Personal Voices: Things Change

The soft economy that newspeople mention many times a day hasn't got me wondering about the security of my job, or the deficit and the cost of war, or the splendor of low interest rates. It's got me selling my things, my personal stuff, to pay my bills. It's like being a Hugo character and trying to sell my only untorn frock for bread while the revolution rages.

I rationalize this budget-building tactic by recognizing the fact that I have more than enough belongings. The amount can be described technically as a plethora. My husband and I have 1940s lamps, 1900s mantle clocks, English wedding china never used, a reproduction medieval Italian crossbow. Nothing matches, but it's all memories and associations: of where we lived when I bought the face jug, of how long the Fisher stereo that my husband won in a raffle lasted (20 years), of the best-ever church rummage sale where I found a blue-and-white enamel Swedish canton pot in which I have since cooked nothing.

After 10 years of accumulation, we opened our own artisan bread bakery in the summer of 2001. It has always been, ominously, the first Bush administration and the first Gulf War that my husband blames for his first business failure. But for the past two years, even as my own tech stocks attained true lack-of-value, unemployment rose and bread sales plummeted, I didn't believe my husband, or the news people. How could the vast world market economy, Alan Greenspan or the policies of an administration that displays no concern for little, old, lower-class me, affect our tiny handmade bakery situated on the coast of a Southern no-account state? The US of A is not even to the east of us, just dolphins and calm cool international waters as far as the eye can see.

We work hard, and nothing can touch us, I thought.

I tend to blame our shop's much too-modest "success" on my crankiness with customers, my aversion to the hard sell, the inbred biases of the small historic town in which we chose to set up shop, the penny-pinching 50-something retirees who rarely leave their million-dollar beach houses and golf courses, our stubborn loyalty to bread instead of petite fours, and the fact that everyone else seems to misunderstand the value and healthfulness of handmade breads. Diabetics and Atkins-ers alike will tell me that they can't eat bread, then ask for a cinnamon roll.

But now I am actually selling my personal belongings to help pay bills. I feel the squeeze of this economy, see the pattern in the politics, and want to place blame too, as if blame, whether in the form of a scapegoat or pinned on a figurehead, will help now. I supplement our bank account with 1997's summer of accumulation in Boone, North Carolina, 2000's trip to Atlanta, a green-and-cream polka-dot silk suit that I wore once in 1999, and my life-long fondness for thrift stores.

My things now have more value than pretty shelf-sitting, or stylish closet-hanging, or questionable decor-supplementing. The six-foot inflatable, vinyl Gumby that my husband bought at a Spencer's in 1983 has a new home in Japan. The inflatable-toy collector and I met through the online auction service I have recently grown so fond of. The face jug that I bought on the freezing day of a kiln opening, right out of the hands of the blind mountain man who made it, sold for twice what I payed for it. The garish, bent-metal flowering chandelier that hung in our kitchen nook for eight months after being rescued from a thrift store went for $62 plus shipping.

My biggest toy, a yellow 1973 VW Thing, just drove out to an island to become someone else's play thing. A VW Thing looks like a jeep combined with a chariot crossed with a rubber ducky. This car, with no power steering, no power brakes, no cigarette lighter, no radio and usually no windows because I left them in the garage so often, was the only car I was ever comfortable, and happy, driving. I have driven that car in a parade, doors removed, windshield folded onto hood, and pink flamingos sticking out of every crevice. Once when I was driving along, my Thing attracted the admiration of a man who plays polo with the Prince of Wales. I bought that car in 1998; its Thingy-ness was mine for a while.

It relieves my pounding head to pay my bills, and my new philosophy is Out of Sight, Out of Mind. I refuse to miss things.

It is certainly embarrassing to talk about personal finances. What I am doing now is pulling a reverse-materialism manuever: trading pretenses at a tax bracket for gratifying, live-action experience. I meet people far outside my little town, I realize how temporary ownership is, and I will find it much lighter to move next time around. I recognize that things change, in many senses. Someday, enough people will lose enough weight and want to eat bread again, and someday enough of The People will effect a permanent, healthy eco-politico change for themselves and this country.

I can't wait to hear what my new coworkers at my second job think of things.

Lisa Annelouise Rentz is a baker and writer who lives in South Carolina.

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