Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back To Frugal School

It's that time of year again, when parents dutifully drag their kids down to the local big box store to load their carts full of school supplies: everything from the screaming pink number 2 pencil with matching fluorescent eraser to day packs adorned with whatever human commodity Disney wants to cram down our throats — every last bit of it made in China, India, Vietnam, or some other capitalism-friendly country that exploits its workers.

We were at the one of our local dollar stores a few days ago and out of curiosity, we decided to check some of the back-to-school merchandise for place of origin. All of it was made overseas, save for one plastic pencil box that was made in the USA. The oddest thing we found were 2 spiral bound notebooks that were identical except for their size. The odd thing about them was that the larger one was made in China and the smaller one in Vietnam! Besides the sad fact that we no longer make such basic goods in our own country, it seemed completely inefficient that these two matching notebooks were made in different countries and then shipped here.

People often ask me why we work so hard not to buy such things, and my answer is "they cost too much". That response invariably raises eyebrows. Then, I concede that the retail price is low, but remind people that there are many unseen costs that contribute to the actual price of these items: the fuel wasted transporting products from abroad; the cost of the loss of domestic jobs, resulting in unemployment, family stress and nation-wide recession; the lack of quality control and oversight that allows many toxic products being imported to the marketplace affecting our health (I could go on). Cheap ain't necessarily cheap!

Luckily, our daughter's eco-conscious charter school provides her school supplies for one low annual fee. The only thing we need to supply is her book bag. For most style-conscious daughters, that means pitching last year's outdated model for a spiffy new 2010 book bag/daypack proudly made in the People's Republic of China — again, finding a product that does not have some sort of advertising for the latest film or pop star emblazoned on it is a challenge.

If you've ever watched The Story of Stuff (if you haven't, you should), you know that there are two forces working overtime to keep us in the habit of pitching our older goods and buying new ones: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is an intentional component of product design: making things that break after a predetermined period of time so that we are forced to buy replacements. This one is hard to overcome, because durable products are as hard to find as a mom-and-pop hardware store. But we can change our mindset so that we do not succumb to perceived obsolescence: the pre-programmed urge to pitch your out-of-fashion product in favor of that newer, shinier, in-style version of the same product.

Three years ago, my fiancee Beth hand made a book bag for our daughter Rebecca, and then came up with an ingenious way to update the bookbag so that it seems refreshed and stylish for each new school year — and Rebecca is always delighted with the results. This year, Beth took Rebecca shopping for a few fancy buttons and embroidered appliques, and voila: a trendy new look for the school year! My favorite new addition is the "Save The Future" patch.  Our one begrudging concession was that none of these new adornments were made in the USA. For next year's decorations, we have pledged to either find decorations that were made in our own country, or make them ourselves.

That's brings up a subject for another post: how can we change our buying habits so that we restrict our consumption to products made in the USA? It's a tall order, but I believe we must stop buying foreign-made goods in order to reverse our nation's downward spiral into abject poverty.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stop Chasing Success. Seek Significance.

This insightful blog post by Joshua Becker explores how to align yourself with what's really important in life. (It isn't financial success - it's striving to live the kind of life that makes a difference.)


Friday, July 9, 2010

Moments of Pleasure

Back in the 1990s, Kate Bush recorded a song called "Moments of Pleasure". It's still one of my favorites. In the lyrics, she describes some of the simple, brief moments that gave her joy.

My moments of pleasure are spontaneous occasions that occur when I least expect them – when all the troubles of the world fall away and are replaced by intimate, authentic experiences that fall onto my shoulders like a warm blanket. These moments rarely last long, but are forever lodged in my memory. For me, these are the moments that make life worth living.

When times are difficult, I remind myself that no matter how dark things may seem, circumstances will eventually turn around and there will be more moments of pleasure before my time on earth is over. Lately, I've discovered that moments of pleasure seem to occur more frequently the more I pay attention and live in the present.

We plan holidays, celebrations and vacations in the hopes that they will be filled with such experiences. Sometimes, these special moments coincide with these planned occasions. More often, these special moments become more elusive the more we try to plan for them. So I gave up on planning for them years ago, and simply trust that they will come when they are ready.

Here's a couple of noteworthy moments of pleasure from my memory banks:
  • In my first grade classroom one afternoon, I found myself staring at my hands, marveling at the fact that they belonged to me and I controlled their movements. It was as if I knew that I was a being who had been around a lot longer than my 6 years on earth, but was spending this particular period of time inhabiting a human body. I felt grateful to be granted this time within this wondrous physical body. I kept repeating to myself with joy, "I am ME, I am ME!"
  • In the late 1970s, I was driving through Calabasas, California with Kelly, the girl I was dating at the time. The Neil Young song "Comes A Time" started playing on the radio and we both spontaneously starting singing along together in harmony. For those few minutes, everything around us seemed to be in harmony. We only dated a short while, but to this day I am grateful to Kelly for being part of that moment.
  • When I had been playing the fiddle for about 6 months, I felt a wave of emotion wash over me one day as I played, and began to cry. It was as if the action of making music with the fiddle (albeit not very well at that point), was releasing profound feelings that had been long hidden deep within me. I gazed at the fiddle, and knew it was about to take me on many amazing journeys. (And in fact, Appalachian fiddling lead me to leave Los Angeles and move to Asheville, NC, where I met my fiancĂ©e Beth and her daughter Rebecca.)
  • After spending an amazing week in Northern California at a magical folk music camp in a redwood forest, I spent an afternoon lingering in the town of Mendocino. I climbed down from the headlands onto the rocks on the edge of the ocean, and sat intently watching thousands of small dark-umber-colored crabs scurrying about, making bubbly clicking sounds with their mouths. I was so still, the crabs came right up to me. An intense sensation of belonging and self acceptance washed over me.
  • While I was wrangling with the frustrations of the bankruptcy process, I broke away from my computer and sat fuming on the front porch. While in the midst of my pity party, I looked up and noticed Beth working away in the vegetable garden below. As I watched the love of my life tend our garden, my angst melted away. I heaved a great sigh and realized that everything was going to be alright.
  • A few weeks ago, I was working on the computer as daughter Rebecca read a Harry Potter novel on the futon across the room. She was so immersed in her book, she didn't notice as I watched her for probably ten or fifteen minutes. I became focused on her gestures and facial expressions, and in that moment, it was as if I could visualize her as a timeless being, and could picture her in every phase of her life, from young to old, simultaneously. I knew I would love her throughout every phase. She finally noticed I was looking when I quietly picked up my camera and took a few photos to commemorate the moment.
How about you? Do you remember your moments of pleasure as vividly as I do? I hope so!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

David Harvey - The Crises of Capitalism

Fiscal Independence Day?

This article from AlterNet.org does a great job of expressing the challenges we need to overcome if we hope to break the bonds of the financial tyranny that plagues our society and transform ourselves into a nation that places people ahead of profit.

Has The American Dream Become Our Nightmare?
by Mary Sykes Wylie
The time is ripe for us to rethink some of our deepest beliefs about the way this country should work, and how we should live our lives.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Connection Reflection

"A good friend is a connection to life – a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world."  – Lois Wyse


One of the greatest challenges we face as we travel the world in these vehicles of flesh and bone is that it is easy – too easy – to feel separate from every other being or thing that surrounds us. That is my personal definition of hell: when we forget that we are connected to all beings, all things. Conversely, I think heaven happens when we remember that glorious interconnection.

One of the biggest problem with the economic downturn is that it has created an unfathomable number of disconnects: people are being disconnected from their jobs, disconnected from their homes, disconnected from the wealth and security built throughout their careers. And when families and couples face economic hardship, they often disconnect from each other.

As I've mentioned before, when people lose their fortunes, however big or small, they often experience a sense of profound shame. That shame causes people to disconnect from the world and withdraw to a quiet corner where nobody can see what has happened to them. I am certainly guilty of doing just that.

It's easy to give in to the impulse to disconnect, especially due to the societal shifts that have occurred during the last few generations. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, we became the "Me Generation". I think it culminated right around the time George W. Bush was defending tax cuts for the rich by saying, "It's YOUR money! You should keep it". Those in control wanted to defuse the power that is created when people band together collectively for a common goal. They wanted us to believe that there were people different from us who were trying to steal what we had worked so hard to earn, and that we needed to cling to our own personal assets and distrust collectivism. It was a ruse that hurt the interests and needs of the common American – and unfortunately, it worked.

