Smile Politely

My Recession Genes

“Impregnable packaging has incited such frustration among consumers that an industry term has been coined for it — ‘wrap rage.’ It has sent about 6,000 Americans each year to emergency rooms with injuries caused by trying to pry, stab and cut open their purchases.”New York Times, Saturday, November 14, 2008

My kin date back many generations within a sect of the extremely thrifty. My grandmother saved oleo stick wrappers to grease her cake pans. The story goes that two of my clan invented copper wire by spotting a penny on the ground between them.

I get off on being cheap, big time. It’s in my genes.

Capitalists, on the other hand, love to shop. American shopping is a religion all its own. It seemed almost natural to us that George W. Bush — whom history will recognize as a war criminal — told us to go shopping after 9/11. We are those zombies in Day of the Dead, going to the mall out of consumerist instinct, fat, stupid and robotic.

Spending money makes me depressed usually, the opposite of most people. Sometimes after I find myself swept up in a hiccup of unexpected spending, I derive satisfaction from returning the thing unopened.

The recession is good news to us Thrifties. We have an excuse for our unpatriotic anti-shopping attitudes. This year, we have an excuse not to endure Christmas. My wife and I have decided to ignore it.

Tom Friedman on this Sunday morning’s talk shows said he wants to go up to people in restaurants and tell them they should be at home eating tuna. Things are going to become that bad. Housing prices are supposed to drop further, too.

I spent one winter sleeping in a hammock in the heart of the Yucatan jungle with Mayans who didn’t even speak Spanish, let alone own a TV. Perhaps my comfort there was due to a secret feeling of superiority, of living an adventure from which I knew my passport offered escape. Or, maybe I just liked the simplicity of it.

I already turn to Latin America for affordable medical services. I’ve gone to dentists and doctors in Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia. My experience with the U.S. medical system has not been good. Doctors here had been fear-mongering me for years to have a prostate biopsy. The first urologist talked of “your cancer” as though it were a done deal, due entirely to the results of the dubious PSA test. I finally was badgered into it. Before I even met “my” doctor for this event, he prescribed a CT scan, a high-tech thrill ride right out of Star Trek. The bill: $4,000. The follow-up testing, more PSAs, $50 cotton swabs, blood tests and the invasive biopsy itself (the doctor took pride in showing me the bloody, intestinal worm-like samples) came up to another $3,000.

Result: 100% negative. “I want you to come back in six months for another PSA test,” the doctor told me. Right. There is little health care in the U.S., only health business.

When Bush said “go shopping” after 9/11, he was summarizing the entire U.S. philosophy in a nutshell. The Palin drones and the Dobsonians of the world, who believe in Biblical capitalism, go berserk at the thought of taxes or (gasp!) socialism. They’re taking away our money! Kansans have it even worse. They fear government and liberals are plotting to take away money they haven’t even secured yet, their dream riches. Kansans (and honorary Kansan, Joe the Plumber) are trying to kick down the success ladder before they’ve climbed to the top. It’s like a bad Polish joke.

I don’t believe in wasting money. I would never vote on American Idol for 99 cents or spend money on a ringtone. I would, however, figure out a way to make and import my own ringtones. When I call my wife, her phone now rings Ethel Merman singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” When she calls me, my phone rings the Beatles singing “Help.” We think we are the most hilarious people in the universe.

On a recent rip to Mexico, where I planned to see a dentist, I bought DVDs on the street for 68 cents. They had Wall-E, Hancock, Blindness, Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely (a find!), Get Smart and Mamma Mia!

The only way I could be convinced to watch Mamma Mia! was at this bargain price. At least it was still in English, filmed from a screen so the sound echoes with a miniature lag. A good third of the image is lopped off, but the camera is steady and it is almost as funny as hearing Ethel Merman on your phone. It is like watching a movie from the back seat of a car at the drive-in. And it only cost 68 cents.

I also obtained a flawless DVD of the movie Silent Light, by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I have been waiting for this movie for nearly two years, since it was first seen at Cannes in 2007. It’s never been widely released in the United States as a movie or on DVD. Silent Light is the story of Mennonites (see opening paragraph) who live in northern Mexico, beautifully filmed, with performances by non-actors.

This was a purchase for which I gladly spent money. So arrest me already.

Tao Te Ching, verse 53:

When rich speculators prosper
while farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and
while the poor have nowhere to turn —
all this is robbery and chaos.

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