Friday, January 30, 2009

Living Between Hope and Caution

There are so many things I am not, never was and never will be. A rock star. A major league first baseman. A wealthy man. A hunk.

I am certainly not an economist. I am a reasonably bright and well-educated guy and I think I have a grasp of basic economic theory, but still it remains a mystery to me how a global economy that was perking along reasonably well could suddenly go into such a devastating tailspin. I believe I understand some of the underlying causes well enough – the housing bubble, under-regulated financial institutions pushing sub-prime loans, corporate and individual greed, etc. – but still I remain mystified. There is just as much “stuff” in the world, just as many people eager to work, just as much human need and opportunity. Lawns still need to be mowed (or will be in May) and lawnmowers are still wearing out. If I still have a full-time job and need a new lawnmower, I can purchase one and help the folks at Briggs and Stratton or Toro provide jobs for people who need them.

But then I start to think about it, any maybe to think too much. While my current income may not have changed significantly, meaning I theoretically still have as much money to spend (wisely, I hope) as ever, my savings account and pension fund have taken a huge hit. I feel poorer, and in fact am poorer (even though I know that I am fortunate to still be receiving a paycheck). Maybe I can fix up the old lawnmower – sharpen the blade and replace the wheels – and get another year or two out of it. Maybe I should save that money for a rainy day (and the economists are telling me that there is a lot more rain in the forecast). Who knows? My job could be the next one to be eliminated.

It seems to me that we live much of our lives, including our financial lives, in the tension between “hope” and “caution.” Hope is a wonderful thing, and we could not live without it. But it can be distorted in dangerous ways, as in buying a gigantic television set I cannot really afford because the store is offering a “No Money No Interest for a Full Year!” promotion and I hope that I will have the money to pay for it in 12 months. Another term for that kind of “hope” is “unwarranted optimism that creates a sense of entitlement,” as in “I need this” or “I deserve this.” This distorted version of hope had a lot to do with getting all of us into the huge economic mess we are in.

Likewise “caution” is a wonderful thing when it causes us to look before we leap and think through the likely outcomes of decisions we make in the present. But just as hope can be distorted into unwarranted optimism and entitlement, caution can turn into crippling fear that paralyzes us. We become reluctant to make legitimate purchases or take appropriate risks (and investing in a friendship, like investing in a stock, always involves an element of risk). Obviously this has impact on the prospects for economic recovery, but it also takes a toll upon the health of the common community in which we all share.
So, be hopefully cautious and cautiously hopeful. Do not embrace unwarranted optimism or paralyzing fear. Not an easy balance to achieve, I know, but one worth working at.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Two Commercials

For more than 25 years I have tried to run three times a week. My days of running competitively are long past and my pace has slowed. I used to be offended when someone would say “I saw you out jogging the other day!” but now it is simply an accurate observation.

I try to continue my outdoor running through the winter months, but conditions this year have made that difficult: ice, wind and bitter cold. My goal is to get fresh air and exercise, not a broken leg or frostbite. Such conditions send me to the basement to get on the treadmill. I hate running on the treadmill. It does not provide as good a workout, it is profoundly boring, and I know that sooner or later I am going to space out and get thrown off the rascal.

Usually I listen to music while on the treadmill, but the other morning I decided to watch a half hour of news on CNN while I ran. The first segment was on collapsing financial institutions, job losses and the entire global economy going down the toilet. Now I was both bored and depressed. I was almost relieved when they broke for commercials. Two commercials were shown, and what a dramatic contrast they provided!

The first began with the words “Are you about to lose your home?” It was an advertisement by one of the unethical loan outfits that are profiting from people’s pain and hardship. You have all seen versions of this ad: people in deep despair make “a simple phone call” or meet with “one of our friendly counselors” and their faces light up because the can now keep their house and all of their debts have been “consolidated into a single easy monthly payment!” These firms are vultures preying on the vulnerable, adding to their crippling debt and misery and making it so much harder for legitimate not-for-profit credit counseling agencies like Goodwill's FISC to help them. Chaplains are not supposed to use terms like “May they burn in a particularly unpleasant corner of Hades!” but chaplains cannot always prevent themselves from thinking such things.

The next commercial was for “Tuscan Gourmet Cat Food.” Yes, I am serious: not just gourmet cat food, but Tuscan gourmet cat food. The ad featured a very pampered (and presumably fussy) cat – it looked like it should be sitting in the lap of a James Bond villain – eagerly running to the dish and gobbling its gourmet meal while scenes of Tuscany ran in the background. What in the world makes cat food “Tuscan”? Is it laced with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes? With more and more distressed people lining up at food pantries and soup kitchens, isn’t there something vaguely obscene about attempting to convince consumers that their cat deserves such fare?

Maybe I am just getting old and cranky. Actually, I know I am getting old and cranky. But in hard economic times we should confront the vultures who prey on people’s hardship, and we should challenge priorities that privilege spoiled cats over hurting human beings.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Maintaining Friendships

For more than 25 years I have participated in an annual gathering of close friends and colleagues in ministry for a week of study, prayer and conversation, along with a great deal of mirth and merriment. The cast of characters changes a bit from year to year – we have been as few as six and as many as fourteen – as does the location. We choose a theme for our study and invite a scholar with expertise in that field to join us (remarkably, many of the finest scholars of our time have been willing to do so). Last year we studied Augustine on an island in Puget Sound, while this year we studied early Christian architecture in the mountains of Vermont (we are happy to travel wherever someone offers us free lodging). We count several gifted chefs in our number (sadly, I am not among them), so we eat wonderfully well while we are together.

