Monday, May 18, 2015

A Reflection on Mortality

A while back I mentioned the fact that one of my coworkers was ill with cancer. She died last week Friday, about a month shy of her sixtieth birthday. She told me once that she put away the maximum amount possible in her 401K. Unfortunately, she will never see it. It makes one question the entire “be miserable until retirement and then start living when you’re 60,” mindset we’re supposed to have under capitalism. Sometimes 60 never comes.

But at least she was not miserable. She genuinely loved her job. She told me she looked forward every day to coming into work. This wasn’t bullshit either; this was genuine. Every day, even with cancer she was there desk at 6:00 AM in the morning. She worked continually through the day, never an idle moment. She worked at the same firm for 25 years. And unlike a lot of the other ultra-boring people here, at least she was interested in a variety of things, from medieval history to travel to geography (it was nice occasionally to have an intelligent conversation once and a while.)

What strikes me is that she was genuinely happier battling terminal cancer than I am in my normal state. Often times she had to cheer me up. It’s pretty awkward complaining about how much you hate your life when the person sitting next to you is literally dying.

Her story was typical of her generation. She grew up on Milwaukee’s South Side and went to our South Division High School where she as the only female in mechanical drafting class. She was reluctantly convinced by some mentors to pursue a career in architecture, which she did, eventually being grandfathered in and allowed to sit for the exam mid-career and without a degree.

But really, in the end, the profession sort of left her behind. The office became much more corporate and she did not have the pedigree that today's corporations are after. AutoCAD replaced her hand drafting and lettering  (which I’m told was exquisite). She struggled a bit with Revit and BIM, which we now use for production. But she hung on through it all, through all the changes in the profession, even as she stagnated in the corporate hierarchy and was left unappreciated except for her dedication and personality. Yet despite this, she was still able to supervise contract document work on large hospitals around the country.

She grew up in a much less cruel time. It was a time when “ordinary” people could have a real career in a place like Milwaukee without family money and connections.

Not any more. Such a person could never become an architect today. Today, such people are being displaced by the footloose upper-class who move around the country (and even around the world) to occupy the slim top tier of professional/technical jobs. Our summer interns this year are all full-time graduate students from Clemson University in South Carolina. Clemson is not cheap:
Founded in 1889, Clemson University consists of Six colleges: Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Architecture, Arts and Humanities; Business and Behavioral Sciences; Engineering and Science; Health and Human Development, and Education. As of 2014, Clemson University enrolled a total of 17,260 undergraduate students for the fall semester and 4,597 graduate students and the student/faculty ratio is 16:1.The cost of in-state tuition is about $13,054 and out-of-state tuition is $30,488.US News and World Report ranks Clemson University 20th among all national public universities. (Wikipedia)
The intern who sits in my area is from Rochester, Minnesota, so the latter figure is the accurate one. I can’t even imagine being able to afford that even if I could not work, not that they would admit me in any case. Here is another biography another newly hired intern (name omitted of course):
XXX is a M.Arch and M.LA dual degree student at Washington University in St. Louis expected to graduate in the winter of 2015. He earned his bachelor degree in Material Physics before studying architecture. His professional training in aesthetics and engineering have been honed through several internships. At PTW Architects Shanghai office, he applied his knowledge in physics and successfully developed a building facade system that could produce a cloud of vapor to help the cooling of the building. At Gensler’s Chicago Office, he worked with various clients ranging from motor centers, national franchise supermarkets to national banks. Last summer XXX worked for Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, where he focused on the EXPO 2017 project (DD and pre-CD).  While in school he manages the 3D Printing Lab, supervising students in 3D modeling and providing 3D printing technical support. He is a proficient user of Revit, has construction documentation and LEED project experience.
And it seems the “ordinary” salt-of the earth local I have worked with over the years are slowly being displaced with the shiny new globalized hyperachieving models. And this is happening across the board in every profession. Average is over, apparently. The old timers I worked with by-and-large were always the most knowledgeable and the most down-to-earth. Usually they had no degree and came from humble origins, like my co-worker. Times have changed. Whenever I go to one of these funerals, it feels like I am witnessing the slow dying off the white working class. They are not reproducing themselves. Their kids are struggling. As much as I hate to say it, I see an utter cluelessness on the part of the lower classes themselves about this fact. The look of their eyes is that of the cows in the feedlot – happily chewing their cud totally oblivious to the fate in store for them and their children. Call it the burden of knowing. I feel bad for them.

