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Sun, Feb 15, 2009 - Page 12 News List

Bad economy, good excuse

The recession may be nerve-racking, merciless, seemingly intractable. It may leave your job in peril and your 401(k) in shreds. But apparently, it is not without its uses

By Alex Williams  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Lavish anniversary dinners, destination weddings, costly gifts for wailing children, and, yes, obligations to ungrateful nannies — so often we go along, even when, deep down, we would do anything to get out of them. Now the bankers and Wall Streeters who detonated the economy and sent the world plunging headlong into the financial abyss have, at the very least, handed us a gold-plated, question-proof, get-out-of-jail free card. The downturn makes for a fabulous excuse.

Photo: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Dani Klein Modisett, a theater producer and comedian in Los Angeles, was having trouble with her nanny. After Modisett gave the nanny a US$500 Christmas bonus last December, she said, the woman came in the next day and told her she had to leave early on New Year’s Eve.

“And I don’t mean 11pm, I mean 11am,” Modisett recalled.

She decided it was time, high time, to replace the nanny. But how to do it, while avoiding a confrontation?

The recession, of course.

Modisett told the nanny that she had to “downsize” her staff, due to the slowdown. She adopted an appropriately sober tone, like so many bosses these days when delivering bad — but unavoidable — news.

Soon after, she hired another nanny.

“It’s the silver lining in the recession cloud,” Modisett said. “In fact, it comes in quite handy.”

Lavish anniversary dinners, the destination weddings of second-tier friends, costly gifts for children and, yes, obligations to nannies — so often we go along, even when, deep down, we would do anything to get out of them. Now, even if we can still afford such occasional obligations, the recession has provided something of a get-out-of-jail-free card: It’s an excuse with which few would argue.

Indeed, in a twisted way, the fact that the downturn is global makes it even better: It works for every time zone and, as one Manhattan woman discovered, every latitude.

Andrea Pritchett, 35, owns a company that designs maternity swimwear, and she also runs ultra-marathon adventure races in her spare time. She has shown up for grueling treks of more than 209km in the Amazon jungle and the Sahara, usually at the urging of her personal running coach, a close friend, who is a representative for a company that collaborates with the race organizers.

But recently, the coach tried to get Pritchett on board for a trek into the Arctic Circle in Canada.

“I’m already having a hard enough time this winter,” Pritchett said. “And when I go skiing, after a couple of hours, my fingers are killing me. I can’t imagine 120 miles [193km] in below-zero temperatures.”

So she told the coach that she really wanted to do it, she really, really did, and was committed 100 percent. She just couldn’t spare the money on equipment and fees — because of the, you know, economy and such. The coach understood.

“She said, ‘Just keep training, things are going to get better,’ and I said, ‘You know I’m there in 2010,’” Pritchett said.

Letitia Baldrige, an etiquette expert, knows that Pritchett, Modisett and anyone else slyly using the economy excuse is tossing out a white lie and that white lies are a cornerstone of good manners.

“I never would have gotten through life without them,” Baldrige said.

The problem is that the recession excuse is a stink bomb wrapped in a Tiffany box. “It’s a real downer,” she said. “If I’m giving a party and call you and you say you can’t come because of the recession, I immediately feel like I’m going against the recession and doing something wrong by throwing a party.”

The recession is such a powerful concept that even a child understands its gravity. Tony Abrams, the president of Four Hundred, a personal concierge service in Manhattan, said one of his clients recently told his four children, to little complaint, that they would receive Wii fitness systems, to simulate skiing, instead of their annual trip to Aspen.

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