“The life of a man is a struggle for existence with the certainty of defeat.” -Arthur Schopenhauer.
This will be very, very hard and very personal post to write, so you may want to skip this one. It’s also going to pretty long. Okay, you’ve been warned.
Why is it so hard?
I’ve alluded a few times to how awful the past few years have been for me, so I thought I might as well briefly share what has happened to me; Kind of a last will and testament, if you will.
Around 2015, as I have mentioned before, after spending more than ten years at the same architectural firm, I was given a “poison pill” job. After that I started getting called into HR repeatedly and given vague warnings about my performance and “attitude” (although very little in the way of specifics). I was placed on a humiliating “performance plan,” where I would have to report weekly and grovel before slimy sociopaths who made my skin crawl. I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I quit.
Well, you know, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.
That was almost exactly the same time my mom was first diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Now, I have no other family. My absentee deadbeat dad passed away a long time ago. I have no brothers or sisters. My mother’s brother lives in New Jersey and could not care less whether his godson were alive or dead (we’ve only communicated briefly my whole life). He and his wife (a university math professor) are retired have no children. They spend most of their time sailing on their 40-foot yacht. He’s the stereotypical baby Boomer to a T- recipient of a nearly free university education that could easily be paid for by working a summer job (1960’s), graduated into a red-hot job market ( early 1970’s), and invested in East-Coast real estate (late 70’s-early 80’s) before the prices for houses on the coasts went stratospheric. He has openly stated that only reason he will vote for a political candidate is whether they will lower his personal taxes—nothing else matters.
I also have one sole cousin who lives in Ankeny Iowa, but she will come into our story a bit later. Growing up, I had almost no contact with my father’s side of the family, except for the awkward and tense occasional visits to LaCrosse now and then with my dad.
I had nowhere to go at that time. With only a four-year degree and no way to just spend 2-3 years with no income whatsoever, graduate school was out of the question. Besides, it takes years just to get accepted. Plus, I wasn’t particularly interested in running up at least $70,000 more of nondischargeable debt in my 40’s—I’d be paying it back for practically the rest of my life. As I’ve mentioned before, it is de facto impossible to become an architect in this country without significant parental wealth. The same is becoming true for most of the “skilled” professions—you know, the ones we are all supposed to acquire right away with our own resources so as to not get replaced by machines and AI.
I could tell stories about the staggering wealth of some of my coworkers and their families over the years at various firms. (Okay, just one: one of our school interns’ dads paid for a vacation for a week to Hawaii because, hey, why not?). Scholarships aren’t available for people like me, and part-time and night school aren’t options. I need to support myself constantly, or I’m homeless or dead. Because, freedom, or something?
Another issue is that I could see just how utterly miserable the people above me were. You know the stereotype—working crushing hours, constantly putting out fires, sending emails at 10:00PM at night, unable to take a vacation for fear of being buried upon returning to work, “laptop on the beach” syndrome, never being off the clock, etc. Architecture project management is truly one of the most miserable and thankless tasks on the planet (especially considering the pay). This paragraph from an article struck me as familiar (just replace ‘writing staff’ with ‘architectural staff’, and “content to harvest” with “work to do”):
At the contemporary office (or “co-working space”), you are your own taskmaster. You and your colleagues are not members of a collective, but a competitive market. I found this out slowly, after mistakenly assuming I was not under scrutiny. Yet no matter how hard I tried, how much earlier I came in, at least half the writing staff would be there before me. There was too much content to harvest for anyone to get away with sleeping in. Even more alarmingly, no matter how late I forced myself to stay, I was never the last one to leave.
And so I asked myself, do I really want that? For what? It’s not like I had kids to put through college, after all. I did not want to insert the final brick into the wall of my cubicle prison. Unfortunately, like most places today, it had become an “up-or-out” type of firm. You were either moving up, or you were moving out. And I clearly didn’t have what it took to move up, even had I wanted to. But I needed to do something.
Now, I was always fairly good with computers and took a large number of comp-sci courses at university, which I enjoyed, so I signed up for a newly opened coding bootcamp in my city in the hopes of transitioning to a job with more demand and geographical mobility. I’ve sure you’ve seen these springing up all over the place, especially if you live in a big city in the U.S. I was able to take the same bus I had taken to work to get there.
I’m not sure what to make of it. You could call it a ‘scam’, and maybe you’re right. But I had literally no other options, and nowhere else to go. Given my mother’s recent diagnosis, the timing was far from optimal, to put it mildly. I paid $15,000 out of pocket. I could sure use that money back now.
People came from very different backgrounds. A good number were people who were fairly recently out of college and had majored in something “impractical” (e.g history, marketing, etc.). These were usually the smartest cookies. Some had little formal schooling–perhaps some community college or trade school–and they were the stereotypical “living in mom’s basement playing computer games” folks. Some were older and stuck in dead-end professions they didn’t like, such as sales, insurance, marketing, etc. Some were bartenders or sandwich artists. Suffice it to say, I was one of the few who had had an entire other “career” in an unrelated profession, and was the only licensed architect.
At the time, my mom was doing fairly well. She was being treated with drugs instead of chemotherapy, and was responding well to treatment. The her wide circle of friends was able to take her to her doctor’s appointments. My mom, being the stereotypical mom, did not want to trouble me with her problems. She was still physically active, and betrayed no obvious outward signs of being ill. She did need to have stents replaced in her kidneys every three months to keep them functioning. She also had routine cataract surgery.
Now, there were, of course, some people from my graduating “class” who ended up with jobs. So I don’t want to say it didn’t work out for everyone. But I was not so lucky.
