Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Say, brother, you wouldn't have a dime about you, would you?
-Brother Can You Spare A Dime

The world we live in as of this writing is steeped in entertainment, excitement, distractions, and pleasures. All around us we are continually wrapped in entertainment, such that even the work we do includes distractions and interest such as personal music players, phones with fun applications, and laptops with games. There's an advertisement for some product I can't recall (actually I rarely remember the product someone advertises, only the funny ad) where these dorks in an office celebrate a deal by playing idiotic aps on their cell phones.

Almost every single new modification of previous inventions or new invention is for the purpose of entertainment. Someone perfects the laser and we make DVDs. Someone crafts powerful computers and we turn them into phones and console games. The dominant industry of America appears to be making ourselves and others happy.

Neil Postman wrote in 1985 that we're amusing ourselves to death, and he is more right every decade than the previous one.

Yet if we've taken amusements and entertainment too far as a culture, in the past people had far too few moments of leisure and escape from grinding labor. As usual, the pendulum tends to swing far past the proper medium to either alternating extreme.

In the medieval period, surviving took up so much of an adult's time and energy they had virtually no time to rest. Sundays were set aside for a specific period of rest for a few hours at church, and holy days were an escape from labor (the origin of our word holiday) such as Easter and Christmas. Harvest time usually came with a festival which people enjoyed as a rare day off.

This grinding labor for weeks and months at a time (imagine working from Christmas until Easter with only a few hours off a week for church, sunup to sundown) was compounded by the fact that there were virtually no conveniences.

If you wanted water, you had to draw it from the well or nearby creek. If you wanted food you had to prepare it over fire from scratch; no mixes, no boxes, no ready made stuff. If you wanted flour, you had to grind it yourself or trade for it with something you had made or prepared. If you wanted heat you had to build your own fire from wood you cut. If you wanted a blanket, you had to weave it yourself. All aspects of life were the result of hard, personal labor either producing what you use or something you could trade for finished goods.

This kind of lifestyle is very corrosive to the human spirit, and its why the 4th of the 10 commandments orders a day free of labor as possible in every week. Not to restrict your activities, but to spare you the misery of continual, grinding labor. Leisure is very critical to sanity and human productivity. Everyone needs time off to rest and recover, and entertainment to escape the wearying troubles of life.

Yet the poorer you are, the less time and freedom you have for leisure. If you've been reading this series of posts on surviving an economic depression you will have noticed a regular theme that flows through each: you're going to have to work harder and take longer to accomplish everything. Cooking your own food, fixing your own possessions, carefully shopping to get raw materials to make what you need and so on all mean more time spent just surviving and less having fun.

And that is truly the basic meaning of wealth: you have to work less to survive. Eventually you don't have to work at all to survive and start working to have things and a lifestyle you prefer, because survival is totally presumed. And the richest don't have to lift a finger in any sort of labor whatsoever, able to take all their free time on leisure and entertainment. As it turns out, the pattern is sort of circular: after a certain point the more time you have on leisure the more corrosive it is for your soul and life as well, but that's another topic.

In an economic depression, you have little if any spare money to spend on entertainments and fun. And no matter how many goodies you have now, eventually they're going to wear out. How often do you replace your cell phone? How many times do you have to buy batteries? When you have no spare money, the next time you have to replace something is the time you don't get to.

Eventually that buffer you had from good times will be worn down and used up, and you'll be left with only what you can maintain with no money. This would particularly be true when you have to sell things to eat and move out of that home you can't afford any longer. So all those things you rely on now for entertainment: internet, cable TV, movies, nightclubs, golfing, etc will tend to go by the wayside one by one and you'll have to revert to a more simple lifestyle.

And a lack of money isn't the only restriction on your depression era amusements. Because you will have less time and energy to spare after work, your entertainment will have to reflect that as well. If you've used up 10 hours of the day simply surviving and eating, then you'll have only a few hours left for any other activity, and less energy to spend on it. So those pick up basketball games may be out of the question, and you can't afford to go to the gym.

Yet there is room for entertainment and amusement despite these restrictions. You'll just have to think smaller and cheaper.

Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength
Bearing a gift beyond price, almost free
-Rush, "The Spirit of Radio"

During the great depression, people were able to find a great deal of entertainment in the new wireless set in their home. It was somewhat expensive to buy one, but once you had it, the whole family could enjoy virtually free entertainments every evening after the day's labors and even during them. Radio shows such as The Lone Ranger, Inner Sanctum, and The Jack Benny Show brought hours of excitement and entertainment to people who had little else in life to smile about. These simple half-hour shows running from crime to romance to comedy and beyond entertained, educated, and distracted from life's difficulties for virtually no price other than a bit of effort to maintain the radio and the trickle of electrical power it took to maintain.

Perhaps the equivalent today would be Youtube and the internet, but these require very expensive devices and a continuous cost of internet coverage in addition to the electricity to run your computer. When you are struggling to find food and can't afford a house, your ISP suddenly looms large in cost, and may be unfeasible where you're living anyway. Like it or not, if you're so poor you lose your house and scratch to get enough food for yourself and your family, you're probably going to be doing without your computer, let alone the internet.

Things you've begun to abandon because of new technology may suddenly become more interesting and valuable. A discarded newspaper, an actual book, and magazines suddenly are more useful than they once were. Without the constantly updating instant information of the internet, newspapers are suddenly more useful. Without the batteries or when your Kindle wears out, you'll want books to read.

