The Road to Ruinationgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Daily Tales : One Thread
It's 10:30. It's been one of those hard, kind of stupid, sets of days where things alternate between going horribly right and wonderfully wrong. Truly. I'm rewarding myself with some writing - I suppose it's become my way to go into The Zone.
Galen (my ex) and I used to talk about The Zone, but we meant it as a place in which we experienced being integrated into the circuitry of the perceiving biosphere and all its subtler realms, and not the dopplered red-shift of minds slowed under the brain-numbing hertz of the blue tube.
But I don't want to go off on that here. I want to respond.
> Last year at this time, I was mute with despair, despite the fact
> that my external affairs were all proceeding far more smoothly than
> they are at present. At the moment, I seem to be careening serenely
> toward ruin. Go figure.
This is truly a curious phenomenon, isn't it? I'm still careening toward Ruin, but I seem to be circling it, rather than being pilloried in the Town Square (*yet*)
I was thinking about you in this regard - this isn't the first time you've mentioned this, actually; it's come out between the lines in a couple of your pieces now - and I wondered if I had anything to offer here.
Probably not. You've ridden the wild ride before, so I assume some of your equanimity is due to the fact that this isn't altogether unfamiliar territory. I don't know the history of your time with the Bar Cross, but I do know that we both have experience with material unravellings, and the deceleration tends to have a rather distinct, if singular, feel.
When I did that conference workshop last fall - "How to Crash Land Your Business Without Killing Everyone On Board" - I was surprised by the fact that 1) very few attended, even though I think I know the state of affairs in a number of businesses is/was definitely "off", 2) those that did attend didn't admit readily to problems (and I knew they had them), and 3) I could see clearly that the solutions I was offering were *not* being received.
That was interesting, because the thrust of my talk was about my own resistance to recognizing the downward spiral, and the consequences of resisting it, rather than facing it. I was offering my experience so that others could learn from my mistakes. They weren't receptive, because they were resisting recognition of the downward spiral they were/are in.
5 years ago, my little business was predictably plugging along at a 15-18% growth rate, and doing about 1.3 million/year. Net margin in my business is 3% if you're extremely lucky in location and mercenary in product offerings. I'm neither, and like I've told you, like to play it close to the wire, figuring that all profit beyond necessities (and martinis are sometimes necessities, so I'm not a puritan ascetic) is dough that you plug back into the game, fighting the Bad Guys by doing more of the Right Thing.
I'm like you I suppose, in terms of understanding service, for I consider myself a service business that offers simple ways for people to serve. I think it's the little things you do everyday that have a lot more impact than the things you do once or twice a year. I used to get completely fried when someone would splurge now and then on some faddish eco-tool, but still use disposable razors or paper tissues - I couldn't sell cotton handkerchiefs to save my life!
(no, no, no, - I am NOT going to go off on a rant here....)
< GEAR SHIFT >
Anyhow, back to biz.
We usually scraped by with a 1-2% net net - this is, of course, a measley 10K before taxes. The ROI doesn't even begin to approach passbook savings...When the store was bumping along at a brisk pace, we did OK - not a lot of cash, but a lot of time to do good work, and so I was mostly a farming and healthy food system advocate, writing letters, planning the future, stumping for organics, that sort of thing.
When the business started to plunge (and flat - "maybe it will get better if we just hang on long enough" - is definitely before plunge), post-divorce, post-Mother-moving south (I miss her), post-big-stores-mainstreaming-our-little-niche (something I worked hard to make happen, because this was The Cause, after all - I just forgot I was the next rung on the ladder to be climbed over by the Big Boys), I spent the next couple of years in a major squirm-and-writhe pattern. It wasn't a pretty sight.
I had to leave the farm that I was renting when I brought Nick back over from London. I had to stop share-cropping (I ran a 1200 bush organic blueberry operation for 3 years) and lost all the investment in that. I eventually had to close down the greenhouse. I lost a lot of plants. There were too many days where I had to work so hard that I was bone tired and just lay in the middle of the floor at night to cry all those toxic brain isotopes out - I think I wrote you a couple of letters during this time and may have shared some of this.
Sales fell almost 60%. I nearly closed the doors on the store in the Spring of 2000 because I felt I was on the Road to Ruination. It was a very frightening place, because I had to confront all sorts of demons - family (my mother's savings financed the store); how to re-pay her (I'm not exactly a prime candidate for high-wage work; mouthy, over-the-top, zero formal education), the closure's impact on the neighborhood, letting down my staff, stiffing my vendors who are also my friends, out-and-out personal failure - there were plenty of ghosts to populate my night times.
On top of it all, I lived - and still live - with The Checkbook.
I remember a day or three, back in July of 1997 I think it was, where my corporate checking account hit the black. Yes, I should probably call that Black July. Most of the rest of the time - and all the time since then - I'm running a deficit that would make my stomach tie itself in knots if I didn't keep it a secret. I don't tell people the number - they'd just gag to imagine living with that sort of literal negative day in and day out.
