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Mid-November 2014 - Hard Times

I’ve not read the novel of that name by Charles Dickens. In fact, I’ve read very little by Dickens. When you are going through hard times, not of the Victorian kind, but of a more modern vintage, you do not often need to be reminded of your lack of luck!

Decades ago, during the hard times of the 1970s and early 1980s, a few people who were not going through hard times told me that “you make your own luck.” I pondered the statement. It was perfectly plausible to me that you can make your own bad luck, but I found the jury out on good luck. One thing that I did know was certain -- so certain that I kept a large wooden “paper clip” on my work desk with a strip of brass tacked onto it with these words:


And I have been known for dumb luck, the kind that has popped up in places where I’d least expect it. No fan of slot machines, I once dropped a silver dollar into one in a restaurant in Las Vegas circa 1977 (when the town still looked like the Vegas of the Rat Pack). $200 came clinking out!

It was time. I wasn’t due, but it was time for the payoff.

Life can be like that slot machine. You may not be due for the payoff but sooner or later the time comes and you get yours (or they get theirs). Now that payoff may be a matter of good, bad, or indifferent but to use another idiom (of the twelve that I get right):

What goes around comes around.

The circular path might seem endless; there can be many stops along the way before the payoff arrives. But arrive it does, in its own time! The truth always wins out even though it may feel like the truth is taking forever to win. Don’t give up on the truth because then all you will be left with is a rather empty vision, the cynic’s Photoshop of life.

Your faith is not illusion. The person or thing into which you have placed your faith might very well be the illusion, one from which awaking can be a hard time, a long hard time.

I periodically hearken back to the days of the crypt in conversations with my Very Dear Friend. She recently read my essay entitled “Patience and the Palimpsest.” She proudly claimed that she still loves mac & cheese -- the powder kind. I differed, without begging. I considered the ooey-gooey cheese far superior. She held firm on her choice: “Nope -- I'm an original powder girl!!”

Life is a series of making choices and then holding firm on those choices. Perhaps people today have too many choices to make good ones or to even appreciate their plethora of choices. I look online at the vast array of makeup brushes for sale, and then I look at my coffee cup of eye shadow brushes. That cup runneth over with thanksgiving.

I remember when I owned exactly 2 eye shadow palettes and I used the sponge-tipped thingee in each palette to apply the makeup! There were far fewer choices in many arenas some 30 odd years ago, and so making a decision was perhaps made easier by the paucity of alternatives.

Not only is there an abundance of choices today, there is a corresponding scarcity of appetite for holding firm on any choice. For too many people, the other man’s grass is not only greener; they feel compelled to mow it! Their emotions round them up instead of the other way around.

The emotional round-up is something that I face every once in a while, and the activity brings tears and fears to the surface. The writing does not come without a price. After I write, I have to deal with whatever my creative mind has edited out. Not all is pleasant. Sometimes I cry.

My work entails many occupational hazards in the psychological arena, many of which I do not know before the literary creation begins. Even if I sense them, I still forge on. My Muse demands it, and I have learned not to refuse my Muse.

My Dear Daughter assures me that sometimes there are days that require reflection and emotional release. Those days are the hard times, not because I am living them again, but because I remember them as I once lived them, and I must observe them. I force my mind to recall the experiences with vivid accuracy for myself, and for my art. I then place those facets of the past into the perspective of the present. It is a form of perspective drawing with words.

I recall reading a statement by the profoundly talented American singer, actor, and professor of music, William Warfield. He said something to the effect that any emotion that the audience feels while listening to a singer occurs only after the singer has first experienced that emotion many times as part of preparing for the performance.

There is nothing that the audience will be able to feel if the singer has not first felt those emotions fully and deeply during the process of rendering them into art. And then, of course, the singer must master those feelings through technique and discipline to convey them with purity to the audience.

The same principle applies to writers.

There are days when I remember the very hard times of working to pay off bills that were part of being young and on my own, and diligently trying to become an independent woman. I kept a large goldfish bowl in my apartment during the time that I worked at a federal agency for peanuts. I earned just enough to starve on and so I dutifully collected pennies in that fishbowl.

That fishbowl of pennies came in handy. Every second Friday of the month, which was The-Friday-before-Payday-on-Monday, I inevitably ran short on money (cash -- there was no credit for me back then). I would assiduously press (with an index finger) the required number of pennies into each 50-cent roll until there were about 6 of them. (Those paper rolls probably no longer exist in their original paper form.) And then I carried those rolls of pennies in my JC Penney purse to work with me.