It seemed the demand for entry-level programmers was highly overstated, at least in Southeastern Wisconsin. I endured a few execrable job interviews, which were few and far between. A few times, they would even force you take quizzes. The business were usually located far, far out in the distant cornfields surrounding the city, in nondescript office parks. Many of these companies seemed like awful places to work, based on the vibe. Office Space hardly seemed a parody. I won’t bore you with the horror stories.
But, of course, this is America, and anyone who doesn’t have a job just didn’t try hard enough and has only themselves to blame. Right?
…Or they’re lazy or hooked on drugs, right? I’ve been working nonstop since I was 16 years old, with hardly a vacation in all that time. And Ibuprofen and the occasion glass of wine is about as hard as my drug use gets (save that single Ayahuasca trip in Topanga).
Anyway, I was eventually contacted by some technical staffing firms. This was 2016, and the job freeze was starting to thaw a little. I endured another round of excruciating and humiliating job interviews at a number of firms. The begging for jobs, and the aggressive interrogation one receives in any interview makes me a little reluctant to embrace the “plenty of jobs” narrative. I constantly had to think of responses to the inevitable grilling of why someone with an architect’s license wanted to be a programmer. If I interviewed for architecture jobs, however, they wanted to know why I quit my last firm, and what the hell I had been doing for the past six months. In any interview, the “default” is: we don’t want you.
I just couldn’t win, it seemed.
After a long period of no work (remember, I quit and so received no unemployment benefits during this time period and my money was running out), I finally found a job in Third Ward, just down the street from my old firm (literally). I can’t say the name, of course. But my role was essentially as a Revit/BIM specialist. This particular company had a manufacturing plant where they fabricated the interior fixtures for restaurants. I won’t mention their biggest client, but here’s a hint—think golden arches. They had a large library of 3D Revit objects, which they used to do the layouts. My job was to maintain and extend this library and the associated templates.
Now, I was a temp, which means I could be let go at any time. I had no holiday pay, no vacation time, and no health insurance, despite putting in the same amount of hours and working as hard as anyone else. Fun fact: my supervisor, a grizzled, taciturn fellow in his fifties who had been in the same job since forever, guzzled a dozen Mountain Dews every single morning before lunch (I’m being absolutely dead serious here—I’m not exaggerating!). He had a mountain of tin cans beside his desk.
Nevertheless, I did have a job and a steady paycheck at least. I didn’t really like the job, but it paid the bills. I tried to rebuild my shattered life (and my depleted savings account). I even found myself in a pretty happy romantic relationship starting in August of that year.
My mother’s condition worsened significantly throughout 2017. She had been doing well. Her cancer was in remission. But cancer has a way of coming back. She started experiencing headaches. Then came the double vision. Then trouble walking. This severely limited her activity level.
Now, my mom had always been very physically active, and had hardly seen a doctor her whole life before this. Her inactivity was really torturing her psychologically. She complained constantly that all she could do was sit in a chair all day (which some old people actually seem to like). She actually enjoyed gardening and doing yardwork, and was very unhappy about not being physically able to do those things. She was not into reading or any intellectual pursuits, so a lot of passive activities were out. For her, mowing the lawn and pulling the weeds was a privilege and not a chore (as it is for me.)
The doctors could not determine the cause of the double vision. Initially, they thought that the cancer had spread to the brain, and that was the cause. But subsequent MRI scans showed no sings of cancer in the brain. Then they thought maybe it was pressure from the bones of the skull on the optic nerve. When it comes right down to it, despite our impressive technology, it’s striking how little doctors know sometimes.
Every weekend I was splitting my time between taking care of her and the house and trying to spend time with my then girlfriend.
“Nemo enim est tam senex qui se annum non putet posse vivere”
Them came December of 2017.
After a trip back to her home over Thanksgiving (Savannah, Ga.), my girlfriend ended our relationship. At least she gave me a reason (unlike most others). She wanted a family and a typical American lifestyle—a mortgage in the suburbs, a child, a minivan, Sunday School and Church, and all the rest. She, too, was an only child, and her biological clock was not just ticking, but ringing. I never made it a secret in our relationship that I had no desire for any those things—for me, life is about simply surviving; it must be. So, it made sense, but it still hurt. I guess we probably never really belonged together, anyway. Still, it had been nice to have someone to talk to.
A few days later, I got cut loose from my job. The person who had held the position before me decided to come back to his old job, and they liked him a hell of a lot more than they did me. And so I was unemployed once again in the dead of winter, just in time for the Holidays.
By this time, my mom had become much more severely ill. The drug treatments were no longer working, and her doctor decided to discontinue them. Mom was very weak and could barely get out of bed. She was in severe pain. She couldn’t cook, so I had to bring her food. We were looking into in-home hospice care.
Now, you hear many stories about how fucked up the American health care system is, but when you are deep in the weeds, only then do realize how bad it really is. I’ll try and summarize this succinctly.
Thanks to the “opioid crisis” legislation signed by Mr. Trump, doctors can now no longer prescribe opioids without the patient physically coming in to see the doctor. Yet my mother was physically unable to leave the house! There was no way she could visit her doctor in person. Yet she needed her painkillers, without which she would be in constant, severe pain.
The only “solution” was to sign up for in-home hospice care, which was covered by Medicaid. Nurses would come into her home, and write the necessary prescriptions. But there was a snag. My mom had to have surgery to replace stents in her kidneys every three months or her kidneys would stop functioning. If her kidneys failed, of course, she would die. Yet, if we agreed to in-home hospice care, medicaid would no longer pay for the requisite kidney surgery!
