On needing help

Draft of 2017.02.17

May include: workpersonalmoney&c.

We’ve reached a point in our lives where my wife Barbara and I need help.

cut to the chase

The why

About a dozen years ago—2004, based on the boxes we’re unpacking now—we were in a fine position in the arc of our lives. Like many middle-class children of professionals and second marriages, we were born to our parents late in their lives1, and they had established themselves rather well, and we were in turn well-taken care of.

At any rate, in the early 2000s, my Mom and Barbara’s parents were getting on in years, and they had various health problems one expects to crop up in one’s 70s and 80s: diabetes, arthritis, cataracts, aneurysm, colon cancer, hypertension and some emergency heart attacks. We’d been in Ann Arbor almost a decade by this point, and had a very reasonable income stream from consulting work, we were developing startup ideas to launch new social ventures. I’d gone back to graduate school for a PhD in Industrial Engineering.

A sunny period.

Also, we had enough free time, and the right kind of intuitions about collecting, that we were able to start helping friends and family downsize their households. By finding the valuable stuff and purging the junk. Gradually, we would sell the more valuable collectibles and books and antiques for them on eBay. On consignment, often as not, passing a share back to them.

That’s what we were doing for some friends of my Mom, in the Summer of 2004. Nancy (the friend) had been head of the local Antiques Club for quite a while, and all her life was fascinated by material culture and antiques and the odd little collections you find as you visit estate sales and garage sales in the suburbs of Rust Belt cities. So when she and her husband decided to downsize and move to a simpler condo, we helped Nancy box and cull a few hundred book-boxes of the good stuff she’d accumulated through the decades, and purge the “junk” in a garage sale and a dumpster.

I set to work, selling it off for her on consignment, one box at a time.

eBay selling is time- and attention-demanding. These things I’m describing aren’t commodities, they’re collectibles, and not the sort you can just Google and identify right away from the first page of results. Antique pyrography kits purchased from magazines in the 1900s and executed by hand by smart middle-class pre-World War I kids as gifts for their mothers; exotic Victorian trade cards from boot manufacturers; Colonial-era pickle jars. Not commodity collectibles like Franklin Mint plates or stuff you buy because it’s collectible, but rather stuff that is collectible only because you know what it really is.

But of course Nancy knew what it all was, and we all knew that she could help me re-identify it as we unpacked it, box by box, and listed it on eBay and waited for the smart people out there who also knew what it was to notice. Some fraction of those would buy it, and eventually I’d move to the next box.

My Dad had died back in the early 1990s, and my Mom at this point was used to living alone in the house they’d built in the 1950s outside Cleveland. Although, as I said: arthritis, cataracts, that sort of thing. As Nancy’s house got packed up and “simplified”, my Mom realized she still had my Dad’s stuff, and decades of her own as well. Increasingly it was harder for her, physically, to get into the basement or the second story, fill a grocery bag with old road maps or dress patterns and recycle them. And then when one day I was visiting and saw the 1950s dress patterns peeking above the top of the recycling bin, and looked them up on eBay… well, I convinced her that this sort of thing could get shunted into the same stream of lots I was listing on eBay for Nancy.

So we spent the summer downsizing my Mom’s house as well, on the assumption that she’d either move to a nice Cleveland assisted living place, or (my preference) move in with us. We brought my brothers in from out of town, we cleaned up the garage and the basement—my Dad’s domain, filled not just with typical Dad stuff but also a lot of his post-retirement-from-NASA radio gear and telescopes and sciencey stuff that he had accumulated through the decades of being a nerd. Including a quart of reagent-grade mercury, and about a cubic yard of vacuum tubes, and more or less all the NACA and NASA memorabilia he had brought home from work… stuff like that.

I bet you see where this is be going.

First place it’s going is directly into a big-ass pile of boxes. Nancy’s boxes, and my Mom’s boxes, all piled neatly and efficiently in a storage bin here in Ann Arbor. At that point, realize, these are boxes of actually valuable stuff: collectibles, historical items, not hoarded stuff but literally meta-collections from Nancy and almost 100 years of family history from my Dad (who was born in 1908) and Mom (who had a lot of her parents’ stuff too, since my Grandma had lived with us when I was a kid).

In this same period, we started looking for new digs here in Michigan. I’d convinced my Mom to consider moving in with us. We had a guest room, she was mobile enough and it would be easier for her to live with us in a shared but semi-private mother-in-law suite, than it was to take care of her house. When time permitted or it was called for, we figured we’d buy a house with a mother-in-law apartment proper, not just a guest room en suite, and then all move in together there.

We even found that house. A couple of times. Put in a bid on a great one a few miles from here… but the deal we’d made with the buyers of our house fell through, and as I write this today I am currently sitting in the same house we’ve always had.

Not a tangent: There’s one thing you do whenever you go to sell your own house. You put your extra shit into boxes in storage. So yes, a substantial fraction of our own personal belongings ended up in boxes next to Nancy’s and my Mom’s in the storage bin.

