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Gary Horton: This recession is a grind, let's have some fun

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: May 19, 2009 9:48 p.m.
Updated: May 20, 2009 4:55 a.m.
I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax
I can't sleep ‘cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire

- Talking Heads

There's a new gadget out on the Internet. The AP developed an interactive "economic stress map" visually indicating the recessionary stress for every county in the Union.

There's an awful lot of counties in our country - a giant mosaic tiled up with thousands of itsy bitsy factoids of economic unhappiness.

The map reflects unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. The combined calculation is represented as a shade of orange on each county, from light yellow meaning the outlook is bright to burnt orange for counties economically toasted and burnt.
The U.S. basically looks like a battered and stretched English muffin left in the toaster too long. Burnt around most the edges, but still kind of light in the buttery nooks and crannies of the middle.

The Great Plains states are slow and steady and relatively unscathed, while our boomier coasts and peripheries pay up for all those hot years living on the edge.

And Michigan looks like that burnt piece you normally flick off before eating.

Here in L.A. County, we're about mid-range, suffering a 1.04-percent bankruptcy rate, a 2.49-percent foreclosure rate, and an 11.3-percent unemployment rate, with our AP stress summing up at 14.41.

Bad as that seems, California's Merced and Imperial Valleys win the national economic stress derby, with scores north of 28. Merced boasts a Dust Bowl-like 8.41-percent foreclosure rate, while Imperial Valley touches Depression-era lows with a whopping 25.1-percent unemployment rate.

If you think you're stressed out here in recession backwater SCV, consider the blood pressure banging at our brethren "living" in these newly impoverished California towns.

At last report, the SCV had a 7.5-percent unemployment rate. For our own part in the pain, we suffer a slushy glut of retail and commercial space, inconveniently tarnishing some of the bliss and glee from shopping forays.

Just about wherever you live, save the "life is fat" Corn Belt, we're all impacted by recession to varying extents.

Studies say 25 percent of adults are taking drugs for stress and sleep disorders. For those of us charged with our families' money and the ability to earn and keep it, economic duress has displaced a healthier sense of well-being.

Economic strain is certainly getting to me and my construction friends. Yes, we are tense and nervous and can't relax.

At our own company, we've reluctantly laid off multiple hundreds of workers. Let me tell you, stress is equally shared on both sides of the dreaded pink slip.

Still, amidst the dark-orange tiles on the AP Economic Stress Map, and inside all the personal stories of hardship, we've got to stay off the meds and maintain balanced lives - hard to do, amid mounting bills.

But the alternative is tranquilizers and heart attacks. Good health trumps everything if you're wise enough to recognize it.

I've got a construction buddy who personifies the perfect "cool head amidst calamitous times." He's a living lesson for all of us grinding teeth at 2 a.m. with cold sweats.

Rick is a career housing industry guy. He's been an executive with some of the biggest firms for decades.

Two years back, at the start of the housing implosion, I bumped into Rick after a long absence. He was rail thin. His employer was in serious trouble, and the stress seemed to be literally killing him.

But it wasn't the stress. Unbeknownst to Rick at the time, he had advanced colon cancer.

Months later, Rick checked into the hospital for what he thought was emergency appendicitis surgery. After the surgery, doctors told him they removed both his appendix and the cancerous blob engulfing it.

"We got it all," they said. However, chemotherapy would be required.

Fitted up with an embedded chemo drip, Rick undertook the miserable but necessary treatment.

Rick improved, and on his second day back to work, his financially strapped employer unceremoniously gave him the boot and his pink slip. No parachute for this cancer victim.

Months later, the company folded and blew off the map. Rick hung in with his painful chemo and continued his recovery.

A year later, Rick showed up at our company's ill-timed grand opening for our new Kern County regional construction office. Rick looked rested and healthy, but most fetching was his smile.

"Rick, how can you be so happy - you've been out of work for a year with almost no prospects ahead?"

"Let me tell you," answered Rick. "Once you've lost your life and get a second chance, you view everything differently. There's new perspective and priorities."

With renewed zeal, it was apparent Rick had tons to offer our younger staff. Rick signed on as our Kern Marketing Director, but "senior mentor" and "mascot" would have been just as good a title.

Experience plus overflowing enthusiasm is one heck of a winning combination.

We all went out boating last weekend. Rick sat at the back, staring into the beautiful cloud-shrouded hills of Santa Cruz Island.
"What are you doing?" asked one of the young managers.

"It's great just taking all this in," was Rick's contented reply.

Rick earns less these days, and likely has less prestige. But having faced down death and beaten it, those things matter less, while his joy in the moment allows Rick one of the more rewarding periods in his career.

Rick doesn't entertain economic stress. He's put that useless stuff behind. "Don't lose your life perspective overly sweating the recession. Do your best, adjust your lifestyle, and enjoy whatever good is in the time at hand."

The dark tiles of the AP economic stress mosaic will eventually turn a lighter shade. It's time to lighten up ourselves and work and live life to the fullest in the here and now.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Full Speed to Port" appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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