And while books aren't cheap, if cared for they can last for centuries. Those books you have on the shelf or bought to put on your coffee table to seem trendy or erudite now take on a new meaning. The old books you got from your parents to read but never did because they weren't cool enough now take on a new life. Curling up with a book can take you away from the troubles and fears of life for hours.

If you live in any sort of town, you probably have a library available to you. That's something you shouldn't ever take for granted. For a small price you can have a huge collection of books to borrow, and if you turn them in on time, there's no additional price. Checking out books isn't just easy and painless but browsing through the library can be entertainment in its self.

Remember hose old games you have in the attic collecting dust? They suddenly regain their value when the Playstation dies or you can't afford the electricity to run it very often, if at all. Monopoly was invented during the great depression, and its still as fun as it ever was. Those old board games not only have hours of great repeat entertainment value, but they bring families together face to face for genuine interaction and intimacy that other entertainments cannot. Think about it: Wii is fun with others, Movies are great even at home but you're all sitting side by side facing the entertainment instead of face to face over it.

Playing cards and the thousands of games they contain become more useful as well. You've probably wiled away hours with solitaire on your computer; guess what, the cards can do the same thing, if they take a bit more effort. These kind of games generally are cheaper and you probably have plenty already (if you're like our house, you have scores). These kinds of games only require people and light to see by.

Then there are the entertainments which require no props. Charades, storytelling, taking walks to see sights, visiting neighbors, sitting on the porch and chatting with people who pass by, all are totally free and require nothing but your attention and wits.

And if you have some energy after the day's work (and doing physical labor tends to build strength and endurance over time), you can always go down to the park and join a soccer game, a pick up baseball game, frisbee, tossing the pigskin around, even volleyball. The advantage of Soccer is that it only requires one ball and space (with some shoes to show where the goal is). Baseball requires a bit more equipment, but once its bought will last decades. There's a reason these sports were immensely popular in the past: nearly anyone can play and they don't require a huge amount of special gear.

Toys are a critical thing to consider as well. I read not long ago about the difference of youth decades ago and youth today. I can see it in my nieces and nephews; they have mountains of different toys. I grew up with a handful of blocks, Matchbox and Hotwheels cars, some Lincoln Logs, Lego, Tinker Toys, and clay. We made due with all those, the outdoors, paper, and our imaginations. We built clay men to sit in Tinkertoy seige equipment to attack castles made of blocks. We built Hotwheels tracks and Lego cars and all kinds of inventions out of those basic building blocks.

In short, the poorer you are, the more imagination you need, and kids hardly need help. It is an old joke but painfully true that the box a toy comes in is often more lasting a toy than what was in it. Sometimes I wonder if parents aren't buying the toys they wish they'd had when they were kids more than what their kids really want. But the truth is, these basic building blocks and simple toys that require input to create fun are far more beneficial to kids than premade plastic finished products. My Little Pony might make your daughter squeal with glee but Lego makes her think and grow.

Depression era kids have to get by with very little. They will have to deal with few, simple toys that are repaired rather than the latest zowie toy they saw on TV or the internet. They will have to create stories and scenarios in their minds rather than have a Nintendo DS spood feed it to them. And as a result they're going to be more thoughtful, more creative, more intellectually challenged and capable than kids who had it all given to them.

Entertainment is a critical part of life, but need not be contained in a plastic box with electricity running through it. In fact, some of the best entertainment has nothing to do with that. And in the end, like so often, economic hard times can have deeply lasting benefits that make up for its pain, fear, and sorrows.

*This is part of the Depression Era Survival Kit
**UPDATE: added a bit about libraries. Also see the comments for other suggestions, particularly music.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Great post. Settlers of Catan is a very popular board game at our house, and in fact it has kind of ruined Monopoly for me forever. Word games are also great... I have fond memories of playing Scrabble with my grandmother for hours as a kid (and then later my grandfather sneaking me out to the patio to show me how to play 5 Card Stud and Blackjack when my grandmother wasn't looking). Boggle was another one we played a lot over at my aunt's house. And of course Yahtzee was and remains the ultimate back seat game for any auto trip that lasts longer than an hour.

Some other low budget entertainment I can think of off the top of my head:

- Amateur astronomy. This may be the oldest form of entertainment. From learning constellations, to learning the stories behind them, to getting up in the middle of the night to watch a meteor shower, to looking at the moon's craters with a cheap pair of binoculars, and with a little bit of savings you can invest in a telescope that will show you the rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter, the Orion Nebulae and even greasy looking smudges that are actually distant galaxies... the wonders of the night sky are just never-ending, if you live where you can see them.

- Music. Also an ancient form of entertainment, from a cheap harmonica to a pawn shop guitar, it doesn't take much money to get started and if a person has much skill or aptitude for it, they can even earn a little bit of extra money in their spare time doing it. You also tend to make friendships with other musicians, based around music, and those friendships have a unique quality to them that I have found to be very fulfiling.

- Craftsmanship. These are hobbies that can take a little more of a financial investment, like woodworking or guitar building, but can also be on the lower scale such as painting or knitting/crocheting for women. Writing could certainly fall into this category. There is something about the art of creation (insteaed of consumption) as a hobby that is powerful and our culture needs more of it. It is also something that can pay in unconventional ways. One of my grandmothers was an amateur painter, and a lot of people would bring thier kids to her house and have her paint portraits of them... it is always a thrill to this day when I walk into a local home and am surprised to see one of my granmother's paintings hanging on the wall. And I always think of how happy she would be to know her 'amateur' work is still so treasured by so many people... she never thought she was any good at it.