Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Depression?

There’s been a lot of talk over the past year whether this financial quagmire we find ourselves in is a full-blown depression, or just a deep recession. For anyone out of work for awhile and having a hell of time finding a new job, it must seem like a depression. I know a few people in this boat, but can also add that one of them checked in last week to say she’s had three job offers in one week, so hers is about to end.

All other arrows point to a very bad recession. I’m not going to get into particulars because frankly I’m not qualified. I gather most qualified people on financial TV shows are the kind of folks who would stick it in and break it off, so I’m not sure who you should trust. But I can tell you that while I don’t know what this thing is, it is surely not a depression.

How do I know this? For one reason only: my parents lived through the Depression, were kids at the time, and the views they have on money and spending, as a result, are nothing, and I mean NOTHING, like anything that’s come before or since. I’m a pretty frugal person in general, thanks to their lectures and examples, but compared to them, I’m a spoiled brat who may as well be lighting cigars with $100 bills.

Dad would often tell the story of he and his brothers having one baked-bean sandwich in the morning for breakfast, and then no food until dinner that evening … which invariably was another baked-bean sandwich. Baked beans were cheap, and both that and bread tended to make them feel full. He wasn’t bullshitting – one day in my late teens, when I was at my thinnest, I found a pair of Dad’s army pants stored away in a closet in the attic. He had a 26-inch waist! I had a 32-inch waist at the time and couldn’t get those up past my thighs.

Apparently, his father, my grandfather who died before I was born (in his 50s, not unusual back then), worked in the coal mines (not “in” them but I think his job was right at the entrance, doing exactly what, I’m not sure), which during The Depression meant working two days a week like all the other workers – just enough to house and feed a family of seven with minimal amounts of food, but never save a dime. There was no work for the kids. Dad let me know, growing up, that mowing lawns for money was a luxury he didn’t have. So I was made to understand that busting my ass in the hot summer sun for a few hours, while hard work, was hard work for money, and something he and his brothers would have killed for in the 1930s. (We seemed like extravagant pansies to him in comparison. We were. Almost anyone, unless they lived in third-world poverty, would be. He always had that unbeatable trump card as a father.)

Mom’s stories are much the same, although she was born just after The Depression started and has her memories of that time rooted in early childhood, much like I have mine in the 60s. (I remember bits and pieces of the 1960s but very little. Most memories I do have of that time are elemental and not culture-related, i.e., I remember childhood experiences, but few things directly tied into the 1960s.) No matter, because Mom’s spending habits, to this day, are a constant reminder of The Depression and what it meant to people who lived through it.

It’s still quite an experience to go grocery shopping with her. My favorite occurred about a year ago when we were going down the candy aisle, and she gazed over the small bags of individual chocolates. I could see all the Hersheys stuff was on sale and said, “Ma, I know you like a bargain, why not get a bag of kisses.” She frowned at me, “After what they did to their workers when they moved their factories to Mexico? I’ll never eat another piece of chocolate from Hershey again, those bums.”

And she meant it! Beyond that, every item she bought was measured against the item next to it on the shelf. If it was a cent or two cheaper, get the cheaper item. Donuts? Get the stuff near or past expiration as it’s marked down. Ditto bread, or any perishable item on the shelves. Keep the coupons handy, because a lot of them will be doubled at the register.

It made me think of my own spending habits, which are pretty in control, but a good example of our differences would be in how we make chicken soup. Mom will buy the cheapest canned broth out there, because it’s the cheapest, buy whole carrots, the generic-brand string beans, corn, lima beans – all in cans – and find the cheapest chicken meat in that section. I’ll buy the good broth, in cartons, baby carrots that cost a little more, but mean less chopping, and the more expensive boneless chicken breasts as I like that meat better and don’t want to be bothered with bones. Don’t pay much mind to the difference in cost of canned vegetables either, save to say I avoid the generic store brands that Mom favors. I’ll buy the big white onions that cost a little more as opposed to the bags of smaller onions. I’m sure if you totaled up the bills of our preparations for chicken soup, mine would come out anywhere from $5 to $10 more. But you know what? That will feed me for a work week (with Friday off to relax and buy some local Chinese or Thai). Mom always buys with the concept of X number of mouths to feed (seven when I was growing up, three now) and will pinch pennies at every corner in terms of meal planning.

