Thursday, January 20, 2011

Piece of Advice #85: Exit the blame cycle and do something useful

On my last piece of advice (Expect and prepare for your standard of living to decline), commenter Dragline said:
"The point is we should not expect top-down solutions to our problems. And blaming "them" (pick your "them" and add your favorite "ism") isn't going to get you anywhere, except perhaps self-destruction. Or a job on today's cable TV "news".
If you go back to your 4th Turning posts and the best characteristics of our (Gen-X) generation, it is the ability to dig deep, be tough and be pragmatic. When they say "surrender", we say "Nuts."
We need to focus on ignoring government (until we clean out the Boomers) and building communities -- on-line, with neighbors, whomever. And finding ways to live on less and celebrating the freedom of frugality." 
This is definitely what I was getting at.  While it can be absorbing and interesting trying to isolate how we got into our current messes as a society, ultimately determining whether the republicans, democrats, feminists, blacks, whites, illegals, Boomers, X-ers, G.I.s, corporations, or socialists are most to blame is not going to be of real help to the individual or the family during hard times.  It would be far more useful to pursue the two-fold strategy of increasing both self-sufficiency and strengthening community bonds.  None of the above in aggregate will be there to save us in crisis.  They don't care about you.  They don't care about me.  The only people who do care are the people around us whom we cultivate as friends, neighbors, and family.  We all need to make more of those connections because they will provide strength and shelter.

I've talked before about developing your own skills.  Knowing how to make and fix things is important not just because it makes you more self-reliant or because it will save you money, but because it gives you something to trade in informal negotiations and makes you a more valuable person to know.  We have lost so much knowledge of how to do basic things.  It's a sad thing to admit, but I basically taught myself to cook in the last three or four years.  I believe I have a pretty workable repertoire of foods I can competently prepare now, and my husband is quite happy with my progress, but the fact remains that I am no chef.  Compared to the average 1940s housewife, I'm a a novice.  Since very few women now cook, however, my efforts look nothing short of miraculous to my husband's coworkers who marvel over the stuff I send in his daily lunchbox.  I've also noticed that good food predisposes people to feel more positively about you.  I'm not above using that if I have to in the future.

I've also given away "free samples" of my other skills to my neighbors.  I babysit for free occasionally.  I blow out the snow from the sidewalks on either side of my own.  I share the produce in my garden when it gets prolific.  I also wave and talk to the people in my little area and try to build community in small ways.  I do this because I was taught to do so by my parents but also because when your city significantly cuts back on its police force as mine did a year ago, it's a good idea to know the people around you.  They can help keep an eye on your house when you're gone.  They would be the ones to form a neighborhood watch to stop a rising tide of crime.  And they're the ones you'd swap stuff and skills for when money gets tight.

As I mentioned before, we all have to prepare for our standard of living to decline as wages continue on their downward slide.  But that doesn't have to mean things cannot be done and we must lie around helpless.  Rather it means we will not be able to pay strangers to do them with disposable income.  Several of my neighbors have chains saws and could probably be persuaded to help me cut down a branch that comes down in a future storm - if they know me enough to care and if I've got something to trade either now or later.  This giving and taking of free labor is what was previously known as community, and it worked well for thousands of years.  It is both cheaper and more expensive that what we've been doing.  We abandoned it because it requires more than money.  Communities expect things of their members.  They judge when people are lazy or do not conform to community standards.  And an individual's "bank account" within a community is always needing replenishment.  Skills and tools are not always needed, but shows of courtesy, politeness, loyalty, and integrity are.

I would encourage you to strengthen the bonds you have with the people you live, work, and worship with.  As I stated in my previous post, we as a nation still have many resources; we just need to learn to identify and share them better.  To protect ourselves as individuals, we have to lessen our emphasis on individualism.  The future will see the re-emergence of communities.  If we establish them now, they will be up and running when we really need them.


