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Stampede Psychology

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How do you fight something as abstract as fear? This economy has made me understand -- but really understand -- Franklin Roosevelt's famous declaration "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is -- fear itself." I always knew in a book-learning way that the country was in the midst of fear during the Great Depression. But now I see how that feels.

Example: I made my way to a mall over the weekend. Before setting out, I questioned my own judgment. Are you sure you want to venture into a mall on a weekend this close to Christmas? I chose the usually less crowded shopping center. All the same, it was a shock to walk through the doors of Nordstrom and see -- quiet. It was otherworldly. There were fewer shoppers than on a typical non-Christmas season weekend day. I was able to get what I came for in about two minutes flat. The salesperson seemed delighted to have someone to help. As agreeable as it was not to have to fight Christmas crowds, it was creepy and unsettling at the same time.

It has been the same with getting restaurant reservations. Places that were once impossible to get into unless you reserved a week in advance are now available. They're offering discounts on massages at the salon where I get my hair cut. Revenue from such luxuries as facials, waxes, and whatever else they do to pamper the ladies is down 25 percent.

This is not hardship; this is fear of hardship. Yes, there have been 1.9 million jobs lost since the start of the recession last year. And that's not good. But that still leaves 93.3 percent of us employed. Close to 10 percent of homeowners have either missed a house payment or are in foreclosure, according to the Los Angeles Times. That's bad obviously. But 90 percent of us are not in danger of losing our homes. And yet we are wary.

Daily headlines are making us quake. The giants of Wall Street are falling like dominoes. One famous bank or investment house after another is swallowed by a competitor or bailed out by Uncle Sam. The stock market is on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. The unemployment numbers are rising. We hear really alarming talk about credit freezes, deflation, and the biggest of D words, depression, from people who do not usually traffic in panic. We exchange mordant jokes. I hand a check to my son's clarinet teacher. "Is your bank still solvent? Far as I know. Yours? For now. How's your 401(k)? You mean my 201(k)?" The big three automakers, for years the symbols of American manufacturing might, are lining up for a Washington rescue. Banks, insurance companies, manufacturers, newspaper and media heavyweights -- none is immune to the spreading virus of instability.

The press cannot be asked to stop reporting the story. On the other hand, some large but unquantifiable element in our current mess is simple fear. I feel it myself. My husband and I have both kept our jobs. Our home is not in foreclosure. We've lost money in the stock market of course but we are otherwise pretty secure I hope. And yet, I've been figuring out ways to economize. I've been cutting back on non-essential purchases.

The economy is not as bad as our behavior indicates it should be. Under the circumstances, it makes sense to celebrate the good news that is out there, doesn't it? Let's start with gas prices. Who would have believed six months ago that we would be paying only $1.70 or so? That's good for the economy and good because it denies revenue to Russia and Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Here's something else to celebrate: We still live in an age of technical wizardry. My kids have long known how to chat, visually, with their friends on the computer. My generation (my brothers and I) has just gotten it going ourselves. Brother Jeff led the way. Using Skype, which is free on the Internet, we can now talk to one another cyberly face to face on our computer screens though we live hundreds of miles from one another. Yesterday, my brother Walter showed me the Sicilian salad he was preparing for lunch. He held the bowl up to the camera for my delectation. It looked like stag beetle larvae. Turns out it was oranges and red onions. So, okay, the cameras need a little work. But it was fun. And we save on long distance bills.

There is no magic wand to wave away the anxiety that stalks us. But counting our blessings surely cannot hurt.

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