Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more."

During the past week, we've been buffeted by news reports about the stock market that we could hardly absorb before we got hit with the next. The presidential election has taken a sort of surreal turn and my inbox has seen a steady influx of emails that start out " I have been quiet long enough..." then wind into some bizarre conspiracy theory regarding the current candidates. A government employee, I have watched with somber understanding as job and budget cuts have been announced. There was a point this past week when I simply stopped and asked myself what has happened to the country I know and love. It seems as if the whole world has suddenly gone nuts.

Of course it does. That's because I grew up in possibly the most privileged generation in American history, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. At 51, I was not a Depression child, I am the daughter of one. We were frugal when I was growing up, but as an adult, I have never experienced the need for the austerity that my parents had to live with. For Depression children in the Plains states, the Dust Bowl turned green cropland into wasteland and people abandoned their farms by the thousands in search of food. In pursuing my education, college loans and scholarships were readily available to anyone with drive. I believed that, armed with such an education, I would be successful and that has been true. Of course, the previous generation did not have a federal student loan program. I have never been really, truly hungry. I have never been dangerously ill. I was a child during the 1960's, and while I remember the bitterness of the Vietnam War and the struggle for Civil Rights, they were not as important to me at that time as the cute guy who sat two rows behind me in class. I remember the shock and horror of the Kennedy assassination, but was too young to absorb it. But to my parents, it must certainly have seemed, at times, that the world had gone mad.

The world is, in reality, a far more difficult place than I have had to contend with.

The stock market has now officially crashed and the bottom is still an unknown. To the best of my understanding, credit is going to be difficult to get. Many people will lose their jobs and others will have difficulty securing financing for important things like college educations and medical care. This will indeed be a difficult time for many. But this is also no worse than anything that the generation that preceded mine has already gone through. And as my mother said, "We got through it." We are in fact, far more fortunate than they were, in not also having to suffer through the greatest agricultural tragedy in U.S. history at the same time as the Depression.

If you are my age, you were taught not to waste. You were also taught to save money. If you have ignored those lessons in the past (and 'fess up - we all did), this is a great time to start remembering all those things you learned as a child from your parents that you still have filed away somewhere.

This is not the end of the world, just the end of the one we know. We will probably never look at things the same way again. We might realize that it is possible to survive without the newest iPod, the expensive cell phone plan that buys you 1 billion minutes (guilty) and the Direct TV package that gives you access to every channel in the world. For people of my age group, this is possibly a healthy reality check on what is really important. We can live without credit cards, we just need to get used to that idea and act accordingly. After years of stubborn resistance, we are learning to drive only when we need to. From an environmental and resource standpoint, that is a giant step forward, not backwards.

There are things in my life that are really important. There are many more things that are not. It is surprising how many of the important things have nothing to do with money. Last night, I walked back from the barn holding the hand of someone I love. It was a beautiful evening and I could smell autumn in the air. When we got back to the house, Shandy danced her usual jig around the kitchen floor to welcome us and we joked while we made ourselves a small dinner. It may seem like the world has gone crazy. But apparently, periodic craziness is in the nature of things, we have just been living in easy times (see graph) between crazy period troughs.

The picture at the top of this post shows North Dakota in 1934. These people probably thought they were seeing the Apocalypse. The picture below was taken in the same state in 2005. Accepting periodic change is is probably the first step towards dealing with it. We'll get by.

PS: The presidential election is just that. A contest between two parties of differing ideologies and two people who represent them. The person who gets the most votes will win. But no matter who wins, the world will not end. This is not about good and evil, the Antichrist, or the end of Democracy. So ya'll just settle down out there.

Top photo: Dust Bowl "black blizzard" dust storm, taken in South Dakota in 1934. During the ten year drought, over 100 million acres of prime farmland in the plains states were laid bare. Photo courtesy of

Bottom Photo: South Dakota, 2005. Photo (c) by storm-chaser Dave Chapman.