Monday, May 25, 2020

You've Got a Fast Car

Poor life choices lead to poor outcomes.  But you can change your mind about things.

I harp on mental health a lot in this blog, as it is essential to getting your financial house in order.  If you believe in MLM schemes, or timeshares or tithing to a church, you will always be behind the eight-ball financially, because you are substituting belief for logic, in places in your life where belief has no business.   It is sad, too, because the human brain is this amazingly powerful machine capable of analyzing and solving problems - yet so many choose to just shut it off and believe in pat answers instead.

That's why I don't give advice - among many other reasons.  Giving the answers to the test isn't learning, it is cheating.  No one learns anything from someone telling them what to do.  Besides, such answers are often wrong or don't apply to your life situation.  This isn't to say we can't learn from others - particularly the mistakes of others.  But just cutting-the-chase and asking for the outcome rarely ends up working out well.

I get inquiries from time to time from people who want the secret insider tips 'n tricks to becoming fabulously wealthy overnight.  Surely if you invest in the right stock or mineral or bitcoin or whatever, you can be heading off to Davos next week in your private jet!   But such tips 'n tricks don't exist, and believing in them instead of  believing in yourself ends up causing a world of woe.  The only people getting rich from these tips 'n tricks are the folks selling them to you.  The folks who make money on Bitcoin are not the small players on Reddit, but the folks who manipulate and control that market.  Since we can't be those people, we have to move to plan B, which is not to give those people your money.

I don't know what got me started on this, only that I was listening to Tracy Chapman's song, Fast Car, on Pandora the other day.  I still remember hearing this song for the first time, as an old high-school friend of Mark's played this for us (on an LP record no less) back in the late 1980's in his apartment in Boston.   That friend is now a high-flying lawyer living in London, no less.   How we all have changed in 30-plus years.

It is a catchy tune, and at first blush, sounds a little depressing.  But if you listen closely to the lyrics, it is a story of a young woman who makes some poor life choices (mostly involving men) but later on realizes things are not working out and tries a different direction.  It finishes as an anthem of survival and rebirth.  Well, that's what I get out of it, anyway.  I can be very wrong about these things.
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove
The song starts off pretty sad - a young woman hooking up with a young man, who has a fancy car to impress the ladies.   Right off the bat, we are given a normative cue here - one that resonates among the poor.   You may have nothing in your life, and have no direction or goals or promise or hope, but if you have a fancy set of wheels, you're set.  And we see this all the time in poor neighborhoods - the rent-to-own bling rim place, the car detailing shops.  Young and poor men, spending every last nickel they have to hop up some piece of junk so they can impress their peers - trading economic freedom for perceived status.
You got a fast car
And I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
We won't have to drive too far
Just across the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living
Moving away from depressed areas is always a good idea, but as I noted before, the poor don't find a job somewhere and then move there, they just move willy-nilly and hope there is a job waiting for them.   It is a poor choice, in both senses of the word.
You see my old man's got a problem
He live with the bottle that's the way it is
He says his body's too old for working
I say his body's too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did
This is the poignant part, but illustrates that you can't save people from themselves.  Clearly her Dad is an abusive alcoholic, who doesn't work.  Mom had enough and left - but for some reason didn't taker her daughter with her.  Sadly, the daughter made the poor choice to "save" Dad by quitting school (another poor choice) sacrificing her own life and future for someone who refuses to take care of themselves - and why should they, when someone else will take care of them?

Sadly, young people do this sort of thing, thinking it is romantic or noble to sacrifice themselves (which is why we recruit them for the military - older people have no romantic notions about being shot to death).  And some no doubt would try damning and shaming me for saying this.  "It's in the Bible!   Honor thy Mother and Father!"  But the Bible is full of a lot of really bad advice, including how to enslave your neighbors.  The reality is, if you sacrifice your future and your life to "save" someone else, you won't end up "saving" them, and in addition, create an additional victim (you) and who is going to save your ass?   No one

Save yourself!

Besides, the Bible didn't say anything about quitting school.   "Honor" could mean a lot of things, but "sacrifice yourself" isn't necessarily one of them.
You got a fast car
We go cruising entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in the market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs
This lyric is particularly interesting to me, as it illustrates how people set up unrealistic expectations for themselves.  With no education, no skills, and working minimum-wage jobs, the best you can hope to do is support yourself in some modicum of comfort.   The idea of moving to the suburbs and buying a house is a fantasy - unless you can go back to school, get an education and find a better job.  And here, her boyfriend hasn't even found a job, and we are getting the hint he ain't trying too hard.

