Diary of a Country Bookseller

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hard Times

I've been getting calls and e-mails from friends lately that are full of bad news. An old pal who owns a real estate company in Seattle hasn't sold a house in three months, and three houses he bought on spec are a month away from foreclosure. This ordinarily happy man writes that he is at the end of his rope. "Nothing short of a miracle is going to help," he says.

A friend in Denver lost his job December 10th after putting in nine years with the same banking firm. An acquaintance, at the Fair Food Foundation, is laying people off because money invested in Bernard Madoff's BMIS fund has gone up in smoke. Another friend said just yesterday that her plan to retire in the spring, " is never going to happen. I'll be the oldest working flight attendant in the history of Northwest Airlines" she says.

Struck mute ...

I don't know what to say when I get news like this. Usually, I make a little noise about how things are bound to get better. I don't say that I'm pretty sure that "better" is a long way off. At least a year, don't you think?

Studs Terkel and Charles Dickens each wrote books entitled Hard Times. Terkel's book is an oral history of the Great Depression here in the United States, while Dickens wrote about the social and economic hardship faced by factory workers in England during the 1850s. Both Terkel and Dickens were sympathetic toward working people, but Dickens was frank about writing his book for money; his prior novel, Household Words, sold badly and he was having his own hard times. Terkel was an old Lefty and wrote mostly for the sheer hell-raising fun of it.

A grand trine

What these books have in common, beside the same title, is their examination of the Bible verse "For whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7). Dickens book, in fact, is divided into three parts. Part I is entitled "Sowing," Part II is "Reaping" and Part III is "Garnering."

The verse is generally interpreted to mean that what we do today has consequences for what happens in the future. That is surely true, but it may not adequately address how innocent people are sometimes swept into the maelstrom of natural disasters, or other people's bad conduct -- to name just two causes of bystander tragedy.

Both Terkel and Dickens worried about how people tend to blame themselves for the hard times that befall them. They feel ashamed about being out of work, or about losing their home, and so on. Even though the sky may have fallen down on them and the bottom is dropping out of their world through no fault of their own, they take these circumstances as a personal failure.

Terkel, who died just a few months ago, said the great tragedy of the Depression was felt at close quarters. " frustration became, at times, violence, and violence turned inward. Thus, sons and fathers fell away, one from the other. And the mother, seeking work, said nothing. Outside forces were in some vague way responsible, but not really. It was a personal guilt."

... but not dumb

What to do? What to say? I never really know what the right words are. I remind them they are good, honest people who have worked competently and diligently for as long as I've known them. I try and avoid sounding like Vince Lombardi, but I may -- out of helplessness -- sing a little Norman Vincent Peale for them. Later, I hope they forgive me.

Of course, we'll get through this. We always do.

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