Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ramen Noodle Years--Hard Times Come Again No More

Lots of news stories about this lingering recession, which some economists have claimed as being over. A Washington Post story features regular people who don't believe it. One woman is quoted as saying, "'My husband and I thought we were beyond the hot dog and beans of our lives. . . . Is this my new reality?'"

My first thought was, you can afford hot dogs to go with your beans? You aren't truly poor until you eat ramen for days and days in a row.

I hadn't recently thought of ramen noodles until I was at a friend's house a few weeks ago and watched her daughter make ramen noodles as she proclaimed her love of them. I gave an overly dramatic shudder and then had to explain why.

There was a summer in graduate school where my husband and I didn't have much money. Our graduate stipends only lasted 9 months, and although we had some adjunct work and part time work, we had to be VERY careful. We didn't use air conditioning during a hot, hot, hot South Carolina summer--as a result, I no longer fear Hell, at least not because of temperature reasons. We watched our grocery bill: no meat, no soda, no convenience food. I discovered the cheapness of ramen noodles and stocked up. After a summer of ramen noodles, it's hard to ever want them again.

One thing that made our poverty summers not so bad was that all our friends, also in grad school, shared those impoverished times. We checked out videos from the library and lounged by swimming pools--free entertainment. We shared potluck dinners. We got jobs as ushers at the Koger Center, a posh performing arts place--a bit of pocket money, plus we got to see the show. Even though we were poor, I remember those years fondly.

I think that having survived some impoverished times has inoculated me against some of the fears that infect other people. I know how to cook very tasty and cheap vegetarian food. We still drive old, economical cars. We haven't accumulated debt, because our lives and the lives of our parents (and grandparents, who survived the Great Depression) have taught us that hard times might come again.

I was shocked to read this story about a woman who lost her job that paid her $80,000 a year. Her response? She took some exotic vacations across the sea. What was she thinking? And now that her unemployment has lasted 4 years, she's cut her Nordstrom's shopping sprees and let some home repairs go.

Really? REALLY???!!! Who are these people?

When my husband's family of origin was plunged into poverty because of divorce, they hit the library. They learned about plumbing and electricity by doing repairs themselves with library books to guide them. I've known many family members who had a major wage earner lose a job. They didn't squander money on vacations and fancy clothes. They cut way, way back. They learned to shop at garage sales and thrift stores. They learned to repair what they had; they learned how to mend. They learned to separate their wants from their needs.

I'm amused/appalled at these news stories that focus on what they call the middle class (I'd call them upper middle or lower upper), but these middle class people are living a very different existence than people earning lower wages. You don't hear as much about those people anymore. You don't hear about the real poor.

Maybe we should all decide to see the film Waiting for Superman. But maybe focusing on real world problems is too depressing. Maybe you want to think in more apocalyptic colors.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article, even though it's 10 years old, about all the ways the world might end; it even included some I've never considered. And in honor of Discover magazine's 30th anniversary, the author updated that article, complete with 10 new scenarios.

And if you need a down-to-earth article to remind you that more money won't necessarily make you happy, try this one. However, I'm not sure I agree with the premise of one of the article's experts: ""What really struck me was the extent to which being poor makes everything worse -- unemployment, of course, but also divorce, asthma and [having] a headache; even the weekend, which is emotionally a very good time, is less good if you're poor than if your income is higher,' says Kahneman. 'When you keep score of your life, overall, the higher income the better. But when it comes to emotions, my summary is that it's not so much that money buys you happiness, but that a lack of money below $75,000 buys you increasing misery.'"

My poverty years weren't miserable, but perhaps that's because I knew that I was accepting some tight years in the hopes that future years wouldn't be quite as extreme. I had hope for the future, because I was in school, and I had a decent shot at a better future. If President Obama could kindle that kind of hope, there's nothing we couldn't do as a collective whole.

1 comment:

Karen J. Weyant said...

Thanks for this post -- yes, I have family members and friends (not too many) who gripe about not having any money, yet their big cut backs? Not buying a new car every other year or giving up buying video games.

I guess when I see people really struggling (I have a student who cooks for her two kids on a hot plate), I don't feel sorry for these people.