I was in graduate school in a nice engineering program, and we were in the background opening a box at a time—maybe one a week—making the eBay auctions for them, accumulating an inventory storage plan, that sort of thing. Paying out consignments to Nancy (and a few other folks who happened by around then), contentedly and consistently shifting one box at a time.

And then of course the steady march of time started rolling downhill.

Barbara’s father got very sick, and very quickly. A foot amputation, out of the blue, and then a series of hospital-acquired infections, and cataract surgery gone wrong, and…you know, the general disorder of getting old. Barbara went to Columbus that year, and spent most of the time helping her mother Anne give him full time care… around the clock, really, because he was weak by then, couldn’t see or hear very well, and was bedridden and missing a leg suddenly and tended to get infections that made him confused. So he needed help getting out of bed every few hours, needed care moving and eating, fell a number of times….

This is how it goes. You do what you need to.

And then Nancy got sick—suddenly and without any more warning than an occasional unexplained headache—around that same time. A tumor, late stage, craniofacial, lots of metastases. She’d been a nurse, and she knew the lay of the land almost immediately. I remember calling her in the hospital after her first surgery, when she told me in no uncertain terms not to come visit her, not to fret, that we had other things to worry about. And then it was her funeral, and her husband telling me not to worry about the boxes, we had other things to worry about. And then soon after it was his funeral, too.

I know the dates, because I am looking the boxes here around me in my house, right now.

I was running back and forth between Michigan and Columbus—trying to help Barbara and her Mom as much as possible with her Dad’s end-of-life care—and Cleveland, helping my Mom with her downsizing.

Then Barbara’s Dad died, most of a year after being admitted to hospice care. Not in an “and then” way, of course; it was a long, lingering, sickly year he spent.

Of course we grieved, but were relieved a bit as well. We helped Anne dig out; you do what you need to. We helped her purge old clothes and clean the place and remove the accessibility bars and get re-settled, tried as much as we could to get her back into the swing of whatever we come to call the “normal life” of widowhood. My Mom spent much of her time at our house, watching the dog and house-sitting and relaxing, while Barbara and I helped Anne pack things up and try to get on with life.

Around this time, I thought carefully about what we’d seen in the hospitals and geriatric units and extended care facilities we’d spent most of a year in, and… (as I thought) took the object lesson to heart. We’d looked by this point at more than a hundred houses, looking for mother-in-law suites or space enough to put one, but I was convinced that we should buy vacant land, and build a custom house for our mothers and us to share. The houses on the market, the McMansions in the country developments, weren’t ever made for little old ladies who can’t climb stairs.

So we did buy land. Eight acres of lovely rolling land in the country, a few miles north of Ann Arbor. Deer, sandhill cranes, southern exposure, lots of open sky.

Buying vacant land right before the housing bubble burst was not the sort of thing Barbara and I could do ourselves, but my Mom chipped in the extra money we needed, and we got house plans drawn up professionally and everything. Anne had spent her time getting back on her feet in Columbus, and was coming around to thinking that maybe she’d had enough time on her own, rattling around in the empty house, and allowed that she might just be willing to join us out in the country in Michigan.

She stayed with us a few times, trying it out, so she knew she was welcome.

And this of course is when Anne had her stroke. It was a bad one, and was followed by a half-dozen rapid and inexorable “setbacks” as they call them in the ICU. She never left the hospital, in those three months or so. In some real and practical sense—one that lasted years—neither did we.

Grieving and practicalities filled these days. I left graduate school, Barbara and I cleaned out Anne’s house in Columbus. Somewhere in here, my Mom moved in with us permanently, ensconced in a guest room with a private bathroom, a bit over-crowded with the personal belongings she wanted most. The rest of what was left in her house in Cleveland went into boxes, in the pile next to Nancy’s boxes and our own boxes and my Mom’s first round of boxes. The stuff in Anne’s empty house went into more boxes, similarly placed. Each pile, a bit more of a hurry, less of a mindful sorting.

But we knew we’d get to them, eventually.

Then follows a sort of hiatus.

A period of relative quiet, in hindsight not so much because of nothing happening, but rather because of the gray, flat world. There’s grieving, and there’s being overwhelmed, and there’s making do, one day at a time. My Mom’s arthritis and other problems gradually got worse, she had her own series of infections and confusions, diverticulitis and all the other indignities of aging. We got an electric stair-lift installed in the house, so she could get up and down the stairs more safely. I’d take her to her doctor appointments (acting both as her transportation and medical advocate), and she’d complain wryly about whether her doctors’ training ever included being forced to take a colonoscopy prep while being unable to walk from the bed to the bathroom. They’d smile sheepishly, maybe not sure how serious she was (she was very serious), and eventually they’d admit that no, they had not ever undertaken a colonoscopy prep while wearing shoes filled with medium-sized gravel to simulate how her arthritic feet felt all the time.

