In my isolation, I frequently calculate the cost of my old life. The once-a-week trainer. The twice-a-week Pilates classes. The monthly facial, with the extra laser boost to work on acne scars and wrinkles. The pedicures, as much as I hated them, because who would go around with naked toes? The hair colourist. Regular theatre tickets. Daily cappuccinos. Salads at Sweetgreen. Dinners at a perfectly fine but not amazing place for $70 a person, with such intense noise that conversation is prohibited.
I know, I know. Please don’t start silently condemning me, especially when I’m noisily condemning myself.
In the past, when friends asked why I didn’t retire, I jokingly said that I had to keep working to pay for what passes as a normal life among privileged New Yorkers.
Now, after more than a month inside, I know a few things. One, I love to work and I’m not just doing it to pay for a facial. But two, maybe I don’t need all of these services. Maybe I could follow the lead of Peter Singer and give away at least 10 per cent of what I earn. Maybe I don’t need to always appear young and active and familiar with everything new.
Safe at home. That's a relief
Being stuck at home isn’t so bad. There’s the relief of having a home to be safe in, obviously, but there’s also the realisation of how frantic and expensive my lifestyle had become. I miss some of it. But not as much as I expected.
Our household of four discusses meals ahead of time, because shopping requires planning and orchestration. No more running into the store every night at 5 to pick up ingredients. Now, we mostly eat what we can make. My daughter bakes cakes if we must have dessert. Every Friday, we roast a chicken, and every Saturday, I make stock with the leftover bits of onion, garlic and kale stalks that I’ve held in the freezer for that purpose. I waste much less now. If I burn the toast, I eat it anyway, because it’s complicated and scary to shop for food.
I’m not sure when baby boomers became so fond of spending money on restaurants and massages and travel. In the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I was a vegetarian and cooked all of my meals from “Diet for a Small Planet” or “Moosewood.” I refused to buy anything, like paper towels, that I didn’t really need. My boyfriend and I made our own couch. He put the wood together, and I sewed covers for a foam seat and back.
He was a graduate student and I was a journalist, and we didn’t have much money. But we also didn’t have affordable options like Ikea or West Elm. Taste and style hadn’t been manufactured into products for the masses. No self-respecting feminist got pedicures. Restaurants were either pizza or special occasions.
I won’t be surprised if a lot of urban millennials, who were battered by graduating into a recession and finally made a bit of headway only to be slammed by a pandemic, give up on the idea of expensive big cities.
So how did I get here, decades later, with so many needs? Maybe it was our generational tic of wanting to be forever young, as Bob Dylan sang, of refusing to trust anyone over 30, of deep denial of ageing and death.
We told ourselves that consuming services and experiences was somehow better than buying stuff, that flying halfway around the world to India and staying in luxury hotels was the peak of sophistication while moving into a McMansion was a signifier of crass consumerism. But the different kinds of consumption are just social markers, of class and political leanings and education.
If I emerge alive from the pandemic — with asthma, I’m not confident — I plan to spend less and rely on myself more. I won’t need so much money. Which is fortunate because I will have a lot less. Savings that were supposed to get me through retirement will be gravely dented.
Saving office space with remote work
But plenty of people are in far worse shape. I feel both guilty about the people in essential jobs who are still out there working, and worried about what will happen to them if they don’t have jobs in a country that does so little to help them. If people like me cut back, will that prevent the economy from recovering, and take a lot of jobs with it?
I won’t be surprised if a lot of urban millennials, who were battered by graduating into a recession and finally made a bit of headway only to be slammed by a pandemic, give up on the idea of expensive big cities. Maybe their bosses will decide that remote work is fine and they can save on office space. Maybe they will fan out to pretty little towns where they can buy a house for the price of a studio in Brooklyn.
I grew up in the country outside of a small undistinguished city in Pennsylvania, and I loathed it. Not nature. I loved playing with my dolls under the weeping cherry tree in the spring. I loved jumping from rock to rock in the stream, and looking at the tadpoles.
But it was lonely, and isolated. I thought people would start moving to places like that when the internet was born and promised to connect us all. Urban planners and futurists predicted that people would move away from cities, because they could work anywhere. Not only did that not happen — the reverse happened. The easier that technology made it for us to leave congested, expensive urban centres, the more we clustered together. The urban boom hasn’t really made sense, unless you figure that cities attract companies because they want to recruit the kind of people who live there.
But now that we know that life at home works, will young people give up their shabby, crowded apartments? If their work is really portable, they might.
Will I give up the facials and the Pilates? Every woman I know says she is going to grow out her grey hair, and yet that can’t be true, because hair dye is out of stock, just like toilet paper.
It’s too soon to know how the definition of a good life will change, but it’s hard to believe that it won’t.
One thing is for sure: I’ll never buy chicken stock again.
— Trish Hall is the author of “Writing to Persuade: How to Bring People Over to Your Side,” and a former Op-Ed editor of The New York Times.