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Gary Horton: Reflections of the 1930s

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: February 10, 2009 11:50 p.m.
Updated: February 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Gary Horton Gary Horton
Gary Horton

After a hard day's work I'm finally back home, collapsed into a favorite chair next to our 22-year-old Valencia company-built favorite fireplace. A restful reprieve after battling gale force recession headwinds all day.

Long sighs. The lights are turned low, and our fireplace casts a yellow glow in the room that looks much like one might imagine in a dimly lit 1930s home. We all know what happened back then - and we fear like hell that it doesn't reoccur with us.

The two chairs opposite me are showing more wear than I'd previously tolerate with my prior standards for lifestyle perfection. Necessity not only breads invention, it breads grudging acceptance with things the way they are. I hope what I'm seeing tonight isn't the opening scene in a reprieve of American Living Room Depression, circa 1933.

There's a growing list of deferred maintenance around our otherwise well cared for home. Carrie keeps the place spotless.

But still, there's the rain gutters to replace. The arbor running the entire length of the house has some dry rot and will cost 15,000 to repair. Our interior paint is eight years old, and even with the best care, things begin to look shaggy going on a decade without fresh paint. But for now, in February 2009, I'm more comfortable hoarding any remaining dollars and suffering aging paint.

Perhaps I'm more frugal or cautious than others. Or maybe I should have saved more money in the first place, instead of blowing my one big chance in the housing bubble. Like so many of my construction peers, I'm paying the price and suffering consequences. You and I have financial second guesses - what we could have or should have done more prudently. But for now, we're forced to live in our current present, coping with current financial realities. And while we hope for future improvement, our present dictates decisions and lifestyles with a strong, cautious hand on our wallets.

Hope has been the watchword in America for months now. Hope for change, hope for a new way out to make the bad stuff disappear. We've seen fits and starts of hope - just two years back, "experts" spoke of a real estate recovery "next quarter." We've remained optimistic - but two years into this recession and now no one knows whither economic winds blow.

How did my parents manage through economic tailspin in the '30s? Their diaries show they kept a strong chin up, even while coping with conditions we would find deplorable. Their challenges were just ordinary, expected life. Sharing a bathroom down the hall with other families on your floor. Being happy your mum sewed patches on the inside of your pants knees so they didn't show shabbily on the outside. Simple pleasures went a long way.

In that light, it seems there's real risk the American dream just doesn't require the massive consumerism that overflows our lives yet is required to power our economy and keep our workers working. Were our early 2000s reflection of our parent's roaring 1920s? Everything hummed, with a rocketing stock market and a party lifestyle - only to implode short years later.

We sure don't need all the houses we built. Millions stand empty today. We apparently didn't need a Bed Bath and Beyond AND a Linens and Things right across the street. We're short circuited with Circuit Cities, Best Buys, Wal-Marts and Costcos all competing with the same stuff in the same space. Just how many flat screens does one need?

What happens to manufacturers and retailers when we finally say, "enough!" to over hyped merchandising? And in a manufacturing deathblow we've relearned how to pay off our cars. Driving our ride without worry of payments isn't a bad feeling at all - save for the misery such prudence inflicts on bloated carmakers.
It's evident we bloated ourselves on insatiable consumerism and now we've got one hell of a case of the burps. The housing debacle was just a symptom and not the disease. Our optimism and materialism bettered our wisdom and prudence. With money both earned and borrowed, we spent like no tomorrow. And there may not be, because we've got enough houses, stuff and cars to last for years. "Borrow and buy" ran its course. Dreams of "three cars in three car garages" are replaced with our parents' more restrained hope for "a chicken in every pot."

If American consumption is indeed changing, the whole world is poised for a major socio-economic shift. The pain incurred through such an adjustment would surely mirror that dim view our parents witnessed from their 1930s living rooms.

So I'll repair my rain gutters myself and fix the trellis next year rather than this. We'll throw slipcovers over the worn chairs, and we'll get by day to day, as people do.

We'll turn off the lights; turn down the heat. Ride the bike instead of drive the car. Read a book and hug our kids instead of shopping for fun. Learn frugality instead of excess.

If worse should come to worse, at first it will seem like it's killing us. But we'll work for the best and we'll make the best of what we get. We'll bear down and get by.

Life is what you make it even when what you make is less than you once hoped.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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