I remember our last Christmas together. I had brought over a film starring her favorite actor, George Clooney–Hail Caesar! She told me it was the first time she had laughed in as long as she could remember.
The day after Christmas, December 26th, mom couldn’t get out of bed. Fortunately, I had stayed overnight. She told me to call an ambulance. We went to the hospital–West Allis Memorial Hospital, coincidentally the place where I was born. After several hours, she was released was moved to a hospice facility in Wauwatosa.
After a few days, she was upgraded from “acute care” meaning that she was technically not imminently dying, by the medical definition, at least. This meant she had to leave the hospice (which was only for the terminally ill), despite being unable to get out of bed. It also meant that Medicare was no longer paying for her stay, and so ,the hospice tab started running, which is approximately $9,000 dollars a month (or roughly $300 per day).
At times like these, survival mode kicks in. Without any job or income, I was now my mother’s full-time representative/guardian. My ‘job’ was to be in the hospice and run around taking care of all the legal, financial and medical issues (with no help whatsoever). One particular memory that sticks with me was sitting in the dead of winter in an empty hospital cafeteria watching a large hawk outside in the frigid parking lot snatch a small bird, and take the still living and struggling animal to the top of a lamppost to watch it slowly suffer and die. I couldn’t help but take it as an omen.
Obit anus, abit onus
Now here’s the catch with elder care. As a social worker confided to me, when it comes to long term health care in this country, you either have be either extremely rich or extremely poor, and nothing in between.
This because MEDICARE DOES NOT PAY FOR LONG TERM CARE. Read that fact again, and let it sink in. Yes, despite it being a health care program designed for the elderly, and with people living with acute and chronic diseases where they can’t take care of themselves for years at a time, Medicare does not pay a dime towards extended round-the-clock nursing care. Keep in mind, even the average long-term care facility in my relatively cheap part of the country costs in the neighborhood of $100,000 per year. As you can imagine, an extended illness where an elderly person cannot take care of himself or herself for whatever reason (dementia, immobility, incontinence, etc.) could easily run into the millions of dollars. Very few people have that kind of money saved up and available. Most people have their “wealth” stored in their house, as my mom did.
Now, here’s another thing—a long term care facility will not take a patient unless they know exactly where the money is coming from upfront. That is, my mother could not be moved from the hospice to anywhere else unless there was a dedicated income stream upfront. And so she languished.
Bizarrely, Medicaid, the U.S. government’s health care program for the poor and destitute regardless of age, DOES cover long-term round-the-clock care. However, you must be utterly destitute. And when I say that, I mean DESTITUTE–you must have less than $1,000 to your name, or you do not qualify. Even my “poor” mom, who probably never made more than $35,000 her entire life, was considered too “rich” to qualify.
So the hospice financial advisors told me that I need to do a “spenddown” to make my mom “poor enough” to qualify for Medicaid. From my understanding, this is an extremely common and typical occurrence, as most people cannot pay such staggering costs upfront. When one has too much money in any savings or checking account (i.e. is not utterly destitute), that money needs to be gotten rid of, and quickly. Retirement assets are not counted, nor is housing equity, but there is a catch, which you will soon see.
I used the money to pay off all the credit cards, and had the bank put the remaining money towards paying off what was left of the mortgage.
Yes, despite inheriting the house from the my grandmother, my uncle insisted he get his share of the house, despite already owning multiple properties on the East Coast. My mother was just a secretary and single mom with a kid to pay for. Plus, she took care of my grandmother when she was sick, since my uncle lived on the East coast and only flew in on occasion. None of it mattered. He insisted he get his half of the house, forcing my mom to take out a mortgage to pay him off. That mortgage is still on the books.
The other thing about Medicaid is that it’s really more of a loan than any true kind socialized insurance. What that means is Medicaid has a number of aggressive “clawbacks” that it takes to reclaim every red cent paid by the State (which administers it) for the recipient’s care. So, for example, even though one’s house isn’t included as a liquid asset for the purpose of the “spenddown,” if and when the house is ever sold, the State (Wisconsin) will come after every penny it is owed in Medicaid expenses. The same is true for any of the estate’s assets—Social Security, retirement funds, etc. If any part of the estate becomes liquid, it will be immediately seized by the courts. As I mentioned, just a single year stay in an assisted care facility can easily cost in excess of $100,000. So a two-year stay would cost far, far in excess of what most houses in the country are worth, including my mom’s. In other words, the estate would be utterly bankrupt (insolvent).
So if you think that the wealth amassed by the Baby Boomer generation will be passed down to the next generation (which I sometimes hear occasionally), and that this will cure our economic ills, I can assure you from personal experience that you are probably mistaken. Given how long the elderly are living with chronic conditions nowadays, and how common that is, I suspect that in actuality a huge portion of the Baby Boomers’ wealth will end up in the coffers of the State/medical insurance complex, preventing the lion’s share of that wealth from ever being passed down to future generations—generations that are already far poorer than their parents and grandparents and dealing with massive levels of debt. The macroeconomic implications of this are not being discussed anywhere, as far as I can tell (have you heard this stuff I’ve told you talked about in any media outlet??)
Anyway, back to our story.
While I was running ragged trying to take care of all this stuff in the dead of winter, Mom was now heavily drugged most of the time to ease the agonizing pain of the cancer that had now spread to her bones. Panicked and scared, she became paranoid and accused the nurses of trying to kill her with drugs. She accused them of making her weaker, but of course it was the disease. I received calls from exasperated nurses at all hours of the day and night because she refused to take her medications. I had to try and reassure her as best I could, even though she was not capable of thinking rationally at this point. Often mom wanted me to stay overnight at the hospice, but I really didn’t want to do that, as I would just be in the caregivers’ way. And besides, I needed the rest.
