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 (