Archive for January, 2010

one thing I forget

January 28, 2010

Another day of few prospects, and not even any good reading material.  Yesterday afternoon I skimmed through A Girl of the Limberlost on line.  This is a book I refused to read as a kid; that’s how bad it’s getting.  Still I ended the day hopeful if only because every person I left a message for on Monday returned my call.  Three out of three!  Beyond their immense generosity, giving me time out of their busy days to answer my questions, I was struck too with their courteousness.  All three of them asked, “Do you have a minute?”  or “Is this a good time?”  It thrills me just to write this.

Earlier I’d gone out for a errands, a few of which proved to be fruitless, at least in terms of what the powerless I had wanted to happen.  A woman made a left turn that cut me off as I started pulling through my green light; other drivers sailed through parking lots oblivious on cell phones.  Would you rather be stuck behind a hay trailer or a school bus, I had time to wonder as I languished behind a John Deere.  It was disturbing to see all the scowling people (I had one proprietor try to ensnare me in a political rant!), and I worried about whether I was becoming a shut-in, unable to let the negative aspects of public interaction roll off me. 

So when I finished up the third phone conversation, I was filled with an enormous appreciation for the social kindnesses many of us can still muster.  Everyone of us has had bad auto moments and regretted them instantly.  And many of us hate shopping; it can remind us how little money we have to start with and how much less we’ll have after check-out (especially at Whole Foods).  Life’s so frenetic that we’re bound to behave less than admirably more than once a day.  What’s fantastic is that there are these moments when people can recall their obligation to another person, at times someone whom they’ve never even met, and, as Charles Dickens has written,  “seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

God bless us, everyone!

Over-rated

January 27, 2010

Temperance

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

William James

I have a friend who’s addicted to the concept of genius.  When she praises someone, she rarely mentions if he or she is, for example, attractive  or kind or successful.  No, she’s interested in some of the most misanthropic people I’ve met, but they’re “terrifically smart.”  She talks about a cousin with an IQ of over 170, excuses the dyspeptic behavior of an septuagenarian artist, and ponders what my IQ would be.  I’ve told her more than once that my mother allowed a education student to test me and my sister when we were young but that the tester was asked not to tell us our scores.  (“They were high” is all my mother can remember.  Intelligence is less her bag than attractiveness and success.)

Maybe because of my upbringing, where a high IQ score was deep-sixed and discussions of beauty contests’ college scholarships were foregrounded, I have an ambivalent relationship with intelligence (and beauty, but one thing at a time).  Maybe gaining knowledge was my genetic destiny, maybe it was in the stars or numbers, or maybe I chose to be smarter than my peers to prove to my mom that my way in life wouldn’t be determined by my looks.  Without dwelling too much on the details of my painful naivete, I behaved in the past as if my intelligence would be my passport into a superior way of life than what my parents’ , or anyone else’s, average intelligence could cook up.  I suppose the messages that intelligence wasn’t everything were all around me for a long time, but I was too smart to give them credence.  Now I, a very smart woman, am unemployed and on the margin of economic disaster while numerous less intelligent former acquaintances are doing very well indeed.

It doesn’t satisfy all of my regrets or pay a single cent of my bills to say it’s never too late to learn, but  it’s true nevertheless.  When I make the mistake of comparing my fortune to those former acquaintances with, if not more glamorous jobs, certainly well-paying jobs (or just jobs), I forget that I may still have something to offer.  What’s important is what we want to choose as our aim.  What each of us desires, what we work to create, creates us.   My younger self’s desire for knowledge was as self-absorbed as getting botox and boob jobs.  From now on, I’m shooting for wisdom.  Yes, being wise would help me navigate those circumstances I can’t control, but I’m hoping now that it will also affect the people around me.  Rather than being a judgmental know-it-all, I can temper that knowledge with compassion, an appreciation for the myriad hardships that confront everyone at some point in their lives and for the equally countless, ingenious ways people have overcome them.  I can use my mind to pay attention to what’s really important — the fact that time is fleeting and that we all have our roles to fulfill — and to overlook what is not.

try to love one another right now

January 22, 2010

Yes, I have too much time on my hands.  And no good book to read. (I can’t continue on with Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife now that half the animals have been shot.  This is even before the Nazi’s enter Warsaw.)  Out of bored curiosity I’ve been idling through those MSN.com articles on unemployment, home-buying, retirement and what-have-you.  The articles are worthless except that they trigger volumes of comments.  It’s weird — I could work all week and not get a sense of what people out there are thinking, and then I get laid off and hear the rage and fear.  I mean, I knew the rage and fear were there; I just didn’t know how they were manifesting.

The article I read this morning has been cycled through MSN at least three times, and there were about 350 comments when I flipped through some of them.  It was a light-weight piece on how people today are continuing to work past their retirement age, never going more deeper on the economic realities of why people would make this choice than to mention their shrinking IRAs.   The piece I read last night (which must have triggered some of the most hostile dreams I’ve had in a while) turned on a recent poll that more women than men are likely to think of home-buying as a wise investment plan.

To summarize just a few of the shocking revelations about my fellow Americans’ opinions:  a significant number of the baby boomers think the younger generations have no work ethic and that’s why they’re out of work; members of the younger generations think the baby boomers are selfish and need to retire; the majority think that if one plans ahead, works hard and saves, their lives will turn out okay;  men think the overall culture has been feminized and that getting married equals being castrated financially, and women think men today are immature and undependable.

Whew!

I’m thinking of that part in the film “Swimming to Cambodia” where Spaulding Gray offers up the screaming argument he had with his downstairs neighbor as a metaphor for how difficult it is to reject the energy of war.  He says something like, If we can’t get it together with our own neighbors, how are we ever going to work it out with another country?

something nice

January 17, 2010

Black trumpet mushrooms found in Shenandoah National Park, June 2009

I read my previous post out loud to my friend Scott (who personally logs onto a computer once a month or less), expecting some kind of positive feedback, and he immediately pointed to its cynical tone.  “You’ll have to write something hopeful next,” he said.

