Answer The Question

Answer The Question, Please!

 

In a past life, I briefly served as a senior executive in an industry that was a favorite scratching post for the media.  Having spent over twenty years as a consultant – – writing and speaking on a range of radioactive topics,  I was naturally impervious to media trickery and was put off when my new employer suggested I go through training.  “ I have been doing this for many years.” I mused to the HR rep who was attempting to penetrate my calendar for a four hour session with a media consultant.  “ I really don’t need this.”

 

My boss called and gently suggested I indulge my management and attend a one on one coaching session.  The day arrived and I was directed to a nondescript office suite in New York where I was sequestered to an equally unimaginative conference room to await my training.  I sat impatiently alternating between my Blackberry and my watch.  I literally was getting out of my chair to return to work when the door burst open.   The room filled with a cacophony of bright lights and noise as a female television reporter rushed in followed by her cameraman with lights blazing and camera filming.

 

“ Mr Turpin, is it true that you have been CEO during a period of time where your firm was being investigated for irregularities in your operations? “  Before I could even answer, she continued to attack.  “ So when did you stop beating your wife?”

“ What,” I said, “are you serious?”  She went for the jugular, “ I am sure it’s hard to remember many of these things.  But how does it feel to preside over a business that is so indifferent to the needs of the consumers it serves.”  At this point, I began to piece together words but it came out as babbling gibberish .  She thrust the microphone in my face as I stuttered an unconvincing, defensive response that seemed to suggest that I was hiding something – – perhaps weapons of mass destruction or institutional malfeasance.   All the time I was answering, she was making incredulous faces, mocking my responses

 

The reporter lowered her microphone and mercifully switched off her 300 watt light.  She shook my hand and introduced herself as my media coach.  “ This is why you need media training.  In the next four hours, we will learn how to stay on message and to position yourself for the camera to appear credible, confident and compassionate”.  Over the next several hours, my coach who had made a career advising politicians and CEOs, walked me through the art of deflection.  Like a martial arts instructor, I was taught to move with the momentum of the attacker and never allow an interrogator a direct hit.  I watched video tapes of oil industry executives who had credibly appeared to defend attacks about egregious profits and watched as less effectively coached executives and politicians squirmed and were reduced by the media to shifty Simon La Grees who had  widow’s fund money in their pockets and larceny in their hearts.

 

I was getting a deep whiff of the carcinogenic air of Nick Naylor, the teflon sociopath spokesperson for big tobacco created by Christopher Buckley in Thank You for Smoking.  My consultant impressed on me with relentless repetition.  “ Don’t get charmed by the reporter.  Stay on message.  No matter what the question.  You come back to the key messages that we want to underscore as a company.  No matter what they ask you, segue back to the message.  Do not answer the question.  You do yourself no favors answering the question.  They are all set ups.  Stay on message.”

 

I have recently watched the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates with an even more jaundiced eye.  At times, I want to scream, JUST ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION!” and then I realize, they will never answer the question because they are staying on message.  John McCain’s message is “ My opponent has a liberal voting record, is naïve with no experience and consorts with radicals.”  Obama’s message is “ John McCain equals George Bush.  McCain’s experience is not an advantage but a pathetic resume of failure and cronyism which is rife in Washington DC”.  You could ask them any question you want, you will be waiting a long time for an answer unless it relates back to these talking points.   It has been made abundantly clear to me that these debates are than honesty around the issues. 

 

I just want someone to answer my questions.  I have several that are weighing on my mind:

 

1)   Senators, do any of you know what a credit swap is?  Do you know there are $ 55 Trillion dollars of CDOs still in the market?  Did you vote for or against the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act which deregulated these financial speculation instruments? Can you explain why our economy is still cratering even after a $ 700B bail out package and a coordinated cut in the lending interest rates by several country’s central banks?   How do we arrest this crisis of confidence?  It’s not about liquidity, it’s about trust and there is none.

2)   Senator Obama, you have a very liberal voting record which indicates a desire for higher taxes, increased government and entitlement programs. Herbert Hoover ushered in the Depression when in 1932, he further suffocated consumer spending by passing the largest marginal tax rate increase in history at the very time that taxes should have been held firm or decreased.  Please tell me how history won’t repeat itself? 

3)   Senator McCain, you are a Republican.  The Republicans have presided over record deficits, eroded international credibility, deregulation that led to intoxicating excesses and crippling energy dependence at the hands of powerful petro authoritarian governments who hate the US.  Cab you fault anyone for thinking a Democratic Whitehouse could not be any worse than what we have endured these past eight years?

4)   Who was minding the store at Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac?  What do you think about Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and their oversight of the quasi –governmental agencies that gave out sub prime loans to individuals who could not afford them? 