Chris Ryan recently talked a little bit in his past two episodes about his decision to not have children. Given that such a mode of life is essentially nonexistent here in the Midwest, I was interested to hear his reasons. I might reflect on my own reasons besides the practical (i.e. as a male I don’t have the equipment).

I could clearly see even from a young age that the lower classes were being liquidated. I could also clearly see that entry to the middle class has been totally shut down. Everything I have seen since has convinced me that this trend is not changing but accelerating (as I’ve written about over the years). That’s the “new” economy and the “new” America. You’re either in the upper class or you’re done for. And my family was definitely not in the upper class. Everyone else will have little to look forward to besides demeaning jobs, patching together enough gigs to survive another day, pinching pennies, debt serfdom, uncertain retirement, etc. Not much of a life, in other words. Since I don’t like cubicle life, and that is the only life there will be in the future, why would  I even think about creating new life even if I had the chance? Nonexistence seems preferable to being a wage-slave.

The one saving grace to my family being a complete and utter horror show is the lack of any desire to propagate it into the future. In fact, my only desire is to bring this family to a well-deserved conclusion. I myself should never have been born, but I was, and I’m here, and that’s OK. There’s nothing I can do about that besides self-termination, and I’m going to die anyway, as are we all. But I see no reason to continue that forward, and feel no obligation to do so given the miserable circumstances and lack of opportunity I grew up in. I don’t see anything “noble” in life for its own sake. I always believed in my heart of hearts that my parents should never have had me. Not because there is anything particularly bad about me, but because my parents were simply not the kind of people who had the circumstances and emotional maturity to do so. I never had much of a chance, really.

I also realized I was profoundly ordinary. I’m not particularly good at anything, I’m not a genius, I’m not particularly attractive, I wasn’t the head of my class, I wasn’t a super-athlete, I’m not a musician, I’m a middling artist at best. I’m not a doctor, a physicist, an engineer, a math-whiz or anything like that. There is nothing special about me, and in an age where average is over, it’s helpful to realize that being average, you have nothing to offer the brave new world we’re building. Since I haven’t really enjoyed my life at all to this point, I certainly don’t want to pass along that “gift.” I see it as more of a burden. I wish my parents had offered me the same courtesy. I think there can be no more selfish act than having children and not thinking about what kind of future those children will have. Yet sadly we see it all the time.

I also don’t tell anyone else what to do, nor to I begrudge anyone else's situation. My circumstances are unique. In fact, sometimes I wish that more people who had their shit together would have children, rather than the most fucked-up people imaginable. People tend to bring another soul into the world with no more concern than buying rims for their car, or bringing home puppies.

I’ve had a lot of difficulties in my life, and a lot of misery, and I would never want to subject another living being to what I have gone through. Now on the other side of forty, things are better now, and I’ve figured out a lot of things, but that doesn’t erase the pain of all those years, and the realization of how messed up and antithetical to human happiness and well-being our society is. So many people I see going through life on auto-pilot following the script, operating on instinct and social cues – now the job, now the degree, now the house, now the wife, now the kids, now the minivan. And I look around and think that it doesn’t look so appealing to me. Just another repeat of the same.

I wish I could understand the motivation. I wish I could join the party, be a happy cubicle worker, bright and bushy-tailed at my desk at 7:30 AM commuting in from white-picket fence-ville, anesthetizing myself  in a fog of reality TV and spectator sports. It seems so much easier.