The roots of our group were forged by our common identity as young (see “more than 25 years” above) senior pastors of large congregations in the United Church of Christ. Sharing this identity, we spoke a common language, faced similar challenges and shared common hopes, dreams and frustrations. We could talk to one another as we could talk to no one else, and over time we have built deep bonds of trust and affection. We have nursed one another through deaths, divorces, injuries, illnesses, and reversals of fortune. We share a remarkable sense of friendship that grows richer with each passing year.

Sad to say, we have very limited contact with one another outside of our yearly gathering. A fair number of us – the men in particular – are not especially good at taking the initiative to pick up the phone and call one another to ask “How are you doing?” Each year we vow to do better at this, and suddenly we find another year has flown by.

A month ago I had a chat with an acquaintance who had retired six months earlier. I asked him if he had experienced anything unexpected in retirement and he answered without hesitation: “I was surprised to discover how many of what I had thought were friendships turned out to be business relationships.” He said this without bitterness, or even disappointment. He admitted that he was not taking a lot of initiative to get together with his former “friends,” so it was unrealistic to expect them to take the initiative to call him. When we brush up against one another on a regular basis – in the workplace or the community – it is much easier to say “Do you want to grab lunch sometime?” Out of sight really is out of mind, particularly for busy people.

Maintaining friendships that matter – friendships that nurture us, challenge us and sustain us – is a spiritual practice, and like all spiritual practices it requires discipline. Many folks resist this notion: they think of friendship as something that “just happens.” It doesn’t. Genuine friendship requires commitment and intentionality, just as a healthy marriage does.

It is, of course, easier to say such things than to live them. As we grow older, our friendships become ever more precious. I need to be more disciplined in letting my friends know how much I appreciate them, which means that I need to call or write my friends rather than waiting for them to reach out to me. I confess this does not come easily or naturally to me. My excuse is that it is a “guy thing,” but that is pretty feeble. If friendship is not worth investing myself in, what in the world is?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hard Times and Rollergirls

No matter what language we use – “economic downturn,” “recession,” financial crisis” – what we are experiencing will be deep, protracted and painful. Some are daring to hope that this challenging period will inspire at least some folks to pull together in common community rather than seeking life’s goodness at the shrine of consumer spending. One can only hope.

It may be instructive to look back to the era of the Great Depression to see what sustained folks then. It is entirely too easy to frame this through nostalgia and sentimentality on the order of “kids used to make their own fun back then!” (There are, of course, always elements of truth to such nostalgic observations). Certainly affordable, escapist entertainment – movies in particular – thrived in those hard times. It was also the golden era of burlesque, that odd mix of bawdiness and silliness that has since given way to far coarser forms of “exotic dancing.” How interesting that a burlesque revival is underway in our own time, particularly on the east and west coasts, that seeks to recapture that spirit of risque innocence in a similarly challenging economic era. My sense is that this “new burlesque” is aimed largely at privileged folk (“camp” works best for those sufficiently educated to appreciate irony) rather than the working class audience of traditional burlesque, but I have begun to ponder what other revivals we might begin to see in the field of entertainment.

Last night Susan and I attended our first roller derby match at the invitation of Kim Klein (“Evil Kimevil”) who skates for the Rollergirl Regiment, one of the three teams in the Fox Cityz Foxz league. Frankly, I don’t even know when the “golden era” for roller derby was, but I am told it is one of the fastest-growing sports in America today, which must say, well, something…

Observations, starting with the negative: It was very loud. There was too much “down time” between matches (there are two halftimes, which violates normal laws of mathematics).

Positive: it was a blast! The girls take their skating very seriously (three two-hour practice sessions every week), but themselves lightly. The crowd (and it was a large one) was not all that different from what you would see at a youth soccer tournament (including many friends and family members of the girls), and they were having a great time. Initially we had no clue what was going on, which makes it hard to appreciate the finer points of the sport. Slowly we sorted it out: I can now explain the respective roles of pivots, blockers and jammers.

This is not a return to “TV Roller Derby” with its over-the-top violence and catfights: rules are enforced and penalties are called frequently. The “camp” component is reserved for costumes and, best of all, rollergirl names. Tartlette. Lolly Popya. Ivanna Cupcake. Jeanine Dropaho. Vixen’ de Slamher. Tinker Belt ya. And, of course, the Yooper rollergirl: Yaya der Hey. Our friend Nicole will never skate, but by the end of the evening had come up with three rollergirl names for herself.

There is a certain genius inherent in playing with the idea of sexiness while remaining all-ages appropriate. Brad and Nicole had their little boy Zach along, and never did we feel a need to cover his eyes or ears (although we were very careful with our pronunciation of the team called “The Pushy Posse”). In other words, it was good, silly fun for hard times: for the cost of a ticket (free for children) and a beer or two, you get a full night of entertainment.

I wonder what other forms of entertainment may experience revival over the next year or two. Movie double-features where every patron gets a free piece of dishware? Dance marathons? Will kids play more pick-up games of stickball instead of begging to be taken to expensive water parks? Will the pot-luck dinner enjoy a resurgence? Can we learn all over again that the things that make for The Good Life do not need to be expensive, and that community is something we build together, not something we purchase?

So Kim (a/k/a Evil Kimevil), thanks for introducing us to this wondrous world. You made some nice moves when you were jamming, which we appreciated more fully when we finally figured out what a jammer is supposed to do. And I do think the world would be a better, and happier, place if we all had rollergirl names…