Brenda Cooper

Observation: The Painful Now

Some days the economy just hits you harder than you expect. As a writer, it’s good to try and stay open to the stories going on all around you. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that this all feels somewhat surreal. I mean, if we’re really in a depression like the 30’s, or almost there, shouldn’t we be wearing old clothes and driving old cars and look like people in the 20’s looked?  And maybe be done all in sepia tones?
I met a woman at Starbucks today. I stopped to pet her squirmy brown and white lap dog, and asked her how her day was. This was a well-dressed, woman in her late thirties or early forties with wide blue eyes and a soft smile, natural multi-colored blond hair up in plastic clip. She was neither heavy nor gaunt, and I’d have described her as a likely soccer mom. She said, “I’ve been laid off for more than a year, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
What does it take to make a someone tell a total stranger such a thing in response to a passing pat on the dogs head? We talked for awhile (she’s done HR and product placement marketing, but she has no degree and HR has become a degree-hungry field). When we left I said, “At least you have the dog,” and she smiled and said yes, but there was a catch in her voice and her eyes shone.
After Starbucks, I heard from a woman taking a 10% involuntary pay cut. Her husband has already been laid off. She felt angry.
Later, we went out for dinner, and at a popular restaurant, on a clear Saturday night, there was easy seating. Last year, it would have taken us an hour to get in.

I want to feel this, notice the details, in case I ever write about a time like this.   But that doesn’t make it easy.  (Note to Universe – this is NOT a request to feel it any more personally than we already do; I appreciate the luck we’ve had so far).

6 Responses so far

  1. 1. Janna

    What does it take to make a someone tell a total stranger such a thing in response to a passing pat on the dogs head?

    Depression and desperation. Believe me, I know, and not just from my own experience. I have a friend who’s been out of work almost two years, trying to find even the simplest jobs and she’s had no luck at all. She stopped varnishing her situation months ago. There comes a point at which candor is simply the easiest thing because putting on a happy face is just too much work.

    I’ll tell you, if this were NYC, such a conversation wouldn’t be considered the least unusual. In this region, people are very reticent to talk about things with strangers, as if it’s rude to bother other humans with our troubles. I’ve lived in Seattle 15 years and I still don’t get it. My theory is that because the area was so widely settled by Scandanavians, whom I’ve found to be lovely, if generally reticent people, that reticence has become part of the regional culture. I am not and never have been convinced that it serves us well.

    But I’m from New York, and I’ll always tell you what I think. 🙂

  2. 2. Pamela

    Painful…it is indeed.
    We are where that dear woman and her little dog find themselves. Hubby’s job of 25 years was outsourced to India. They cut everyone in his division from the VP to the lowest maintenance worker. Two years later the best this executive manger could find was insurance sales. Now he is off work again (cancer) and the current state of the economy makes it all but impossible for me to find enough work to support our large family.
    Complaining? Ummm…not really. Of course I wish things were stable and settled as they used to be, but through these new adversities I am relearning humility, honing the skills of self-reliance I learned long ago from my father, and find our family opening to neighbors and strangers with an intimacy not shared before.
    It is a learning experience. One that should be seized, not fled before, and used to make us both as individuals, and as a nation, stronger and more compassionate, and perhaps, wiser as well.

  3. 3. Barb Hendee

    Hi Brenda,

    I still remember the first time I met you–it was outside our “joined” little suite/cabins at the writer’s retreat.

    If you had asked me, “How are you?” I think I would have told you. You just have one of those faces and voices, where if you ask someone . . . they will tell you what’s going on. I’m sure the woman sensed that you actually cared about the answer she gave.

  4. 4. Brenda Cooper

    Lovely comments. And yes, Janna, I think we are naturally reticent, and it does make a bit of a protective shell. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not. I was glad we had that conversation because it felt more real to me than the usual passing strangers conversation.

    And Pamela – may you find some hopeful ray of light soon.

  5. 5. Iktomi

    thanks for this speakout… I loved the Silver Ship of the Sea…so imaginative for these days heading into spring. I am one of the “lucky” ones…I have retired and fortunately am able to live within my means or possibly should say I have learned to cope. One thing I have found helpful is not to go to town…that is when I spend money so if I don’t go and I don’t spend anything. I have also learned to eat what I have in the pantry instead of throwing things out and eating out. Yes, of course I am a ‘depression baby’..born April 1934 on an Indian Reservation..still live on one. I watch what goes on and being careful is a necessity for a survivor, which my ancestors were. I love this quote from Sir Arthur Eddington “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, but it is stranger than we can imagine” Thanks…

  6. 6. brenda

    Thank you very much…..I’m glad to hear that.