5)   I believe the next credit crisis will be consumer credit?  Do you agree and what do you propose to mitigate the coming days of reckoning as people default on their credit obligations?

 

I have lots more questions , Senators.  However don’t bother getting back to me.  I know McCain is an unpredictable, hawkish, Bush crony and Obama is in inexperienced uber liberal.  Yes, I know your records.  Yes, I know what you think of one another. 

 

But can someone just please answer my questions?

 

Turkey Bowl

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a tur...
Image via Wikipedia

Turkey Bowl

Lucy van Pelt: Charlie Brown, I’ll hold the ball and you run up and kick it.

Charlie Brown: Hold it? Ha! You’ll just pull it away and I’ll fall flat on my back and kill myself.

Lucy van Pelt: I wouldn’t do that. It’s Thanksgiving.

Charlie Brown: What does Thanksgiving have to do with anything?

Lucy van Pelt: One of our most cherished traditions is the Thanksgiving football game.

Charlie Brown: Gee, I guess if it is a tradition, it would be an honor. She wouldn’t pull it away if it is a tradition. This time I’m gonna kick that ball clear to the moon!

[he runs to kick the ball, but Lucy pulls it away]

Charlie Brown: Aaauuugh! [falls flat on his back]

Lucy van Pelt: Isn’t it peculiar how some traditions just fade away?   – Charles Schultz, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

The Thanksgiving Day football game is a rich side dish served on a day where each American consumes an average of 16,000 calories while at the same time giving thanks for life’s simplest pleasures.  On this gilded holiday, we are reminded of the blessings that we often take for granted such as proton pump inhibitors, analgesic heat rubs, knee braces and a gluteus minimus that does not swell into a gluteus maximus after a long touchdown run.  The Turkey Bowl is a ritual whose championship trophy is forged from silver bragging rites and golden nostalgia.  It’s principle ingredients are any ambulatory human aged 6-60, a beat up football and most importantly, mud – – caked, brown malleable clay, a symbol of our temporal toil and a timeless tribute to our agrarian DNA.  As Americans, we landed in the mud, we rose out of the mud, we fought in the mud, eventually we hired other people to work for us in the mud and then we invented Tide to eliminate any evidence that we ever actually consorted with mud.  But, each Thanksgiving morning, we return to the peat bogs of our past to refresh old rivalries and lay claim to another year of bragging rites and hyperbole.

In California, Thanksgiving arrived unceremoniously on a warm desert wind sweeping down across silent, vacant freeways and empty schools.  Our house fashioned out of Marine Corps dogma and the testosterone of five men grew restless at the percussion of chopping knives and the regular entreaties for someone to “please peel the potatoes and green beans.”  The low dulcet tones and punctuated spikes of laughter from a generation of kitchen matriarchs mixed with the reassuring aroma of sautéed onions and baking turkey.  A football suddenly bounced off the den window.  Outside, a boy in sweats had appeared, grinning in a tear away shirt and cleats.  There was a sudden rush of motion as we mustered outside ready to bike the two blocks to our local junior high school where a sea of jerseys and baseball caps pitched and argued over the balance of talent and rules of engagement.

The local Turkey Bowl was a one time annual opportunity to run with the larger dogs of our neighborhood – – siblings home from college and older kids that would normally look right past you as too small or too insignificant to join them in any sport.  Yet, on this day, a spirited tackle or timely body block might win a rare compliment from an older idol that would be gratefully deposited in one’s shoebox of memorabilia and taken out many times over a lifetime of self reflection.  There were broken bones and stitches – -badges of honor and fodder for the bragging rite debates that would ensue later in the winter.  As in life, there were broken plays, personal fouls, selfless acts, winners and losers.  There was instant acceptance when one was picked to play on a team.  It was a Christmas morning thrill to watch as an older teenager opened his muddy, catcher’s glove palm and designed a play, especially for you – “Turp, go five yards out and turn around.”  It was the old button hook and it was my play, designed exclusively for me like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg.  Me! – a mere 11 year old paramecium was deemed worthy of possibly receiving a pass from this multi-celled seventeen year old God.  Just one problem, I was being guarded by a sixteen year old with bad acne, mood swings and suborbital ridges that suggested that someone in his family was discovered by Dr Leakey.

“Ready, set, you bet, go Charlie go, hike!”

As I sprinted to my spot, the older defender shoved me roughly to the ground like a rag doll.  “Sorry kid” he flipped with a smirk.  Back in the huddle, everyone was hissing that they were open. I was busy rubbing the dirt out of my eyes. Each down, I was repeatedly tossed to the ground unable to complete my “button hook.” By the fourth quarter, I had eaten more mud than an earthworm. The score was tied 49-49.  I had not touched the ball.