In these challenging economic times, we need to band together more than ever. Sadly, many of us have forgotten how.

A few generations ago, we lived in our front yards and on our front porches where we could easily interact with our neighbors. Now, safely ensconced in menacing SUVs, we drive into our homes from the back, or quickly pull our car into the garage and close the automatic door. The modern home design is set up like an island, separated from our neighbors, who in turn separate themselves from us. We grab our money from ATMs, we buy online, and automate our lives in ways that severely limit our interaction with other humans.

Every day, it becomes more and more apparent to me that the only way we will survive as a society is to find ways to reconnect.

First, we must start by reconnecting with ourselves. Between TV, internet, and cell phones that have evolved into mini portable computers, we are constantly bombarded with distractions that connect us to everything but our own selves! I have chosen meditation, yoga and journaling as a way to turn off the world for a little while each day. I seek out quiet moments when I can simply sit and think and be. You may find other techniques that work better for you, but I hope you'll find some way to take at least a few minutes each day to turn off the world and just listen to yourself.

Everything grows outward from your personal reconnect. Find ways to reconnect with your family. Start with one evening a week, and turn off all the electronic distraction devices. Spend time together. Play a game, talk, go for a family walk under the trees, eat a meal together.

From family, move toward a greater connection with your community. Find organizations that can help you while also allowing you to help others in need. Find groups that share common goals and dreams. If you can't find a group that suits your tastes and inclinations, create one!

This is the best time to make the shift toward connection, because one of the blessings the economic downturn has given many of is the gift of extra time. Much of my career, I worked, 60-, 70-, even 80-hour weeks. Nowadays, I could categorize my career as a part-time affair, but I've downsized my lifestyle and I'm OK with it.  Now that I'm in my 50s, I regard time as more precious than money, and I want to spend it wisely.

Be generous with your time. Be generous with yourself. Use some of your new-found spare time to connect with others. It will help you through your challenges - and it will help those around you, too.

“From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of each other - above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” – Albert Einstein

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dealing With Financial Loss

A few weeks ago, I got a call from  friend, talented musician and heck of a nice guy David Holt. He needed the contact information for a mutual friend who had tragically lost his son a few months before. Having lost a daughter himself, David wanted to pass on some of the helpful techniques he discovered when he was overwhelmed with grief.

David compiled his advice in an article titled "Getting Through The Grief". David thoughtfully sent me a copy, too. I read it, thinking it might be of interest to me. After all, I was dealing with my own grief thanks to the loss of a marriage, my house, my nest egg, and much of the business that made me feel like a valuable, productive human being.

Granted, there's no way my level of grief comes anywhere close to how a parent must feel when they lose their own child. I had merely lost some material possessions and a little bit of pride. Nonetheless, as I had hoped, I found that David's article contained valuable information that helped me a great deal.

Here's some highlights:

Healing is not linear, but moves in a spiral. I was very sad and angry when I lost my house. I blamed the banksters. I blamed myself for falling prey to them. But a few months after settling into my new home, I was able to start focusing on the good things I still had, and thought less and less about the loss of the house. Still, there are occasions when something re-triggers those feelings of loss, and they come rushing back. When that happens, it can seem discouraging, as if I had regressed and would have to re-experience the entire mess again. I was grateful to have David remind me that this pattern was perfectly natural. Just knowing that eased the sting quite a bit. And it helps to know that when the grief wells up again, it's not as intense, nor does it last as long as it did originally.

You have two choices: moving on and working steadily towards recovery, or exacerbating your loss by heaping on worry, anxiety, blame, guilt and bitterness. David wrote that you actually need to make the conscious decision which way you want to go. I choose the former. But that does not mean that feelings of defeat and loss won't still percolate up from time to time. It means that you still deal with your feelings when they arise, but you don't let them consume you. And then, as the song goes: You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

You can't handle it by yourself. There is still far too much shame associated with financial loss. That shame can prevent people from asking for help at the very time they need it the most. When you ask for help, you're allowing the people in your life to shine - and most of the time, that's exactly what they do. When you ask for help, vulnerable and scary as it may feel, you often end up discovering how much you are supported and loved!

My fiancee is more patient and understanding than I could ever have hoped - I am truly blessed. Still, I occasionally catch myself withholding my financial struggles because I fear sharing them will put a strain on our relationship. Actually, it's the opposite. Holding back is what puts a strain on the relationship. When I talk things out, I get the angst out of my system. Afterwards, everything looks rosier. My fiancee also feels better because she was able to help (which makes her feel good), and because talking about it results in having a more relaxed man around the house.

Anger is a natural by-product of grief. It's important to find healthy ways to relieve the pressure-cooker. One day, I heard a news report about the record profits my ex-mortgage bank was enjoying - the same bank that had practically forced me into bankruptcy. At the time, I wanted to put the bank's logo on a pillow and punch it until I was blue in the face. Instead, I held back. Later that day, a woman stole my parking space at the grocery store. I went ballistic, yelling at her at the top of my lungs. It scared my daughter, annoyed my fiancee and left me frazzled for hours afterward. I should have punched that pillow!

Walk - Observe nature. David emphasizes, "I didn't say exercise, I said walk!" Even if getting outside is a struggle and merely feels like you're going through the motions, it's important to do. Get out and smell the breeze, feel the warmth of the sun, listen to the birds.

Last year at this time, money was especially tight and business was especially slow. Staring at my balance sheet was making me queasy. I felt like I needed to park myself next to the computer and wait for the phone to ring, but that made me even more miserable. So I picked up my camera, went outside and took close-up pictures of every plant that was blooming. I became overwhelmed with the abundance of life around me, and the knot in my stomach dissipated.

Relieve stress. When I worry about finances, my business, etc., the tension goes straight into my shoulders. It's gotten so bad recently that I started to feel pain and numbness from my shoulder all the way to my hand - the same hand I need to push a computer mouse around to make a living - or relax myself by playing fiddle. A few months ago, I started taking a yoga class. It's amazing how much yoga has helped me relieve tension, improve my posture and feel better in general. After yoga, I feel better equipped to deal with work and financial issues.

Last year, a well-intentioned doctor recommended anti-depressants to combat the uncomfortable feelings brought on by financial loss. Luckily, I chose meditation instead. It's done wonders for my mood, and has absolutely no side effects.

No matter what mode works for you, if you're dealing with loss, find some way to move your body and quiet your mind - and do it daily.

Get plenty of rest - eat the right foods. Funny, that's the same advice you get when you're fighting a case of the flu - and rightly so. If you're struggling financially, you are in combat with a stressful situation that will eventually make you sick if you don't stay healthy and try to relax as often as possible.

Things will get better. When I moved out of the house I had lost, I felt pretty despondent. The tiny house I moved into with my fiancee and her daughter initially gave me claustrophobia. It felt like the mother of all downgrades. Slowly, the house has grown on me - we've been adding a little more garden each year, and the more labor I put into the place, the more it feels like I belong. Though it is still the same size, our home actually feels more spacious to me than it did a year ago. Things do get better!

Many thanks to David Holt for sharing his "Grief Road Map". If you want to read the entire article, you can download it here in PDF format. Also check out David Holt's website - and you might enjoy David's TED Talk.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Why Future Prosperity Depends on More Socializing - an article by Bill McKibben

Why Future Prosperity Depends on More Socializing
Access to cheap energy made us rich, wrecked our climate and left us lonely, explains Bill McKibben.

Excerpted from the book EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I'm Not Down, So Don't Count Me Out!

Today, an article appeared in Asheville's local free paper titled "Down And Out in Asheville". I was a bit disappointed in the tone of the article – especially since I am one of the people featured in it.

I am anything but "Down And Out"! And I'd hate for my interview to be construed as a whine-fest about my personal challenges.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I was torn about doing the interview. There's so much shame involved when people are faced with financial problems. I inherited a lot of that shame from my family, who to this day think the topic of money is their biggest taboo.

