by Phil Geusz
©2010 Phil Geusz

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   I don’t want to get political here—and don’t worry, I’m not going to. But we don’t have to choose up sides and play the blame game in order to understand that we’re in deep economic trouble worldwide. Even worse, well… I’m just a dumb autoworker, but even an amateur like me can still see warning lights flashing in Europe and China, while here at home the unemployment rate just won’t come down. In fact, as I type this I’m on indefinite layoff myself. This time around, according to the numbers I’ve seen, the people hardest hit tended to fall into two groups—males 35-55 years old (that’s me!) and young people 25 and under. When you think about it, that’s pretty much a demographic description of the furry fandom, or at least fairly close to it. And from what I see, we as a fandom are indeed definitely hurting these days. At a recent con I attended (early 2010) practically none of the dealers did enough business to break even, while well over half of the ‘regulars’ on my furry IRC channel of choice can currently be said to be either unemployed or underemployed.
   It’s getting scary out there, folks. And far too few of us furs seem to really know what to do about it.
   I’m lucky in a way, I suppose. I left college after completing three years in 1982, an era that economically sucked just about as many rocks as this current one does. On my worst day, I was 21 with no degree and no job; had $3 in my pocket and a quarter-tank of gas in my $300 car (it was over-valued); and was living with parents who at first didn’t at all understand what an unemployment rate approaching 18 percent (local to my area) really meant. Neither did I, really. Because the next morning, I got up all smiles and confidence, and drove 30 miles into the city to apply for a $9-an-hour steam-cleaning job I was just sure I’d get. There were three openings, after all, and here I was—young, strong, bright, and with a good, solid work record, albeit in unrelated fields.
   When I got there, the line to apply was two and a half city blocks long, and had maybe a thousand folks in it. The next ten guys in front of me all had experience. Very quietly and far wiser, I put my last $3 in the gas tank, partially replacing what I’d burned to get there, and drove home a far wiser young man. For the first time, I really understood what was going on in my world.
   The next day, after talking to my parents and explaining what I’d seen (and along the way convincing them that times really were that bad, so that they were a little more understanding) I sold some personal items I’d really rather have kept and refilled my fuel tank. (My grandparents also began sending $10-15 a week, which was a godsend.) And then I began doing things properly, the way I should’ve from day one. I drove down a major suburban road full of fast food joints, and applied for a job at every single one of them. The first week I filled out about a hundred applications, the second maybe a hundred and twenty-five. The third I grew depressed because I still hadn’t even gotten an interview and only filled out about fifty. But that fifty was enough, because one of them led to a job and I began my nearly three-year career at Jack in the Box.

Lesson One: Burning shoe-leather pays off. And there’s no sense being picky when everyone and their brother’s going to edge you out regardless. Even if the job you land is at minimum wage, it’s a hell of a lot more than you can earn sitting at home playing video games. Every hour spent not working in effect costs you what you otherwise might’ve earned. These costs mount up fast.

   I won’t claim that I liked working at Jacque’s very much, especially at first. I’d done the fast food thing before, as a teen, and hadn’t liked it much then, either. But… it kept my gas tank full. It bought me the auto parts I needed to keep that $300 Plymouth running. And I even got promoted quickly to shift leader, a position which led me, at the worst of the Bad Times, to actually be the supervisor of several forty-something laid-off auto workers who had to suffer the indignity of working for a ‘kid’ at the most menial of jobs after being so well-off for so long, in order to even half-feed their families. Because I worked at a store in the town I grew up in, my high school classmates were constantly coming by, most of them still in college. They mocked me, and sometimes even brought in others so they could laugh at me as a group. But they were driving their mommies’ cars, and I was reasonably certain they’d never done their best to train a proud, hurting man twice their age how to properly manage a grill during the lunch rush without wounding his broken self-esteem any more than absolutely necessary.
   In other words, my mocking classmates seemed incredibly childish.

Lesson Two: It’s easy to get along and have lots of friends when times are good and everyone’s happy. When things get rough, however, everyone’s true colors come out. Master the hard times, and your character will grow beyond all measure. It’s when things are bad that conditions are most favorable for the truly important forms of personal growth.