Someone’s sibling rode up with a summons from home and there was talk of ending this year’s grudge match in a tie. “That’s like kissin’ yer sister” someone yelled.  Another shouted,” One more set of downs!”  I was once again lined up against my delinquent tormentor but instead of running my assigned button-hook, I turned suddenly and sprinted long as if the devil himself was chasing me.  I screamed and waved my hands.  The ball was launched in my direction and my heart leapt as I stumbled through the mud never taking my eye off the spiraling pigskin. My opponent had fallen down and I was alone behind the defense.  The pass seemed to hang in the autumn air for an eternity.  It fell into my arms and bounced off my chest careening away from my body.  I dove forward grasping like a drowning man, my arms and fingers straining for the deflection.  My fingers clawed under the muddy ball preventing it from hitting the dirt.  I fell awkwardly feeling a white flash of pain in my knee.  But I held on.  Celebratory screams from down field confirmed my reception and as I rose grimacing, I spiked the ball.  With the TD, the game disintegrated. But, our team had won.

As I limped to my bike, I heard the deep baritone of the seventeen year old icon, “great catch, Turp”.  I blushed with self conscious satisfaction and weaved my way home, tossing the ball in the air and catching it.  Later, as I donned my dreaded holiday dinner ensemble, the shirt collar did not feel so tight, and the gray wool slacks did not itch so much, and the hand me down loafers did not bite my heels   That night, turkey never tasted so good.  The mashed potatoes melted on my tongue like butter on a hot skillet. The pumpkin pie seemed snatched straight from the open window sill of an Amish farmhouse.

On this day, I had much to be thankful for.  I had entered the pantheon of Turkey Bowl heroes, scoring the winning touchdown.  Me, the single cell amoeba.  Perhaps, I was on my way to evolving into something bigger, and more noble.  Alas, I would have to wait until next Thanksgiving.  Only 364 days to go.

A New Prosperity

A New Prosperity

 

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

 

The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller.  The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country.  Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit.  Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.

 

Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.

 In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land.  As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value.  Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth.  If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth.  For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships.  The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals.  The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit. 

 

As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy.  Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft.  Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us.  A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface.  We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.

 

My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative.  Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country.  He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world.  He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest.  During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion.  Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome.  “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?

 

This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia.  Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold.  In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India.  However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.

 

“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity.  I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned.  I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members.  In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities.  What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused.  He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world.  “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  (I hate it when he does this to me.  It ruins dessert)

 

But as usual, he gets me thinking.  Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity?  This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want.  This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.

 

 A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures.  A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”.  It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us.  It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances.  A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments.   In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures.  We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions. 

 

We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear.  A great society strives for these things for all its citizens.  It is a time of opportunity and transformation.  Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility.  In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Now that’s what I call prosperity.

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets.  I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?  ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”

 It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den.  Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game.  Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention.  The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move.  They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.    

 In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line.  Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption.  The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off.  To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food.  My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible.  “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him.  She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans. 

 Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school.  We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays.  Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces.  Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations.  We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land.  They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps.  In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks.  There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status.  Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back.  “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”

 The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home.  Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..”  As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare.  Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation.  A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods.  It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions.  It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.  

 Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction.  Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare.  “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy.  I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state.  For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare.  I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics.  I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden.  Why else would you need financial assistance?

 Our governor was Ronald Reagan.  He could do no wrong.  He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score.  In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on.  My Mom would pretend not to hear.  My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.

 As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol.  It was a sort of dine and dash.  We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words.  No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats.  As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained.  Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter.  It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion.  My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.

 Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims.  The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling.  The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”.  We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally. 

 John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”.  When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. . 

 

 

 

 

 

The Budget

The Budget

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship”– Benjamin Franklin

When last October’s Wall Street bombshell tore jagged lacerations in my net worth, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the bleeding had not abated.  There were myriad fiscal punctures in my lifestyle leaving a trail that even a blind hunter could follow. My frugal spouse was pleased when I suddenly expressed interest in our finances.  It seemed I had finally awakened to smell the financial coffee or at least I had started to count the beans.

I freely admit to not grasping the concept of moderation. More is better and better still, is now.  I have never been a profligate spender but I have not balanced a checkbook or kept an ATM receipt in 15 years.  A budget was simply the absence of deficit spending and taking any surplus and burying it like a jar of pennies in the retirement yard.  My discretionary spending vices are confined to collecting antique lead soldiers and roaming the endless stalls of eBay while in a $ 4 triple latte blackout.  Like many Americans, I pay for convenience and for the ability not to wait in a line or on a line.  I am in fact, the ultimate target consumer for the retail industry.  When I need to update my wardrobe, I buy everything I need for the next 24 months in one store in less than 30 minutes.  The first time my wife went shopping with me she became physically ill from what looked to her like a feeding frenzy of a starved hog.

