There are courageous people in this world. Just like with frugality, some people are courageous by choice and some by necessity. I gave a talk about a taboo subject and only drew a small crowd, but they were the courageous ones who were willing to show up, share stories, and see how much fun we could make of the situation. We came to talk about money, in public, and that’s not easy. The consequence of the talk? More than one person found the advice they needed because they were willing to show up, be vulnerable, tell their story, and listen after others had listened. It is amazing what happens when we actually communicate regardless of fear.
The talk was a simple one, but one I’ve never given before: From Middle Class to Millionaire to Muddling By. The title will probably shrink the more times I give it (unless the local library system, Sno-Ilse, decides to leverage the work they put into the poster.) I’ve lived in all of those classes; and in retrospect, realize that my early childhood was probably on the lower edge of that first class.
I find myself as a member of a transitional generation. Prior to my generation, people had a good chance at a lifelong career; or even better, a career that let them live long enough to enjoy retirement too. After my generation, the concept of a lifelong career is seen as a marvelous fantasy because they know their business will probably radically change before they reach retirement. The only-somewhat-of-a-joke is that if your job requires information more than five years old your industry is stagnant, and so is your job.
Money, finance, and income have changed dramatically in the last three decades. Go back to 1985 and realize that people had to visit banks, stocks were traded by people, and working hard at a job was a way to get ahead. Welcome to ATMs and digital currencies, discount brokers and high frequency trading, and an American Dream that has more to do with guarding against falling behind rather than making progress.
The talk was a first attempt at finding another venue for talking about the dramatic changes we’re facing wrapped around a topic with far too many taboos. Rather than sit around and commiserate and complain, I decided to use the possibility of a sequel to Dream. Invest. Live. as an opportunity to share and collect stories gathered from the weird world of our money, to find the fun in our dysfunctional finance system. I could test which stories would work well in the sequel, and also open the door and the floor to others who had a need to talk.
I’m an optimist. I always hope for a large crowd. I’m also a realist. I’m not surprised if only a few show up for an unproven presentation. That’s the life of an author; book signings and talks do not always create crowds or long lines.
I told stories about the bizarre world that is trying to survive foreclosure, the world of apparently felonious finance that’s ignored by the SEC, and the patchwork process that is the current job market where a series of shifting jobettes is becoming the norm.
The treasures of the evening came near the end. Two people shared their stories. We were all hunting for the funny, but the struggle showed through. The treasure, however, came from the responses. One woman described her situation, where she hadn’t found an answer for over two years; and then found that she was sitting beside someone who had found a way through almost the exact same situation. The cost of the talk (keeping the library open later and what they paid me) was far less than the value of one person, one family, possibly finding resources that may ease their efforts.
I, too, received a valuable insight. Two of the people in the front row (always a courageous act at a talk) passed along an observation. I was looking for a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert/Jon Oliver type of humor, and it wasn’t working as well as I wanted. They pointed out that Mark Twain (and later I realized Will Rogers) were far better models for a writer. Guffaws are fine on television, but wry insights reach farther when people are reading.
“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” – Mark Twain
“This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” – Will Rogers
That couple are Ann Medlock and John Graham, the people behind The Giraffe Heroes Project, a project that goes around the world supporting the people who are sticking their neck out for the common good. (They are also both accomplished authors, Ann’s new book is Outing the Mermaid, and John’s is On the Edge.) The range of income, wealth, and power inequality we experience in America is probably still not as extreme as what they’ve witnessed in places that few people dare to visit.
Societies change slowly, even though events like Bastille Day seem abrupt. The underlying issues accumulate for decades. Most of America is content enough to not advocate for change; but more of America is finding change is happening without their choice. People are changing by necessity, and frequently the change is counter to the conventional wisdom perpetuated by the media and political parties. It may seem like it is only happening to them, but until they tell their stories, they may not know how much company they have. Speak up, people! And listen to each other, too.
My emphasis, at least for this blog, continues to be personal finance. As much as it would be nice to not have to worry about finances, money continues to drive almost every life. I’m fortunate enough that I am just old enough to begin collecting an accelerated pension. For at least a few years, my pension will closely match my mortgage payment. That doesn’t mean I get to relax much. The next biggest block of expenses are non-negotiable: taxes and insurance. The government mandates both. I gain some benefit from the taxes; but the insurance is almost exclusively an expense. I can afford, house, car, and health insurance, but I can’t afford house, car, or health repair and care. My choice is to look at that and mutter to myself, or complain – or to reach into the inexhaustible yet too-little exercised practice of pointing a finger at the situation and finding the humor in it, wry or otherwise. And, I hope far more do so too. Maybe quiet laughter will be more powerful than shouting.
Now, to practice channeling my inner Will Rogers. Do I have to learn how to lasso cattle and do rope tricks first?