There’s one thing I would criticize my parents for, and there are damn few things I’m willing to do that on these days. But that would surely be buying the cheap shit in a supermarket when buying slightly more expensive, healthier stuff would have done us kids a world of good. I have a sweet tooth now that I can surely trace back to childhood, and the concept of making soda the official house drink. I can see the draw in the supermarket, especially with four kids. It’s cheaper than healthier drinks. When I go back to visit now, I have a hard time with how little there is to drink in the house as it’s soda or milk. The odd part about the 70s was my parents would cave in and buy the most sugary, most expensive cereals (Lucky Charms in particular) and ice cream, I guess because they knew in a small way that they were special treats they never had as kids. For once, I had wished they would have busted our asses and made us stick to fruits and vegetables … which were never as plentiful in our house as nearly every permutation of junk food, Little Debbie, be damned.

There’s a flintiness to people like my parents that’s noticeably absent in people now. A good word, flintiness. Hard people created from harder circumstances. So many people are spoiled now, mislead to believe their lives are gauged solely by status and wealth. When you come across people who, as a generation, didn’t have any of either – most people were in the financial shithouse in 1930s America – you get a broader sense of life. I try to be like them as much as possible. Not so much as a tribute to them – just because I know they have it right to see the world this way. Understand how hard it is from the get-go, as opposed to being raised in a cocoon. And spend the rest of your days knowing your value lies in things that can’t be bought. Of course, self-made millionaires are made of the same stuff, knowing they never want to go back to how hard things were. But many more people took that hard upbringing and nurtured it, as opposed to putting it in a rear-view mirror as something to be feared.

I’m not getting that “no bullshit” sense from most people these days. I gather what’s going on now is a speed bump in the grand scheme of things. That this system we built is so foul that the only way it could possibly change would be to have it come crashing down which, as we’ve seen, can come pretty close to happening, but never does. I’ve been reading lately of how the real estate market is recovering when the reality is we’ve just missed a golden opportunity to unwind decades of bullshit, go on having reduced property values and rents, and allow people to live halfway sane lives where they’re not killing themselves just to make their monthly nut. This industry recovering is good news only to people who want to sell their homes for a profit … a concept that always seemed unsavory to me, unless it was a cash-in near the end of one’s days to pay for the remaining few and leave a nice present for the kids. Most people I knew in 1970s Pennsylvania bought their house for one reason only: so they could die in it one day many years later and let their kids take it over afterwards. Not cash it in like a winning lottery ticket.

If you had explained that concept to millions of Americans in the 1930s, that one day it would be a common practice for people to buy houses just so they could sell them again, they’d have laughed at you. That sort of frivolity was hard to come by when so many people had lost their homes or were hanging onto one by their fingernails.

But I suspect a lot of what goes on today would strike your average American from that time as complete insanity. With Mom and Dad there is one issue that I can see they split on, possibly because Dad was the one making money while Mom ran the house. When Dad and I started talking more, in my 20s, when he’d come pick me up from the bus station and give me a ride back to the house on my PA visits, we’d talk about work. And he was always over-joyed when I told him I was making good money which I think he assumed was much more than it really was.

That may have been parental pride on one hand, but on the other, I could sense the he felt he had let his family down by not making more in his life. Or at least he’d occasionally drop comments to the effect that if he had more money, life would have been a lot easier. Not quite realizing that the concept of Dad with immense wealth was just as ill fitting as his size 26 army pants on me.

Unlike me, Dad has never spent serious time around people making bucket loads of money and never got to see how miserable and nuts so many of these people are. Because of their money, and the mental illness they have in terms of maintaining that status and pushing hard so that they get more. Don’t get me wrong – I think money surely serves a purpose in our lives, and having a lot of it, if you know how to make it last, must be a good thing. The problem is most of the people he perceived as being well off really weren’t all that well off. They had money, but they also had to work like fiends to get it and keep it. I’ve been around these people for decades now and can see they tend to bite off much more than they can chew, are constantly in debt, have self image issues because they can see so many people out there much more wealthy than they are (most of them simply born into it), and a vast majority of the time, have elemental “Daddy” issues that leave them seeking the approval of some miserable father figure incapable of offering approval. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that in NYC offices.

Meanwhile, Mom has always grasped the zen of being happy with what you got, not longing for someone else’s wealth. Sure, she played the lottery for years, and complains about utility bills now, but beneath that surface yearning is someone who has always seemed pretty comfortable and happy with her way of life. Dad was usually smart enough to see that, too, but as noted, every now and then he let on that he thought he missed out on something by not having more money. Maybe he did. Maybe I am now. But it’s not something I lose sleep over.

When you’ve known people like this who lived through The Depression – not so much in the things they say but more so in how they are – you get a sense of people who understand what it means to have nothing, and the ability to go on living with nothing. These days? I’m sensing the ability of people who pretend they have everything to go on bullshitting themselves that they do, even with warning shots that imply all the things they believe in are absolute bullshit. But to acknowledge this would be to stare into a huge void within themselves. And that might be the main reason why this sure as hell isn’t a Depression we’re living through right now. A lot of depressed people, but no Depression.

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