Getting and spending: old comforts anew

'Tis the season to get out and spend, officials tell us, in the aftermath of Sept. 11. How neatly that dovetails with the wish of merchants gearing up for holiday sales. As the usual catalogs pile up, their arrival comes as a welcome reprieve. Entire confectionary worlds await our indulgence - if only we could get past this menacing phase that promises a new "threat per day." Not to mention that some people have encountered other forms of loss recently.

A friend, for instance, got laid off last week. She cleared out her desk, packed up, and left. Within hours, she was out doing the logical thing: shopping. That afternoon, she bought a computer and a printer. Next day, a VCR. By Day 5, when we went out together, the mood was that of a marathon, racing through a series of stores, buying happily as we went. In less than an hour, we had amassed a mini-CD player, binoculars, a pillow, a photo album, and a ceramic bowl. Total cost: $370.

But measured against the backdrop of errant white powder and amorphous threats, this simple pleasure was priceless. That's what it's come to.

Not long ago, this same friend defined comfort food as "anything you put in your mouth." In the world of shopping, the equivalent is anything that fits in a bag. Nor is this as frivolous as it may seem. At a time when systems of order are crumbling around us, it's only natural to want to fortify oneself and one's turf. Padding oneself with comfort food, or comforting stuff, is the smallest of concessions. It's not intended as a stand-in for love or human contact; it's micromanaging the physical world. It's a way to rebuild one's tiny lot.

Frankly, there are times when love pales next to a bar of chocolate. No wonder the American Red Cross suggests "comfort foods" as part of a disaster-supplies kit. Official calls for normalcy are patently foolish right now. Calls to consumers to go out and spend, in the face of layoffs, recession, and near-panic, are equally absurd. It may be the economy, stupid; but it's also the national psyche, plodding through the debris field of the way things used to be.

Oddly, the government is trying to bully us out of our fear. We can outwit the terrorists by going about our business, the official new mantra declares. But normalcy is not the point; comfort and safety are. It's nice that the government endorses our penchant to shop, albeit for higher fiscal motives. When it comes down to it, though, we're not all that lofty. For many of us, getting and spending provide simple, basic comforts that are increasingly hard to find.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer.

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