  1. Grerp, community requires agreement on certain things. You need to be able to basically trust your neighbour -- that they will not remove your property if you do guard it, and if they do that you can get recompense. The USA traditionally is a high trust society... but in times of crisis that can change.

    My mother was a child in the last depression. She talks about her mother being helpful to the intinerent -- giving food for chores, and living next door to her mother, in a neighbourhood where people did look after each other. And generally took responsibility for their own mistakes.

    It appears you have either instinctivly or deliberately, as a couple, placed yourself into a high responsibility (low dependence on the state fixing things) and high trust community. I would advise those who are living in areas where they are quite rationally frightened of their neighbours to walk away. Now. Because it is still dusk. The night has not come yet.

  2. Not surprisingly, I whole-heartedly agree.

    Another thing we can do is to participate in local non-political civic organizations. Civic organizations like Lions, Rotary, Kiwanis and church groups were the kinds of things that the Greatest Generation rallied with, but have gone into dormancy in the mature adult world as they have died out.

    But there is a resurgence in the youngest generation and and their parents in things like Boy Scouts that is happening almost under the radar. I remember being disinterested in such things when I was young (in the 70s), but my children have dragged me back in as an adult and there is almost a hunger out there for these kinds of organizations that teach practical skills like building, cooking, first aid and survival and community service projects. The parents in our troop are diverse politically, but everyone checks it at the door and is very supportive when it comes to the kids.

    I see other such organizations forming at the adult level around interests such as gardening and organic farming, wood-working and re-designing communities to use less energy. I'm not involved in anything like that, but I think that solutions to many problems are more likely to come from these efforts than politics or government.

    And I don't have time -- I and four other dads are taking 20 scouts winter camping tomorrow. Time to work on those "keeping warm" skills!

    I really enjoy your blog and will keep reading. Is there any way you could post to Twitter when there is a new entry?

  3. Chris - That's a good point. I live in a pretty safe neighborhood, and most of my neighbors seem to be approachable and on the ball. If I didn't, though, I'd take your advice and find a better situation pronto.

    Dragline - This year I became an assistant den leader for my son's cub scout pack, and I also encouraged my husband to join the Knights of Columbus. He was unenthusiastic, but I think he's actually enjoying it. I like that it's a men only organization, as I think those are important and, these days, rare. I don't think he'll be getting a sword or purple fez anytime soon, however. I tease him about that.

    Oh, and I'm also a part of a CSA, and it has a lot of opportunities for its members to interact and learn from each other in order to build the community part of community sponsored agriculture.

    I'm so glad you like the blog. I haven't done the twitter thing because I have some followers whom I suspect would not appreciate my writing here. But I may do a separate Twitter thing just for this blog, if you think it would be useful.

  4. Interesting and well-written post. I agree with the basics - it's all true - but would quibble a bit about the details. Points:

    1) If one understands and reflects on who the (primary) guilty parties are in creating our social and financial "mess", avoiding it (and even profiting from it) becomes much easier. I mention this because I was having these (judgmental) thoughts 10+ years ago, and acted accordingly. Those actions, both financial and lifestyle-wise (back when they were not very popular!) have paid off handsomely. Yet I never could have acted wisely unless I had thought deep and long about what the agents of "mess" were.

    2) A large part of the reason we are in this "mess" is the failure of values. And I don't just mean the failure of the values of the politicians, or the local leaders, etc. - they have always been bad! I mean the failure of the values of the guy living next door. Hence, I am very circumspect in dealing with neighbors, especially boomers. Sure, we help out, wave, deliver cookies. But we also know the general values of the typical TV-watching Americans circa 2010 are downright poor in fundamental areas. So we tend not to be too cozy or expect much of them. We have our core group of family and friends who share our values, and that's more important.

    3) Regarding having and using skills, I think this cannot be emphasized enough. Gardening, chickens, sewing, cutting hair, cooking from scratch, building, fixing cars, house and appliance repairs, rural fishing and hunting (restrained, not the expensive type), handling your own taxes and finances - all these are like gold during a deflationary era where cash is hard to come by. It's like a whole other job, tax free. Your tax man hates it, and that should be enough :-).

