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Archive for January, 2009

The Courage to Keep Going

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

The headlines this morning were of massive lay-offs by prestigous companies.  They aren’t the first.   They will not be the last before we are through this.  For those with jobs, the specter of not having one may have already become a constant companion.  For those without, the statistical likelihood of finding what might even be remotely workable becomes ever slimmer.

If you are retired and on a fixed income, the monsters under the bed have different names.  Can you count on the pension you’re living on?  Will Social Security implode before this is over?  And what are we going to do if the price of gas spikes again?

If you are unable to work and relying on the kindness of others, there are other ogres to face down.  What if the funding get yanked? What if they decide they have to rent the room to someone who can pay?

There’s plenty of anxiety to go around.  It is of no benefit to any of us to succumb to it.  That, however, is easier said than done.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,”  rings in our ears.  But where do we find the courage to face it down?  How can we be sure that if we stay the course, everything will be fine?

This is life not an infomercial.  There are no guarantees.  That doesn’t change the need to keep going.  But there are monsters here and scary things that could do us harm.  How dare we go on?

We must go on.   Because going back or standing still holds every bit as much peril and far less potential.  We go on because doing what we believe needs to be done is not a matter of safety.  It is a matter of character and commitment to something larger, something in which we believe.  Those are the places where we need to lead our bedraggled wagon trains.  Toward the things that matter.

To be sure, some things we’ve been doing need to stop.  Buying beyond our means was foolhardy even in the good times.  Putting things on credit that you didn’t really need was never a winning plan.  Let that go.

Going after “my share” rather than committing to a meaningful purpose needs to go, too.  (All you banks who are sitting on taxpayer money for the sake of your own safety instead of using it to do the work of restarting the economy, listen up.)  “My share” is a childish construct we can’t afford.  Yesterday, there was an article in the local newspaper about a low income program the state was planning to cut.  The related photo showed one of the recipients–smoking a cigarette. Excuse me.  Why are we supporting someone who is literally burning money–and ruining his lungs in the process?

Giving anyone an excuse to do less than they can for themselves is inexcusable, especially in this situation.   And we need to hold ourselves to that same standard.  The first question for every single one of the ubiquitous little (and big) challenges that are being heaped on us is “What can I do about this myself?”

There are two reasons for that.   The first is fairness.  If you haven’t done what you can to improve your situation before taking someone else’s money to fix it, you are a leech.  Period.   (Banks sitting on TARP money, think about that, too, huh?)  We have way too much going wrong to attend to leeches.

The second is when you take care of it yourself, you prove you can.  Even if taking care of it means letting go of a dream or giving up on something you want to keep doing.  We need to step up to our own challenges.  We need to bow to changes life demands of us.

As a nation, we are never going to be able to keep people in homes they couldn’t afford to buy in the first place.  We are never going to be able to assure everyone has the perfect job at the correct wage or even a decent place to sleep.  We are never going to be able to assure that some big company doesn’t find yet another way to be stupid enough to do harm to us all.  But the beauty of this democracy is that we all have the right to make a difference.  And making that difference is where you find the courage to keep going.

The Wisdom to Deal with Little Everyday Problems

Monday, January 19th, 2009

My washing machine quit–in November.  It’s now late January.  This has been going on a while.   My washing machine quit in August, too.   I bought a new one.  It’s the new one that isn’t working.   It’s still under warranty.  That’s a good thing, right?


This much hassle on a small problem seems grossly unfair.  On big problems, I know I have to be diplomatic to get things done.  On big problems I’m ready to accept that the outcome might not be exactly what I’d envisioned. With this? I just wanted it fixed. That didn’t seem all that outrageous.

I e-mailed the manufacturer.  E-mail is the great anonymizer. You send a note to a nameless, faceless person who’s supposed to care–because they get paid to.  It’s a nice thought.  And it’s a good first step because “e-mail never closes.” You feel like you’ve made immediate contact when you hit “send”–even if no one gets back to you–which was what happened on this.

So I called.  And left a message. Someone did call me back and gave me the number of a local authorized repair shop. I was to call them directly to set up the warranty work.  So I called. And they said it would be three days before they could get someone out. An interesting–and toxic–side effect was developing by that point. I started to tell myself, “This should not be this difficult.”

It’s 7 weeks later, and my washer still doesn’t work.  I might have been right on the assessment, but that doesn’t change reality. A lot of my frustration could have been avoided if I’d dealt with the reality instead of passing judgment.  But back to the story….