(Parenthetically, in order to kill time in the hospice, I made use of their library. There was one book in particular that offered some comfort, and I can highly recommend it, whether or not you are facing the imminent death of loved one. It’s called In the Face of Death by Peter Noll.)
I did spend most days in the hospice, though, to the point where it became like a second home to me. After all, I had no job and nowhere else to go! With no other friends or family to rely on, or even to tell my problems to, I had to take care of everything myself. I won’t bore you with all the pettifogging details of legal and financial struggles during this time, though there were plenty of them on a literal daily basis. Honestly, the entire time is now a blur. I was exhausted, gallivanting all over gray and frigid southeastern Wisconsin from dawn till dusk. I informed several of my mom’s friends who had helped take care of her, and they came out to visit occasionally. How much longer did she have? Doctors couldn’t tell me. It could be years or weeks. Or anything in between.
By the time I had finally completed the exhausting task of this “spenddown,” and seeing to all the other related legal and financial matters, it was the nearing the end of January. But by then it was too late. I could see that she was getting weaker by the day. The doctors agreed, and upgraded her condition to “officially” terminal, meaning that a hospice was now the appropriate place for her. There would be no move. The Medicare insurance kicked back in, (it does cover hospice care). At the Tuesday morning meeting with the doctor and nurses, they informed me that it was now a matter of days, perhaps a week at the most.
If you don’t know what happens when people are on the very brink of death, here it is—they stop eating, and they often lose the ability to speak. Indeed, there are no poetic “last words” in modern dying: there are often no words at all. The nurses assured me that she could still hear me. Who knows? I said what reassurance I could. But what can you say at a time like that?
January 31, 2018 my mother’s life finally came to end, just over one month after she went into the hospice. They ask if you want to go into the room and spend some time with the now lifeless body. At this point, my mom had shrunk to just skin and bones. One thing I’ll never forget is they gray pallor of the skin. The unearthly ashen color still haunts me to this day. I didn’t have any desire to look at this empty, withered shell; this grotesque caricature of a formerly living being. Finally, at long last, the suffering was over. Relief, and then guilt at one’s own relief, seems to be the universal response to such events.
Since she had been initially diagnosed several years earlier, my mother had made the necessary arrangements for her final internment—cremation, and a slot in the mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery here on the south side of Milwaukee. My grandparents are interred elsewhere in this park. I’m sure you’re aware of just how expensive it is to die in modern America—even an urn costs a fortune! I paid for it out of pocket (despite being unemployed). My mom was adamant that she wanted the simplest, plainest, most unassuming memorial possible, and absolutely no formal funeral, either in a church or a funeral home. If you’ve been fortunate enough to never dealt with the funeral industry, I can inform you that they will do their absolute best to upsell you everything they possibly can (with the requisite sympathy, of course). After all, you’re extremely emotionally vulnerable at this point in your life, and they know it. So you are easy mark. Even death is not safe from hypercapitalism in America. Luckily, my mom was a “no frills” type of person. Besides, our entire family was now pretty much gone by that point.
They day before my mom died I had a job interview with another tech placement firm. I interviewed at a few places. One of them offered me a job. They wanted me to start right way. It would be on Valentine’s Day, just after my mom’s memorial service.
Around this time, I decided to visit a psychiatrist. While my mom was alive, I knew I couldn’t kill myself because she depended on me for so much. It would devastate her. But now, hell, why not? Is it normal to spend your days constantly thinking about how you’d “rather not be here?” Probably not. The doctor put me on antidepressants. While some of the acute urge to die faded, I still can’t say that I’m particular happy. Every day, I wish I didn’t have to get up and face another day. I still rather wish I weren’t here.
On a chilly February day in 2018, about twenty of mom’s friends and coworkers from the Milwaukee Country Transit System—where she had worked in a tiny cubicle for nearly 50 years—gathered outside in the cemetery to pay their final respects. My now ex-girlfriend was kind enough to come out for support. People said some kind words. I gave a short speech, which I can’t remember now but I hope was sufficient for the occasion. And then it was over. All except for the cleanup, of course.
It was at this time I was contacted by my dad’s cousin, who lives in the Minneapolis area. My cousin Joan had been diagnosed with state 4 cancer. It was lung cancer, and apparently, it is very common for lung cancer to spread to the brain, which hers had. The prognosis was not great. She was 60.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine
“In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World”
My parents divorced, I think in 1980.
I remember the day I finally severed all contact with my father. I was at a friend’s house playing an RPG (yes I was/am a nerd). I received a panicked call from my mom. My dad was in jail again—he had crashed a motorcycle and claimed that I was the driver (which I was not, of course). That was the kind of shit that happened on a pretty regular basis. Dad had spent most of his time in jails and hospitals, and the spare bedrooms of his sympathetic friends.
What went wrong? Most people simply assume it was alcoholism, because this is Wisconsin, after all. But I never saw my dad drink. No, whatever was wrong, it was something else—mental illness, chronic lead poising, schizophrenia, who the hell knows? It certainly wasn’t raw intelligence—he was a member of MENSA, a mathematics whiz, fluent in two languages, and had several engineering degrees from MSOE (which is why he had moved here in the first place). No, IQ does not always equal success. Perhaps the old genius/insanity dichotomy.
