Monday, October 20, 2008

A Matter of Balance

My kids are home so I gave over the living room television to them for the Colts game while I watched the Martinsville race in the kitchen. Poor Mom just had to bear with me. She's getting to be familiar with the NASCAR tracks and drivers just by osmosis. Over time, I've turned her into a Jimmie Johnson fan although she doesn't feel the same sense or urgency about the races that I do.

Jimmie won in convincing fashion, leading 339 laps. Others passed him or came at him from behind at various times but he fought them all off. This win gives him a 149 point lead over Greg Biffle for the championship, 152 points over Jeff Burton and 198 points over Carl Edwards with everyone else far behind.

Mom asked me, "does that mean he'll win the championship for sure?" "No!", I tell her, "don't say that!" In my own life, I've snatched defeat from the jaws of victory so many times that I never take anything for granted. Jimmie seems to feel the same. In his post-race interviews, he was cautiously optimistic but adamant that his team needs to stay focused and not get cocky. And it's true. Look what has happened to Kyle Busch - eight wins coming into the Chase and nothing but bad luck ever since. Until the math proves that no one can overtake him, I won't tempt fate by declaring it a done deal - and I don't think he will either.

I believe attitude plays a huge part in how people perform but there is a fine line between confidence and being over-confident.

Some drivers, 150 plus points behind, declare with conviction that they still think they'll claim the championship - all they have to do is win the last four races while Jimmie has some seriously bad luck. "You're full of crap," I mutter to them. I understand trying to keep yourself pumped up for the tests ahead but it is also necessary to admit the reality of the obstacles you face.

Other drivers who still have a statistical chance to win, although it would take an almost-miracle, are resigned to their fate. "You've given up and beaten yourself," I mutter to them. Because sometimes full-blown miracles do happen.

And this seems like one of the keys to Jimmie Johnson's success to me. No matter how far ahead, he doesn't assume he's safe. No matter how far behind, he doesn't assume he's done for. He doesn't make pie-in-the-sky promises that he may not be able to keep but he doesn't throw in the towel before the game is over.

It's all a matter of balance.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Life Goes On

One nice thing about being on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder is that you are relatively unaffected by the financial turmoil taking place all around you. Ask me how much I care about the stock market being squashed like a beetle on the windshield of greed. I just started paying into my 401K at Indiana Legal Services and recently received my first statement. I have a $68 balance so my lifestyle won't change much if it plunges to half its previous value.

If I have to start listening to formerly comfortable people whining to me about the difficulty of paying their bills on time each month or the pain of filling their gas tank or how they had to cut back on their vacations so they went to Hilton Head instead of Hawaii, I'll be properly sympathetic although inwardly I'll be thinking, "welcome to my world."

My mom always told me that one thing that made the Great Recession not quite so bad was that everyone was in it together. For a while, at least among all the people they knew, society wasn't divided into the haves and the have nots because everyone was a have not. Pain and humiliation shared is not so intolerable as when you're on the bottom looking up at those on the top.

Realistically, I know that the hardships will ultimately impact the poor more than the rich. The affluent usually have safety nets in place that less fortunate don't have. The majority of the stockbrokers and investment bankers and CEOs will bounce back while we'll be sitting holding our foreclosure notices and pink slips. It's only for this short while that I'll get any satisfaction listening to the elites piss and moan about how they're suffering then it will be back to business as usual.

You have to wonder sometimes what would happen if we fired every single one of our politicians and had a lottery to choose their replacements. A big rig driver here and a secretary there, a fireman and a police officer, a mechanic and nurse. Maybe some of the former senators would get their jobs back just by the luck of the draw but over all, it would be a totally random selection. Could the new people possibly do any worse than our current representatives have done? Would the nurse and the fireman take their responsibilities more seriously than the attorney and the, well, probably, attorney had done? Would the cop and the secretary possibly think of solutions from a different point of view than whoever they'd replaced? Would the trucker and the mechanic maybe give a little more consideration to their economic equals than smoothing the way for their buds in the boardroom.

I really don't know but what the hell, would we be any worse off?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Webshots Pictures

I have belonged to Webshots for years and you could practically monitor my passions through the photos I've downloaded over that time. In the beginning, the pictures that scrolled through my screensaver were weighted heavily toward scenery and animals. Even within those two categories, there were divisions of interest. The coastlines of any large body of water appear more frequently than mountains but of the mountains, the rolling wooded hills of Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas take center stage more often than the pointed spires of the Rockies or the red table tops of Arizona or Texas.

