Only a few years ago M2 (Madison Street Merchants) meetings were full of energy and optimism. Forest Park’s main street was on a roll. Chicago Magazine called our village with small town charm “the new Bucktown.” Entrepreneurs from out of town stood in line to rent a storefront on Madison St.
Now, when I stop in at a store and ask “how’s business,” the response is usually a thumbs down. No words are necessary. Almost everyone is feeling the pain, and no one – except those trying to sell real estate – talks about the economy improving soon. When times were good, I’d see bumper stickers declaring, “It’s All Good.” I don’t see them any more.
So how are we to think about the future since how we think influences how we feel?
My friend, the cyclist, rode in Wisconsin’s Door County Century on Sunday – 100 miles of hills and strong winds. His stories from 40 years of riding provide some lessons about how to lean into this recession, as well as cycling.
What goes up must come down
There is one particular hill going out of the little town of Ephraim in Door County which is a killer. You inch up the hill in a low gear until your legs start to hurt, and just when you think you’ve made it to the top, you turn a corner and the hill continues for as far as you’ve already pedaled.
What motivates my buddy during those hard climbs is the knowledge that there is a top to every hill and what goes up must come down. The same goes for those nasty head winds coming off Lake Michigan. On the return trip, what was a hindrance becomes a help.
That’s the attitude one business owner I talked to last week maintains. Right now, he said, we’re in a bad recession and it might be four, five, maybe six more years before we get out of it. “But we’ll survive,” he added. Using the cycling analogy, every hill has a top, and once you’re over it, riding a bicycle will be fun again, so keep pedaling.
What goes down must come up
My bicycle friend also has some advice about going downhill. He warns that if you go too fast, you’ll crash. That’s what happened to a guy he was biking with a few years ago. His friend didn’t brake enough going down a hill, couldn’t make the turn at the bottom and slammed into a tree, leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.
My cyclist friend also warns about tail winds. When the wind is at your back on the way out, it’s easy to underestimate how much energy will be needed for the return trip against the wind.
That’s pretty much what the business owner said about the decisions people made when the economy was good. They assumed that the downhill ride would last forever and that the wind would always be at their backs. Turns out, they didn’t have what it takes to climb the hill that always comes after a time of coasting, especially with the wind in your face.
Labor Day marked the “official” start of the political campaign season. We’ll be hearing from candidates for 20 offices from governor and senator to water reclamation district commissioner, and I bet you that every one of them will tell that they know how to fix what is wrong with the system. To me that’s like promoters of the Door County Century promising that this year they’ve planned a route on which there will be more downhill coasting than uphill pedaling.
What I’ll be looking for in a candidate who clearly states, “Look, we went too fast on our downhill economic ride and we couldn’t make the corner when we came to the bottom. It’s not the fault of the people who made our bicycles or the road. Almost everyone can share some of the blame for poor judgment.
“OK. So now we not only have to climb the steep hill that always comes after a time of coasting, but we’re recovering from the wounds of our crash landing. We’ll repair the damage to our bikes and make sure we’re wearing our helmets, but mainly it will require a lot of grunting and groaning to get to the point where riding will be easier again.
“I don’t have any ways to make it easier. All I have to offer is the truth of how difficult it will be and the promise that if we stick together and encourage each other on the long climb ahead instead of blaming each other for all of us crashing, we’ll all get to the top some day – and perhaps be in better shape than before we began the climb.”
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.