Probably the saddest and most heartbreaking thing I found while cleaning out the house was my mom’s diary from 1979, detailing her disintegrating marriage. I found it among the piles and piles of stuff long hidden away. It brought back a lot of repressed memories for me. Here are some selected entries. Read it and weep, as they say:
Friday, May 18th:
Don late for work @ WOKY and angry because wrong part for motorcycle. I took car to get new belts – needs alternator. Mom’s ring not in at Gimbels. Shopped for groceries.
Monday, May 21st:
Worked Claim. Chad home from school. Don angry again that he had to babysit Chad all day and furiously violent. He supposedly had lots to do to prepare for his trip on Wed. – in other words, Chad was a burden to him.
Tuesday, May 22nd:
Worked Claim. Sent Chad to school sick as Don wouldn’t babysit. Was so worried all day. Came home – Don argued some more about how Chad won’t leave him alone. Don wanted to watch TV & yelled and yelled at Chad.
Wednesday, May 23rd:
I had a good day. Shopped in A.M. and got coat for wedding. Don played with motorcycle till 2PM – then left for LAX – or wherever? He gave me card and awful geranium for our anniversary. “Happy anniversary, Irene.”
Thursday, May 24th:
Had a good day till noon. Got 20% off on coat I bought Wed. and bought another coat–London Fog–saved $60.00 on both coats. When picking up Chad – teacher angry with me and Chad because Chad cries; won’t conform. I was so upset I cried, and he came out of school in tears. Mrs. W. is unreasonable. Called Carol, mom & K. said not to trust her.
Friday May 25th:
Had a good day! Washed. Chad did as his teacher told him but had problems with a magic trick which made him cry. Mrs. W. hates crying. I told Chad to forget school and we’d enjoy 3 days. Only 3 more days of school – thank goodness! If next year follows this year in school, I’ll leave the church and school.
Thursday, May 31st:
Chad’s last day of school. Chad’s graduation at night from Kindergarten – I was nervous. He was only one not to kiss teacher. Don came to church 10 minutes late and put motorcycle on sidewalk. We left early.
Friday, June 8th:
I asked Don if he’s planning another trip – he’s been so nice. He got angry and said I was being sarcastic but didn’t deny anything except he won’t change oil again in car. Everything has a $ sign on it – it’s so disgusting. Why can’t he just be nice to be nice – instead of difficult?
Saturday, June 9th:
Wrote thank-you’s and L & I. Joyce called. Ken agreed to divorce settlement. Final 6-14. I’m so happy everything went well for her and she’s happy too. I wish I had the courage she has!
Some of the last entries recorded in the diary:
Saturday June 23:
I left for 2 hours with K. Don beat Chad with belt. I am so sad I left Chad knowing Don was in a bad mood. If he ever beats Chad again I’ll leave. When I come home at 10:30 he left to go to his boss’s wedding, which he never told me about.
Sunday June 24:
It’s pretty bad when I can’t leave Chad with his father for fear his father will beat him. How much longer can I go on?
So it goes. That ought to give you a general flavor of my childhood. But I’m sure it’s all my fault somehow…
My dad was semi-homeless and working as a motorcycle mechanic here in Milwaukee when he collapsed one day, and was rushed to a hospital. He had no health insurance, so by this time his entire body was riddled with incurable lung cancer. He want into a coma almost immediately as his body shut down. He lasted not even a week before succumbing. Thankfully, because he was veteran of the U.S. army, the Veterans Administration took care of all the medical expenses and burial. He is buried in the Southeastern Wisconsin military cemetery in Union Grove, Wisconsin. I have never visited.
Here’s the wonderful inheritance I received:
A bit less than Donald Trump’s “small loan” of a million dollars, n’est-ce pas? It also makes it kind of hard to follow Mitt Romney’s advice. I guess I’ll just have to bootstrap harder.
I remember another family member a few years back who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, decided not to seek any treatment. Like an unusually large number of my family members, she had no spouse or children. She worked a variety of jobs, including as a car salesman (I once bought a car from her) and a real estate agent (her final job). After I bought my house she cut off all contact. Mom thinks it was because I didn’t buy it from her (circumstances didn’t allow it). The reason she gave for the lack of any effort to fight the cancer was that “she didn’t want to outlive her money.” She was in her late fifties, I think. My family in a nutshell. So it goes.
The following spring, a cardinal repeatedly rapped on my window every morning as I was getting ready for work. I later found out that cardinals were supposedly signs of departed loved ones vising you according to Native American folklore, or something. Of course, I’m sure he just saw his reflection in my window and thought it was a rival male. I even managed to capture his agitation on video:
The next week I stated my job at the new architecture firm—a “real” job with a salary and benefits. Ironically, it was not far from where the hospice was located. It seemed like a (sort of) happy ending, but as you’ll soon see it was anything but. For me, there are no happy endings.
You know the drill when you get hired—in addition to the W-2 forms and proof of citizenship they require to designate an emergency contact and beneficiary for the CYA insurance policy they take out on you. I had to assure them that there was literally no one to identify in either of those roles. I had to really fight to convince them that, yes, I have no other family or friends capable of that role. This, of course, was unheard of to them. I guess I really am special.
Shortly thereafter, my my dad’s sister Jane (my cousin’s mother), went into the hospital, and died within a few days. My cousin and her family had to arrange the funeral and deal with the accompanying mess in the midst of beginning her aggressive brain cancer treatments.