I did the interview because I strongly believe that if everyone refuses to talk about financial problems, those suffering from them will be in greater despair because they'll feel like they're the only ones in trouble. But if we have the courage to come out of the shadows and share our stories, we can better help each other find hope – as well as solutions.

I think in general, the article is helpful because it challenges the media claims that the economy is turning around (maybe the economy has rebounded for the richest among us, but not for the common American). And the article offers a little piece of hope at the end, including a cursory listing of some of the social services available in Wester North Carolina.

My hope is that the Mountain XPress follows up with future articles that offer additional tools and resources for people in economic need.

It's important to realize that people need much more than financial assistance:

People need to feel like they are still valuable members of society. It's tough to feel valuable when you're having trouble finding employment - and not just any employment, but employment suited to their talents and abilities. If you have a masters degree and you're serving macchiatos at the local coffee shack, you're not going to feel very fulfilled.

People need emotional assistance. When you've lost a home, a job, a lifestyle, it's difficult to be grateful for what you have. But that's exactly what we need to do: live in the moment and notice the people and things around us that bring us joy. After I lost my home and much of my business, it was easy to pace around the house and fret. At first, I had to force myself to go outside and sit in a chair, even if just for 10 minutes. After listening to the birds, feeling the sun warm my face, I felt better. It's now part of my daily practice, and I find that I worry a lot less these days.

People need to figure out how to adapt. As I mentioned in the the Mountain XPress article, I have a lot of spare time on my hands. Part of my challenge has been to enjoy the spare time without wasting it by fretting - and also to use some of that time wisely to find new ways to put my talent to use.


I am lucky that I can still call myself a graphic designer. I still have loyal clients who value what I do. However, the digital age is forcing me to change the kind of work I do. I may not need to find a completely different career, but I need to make some drastic changes in the way I work. That means transitioning from expert back to novice, and learning new technologies. Taking such a retrograde step sometimes feels like a disappointment. So when I feel daunted, I have to remind myself that my value comes not from my expertise, but from ability to adapt and learn new tricks when required.

So even though the Mountain XPress article focused more on the negative aspects of my town's financial challenges than I would have liked, I think it's a good first step. I hope it leads to more conversations that help lead us out of the selfish, consumerist fog we've lived in for decades, and back to a greater sense of community and toward a new paradigm for prosperity.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bees and Sunny Peaks

My friend  Sister J came over yesterday to elicit my help in a project she was working on. She is the director of The Honeybee Project, a children's educational endeavor devoted to the integral role the honey bee plays in our lives.

Sister J is passionate about the honey bee, and gets how this insect is connected to many aspects of our lives. We rely on it for sustenance, for the propagation of plant life, for its societal intelligence. Knowing the honey bee more intimately may impact our own survival. Sister J sees the lessons of the honeybee as a valuable tool that children can not only learn from, but can contribute to. She truly believes that given the right venue, interaction with the honey bee can help kids find their own connection to this vast world and choose their part in making it a better place. All that from a tiny little honey bee!

Sister J described her dream for this experiential learning model, and it was so vast and expansive that it scared the bejeebers out of me! How could I possibly help her with a goal of this magnitude? I'm a mere mortal graphic designer – the online interactive aspect of her vision alone required information technology, child psychology, Flash and database programming, art direction, creative direction – all of which would require a massive amount of resources.

As Sister J darted around the topic, describing feature after feature, my mind made the assumption that she wanted to heap all the project's responsibilities on my shoulders - somehow, I had mistakenly inferred all this from her simple, open-ended request for help. The mind can be a quirky beast sometimes! The project started to feel weighty and oppressive, and I went into overwhelm mode. I felt incapable of helping with a project of this scale, and I sought an escape hatch.

I immediately began doing what I do best: criticizing. As Sister J drew from inspiration, I fed on desperation. My mind began dissecting the project, happily revealing all the flaws and pitfalls:

An online site for kids? There will be child predators! Video content? Adobe and Apple are at war and there is no one video format that is truly universal. Honey bees? What about Colony Collapse Disorder? Aren't their days numbered? And if that is so, humankind's days are numbered, too! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

As I rattled off my laundry list of perils, Sister J stopped me, saying something like "Let's forget about all that for the time being and let's just move on to the actual project." In essence, she was saying, "That's a lot of negative stuff. Let's look at the positives for awhile. Let's dream instead of panic. Let's explore sunny peaks instead of dark caves!"

We started to explore. We moved to the computer, and Sister J showed me The Honeybee Project website, and talked about how she wanted to take it to the next level. She spoke of the kind of visuals that would attract children to the project. She knew it had to include motion. I Googled up some innovative Flash-based websites to see what we can find.

"That's the kind of thing I want!" she exclaimed. We combed through some of the most innovative Flash websites, and had found the site for the "Got Milk?" campaign, which was full of whimsical displays and interactive games. "That's it! That's what I want!" she reiterated.

My mind returned to the cave. The scope of her vision would require the most inventive ad agency, an entertainment company the likes of Dreamworks - we're talking high-level stuff! Pie in the sky! Not even remotely possible!

I thought that mentioning the potential cost would bring Sister J back down to earth. "You know that something at this level of sophistication and scale will cost in the realm of tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands", I said.

Sister J didn't bat an eye. "Oh, of course - I was expecting hundreds of thousands", she replied. That startled me. What I saw as a roadblock, she saw as an easily surmountable hurdle. Sister J's positive passion was infectious.

Then something shifted for me. Instead of making another bee-line to the cave of "can't-do", I allowed myself to simply be open to the possibilities.

I realized that Sister J wasn't asking me to take on the entire project; she was merely asking me to go exploring with her for awhile. All I had to do is to leave the dark caves behind and spend a little time checking out some sunny peaks with her. We drifted around the internet together, and I remembered an organization I admired whose mission was to bring grand ideas to fruition: TED.

TED's motto is "Ideas Worth Spreading". They host a huge annual conference which attracts the best and brightest speakers from across the globe: thinkers, artists, scientists, athletes, dreamers, you name it. The TED organization also awards grants for people who want to change the world with their ideas.

I showed Sister J the TED website and we watched a few videos of the lectures that TED hosts. As it turns out, her project had already generated some serious interest from an innovative design firm called Ideo. We found a TED lecture given by Ideo's founder. The connections were starting to fuse together.

Suddenly, it was Sister J's turn to visit the realm of doubt. "Does this mean that I have to give a presentation in front of a big audience to get the funding for my project?" she gasped. "Public speaking is the last thing I want to do!"

In an unexpected role reversal, I became the encouraging visionary. I could picture Sister J on that stage, pitching the wonders of the honey bee. I knew if she could demonstrate the same passion she showed me, she would be unstoppable. I gently asked, "You love the honey bee, don'tcha? You would swallow your fear and do it for the bee, wouldn'tcha?" Sister J's eyes welled up with tears. She told me that she would definitely do what it takes to make the honey bee project happen, and thanked me for introducing her to the TED organization.

Turning back toward the realm of possibilities, Sister J said, "I just have to remember that everything is doable." Another huge roadblock had been transformed into a little hurdle.

After Sister J left, I recalled a few other times in my life when I found myself at a critical crossroads, mired in doubt and negativity. On both occasions, Jennifer, (a friend I've known since high school), was with me. Both times, Jennifer saw that I was at a crucial turning point. And both times, Jen pointed me in a different direction, saying, "Look over there! Look at the possibilities over there!" In essence, she was saying the same thing that Sister J told me: "Stop rooting around in that dark cave and check out that sunny peak over there!"

To this day, Jennifer doesn't think she did all that much for me, but I'm convinced she saved my life by coaxing me out of the cave and prodding me to explore some of the passions that have made my life worth living. (Had it not been for Jennifer, I may have never flown a hang glider nor played a fiddle.) I realized that I had helped out Sister J after all. Maybe, I had even pointed her in the direction she needed to go next?

Most of my life, I've been a dark cave explorer. A few years ago when I co-hosted a radio show, my broadcasts often focused on the pitfalls of our society. I was good at revealing connections between problems, crimes, corruption and malfeasance. On my Facebook page, I still post frequent links to news articles that suggest the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Finding problems is easy – but it's getting tedious.

If I'm going to survive the crossroads where I find myself today, I need to make the shift from exploring the dark caves to exploring the sunny peaks. I need to stop dwelling on problems and start searching for solutions. I want to be inspired, fueled and driven by positive ideas, hopes and dreams - and have fun along every step of the way!

