I have this friend who is a writer in L.A. He recently read my articles and gave me some advice as I try to write a longer work. “Don’t try to be funny. Try to be honest.”He’s a comedy writer, by the way.
What if I’m just honestly funny? I wondered. What if I can’t help myself? I don’t try to be funny. I just see the world through zany-colored lenses, so when I report my news, things get distorted by hilarity. (Just ask my former therapist. I cracked her up -- with the truth!)But I want to take Michael’s advice. And so, if I’m going to be honest, I’ll admit that I use humor as a shield and a coping mechanism.And right now, I’m coping with the Great Recession.Oh, you haven’t heard? As with the “War on Terror” (which has been re-named as “Overseas Contingency Operations” by the Obama administration) there have been some shifts in the definition of the current economic climate. I like the term “Great Recession.” It gives the moment some real weight, and hearkens back to the Great Big D without completely scaring the pants off of everyone. Another excellent term, used by Hugo Lindgren of New York magazine, is “the Worst Recession Since the Great Depression TM.” The fake trademarking of it gives just the right wink-and-nod. It makes the whole thing seem sort of cute.But as we all know, the truth of the matter is not quite so cute. Many of my friends are working harder than they ever did before, just to keep their businesses alive. They are freaked out and unsure of the future. They are making less money than they have since first starting out, only now they have two or three kids to support, camp and/or school tuition to deal with, and a mortgage calling their name every month.If they cannot make the kind of money they used to make in their current fields, then some of my friends are wondering whether it might be time to leave that field or perhaps even to leave New York.I know so many people who are depressed. Depression is primarily defined on Wikipedia as “a mental state characterized by a pessimistic sense of inadequacy and a despondent lack of activity.” Secondly, a depression is also “A long-term economic state characterized by unemployment and low-levels of trade and investment.” A common rule-of-thumb is that we shift from an economic recession to a full-fledged depression at the three-year mark of the same economic climate.I don’t care if it’s only been 16 months of this. Can’t we just call it a depression, already?And yet.There are some signs that things might be looking up. The market has been doing reasonably well, and in early April showed one of the biggest rallies since the 1930’s. Financial experts and talking heads are using the change of season to hint at hope, as the death and decay of fall and winter turns into the growth of spring. They are encouraging us to think that the new green grass will translate into the green of money.Lindgren of New York magazine calls this peculiar time the “Downturnaround.” With all the re-branding going on these days, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But this one’s mine. The term has movement! It inspires me to want to dance! “C’mon folks,” I can imagine a square-dance caller bellowing. “Grab your pardners. It’s time for the Downturnaround!” Yee-Haa! Nothing says “come out of the recession” like a little good old fashioned, Country-style fun.
Okay, okay. Enough with the reverie. I really do think it is time to get honest.So. Are we on the verge of a turnaround? Or are we merely in a holding pattern, waiting for the other shoe to drop? What are we on the verge of? It’s really hard to tell.And, based on tenuous information from both sides, how should we behave? Loosen our purse-strings? Tighten our belts? Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps? Give ourselves wedgies? Who knows? The uncertainty is killer.Things are so stressful in my own home that I can’t help but medicate with cookies from my favorite bakery. And when I cannot make it there for a fix, I’ll just eat butter. On anything. On nothing. Butter is the best food on the planet and it makes me feel comforted.But I digress.The other night, while talking to my husband Brett about this, I came up with a strategy for small businesses everywhere. “It’s called Survivor: The Office. What you do is tell your staff that they need to bring in new business. If they do, they are granted immunity from lay-offs for the next three months. If not, they could be voted off the island. Of Manhattan.”“Ha.” Was Brett’s response.“C’mon! That was funny! Very clever!”Brett only shrugged. “What can I say. My sense of humor is down by 40%.”I dipped my pointer finger back into a tub of salted and whipped Land-O-Lakes, and contemplated what else to say.“You know what you should do?” I decided. “Take some time off. Go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and walk around.”“That’s what I should do?” Brett barked. “To help my business?”I nodded. Brett went to art school, ending up as a graphic designer. I had been to The Met that morning, in preparation for my son’s upcoming class trip. “I can’t remember the last time I just looked at beautiful art. It was peaceful and inspiring. The self-portrait of Van Gogh moved me to tears.”“Yeah, Van Gogh! He’s a perfect example for me. The guy started eating paint! Then he cut off part of his ear! He was institutionalized! And finally, he offed himself!”“Uh…what I meant was….” I stammered, looking for the nearest exit.“You want to know how my skills are going to translate in the new economy?” Brett asked.I wasn’t too sure I did want to know this, but I pretended to be enthused.“I am going to find the most obsessive-compulsive job out there. When all those new roads are paved, someone is going to have to paint straight yellow lines across America. And that’s gonna be me.”The next day, Brett sent me an email link to an article from The New York Times. He and I often communicate this way. Before marriage, one could just call or email the other with a mere “thinking about you.” Now that we have been married for a decade, these exchanges tend to be more of the “Read this and thought about you!” variety. At least we are still thinking about each other, I thought, clicking on the link.
The article, by John Tierney, is called “Oversaving: A Burden for Our Times,” and it describes a new economic condition affecting consumers. Tierney explains. “Consumer psychologists call it hyperopia, the medical term for farsightedness and the opposite of myopia, nearsightedness, because it’s the result of people looking too far ahead. They’re so obsessed with preparing for the future that they can’t enjoy the present, and they end up looking back sadly on all their lost opportunities for fun.”That’s us, I thought! Sad, lost, no fun! Hyperopic.What had happened to me? I used to buy things so carelessly, so frivolously. How did I go from myopic to hyperopic in just six short months? And what could I do to right myself, finding some safe place in the middle distance in which to set my sights?Brett was sending me a clear message. He wanted me to go to Bloomingdale’s. No, wait! Maybe that wasn’t the message exactly. My vision was getting blurry in the rush to shop.I called Brett at work. “You busy?” I asked.“That’s a good one! Now you’re being funny!”I got right down to business. “So that article…”“Yeah. I think we need to buy some stuff. I think it might make me feel better.”“A grill.” I began.“Some patio furniture.” He added.“Table and chairs – not just one or the other!” I agreed.“A tent.”That gave me pause. “We have a tent.”“We’ll need more. For the tent city that I’m going to start in the park near our house.”“Brett: optimistic. Not hyperopic. Not paranoid. Remember.”“Okay, okay. I’m trying.”“I know you are.”That’s the best we can do, after all. Shop a bit, save a lot. Support each other as best we can. Look forward to a lush, green spring and summer. And always, keep trying.And that’s the honest truth.