You can tell from Webshots that, far and away, my favorite season is fall. I have lots and lots of woods decorated in gilt and copper and scarlet, lots of multi-colored Chrysanthemums and orange pumpkins. Second best are the pastels of spring - dogwood and redbud and lilacs, daffodils and tulips blooming in spring gardens. There are a few crystal-glazed winter scenes but summer gets short shrift. I am attracted to roads and rivers. I like lonely rural roads that wind through woods and past farms and over hills. I've never been able to figure why waterfalls don't appeal to me more. I think they are beautiful but except for one photo of Niagara Falls, I never download pictures of them. Trees predominate in my collection. I'm turned on by trees, any kind of trees - huge sycamores lining creekbeds, Spanish moss-draped liveoaks in Alabama pastures, neighborly maples on Main Street, cypress in southern swamps, golden Aspens gilding western hills, soaring lodgepole pines.

Dogs and horses take precedence among the animals. I would guess that horses of all kinds and colors make up my very top category. There are Arabs and Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds in bay and brown and chestnut. Heavy draft horses and tiny Shetland ponies, horses grazing and horses racing. But my favorite breed is Arab and my favorite color is black so you'll find more black Arabs than anything else - and more running than standing still. I like flying manes and tails. My horses almost never have people on their backs unless they are jockeys or cowboys. I prefer them free.

Ditto with dogs. I like lots of domesticated breeds but I admire wolves and coyotes and foxes even more, especially wolves. I have lots of wolf pictures. Because I wrote a book in which a Canadian Lynx played a large part, I lean toward this species of wild cat more than any other. Pelicans are my chosen birds but I also like cranes and herons and Cardinals, especially if they are perched on pine trees in the snow, are my top small bird.

You could definitely tell my political leanings through my shifting screen scenery. Taking their places in my political pantheon are Bill and Hillary Clinton and General Wesley Clark. Although I tend to support Democrats over Republicans with my vote, these are the only three I have ever liked well enough to actually download. You'll find no Al Gore, John Kerry or Barack Obama. A vote is one thing, wallpaper on my computer is something else altogether.

Whenever I've traveled to a place I fell in love with, I've come home and tracked down pictures of those places. I have photos of Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, Panama Beach, Padre Island, Myrtle Beach, Cedar Key, New Orleans, Cape Cod, Charleston SC, Biltmore in NC, Lake Michigan, Ruidoso, the Garden of the Gods, Nogales, Eureka Springs and of course, Las Vegas! The most recent are Atlantic City and New York City from Mom's and my vacation to see John and Lisa. Whenever my travel pictures scroll past, I pause a moment and savor the memories. Actually, most of my traveling was done to pick up prisoners and bring them back to Wabash to face justice. Even the various personalities in the backseat in handcuffs and shackles added to the color of the trip although mostly, I just imagine me and Bryan flying along the highway in a squad car.

Like the Lynx who played a part in a book, some of my photos come from being featured in my writing. Ireland, for instance. One of my heroes held dual American/Irish citizenship. I knew almost nothing about Ireland so I did a huge amount of research, becoming captivated by that gorgeous country along the way. Now there are many pictures of Ireland in my Webshots collection. In the same way, I found illustrations of Native Americans to remind me of another book. And I got interested in NASCAR because I made one of my characters a driver. That's initially why I downloaded NASCAR pictures but the thrill of the sport took on a life of its own. I eventually adopted Jimmie Johnson as my driver and of people, Jimmie holds the place of honor for the number of photos.

Some interests don't lend themselves to Webshots. Reading, for instance. You hardly want to download a picture of a bookcover. I think I do have one photo of the Firth of Forth Bridge (or maybe that's Forth of Firth) in Scotland which was almost a main character in one of Iain Banks' books but other than that, it's difficult to express love for an author's work by way of Webshots.

The pictures serve as a constantly evolving scrapbook of your life. They can serve as reminders of places you've been or places you'd like to go or even goals you hope to accomplish (all the ones of Cape Cod remind me that I'd like to move there someday although I'd have to have a - big - lottery win to do it). The photos that call to mind the book manuscripts in my computer make me determined to keep trying to get them published. Sometimes, they're just about things you enjoy, like Jimmie Johnson and the Number 48 car, or the slot machines in Vegas or waves sliding into shore on the ocean. Or they simply wash your heart with the beauty of the world whether that's in the form of an autumn road or a diving pelican or a red fox poised on a log.