Sometimes, it seems like a big shift to make. But if I could shift my thinking so quickly during an afternoon's visit with Sister J, maybe it won't be that difficult to learn how to embrace vision and positive thinking, and explore the sunny peaks on a permanent basis?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I'm Poor, Hear Me Roar

I created this blog so that I could share some of my experiences as I adjust to the financial changes in my life. I hope that by talking openly about the challenges of downsizing, it might help others who are going through or about to go through the same challenges.

I also hope that by writing this blog, I'll help myself: it's cathartic to share my thoughts and feelings in this forum.  I also hope to connect with people going through similar struggles so we don't have to feel so alone in this mess: if we can find each other, we can come together and help each other.

This week offered me an opportunity to tell my story to a wider audience. I learned that the Mountain Xpress, Asheville's local free paper, was looking for people to talk about how the economic downturn has affected them.

It seemed like a natural enough thing for me to do – after all, here I am baring my fiscal soul on Rich Richard's Almanac. But as I considered being interviewed for the Mountain XPress article, I felt some hesitation. Shame was creeping into the pit of my stomach.

It's one thing to share my stories on this blog. It's a relatively new blog that probably hasn't yet been discovered by many people. And, I don't really keep track of the readership, so I couldn't tell you whether this blog is visited by ten or a thousand people. That blissful ignorance makes it easier for me to share my information more openly in this forum.

The Mountain XPress is a different matter. It's a popular local paper, and the article will definitely be seen by most of my friends and colleagues, as well as thousands of people I don't know. How will they react?

Will some folks view my financial downturn as a reflection of the quality of the work I do and avoid doing business with me? Will friends think less of me? Will acquaintances look at me differently when they see me walking down the street? My parents grew up during the Great Depression. To them, falling from financial grace was about the worst social affliction that could happen to a person – a status blemish that should be covered up and kept private at all costs.

Naturally, some of my parents' shame about financial status was passed on to me. The subject of money was so tabboo that we never spoke about it when I was growing up. Consequently, I never learned how to manage my finances until I attended the school of hard knocks. I wish someone had taught me about money, about how to handle having it - and not having it.

If I truly believe in my reasons for founding this blog, then I have no choice but to continue to speak out. Really, the only thing that gets me into trouble is when fear or shame prevents me from speaking my mind. I want to break the chain I inherited from my parents, and not be afraid to talk about money.

The other reason I felt compelled to tell my story is to counteract some of the misleading economic happy talk that the mainstream media has been feeding us lately. The largest news outlets boast that the Dow-Jones has topped 11,000 (as if the stock market's performance has anything to do with the financial state of the average American), and that unemployment is waning. However, the larger media outlets are conspicuously quiet when Elizabeth Warren reports that there's no end in sight to the foreclosure problem. Maybe the stories of recovery sound rosy on the evening news, but I don't trust them yet. In my day-to-day life, I see too many of my friends and neighbors suffering still.

I agreed to be interviewed for the Mountain XPress article.

Understandably, the staff writer I spoke with told me that he was having trouble finding people who are willing to talk about their financial struggles on the record. I hope that by speaking out myself, others might feel more comfortable doing the same. If you live in the Asheville area and you want to speak to the Mountain XPress about how the downturn has affected you, email me and I'll put you in touch with the staff writer who is working on the article.

There's no shame in losing out to the corrupt bankers and financial manipulators who are causing so much suffering in our country today. Unless you are the laziest, least motivated bum on the planet, it's probably not your fault. Millions are losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their nest eggs, losing their pensions — not because they refuse to be self-sufficient, but because their jobs were moved overseas, because they suffered a major medical illness, because their mutual fund was destroyed by the infusion of worthless credit default swaps. Every one of these people would jump at the chance to restore their status as financially-stable, valuable, hard-working members of society.

I have never been afraid to dedicate long work weeks and focused attention to make my own success. I started my business on the West Coast in 1987, and survived the recession of the 1990s, earthquakes and even riots (during the Rodney King riots, it was too dangerous for me to go to my office). Throughout those calamities, I found ways to adapt. And I'm adapting now – though this time around, the downturn has demanded bigger changes than I've ever had to make before.

I know there are many others out there just like me: willing to make the tough changes necessary to adapt to the changing economy, wanting to make the right changes, wondering what those changes should be, others willing to stumble and fall, pick themselves up, and try again.

Our recovery and salvation may depend on people willing to speak the truth about their financial troubles. People who are struggling need to know they are not alone. They need to hear from other people like them who are simply trying to find their way, who are willing to help by sharing their struggles was well as their successes.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Getting Out Of "Getting Into It"


The last few days, I've found myself fully involved in a protracted squabble with an assortment of online friends about the merits (or lack thereof), of the Health Care Bill that passed this week.

I have taken the less-than-popular stance that the bill does more harm than good, and is worse than having done nothing (don't worry, I'm not becoming a right-wing extremist; I favor a more progressive solution than this one).

In the last week or so, I have devoted countless hours to this back-and-forth skirmish of ideas. 95% of the discourse was respectful, though there were a few heated moments when that respect waned a bit.

After all that discussion, I haven't changed my opinion, and I begrudgingly admit that I probably haven't persuaded anyone else to change theirs (though my arguments were so clever and persuasive, don'tcha know?). I don’t bring this up because I want to continue the argument here (please, let’s not!), but rather because I want to explore my inclination to engage in argument.

Jonathan Field's recent blog post "Provoking Fights and Revealing Your Dark Side" got me thinking about my propensity for conflict, even though - as Jonathan points out - it can sometimes cause that knot in the pit of your stomach to tighten. Jonathan also mentioned how draining these heated arguments can be.

I've always enjoyed a good political discussion. Yesterday, I got into it with my neighbor, who loves Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity, and condemns the health care bill because he thinks it favors lazy people on the dole. Yesterday, he admitted he is enjoying a comfortable retirement thanks to his Social Security, VA pension and VA health care. I told him that he needed to rush to the VA hospital and get a wheelchair because he doesn't have a leg to stand on. It was a satisfying quip, but my neighbor didn't change his opinion because if it.

The problem is: lately, I've been searching out - and engaging in - these confrontational discussions more frequently than ever. After some self-examination, I've come to a few conclusions:

1) A possible explanation: I always get a little edgier at this time of year. Spring is almost here and I'm anxious for the warm weather to stay, but the alternating periods of mild and cold leave me more testy than usual. Don't worry, I'm not going to blame my behavior solely on the weather - it's probably the least of the contributing factors here.

2) A more likely explanation: My plate isn't piled high with work these days. I am lucky to have enough work to take care of my needs, but during the last 18 months, I rarely work a long day that leaves me weary, yet satisfied as a result of a job well done. I miss those busy yet productive days, and I notice that these online arguments provide me that same feeling, even though I know on some level that it's a ruse. I could have worn myself out doing something that would have been much more productive in the longrun besides "Face-debating".

3) An even more likely, but less-comfortable-to-face explanation: It is so much easier – and a lot less risky or scary – to gripe about problems rather than create and implement solutions. Yes, the health care bill directly affects me, but I have very little control over it. Squabbling about it helps me avoid working on local, personal solutions that could have a greater impact on my life.

4) A universal explanation: Arguing is drama! It’s exciting! Sometimes, I choose the knot in my stomach (AKA drama), over boredom.  Boredom (AKA peace), is a tough state for we humans to tolerate for long stretches because it's - well - boring! That's why the most popular shows on TV have nothing to do with peaceful abiding - they're all about conflict and drama. We often say we yearn for more peace and contentment - until we get bored, and then the impulse to shake things up rears its head.

Conclusions:

I know my tendency to enjoy a good argument will never completely disappear. However, I'm learning to be mindful of the proportion of time I devote to arguing vs being productive or peaceful. When the conflict gets to be too much, as it did this last week, I know something is out of balance, and I need to find ways to get back in balance.

There will always be ideas and actions I disagree with – whether generated by the lawmakers in Washington or my conservative neighbor. I may feel powerless to change these things, but I do have the power to choose whether to argue or engage in some more peaceful endeavor.