When the repairman arrived, he fiddled with the controls and told me the problem was that I needed to use less soap.   I doubted that since I’ve owned this kind of equipment before and never had trouble.  But I accepted his operator error theory.

A week later, as I was preparing to leave on a two-week trip, it quit again.  With the door locked.  And wet laundry inside. I called the repair place. They insisted the guy who did the first repair had to be the one to come back. And he was already out on a job. So sorry.  (Yeah, right.)

I should have asked the manufacturer for a new repair option. Instead, I was stubbornly thinking they should get this right.

They finally talked with him while he was on the other job. But no, he wouldn’t be out that day. He had to order parts.  Somehow, I got it to unlock myself.  Got the wet laundry dried and took off on my trip.  I expected the parts would be waiting when I got back from the trip.

When I got home two weeks later, the parts weren’t in. She didn’t seem too worried about that. The weather had been affecting travel, and it was still holiday rush.  I asked if she’d checked on the order.  No.

My optimistic expectation that they actually wanted to fix my washer evaporated.  I asked  the manufacturer to ship the parts directly to me. At least then I’d know they were in. I was supposed to have them by the end of the week. But it flooded, and they closed the interstate.

This was nobody’s fault. So I waited–almost  like a kid for Christmas. The parts arrived the following Tuesday. I scheduled an installation appointment.

The same guy came back–but with a worse attitude. This time, I made him demonstrate that it worked.   It didn’t. He said it was just “taking time to think.” I got out a timer. He gave up on that excuse.  He said he had to order another part.

My tolerance was gone. I’d been doing  my laundry at other people’s houses for over a month. I called the shop while he was still at my house and asked to talk to “the boss.” I got the customer service manager. I talked to her, she talked to him, she talked to me again.  They would order the new part and he would get it in ASAP.

I called her back after he left and told her if they weren’t willing to send someone else, I was going to have to go back to the manufacturer.  She relented and said she’d send a different tech.  We agreed he’d talk to the first guy in the morning to decide if he had to do more diagnostics before he ordered more parts.

The new tech was  sick the next day. Then came the weekend and they don’t work.  So my washer is still not fixed.

But instead of more fuming I’ve finally found a way to inner peace with this.  The laundromat.  I’ll keep the pressure on to get my own equipment working the way it should. But for now, I have clean clothes without bothering my friends.

Economy Victims or Victors?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009


We’re at the start of a fresh new year, but most of us are still covered with dust from the implosion of financial and commercial institutions we thought we could count on. Maybe it was your mortgage lender. Maybe is was your bank. Maybe it was the company you used to work for. It would be hard to find an American who has not been affected by the violent convulssions of the economy in 2008.

All that makes it easy to feel like a victim, personally and as a society. The economy has done us in. That’s a treacherous path to choose though and it leaves us far short of what we could be getting out of this.This is the furnace from which the steel of our characters can be forged—but not if we simper like a bunch of scared little bunnies and hide under the bed.

Yes, this is hard. And mean. And full of painful choices and real hardships. But no, there is absolutely no truth to the idea that “I shouldn’t have to be dealing with it.”

A real life has ups and downs.The notion that you can proceed from cradle to grave without ever having to experience discomfort is ludicrous. Let go of the Madison Avenue mantra that your life should be perfect and get on with dealing with what’s on your plate. Even if it’s gross and the last thing you want to have to eat.

The benefit of this kind of upheaval is in what you learn you can do that you would never have had to attempt in easier times .Maybe it’s taking in a boarder.Maybe it’s becoming a boarder. Maybe it’s accepting that the dream home has become a nightmare that you have to let go of forever. If you deal with these realities with all the brainpower and willpower you have, your successes will amaze you.

There’s an additional benefit that you won’t see until the rubble from this mess is gone and new horizons bring easier paths again. When you deal with hard things, you gain confidence for dealing with everything else. You acquire a standard of comparison that makes the rest of what life throws at you look really easy. Realizing “If I can do this, I can do anything!” gives you the confidence to do much more with your life.

A second benefit, if you choose to claim it, is an enhanced ability to solve problems effectively. These kinds of situations demand new thinking. “Usual” solutions simply don’t work. That means the typical approach to solving a problem–grab the first thing that looks like it will work and apply it without further evaluation—is out the window. Developing your ability to generate unique options and go in a well-thought, fresh direction will make your problem solving more effective for the rest of your life.