Greed

Ah, the great economic meltdown of 2008. Question: should our politicians step in and pass legislation to shore up Wall Street and the banking system? There are two schools of thought. The first is that Congress simply has to do something. They can't sit back and watch the country plunge into recession. The second is, hell, no, the bankers and brokers got themselves into this mess through their own greed so let them get themselves out as best they can.

I fall, somewhat reluctantly, into the camp that thinks something must be done. The problem with scenario two is that the pain won't be limited to the honchos who brought on the whole mess. It will trickle down (despite what the Republicans have always preached, money woes trickle down a lot faster than financial good fortune) to the rest of us.

So maybe you think, you have little or no money in stocks so what do you care? Well, because economic stress also means that if you want to buy a new car, your bank may have tightened up so much on extending credit, you won't be able to get a loan. Ditto, home improvements or money to send your kids to college or whatever else you need. If a local business fails due to the inability to obtain financing for its operations, it will eventually impact other businesses that depended on it. For instance, if a restaurant goes under, the vendors it bought its supplies from will feel the impact and a vicious cycle has begun. The failed restaurant's employees are already out of a job and now the vendor may have to lay off staff too. The affected workers will probably have a difficult time finding other positions if all the businesses in the area are retrenching. The snowball will just keep careening down the hill, catching us all up before it reaches the bottom.

So Congress may have to save them, the Mr. Bigs, in order to help save us. It stinks, but there you go. The best we can hope is that they give a thought to Main Street while they're saving Wall Street. Past experience doesn't give us much cause for optimism. Usually, our politicians give us the least amount of assistance they can get away with. Millions of people lost their savings during the Savings and Loan Crisis and it was, too bad so sad.

The Savings and Loan Crisis. Remember that? It hasn't been all that long ago. I believe it occurred during the Senior Bush administration. And maybe that's the real question we should be asking. Why is this allowed to happen over and over?

It was no big surprise that a lot of the S & L's went belly up. Turned out, they'd been making risky loans, taking flyers on deals that were nothing more than outright scams. They knew what they were doing but all that money was just so very, very tempting. Lots of others knew what was going on too, including congresspeople, but no one did anything about it until it was too late. Then it cost us taxpayers billions of dollars to try to shore up the system just like its going to this time.

And lots of people knew what was going on this time too. Even ignorant people like me could see that they were giving out mortgages that had no basis in reality. When I was a realtor back in the 80's, banks demanded 20 percent down (or at least 10 per cent with PMI insurance), they insisted that you'd been at your current job two years, they required a good credit rating and a sensible income to debt ratio and they were strict about how much money you could qualify for. All those rules went out the window at some point. Part-time beauticians were approved to buy $100,000 houses. You could start a job today and buy a house tomorrow. Down payment? We don't need no steenking down payment. There were even "no assets-no income" loans, called, appropriately, ninja loans. There was so much demand, real estate prices just kept going up and up and that was really nice because it enabled you to borrow on your equity and keep right on spending.

Why didn't banks care? Because they no longer held those mortgages so it didn't matter to them if they were defaulted or not. They were bundling them together in blocks and selling them off to other institutions. I was working at the Sheriff's Department when the handwriting started appearing on the wall. The number of sheriff's sales I scheduled doubled, then tripled, because of all the foreclosures. People were losing their homes at an alarming rate but you know, when it is Podunk burning, the politicians just keep on fiddling.

But then Podunk turned into Rome. It wasn't Joe Sixpack who was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy anymore. Now it was Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch and Wachovia and oh, my God, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac! And that's where we are now, with a panicked Congress rushing around like a headless chicken trying to decide what to do.

But the larger question still is: why was this allowed to happen? Wise people could see it coming from a mile away. Why were our financial institutions allowed to go on an orgy of greed, with their top people collecting gazillions in pay and stock options while the stock markets just kept going up and up. Why were there no regulations in place to stop such behavior before it put the country into such a terrible position, a position that will cost taxpayers this time $700 billion?

And an even larger question is: will we do anything to ensure it doesn't ever happen again?