My cousin was not even raised by her mother, in fact, but rather her (our) grandparents. My dad’s sister had spent much of her wasted youth getting drunk in bars and shacking up with various assorted violent and alcoholic criminals (my cousin’s father is, in fact, a convicted murderer. She never met him). Abortion was illegal back then, and besides, that side of the family is very Catholic. And so, Joan only returned to Des Moines from LaCrosse when she was 18. She jokes that she was “raised by wolves,” or else that she raised herself, and that’s essentially true. By this time, her mother was repeatedly strung out on various drugs. For most of her life, she has taken care of her mother rather than the other way around.
My cousin’s cancer continued to worsen and spread over 2018. Thankfully, unlike me, she has a huge support network. She has two daughters in in their thirties from two previous relationships (they have different fathers). Both of them are happily married to husbands with good careers and have several kids of their own. Her husband Gary, has a large and colorful family, including six kids of his own from his previous marriage. Those kids are a mixed bag–some are rather troubled, others not. His twin daughters and their families are the most stable and consistent visitors. Between the two of them, they have something like twenty grandchildren. Add to that all the various friends and neighbors.
So I guess some small branch of the family will continue. Our surname, however, dies with me.
Despite my dad’s many problems, my father’s side of the family has been far more welcoming and friendly than my mom’s ever was, despite me having hardly any contact with them until I was in my late thirties (maybe that’s because they’re the Catholic side, LoL). Two things I always liked visiting Joan: She was one of the only people who understood how messed up our family was. There was no need to obfuscate or hide anything, so I could speak openly to someone who could relate. And we shared the same dry, cynical sense of humor.
My ex-girlfriend’s company folded in a very public bankruptcy in 2018 that the employees all knew was coming for some time. Thus, I have a little bit of insider knowledge of the so-called “retail apocalypse” (it was a major retail department store chain headquartered in Milwaukee). After a short job search, a former coworker recommended her for a position at a major Southern retailer in beautiful, sunny Bradenton, Florida. The company paid for her move, and set her up in a spacious corporate condominium with a swimming pool right on the beach, where I’m told the tropical sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico are quite stunning (despite the smelly red tide this year). She really likes it, and it sounds like paradise. So there IS a happy ending after all—just not for me. I’m sure she’ll find someone who has been successful in life with whom she will be able to have the white picket-fence lifestyle she has envisioned for herself in such detail.
Meanwhile, I hoped to visit my cousin, since I didn’t know how much time she had left. But given the fact that her treatments essentially wiped her out for weeks at a time, I had to make sure I wouldn’t get in the way. I was finally able to arrange a visit over Labor Day, 2018. I had arranged it through her husband, who was her caregiver, so it was a surprise. Joan seemed fairly lucid, despite clearly showing outward physical signs of the disease. She told me she was throwing a “half-birthday” party the next month. What else do you do when you don’t know whether or not you will live to see your next birthday? Suffice it say, my cousin loves life far more than I do.
So I drove back to Iowa the following month, and it was a pretty impressive turnout. This time, however, I could see that she was much more “out of it.” She was now undergoing aggressive radiation treatment for brain cancer. She had poor balance, and had fallen down the stairs a few weeks earlier. The treatment was taking a heavy toll on her, and her entire family. I stayed with my second cousin Kate, and we talked about what she and the family were going through. I shared my own perspective, having just gone through something similar. Fun fact: Kate actually makes a living by blogging! Not so fun fact: her husband, also named Chad, was recently diagnosed with the early stages of MS.
The next day about 20 of us went out for breakfast where the party was held the previous afternoon – Fletcher’s restaurant in Ankeny if you’re ever in the neighborhood. The breakfast buffet is quite impressive.
In May 1846 at the height of the ‘taming of the Wild West’ and gold fever, the intrepid colonists of the Donner Party set out from Little Sandy River in Wyoming on the last stage of a long trek to California and a new life, a journey that had begun in Springfield, Illinois, more than a month before. Several untoward events – disorganisation at the start, some ill-advised routing, and attacks by Indians along the way – conspired to delay the party, which at its height numbered eighty-seven men, women and children. As a result, they reached the Sierra Nevada mountains, the jagged line of snow-covered peaks that barred their way west, much later than they had intended, just as winter began to close in.
Though they struggled on, they ended up trapped in the mountains by snowstorms at an entirely anonymous spot now known as Donner Pass. Here, they tried to sit out the winter. But since they had expected to be through the mountains well before winter set in, they had come unprepared. Their food gave out, and some even gave in to cannibalism. By the time a series of rescue parties arrived from California in February and March the following year, forty-one of the eighty-seven pioneers had died.
What makes these bald statistics interesting is who died and who survived. Disproportionately more people who travelled alone died, while the chances of surviving were much higher among those who had travelled as families. Frail grannies travelling with their families made it, but not the strapping young men travelling alone. It paid to be travelling with kith and kin.
A second example is provided by another of the iconic events in American folklore. When the Mayflower colonists set foot on the American mainland in 1620, they were ill prepared to face the harsh New England winter. They suffered from severe malnutrition, disease and lack of resources, and no fewer than fifty-three of the 103 colonists died in that first winter. But for the intervention and generosity of the local Indians, the colony would have died out completely. Again, mortality was highest among those who came alone, and lowest among those who came as families.