Tomorrow is my annual employee review with the suburban Midwest ultra-breadwinners.(with their “dad bods,” lol) I don’t even know what to say anymore. Now, even people like me with insufficient degrees are being forced out of the profession. It’s clear that I have no future at this firm or in the profession in general anymore. I’m sick of what I do. Should I say that? It’s clear that you need to have a certain type of personality to make in corporate America (and the Midwest “culture”on top of it). I call them "homo corpratus." The rest of us are just wasting our time. They actually wrote “Where does Chad see himself in five years?” on my review. Where indeed? Unemployed? In debt (again)? Homeless? Deceased? It just keeps getting harder and harder to give a fuck.

Life is short indeed. Some people just aren’t cut out for the way the world is now. The least we can do is recognize it and not propagate the suffering. RIP Audrey, you belong in this world a lot more than I do.

P.S. Agree or disagree - here is some food for thought:

Anybody else childfree for a morbid reason? (Reddit) I very much disagree with his characterization of reasons as "morbid."

Abortions are moral when compared to bringing a child into existence (


  1. I think you need to change up your sound rather miserable. That's no way to live! Chuck the job, sell your place, leave most of your stuff, and go somewhere. Anywhere. Follow your passion or your heart, and if you don't know what that is yet, then go do work for others who are less fortunate than you and need help....either here or in another country. I think that will help you find your way back seeing meaning and goodness in the world and in your life :)

  2. Hi Chad,
    While I don't think it brings any guarantees sometime you just have to change something. Walk away from things and find something new. I've done it a couple of times with various levels of success and lack thereof. It hurts, it brings risk but then as most of us figure out so does resisting change. I get your point on corporate life, I still unfortunately see too much of that but I'm getting better at ignoring it and focusing my time and energy on the parts of the job I like.
    It's funny growing up more than anything I wanted to be an architect, I got side tracked, lost following some bad advice but it doesn't sound like I'm missing much :-) I do have a friends working in architecture over here in England, but he works on his own and with a network of contractors no big corporate clients or grand projects. Renovations, private projects and a little small business stuff. No one will ever know his name but it seems to make him happy. I'm not sure if there is any of that business left over there.

  3. What a rant of unrelenting negativity! And exaggerated. Nonetheless, there is some truth to all this, and I want to point out one error in your perceptions. Typically for an American, you look at your shitty situation and the success of young, mostly upper class rivals and then after noting how little class mobility there is these days, you accept and repeat the notion of meritocracy, the notion that these high-flying over achievers are leaving the rest of us behind because they're so damn marvelous. Yeah? That's certainly not what Dmitri Orlov reports from engineering, nor what my engineer son says. My son, by the way, has a fine job now; he came from an impoverished West Virginia home to go through WVU and get a Masters with a good collection of scholarships--he does have the advantage of being very smart...actually smart enough to understand that rising to the top and making the most money possible are not his goals. He took a major pay cut to move to the job he has now, from one in MI where he got paid a lot, as did his wife (who has a PhD in the same field, mechanical engineering) but they hated Michigan and they hated their jobs. She sat around with little real work to do, he did the work of his boss and another useless "lunch eater" as Orlov calls them, as well as his own, and had to put up with endless obfuscation from bosses who didn't know their way around engineering--who had learned to use buzzwords and talk a good game. How typical is that place, where enormous amounts of time were wasted by well-paid incompetents?
    I've seen it remarked that when people are laid off in the Eu, they get pissed off and organize. When people here lose their jobs, the BLAME THEMSELVES. "I don't have enough education." Or "My networking skills are lousy." (That one's mine) In your case, "I'm ordinary and not good at anything." Well I find that hard to believe, given the fine job you do several times a week in pulling together several good articles and excerpting parts together with your own commentary to make a coherent narrative of trends in society that are important. Of course, self-denigration is usual in depressed people...

  4. If you enjoyed "Anybody else childfree for a morbid reason?", then you should definitely join us over at /r/antinatalism and /r/sanctionedsuicide.

