Sunday, November 30, 2008

There but for fortune

Woke up this morning with this Phil Ochs song going through my head. Not sure why, other than the fact so much economic news recently has been so grim, both personally and in a more general national way. The S.O. and I are doing okay, but I worry about the Older Daughter, several blogpals are hurting, and a number of other friends and acquaintances are wondering if they're going to be standing in line at the food pantry or homeless shelter sometime in the not too distant future.

One of my younger cousins had been cruising along happily for a number of years, making good money as an engineer and feeling relatively immune to economic woes. . . not true anymore. He worked (insert ominous background music here) for the Cadillac division of General Motors. He did everything right: served in the military, then went to college using the education benefit (end result -- no crushing burden of student loan debt when he graduated), got a good job, worked hard, got promotions, and now where is he? Standing in the unemployment line with a pretty large cohort of fellow former GM employees. I can't think of much he might have done to avoid his present situation -- he's a smart guy, I'm sure he saw the handwriting on the wall well before the axe actually fell, but it's hard to change jobs in a shrinking labor market.

Other friends and acquaintances are either teetering on the brink of total financial disaster or have already slid into the abyss. And each time I hear the horror stories, the worrying about how to keep up the car payments, pay the winter heating bills, avoid foreclosure, manage to keep fresh fruit in the house so the kids don't grow up wondering what an apple is, etc., the temptation to give advice starts sneaking up on me. After all, I'm in the perfect position to tell other people how to run their lives -- I'm doing fine with mine, no current major financial worries, ergo, I'm an expert. I'll just share my secrets, whatever they may happen to be (always buying generics? figuring out that Great Clips does cheap haircuts before 10 a.m.?) while conveniently ignoring the biggest secret of all: sheer dumb luck.

The truth is you can do everything right -- live frugally, buy all your clothes at Goodwill, stash money in savings, drive a beater instead of making car payments -- and still have the ceiling cave in. Everyone of us is subject to forces we cannot control. The Atlanta paper has been full of stories lately about people who thought they had it made: from self-employed developers who went from being millionaires to worrying about ending up homeless over the course of the past two years to low level hourly employees who thought their jobs were secure and are now unemployed following company cutbacks. They're all victims of a struggling economy, the collateral damage caused by structural forces, and they all share one thing in common: they're all feeling individually guilty, like they did something personally to 'deserve' the raw deal they just got handed. After all, the Great American Myth is that anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough -- so if you're hurting financially, it's all your fault. Not the banks. Not the economy. Just you. Which is why everyone is sitting there eager to give you advice on What You Should Have Done Differently.

And admittedly there almost always is something You Should Have Done Differently. But no one really needs to hear it. When you're staring disaster in the face you're generally already engaging in self-flagellation. Everyone has a mental list of "should have" and "if only" scenarios, each of which has the ability to make you think It's All Your Fault. The last thing anyone needs when his or her world is crumbling around them is someone standing on the sidelines making them feel even worse. So I'll just keep my mouth shut, offer help if there's something useful I can do (help with the yard sale? volunteer our pick-up truck for moving stuff into storage or a smaller place? provide a reference?), and hope things work out in the long run.


  1. my granddaughter and her boyfriend are feeling the crunch..his job could be gone in the future and some days she only works 3 days a week as apposed to 5..
    I worry about them...they were telling me in one breath that things look bad and in the next they are looking for a new bedroom set..sigh*

  2. Nan - You are a wise woman. I'm glad you and the S.O. got home safely from your trip to TX. May you get back to work and see a reasonable number of emails about The Strategy, but not so many to make the next few days a mess.

  3. I saw it coming and got ready for it. Everything is paid for and my income is damn near three times more than I need to get by on.

    So I'm good to go, how about you?

  4. My heart is breaking that a country such as ours - is in this bad of shape. Greed at the top cannot be discounted. Those fat cats and their golden parachutes and bonuses need to reflect back on those they have put on the streets. Hopefully, this scenaqrio will change soon - and we can become a prosperous nation once again.

  5. And admittedly there almost always is something You Should Have Done Differently.

    Na, I'm okay with what I've done and how I did it.

  6. I used to play that song on the guitar, a lot. Am I the only person who likes the original Phil Ochs version better than the Joan Baez one?

  7. I prefer the original Phil Ochs, too (after all, he wrote it), but couldn't find a clip with good sound quality.

  8. This is a wonderful post Nan. But what I want to know is when is that ass BBC going to stop gloating at the troubles of others? What a pig.

    Now that I have that out of my system, I think the best thing about what you're saying is that we should stop beating ourselves up. We are all doing the best we can with what skills we have. If I'd had the income to borrow on the equity in my house I would have. Now I realize I was lucky to be so poor, otherwise my house might have a foreclosure sign on the front lawn.

    These are a few of the things I do: I cut & color my own hair. I buy all my clothes at thrift stores, I run all errands on one day a week and try to keep them close to home. And I take a neighbor, who doesn't have a clunker or any car, with me. It's my only good deed and I enjoy her company. We are speed shoppers. Always take a list and never buy something you don't really need just because it's a good buy. I keep the heat off when I'm gone, and I dress warmly in layers when I'm home, and keep the thermostat at 60 degrees.

    But none of this makes me better or smarter than anyone else. Unlike BBC, I still have tremendous compassion for you fellow citizens who are having such a hard time, no matter the choices they made. Remember that only a couple of months ago, Dana Perino, John McCain, and Chimpy were all saying the "fundamentals of the economy are sound." Now we know this recession has been going on for at least a year.

  9. You know, back when I was doing my on-line socializing in Usenet newsgroups, the newsreader software had a feature called a "killfile" which would immediately delete messages from someone you didn't want to hear from. It was a simple and elegant way of dealing with the sort of attention-seeking trolls who pop up and do their best to poison otherwise-civilized conversations. It's a shame Blogger does not seem to offer a comparable function.

  10. Bob - a killfile option would be nice. I've heard some of the other sites that do blog hosting offer it. As it is, I'm just tossing the truly inappropriate comments (and there have been a few) into the trash before they have the chance to see the light of day. The fact some people are obviously socially tone-deaf or in denial (a man who's had multiple wives and whose adult children who won't speak to him claims to have never made any bad choices?) is annoying, but not to the point of me doing an outright rejection.

  11. I'm sorry Nan, it was rude of me. But I'm fed up. He has trolled my site so long and so unpleasantly, I just see him and hit the delete button.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.