Sunday, February 22, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 6—Entertainment

This is the sixth and final installment of my series (started Feb 5) on how everyone can get more out of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperation and sharing in community living, it's possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cut back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food; Part 3 was about Transportation; Part 4 spotlighted Energy; and Part 5 examined Health. Today I'll tackle Entertainment and Recreation.

• • •
The typical American family’s budget devotes 5% to Entertainment, yet there is another 7% that goes to the Three Legal Evils of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, and I'll include them in today's focus. What's more, you have to figure that a healthy chunk of the 17% used for Transportation is travel for the purpose of recreation (including both the accumulation of small trips to the movies—or Blockbusters—or the annual family vacation to the beach). So all together, this catchall category probably represents something in the 15% range, and is well worth a closer look.

Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to you can make a serious dent in your Entertainment expenses, without any sacrifice in enjoyment:

1. Celebration Cooking
This is one my favorites, and when done in season—relying mostly on local raw ingredient—you'd be amazed at how inexpensively you can produce a gourmet meal. Even if you decide to indulge in exotic ingredients, buying them raw (or at least less processed) will save substantially over the price you'd pay at a restaurant. What's more, if you cook with others, that can provide high-quality social time in addition to the camaraderie enjoyed in the eating. Kind of like double dipping.

One of the highlights of Sandhill's culinary calendar is the 10-day window in late-April/early May when we can wildcraft morel mushrooms in the neighboring woods (see my blog of May 7, 2008 for more about this). No one misses those meals, and the cost is simply the time it takes to walk in the woods with a bread sack. Even if you come back empty-handed (which happens), how bad can it be spending a couple hours amidst the transitory explosion of spring wildflowers, watching the trees buds unfurl from their winter doldrums? (Stan feels the same way bout deer huntign each fall: either you get some meat for the family table or you've had a lovely day in the woods. You can't lose.)

For a handful of years when I was growing up (in La Grange, a bedroom suburb on the west side of Chicago) my family would host an annual summer block party, where everyone on our street was invited to wheel their barbecue units into our backyard and cook a meal together. While families were mostly cooking their own food (rather than a potluck), my family would supply drinks for everyone, and the kids would race around while the adults schmoozed and grilled. It was terrific fun, with everyone contributing only what they were going to cook for dinner anyway, and there was no driving involved at all (except maybe to buy ice to keep the drinks cold).

Going back to 2005, I've been devoting the first Saturday night in Novermber to preparing and consuming a slow food dinner for 12-14 friends (see my blog of Nov 10, 2008 for more about this). The last three years I've been doing this with my partner, Ma'ikwe. We essentially start cooking as soon as we hit town (late Thursday or early Friday) and take about 12 hours to prepare a meal enjoyed over four hours. We do the cooking and the guests divvy up the bill for the ingredients. It's so much fun that Ma'ikwe and I have already begun reviewing recipes vying for a spot on the 2009 menu.

What if you're not a great cook? Find someone local who is, and volunteer to organize the dinner and help chop vegetables! Hell, everybody eats.

2. Salons
No, I'm not suggesting getting your hair done as a mood elevator. I'm talking about conversation salons. While you can set this up any way you want, I encourage you to pick a group of people (preferably local, to keep travel costs down—think bicycle, not automibile) who don't see the suggested theme of the conversation the same way. Rather than only having the liberals over to discuss Obama, think about inviting some thoughtful Republicans or Libertarians into the mix, and getting interested in the possibility that someone's mind might be changed (rather than existing views reinforced or defended) and that participants might discover new insights (read hope) about how to bridge between positions that are traditionally better bunkered than the Maginot Line. World peace has to start somewhere. Why not in your living room?

Another version of this is the book club, where everyone agrees to read a certain interesting title and then gets together (once a month?) to discuss what the reading stirred up for them. Perhaps a more contemporary version of this might be a movie club, where people agree to linger after a joint showing, to discuss what they just saw. Did you see Crash, the 2004 Best Picture? If you get the director's cut of this provocative film, John Waters explians that he was expressly trying to create a movie that viewers would want (need?) to talk about afterwards. Instead of trying to create escapist fluff or fantasy; he was aiming to get audiences to reflect on the complexities and incongruities of everyday life. I thought it was a terrific film, and every bit as thought provoking as Waters intended.

3. Walking
Under Point 1 I mentioned my once-a-year sojourns in the woods hunting morels. But that's only the exotic tip of the pedestrian iceberg. You can walk every day. In addition to accomplishing commuting
and errands—if you live close enough to where you work, or your kids go to school, or where you shop—walking can be both exercise and entertainment.

Sandhill is located on a ridge that drops off sharply to the southwest, affording us breathtaking views of the sunset. If the clouds are just right, an after-dinner walk along the ridge road on a June evening can be the highlight of the day. You can literally watch the sky run through its full range of palette options in 30 minutes. You can watch the barn swallows come out, and slash through the sky on their evening forage for the latest hatch of mosquitos. When the light drops too low for them to sight targets, the swallows abandoned the skies and are immediately succeeded by brown bats, who hunt by echolocation. Their flitting, darting movements are more abrupt and erratic, though no less beautiful or effective.