  5. Escapefromwisconsin, I don't want you to take this as a criticism, it’s just a statement from an outside observer: You are depressed about your situation and tend to wrestle with the negative to begin with, so Audrey's death threw you into a tailspin. That’s how I read it, anyway.

    I'm not qualified to comment on architectural firms, but I wonder if your office is truly representative of every other such office. Experience, loyalty, and expertise do still count for a lot with many companies, it’s just good business. I suspect you are more valuable to your company than you think.

    Assessing yourself as Mr. Average, not outstanding in any area, indicates to me that you wish you had something to hang your ego hat on. Perfectly understandable, we all want that, unless we’re lay Buddhists kowtowing our way across the Hindu Kush in search of enlightenment.

    The usual ego satisfiers are money, fame, looks, titles, prizes, advanced degrees, and possessions. And, of course, a lot of people derive a sense of worth from having children. I sometimes think of it as the fall-back position for the unexceptional.

    Interestingly, you are denied ego satisfaction in *all* of the aforementioned areas, putting you in direct confrontation with the ego. That’s a pretty tough opponent to face head-on, and it indicates to me that you are actually a rather evolved fellow, a conclusion I’d reached anyway from reading your blog.

    If I recall correctly from my Buddha 101 classes, either you’ll exhaust yourself and exit the battlefield that way, or (taking the much harder path) you’ll withdraw your energy from the battlefield by choice, accepting that reality is what it is. In both cases, you will realize that it was you keeping everything in place all along.

  6. You need to read you some Colin Wilson. You are suffering from a serious case of what he would call "upside-downness."

  7. I wanted to tell the story of Audrey for a couple of reasons. Last time I talked about this, someone felt that traveling was a waste of time and all you should do was save up all your money. But this is an illustration that sometimes things happen and that future never comes. It's not just academic. There is a value in living for today to some extent. It could happen to any of us.

    The other thing I'm struggling with is why some people can be so happy while others in the same situation are miserable. It is a mystery to me. I don't mean to give the impression that I work at a horrible place. That's not the case. Yes, there is a lot of inanity, and yes a few management people are jerks, but that's everywhere. In many ways I actually have it pretty good, which is why I feel so much guilt about why I can't be content when everyone around me seems to be. You could say depression, and sure, maybe a pill will fix me, but I think it goes deeper than that. The thing is, I'm not depressed or negative at all outside of work. Not on the weekends, not on holidays, not on vacation, not traveling. In fact, I'm quite happy and content. So if I'm "depressed" how is that possible? People say 'get another job,' but trading one cubicle for another has never provided a lasting solution.

    It would be nice to have other options and be able to figure it out, and that's one of the reasons I'm a bit resentful at my parents for bringing me into the world and not giving me any of the resources to do that. If you're in the working class, it's work or starve. So I haven't had much of a choice. I can say that the year I was unemployment may have been the happiest of my life, despite losing everything.

    Given the fact that I work with people who have so many advantages, it's easy to feel jealous. Yes, I'm fully aware that so many people have it worse than me *intellectually*, but of course we judge by our immediate peers; that's just how cognition works. No amount of intellectual cogitating seems to protect against feeling that you're inferior or inadequate in some way. Yes, I admit to an inferiority complex.

    And I do feel that social isolation plays a role too. Where I live has a great deal to do with that. Yes, I'd certainly fit in better somewhere else. So what's the answer? I don't know. In any case, I fixed up my window this weekend, but I still need to repair my broken door.

