As 2009 arrives like a grizzly bear at a campsite, knocking down everything in its path and then eating the campers, I find myself strangely at peace. It’s a peace that comes from knowing that millions of people have subsisted for years, and quite happily, while living in small grass huts and eating only berries and twigs.
And if they can do it. . . .
Like a lot of my fellow baby boomers, I’ve been sweating the economy and the stock market. Make that profusely sweating. The other day I was standing next to a friend, and some of his sweat leaped over onto me.
As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, it’s rough out there.
Gallows humor dominates conversations with my 50ish and 60ish friends. Thoughts of retirement at 60 or 65 have been scuttled, replaced by prayers that we won’t be laid off and can work until we’re 80. Once-grandiose talk of “travel” now means taking buses when we’re forced to sell our cars.
A generation that once romanticized communal life will now find out what it’s like to live 14 to a house. It was much more appealing when everyone was 22 instead of 62.
The baby boomers are going baby bust. We’ll become the Why Me generation, as in, “Why did those inept and greedy financial people have to pick this moment in history to destroy me?”
Financial doom is not certain, but it’s certainly in play for 2009. Used to be that only crackpots forecast the imminent ruination of the U.S. economy and an uncertain length of time to recovery. Now, some respected economists are saying it.
People like me whose financial futures were linked to the stock market are now talking about Armageddon as if it were a real place, like Sea World -- minus Shamu.
We take note of the extreme measures that the politicians are talking about to fix the economy and, rather than being comforted, only grow more fretful as we grasp the severity of the problem. We re-read our Depression-era history and see that it took years for the economy to recover from these kinds of depths. We see friends and relatives losing jobs and forced to scramble for new ones that may not exist.
While recently lamenting the downward spiral of my financial status to a friend, he said not to worry, that everyone else was in the same situation. Oddly, that didn’t soothe me.
My sister reminded me that I’d never be homeless because some other member of the family would always take me in. And by implication, that I would do the same for any of them. That conversation put me off solid food for the next day or so, as I contemplated my golden years in a relative’s guest bedroom or one of them in mine.
Oh, for the privacy of the cardboard box in the bushes near a freeway overpass! A place to call my own.
What seems different nowadays is people’s acceptance that worst-case scenarios are possible. Denial that we could possibly lose everything is slowly being replaced by awareness that, yes, it could happen.
It’s not that complicated: Lose your job, lose your home, deplete your already-disintegrating savings, fail to land another job and, presto, you’re belly up.
But just as the darkening clouds seemed about to permanently block the sun, I had an epiphany. As epiphanies go, it was actually quite simple: I’ve been poor before. I can be poor again.
I came to California 20 years ago without a job and with about 15 grand in net worth. It slipped below 10 grand in my first year out here. When I was a high school kid in Nebraska, it was hard to scrounge up lunch money some days. I heard my parents on the phone with bill collectors, and I packed up belongings as our family moved in with my grandparents more than once.
Looking back, was I any more unhappy when I didn’t have money than I am now?
Come to think of it, yeah, I was. A lot.
But the point is, I survived.
Improbable as it sounds, life is possible without cable TV or a guest bedroom in your apartment. You can eat tuna out of a can for days on end. As long as there are public libraries and park benches, we’ll always have a place to hang out during the day.
What’s that growling I hear in the distance? A hungry and offended bear picking up my scent?
Come and get me, big boy. That which doesn’t maul me only makes me stronger.