A third way to win from all this is in using it to change how you set your priorities.“Buying mode” is quite often a matter of automatic pilot and following the crowd. You can’t afford that if you job just evaporated—or might. Getting real about what’s genuinely important for you is not only possible but essential in this kind of economic environment.

That sets in motion an even better set of benefits. This “correction” gives you the chance to make your own correction. So many of us work in jobs we hate and live lives that are marginally satisfying because “I need the paycheck.” If it gets yanked away because of all that’s gone wrong in the economy, you get a do-over. Cool. Scary but cool.

Your “new life” may involve a massive redirect in career, living arrangements, priorities, commitments, and community involvement. But it will be more you—and more satisfying. You’d never have attempted it if you’d been able to keep the comfort of what you had going.

Yes, this economy has made us “victims” if we want to claim that status. But that’s wasting a golden opportunity. We can become stronger, wiser, and happier by using what’s going on now to reclaim who we really are and to get back to living according to our own truths and needs. Those kinds of gifts don’t come along very often.


Remembering How to Jump Between Trains

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Of all the things we dream of as retirement, the one that’s probably most consistently a high priority is the desire to slow down.  To stop running around like a chicken on speed trying to get too many things done at once.  Having the time to savor what you are doing, be it drinking your coffee or seeing Alaska for the first time, is nirvana if the pace of your work life is typical of what this culture demands.  The bliss of having total control of what you’re doing with your time once you leave work is irresistible.

But it’s a bad idea to insist on it all the time.

When we have the  option of focusing on only one thing at a time, we risk losing a skill that’s hard to get back–the ability to jump between moving trains.  In career mode, this skill is indispensable.  You move from writing a white paper to mopping up spilled milk in a nanosecond.   It’s is even more important as you advance in whatever field you’ve chosen.   I went from college instructor to internal corporate consultant in one unexpected jump.   And from a staff position to the frenzy of line management in another.

I was moving in one direction at a good pace before I made the jump and moving in a new one, just as fast, once I landed–without ever stopping to figure out where to place my feet, how to angle the leap, etc.

Once we retire, we’re more laid back  about it.    We “think about it.”  We “wait and see” what it looks like next week, next month, next year.

Taking the time to study it, even savor it, usually means it moves on before we’re ready to move at all.  And that means a lot of missed opportunities.   That’s particularly bad news if those opportunities don’t come along as often as they used to.

Just knowing you need to move fast isn’t enough  though.  You need to practice doing it.   Otherwise, you won’t be ready when you need to be.

Five days ago, I learned an important opportunity–to which I’d made a preliminary commitment months ago–was happening in three days.  To take advantage of it, I needed to move fast and do things I’ve been telling myself I don’t have to do any more–FAX a signed document, set things up online to take a required class (which strikes terror into the hearts of most people over 50) and then get on with participating.  Pronto!

Did I leap exuberantly  toward that train?  Nope.  I hesitated–worrying about  not having the textbook,  the online learning environment, and the fact that the timing was bad.  That was smoke–I almost kissed off a key opportunity because  I wanted to keep control of my pace.

That’s when having all the time you want to do whatever you want can become a negative.  It’s easy to forget, when you direct your own time all day every day, that opportunities usually require surrendering to someone or something else’s pace.   Instead of jumping at the chance, you stand on the platform of the train station ruminating while the engine pulling excitement and challenge chugs off without you.

Let’s not do that.

But let’s not jump onto every train that comes along, either.

Dive at the obvious ones — the opportunities that relate directly to what you want in  your life.  A volunteer slot for a cause you believe in.  The chance for time with someone you’d really like to have a relationship with.  The perfect job opportunity…  Don’t take too much time thinking on the ones that just “feel right” either.  That’s your intuition helping you spring into action.

But the rest?  Maybe you want to go for a few just to keep your train-jumping skills honed.

A key piece of keeping excitement and newness in your life is being able to jump at opportunities–often without time to assess them thoroughly beforehand.  Doing that requires you to let go of control of the pace of your life.   At least once in a while.  Yes, stop and smell the roses.  Appreciate the connection with your canine buddy when you take time to pet the dog.  But when the phone rings and someone offers you the opportunity you’ve been dreaming of, tell Fido you’ll see him later and get going!