Criticism is pointless unless it leads to a solution. That's why this quote by George Bernard Shaw is at the bottom of every email I send out (I put it there more to remind myself than to share with others!): "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" Finding time to find the answer to questions like "Why not?" will only happen when I let go of the drama. I'm learning that when my criticisms exceed my pursuit of solutions, I'm once again out of balance and need to find equilibrium.


Sure, there will still be time for spirited discussion, but I also need to devote plenty of time to activities like watching the hickory tree bloom, finding out what Rebecca learned at school today, kissing the back of Beth's neck when she least expects it, – in short, replacing contentious moments with more moments filled with contentment and peace.



Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Meditation: Clearing the Murk

If you've been reading my blog, you know the last couple of years have brought some dramatic changes my way. During this time, I have been searching for the answer to the question "what do I do next?"

So far, I haven't found that answer, and every time I search, my brain feels as murky as an algae-choked lake. The fact that I haven't yet found the clarity I seek has led to frustration, because I am eager to get on with the next phase of my life.

I had tried meditation many times in the past, but hadn't been able to stick with it. That changed in January when I discovered the Winter Feast For The Soul. During the Winter Feast, participants are asked to commit to 40 minutes of meditation for 40 days, which for 2010 began on January 15th.

The Winter Feast provides daily online guided meditations that I found invaluable. I chose the Insight Meditation series offered by Philip Jones. Each day included a 10-15 minute talk about Insight Meditation, followed by a 20-minute period of silent meditation. Though the 40-day Winter Feast has concluded, Philip Jones' series is still available on Talkshoe.com (where it will remain for one year). Philip also continues to offer a weekly talk and meditation at the same location.

It was the impetus I needed. I made the commitment, hoping I would be able to stick with it this time. I'm proud to say that with the exception of one very long and busy day (when I was a judge at my daughter's Odyssey of the Mind tournament), I have meditated every day since.

Often in my life, I focused my energies on challenging and improving the external problems we face in the world. Conversely, most meditation practices are based on the philosophy that the most effective way to change the world is to begin by changing within. This makes perfect sense to me - how often have we heard the phrase, "You can't change others - you can only change yourself."?

Another thing I've learned from my own journey of personal growth is to celebrate the improvements while acknowledging that I still have a long way to go. Meditation is helping me continue on this path.

I didn't know what to expect once I started meditating regularly, but I hoped for increased inner peace, happiness, and a better sense of clarity and direction. I know better than to expect results within some random, predetermined amount of time. I am learning to accept my rate or progress - both my triumphs and stumbles - without judgement.

I am learning to be more mindful, not only when I meditate, but also during my daily life. The changes are subtle and gradual. On the positive side, I find myself enjoying brief moments when I am more aware and accepting of the present moment, which can be liberating and joyful.

I also discovered that the practice of meditation - as with any similar discipline - is littered with speed bumps, hurtles and even roadblocks!

Lately, quite a bit of anger, resentment and discontent have bubbled up to my field of awareness. Some of these feelings originate from situations I thought I had already confronted and released - apparently not!

I caught myself replaying scenarios in my head - everything from old disappointments, resentments and failed relationships, to my recent financial downfall. All of these old stories renewed my agitation - not exactly the lake of clarity, tranquility and happiness I sought!

I think these feelings are re-emerging because the daily practice of meditation is helping me become more aware of the parade of thoughts that march through my head at any given moment. Previously, it was all background noise. I didn't pay much attention to the thoughts as they went by, and I seldom remembered them. But I know that this subterfuge of negativity (or "unskillful thoughts", as they are described in Insight Meditation), had to be affecting my "conscious" behavior.

Lately, I catch myself in negative thought - and behavior - all too often. At a dinner party last Saturday night, I became aware that my conversation consisted primarly of griping about the status quo and telling harrowing stories that I hoped would impress fellow party-goers. I caught myself doing it, but to my dismay, I couldn't stop.

It's not pleasant to face, but I am becoming acutely aware that I am still far more narcissistic than I care to be. I don't listen to others as much as I would like, and I rarely rise above my internal stream of negative chatter long enough to allow for a give-and-take of more positive ideas that might bring more peace and joy into our lives.

Needless to say, I initially found all these revelations about myself very discouraging. But then, I remembered something from when I first learned to play the fiddle.

When I began to play Appalachian fiddle, I quickly discovered that listening to as much fiddle music as I could get my hands on was just as important to my development as actually playing the fiddle. I not only needed to train my hands and fingers to move the bow and note the strings precisely; I also needed to train my ear to hear the fine details within the music.

On a few occasions, my ear progressed more quickly than did my technique. When this leapfrogging occurred, I was suddenly able to hear glaring mistakes in my playing that I couldn't detect previously. At first, I perceived that my playing was getting worse, and became very discouraged. Then I realized that it wasn't that my playing had worsened, but rather that my hearing had improved.

That led to an important insight: "Hey, now I can hear some of the mistakes that I previously didn't even know I was making. If I can hear them, I can fix them!"

I think that's the stage I'm at with my meditation, which gives me hope. If I'm more attuned to the stream of negative - or "unskillful" - thoughts in my head, I'm in a much better position to attend to them - and eventually, release them.

If I can release the toxic sludge of fear, frustration and insecurity from my stream of thoughts, I can make room for more skillful thoughts that embrace insight, creativity, peace, acceptance, connection and happiness.

I'm not "there" yet. Fortunately, meditation is also teaching me that I won't get "there" until I replace the question "What do I do next?" with "What do I do now?"

Right now, in this moment, I choose to examine the ugly obstacles currently in my way, because they provide the insights I need to see today.

With each passing day, the lake gets a little less murky.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Time is Wealth


Though bleak, Bageant's article also contains an implied upside: history provides a valuable wake-up call for us all if we dare to heed it. Still, Bageant's article lacks any solution that might help us supersede centuries of economic repression.

What struck me is Bageant's claim that no matter how much we yearn to shed the confinement of material possessions, none of us want to be part of what he calls the "We don't own shit society".

I'm the first to admit, the thought of being a "have-not" often makes my stomach a "have-knot". But today, I ask the question: "What is so awful about not owning a bunch of stuff?"

I am beginning to see a glimmer of a kind of freedom that I could enjoy independent of material things.  The only way to obtain this freedom is to shed the mindset that says, "If I don't have impressive possessions, nobody will take me seriously, nobody will think I'm a success, nobody will perceive me as valuable, nobody will be my friend, etc., ad nauseam."

That  mindset - the limiting, middle class mindset that neurotically asks "what will the neighbors think?" -  is the main obstacle that initially prevented me from acknowledging - and enjoying - the benefits of my new lifestyle. 

As my bankruptcy proceeding nears completion, I find myself asking, "What will my personal recovery look like?" At first, I pictured it as a reacquisition of all those material goods I lost: a spacious, stylish home, a deck surrounded by trees, matching dinner plates, a late-model car, vacations, electronic devices.

Sure, I'd love to have all those things again. But a new question has invaded my internal discourse: "What will the reclamation of all that stuff cost me?

Artist Willem de Kooning once said, "The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time." I have lost a home and have had to tighten my belt dramatically. I eat a lot more rice and a lot less meat. I only shop for necessities, and even those must be bargains. I may have lost all the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, but oddly enough, I don't consider myself to be poor. There's one significant perk I have gained during the downturn: the luxury of time.

When my graphic design business was at its most successful, I worked 70-80 hours a week. I was on a first-name basis with the nice people who cleaned my office at 1 a.m. I had bought into to the system so completely that I wore my workaholic lifestyle like a badge of honor. I was constantly stressed, I ate poorly, and worst of all, I felt guilty if I took time off to try and enjoy myself. 

25 years ago, I equated spare time with not earning, and not earning with failure. What the hell was I thinking?

Today, I enjoy every moment of spare time my new lifestyle affords. I linger outdoors in the middle of a mild day, sitting in the sun and listening to the birds. I like being able to write a blog post or pick up my fiddle when the mood overtakes me. I have ample time to spend with my family - my precious girls Beth and Rebecca. I meditate every day. I breathe slowly and calmly. If rebuilding my financial life means sacrificing these things, forget it.

