Monday, December 8, 2008

Glass-half-full? You bet!


I’m always been referred to as a “glass half-full” kind of guy. A recent boss called me that on a semi-regular basis, and didn’t consider it a compliment. That said, I think that characterization is correct…I like to pull out the best of a given situation, and build on that. I take pride in being a "glass half-full" guy.

So in that spirit, and of course that festive holiday mood that overtakes me at this time of year—no matter how dark the day, I was thinking last night about possible “silver linings” to our current malady.

It wasn’t hard to find several.

First off: look what’s happened to the price of oil in just the brief two months since it hit $4.00 a gallon. People have stopped driving as much, and hence, reduced their consumption. Result? Gas back at $1.60 a gallon—according to my local news this morning, the cheapest it’s been in over five years.

LESSON ONE: WE CONTROL OUR FATE A LOT MORE THAN PEOPLE THINK.

LESSON TWO: WE ARE COMPLETELY CAPABLE OF CUTTING BACK .

LESSON THREE: CUTTING BACK DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Whenever times get tough, it’s hard not to remember my parents. Both are gone now, but I grew up on a hardscrabble farm in northern Indiana, and my folks were both kids in the depression. My brother and I use to share a joke at Christmas as we rifled through the pens at my Mom’s house—literally dozens of them, all stowed atop the desk in three or four orange juice cans wrapped in decorative shelf paper—just looking for ONE that would work, which we would use to fill out gift tags on presents. “Doesn’t she EVER throw anything away?!”

The answer of course was no. No farm kid who went through the depression ever did. And as a kid growing up in my house, things like Kleenex and Band-Aids, and even soda pop for crying out loud, were treated like precious resources. My dad never bought a car that he didn’t pay cash for, and he had a new one every third year. People saved. People didn’t waste. Everything from the steak you had every couple of months (if you were lucky) to the clothes that seemed to stay in style for years was treated with the respect it deserved…our heritage was a time when families ate eggs and bean soup for days on end. Eating out was a rare treat, and many times was McDonald’s.

Fast forward to today—where everything from movies to gourmet food to satellite radio in our cars is on demand 24/7. $50 jeans; $100 sneakers; state-of-the-art stereos and TV’s and grills and refrigerators; all financed to the hilt. Fast food and restaurant dining are de rigueur. Save? Ha! Why save when you can borrow???

Maybe we’ll get back to that way of thinking I remember when I was a kid. I don’t mean in the extreme, but at least to the point where our debt is reasonable, our home isn’t five times our salary, and our egos don’t demand the latest designer flavor at the high-end cookie boutique.

LESSON FOUR: CONSUMPTION IS EXPENSIVE.

LESSON FIVE: ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT.

LESSON TWO (REPEATED): WE ARE COMPLETELY CAPABLE OF CUTTING BACK .

In the end, it’s as I’ve told myself for years: most things in life are in our control. Every single action has a reaction, and if the outcome is something you don’t like, then change the inputs. I remember once in the 6th grade, one of my favorite all time teachers—Chip Light—came into the men’s room as a group of guys was horsing around, which was developing into a fight. I was trying to wash my hands and get out when the melee overtook me. Mr. Light rounded us all up and trooped us out into the hall, where he furiously lectured us and then lined us up for a mighty swat of his paddle. As tears came to my eyes, I said, “But Mr. Light, I wasn’t doing anything…” He had the saddest look I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never forgotten what he said next: “Then maybe this will help you to remember not to be in places where bad things happen.”

Assuming he didn’t mean I should never go to the men’s room again, I have always remembered that advice. You have much more control over your life and the events in it than you know. Don’t like your job? Improve your work record or your education. Don’t like your weight? Stop eating or see a doctor. Don’t like how people treat you? Change your attitude.

LESSON ONE (REPEATED): WE CONTROL OUR FATE A LOT MORE THAN PEOPLE THINK.

So, maybe these tough times will lead us back to a more conservative approach—both to consumption, and our personal finances. Maybe we’ll be less of a “throw away” society, and we’ll better understand the true value of things. Maybe $100 jeans won’t be so important, and the lives of our fellow man will be.

Maybe.

LESSON SIX: ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE.



Feel free to whistle along here if you like...

Can I fill up that glass for you? ;-)

3 comments:

J. Ronald Newlin said...

I've been thinking much the same thing while contemplating MY annual Christmas letter. Our household has cut back on a lot of things this year and I miss some of them but I'm also almost amazed at how rich this year has been with the experiences we've had while spending less.

On the other hand, this is the second recession for which I am personally responsible! Eighteen years ago, as a newly-divorced single dad, I took my share of the limited liquidated joint assets, paid off and cut up my credit cards, and lived within my means for a few years -- plunging the nation into the gut-wrenching Recession of 1991-92 that inspired James Carville's "It's the economy, stupid" and swept Bill Clinton into office. I joked at the time that it was my fault -- that if *every* household doesn't spend 20% more than it makes, and if *every* Congressional budget doesn't borrow a trillion dollars more than it brings in in revenue, our economy grinds to a halt. But I'm afraid I've done it again!

Anonymous said...

Hoov,

I thought you should know that I just ordered a new computer to replace my eleven-year-old Windows 98 machine. Some might call me a lazy-ass for holding on to this antiquated computer for so long but I think a glass-half-full guy might call me thrifty.

Coop

John Ettinger said...

Coop,

I choose to be botha half-full half-empty guy and call you a lazy cheapskate!