Talking to a Reader

A few days ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop (my once-every-two-months-or-so visit) reading some of the comments on The Simple Dollar with my laptop. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that someone was looking over my shoulder at the screen, so I glanced over at this fortysomething lady. She smiled at me and said, “I love that website.”

I couldn’t resist. I said, “Well, watch this,” clicked on the “about me” link at the top of the page, and wheeled the screen around to face her. I pointed to the picture and said, “I’m a bit older now, but that’s me.”

She put her hand over her mouth and then said, “Trent! Really?”

I wound up moving over to her table and chatting with her for a little while. During the conversation, she said three things that I thought were worth sharing with all of you.

First, my life seems “smooth” and I make the challenge of financially responsible living seem “easy.”

Part of this is that I have the freedom to choose what I write about. In order to make an article seem straightforward and clear, I boil things down to their bare essentials.

I’ll write an article about making my homemade laundry detergent, but I’ll leave out the part where my son Joe (who was three then) dumped two gallons of water on the floor, which ran clear across the floor of the kitchen and dripped onto the carpet on the stairs.

I’ll write articles about making delicious homemade dinners from scratch, but I’ll not write as much about the days when my two year old Katie has a complete epic crying meltdown as I’m attempting to prepare a picnic lunch until I finally say, “Enough! Turkey and mustard sandwiches for all!” as I toss stuff into a backpack while Joe stands on a chair firing a Nerf gun into the air.

I’ll mention a great deal I found on some wine, but I’ll neglect to mention that when I popped the cork off of a bottle of bubbly, it ricocheted off the ceiling, hit the counter, and whacked me in the eye, causing me to drop the bottle and have it both hit my big toe and shatter on the floor.

I’ll relate some of my great time management techniques that work most of the time, but the wheels fall off when Matthew starts crying and I wind up rocking him for two hours while singing songs that were popular circa 1995 to him, only to happily discover that he quickly dozes off to his father’s awful attempt at singing “Champagne Supernova.”

My life is a train wreck at times and it’s often impossible to do things perfectly. Although such stories might be fun to write about (and maybe fun to read), they don’t really help anyone for much of anything beyond a quick entertainment. I also worry about preserving the privacy of others in my life; I have a pretty open policy with me personally, but that policy is much tighter with Sarah and the kids and almost impenetrable beyond those immediate folks. I feel no need to embarrass and insult people as a method to give myself an extra leg up.

So I try to choose things that people can actually use in their lives. Sometimes I can still talk about the disasters (for some reason, the best example I can think of is my burnt macaroni and cheese), but they’re usually not helpful. Just embarrassing. And sometimes funny to others. But not helpful.

So, be aware: I fail. A lot. Sometimes I mention them. But most of the time, they’re just funny … and sometimes kind of sad and pathetic (like my recent revelation that the Count on Sesame Street was supposed to be a vampire).

So, what else did she say? She told me that she’s trying to be more financially responsible because she is “afraid of the future.” I asked her what she meant by that and she said that she simply didn’t know where things were going and that being more in control of her money made her less afraid of it.

I think there is unquestionably something to that. In fact, I’ll go even farther. Over the last few years, the media has been selling fear – hard. I’m not just talking about right wing talk radio or about left wing print media – both are involved in this. Almost every media source is painting a horrible picture of what’s going on out there politically, environmentally, socially, and so on. Why? Because we tune in when we’re afraid.

Here’s the truth, though. I look out my window and I see a sunny day. Every single day, I meet a lot of people who are out there doing their job and being productive and, best of all, heping others with their spare time.

Yes, there are bad things going on. But there are a lot of good things going on, too. We hear every night about every last terror and disaster and economic calamity, but we don’t hear about the guy down the block who mows the lawn of the elderly lady across the street for free because she’s not getting around too well after her hip replacement surgery. We don’t see the neighbors who kept an eye on our house for us while we were traveling recently. We don’t get reports on the youth group that collected 100,000 canned goods for the food pantry.

Why? It’s a lot easier to sell the negative than it is to sell the positive.

Look around you at what you have in your life. Almost all of you have a roof over your heads. You have an active, thinking mind. You have steady meals on the table in front of you. Those three factors alone put you at the cream of the crop of humankind. Life. Is. Good.

People who want to tell you life is bad have something to sell, whether it be advertising space or a product that will make it all better for you. Trust your eyes and ears, not theirs.

One final thing she said that made me think was that I should talk more about the political issues that are going on right now.

That’s a statement I disagree with. The most profound change you can make on the world as a whole is to get your own house in order.

Railing about politics can be fun and it can also be cathartic. But, in the morning, you’re going to wake up to the same life you had yesterday, except possibly worse because you spent all your energy raging about a law or a corrupt official.

Don’t spend your energy there. Spend your energy making your own life financially secure, productive, and enjoyable. Then, when you can, spend your energy and money on helping out others. Adopt a child that has no chance and give that child one. Raise a big garden and give that food to the local food pantry. The opportunities you have to directly help someone else are endless.

The best way to create a better world isn’t to rail against the government. It’s to make your own life stable (so others don’t have to prop you up) and then help the people around you when you can, and then when it comes time, do your civic duty and vote. If you feel strongly about some issue, contact your congressperson with a calm, thoughtful handwritten letter (believe me, they pay attention to things like this, but they ignore rage-filled diatribes) and then direct your energy to improving yourself.

Think about how much better the world would be if every single person did that. Why don’t you be one of those who do? That’s what I’m doing – I won’t be wasting my energy here on political rants.

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