Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Best Things in Life are Free… Or Used to Be

This title comes as a protest against a comment I overheard a number of years ago as I was leaving the beach of a very ritzy, members only, club in Boca Raton, Florida, where I was a guest for a day. Two guys in their late thirties were washing off the sand at an outdoor shower as I was passing. One was lamenting the high cost of maintaining the membership for his entire extended family, while the other was consoling him that the cost was well worth it because he could rest assured that the accommodations were better than anywhere else precisely because he was paying so much for them.

For me, it had been one of the most miserable beach days imaginable. Signs warned of some dastardly insect-like infestation of fleas or ticks in the ocean water. The sun was broiling. We were ensconced (or trapped) on some very substantial and plush loungers with large, baby-carriage-type awnings that could be adjusted to avoid the sun at any angle. The sand was too hot to walk on, so miserably uncomfortable college students spent the day making large tips bringing icy cocktails and upscale sandwiches to botoxed and liposuctioned gods and goddesses who lounged in the latest beachwear. I guess everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a heavenly day.

Lately, as I recall memories of my childhood for my grandchildren, it seems that all the best moments were either free, or very inexpensive. Now, these opportunities are unavailable, ruined by either pollution, urban blight, or the fact that someone has figured out a way to sell what was once free. We used to spend some summer days fishing in the Schuylkill River and picnicking at the tables in Fairmount Park. We always brought along a jug to fill with the sweet spring water that issued from an elaborate stone fountain along the river. We played halfball with broomsticks as bats, and used old metal bottle caps to play dead box in the square we drew with a piece of white chalk on the cement driveway between rows of houses. We jumped rope made of old clothesline. We played hopscotch. We walked to the public library on cold, rainy weekends, and curled up there on well-worn leather armchairs. When we wanted to play with friends, we went outside to see who else wanted to play. The playgrounds in the neighborhood were safe and free, with baseball diamonds, swings, monkey bars, and teeter-totters. I spent every summer at my elementary school playground camp that was run by Miss Elizabeth Forsythe. I learned how to make linoleum tile and wood carvings, weave baskets out of wicker and raffia, weave pot holders on looms, make leis out of crepe paper and sing songs like “There Were Three Men of Jericho.” (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob)

The joy in life came from praise from family and friends, fresh farm-grown food, including whole milk delivered by a truck to the door in glass bottles set in wire racks, warm bread delivered from the local bakery to the door in the morning, walking in the park, visiting museums, playing pinball for a nickel or getting an ice cream cone at Sam and Edith’s corner store, boiling the water for corn-on-the-cob and then going out to a friend’s garden to pick it, watching fireworks at the park on the fourth of July, and a host of other delights that were either free, or very inexpensive.

Now, we must pay for spring water that is clean. Books come from Barnes & Noble or Borders. Crafts are bought pre-packaged by project. Children must be scheduled for play dates. Camp is very expensive. Games are mostly electronic. Adult supervision is necessary for every moment a child is outside of the house. The difficult economic times right now have made me nostalgic for the freedom of my childhood, but I would never want to be a child again with other people controlling my life decisions. At some point, and I am not sure where, having expensive toys like color television sets and color-coordinated bedspreads became a goal and a sort of competition to see if I was successful. There ought to be other measuring sticks.

Having put away the last of the Passover items on Friday morning, Saul and I went over to Costco to see about Shabbat dinner. The refrigerator is full of leftovers, but we have been eating the same food for a week, so we were greatly attracted to a hefty fillet of wild halibut in the case. We splurged and it was worth every penny. The recipe will appear shortly on the other blog, but it was among the best fish dishes I have ever had. I was exhausted, so dinner was a one-hour quickie that afforded me time to take an afternoon nap. Only Larry joined us, as Beth was not due to arrive from Costa Rica until late Saturday night. We had: crusty loaves of garlic bread from Costco that were hot out of the oven when we purchased them (in lieu of home-made challah) doctored up packaged cream of butternut/apple soup, Boston lettuce salad with Russian dressing, baked halibut, baked Yukon Gold potatoes with sour cream and butter, and steamed asparagus. For dessert, I made cup custards, which are the simpler versions of créme brulée, with fresh strawberries. Larry regaled us with stories about his travels in Costa Rica and brought us some gifts.

On Saturday, Stacey and Adele stayed with Mom so we could attend services, and then Stacey stayed all evening so we could go to dinner at Nunzio’s in Collingswood with Ken and Randi and Haley and Erik to celebrate recent birthdays. Saturday was actually Ken’s real birthday, and he surprised Randi with a new Rogue in the garage when they came home from breakfast at Jeff and Barbara’s house. Naturally, we took the new car for the long drive over to New Jersey for dinner, which was delectable. I had a whole Dover sole filleted tableside and a tuna carpaccio for an appetizer. I hope fish is as good for you as they say it is, or I am in trouble this week. Please, please let my brain not be fried from too much mercury!

Sunday, Ken and Randi came in the morning and Adele stayed all afternoon with Mom and we took the opportunity to take a two-hour drive in the Prius to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where we met Ari for a leisurely lunch by the bay at Harris’s and watched the yachts float past.

Monday, I finally got the information I needed and completed a publication that was past its deadline. Yesterday afternoon and today, I started to develop the awful cold that it going around that I am told lasts for 10 days to two weeks. Thank goodness my work is caught up, Stacey is coming, and I am able to spend more time in bed and away from Mom. Writing this blog post was a trial, with hot tea and tissues at hand, but I am glad I did it. Writing blogs is one of the best free things in my modern life!


Ari said...

I wonder how much of this is just your perception from growing up in an urban neighborhood, and now having a more suburban experience.

Now that the weather is getting warmer, there are neighborhood kids playing in my alley and in one of the bigger yards across the street almost every day.

Rock Creek Park is filled with joggers and pickup soccer games in the evenings, and family picnics and barbeques on the weekends.

I don't think that the world has become a much more dangerous place since the 50s and the 60s--it just seems that way because we hear about all the bad stuff more on the internet and 24 hour news channels.

It's a trade-off that comes with unlimited information soures.

Getting the most out of life to me is having the means to pay for the things that make you happy that cost money, but still equally appreciating the best things in life that ARE free.

We probably just have more of those in DC than most other places.

Marilyn said...

You are probably right, at least about DC. It really is an incredible urban environment, but I don’t know that I would be able to allow a child of mine the freedom to roam around the streets of the neighborhood without supervision as we did.

Ari said...

You used to let us go to the playground or the creek near Cedarbrook unsupervised all the time.

Marilyn said...

That stopped when the Flicker’s son was beat up by a group of boys at the playground, and you only went when older neighborhood children went with you, like Vinnie.

Anonymous said...

I just watched a story this morning about a mom who was arrested and is being prosecuted for child neglect and endangerment for kicking her 10 and 12 year old duaghters out of the car 3 miles from home and telling them to walk the rest of the way when they would not stop fighting in the car.

The "experts" said that it was really the mom's responsibility to "count to 10" and control her own temper. I thought that was hillarious!
So now we need to discipline ourselves rather than our children, and a 12 year old cannot walk home by herself! But I suppose it would have been ok if the mom had instead driven them to the mall and dropped them off with a credit card!
I agree with Ari BTW. There are plenty of things we can do for free. As a family we spend a lot of time playing in our yard and at local playgrounds and such. I am definitely more cautious about letting the girls wander out of sight of an adult than when I was a kid, but that is more as a result of the busy street on which I live, and the lack of sidewalks.