It also illustrates how people distract themselves with entertainments, which often drain their coffers and waste their energy.  Yes, when I was in my teens, we used to "go cruising" in cars to entertain ourselves, and by that, I meant riding around in cars, drinking and doing drugs.   Yes, it is illegal, and yes, you can get killed this way, pretty easily.   And of course, you can get arrested and go to jail as well.  And for what?  Entertainment?  Sadly, this happens to a lot of poor people, and once arrested, their lives go quickly downhill from there.  (Happens to middle-class kids, too, but their Dads hire lawyers and get them out of trouble.)

It also illustrates how we trade our future for trivial entertainments today - something that happens not just to the poor, but the middle-class as well.
You got a fast car
And I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me'd find it
I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving
Now the song makes a closed loop.   Turns out she married a guy just like her Dad - an irresponsible alcoholic.   Even if he isn't beating her, he is abusing her, emotionally and financially, just like dear old Dad.   And this happens a lot - I know people like this- even family members.  I mentioned before about about a husband who cashed his paychecks at a bar and then came home late, drunk, and broke, to an angry wife and crying kids.   Eventually - eventually - she tossed his ass out, realizing that living alone was better than living with him - and constantly bailing his ass out of jail.

This is an instructive song, because it describes a lot of human behavior, particularly among young people.  We are now just discovering that the human brain really doesn't finish developing until about age 25, and the decisions you make in life before that age can really divert your life path in negative ways - getting arrested, dropping out of school, marrying the wrong person, having kids you can't afford, and so on and so forth.

As sad and depressing the song seems, it does teach some valuable lessons - to those willing to listen to the lyrics and learn from them, as opposed to viewing it as a sad song to sing along to and be depressed, because - let's face it - being depressed is fun sometimes, as it gives you an excuse not to succeed.   Fun, you say?  Yes, fun - otherwise people wouldn't do it so much, would they?

Mental hygiene is like personal hygiene - you have to work at it.  Wallowing in self-pity and depression is never an answer to anything, yet there is a tendency in all of us to do just that.

The song ends on a positive note and becomes an anthem of empowerment.  She's got a job that pays all her bills and tosses her fast-car boyfriend, who she now realizes is worthless, out the door.  She's got no plans and going nowhere, but at least she is settled and has some hope for something better.

The early years are the hardest, and it is all-too-easy to make horrific life choices before age 25 - choices that might take a lifetime to reverse.  Myself, I was fortunate to dodge some bullets.   While I took on student loan debts (and stupid debts like car payments) I at least studied things that lead to good-paying jobs.  I dated people who were not mentally well-balanced, early on (and almost married one, or so I thought) because my Dad married a mentally-ill woman, and I thought this was some sort of pattern to follow.   We do what we know.  At least I didn't get anyone pregnant, that I know of.

One reason I got into Engineering was that my Dad was an Engineer - or so he told me.   I wanted, in part, to "follow in his footsteps" which is a really dumb idea.   Yet I know people who choose career paths that make them miserable, to appease their parents.   And when you're 20 years old, well, that seems like a good idea.   I was chagrined later on to find out that my Dad dropped out of Engineering school and got a degree in management which is a fluff degree.  And he sucked at it.  Fortunately for me, I had something of an aptitude for mechanical things and it has been a career I enjoyed.

But what turned my life around was making different life choices, which began around age 25 - again, when the brain becomes more developed.  It seemed I woke up one day and realized what follies I had been chasing - trading my future and well-being for mild entertainments and trivial distractions.  Yet so many people do this - back then, and today.  People spend countless hours watching television and claim there isn't enough time in the day.   Today, many young people, particularly young men, spend hours a day at video games - compulsively and obsessively - and complain that their life isn't working out the way they thought it would.  Unless you are like my friend's grandson, who won  $60k in a Fortnite tournament, playing video games isn't going to be much of a profitable enterprise.

It never ends, of course.  We all trade plans for tomorrow for entertainments today.   Why bother saving when you can have a fancy car today (and pay for it tomorrow?).   Why make the effort to improve yourself when you have enough to "get by"?   And for most of us, getting by is a major accomplishment, let's face it.

It took me about fifty years, but I'm kind of done with fast cars, both literally and as a metaphor.  Sometimes, it takes that long!