The issue is not so much that families rush around and help each other, though that is certainly true, but rather that there seems to be something enhancing about being with kin. Being surrounded by family somehow makes you more resilient than when you are simply with friends – however much you argue with them. This much is clear from two studies of childhood sickness and mortality, one the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne during the 1950s and the other on the Caribbean island of Dominica during the 1980s. In both cases, the amount of childhood illness and mortality experienced by a family was directly correlated with the size of its kinship network. Very young children in big families got sick less often, and were less likely to die. Again, this is not just because there are more people to rush around and do things in large families. Rather, it has something to do with just being in the centre of a web of interconnected relationships. Somehow, it makes you feel more secure and content, and better able to face the vagaries the world conspires to throw at you.
from “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?” by Robin Dunbar. pp. 39-41
Everything That Remains
“she no longer threw out anything, because everything might eventually come in handy: not even the cheese rinds or the foil on chocolates, with which she made silver balls to be sent to missions to ‘free a little black boy.'”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
Now, here’s another thing about my mother—she was a hoarder. Every nook and cranny was crammed with stuff. My grandmother, being a child of the Great Depression and growing up the child of impoverished immigrants, saved literally everything no matter how trivial, because it might be useful someday, and she passed that trait on to my mother who never, ever, threw anything out. You would not believe the stuff I found!. My mom also had the habit of never throwing any piece of paper away, no matter how trivial or inconsequential. Boxes and boxes are piled high with credit card statements, credit card offers (!), energy and water bills, bank statements, greeting cards, thank-you notes, letters, postcards, correspondence, old newspaper clippings, retail advertisements, coupons, and other scattered miscellany dating back to the 1960’s.
Thus, I was burdened with getting rid of several decades of accumulated crud. Words fail in conveying the sheer magnitude of the task that lay before me. In essence, I had two full-time jobs in 2018—one paid, the other not—and every fleeting snatch of free time that year was spent engaged in one job or the other. I feel like this entire year of my life was a write-off. There was no “me” time (save for occasionally writing this blog). Fun and recreation were a distant memory.
I printed up hundreds of flyers and went door-to-door in the neighborhood. The turnout for the few weekends of estate sales in June was pretty good. This was an “old fashioned” Milwaukee neighborhood where people spent their entire lives in the same spot, and it wasn’t at all unusual for neighbors to know each other for over 20 years, help each other out, etc. Many neighbors came over to buy stuff and offer condolences. Some of them had lived there since my grandparents were still alive. Many knew my mother. An empty-nest older couple from across the street took pity on me and helped me organize and run the sales, even donating some tables to help me out.
As people strolled though the house to shop, their typical reaction I got was usually the same—pity. They felt sorry at the magnitude of what I had to accomplish by myself and told me horror stories of their own experiences clearing out an elderly relative’s estate. To me, this indicated that I wasn’t just feeling sorry for myself—this really was an unusually gargantuan task. “I sure don’t envy you” was something I heard often in sympathetic tones.
Despite selling a ton of stuff over several exhausting summer weekends, it was still a drop in the proverbial bucket. Every week I filled up the garbage bins to the hilt. I hit up eBay to sell off my old toys that my mom insisted on saving because she thought taht they would be worth a lot of money someday. They weren’t worth a lot of money, but some of it was worth something. That’s fortunate, as I really need that money right now.
Let me tell you that once you’ve gone through this, you will realize just how empty buying and consumerism really is. Minimalism and decluttering will become a religious experience. “You can’t take it with you,” indeed.
Interestingly, if you’ve ever read the book by The Minimalists—Everything That Remains—the author of that book had a similar experience. While cleaning out his mother’s possessions after her death, he realized just how utterly futile it is to spend a lifetime accumulating stuff that all gets thrown out anyway. Like me, the author of that book was the child of a single mother growing up poor in the Rust Belt. Unlike me, he actually once had a wife and a successful and lucrative career. I still think Fight Club put it best, “The things you own end up owning you.”
I had to engage the services of a local attorney to arrange the probate proceedings. Even though my mother had a will and I was the sole heir, the probate proceedings are still a requirement. The bank filed a claim for the home equity loan, but that and the mortgage are the only claims.
[Estate planning tip: if your state allows for a “transfer on death deed”, (it’s quite recent and varies from state to state) and you are in line to inherit real estate property (especially if you are the sole heir), get that drawn up by an attorney right away. You’ll save a ton of hassle. Thank me later.]
Now, almost exactly a year later, nearly everything has been binned, sold, auctioned, put out on the curb, demolished, donated to any number of thrift stores, food banks and charities, burned, shredded, recycled, or otherwise disposed of. There are still many assorted items to deal with—an antique vanity, an old blender, a mahogany display case from Germany, etc. (anyone want these?). I am also getting rid of everything I own as well. No matter what happens, I’m not going to be needing them anymore.
And finally, I must sell the house my grandparents built in 1940 for $3700—where they raised two children; where I spent all of my youthful summers; and where my mom spent the last 25 years of her life.
It’s an odd thing liquidating the legacy of two families. Of being the last. Of immanent extinction. At least I have plenty of fellow travelers in the natural world to contemplate. The photos you see here are all going to be destroyed eventually, along with everything else. Nothing but confetti and ashes. When I am done, there will be no record of my family ever having been here. What would my immigrant great-grandparents make of such an end? What would they think knowing that this country would chew up their descendants and spit them out without mercy? That I would be the last ever holder of our surname? I’m reminded of the Chinese term, guanggun, or “bare branches”. I sometimes wonder—would they do it all over again if they knew that it was all going to end this way?
This might explain to readers just why I hold many beliefs that I do: fatalism, cynicism, philosophical pessimism, antinatatalism, and a profound sense of the tragic. It also explains how I can write so dispassionately about a future which is looking more and more grim by the day. I have no stake in it, whatsoever. I simply observe, and have no reason to be unduly optimistic (or pessimistic, for that matter). Things are neither good nor bad, they just are. I never wanted anything more than a tiny modicum of happiness before the lights go out forever. I only wish I had found it.
