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IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER

This is not the “same ol” Christmas we have become used to.  During the past three months of my book-signings I have noticed changes that are anything but subtle.  Men and women are out of work who have never been in that condition before.  While people are shopping almost as much as usual, they are buying less — considerably less!  They are paying with cash, check, or debit card more — and credit card less. 
 
Young people who once expected academic degrees to automatically open job opportunities to them are shocked to discover that they are still jobless even after hundreds of job applications have been filed.  Top and middle management people are shuddering at each pay-period, inwardly asking, Is this week my last?  Senior citizens are even more desperate.  Even professionals with masters, and even doctoral degrees, are being forced to accept jobs that pay little more than minimum wage.
 
In our mountain community not long ago, I overheard a construction contractor speaking to the bank clerk to my left, anguish in his voice:  “I’m teetering on the edge of bankruptcy; it used to be that when an inspector signed off on plumbing, electrical, septic, etc., the bank would cover the costs for getting that far — but no more: now they tell us we won’t get a dime until we complete the entire house!  We don’t have enough reserves to do that!  Everyone I know in the construction business is over-extended, behind in payments, and only pennies away from bankruptcy!  I’ve never seen it like this before.”
 
In the downtown Denver Barnes & Noble last week, out-of-work men and women could only gaze longingly at books they yearned for but could not buy.  Parents of children who begged for certain books could only say, in pain-wracked voice, “Not this year, dear.”  Homeless people would admit, “I’m living on the street — I come in here to get warm.”  Just yesterday I overheard a man saying, “Finally got a job — and after two weeks I was let go . . . without pay.”
 
Gone is the perception that the future is rosy, that things will be better tomorrow, next week, next month, or even next year.  People are losing faith in both Democrats and Republicans, and they are bitterly disgusted with Wall Street.  They don’t believe talking heads on TV really have the answers either — nobody has the answers: not even the ultimate financial wizard, Warren Buffett!  Not since the Great Depression of the 1930s has there been this sense of helplessness among so many.
 
And so there is new relevance to Christina Rossetti’s Christmas Carol, “In the bleak midwinter, Frosty wind made moan; Earth stood hard as iron; Water like a stone.”
 
Yes, in this bleak midwinter of 2009 — only God has the answers.
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The Magic of Turning Zeroes

    I’ve been long fascinated by fin de siècles — and even more by fin de milia –: many of us, if we live long enough, will get to see hundred-year turns (as when 1899 turned to 1900), but precious mortals in our planet’s history have been lucky enough to be alive when both occur at once (1999 turning to 2000).  I’m guessing many of you share this fascination with me.

    As an historian of ideas, I’ve long been aware that century-turns prove to be seismic — not because they are, but because they are perceived to be.  That’s why fin de siecles are well worthy of study.  Why is it that the last decade of each century is so destabilizing?  Why is it that all the old established beliefs and assumptions of that time period are put under the microscope and questioned, with more fierce intensity, as each year in that decade arrives and passes?  And why is it that the last year is the most unsettling of all? Indeed, it sometimes seems that society, on that memorable New Year’s Eve, heaves into the sky all its beliefs in one idiotic Hail Mary Pass, under the assumption that nothing is ever going to be the same on the other side of those 9s.

    But hundred-year turns pale into a mere shadow in comparison with millennial turns — both of which we experienced ten years ago.  On the basis of previous millennial and 500-year turns, I have long predicted that our generation will experience societal change and upheaval on a scale that will stagger the mind.  What those changes are likely to be, we can only speculate at this time.

    And speculate we will, beginning with Blog #2, and continuing until it is time to explore other venues.  I promise no definitive answers — only a discussion that ought to interest all those who exercise their brains on a daily basis.

    Welcome aboard!