Everyone has heard the saying "Time is money". I'm beginning to appreciate an alternative quote attributed to a Surry County, NC musician named Paul Sutphin: "Time is music". 

Appreciating the extra time I can now afford has transformed the rhythm of my lifestyle into one that supports my health and happiness. I'm still working out the kinks, but on the good days, I find balance - buoyant, blissful balance. That's music to my ears!

It doesn't mean I've given up on regaining some of what I've lost. Hopefully, I will. But if I do increase my level of material prosperity, I pledge that it won't be at the expense of my newly-found treasures, balance and time.

My revised definition of freedom entails 1) releasing any material wealth that no longer serves me and 2) not giving two fucks about appearances. I use strong words because I think it'll take a fair amount of belligerent defiance on my part to live this declaration.

It's time to embrace only what works for me, and if my lifestyle appears odd or disheveled to those looking in, so be it. If need be, I'm perfectly content to be the guy wearing second-hand clothes with a big smile on his face.

16th-century English metaphysical poet and clergyman George Herbert once said, "Living well is the best revenge". I think Herbert understood the opulence of spare time and the catharsis of self acceptance.




Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Losing It

 When pushed past the edge of our ability to cope, some of us do some pretty crazy things. The last few news cycles have confirmed this.

Recently, an Ohio man facing foreclosure bulldozed his own home. I think it's important to note that Terry Hoskins tried to work with his bank. He owed $160,000 on a home valued at $350,000. He found a third party who offered $170,000 to pay off the house, but the bank refused, claiming that they would make more money through foreclosure! So Hoskins arranged to pay off his mortgage - and then some - but the bank realized they could make more money by throwing him out.

In the current laissez-faire financial market, many banks are able to make more money through foreclosure than by letting people keep their homes. Yes, you heard right. Right now, banks have a vested interest in throwing people out of their homes, and the government is doing nothing to prevent it from happening.

Was Hoskins' move foolish? Most people would say yes. Did the bank push Hoskins to the point of "losing it"? I'd say that's a yes, too.

The other story in this week's news is far more extreme. Joe Stack flew a small plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building because he felt screwed by the tax man. In fact, if you read his suicide note, you'll see that Joe felt screwed by a lot of factors — the same factors that are causing undue suffering for most Americans these days.

The difference is, most of us wouldn't go kamikaze to solve our problems. Stack was an unstable individual, so his ability to cope was minimal at best. It didn't take much of a push for Stack to "lose it".

These two stories illustrate the propensity of extremely stressed-out folks to lash OUT when they feel wronged. For each of these stories, there are scores of  other stories that don't get the big headlines: the people who "lash IN" and take out their frustrations on themselves. Back in 2008, author Barbara Ehrenreich reported that many people facing foreclosure are taking their own lives.

Sadly, those seem like the two primary choices for those unfortunate souls who lose it because they can't cope with financial calamity: either point the gun at someone else or point the gun at themselves. We should fault these people for their actions, but it would be short-sighted to blame them completely.

Since the dawn of society, there have been people who are down on their luck, old or infirm, less capable of solving their problems, less able to adapt or cope. In the societal model of the village, people collectively created a social safety net to care for the less fortunate among them.

When our country fell into the Great Depression, it was obvious that our country lacked the kind of social safety need we needed to care for the least of our brethren during difficult times. And in the case of the Great Depression, "the least of our brethren" amounted to nearly 1/3rd of the population.

Thanks to the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a robust social safety net was created. Among a myriad of programs that helped Americans help themselves, Social Security was established, which contrary to right-wing claims, is not simply a retirement account for seniors. It is a program that also helps the injured and infirm. In other words, it is a plan that cares for the least fortunate among us.

As these programs endured, our country experienced a growing middle class and increased prosperity. There were no beggars on highway offramps in the 1960s. We still had our share of problems, but the majority of those in need found assistance.

That shifted in 1980 when Reagan was elected president. My mom voted for Reagan. All she cared about was that my father's mason contractor business improved. Business did improve, because  Reagan gutted many social programs that cared for the physically and mentally ill in an effort to induce a false, short-term prosperity.

About 6-9 months into Reagan's first term, my mom approached me saying, "I don't feel safe going to the grocery store. Suddenly, there are all these 'weirdies' hanging out in front of the store. They ask me for change when I'm going in and out. What's going on?"

I knew exactly what was going on: Reaganomics robbed the very poor and gave to the rich - and to some extent, the middle class. For the middle class, quality of life seemed to be improving - so they didn't stop to notice that their prosperity came at the expense of the poorest among us.

"Mom", I said, "Those 'weirdies' you speak of once had social programs that took care of them. They had places to live, places to get the help they need. Reagan threw them out onto the street to fend for themselves. You voted for Reagan, so they're YOUR 'weirdies' now. Enjoy!"

Unfortunately, every president since Reagan has been building on the same policies, including Clinton, who I will never forgive for creating the global trade policies that eliminated a decent living for working-class Americans.

In the 1960s, many Americans - my parents included - could own and sustain a home with one income. Now, we are hard-pressed to maintain a household on two incomes - even when both parents work more than one job. The government deregulated the financial industry, making it all to tempting for Americans to go into debt in an attempt to hold on to their standard of living.

Then came the mortgage hornswoggle at the beginning of the millennium. Bush hopped in front of the TV cameras and touted new policies that would enable the poorest among us to own their own homes. It was a big lie - a ponzi scheme of the highest order, and now as it collapses, millions of Americans are losing their homes in record numbers.

Health care has also been dismantled. Industry deregulation has allowed health insurance companies to create state-wide monopolies, and jack up their premiums sky high whenever they feel like it. Recently, Anthem Blue Cross announced they would be raising rates 39% for their customers in California. Between 2007 and 2008, Blue Cross of North Carolina increased my premiums a total of 59%, forcing me to downgrade to a high-deductible health savings account.

Remember my Reagan-voting mother? She and my father live on social security in a subsidized apartment complex for seniors, but they still can't make ends meet. Their health care needs forced them into bankruptcy years ago. Luckily, there are a few doctors who will treat them even when Medicare won't cover their bills. The remaining health care bills eat into their food budget, so I send them a little extra every month to help out.

In 1980, my parents owned a spacious suburban home. Now, I'm surprised they aren't out in front of the supermarket begging for coins, just like the 'weirdies' that freaked out my mom 3 decades ago. That's what Reaganomics has done for them.


Let's face facts: we no longer have a social safety net in this country. When the Republicans run the government, they dismantle the social safety net a little further. When the Democrats run the government, they sit back and let the Republicans dismantle the social safety net a little further.

Americans are squeezed on all sides, and have nowhere to turn for relief. Like a human body attacked by disease, symptoms are emerging. Those symptoms are people like Bulldozer Hoskins and Kamikaze Joe Stack, who feel they have no other recourse than resort to destruction and violence perpetrated on themselves, others, or both.

We can't afford to waste our time demonizing the people who make the headlines when they "lose it". We need to eliminate the factors that pushed these people over the edge. Unless we want to see more people take some twisted sense of justice into their own hands, we need to change the system now.

It's time to ignore labels like Democrat and Republican. We need to throw out every politician who favors corporations over human beings. We need to elect new lawmakers whose policies provide the opportunity to live healthy, prosperous lives.

And though we need to fight for change in our own government, we need to create change in our own neighborhoods, too. When Bush spoke of "ownership society", what he really meant was "every man for himself". It was another tactic the rich and powerful used to divide and conquer.

When a neighbor falls, the right-wing responds by saying, "What a loser! He brought it on himself. Let him rot!" But when we buy into that way of thinking, the banksters win.

When a neighbor falls, we need to help him up. We need to create our own local organizations to help each other so we aren't so devastated when the government drops the ball. If we all band together, we will be strong enough to rebuild our social safety net - and can then demand that our government take part in the process.

When people like Terry Hoskins and Joe Stack "lose it", they are merely symptoms of a greater disease. Stop blaming the symptoms. It's time to start treating the disease.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Who's At Fault?

The Economic Elite Have Engineered an Extraordinary Coup, Threatening the Very Existence of the Middle Class

The economic elite have robbed us all. The amount of suffering in the United States of America is literally a crime against humanity. 