In these recent hard times, I have become disgusted by my lack of fiscal discipline. I find myself muttering the word,” simplify” as I notice for the first time the price tags on everything, It’s like a witch has put a curse on me: “ You will now clearly see the cost of everything!“  “ No, no, please! Anything but that!”

I daydream of living near Walden Pond in a ramshackle, drafty railroad hut penning manifestos against the materialism, corruption and greed in America. In saner moments, I realize that if I actually did go off by myself into the woods, I would probably have to fold my own laundry – a thought that terrifies me.

I dreamed the other night about our first house – a 1200 square foot cottage, three miles from the beach in Southern California.  Air conditioning was achieved by opening a window.  Heat was achieved by shutting the window.  There was no basement engine room filled with heating units and oil tanks that seem to be in perpetual need of a $ 700 refill.   I am not sure the close quarters of that Newport Beach hobbit hole could accommodate our family of five without a domestic dispute consigning us to the police blotter, but I do recall waking up with the nostalgic longing for that low mortgage payment, small garden and a downsized lifestyle.

I became determined to take action against the rising swarm of enervating expenses that swirled around my head like summer midges.  My first target was America Online. To embolden my efforts, I drank an entire pot of coffee and, with my legs twitching like a second grader in church, I grabbed the telephone.

A few days earlier, I realized I had been paying $25 for an AOL Premium Service that I could essentially get for free.  I was outraged that AOL would take advantage of my ignorance and lethargy.  I called the 800-number and immediately got “ Sam”, an outsourced Eastern European service technician, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, grinning through the phone like the Cheshire cat.  At one point in the call, I heard what sounded like automatic gunfire.  I asked Sam if he was in danger of being executed if he did not convince me to keep my premium plan.  Sam laughed and assured me that the staccato hammering was merely construction on his building.  When I explained my situation, Sam was very sympathetic and offered me the $11.99 fee instead of the $ 25.90 fee.  I assured him I just wanted free email.  Sam offered me the $ 9.99 package.  No, Sam, I am.  Green eggs and ham and free email, man.  But Sam was good.  In fact he was hungrier and more determined than this reformed consumer.  After twenty minutes of verbal rope a doping and more information about firewalls and technical support than my over cauliflowered ear could possibly handle, I relented to the $9.99 plan.  I needed to lie down.  Saving ten dollars a month was hard business.

I called the oil company ready to threaten cancellation unless they could offer me the Hugo Chavez super economy rates.  I did not have a back up plan, other than ordering twelve cords of wood to be delivered as soon as possible. The oil company agent was obviously an out of work securitization specialist who detailed a complex algorithm for locking in a rate that involved hedges against Russian wheat and Moroccan olives. The topic shifted uncomfortably to ways that I could cut my utilization costs.  He asked me highly invasive questions about my insulation and energy efficiency.  Was he implying that I was not green?  I have natural insulation but that is not the point.  “I want cheaper rates or else.”  “Or else what?” He asked.  “Or else, …I’ll hang up.”  Just about this time, I felt a 20 degree draft knifing through the living room – coming from the patio door that one of the kids had just left wide open when they got up to take the dog out.  I am quite certain if anyone were to drive by our house with an infrared camera, we would look like Chernobyl as the fuel rods were melting.  Perhaps the price of the oil was not the entire problem.

I graduated to cable, broadband and phone. Between being charged for an Optimum Online voice mail box that is jammed with irretrievable messages dating back to ancient Rome – “ Hail, this is Caesar, please ask Senator Pretorius to send more men and supplies.  I have crossed the Rubicon. (Silence) I hope I am dialing the right numerals” – and 900 activated channels including an entire network dedicated to Latvian folk dancing, I am paying more for cable than I am contributing to my 401k.  However, weaning a couch potato from cable is slow and must be achieved similar to dosage reduction from steroids.  Just moving from hi-definition to non-HDTV makes a person feel as if they have glaucoma.  On second thought, let’s hold off on the cable.

I had my list of other remedies that would help suture my thousand cuts – teenaged I pod charges, gasoline, electricity, vacation expenses, dry cleaning and food.  My scorched earth austerity efforts went on all morning and yielded over $ 300 a month savings.  It was not exactly the greatest return on investment but it felt good.  It was the same feeling you get after cleaning the basement or garage.  Life seemed a little more in equilibrium.

My son walked in with tangled morning hair and stretched his arms, “ Dad, what have you been doing in here?”  I explained my jihad on non-essential spending.  He listened with that bored vacuous expression of a person who is just waiting for an opening to ask for something.  “Dad, all the guys are doing this lacrosse thing and I was hoping I could do it to.”

“ How much does it cost, buddy?”

“I think Teddy and Harry said like $300…”

I laughed out loud.