Last Sunday night, or Monday morning if you use the metric system, it was announced that François Hollande had defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in the runoff election for President of France. The voters, by a crushing 51.62 majority, rejected the austerity measures being pushed by Mr. Sarkozy, and embraced the 15-minute work week being promised by Mr. Hollande.
I used to hear the word “austere” used only in connection with the 17th Century Puritans, who observed strict fiscal discipline by tightening the buckles on their shoes and hats. But after “austerity” was anointed the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2010, I started paying attention to this newer usage, and what it meant for my Pez habit.
The term “austerity” when used in connection with economics means, in a very general, non-nation-specific, Wikipedia kind of way, “a policy of deficit-cutting, lower spending, and a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided.” The more I’ve heard this word on the radio as I search for the latest Katy Perry hit, I’ve started to think about how I could introduce some austerity measures into my own life as a way of reducing my debt obligations to foreign markets.
The first area in which I tried to impose some fiscal conservatism was in garbage collection. In my home, we typically throw garbage out. But this requires paying for someone to come and pick our garbage every week. So to save on this bloated budget item, instead of throwing out trash I started taking it to work and using it as weights to keep books open flat on my desk without my having to hold them. On occasion the weights would still contain some food, yielding double austerity points for saving me from having to buy lunch that day.
Another area that was really adding to our households expenses was eating out at restaurants. So to save money I decided to start cooking. But first I would have to learn how.
“Honey,” I asked my wife, “where do we keep all the ingredients and recipes?”
After an hour of searching through the kitchen, and getting bogged down in the drawer that holds all the pens, tape measures, and keys that don’t go to any locks, I was ready to make chateaubriand, a dish that has fallen out of favor in America but which I’ve always liked pronouncing.
Searing the meat was easy enough; in my youth I was a Boy Scout for several weeks and so was familiar with fire. But I really got hung up on the shallot. Like, what was a shallot? I searched on the Internet, and found that a shallot is “a botanical variety of the species Allium cepa.” Still puzzled, I looked at a picture of shallots. “Ah, they look like onions!” I said, and located an onion that had been rolling around in the vegetable drawer of our refrigerator, a drawer I hadn’t opened since the Prussians sealed off the city and attempted to starve us. After serving the chateaubriand, however, I think my wife would have preferred starving.
My last austerity measure was designed to save money on gasoline. I started hitchhiking to work once a week. The thumbing-signal I mastered pretty quickly, but I could never get the red polka dot cloth tied properly to the end of the stick. There was a seminar being offered at the local community college on “Introduction to Running Away From Home,” but, thanks to the austerity measures, my education budget had been slashed, and I had to hold my polka dot cloth with my lunch and work in my hand.
No one wants to pick up a hitchhiker who can’t master the polka dot cloth on the end of a stick. I learned this the hard way. But maybe that’s what austerity measures are all about—learning how to learn for free.