      My time at Jack in the Box was long and difficult. Things could’ve been worse, because suddenly, for some reason my folks started liking me a lot better, and they let me stay on with them. I was in my early twenties, too, and it’s damned difficult not to smile and laugh at least some of the time when you’re young and healthy and the whole universe still lies ahead of you. I worked a second job for a time, a total of 65 hours a week, until I paid off some money I’d had to borrow in school. (I was finally forced to quit the second job when I became incoherent with exhaustion after too many long rotating shifts worked too close together, and I realized just how hard I was driving myself. Besides, by then it was no longer truly necessary.) I also put aside enough to replace my $300 Plymouth with a $450 Oldsmobile convertible that remains the happiest automotive memory of my life. And once I had even a tiny amount of change jingling in my pocket and at least one toy that I loved, life got better.
   But the recession spun on and on, and I remained trapped at Jack. There simply were no decent jobs to be had. Meanwhile, many of my friends were despairing. Several died, either via suicide or by deliberately taking irrational risks that pretty much amounted to the same thing. I took the many of the same risks—after all, I was trapped, too. But I was lucky, and I found cheap ways to entertain myself. I learned the true value of a friend and of a $2 deck of cards, as well as of simple long talks with family members and others. And eventually, something finally broke my way. My mom knew a guy who wanted to hire someone to train to spray-paint for him. I quit Jack in a New York minute, despite the fact that I had to sell my beloved 11-MPG convertible (it was a long commute) and basically rearrange my whole life around the new job. A year later, GM hired roughly 3500 workers at a local plant. I was among the first of them, because I just happened to know how to spray paint—and they considered that a valuable skill indeed! Who knew?
   And I beat out (depending on whose numbers you use) 55-65,000 fellow applicants in the still-awful local economy to get there.

Lesson Three: Things eventually do get better, and the first fruits will go to the eager, the determined, and most of all to the prepared. Don’t call yourself a loser and tear yourself up because all you can get is a crap job— when times are truly bad, the simple fact of having any job at all makes you one of the lucky ones. Instead, endure what you must endure, and find cheap ways to be happy when you can. Remember that the secret to happiness lies in who you are, not what you are, and that Bad Times are the best opportunities you’ll ever get to improve many aspects of yourself. Seek happiness among others—as furs, you have the advantage of a highly-supportive community behind you, if you choose to make use of it. Smile, and don’t let your finances or your job define who you are. Even more to the point, don’t let others define you. Be yourself, and be proactive but patient. When the wheel eventually turns—and it always does!—be in a position to profit from it.

      I was largely raised by grandparents who endured just about the worst that the Great Depression could throw at human beings. All four were varied degrees of penniless; one of them liked to talk about how much easier pick-and-shovel work was once he’d put in enough weeks to buy a pair of boots and could quit wrapping rags around his feet for protection in winter. Growing up, I always thought it was strange, how their eyes would light up as they told tale after tale of what, to me, was unimaginable suffering. Only many years later did I finally figure out the reason they spoke of these times with such fondness: It was because these were the fires that forged them, the forces that shaped them into truly great men and women. (And in my case, at least, they were indeed great!) My own suffering in 1981-83 was nothing compared to theirs; I never went hungry, or slept in anything but a nice warm bed. And yet…
   …I know in my heart that Bad Times shaped me as well, and transformed me into something that no other experience could’ve. Just as the current Bad Times are again refining and reshaping me, forcing me to confront harsh truths and do what I know is good for me and everyone else, but which I still rather would not.
   In short, my fellow furs, the demographics say that we’re suffering more from this so-called ‘Great Recession’ than are most other groups. But that merely means we have the opportunity to turn this thing on its head and grow in other, non-monetary ways instead. To build our characters, in other words, and become more like the men and women we wish to be. By doing the right things instead of the easy things, we take the first steps both for ourselves and for our nation.
   And, for those of you who are lucky enough to still be doing okay and not suffering, well… this might just be a good time to reach out to a brother or sister in need and help them along a bit. That’s one of the beautiful things about personal growth, you see.
   There’s always plenty to go around.

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