They were a heavy load but I trotted them down to a small shop located on the first floor of the Federal Building. The shop was known as “The Blind Man’s Stand.”

In those days Political Correctness had not yet replaced real language with words of increasing syllables and decreasing meaning. The more syllables, the less meaning!

The Blind Man told me to write my name, address, telephone number, and perhaps bank account number on each roll. It’s a wonder I could squeeze that much information onto such a small space! I would then purchase my rectangular block of Cracker Barrel cheese (extra sharp cheddar) that was usually moldy; and a Red Delicious apple that was always mealy, often mushy, and far from delicious. But it was red!

I do not know which situation was more insulting: the implication that I would rip off a blind man, or being degraded to eating moldy food from that large Petri dish of a rectangular refrigerator with its two sliding glass doors.

In either case, that wonderful repast was lunch. Other female employees usually went out to a restaurant, but I brown-bagged it on the four other days of the week. By Friday, however, “funds” and the food in the frig were somewhat limited. There was always the tail end of a loaf of “Mr. Pumpernickel” and some drying, cracked cream cheese in curled up foil, perhaps a green olive or two floating in their saline swimming pool jar. For variety, if not for my health, I opted for the moldy, mealy lunch meal.

Decades later, America had recovered from the deep trouble and hard times of the mid-1970s through early 1980s. I nonetheless knew that this country was headed once more for deep trouble and hard times when I heard Brit Hume marvel during the Reagan funeral: “People forget how bad it was during the Carter years.”

I do not forget. And I made sure that my children do not forget. Dear Husband says that the Carter years scarred me in the way that the Great Depression scarred my parents who were adults at the time. Perhaps, but I heard tales from my parents about the Great Depression. And though there were many people on the dole (and many were ashamed of it), and many people on the take and on the make (and not ashamed of it), there were many more people who, for Goodness’ sake, cared about their fellow man.

The song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” has become “Brother, You Owe Me a Dollar,” or just plain, “Brother, You Owe Me.” (Current lingo would approximate, “Dude, Gimme.”)

Georges Clemenceau was the Prime Minister of France from 1906-1909 and from 1917-1920. His wartime leadership of France was superlative; it exceeded his wit, but only marginally. He is quoted as having said: “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.” A briefer version is: “The United States of America is the only nation to plunge from barbarism to degeneracy with no culture in between.'"

As a staunchly patriotic American, I would like to believe that Monsieur Clemenceau spoke only of his perceptive observation of the United States during the 1920s. At times, however, I wonder. I wonder if the United States of today is able to learn from hard times, especially hard times of its own making.

The States of America are not united because a politician or even a leader commands or compels it. These states are united because the conscience of each individual demands unity, above all else. Hard times are hardest for the selfish.

I wonder then if America is having a hard time finally leaving the selfishness of adolescence and entering full adulthood without trying, yet again, to go back to the good old days of “youth” that truly were not that good. So many times the path to the future opens up and a majority of the country wants to go back, or sideways, or even upside down, in folly: any direction other than forward into the wisdom of maturity. Maturity is not about getting old. Maturity is a measurement of one’s sense of perspective and proportion.

Hard times do not mean that we must lose our sense of perspective and proportion, unless, of course, we did not have those senses when times were good; or we lacked the fundamental sense of decency that must accompany having plenty and having plenty of it.

Then the problem of hard times is not material. It is spiritual and moral, and it is gonna take more than a world economy coming back from the brink of wherever it was headed when we last looked at each other and saw the things that mattered. Namely, the things that matter are not really “things” at all.

Whenever I feel the effects and after-effects of hard times, I listen to music, preferably of the soothing kind. A cherished favorite is an exquisite performance by Itzhak Perlman of the symphonic intermezzo, “Meditation,” composed by Jules Massenet.

Another intermezzo that offers calming respite is from “Cavalleria rusticana” by Pietro Masgagni.

Ginger Rogers once said, “The only way to enjoy anything in this life is to earn it first.” I believe by “anything,” this wonderfully talented lady included on her mental list respect, dignity, decency, and honesty. Her words are very good ones to consider during hard times.

Life can be a game that we must play well. Sometimes we don’t exactly win, but we must keep trying! Perhaps that is how we make our own luck or, at the very least, avoid the bad luck.


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