I think I handle it because I really do think "It's only money." The irony is that I work so hard for the little bit of money that I get (even though, in world standards, I'm wealthy beyond imagining) and I really do feel like "It's only money." Maybe that's one of the qualities that the Africans (I relate to the Nepali in this same way), who work so hard for so little money, have that you like so much - maybe it's just that they really see the truth about money. It's only money.
What I eventually learned was that Ruination can be one of those places that you come mighty close to, but never actually have to visit - of course, I'm not sure you can see that anywhere but in the rear view mirror. Business didn't improve that much. What happened was that I adequately managed the transition, and completely re-invented what I was doing and why, and - for lack of a better word - just simply changed.
I didn't like how things were growing in general - in my industry, the TFG is increasingly served through alcohol, tobacco, sugar, and evocative lifestyle imagery - so I determined to shrink my way out of the problem. I've long ago determined that companies need to be able to grow small just as adroitly as they grow big. They need to know enough about who and what they are *really* about to go either direction. Sometimes shrinking is exactly the way to survive, and there are ways to do it that don't destroy your business integrity or sense of mission.
I also decided that I wasn't going to go down small, cutting my losses early and bankrupting out of the stress. I'd already decided that bankruptcy was not an option to choose - it was an option that would have to be forced upon me. If I chose it before I'd exhausted every single credit line Big Biz would extend me, then I'd have to stiff the community that was dearest to me, and damn it, if I was going to have to stiff them, then the Big Boys were going to have to bite some of the bullet, too.
I used the credit line to shrink, however, not to grow. I know this is probably not conventional business "wisdom", but my doors are still open, and that's one sure way to measure success.
I guess it was that attitude that turned the corner for me. Suddenly I saw options that I wasn't seeing before. I racked up more debt, but I just call it "Rent" - good money after bad, perhaps, but it's all Rent. I folded up some of my favorite dreams and put them down, or tucked them away in my heart for safe-keeping. This little studio that I'm in right now - happily in, right now - is the latest step along that road. I live on very little, and I'm actually very happy.
This is probably one of the most surprising things in the world, for if I'd imagined this scenario 12 years ago when I got into this business, I would have felt suicidal. In fact, I did when I imagined it. But it's just like that Swamp Thing - it's not always what it seems.
So, if it's any comfort to you, there it is...
> Chuang-Tzu had it right. No more need be said. But such is human
> nature that the more succinctly we state the truth, the better we
> become at ignoring it.
Well, if in ignoring it we cease to strive for it, then perhaps ignorance will someday (when (and if!) we succinctly state the truth) become our bliss.
> I don't know where the disease arises, but I think there's an
> epidemic of self-loathing in this country that is, besides the folly
> of the pursuit itself, the greatest barrier to contentment in most
> hearts. I can't count the number of people I've known whose misery
> amidst plenty seemed to be a suspicion of joy rooted so deeply in
> their personalities that it had to have been planted during infancy.
I agree with you mightily here. And I have another side to this tale. When I and my family first came to the Red Barn in 1989, we were "those people from California", during the time when dissing "Californication" had just become vogue. Since it's a favorite neighborhood pastime to speculate broadly about new folk that you don't know, I was surprised to learn that one of the rumors about us was that we were Born Again Christians because we smiled so much. We liked ourselves, and that was a serious affront to a number of people who weren't really hip to the fact that it was bothering them.
Happiness is not something I pursue. It pursues me. I often wake up smiling. I bubble. Douglas says I "pop up like toast." I drive people crazy - heck, I drive myself crazy with how interminably happy I am, punctuated by the most intense sadness at times that's probably all the more startling for the contrast. I'm sure I'd be clinically diagnosed as manic-depressive, and succored by the Prozac Nation at the drop of a twenty dollar bill. But I'm also schizophrenic, since I contain many different women. And I'm obsessive-compulsive when seized with A Calling. If I knew more psychological disorders, I'm sure I'd probably recognize them in myself (or at least in one of me...)
So, I think you might be right about this "pursuit" thing - not chasing it, it comes. On the other hand, I bear witness to the fact that being chased, caught and hog-tied by happiness is not something your neighbors and friends suffer lightly. Which is why most of us are out in the woods, giggling to ourselves, I suppose.
All right - that's a good hour or two under my writing belt - pretty cheap couch therapy, so thank you, Doctor John. I feel better. Maybe there's something in this moving of fingers in the keyboard's Morse Code of drummed and tapped ideas that is particularly soothing to our sorts of brains.
I'm doing better with holding you in mind this time. It really was hard the first few weeks after I'd met you face to face. My heart still beats fast but I'm handling it - avoiding Ruination one more time! I'm not kidding when I said it was rough on my nervous system. I'm not having to resort to snail mail yet, however - a good sign - (though I did, once, and reserve the option to return there should I start wavering again).
But I do believe that this strategy of posting into Daily Tales as a way to by-pass the insistent *desire for* Connection I feel with you, and simply manifest and experience the Connection in its stead, is actually working. It seems to be another one of those Pursuit things.
Hooray for our side...
PLUR. Remember PLUR
-- Anonymous, November 28, 2001