Observations: Fiddling while Rome burns

Published on: August 25, 2011

The economy may well crash tomorrow (it probably won’t) but for those of us in South Hillsborough, at least the sunsets are priceless...and free of charge. Mitch Traphagen Photo

The economy may well crash tomorrow (it probably won’t) but for those of us in South Hillsborough, at least the sunsets are priceless…and free of charge. Mitch Traphagen Photo


In my teens, I was a rock and roller, with an electric guitar and ripped-up Levi’s as my constant companions. Eventually reality took hold and I followed a path I thought I was supposed to follow. I was in my 20s when I went to work for one of America’s largest corporations. I wore new suits and silk ties, purchased from a high-end department store owned by the corporation, and I had a cubicle with a window in a skyscraper that allowed me to look out at the activity and surprisingly fast pace of downtown Minneapolis. I joined the corporation after working for a national, but relatively small company that specialized in running portrait studios.

In my first week on the job, I went to a meeting that included managers from several departments within my division; they were considering realigning part of their vast distribution network. A few minutes into the meeting, one manager pointed out, “Look, we can do this but it’s only going to save us about $100,000.”  Everyone laughed, gathered up their notes and papers, and left the meeting. The proposed change wasn’t worth the work and the risk for a $100,000 savings.

I understood the rationale — particularly the risk part — but I was shocked. Two decades later, I’m still shocked. At my previous job with the portrait studio company, I would spend four months analyzing numbers and projections and then another month or two writing up a detailed report and preparing for a formal presentation to the chief executive officers. If the result had been something that saved $100,000, I would have been given a round of applause and probably a small increase in salary. I also would have heard about it, along with pats on the back, for another few months.

Money, it seems, is relative. That first meeting at the big corporation taught me that.

I guess I should be terrified. Perhaps we all should. According to nearly everything we see on the news today, the economy is in the tank and a big “agitate” switch is about to be flipped on it. Doom and despair are the mantra of these times.

With a renewed interest in playing the guitar, I’m feeling both doom and despair in fits and starts. The electric guitar, of course, wasn’t enough. I then needed an amplifier, then a few pedals, then strings, then a little of this and an awful lot of that. It seems that every time I whip out my credit card to buy the next thing I “need”, a new headline appears with new and ever gorier details of our impending demise. Thus, of course, I feel the despair — but only until I decide that I need another of this or a few more of that. When that happens, of course, I tell myself that I’m simply doing my part to single-handedly jump start the economy.

On one hand, it doesn’t really matter. If we are indeed screwed, we are screwed — I might as well get a few this’s and that’s before the fall. Certainly, being able to jam on the guitar as the electricity is turned off will make the pain of the fall that much more bearable. Until I realize that an electric guitar needs…well, electricity.

But the point is, what is the point?  Should I stockpile my cash waiting for the inevitable dark day of economic Armageddon?  Well, not if you believe those doomsayers who are predicting hyperinflation just before a total global economic collapse. Should I invest my cash in the stock market?  (OK, yeah, I just threw that one in as a joke.) Should I buy and hoard gold?  Well, let’s see…if there is a global economic collapse what good is gold (or worse, just a few certificates stating I own some gold) going to do for me?  You can’t eat gold. And, unlike cash, you can’t even burn it to stay warm at night.

No, I decided to invest my cash in a really cool pedal for my guitar.

Seriously, what’s the point in worrying about an economic collapse?  If it does happen, there is nothing you nor I can do to stop it. And I’m not sure there’s a great way to even prepare for it. I’ve already mentioned the problems with cash and gold, but even stocking up on two years’ worth of canned food won’t help much after two years — or after the first week of a collapse when your starving neighbors are increasingly hungry for your SpagettiO’s (OK, so that might take more than a week). There is no real point in freaking out at all. I’m beginning to believe that freaking out on the part of our nation’s overly-dramatic and sound-bite happy leadership is among the many things that got us into this mess in the first place.

 I do think it important to save for a rainy day. I do think it is important to be prepared for things in life. As such, I’ve decided to sell stuff from previous new-found obsessions to help pay for the guitar obsession, thus reaching for a net-neutral on my meager finances. On the bright side, should the SHTF (doomsayer and conspiracy-theorist talk for “Stuff Hit The Fan” — it is “Stuff”, right?), I can always try to sell my services to various economic refugee groups as a traveling minstrel with a really quiet, electric instrument without electricity. Or, perhaps, one of the nation’s bazillionaires, for whom being a refugee means flying to St. Bart’s on a private jet, will need a guy who still has the ability to appreciate a mere $100,000 when analyzing their financial portfolio.

Is not freaking out a case of Nero fiddling while Rome burns?  Not so much, really. First, the violin was still 1,500 years away from being invented in 64 AD. Second, Nero survived the fire, so even if he could have been fiddling, it worked out for him (at least until he committed suicide four years later). Money, the economy, fear and loathing are all relative. Headlines and talking heads paid to fill the 24-hour news hole on cable shouldn’t be the ones to dictate that relativity for you and me. Right now, my relatively is making music again. I can wear a suit if I have to, but I choose to wear shorts and an open-collared, short-sleeved shirt with either a camera or a guitar over my shoulder. If the world ends tomorrow — and I’m fairly certain it won’t — at least I’ll be the real me if it happens.

Next month will be a full decade since this nation has mentally duct-taped our optimism into dirty-bomb-proofed closets. During that time, it seems we’ve only peeked out long enough to catch the latest politician freak show or reality-series star gone awry. Ten years is enough, I think. Perhaps we could all use a little more fiddling in our lives.