Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday

Today has been a perfect day.  And it's not even over yet.

Kudos to Mother Nature on the weather.  Very nicely done, Madame.

I spent a decent chunk of time cleaning out the shed in my backyard.  On the off-chance that the mouse who took up residence there over the winter is actually Stuart Little with a wireless connection and a bookmark to my blog, I would like to say several things:

First, if you're going to snack on acorns all the time, you really should clean up after yourself.  I have left a broom and dustpan near the doorway.

Secondly, the nest looked very cozy.  Very spacious, and very cozy.  You have a knack for nest-design, clearly.

Thirdly, I don't think it's necessary to poop constantly all over my chair cushions.  They were a birthday present from me to me last year, and they're from Pottery Barn.

Finally, dude, you can NOT chew holes in said cushions, even if they are only on the bottom of the cushion.  Likewise, I do NOT like it when small creatures nibble away at the handle-grips on my bike. 

That was what caused me to suddenly shriek, "No WAY, you little rodent bastard!" so venomously.

As I've mentioned before, I live on a street with a total of four houses and I have the great good fortune of having three sets of wonderful neighbors.  One of those neighbors dropped by with homemade Easter bread and a card, and invited me to lunch.  I had plans already, but still... very kind and totally unexpected.

If I haven't said it before--but I know that I have--I'd like to say it again.  I have had very good luck with friends, for the most part.  I'm really very lucky.

I remember last fall, on my birthday, I was in a troubled friendship that ultimately didn't survive the test of time.  The person involved had ignored my birthday-party invitation, told one of my other guests he'd definitely be coming, and then simply never showed. 

He then emailed to tell me that it was my fault he hadn't showed--I hadn't made him feel welcome enough. 

He actually dropped an F-bomb on me.  On my birthday. 

I think there's a law against that, actually, but I didn't press charges because I'm just so damn gracious.

I remember looking around at the many presents and the food and the wine my various friends had brought me.  As I was contemplating a tactful response that didn't involve returning-fire on his incredible rudeness, I got an email from a friend in Taiwan.

I hadn't heard from her in a long time; I hadn't seen her since 2001.  She had remembered my birthday and wrote to tell me all the wonderful memories she had of the times we had spent together and that they still made her laugh to this day.

So, as I said, I've been lucky.  The F-Bomber is probably still feeling sorry for himself, thinking he was such a good friend, and wondering where, when, and how it all went wrong. 

Why I suddenly became so unreasonable and so unwilling to continue to entertain his... whatever that was.

I just can't imagine.

In other news, I've been thinking about the housing market and what happened to people's mortgages and property values over the last couple of years.  I was actually having a conversation with a friend and expressing a degree of sympathy for the fact that people are "sucking wind" (my words) because their houses have been reassessed for far less than they paid for them several years ago.

As I mentioned "ballooning interest rates" and ARM mortgages, my friend interrupted me to say, "I'm sorry, but if you don't know that "ballooning" means your payments will rise, you're an idiot."

I quickly intervened (because I've got this thing about people using the word "idiot" lately), and she corrected herself: "Wait, no, you're right.  If you didn't know that "ballooning" means your payments will rise and it never occurred to you to ask what that meant, exactly, then you have no one to blame but yourself."

I think it's true that there have been quite a few innocent people who got porked in the economic downturn, but more and more, I'm convinced that it isn't the innocent who are yelling the loudest.

As Eric Hoffer observed, "Self-righteousness is a loud din raised to drown the voice of guilt within us."

I pity the people trying to provide for their families, who always lived within their means, bought a house they could afford, and then lost their jobs, their retirement savings, their resources.

Personally, though, I don't want to hear any more from people who thought they were entitled to a house they couldn't afford in the best neighborhood around, who are still leasing luxury cars, taking expensive vacations, wearing designer clothes and blaming the banks for the fact that they're upside down or underwater in their mortgages.

There were always mortgage calculators online; if you didn't know what you were buying into, you shouldn't have bought into it.

I think people just didn't want to know.  They wanted what they wanted and they didn't want to tell themselves "no, I can't afford it." 

Because everyone else around them seemed to be able to afford it: I think that's what drew people in.  Financial peer pressure.  Keeping up with the Joneses.

But what bothers me now is that there's very little self-scrutiny going on.  Banks and mortgage companies played fast and loose with the law; they preyed on customers and they should definitely be held accountable for that.  We need better oversight and tighter restrictions.

But people should also acknowledge the role that they themselves played.  Banks can only sell what you're willing to buy.  No one forced anyone to sign; if you didn't understand it, you shouldn't have signed it.

Oversee the banks, yes, absolutely--but you also have to oversee yourself.  If the banks are irresponsible, that doesn't mean you can or should be too.

If people made mistakes--whether because they naively counted on things that are inherently unreliable (like jobs, investment portfolios, and friendly bankers and mortgage underwriters) or because they pretended to have more than they had, or because they succumbed to financial peer pressure--then yes, they made mistakes. 

Everyone does.

But they should spend some time openly acknowledging that too.  Blaming the banks is easy.  Admitting you may have screwed up is hard.

In the Northeast, property value assessments were overinflated in the mid-2000's; everyone knew it.  People were riding the wave, hoping the bubble wouldn't burst before they made a profit.

I think I was lucky (again) in that I had good financial values instilled in me from an early age.  I remember my dad telling me once that when someone advertises "Pay no money down!" what that really means is, "You can't afford this, but I'm going to try to sell it to you anyway!" 

He also drove home the fact that, when you take out a loan--any loan--you are essentially admitting you can't afford what you're purchasing. 

He used to say, "Sometimes, you just have to do it.  But never forget: if you're taking out a loan, you're openly admitting that you simply can't afford what you're acquiring."

Finally, my dad used to say, "If you don't have the money today, don't count on having it tomorrow.  There's many a slip between the cup and lip.  You never know."

And in a way, it's very true.  For instance, I have my appendix today and I'd like to think I'll still have it at this time tomorrow. 

But then again, I might not.

If it's not existentially guaranteed that I'll always be able to keep my appendix, I shouldn't bank on (pun intended) being financially guaranteed a roof over my head if I spend more than I earn and borrow more than I can ultimately repay.

Finally, I found a new blog site that I like, so I've added it to my list: it's at fivecentnickel.com.  The writer has all kinds of tips for living frugally and he offers some interesting reflections on the American consumer's mindset. 

He and his wife have actually managed to pay off their mortgage, despite acquiring their home and changing jobs and raising four children during a time of economic turmoil.

For everyone out there who's doing something wrong and then blaming someone else, there's always someone out there who's just quietly doing something right. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."