Monday, October 29, 2007

Elephants and Little Corners

In case you were trapped months ago in a cave by a huge cave-in, surviving on bats and an hourly drop of water from a handy stalactite, waiting to be rescued by a band of intrepid spelunkers who would miraculously realize you were down there even though all radio contact would have long ago severed IF you had remembered to bring a radio in the first place, which you hadn’t hadn’t noticed, we’re having a housing downturn recently. Here in California, where we’ve seen insane appreciation based on irrational loaning and an astonishing case of optimism (“Oh, they said something about payments, blah blah blah, but I’m sure we’ll work that all out when the time comes! La La La La La…”), said downturn is particularly steep. And in my own little corner, it went past ugly a while ago and headed straight on into repulsive.

This is not to say that houses aren’t selling. They are. Just not in the way we’re accustomed to out here. Auctions and short-sales are not what we’re used to, and people are really being caught by surprise when they not only aren’t getting their pockets stuffed with equity, but are being shoved out of their houses by foreclosure and eviction.

As a finance geek, I’ve been watching this overall train wreck with great interest – personal homeowner pain aside, it’s a fascinating example of how fiscal ripples can spread in unanticipated ways. This thing is big, and getting bigger, and the effects are being felt all over the world, and there are people who honestly had no idea they were investing in sub-prime mortgages waking up to jaw-dropping loses in their “sure bet” hedge funds all around the globe.

But that’s not really what I’m pondering today.

Today, I am marveling at our awe-inspiring human capacity to be extremely knowledgeable, and yet profoundly ignorant, all at once.

It is a human trait that stuns and amazes.

I talked to a neighbor recently (because I am a talker) (no, really? never would have guessed) who is a realtor. She expressed distaste and even disdain for the ‘alarmist media’ who were blowing this whole sub-prime thing ‘way out of proportion’.

She assured me that even with rotten credit, you can still get loans. You can still buy a house. There are short sales. The banks are desperate to get rid of these houses. This whole sub-prime mortgage thing is just a big old bunch of hooey. And also it is stupid, because she knows a couple with a credit score of 540 and THEY got a loan for a house, just a couple months ago…

Her little corner of this whole thing is just fine. Granted a little slow, maybe a little musty, perhaps a little less-profitable than in years past but! Still dandy!!

This is like someone standing in their master bedroom closet and declaring that the house is perfect. Just look at the perfect blend of form and function, the colors, the way the hangers all line up so perfectly on the rod…yessir, there is nothing wrong with this house, nothing even a little bit wrong here…and by golly, it IS a stunning closet and we all stand amazed at the beauty and perfection of it.

Pull back a little bit, and the whole danged house is falling down. Roof missing, basement flooded, one wall completely fallen down.

Before I could rush in and have a good laugh at anybody being so narrowly focused on a much bigger issue, I had to acknowledge that I do the same thing with alarming frequency. I think I know all about one thing or another – and I am utterly wrong. There is bound to be something I’ve never seen or contemplated in any way that is going to suddenly and unexpectedly rear up out of the darkness, swallow my knowledge whole, spit out its bones and then fart out a whole new reality for me to piece together again.

Keeps me humble, let me tell you. Knowing that my whole reality is based on Unexpected Something farts?

That’s humble pie fixin’s, right there.

But that’s OK. It’s kind of nice, knowing that you don’t know everything about anything. It allows me to flow with my own limitations, to accept my mistakes with a certain amount of (grudging) grace, to keep my options open. I’m not locked into any particular philosophy, hopelessly trapped by my unerring knowledge even when it becomes painfully obvious that perhaps it wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought.

I’m free to say, “Eh, you know what? Didn’t see that coming, didn’t know this existed, never heard of that before, I’m going to have to put this back together again allowing for that. And who fed this Unexpected Something broccoli with hot sauce? Peeeeeeeeyew!!”

Knowing that all I’ve got is a little, little corner of a big, big house gives me the freedom to poke around in other corners now and again, to think about how the corners might come together and to get a better idea of what the whole thing might actually look like.

Which is actually remarkably like an elephant…as seen by the blind men.


Anonymous said...

I love this. Amazing how we can just know EVERYTHING when we really know nothing! Although the older I get, the easier it is for me to say "You know what, I have no idea what that's about." Very liberating. And it shocks people no end when you admit ignorance, which is always fun (the shocking part, I mean).

Anonymous said...

"There is bound to be something I’ve never seen or contemplated in any way that is going to suddenly and unexpectedly rear up out of the darkness, swallow my knowledge whole, spit out its bones and then fart out a whole new reality for me to piece together again."

I LOVE This. Too ****ing FUNNY.
I fart out new realities all the time! ;o)