(Apologies: this historical filler is 1200 words. A bit long. Sorry)
2004. We were still at the stage where I was dreaming and reading, collecting junk and working at a ‘packaged home’ company to learn about building and design and such. I’d pretty much stopped mediating but I would always do what was needed for a previous client. So, I was pretty busy at times.
Sal was still working and ‘getting ahead’. She went to a lot of meetings, pushed a lot of paper, strove to get the latest ‘re-org’ to work and continued to put out office fires while wading hip-deep in alligators. She, too, was busy.
Even though our combined annual salary was something the middle class deemed middlin’ enough and was something many people would wish for, we weren’t getting ahead. We had two kids in university and, even though they did their bit, they needed a big chunk of financial support for their first two years in school. And a bit more now and then after.
Neither of us had bad habits to support. We didn’t spend much on ourselves at all and both cars were over ten years old. Basically, the money just flowed through. We hardly saw it at all. At the end of every year, I borrowed to pay the taxes and buy a small RRSP.
OK, admittedly, I had a garage full of old junk and salvage materials but, honestly, everything was bought cheaply. That stuff was not the problem.
It would have been depressing except that every year the value of the house went up. So we seemed OK ‘on paper’. After much contemplation, I decided that we were basically just running in place. And lucky to be able to do so. We saw more than a few families implode between 2000 and 2004 when we left.
Some of the cul-de-sacers stopped drinking the believe-in-the-system kool-aid and, instead, opted for the booze or even in one case, the hemlock.
There was a constantly increasing and evident cognitive dissonance in the neighbourhood – people driving shiny cars to Blockbusters and getting bigger TVs at the same time that their families were being driven apart by financial worries and self-destructive behaviour. And the recent rash of corporate and government downsizing didn’t help matters either.
2000-2004 may not have been an officially recognized bleak time in the media but it seemed that way to me. I can’t say that I consciously observed or really understood the feeling. But I definitely felt it.
I distinctly recall going to a beach town in Mexico one winter for a couple of weeks. We stayed at a friends place. We learned that a half acre lot overlooking the ocean in the village was a bargain at US$100,000.00. $250 K all-in complete with a hammock on the porch. We were advised that it was a great deal!
All I saw was a piece of rubble in a town whose median income couldn’t afford a tenth of that price. All I could focus on was open sewers, a broken electrical system, corrupt and intimidating cops and building standards that wouldn’t have met Fred Flintstones expectations. To me, it was a money trap. Mexico was a legal, financial, health and life-style trap, as well. You’d have to be stupid!
Mind you, I am not partial to the heat. So………….
Worse, Mexican beaches are hot as hell. And that is in the winter! Try living in your hovel in the rubble year around and, even by real estate booster standards, ‘you have to go back home in the summer or else the heat will kill you.’ In effect you were paying $250,000 for a dump that was only tolerable half the time!
And house prices in California (we drove up and down) were even higher. You could buy a cheap piece of ticky-tacky crap plunked flat on some desert floor a hundred miles from anywhere for even more money. Starting at $500,000. And they were selling!??
‘Course it was happening back home, too. And it made no sense. If two working middle classers couldn’t achieve much more than just keeping their noses above water, how the hell was a single mother coping? How did a single income family survive? Who was buying new cars? And why?
Mind you, I have a debt phobia. My perspective is a bit skewed.
But to me it was obvious – the system couldn’t hold. It wasn’t possible. Too many people could not afford to live. It had to collapse. It had to.
(I tend to see the glass half-empty, too.)
But it didn’t collapse. Not quite. Not yet. Took three more years of systemic lying and cheating on the part of the banks and the governments. The first thing that happened to cushion the pending crunch was the lowering of interest rates. That helped fool everyone a bit longer. It allowed house prices to continue to go up anyway. It made debt seem easier to float.
But it was still debt.
Mind you, they made debt easier to accept as a normal coping mechanism, too. House prices went up and interest rates went down so we all thought we had more equity to play with. And many people play with new toys. Consumer spending went up. Debt load was increasing while real wages were falling. Couldn’t people see that?
Not enough of them, anyway.
I am sure many did, though. But most of those who understood that or intuitively felt this invisible pressure on the system just kind of hunkered down and kept their noses to the grindstone. I have never been very disciplined like that. Grinding it out is not my style. I tend to flaky sometimes. I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. I wanted off the bus before the next big curve. Please.
Sally is the type, however, to put her shoulder to the wheel. When the going gets tough, Sal just gets tougher. She just put in more hours. She just took shorter breaks. She would beat the next ‘re-org’ lay-offs ’cause she would do the work of three people. She was like Bruce Willis in Die-Hard.
But it was killing her.
One day I noticed that her rosy cheeks were fading. The instant and impossibly beautiful smile was a bit hesitating. She was getting tired. Normally, I would use that to my advantage and strike. I am a pig. And I needed the edge. But it just so happened that fate intervened for me. Sal read that the local high school was in trouble. And Sal decided that we should help.
“The local school has a building trades program. Every year they build a small building for some sponsor. That becomes their learning-by-doing project. This year the program is without a sponsor. You want to build a cabin. I think we should be their sponsor. In that way, you and they get what each other wants and I don’t have to worry about a cabin you built falling down on my head!”
“You serious? This means that we will be hightailing it within a year, you know…..? Can you quit? Can you make the leap?”
“I dunno……….but this is what you want, isn’t it? I think we should at least take the first step. Phone the school. Right now. Tell ’em we’ll step up.”
“OK, I will. But first I have to say, there is a second step, you know? There will be more steps, too. This is not something that will be satisfied by a high school class. If you can make the leap – the whole leap – I will make a promise. I promise to buy you the dog of your dreams. Any dog. It’s a promise.”
“Dial! I am in!”