Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'This is surreal'

That's what my wife whispered to me as we listened to Pres. Obama address the nation Monday night.

I can't say if this is "the most serious financial crisis since The Great Depression," but I can imagine my grandparents gathering around the radio 80 years ago, in much the same way that our family sat silently in front of the television. Living in these uncertain times is, as my wife observed, surreal.

Since we've always been a nation of optimists, this is a strange feeling. Through depression and recessions, wars and calamities, nothing has kept us from improving our lot. Our children will live better than we've lived, dammit, and a free society's limitless opportunities favor honest men and women who work hard.

Now our indomitable spirit has run smack-dab into a reality we never imagined.

To be clear, I dismiss incurable doom-and-gloomers who see things as worse than they truly are. I also ignore myoptimists who wonder what all the fuss is about. Reality lies not at those extremes, or even at some fixed point in between.

Reality, for all of us and for each of us, lives at home.

That very personal reality is reflected in our President. He speaks for neither extreme, simply conveying urgency born of the truth as he sees it.

Around here, the truth is impossible to avoid. Like the nearby rural school district that's eliminated jobs, sports and virtually all bus transportation, and yet in May will ask each voter for another $465 a year -- just to stay afloat. Or an unemployed former colleague of mine, a talented guy who recently e-mailed an appeal for gainful employment, hoping that he can keep feeding his family.

I drive past stores that were open last week, shuttered today. Each day's news brings reports of companies and businesses cutting jobs.

And then there's the experience, my experience, of meeting with an attorney yesterday, trying to figure out what I'll be able to keep and what I must sacrifice. I know I'm not the only one who's dealing with that sort of ritual humiliation, and I believe I'll emerge from it in better shape than most, but it's something I never expected, never predicted.

I, along with my family, will start over. We'll simplify, reinvent and move on. We'll be able to do that because spirit -- my own, my family's and my community's -- matters more than macroeconomics.

That's just one lesson we can learn from our national economic crisis. We've already seen that trickle-up fundamentally trumps trickle-down. Wholesale deregulation, corporate bailouts and socialized capitalism ultimately betray The People. The short-sighted pursuit of short-term profit is a malicious prank played on national security.

And so on.

There's little doubt that sooner or later the bubble gum and baling wire of fiscal policy will let go. After the inevitable collapse, we'll rediscover that our nation is its People, not its economy.

Actually, we can seize that reality right now. Our national strength, after all, resides in our independent selves, in our families and our communities.

It can start today. It must start at home.