So when I write about things like collapse and extinction, I have a uniquely visceral, intimate perspective on what I’m taking about.
Gallery of Endangered Animals (Tim Flach, photographer)
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
Last week I heard that a close friend from high school had died. He was exactly two days older than me (his birthday August 17th, mine the 19th). Although he lived in Arizona, I did know that he had been in and out of the hospital for several years, thanks to Facebook (which I am no longer on). He was rather obese and suffered from poor health his entire life. I don’t know the ultimate cause of death, but my guess is something like heart failure.
(One of my other best friends from high school died many, many years ago. He was asthmatic and foolishly went swimming on a hot summer day with very poor air quality. He had an asthma attack and drowned. He was 28 as I recall).
Now, ere we are, exactly one year on, and the architecture firm I worked for fired me last Friday.
I keep wondering what I could have done differently. Perhaps I really am just too stupid to do this job. Maybe I truly am incompetent, despite doing this for so many years. Maybe I’m not a good enough politician. Perhaps I lack the killer instinct. In any case, my career has been the epitome of abject failure. It’s brought me nothing but pain. At what point does the sunk cost fallacy apply? But, as I’ve learned, once you are specialized, past a certain age, the job market gives you no leeway. F. Scott Fitzgerald got it right as usual: “there are no second acts in American lives.”
Assuming I’m not too stupid to do this job, the only other conclusion I can arrive at is that even after doing it for so long, I have not been adequately trained. And if I’ve spent almost 25 years in this profession and still don’t have the requisite skills, then I’m never going to have them. A rather damning indictment of the architecture profession, don’t you think? I’ve read many a lament over the fact that generational skills are being lost, and there are too few people coming up to replace those leaving. But whose fault is that? In my case, it seems I have little choice. The architecture profession truly is eating it’s young, as indeed are many other professions, it seems. But what does that portend for the future?
Personally, I don’t really care anymore. Not my problem.
The fate of the architect is the strangest of all. How often he expends his whole soul, his whole heart and passion, to produce buildings into which he himself may never enter.–GOETHE
As I write these words, my cousin is still fighting on. But for how much longer? Not to be morbid, but the grim reality is, I can’t see how she will finish out the year. When she is gone, the glue that held that part of the family together will also be gone; scattered to the winds. And my last blood relative will be gone from the earth.
And so here I am. No family. No friends. No significant other. No job. No viable profession or career to speak of. No mentor. No helpers. No income. No retirement savings. On the bright side—no kids and no debts. As I write this, we are experiencing an epic cold blast of biblical proportions. The wind chills are expected to be around 40 below zero this evening, conveniently the same temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit if I have any international readers. Yesterday, I spent an hour shoveling the foot or so of snow we were blanketed with. It’s a hard, hard land, indeed. At least the sun is out today—a rare occurrence. Tomorrow, the city will essentially be shut down due to the cold—and this is Wisconsin!
Coldest Blast in Years Heading for Midwest, Great Lakes (Weather Underground)
Football season is over…
Don’t worry, I don’t have a gun on the table as I write this (I’ve never even fired one!). And yet I wonder: is there ever a rational case for suicide? And if so, when is it time to throw in the towel?
Typically when I read about rational suicide, it’s in the context of a painful, incurable disease, which I don’t happen to have (as far as I know, but the way things are going…). But, honestly, I struggle with finding a reason to go on. Why suffer? It seems that life itself is a painful, incurable disease, and one that offers very little in the way of recompense for all of its burdens and the suffering it inflicts.
I contemplate the late Anthony Bourdain, who lived the type of life that I would consider ideal. And yet, even he ultimately found no reason to go on. Although I was aware of Mr. Bourdain’s work, I never saw a single show he was on (they were on Cable, after all), nor did I read any of his books. Yet I can’t help but feel a certain philosophical kinship with the man.
As I observed in a disturbingly popular post from a few years back, they don’t have to kill you if they can get you to kill yourself. In that post I was pondering whether the epidemic of deaths across America’s Heartland was a symptom of spreading mental illness, or rather merely a rational response to intolerable circumstances. Fentanyl doesn’t seem like that bad of a way to go, all things considered.
I’ve since made peace with the prospect of my own death. Not that I welcome it, mind you. Since it is inevitable, after all, I never saw much of a point in immanentizing it. I still very much consider it as a last resort. If I had another option, I would not hesitate to take it.
I feel like this world has no place for me. Perhaps I should have been born a hundred years earlier. Really, I don’t know how many more messages the universe can send me saying, in effect: “it’s time for you to go.” You were never meant to have been here in the first place. I mean, really: my mom mentioned offhandedly how surprised she was when she found out she was pregnant, since my parents were apparently hardly ever intimate throughout their miserable clusterfuck of a marriage (Aaaargh—too much information, mom, too much information!!!!). That’s why I’m an only child, an accident of evolution. I often told my mom that I wished she had opted for abortion (legal as of 1973). Instead, here I am, lucky recipient of the “gift” of life without a valid return receipt.
Anyway, I felt I owed readers a reason if ever this blog should ever end, and now seemed like a good time. It won’t be right away, though—I’ve got several posts already written in various states of completion. Plus, I have no job and it’s too cold to be outside. Nothing else to do but read and write!
And so I come to the end of my tale. What I could really use right now is some advice. I would especially prefer practical advice (someplace warm to move to, something else to do to earn money, etc.) Anything at all will be accepted, no matter how crazy or ridiculous it sounds. After all, at this point I literally have nothing left to lose. Leave comments below, or email” firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ve now set this up to send messages directly to my Gmail account.
Thanks for reading.