The cracks in the sidewalk
Draft of 2017.05.25
A personal update
In mid-February, three months and some days ago, I sat down in a single hours-long session to write a difficult essay where I talked about the practical problems and consequences we’ve encountered from living with depression for so many years. The outpouring of good will and monetary support that followed was frankly stunning.
I confess that I’m still finding it hard to put into words the thankfulness we feel towards those who’ve contributed to keeping us afloat. Friends and relatives and colleagues—many of whom I know are themselves on the short end of the scale financially—gave generously and helped my wife and me get closer to escaping a debt trap we had fallen into. We’ve been able to pay our bills and some of our back taxes for several weeks, and have been ramping up our effort to sell off all of our personal belongings into a full-time “business”.
Scare quotes around “business” because of course selling collectible and unusual items in an illiquid market to people who happen by and glance quickly at your wares is never a strong model. This is, by necessity, the practice of trying to sell old electronics gear and radio parts to retro-hardware Ham aficionados, antiquarian and technical books that are often available digitally, and craft kits and supplies to crafters. None of those are especially what-you-might-call “spendthrift” or “profligate” in their ways.
But you go to war with the army you have. It amazes me—always has—what people find value in and what they ignore. Rarity and market value mean almost nothing when you’re offering “long tail” collectibles and antiques. Instead, people want these things because they had one when they were children, or their aunt had one, or they just “love old things like that”. The utility isn’t in what it’s “for” or what it’s “worth”, it’s in what it does for them personally.
There’s a lesson in that for any startup founder or marketer or economist, I think.
The point of this eBay focus is to stay afloat, and to downsize our household… which is itself the collection of the don’t-throw-this-away downsizing of at least three or four other people’s households. We’ve purged the things that are easy to describe or cheap enough to discard. The irony of it all is that we helped all our dead relatives and friends get through their piles of life, on the prospect that we could share the pleasure with them of passing the good stuff along to people who would appreciate it. But of course the “good stuff” in anybody’s life is exactly the stuff that’s hard to describe, that appeals to a particular cultivated or specialist eye.
The downsizing+selling leverages us into the prospect of relaunching our professions. Barbara and I spent several days expanding and updating her website, and she’s better able now to promote her work as a photographer. She’s started including posts about some of her most ambitious photographic projects (“After Lewitt” and “Big”, especially).
And in addition to organizing and helping run the annual Genetic Programming Theory & Practice workshop at the University of Michigan last week, I’ve been able to make time to start my long-promised series of “computational études”. The most recent, “It Doesn’t Add Up”, is an open-ended exercise for programmers interested in abstract and recreational programming. There are another dozen in draft format right now, including the one that’s making the fans run on all the machines in the house, which is about evolving solutions to traditional and what you might call “non-traditional” magic squares.
And best of all, at least in the context of getting ourselves back on our feet, is the fact that the plot of land we’re selling seems to have interest. The depressed economy in Michigan, and the relative abundance of vacant land in the country, were the biggest risk of all.
Last leg: a call to action
The kindness and generosity of our family, friends and a remarkable number of strangers in contributing to our GoFundMe campaign has helped us pay off back taxes on that vacant land, so we can now sell it before it’s auctioned off. It’s also made up the shortfalls in our past due debts, while we aim towards the date of sale and ramp up our professional efforts.
It’s helped us feel again like we have the potential to offer something useful and interesting to the world, and maybe even that we have the strength of character to follow through on that promise.
But we’re still in the precarious position of being short of money. If you would do us the favor, please, of passing along links to the campaign https://www.gofundme.com/bill-needs-money, I’m hopeful that we can make up the shortfall we’re experiencing now. Neither Barbara nor I have Facebook accounts (we closed them years back), so even just passing word along will help.