So begins a very compelling article by David DeGraw. This is part one, which is available on AlterNet.org


The case can easily be made that the economic elite has been slowly eroding quality of life for the average citizen. The campaign to downgrade the average American's quality of life is as obvious as it is ubiquitous. Anyone who was alive in the mid-70s can chronicle the demise of the middle class, which picked up steam with the election of Ronald Reagan and has continued unabated through present day.

In the mid-1970s, many Americans could still maintain a household on a single salary. Most real estate was a great investment. In the mid-1970s, most Americans still had reasonable access to health care, affordable insurance, affordable food (which contained more nutrients). Most Americans could take some sort of vacation each year. Those days are long gone.

 So who's to blame?

If you listen to the right-wing noise machine, anyone who was stupid enough to sign onto a sub-prime loan deserved what they got. Tough luck, suckers. They should have been able to read the reams of fine print and understood what they were getting into.They should have been able to see through the 2002 disinformation campaign delivered by George W. Bush himself. "A Home of Your Own"was designed encourage low-income families to enter into the mortgage game and lead them to believe they could afford a home - though in reality, many couldn't.

 I think there's a good case to be made that the financial deck has been stacked against the American people. And I think that we need to work diligently to reverse this horrible trend.

However, I also believe what many business and life coaches assert: that we are each completely responsible for our own lives, and when we fail to assume that responsibility, we relegate ourselves to the role of victim and surrender our power.

My fiancee and grow a lot of the food we eat - the rest we buy as locally as possible. We try to reduce our carbon footprint a little more each year. Still, there are some concessions that seem nearly impossible to make. We limit the amount of driving we do, but lacking decent mass transportation, giving up our cars completely would severely compromise our lives and take a huge divot out of our current income. We want to live more independently, but it doesn't seem possible.

So how can we balance personal responsibility with forces well outside our control, like the lack of mass transportation or the financial meltdown we're currently experiencing? How can we completely avoid the corporations who produce the very products we need to survive?

What if someone we knew had died from eating lettuce tainted with e-coli bacteria, and his spouse said, "Well, it was our fault for being hungry all the time"? We'd send her to an assertiveness training seminar and a good lawyer - and maybe even a psychiatrist.


I decided to call up a Coach and Trainer I have worked with for years, Behnam Bakhshandeh of Primeco Education. I asked him what we should do when assuming total personal responsibility is still not enough to protect us from problems caused by corrupt corporations and governments.

Behnam asked, "If you lose your home, can you put all the blame on the mortgage company? What if your ego convinced you that you needed the prestige of a 6-bedroom house when you could live just as comfortably (and probably more happily), in a 2-bedroom apartment?" Our ego's needs are largely emotional, not practical.

That got me thinking: I had a large office for most of my career. I thought a spacious, trendy office was necessary to project success because that was the way to attract success. If I worked at home, potential clients wouldn't take me seriously, and I couldn't charge as much money. However, by the mid-1990s, I did most of my business over the internet, and very few people actually visited me at my office. My impressive office no longer had anyone to impress! At that point, I must admit, my office served to boost my ego more than it served to attract customers. I paid a lot of money to satisfy my emotional needs more than my practical needs. As a result, I didn't have enough of a nest egg to weather the financial storm.

Behnam pondered for a second. "We also make a lot of purchases based on our need to fit in." We want to be accepted by those around us, so we work long hours to pay for deluxe homes, offices, cars and toys - not necessarily because we need or want these things, but because we think we'll win approval by having them. In this case, we're buying stuff to satisfy someone else - someone else who is so involved dealing with their own life, they probably won't even notice!

So what about my house? I made the decision to buy out my ex-wife when we split, because we had bought the house together only 18 months before. It seemed to me that one of us should keep the place for at least a few more years to preserve the initial investment - a totally practical decision, right?

The mortgage was daunting, but I could swing it if my earning power, which had remained consistent for over 2 decades, didn't drop more than 25% - a safe bet at the time. Real estate had been appreciating by 15+% a year. I had done my homework and knew the economy was due to slow somewhat. I estimated that even if the market slowed and the value of the home only rose by 5% a year, I would still do well if I kept the house for 3-4 years and then sold it.

My projections seemed conservative and reasonable at the time. But it wasn't 9 months before the financial bubble burst, the home's value plummeted, and my workload dropped by more than half.

I started reading news stories about how the big banks had intentionally sold bad mortgages as investments to Wall Street, which artificially inflated the market, creating a precarious bubble. The bubble burst and the collapse bled into the overall economy, leaving me unable to pay the mortgage which was now more than the house was worth.

I had been responsible: I had done my homework, I had crunched the numbers. I had made a sound, calculated financial decision. I had done everything right, and the bank screwed me.

Right?

Then, I thought about how Behnam cautioned against making purchases based on our emotional needs. Had I examined all the reasons I bought that house?

Well, it's certainly true that the banks made my situation more challenging. But I have to face the truth: when I bought that house, I neglected to ask myself a few very important questions:

First, why was a bank suddenly willing to loan me $260K when just 4 years previously, I barely qualified for a $100K mortgage? My income had not increased during those 4 years. Something was rotten, and I didn't bother to sniff. Instead, I thought to myself, "the banks wouldn't lend me the money if I they didn't think I could pay them back, would they?"

Second, with my wife out of the picture, was a 3-bedroom, 2 bath house the right fit for me? As it turned out, it was much more house than I needed.  But I didn't want to downgrade my living situation after the divorce - I would have felt like my ex got the best of me. I wanted people to see me as having survived the split-up unscathed. I was also exhausted from the aftermath of an emotionally-taxing marriage, and simply didn't have the energy to uproot my life again, especially after having just done so 18 months prior.

Being the insightful coach that he is, Behnam helped me see that my decision to keep the home was largely based on emotion, which blinded me to the other factors I should not have ignored.

Trusting the banks was another huge error. I hadn't done my homework from their side of the equation. With the current lack of financial regulation, mortgage banks only need to have as little as 4¢ in holdings for every dollar they loan. Where does the other 96¢ come from? They create it out of thin air every time they write a mortgage! When my mortgage was written, I put up a 20% down payment and the bank only put up 4%. The banks further increased their profits by misleadingly repackaging their mortgages as low-risk investments and sold them on Wall Street. The banks deliberately sold home loans to people they knew wouldn't be able to pay them back. I may have been one of them. It didn't matter to them. Even if the loans resulted in massive default, the banks would still make plenty of money.

Are the "banksters" scoundrels who deserve to spend time in prison? Yes. Have their greed and corruption contributed to a great deal of our nation's financial misery? Yes. Am I going to blame them for all my financial problems? No. I think the best way to put it is: 1) Yes, the banks screwed me, but 2) it was my fault for trusting them in the first place. Caveat emptor, baby.

If I play the victim card, then I am basically saying that I am helpless and the big bad banks have total control over my life. I don't want to go there.

I am responsible for my decisions - financial and otherwise. Taking responsibility also means taking back my power. And I'm working diligently to change my behavior, because I don't want to go through this again if I can help it.

That's the key phrase here: "If I can help it." I can dramatically curtail my spending and live as simply as is practical, but I'll still be dependent on employment, healthy food, decent shelter, clothing and heat. So I can't completely control everything that happens to me, can I? I've been studying some Buddhist philosophy lately, and I'm realizing that the best way to proceed is: "work toward change, but let go of the outcome".

Can I reform the banks and the insurance industry? No. At least not single-handedly. And not right away. Can I change this situation by voting? No. Sadly, that no longer seems to change anything.

Can I control the cost of water? of food? of electricity? No. It's been proven that Wall Street speculators manipulate those numbers every day - prices are no longer related to supply and demand.

So taking total responsibility for my life means:
• Picking myself up when I fail and continuing on
• Educating myself
• Challenging the forces that are working against my (our) welfare
• Working to change this destructive dynamic
• Working to help others do the same
• And lastly, letting go of any expectations regarding the result.
That's what I must do so I can face myself in the mirror each day and respect myself.

It helps to remember that I am not alone in this. I am a member of society, and as such, I am also responsible for helping those around me. If we all assume responsibility, we can collectively repeal the injustices that we cannot change as individuals. I'll save that can of worms for another blog post.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Love Will Get You Through Times of No Money Better Than Money Will Get You Through Times of No Love

Though it's close to Valentine's Day, the morning sky outside looks more like it's emitting the kind of light common around Thanksgiving. That seems appropriate, because I feel like being grateful for the love I have in my life.