  8. jump ship. every move is a risk, but your'e not happy as is and the trajectory of your current path does not look bright by your own description. you need an adventure and a life change to orient yourself with what you truly value. we all will die, integrating that knowledge is the source of courage. the worst that happens if you cut loose is that life will still suck or you might lose your "burden." If you're able bodied enough I'd recommend some kind of farm or at least physical (and meaningful) work. there is no real escape from suffering, nor do i find that idea desirable, but the type of suffering that you experience in the corporate world has no redeeming quality of satisfaction. as a small farmer myself, i will tell you that farming is frequently grueling and basically an insane thing to do, but the relationship I've built with the land and it's various non-human residents fills me with satisfaction. at this point building soil fertility and enhancing ecosystem function and diversity is a religious duty for me. i daydream of my small urban farm being an oasis in a thousand years, after the region turns to desert. we dont need a world full of special people doing astounding things, we need those willing to do the unglamorous work of supporting what is real and alive, while our culture/species goes through it's last act of attempting to control everything. clearly from your profession and your curation of this site you have talents, those characteristics of your self have many possible uses. you have latent abilities you dont know about. fuck, you can create them through sheer persistence. experiment. find them. to labor away in anonymity as a cog in a heartless machine is soul-crushing. to labor away in anonymity for what is meaningful is to be a secret king (or queen) of this world. a sense of purpose is it's own reward. you are an awake individual in a culture that does not wont people to be awake, it is painful, especially until you align your life with your will and can learn to function with the apparent ease of those who go through life asleep. most folks seem to crumple under the anxiety of self-consciouness that waking up brings and instead of rites of passage or help are offered only pills to go back to sleep. i apologize if this comment is preachy or overly spiritual, I know folks sometimes just need to vent and depression tends to not want to be challenged. I enjoy reading your blog and and think you are a good person. We need everyone who has gone through the long hard education process of seeing through the bullshit to feel supported by others and to be able turn their energies to the fight, whatever shape that takes. opportunities for good work are everywhere, though of course there's no money in it. that's not a coincidence...... best wishes

  9. This is one of the most truthful, fearless pieces of self-reflection I've ever read!

    Thank you!

  10. Hip:
    Let me tell you from experience that often those who seem to be very happy are not. They are just very good at wearing a mask. Your biggest problem is that you are in tune to your reality and not in denial. That can be a good thing. What someone said above is applicable. We are all going to die eventually as did Audrey(my sincerest sympathies for that) so you may as well try to enjoy the time you are here. If you are very unhappy with your job quit. find a new field. Overseas teaching is a possibility as is AmeriCorps..Peace Corps? Medical field has a big demand for workers. You may consider something in nursing(Home health care..personal care aide etc). the pay may be poor but helping people can be a great reward in itself. Maybe work in charity"? Try to think like you only have a year to live and go from there. What would you want to do if you only had so much time left?

  11. I've gone from parents coming from large or large-ish families (5-7 kids) to growing up with 4 siblings myself, to .... none of us have kids. The line ends here.

    In my own career, I was studying to be an electrical engineer, probably too ambitious I think now, after years of hanging out with real EE's and seeing that ... if you're not doing the shit by the time you're 13, you're not gonna be a real engineer. Anyway, the amount of debt I had to take on scared me and I didn't finish my degree, reasoning that for every engineer there's gotta be several techs, right? So I was a tech for several years but .... techs are almost extinct now. The tech work is sent overseas, and there's no more repair; if the circuit's not right, throw it out and tell the robots how to make an improved one. I can't work with the teeny SMT componants that are de rigeur now. The field I've been in has left *me* behind!

    Right now I am working on my trumpet skills, because I can go out and play on the street and make what I would as a tech. And it's fun.

  12. You are not alone. There are many of us who do not belong in this world.
    Go forth and make your own. I hope to see you there.

  13. The casual mention of "Chris Ryan" caught my attention. Does he mean Dr. Christoper Ryan PhD, author of _Sex at Dawn_ and host of the podcast _Tangentially Speaking_? Why yes, I do seem to recall recent comments on the podcast regarding the decision not to have children. I had a flash of inspiration: YOU should be a guest on _Tangentially Speaking_! Seriously.

    (I apologize if this is a double post... my browser crashed when I tried to send my first draft)

    1. I would seriously love that - but I don't know how I'd manage it. I know he's trying to put together a book of transcripts from the podcast and i sent him a note volunteering, but I on't know if anything will come of it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.