We had a couple living with us last year—Kevin & Ann— who were seriously contemplating moving in as next-door neighbors. Over the winter however, they decided they were not yet ready to settle in northeast Missouri. A major hestancy was around not having ready access to wilderness. In Flagstaff, where they had been living before launching their serach for community, they could literally walk from downtown into national forest, and that became precious to them.

Some people meditate; some practive Qigong; others walk. All offer a change of pace, reflective time, and a chance to unclench muscles cramped by sedentary confinement. All can be inexpensive elements of the Good Life, and cost next to nothing.

4. Reading
In addition to the book club idea mentioned in Point 2, reading can be immensely pleasurable, as well as edifying. For most of my adult life, I had been in the habit of reading about 25 books a year,
fiction and non-fiction in roughly equal amounts. Then, in my late 40s and 50s I started getting away from it, relying more on videos as entertainment and conversation (and email) for stimulation.

When I married Ma'ikwe in April 2007, we carved our five weeks for a honeymoon in Europe, and I made the decision to leave my laptop at home. (Yes, I occasioanlly got on the web at an internet cafe, but I never checked my email even once.) Instead, I brought books and rediscovered the joys of reading. While I wouldn't say it was the best part of the honeymoon, it was a happy mid-course correction. Now I'm back to reading 25+ books a year and more frequently closing my laptop before I'm exhausted. Now I'm apt to spend the last hour or two of the day curled up with a book instead of subjecting myself to one more stream of electrons.

Don't want to bust your budget on new books (or even used ones from Amazon)? Libraries still work.

5. Singing
Singing is one of the most distinctive human activities. While many of us were shamed as children about not being able to sing well enough to subject others to our attempts, I believe singing is a human birthright, and everyone should indulge themselves as much as they desire, so long as they're reasonably mindful of those around them. (For more on my personal journey with singing, see my blog of Feb 26, 2008.)

At the FIC's Celebration of Community in 1993, one of the keynote speakers was Kirkpatrick Sale, the noted independent scholar and environmentalist. As part of his talk he told the story of Ladakh, a remote mountainous province in northern India that had for centuries developed its culutre substantially uninfluenced by those around them. Among other traditions, the Ladakhi were proud singers and song was a common element of local celebrations, big and small. Then, when radio waves finally penetrated their remote region after Word War II, the Ladakhi learned what "good" singing was by hearing brodcasts from Delhi. in particular, they absorbed the message that their brand of singing wasn't good. Within a generation, Sale reported that the Ladakhi had mostly stopped singing. I get sad every time I tell this story, reflecting on the loss of culture, and the loss of joy.

At neighboring Dancing Rabbit, they have a weekly singing circle, and it's common to witness an a capella choral performance at high celebrations like Equinox and Land Day. At both communities we typically sing a song as part of the blessing before the evening meal, and it's not rare for everyone to break out the Rise Up Singing songbooks for an impromptu hootenanny after Tuesday potlucks.

Top Secret: while an ability to hit the notes and a proficiency at reading music are undoubtedly helpful, the key to enjoying singing is showing up energetically. If you put your heart into the attempt, you'll enjoy yourself, and (mostly) so will those around you. If nothing else, try singing along with CDs of your favorite vocalists while you're in the ktichen or cleaning windows.

It doesn't cost anything, and it's something you can do alone, or with others—whichever strikes your fancy.

6. DIY Drugs
This last piece is not an encouragement to establish your own meth lab in the basement as a way to provide tax-free supplemental income in a flagging economy. I'm talking about brewing your own beer, making your own wine, rolling your own cigarettes, and even roasting your own coffee. We've done all of these things at Sandhill over the years. In addition to forcing us to be more mindful about our consumption of these drugs (
legal though they are), the prepartion rituals create yet another social opportunity, substantially reduce costs, and enhance the pleasure of the consumption.

Today there are more home brewers than ever, and if the prospects seems overwhelming, think about trying to find someone else in the nieghborhood who's already doing it. If you like their product (be sure to drink a bottle first—all home brew is not created equal), consider apprenticing with them, or perhaps commissioning them to brew a batch for you. You'll still save money, and be bonding with the neighbors.


Anonymous said...

Re: roasting one's own coffee, my grandmother recently told me that back in the Old Country (Bulgaria), every household had its own special blend. Her grandmother used to roast coffee beans in a pan in the kitchen. Similarly (and very much in line with this series), they used to make their own pasta. There would be a periodic pasta day during which, I'm told, noodles would be hung to dry all over every room in the house.

: )

Samuel A. Falvo II said...

What happened to part 5? I clicked on the "Economic hard times" tag to see the entire series, but it appears part 5 (if it exists at all) isn't appropriately tagged. Thanks.