Hard times take us back to basics

My wife has a new interest: learning Morse code.

A little strange, yes, but let me explain.

Remember that TV show "Jericho"? A nuclear attack strikes two dozen major American cities, and the residents of the small town of Jericho, Kan., are isolated from the outside world. The series follows the townspeople as they cope with an array of challenges.

The show aired for one full season, then was canceled for lackluster ratings. But dedicated fans appealed to the producers to bring the show back. They did, delivering seven more episodes before the show ended for good earlier this year.

My wife and I watched the first couple of episodes of the first season but we didn't continue. It was a good show, but we had too much on our plates at that time to commit to another serial program.

Earlier this month, with a little more time on her hands, my wife decided she would go back and see "Jericho" through to its conclusion. Thanks to the wonders of Hulu.com, she was able to watch all 30 episodes for free.

Well, at the beginning of each episode, a Morse code message serves as a backdrop to the introductory images. My wife wondered if the code was anything more than gobbledygook.

She turned to an expert: me.

Yes, contrary to my reputation as a jack of no trades, I know Morse code. I learned it when I earned my amateur radio license (KA7DVR) as a teenager. Inspired by my dad's intense interest in the hobby, I became active as well, communicating by code and by microphone with fellow ham operators all over the world.

I haven't been active on the radio waves for a while, so I had to listen to the Morse code message several times before I figured out what it said. Indeed, it was not gobbledygook but actually spelled out a phrase reflecting the theme of each episode.

My wife, who has never had the faintest interest in ham radio, decided she wanted to learn Morse code herself. She turned to the Internet and printed out the dots and dashes that make up the nearly anachronistic Morse alphabet.

She's been studying every night since -- five letters per night. She's walking around the house muttering "dit-dah-dah-dah" (j) and "dah-dit-dah-dit" (c), and having a grand old time spelling out words.

Does my wife want to earn her ham radio license or transmit ship-to-shore messages? Not on your life. She tells me she wants to be able to tap out a secret message if she's ever held hostage or finds herself in some other dire situation.

A laudable goal, no doubt about it. You never know, right?

This little exercise reminds me that with the economy collapsing before our eyes, people are reining in their free-spending ways. They are cutting back on vacations, eating more home-cooked meals and holding off on major purchases.

As a result, lots of us -- my wife excepted, apparently -- don't know what to do with ourselves.

After all, the predominant 21st century American pastime is buying stuff. Shopping is entertainment. We love to buy things -- cars, big-screen TVs, clothes for our pets.

But the times are a-changin'. With 401(k) accounts in free fall, home values plummeting and unemployment on the rise, we're less inclined to spend our way to happiness. We're more likely to hunker down and wait out the economic storm.

So, what does one do with oneself during such times?

Once upon a time, people knew how to entertain themselves without spending money. My late grandmother was an avid cribbage player. That's the card game in which you keep score on a cribbage board. Sadly, I never learned the game. My game was Yahtzee.

My memory is regrettably spotty, but I distinctly recall summer evenings when I was 8 or 9 years old. We'd sit around the kitchen table and play Yahtzee for hours. We had a fine time, the dice game merely serving as the mechanism for sustained human interaction.

There are myriad ways to enjoy life without handing somebody a credit card, some admittedly more productive than learning Morse code or playing cards. One radical idea: rediscover the public library.

Oh, I know what you're saying: Libraries are so 20th century. Who needs 'em when we've got DVRs and YouTube?

The thing about libraries is they contain all kinds of books, magazines, DVDs and CDs that you don't have to purchase. If you can afford to buy your media, more power to you. But in these difficult financial times, you don't have to give them up. You can go to the library and leave with an armful of books, movies and music. The kids can go, too. It's a beautiful thing.

No-cost entertainment. You may not choose to learn Morse code like my wife, but there are plenty of other ways to fill our many hours spent not buying stuff.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@ reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Friday.