Stinging as any critique may be, he’s absolutely right (and here I thought I was being jaunty!), at least about the “hopeful” thing.  The photo above seems hopeful — beauty surprises us everywhere.

the big buy-in

January 17, 2010

To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you should prefer is to have kept your soul alive. 

Robert Louis Stevenson

Today I’ve been reading a few unemployment blogs, looking for company, I suppose.  What I discovered is that, once again, I’ve been going about everything all wrong.  For a very long time, incidentally, but I’ll try to cover only one topic here.

From what I’m reading, no one is taking time out to consider their ideas about “success” very deeply.  No doubt there are other blogs out there I’m completely missing, but what’s turning up in my stroll through the internet’s unemployment ranks are folks willing to take any job so that they can jump back into their old lives like a kid returning for another turn at jump rope.  No one seems to be spending too much time pondering how their “old lives” were based on a bunch of false premises and whether reconstruction efforts should be held off until a sturdier, more realistic foundation is created.

By “false premises” one could definitely include the old chestnut of employer paternalism.  It would be nice if we could all get over that one.  More than a few economic downturns since the 70s have reminded us that employers are not looking out for their employees’ best interests, only at the bottom line, and that when it comes to a question of taking a cut in their profits or of cutting their employee expenses, almost everyone will make the same choice.  Despite how outmoded this concept, though, there’s still a hint of it in the air.  Job applicants are supposed to pretend, for instance, that the next X number of years they’ll remain devoted to their prospective employer.  But the employers’ side of the equation has been shadier and less durable for a long time now.

A more relevant premise unveiled as patently false this time around is the idea of working, investing and comfortably retiring.  A lot of baby boomers freaked out when the stock market readjusted in September 2008 because their retirement investments shrunk.  Guess what?  The market was over-valued.  The investments’ values had been inflated over the last decade just like our economy.  It doesn’t take much more logical thinking to understand that, for the generations that follow the baby boomers, not only won’t we have our private retirement plans; we won’t have Social Security either.  So long, safety net.  It was a brief historical phenomenon they’ll talk about one day in history e-books.  Working until we die — that’s the retirement plan most everyone on the planet will be participating in from now on.

And what about the premise that one’s house is the most important piece of one’s investment strategy?  I can’t figure out why we need to keep talking about this after the mortgage debacle, and yet I read article after article where a laid off job seeker hopes to find another job so she can afford to buy a house.   Maybe I wasn’t getting the right message, but didn’t the mortgage crisis underline that not everybody can afford to buy a home?   Sure, by the time 30- and 40-something homeowners of today finally finish their working careers, they will definitely appreciate the home equity they’ve created — so they can apply for reverse mortgages to afford their health-care costs.  It’s not hard to put two and two together:  reverse mortgages are one of the hottest financial instruments out there right now.  Hmm:  working hard at a job you can barely stand so you can struggle to pay your mortgage so that one day you can retire and get a reverse mortgage to pay your medical bills vs. working until you die.  The horns of this dilemma are admittedly sharp, but that’s the dilemma we’ve got.  Not some Sun City or Miami Beach retirement dream.  Heck — by the time people in their 40s and 30s retire, we may not have enough energy to cool down Sun City or Florida retirement communities.  In 2050 retirees may be flocking to Rapid City where the weather has gotten considerably milder. 

It’s easier for people to work with the systems already in place rather than question their validity.  This happens on a micro to a macro level.  For instance, one’s employed in a job she can barely stand, but when she’s cast out of it, she’d do anything to get a job.  The insecurity of joblessness has always been there and will remain even if she lands another job.  Once re-employed, she won’t have to think about the insecurity of the system for a while — she can put money into her 401(k) and sign a mortgage believing that her world is secure even when it isn’t.  She’ll double-down on this bet and fight tooth-and-nail to preserve an infrastructure where her success hinges on such things as the ability of employers to deliver profits to stock holders through job cuts and benefit reductions and on the privileging of investment income over earned income.  Basically, she’ll be hoping that she’ll continue being on the winning side of a rigged system, one where the pool of losers keeps growing and the number of winners continues to shrink.  If that’s not cause to reexamine one’s ideas of success, I guess I’m still not getting it.

a hour in the life of

January 12, 2010

Eating potato chips is not a task.

I am trying to remind myself of this as I cast about for what to do next.  In the spirit of being productive, I’ve prohibited every non-productive task.  (I rationalize the song I just played and sang along to as breathing exercises — helps in staying calm.)  Both of my current choices — yoga stretches or writing — seem unappealing, but I know I shouldn’t even bother to try rationalizing eating potato chips as nourishment:  I had some about an hour ago and have done precisely squat diddly and have absolutely no appetite.  It’s anxiety gnawing at my insides, not hunger. 

This just in, taking a bath has been deemed a task, although it is 5 p.m. and seems unnecessary in the productive spirit of “taking on the day.”  The day has passed like an old man on a walker, but since I hadn’t bathed or showered this a.m.,  believe me, it was necessary.  Also eating chocolate almond biscotti.  You wouldn’t think that, but I had to bake 4 dozen for the upscale market that sells them.  Tasting the final batch was considered necessary.

Okay, you can see I’m losing focus.  Did I ever possess it is the question (although nostalgia, in general, has fallen into the “non-productive” category).  To consider this, I’ll probably open a beer, my gift to myself for having gotten through another day without doing serious harm to myself or another.  My standards are low, you might say, but there are those out there who would not be able to say the same.