Before I moved to Asheville, NC, I lived in a tiny cottage in Laurel Canyon, a small stretch of ridgeline separating Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. My hillside oasis was perched high enough to catch the ocean breeze, and I could hide out there, pretending that I didn't really live in LA, trying to forget that romance had so far been a failure for me. So I focused on my domicile: I had a granite block fireplace, trees all around me, a secret front garden, and a cozy loft I used as a computer room. I had almost everything I wanted: comfort, music, a pocket of nature full of birds, squirrels and the occasional raccoon.

I also had plenty of  work - at least 70 hours a week's worth. That was the price of maintaining my artsy design studio in Culver City and my Laurel Canyon retreat. My life consisted of long days (including many evenings and weekends), at the studio, followed by the few evening and morning hours I could cobble together in my canyon cottage. I distinctly remember gazing out the little loft window and sobbing on more than one occasion. The view was idyllic, but my soul knew something important was missing. I often exacerbated the situation by heading out to buy myself some extravagant trinket in an attempt to ease the ache, fill the void.

In the early 1990s, I spent a weekend at a friend's cabin in the big mountains outside Lake Arrowhead. While there, I had a vivid dream that I was embracing a short, shapely brunette, who felt like she was melting into my arms. She felt like my soul mate. As I woke up, I tried to cling to the dream, not wanting to let it go. As my eyes opened, a crimson sunrise flooded the cabin with a surreal light. Just before the dream completely disappeared, my "dream woman" said, "I am out there. And you will find me."

That dream gave me the impetus to keep searching. During one disastrous attempt to connect with a Washington, DC-based woman I had met at a Santa Monica bar (a nugget of advice: never travel that far for a date, no matter how desperate you are!), I had this intuition as the airplane soared over the Appalachian mountains: a voice in my head whispered, "There's something down there for you."

As I trudged through my 30s, my career was still consuming me. I was out of balance. Every new attempt at romance failed more miserably than the previous go-round. I had been through personal growth seminars, years of therapy, new agey retreats. I had faced many of my personal demons head-on. I dealt with my adoption, searching and finding my birth parents. I was also changing hobbies. I transitioned from hang gliding (a very male-dominated sport), to playing traditional music, which afforded the opportunity to meet more women. Still, a romantic, intimate, enduring relationship kept eluding me, and each foray into the world of dating spanked me a little harder.

In 1997, I turned 39. It had been awhile since my last relationship, so long that the last woman I dated had since married one of my good friends. The first instant I saw the two of them together, I said to myself, "Wow! They fit." By then, I had resigned myself to the notion that there might never be a fit for me, and I should give up trying and get on with my life.

That summer, I traveled to Western North Carolina for an old-time music festival. Everything seemed to fall into place - I met a fellow graphic designer on the internet before the trip, who put me up for a few nights. It was a hot summer, and one day, the glue on my fiddle melted while in the car trunk, and my fiddle came apart. I panicked, but a luthier who lived 3 houses up the road repaired the instrument overnight! I took it as a sign. The same graphic designer who put me up helped me find a place to live, and by late September of 1997, I had moved to Asheville.

Within a year or so, I met Beth Molaro, a dance caller living in nearby Black Mountain, NC. She helped me get a few dance gigs, and at the dances, I gazed at her when I thought she wasn't looking. I didn't yet know anything about her, but I knew I was very attracted physically. Though I wanted to approach her, I held back, scolding myself for merely lusting after her. At the time, I hadn't yet realized that the perfect woman would be somebody I was attracted to both emotionally and physically (I guess the twisted Catholic dogma I had grown up with was still too ingrained at that point).

A few years later, Beth passed by my camp at a music festival in West Virginia. "Where are you headed?" I asked. "For a hike!" she responded. In a rare moment of bravery, I asked, "Would you like some company?"

Beth said yes, and we hiked to the top of the New River Gorge. We talked incessantly, made connection after connection. I didn't want the hike to end. Beth came by my camp a few more times during the festival, and we visited, though I didn't want to be too forward and scare her off. Besides, my band was playing at the next dance in Asheville, and I knew I would see her there. I would pace myself, though I couldn't wait to pick up where we left off.

The dance came, and afterward, I was stunned to see Beth in the arms of another dance caller. I was crestfallen. Had I imagined the connection we had had in West Virginia? How could I compete with another dance caller? (Dance was her world - I lived in the world of musicians.) Why hadn't she mentioned this guy during our hike? Rather than ask Beth these questions directly, I assumed that I had mistaken the signals. I turned away, in no mood to make another dashed expectation any worse than it already was.

A few years later, I got married to someone else. Did I mention all the personal growth and counseling I had gone through previously? Apparently, it wasn't enough, for I married a woman who was so much like my mother that I don't know how I could have missed the signs. My guess is that she felt familiar and comfortable (in a dysfunctional family sort of way).

It turned out to be another romantic disaster. After 4-5 years, it was obvious (even to my obtuse self), that the relationship was on a destructive, downward spiral, and it was time to move on. My wife and I separated.

Almost as if on cue, I went to a music party and saw Beth. From across the room, Beth heard me talking to another friend. I uttered the phrase, "my soon-to-be ex-wife", and Beth's ears perked up. Later that evening, I couldn't help but notice Beth's big brown eyes beaming at me. It was hard to look away, but I tried to tell myself that it was too soon to think of such things.

A few days later, Beth invited me to go on a hike. I put her off for a few months while I dealt with the dissolution of my marriage - but I was afraid to put her off too long for fear the window of opportunity might close.

On our hike, Beth told me that years ago when we had gotten together in West Virginia, the relationship with the other dance caller was so bad at the time, she didn't even want to mention his name. Back then, she had thought to herself, "One like that. I want one like that!" Beth had even attended my wedding a few years later, thinking to herself, "I hope he's happy!"

When she heard I was splitting up with my wife, she thought "What?! He's not happy??" And that's when she made it plainly obvious to me (again, let me say that I can be quite obtuse in such matters), that she was interested.

Our subsequent dates got better and better. After a few get-togethers, we included her daughter Rebecca in our outings. The three of us got along instantly. On our first "family" date, I remember smiling while watching Rebecca turn consecutive somersaults in the grass, and then turning my gaze to Beth laying in the sun-washed grass while we picnicked on the homemade delicacies she had made to suit my food allergies. I began to realize I could have the "whole package": an incredible, talented woman who both thrilled me emotionally and made my loins ache.

Early in our relationship, Beth and I were holding each other, and I suddenly remembered that dream I had in the Lake Arrowhead cabin, 14 years previously. I even tracked down my journal entry describing it. I knew that Beth was the woman in that dream, and I was so overjoyed to have finally found her!

Fast forward 2 1/2 years, and Beth and I are engaged. She is showing me that our life can be sumptuous, even though my financial situation has changed dramatically since we first got together. Beth is patient, caring and nurturing, and reminds me constantly how much in love she is with me. Rebecca now calls me Daddy, and I melt a little bit every time she does.

I no longer work as hard as I did when I was younger. Good thing, because I would much rather spend my spare time devoted to Beth and Rebecca. Every day, I try to think of ways I can let them know how much I love them, too.

Valentine's Day is nigh, but you won't find us rushing to a store to find some commercial expression of our love for each other. Instead, we'll celebrate by preparing an extravagant, home-cooked meal together. We'll share kisses, love notes, lots of laughter, and emphatic embraces.

Years ago, when I yearned to find a mate, friends would caution me about idealizing romance, saying, "Relationships are work. There's always give and take, always conflicts to resolve. Just like being single, relationships have their pluses and minuses."

Now that I'm with Beth, I have no idea what they were talking about! We fit together so seamlessly that being together is as natural as breathing. We resolve the few disagreements we have almost instantly, because we immediately think about the other person's needs and defuse the situation before it escalates. Every day, we take time to stop what we're doing, look in each others' eyes, and remind each other how happy we are to be together.

This is love at its most luxurious. I don't know how I was so lucky to stumble onto it! It took almost 50 years to find, and I'm so grateful I finally did. Beth was well worth the wait.