Archive for October 7th, 2008

Depression Holidays: Thinking About Presents, Ecology and Hard Times

Sharon October 7th, 2008

During a three month period, between September 29th and December 29th, we have Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the deadline for the edited manuscript of _A Nation of Farmers_, Sukkot, Simchas Torah, Asher’s birthday, Halloween, my synagogues Environmental event, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, the due date for my new book _Independence Days_, Isaiah’s birthday and eight nights of Chanukah.  Besides my looking at the next couple of months with total panic ;-) , I’m definitely getting into holiday mode here - and since I was crazy enough to have 3 kids between Halloween and Chanukah, about gifts.

Now on the one hand, I think most of us realize that the traditional Western holidays and birthdays are kind of ridiculous.  Less is good for our kids, good for adults, good for our personal economies. 

 On the other hand, I also think gifts are important - they play an important role in our culture, and in difficult times, they may provide the only luxury items in our lives.  The idea of scrimping and saving to be able to afford one thing that our partner or grandkid or friend wants and needs, to offer a little beauty when really there has only been enough for necessities - these are good things, they have value.  That gift giving has been perverse and excessive is bad, but it doesn’t erase the value of all gifts.

And on a purely practical level, it is important to think about gift-giving well ahead (ideally well before now, but all is not lost, if you are just getting to it) if you are going to give handmade, trash picked, yard saled or homegrown (I could have just said “cheap” here ;-) )  gifts.  I discovered this during the year we went without buying anything new - let’s just say that the term “IOU” appeared more than a couple of times at our family gift exchange.  

So I encourage people to think now about gifts, and about their role in your family. Do you exchange gifts?  What kind?  Is this something you are happy with, or unhappy about?  Is there a way to shift your family’s gift giving to a kind that feels enriching and positive?  How?  What, exactly, can you give?  If budgets are tight, how can you overcome economic constraints?

On a practical level, my kids usually get one gift each for their birthdays from us, and one group gift (toy) along with a couple of books I want them to have each for Chanukah.  I buy the books over the course of the year, along with books for my nieces and for our friend’s kids, birthday party gifts, etc… Being a book person, that’s my favorite gift, and I spend a lot of time hunting for appropriate choices.  Perfect condition children’s books are pretty easy to find used, or new but at wildly discounted prices.  Plenty of wonderful adult books appear that way.  Books are so undervalued in our society - even if the books are clearly used, the value of good reading material is in no way undercut.  If money is tight - or even if it isn’t - used books make terrific presents.

It helps if you begin thinking long in advance - and occasionally really long.  No one tell Simon and Isaiah, but for several years, I have been picking up inexpensive superhero comic books at local library sales.  Some of them probably have collector value, but that’s not why I want them - I want my kids to enjoy them. Right now, at not-quite 7 and 5, they are a bit too young not to wreck them and a bit too young for this sort of comics.  But in a couple of years, they will receive them as a Chanukah gift.  I don’t think they’ll be less appreciated because Mom paid 10 cents apiece for them.

I don’t run across as many trash-picking opportunities out where I live, but my family that lives in suburbia often finds wonderful trash pick gifts.  My kids have long loved a wooden, rideable airplane, an absolutely beautiful toy that my sister trash picked for my oldest son when he was two.  My nieces play in a trash picked toy kitchen my step-mom rescued, and my son rides a bike his aunt and uncle saved from the dump and restored.  Check your dump, freecycle, garbage bins, etc…  If you have prejudices against trash picked articles, get over them - the kitchen pretend cooks just as well as a new one, the airplane rides beautifully and the bike is the best one ever, according to Simon, particularly since my son’s uncle spray painted it purple.

Ebay, Craigslist, Freecycle, barter networks, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Thrift Shops - these are good places to get used and high quality toys, clothes and linens.  I also have seen good tools there, at reasonable prices.  My Goodwill routinely has brand new clothing of extremely high quality for very little money.  My own professional wardrobe comes from there, and I have bought gifts for kids and adults through them.

Homemade gifts are terrific - jams, jellies, baked goods, homemade treats of all kinds including liqueurs, candies, and dairy products are wonderful gifts.  Then there are hand knitted and crocheted, handsewn and homebuilt projects of all sorts.  Remember, they don’t have to be made from new or expensive materials.  Consider unravelling woolen thrift shop sweaters for yarn, or making mittens out of felted wool sweaters (cut out a mitten shape, sew the ends together and flip it inside out).  Build with scrap wood, repair broken goods, make quilts from old fabric.

Or give the gift of service - help your Mom clean out her attic.  Give your son a month of daily baseball practice with you.  Give your children a “get out of chores free” card.  Babysit for the new Mom, make dinner for the busy family, do some chore for your wife or husband, or fulfill a favorite fantasy.

 Charitable gifts are especially important now that safety nets are being overwhelmed by increased need.  My children give an animal to the heifer fund each year, and one year, everyone in my family got something poultry related plus a donation to Heifer.  We also give to relief groups, food pantries and Doctors without Borders as holiday and birthday gifts.