    Chris Now. Because it is still dusk. The night has not come yet.

    So true. And remember that the person who is oh-so-kind-and-nice today when it's still dusk may well turn into another kind of person entirely once things get tough.

  5. Good post.
    Some things I want to add. When it comes to family bonds, one not only needs to continuously act to maintain and strengthen those bonds, but act prudently to avoid things that would diminish those bonds. In my family, massive rifts have formed due to doing business with family members which resulted in financial conflicts. If one absolutely must go into business with family, make sure its done professionally with written agreements. Avoid verbal or informal agreements no matter how appropriate they may seem. That way, if conflicts do arise they can be solved in a fair and professional manner. When it comes to community bonds, another lesson I’ve learned from personal experience is that gossip within communities is what turns a lot of people off to their communities. Grerp wrote a good post earlier about avoiding gossiping. But what to do when others engage in overt gossip and you don’t want anything to do with a group that does that?

  6. I want to quote our city manager. He isn't the mayor he gets paid to run the city under the "guidance" of the mayor and city council. He said in a letter sent to members of the city.

    "Too many people, too many governments, while bemoaning the current economic "downturn" assume that full and complete recover, and a return to "life as we knew it" is just around the corner. I'm no expert on global economics, but I tend to see as more credible those who are questioning that premise. My warning is that we will no longer be able to pretend that we can "do more with less." We need to understand that we'll simply be "doing with less" On a national scale, that can translate into some measured decrease in our standard of living...not into poverty and third-world status, but down from the artificial, sometimes obscene, excesses of the last couple of decades. On a local level, that means simply reinventing who we are as a government; questioning why we exist, and understanding what makes our efforts legitimate."

    I bring this up because this is by far one of the most blatant statements I have seen from someone not on the internet on this issue. I want to emphasize again this was published in our city newsletter.

  7. Mrs. Bob - That is very interesting. I had a conversation the other day with the man who works for the company who handles some of our retirement savings. I basically told him I was anxious about the future, given the economy and the federal debt load and its possible effects on the currency and asked what I should do with our savings in case things go seriously south. I thought he would dismiss my concerns as crackpottery, but actually he mirrored them and more or less repeated what I was saying back to me.

    This made me feel less crazy but more worried. :(

  8. i know i'm late to this party, but i've been reading back! great blog all around. :) came here through Athol's blog. :)

    around here, people are earthquake scared these days. understandable with christ church and japan's earthquake. everyone is running scared, preparing, and generally freaking out.

    i have a small kit -- enough for us and perhaps a bit more -- and i've collected some specialized tools in the process (several hand-cranked water filters; a home made, foldable solar oven that i know how to use, etc). and everyone was freaking out at play group that it "wasn't enough!"

    and i told them this -- no matter how much you stock up, it will never be "enough." our real assets are our community. here is a garden space -- we can use it to grow vegetables -- have any of you saved seed from your gardens this year? (our community garden has, and divided it among us.) F, you knit and sew-- do you have machines that work without electricity? because that's an amazing skill that we may need! What else?

    at the end of the day, we all felt more assured. true, if the big one hits, we might be crushed in our homes, or cut off from the world for a fair bit, and have to rely on a limited supply store -- but ultimately, we will survive beacuse of our community, our connections.

    i don't live in a 'great' neighborhood -- it's a student neighborhood. my family of 3 (two parents, one 2.5 yr old), lives in a 1 bedroom flat in an old house of 3 flats (one above, one below). we live *so simply* here, honestly.

    but our greatest wealth, our greatest asset -- in my opinion anyway -- is our community. we have the most amazing friends around us. i know that we could move in with some of them, trade skills, whatever should anything happen. seriously, i know we would be ok. because we have the greatest asset of all.