'd rather lose my bed and sleep on a camp stretcher. It may come to that.

Stay well, Dymphna, and bless you and the Baron for the work you do.

Sol/ You New said...

Parmesean Cheese? Well it's about time you brought up something really important. ;)

To test my Italian sauce, I compare the final product with and without parmasean cheese. The criterion is that it should be so good that parmesean cheese makes for no improvement whatsoever. Parmesean is expensive salt IMO. And I'm a dago. Even Reggiano.


Use more spices. Lots of dried basil, bought in bulk. Like four times what you would think. Fennel exists, fennel sausage is great. More garlic, home grown Korean Red is much better. You may just need a bit of salt, too. Don't be afraid to use a bit of cayenne, or better yet, add raw 1 or 2 seranno chile peppers pulverized with a quarter of a raw onion added at the end, just a tablespoon or two. This raw serrano chile/onion is magical in spaghetti sauce but must be pulverized. Tomato solids must be squeezed out really well before cooking and slowly and only slightly carmelized over 1-1.5 hour in a large iron frying pan on med-low or any super-thick pan. I use a wood stove.

I have done taste tests on tomato pastes and Contadina is the clear winner. Cook you sauce on low and keep it just barley moist. Juice is added back at the end of cooking. Don't sugar your sauce, chop a carrot or two in before cooking if you want some sweetness.

What IS necessary is extra virgin olive oil. Don't cook your sauce with oil, dump in in the sauce after you are done with the cooking. Very healthy!

Please give to GOV.

Graham Dawson (Archonix) said...

I have no idea if my previous comment went through, thanks to Google's bizarre headers breaking the browser I was using at the time.

Everyone has things they'll refuse to live without. I have three things I won't live without: Steak, coca cola (that vicious brew), whisky and computers FOUR things I won't live without. Oh and cheese, that's five things... hang on, I'll come in again.

Culture does seem to play a huge part in thrift and frugality. I keep scraps of food and make a stew or fried rice every week and I like to save bottles, because Dad always saved bottles when we were kids to recycle them for the deposit. Without prompting of any sort my lovely Swedish wife decided to start darning socks; I was happy to buy new socks and she thinks keeping bottles is a little peculiar, but she never complains. And my socks last ages now.

My brother's wife is South American and seems to be an erratic spendthrift, randomly blowing a few thousand on family photographs and then anguishing about some little thing she could have saved money on. I learned to never expect a loan to Paraguayan to be paid back.

Worse, she throws out perfectly edible food or even lets it go bad in the fridge. Sometimes I'm tempted to go and raid it... but then I'd be stealing food from the mouths of her three children. Bit of a conundrum, that one.

Anonymous said...

As is the case with New English Review as well, I'd urge Gates of Vienna readers who have been sick of the garbage published by lamestream-media outlets that they once used to subscribe to to consider the importance and the quality of the material published by the Baron and Dymphna, and how much more deserving of a reward for their work they are than all those islamophiles publishing politically-correct platitudes and lies combined. Supporting GoV is a much better investment than subscriptions to those outlets, or purchases of their individual issues.

Jedilson Bonfim.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Frugality is more than the ability to simply do without a good (though sometimes it comes do that). It also encompasses the ability to make lesser goods or non-goods serve in place of more expensive goods.

I actually do make use of old butter containers (along with other robust and resealable packaging), they are an excellent way of letting one acquire things in bulk and yet have them ready at hand in conveniently sized (and sealed) containers. It also helps provide an alternative to putting opened cans in the refrigerator (which is bad for the food in them).

A frugal life can be quite abundant if one's frugality is actual foresight and wisdom combined with a bit of clever adaptability.

Of course, having a great supply of money confers more social status (it is possible to buy most people's affection with money, less easy to buy it with wisdom, which requires some intelligence and humility to perceive). Or at least, having a lot of money confers social status until everyone realizes that it is just colored paper printed out by criminals to suit their own agenda of robbing everyone else.

Then, having a great pile of money makes you look like a fool or a crook. Probably both. And frugality, particularly by choice, becomes the mark of a person worthy of respect.

Soon enough, those that know only how to "make money" will realize that it is not a worthwhile skill to have, it was never a worthwhile skill. Being able to "make money" rather than use one's labor and intelligence to increase the utility of actual objects all comes down to one form or another of counterfeiting. Too many people making money and too few people making the goods that money is supposed to buy is exactly why the entire system is about to come down.

Chiu Chun-Ling.

laine said...

My parents arrived in North America with the clothes on their back and me in their arms so I knew poverty in my childhood which was not an unhappy one. There were hand me downs for clothes and libraries for books. Our economic situation improved slowly through my parents' thrift and hard work, habits that became my own, the latter expressed in school. We had a second painful setback when I was in high school. My father lost his job in his 40's and all the seniority he'd built up in a private company that merged and let hundreds of employees go. We moved to a bigger city and started all over again. My parents put their noses to the grindstone again with nary a minute spent feeling sorry for themselves (would that certain subcultures today would do the same) ending up relatively comfortable. The university education I earned through scholarships and their support did the same for me. Now, however, it seems as though we thrifty ants may lose the value of most of what we've saved for our old age because of idle grasshoppers demanding handouts in the guise of "fairness" and mismanagement of the economy by ignorant and corrupt politicians looking only to get re-elected, not do the right (difficult, unpopular) things. Since I came from poverty it doesn't scare me that much. I truly believe that assuming one has the basics for survival, food and shelter, then one can make a good even happy life at any level of income. There may even be a feeling of relief to be forced to switch from managing and warehousing things to a more spartan life but one that is richer intellectually and spiritually. The best things in life remain free. Poverty of the wallet is nothing compared to the poverty of spirit that all socialist governments cause long before they run out of "other people's money".

Dymphna said...

Some wonderful comments...

Sol, you've given me a few ideas re supplying that "umami" taste, the one that Japanese pointed to as part of the taste buds - besides the sweet/sour/salt/bitter components of taste.

However, your long cooking time would defeat my frugality w/ utilities. I do use the gas stove turned very low for a few hours to make all day ham which will serve many meals, but back before 'too-much-tomato' went off my diet plan (it's a sugar, thus a condiment) I often didn't cook the sauce at all. The texture and color of tomatoes ground w/ V8 and fresh or frozen basil pesto (or olive pesto for that matter) plus roasted garlic, et al was wonderful.

Fennel goes into my Italian sausage still. We don't eat grains anymore so no pasta (except VERY occasional modest amounts of rice pasta. A pound last makes 8-10 servings over teh course of six weeks or more).

Thus, the sausage is used in other ways with vegetables. I guess you could say I put the sauce ingredients - minus tomatoes - into the sausage. And the sausage into peppers or stuffed cabbage or zucchinis.

In our kind-of-diabetic diet (done for my sake, but the Baron likes the weight loss) even shredded cabbage (various kinds) lightly steamed, can serve as "noodles".

Deep flavors like pistou, olives, soy, miso etc., provide that umami flavor. It's satisfying.

Sol/ You New said...

Yes, those are great deep flavors. That sounds delicious.

I forgot to mention two items:

Fish sauce. That is the one super cheap way to add great complex flavor. Like Viet Huong brand flavored with anchovy or shrimp. Asian fish sauce. in a wine-size bottle, one that is very thin, sometimes fermented and CLEAR, light brown. Not a gooey thick oyster sauce stuff, blah.

One five dollar bottle will flavor a couple hundred sauces with fish flavor.

And a tiny touch of vinegar! Heinz vinegar, at two dollars a gallon is decent, and black Chinese vinegar or Spanish red vinegar, pick the one that fits the sauce/meat you are making.