The Third Third

The New Normal

The [New Normal][1]. Isn’t there a line in the musical *Hair* that eschews “Normal” for children of the sixties for all time? (Something like “Please, God, Please, Don’t let me be Normal!”) So, if we never truly mastered the “old” Normal, what bother could a “new” Normal possibly be? One wonders. The New Normal is chiefly about changing expectations wrought by the deepest economic Recession anyone alive today has experienced since the Great Depression. And/or adjustments to reality – which economists and sociologists agree everyone must now make except, apparently, the bankers who seem to have made out like bandits (sic) both as the economy died to derivatives and bubbles and as it was re-born with government aid. The analysis plays out something like this: When our eldest daughter was in high school, she and her friends would gather at our house – or another friend’s – for sodas and snacks and the occasional meal whenever they had any kind of break from their extremely full schedule of classes, sports, and extracurricular activities. Ten years later, our youngest daughter, with the same demanding schedule, met her friends at Starbucks for coffee and sweets, or California Pizza Kitchen for lunch. Sometime in that decade from 1988 to 1998, something shifted such that the younger child believed she both had more disposable income and was more entitled to spend it than her older sister. There had been no sea changes in parents or parenting or even in the school or the allowance arrangements in the intervening years, *but* there was an obvious change in the economic reality our children experienced and/or perceived. Another example: when the kids were little, a friend and I might take them to Friendly’s for an out-to-dinner treat when our husbands were working late. Once a month. And then only if we had the cash and split the burgers. Going out at the end of a hard day when you were just too tired to cook simply wasn’t an option. In fact, it had to be a really special occasion – even for the adults -- to have it deemed affordable to go out to dinner at all. And then it didn’t. Over time, as our income increased and the economy grew, going out for burgers, pizza, and Mexican food became part of what we did with the kids on a fairly regular basis, like once a week, and exploring new restaurants with friends evolved into routine entertainment. We weren’t alone in this. Simply look at the explosion of “family restaurants” in every mall and shopping center, along every major highway, the two-plus-hour waits at places like Outback Steakhouse, the intense celebrity of chefs, and the grand staging of restaurant openings – or check out their packed parking lots on any given day – and it’s clear that disposable income helped dispose of the relentless drudgery (and economy) of home-cooking in many millions of homes. This was the same “New Normal” our youngest daughter played out at Starbuck’s, a New Normal that made us all feel more upwardly mobile. Unfortunately, the *new* New Normal is shifting us into reverse. Whichever economic indicators we choose to trust -- with the exception of Apple profits and banker bonuses -- they all seem to echo an insidious message that sounds as ugly as the words Prudence and Frugal and your mother’s (or father’s) “I-told-you-so.” And that message is: Scale back. Your spending has been out of control. And the bottom line: your lifestyle just isn’t sustainable -- or Normal -- anymore. If we are lucky, the New Normal will be grounded in values rather than things. That’s a noble, optimistic, even revolutionary thought. It would be the Good News of the New Normal if we could make it happen. But we’d have to be very, very lucky. In the meantime, I’m afraid most of us think we simply have to be good, or better than we’ve been. That mindset, however, suggests there really *isn’t* a New Normal, but merely a bad and difficult phase we simply have to get through until things are back to Normal (the Good Old Normal). The super-rich, for example, can fly commercial, even coach class, for a while; and *then* , when things improve, they’ll call their private jets out of the hangers. The mega shoppers will buy just one priceless dress, only one great outfit, and a couple pairs of boots – no new shoes– instead of a complete change of wardrobe this season. The African safaris will have to wait; they’ll dash down to the Caribbean instead this winter. And the rest of us who might have thought – or fantasized -- that we were on the way to where they were, we’ll be cutting back on *everything* as we examine all that’s suddenly seeming terribly expensive. We’ll be patting ourselves on the back for being so disciplined as to drive instead of fly, to cook instead of going out, to wash the dogs and the cars ourselves, to limit to one the number of days a week the housekeeper comes, to improve our use of leftovers, to entertain with chili instead of chateaubriand, to take up walking instead of a new gym membership, to renegotiate our cable and phone plans and credit card fees, to plant flowers we can pick and not buy, to fill our gas tanks once every 10 or 12 days and no longer once a week, to reconsider the quality of store brands, and more. You can make it into a kind of parlor game until you begin to feel embarrassed at how superfluous all these *things* are, how easy it is to remove most of them from your life *style* and still have your *life* left, how lucky we are that our choices are so simple, compared to choosing between rent or medicine, food or winter coats, a doctor’s appointment or a day at work, eye glasses or school supplies, sustenance or abject poverty. It’s this embarrassment that forces me to confront – and actually think about embracing – the New Normal. Of that which we thought we wanted (we actually thought *everybody* wanted it – that’s what made it Normal, after all), what do we really need? How much of our discretionary spending has been thoughtlessly habitual, a mere addiction to consumerism? Is that the kind of world we want to live in, the life we want our kids and future generations to aspire to? What kind of people really care more about the “it” bag or the “in” resort or restaurant than, say, universal health care or educational opportunity? Why have we been fiddling while Rome burns? And where -- beyond expressions of moral outrage at the bankers’ contemptuous excesses -- is the moral leadership we need, the voice that honors our better selves and inspires a fundamental change in the way we live? As Thomas Friedman writes in the [*New York Times*][2] today, it’s just “politics as usual” in Washington, D.C., and without leaders inspired by sustainable values, he predicts our nation’s reckoning, when it comes, will be “that much more ferocious.” The same is true of each of us: the New Normal requires sustainable values of every individual and family, or *our* reckonings, too, will be that much more ferocious. *Much* more ferocious than simply brewing our own lattes. How would you define the New Normal? What changes have you made in your lifestyle? What changes would you be willing to make? Who – or what – might inspire you to make any more fundamental changes? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments section below. [1]: [2]:
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