Charlie Rose is the best interviewer on TV, to my mind. The other night his guest was writer and deadline poet Calvin Trillin. To show that he came from a poetic family, Trillin recited a poem his father had written and posted in his restaurant:
“Eat your dinner,” Mom said gently to her little son Roddy.
“If not, I’ll break every bone in your body.”
I cracked up, laughing and laughing. I thought only Italian mothers said things like that (although I remember mine threatening to break only “both your legs”). When she was at the end of her rope with me she’d say, “I wish I was dead.” That made me behave. A disclaimer must be posted here: My older sister says she does not remember our mother making either of these comments. I didn’t ask our little sister because she was spoiled rotten, as far as we were concerned.
After I stopped laughing I was saddened. If said today, neither of these comments will be funny memories in the future. It is all too possible that children will suffer broken bones and overwrought mothers will commit suicide.
The world has changed.
It has changed in other ways, too. Friends send me e-mails about “the green thing,” pleading with people to treat our planet more kindly by walking, not driving, not wasting, reusing, recycling, eating and buying locally, etc. These were things, as some e-mails point out ironically, that we did automatically when they were growing up because that’s all there was.
Today’s poor are different, too. I heard Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation say on a recent Washington Journal that the current poor are not really as bad off as has been depicted because they have cars, TVs, microwaves, computers and cell phones, etc. No one suggested to him that the new poor were not always poor. Some, who had considered themselves middle class, have been plunged into poverty as the result of medical bills. Others face bankruptcy due to the housing bubble and their own credit overuse as consumers. That is what makes it so uncomfortable and difficult to deal with. The nouveau poor don’t know how to be poor. It takes practice to be frugal and resist impulse buying or even to stop thinking that stuff can make you happy or that you need a house with three bathrooms.
Costa Ricans have had more experience in living frugally and will be able to adjust to a new austerity more easily. It has long been the custom for young people to live with their parents, or for a family that has owned its property for years to simply build another small house for the next generation. As in many countries, Ticos are used to living in smaller spaces, and eating simply (often including rice and beans every day) and buying locally. As a developing country it has come late to the idea of buying foreign goodies. Until perhaps a dozen years ago, most people commuted by bus, not car. And in a recent survey 90 percent of the Ticos polled said they would not favor supporting a military, which, in many ways, is more costly and wasteful than any other form of consumption.
Rethinking about what is important and what constitutes happiness in life is happening around the world. And I have some happy news in my rather glum outlook. My friend, Judith, who is now back in the States, sent me this Web site that has suggestions on how to gift locally this coming Christmas. And I applaud the idea of giving an experience instead of a thing. I am sure expats in Costa Rica can adapt many of the ideas to apply here.
Ask your favorite restaurant or helper, computer tech, masseuse if they will make up a gift card. I am giving out gift cards to my favorite pastelería, Rincón Pastelero. They have delicious prusianos. Their phone 2221-8164.
Do as I say or I’ll break….no, I won’t.