There are tons of options out there - no matter how poor we are, there’s almost always something to give.  I know there are people out there who really can’t have anything under the tree or on a birthday, but most of us, given a little time and thought, could find a gift that was appreciated and free, or very nearly so.

If you are going to buy something new, buy something with real longevity.  Spend your money carefully on things that will last, that have permanent value.  Choose nice clothing that will last your lifetime, tools that you will pass on to your children, toys your grandkids can play with.  And remember, you don’t have to fit it in a box - if you are saving for a piece of land, needed health treatments, some other piece of security - that’s a gift too.  Give your children the chance to give the whole family a gift (small children probably won’t get this - a certain amount of abstract reasoning is required) - that is, to put the resources you would have spent on Christmas towards paying off the house, getting your land, making sure Grandma is healthy for the holiday. Even children are more moral and generous than they are often asked to be. 

If you are facing birthdays or the holidays in despair, wondering how you will pay for it all, stop.  It will be ok.  Instead of seeing a well into which you must plunge your remaining financial security, start looking for ways to make holidays and birthdays inexpensive, comforting, and simple.


Stuck: Why Most of Us Really Will be Adapting-In-Place

Sharon October 7th, 2008

Want to know how the current economic crisis is playing out in most people’s lives right now?  Well, for some, there is the disastrous loss of a home or a job, the need to move, increasing stress and the sense of crisis.  But for most of us, so far, instead of increased mobility, we have less.

Had you planned on moving?  But the house won’t sell, so you are stuck.  Were you saving for a downpayment?  But wait, you don’t want to buy until the market bottoms out, right?  Were you nearing retirement?  But if your pension or 401K has tanked, you can’t retire.  Do you hate your job?  But you need your seniority if you want to outlast any coming layoffs, and you can’t risk your benefits.  Were you thinking of going to college or back to school, or have you just graduated?  Well, student loans are increasingly tough to get, and the job market is looking bad - back to Mom’s we go.

The first effects of our tanking economy have been enormous pressures on most families and households to stay where they are - even if they might be better off somewhere else.  And the dual problem of increased and decreased mobility seems truly unlikely to do anything but accellerate - for the rising numbers of unemployed and those who lose their houses, the need will be to move somewhere, anywhere they can find work and housing.  For those lucky enough to keep their jobs and homes, the ability to move or change jobs is rapidly disappearing.

Now to some degree, and for some people, this may not be so very bad.  Those who would have liked to move for career reasons or for a bigger house, parents who might have downsized to a condo but now have room for the kids and grandkids to move back in may find themselves not so very discommoded.  For others, who dreamed of buying a farm, wish to be closer to aging parents or beloved family, those who invested in an area that may not be sustainable - this is a big and serious problem.  Being trapped is better than being unemployed, but it isn’t good.

So the question becomes - how do we get out of the trap?  Is there any recourse for us now that credit and the old ways of getting things have dried up? 

And the answer is yes, but it will require a lot of something that most Americans don’t have in their friends, neighbors and family - trust and cooperative energy. What do I mean by that?  Well, the truth is that you probably only need one 2000 square foot house between two 4 person households - so if you can trust each other enough, and find a way, you and your sister (or your best friend or your neighbor) who both have houses teetering on the edge of foreclosure can save one of those houses and move into it.  But that requires that one of you be willing to give up their home, that everyone sacrifice privacy, that the fears that the arrangement work out badly don’t overwhelm the value of it.

What if you wanted to quit your job and start a business, building the local economy, but you can’t now?  Or if you need to retrain?  Well, one of the best possible tools for you might be the kind of collective funding that immigrant communities have brought to the US.  Everyone puts a certain amount of money into a kitty.  The money is loaned out to one of the members of the group, who is then required to repay it within a reasonable time.  Then, the money goes out to the next member.  This is scary stuff - someone might lose money, someone might fail and be unable to repay, everyone might get hurt a little by taking a risk.  On the other hand, everyone might gain, as well.

What if you were hoping to retire, and now you can’t, and it is increasingly hard for you to work?  Well, do you have any friends in the same situation?  Could you share housing, and make what’s left of your retirement money go further?  Could you let your grandkids or a your friend’s daughter move in with you, in exchange for her keeping up minimal costs.  Perhaps you could take your new free time, and barter some childcare and your house for someone to take over earning most of the payments.  Maybe you can change your dream of what a retirement is - perhaps to owning outright a little house with another couple.  But this is much harder and scarier than relying primarily on your money to take care of you and help you out of trouble.  It is hard for the person who is aging, and it is hard for the younger family they will rely on. 

In a crashing economy, family, community, friendship and social ties are what we have to compensate for a lack of money.  We turn to barter, to love, to friendship, to trust, to shared risk, to shared gain to make up what is missing in our lives.  We’re stuck - but we get unstuck by risking ourselves with other people.  And sometimes, it won’t work.  Sometimes we’ll lose, maybe even more than we can afford.  Odds are, however, mostly we won’t.  And if we do, the only thing we can do is remind ourselves that losing more than you can afford isn’t limited to direct human relations - it happens all the time in the industrial economy.