This sort of conversation happened with increasing frequency. Not a lot of boxes got emptied. No house got built on the vacant land.

Eventually, in latter 2011, she’d got to the point where she felt like hell more or less all the time. She’d gotten another infection (diverticulitis or something), had another fall and period of confusion. When the antibiotics had kicked in and she was herself again, she was told she’d have to go in for radical intestinal resection of some sort.

Which is when she said, more or less verbatim, Shove it up your ass, Doctor. She said later she’d never said that out loud before in her life, only muttered it, and that it felt remarkably freeing. And of course also terrifying.

How could it not?

Kudos to the geriatrician she had at the time, who I will always hold in the highest respect. He made sure she knew exactly what it meant, to refuse surgery. And that we all understood that, as a result, she’d almost certainly get another infection some time soon, and that every time these were getting worse, and that at some point antibiotics wouldn’t fix things. We all talked at length about the consequences and prospects and so forth.

And this is when we started to learn about palliative care.

My Mom was done with the necessity of trying to pull her shoes on in a rush in the middle of the night, just so she could hobble as quickly as she could on her untenable arthritic feet to the toilet because of another goddamned colonoscopy prep. From that point forward—for the rest of her life—her firm commitment was to quit the crappy painful “battle”, and we agreed that per her vehement wishes, she’d only seek palliative and eventually hospice care.

She was only mildly ill at this point, and once we’d all gotten over the mutual surprise at the clarity of the changed world, we discovered how things would be different. She could get all the home nursing assistance she wanted, now. She could have all the drugs she wanted, too. Pudding and bananas for dinner, tomato soup and warm broth for breakfast. Whatever struck her fancy, that she could keep down.

While she could, still, we got her up out of bed once a day, maybe over into the TV room next door to fall asleep watching something. Then it was back to bed. Her geographic range shrunk precipitously: no more trips to doctors, the nurses and aides would come to her now. Her days got shorter as she got more ill, more like three or four hours at a stretch reading a mystery in her chair, and then back to bed from exhaustion. Gradually shifting from getting to the bathroom on her own, to needing help, to a bedpan, and about then she started to lose consciousness more often. More morphine, more soft foods, until finally she was down to just the water she needed to stay hydrated and moderately comfortable.

She died, certainly not as she “wanted” but at least on terms she was able to negotiate, just a bit before her ninetieth birthday.

That was five years ago, give or take a few weeks. As anybody can tell you who’s been through this sort of thing—not just the grieving but the one-after-another stress of watching loved ones fail despite your best efforts—it seems like yesterday to me. There’s stress, and then “post-stress”, and then there’s post-repeated-stress. And so on. By induction or something: it’s stress from there on out.

That said, not a lot has happened in those five years. Barbara and I were cut loose. Our dog died, one more of the family lost.

Which is not to say we sit in the dark staring off at space. Not much. Barbara and I both launched new careers somewhere in there, though it’s a bit hard to set the dates for that; there are no boxes with those milestones as labels.

She is a professional artist. I’m pursuing something wonderful: something I realized was needed in the world back before all this began, but which I can only now start to address in these writings here and in some other projects I really really want to announce shortly. The people I describe it to, they inevitably get excited very quickly. I take that as a good and encouraging sign that I’m on the right track.

Things being what they are when you’re in this state, we kept the land my Mom had bought with us, rather than selling it off as part of her estate. We slowly tried to get back to paying work, and to otherwise re-engage in that Part of the World that Pays the Bills.

Not very effectively, as it happens.

As our money started to drain into the outstanding—really, really amazing, as the current administration is prone to say—debts we’d built up taking care of our parents, I started selling items on eBay again from our Huge Pile of Boxes.

That’s not a fast process. It doesn’t “scale”, as businesses are supposed to do these days. It’s a matter of individualized history and narrative and research, not inventory control and palletized stock control. There are no drone-compatible strategies here, and no cunning database schema will make it faster or simpler.

Instead of selling off the vacant land my Mom was kind enough to buy with us as our “collective retirement farm”—and which I inherited in full from her in lieu of cash—we hung onto it. We would go out to visit every few months, sit in the driveway and watch the wind blow in the meadow, sighing.

But as the boxes go on eBay, money comes in. Not a lot. Not enough.

We’ve burned through our savings, have looked for work and come up short. When medical emergencies cropped up along the way, we disassembled our IRA accounts, one month at a time. No health insurance; the ACA and our income levels in our state of residence mean we fall into one of those “holes” they talk about. Occasionally perhaps we might not have even had auto insurance. Tax bills cropped up, on the house we live in, and also on those vacant eight acres. The economy tanked, again. We drew away from our core face-to-face and online social networks over the hardest years.

You know. All that normal stuff one does.

And of course we’ve looked for work. It turns out that spending a decade caring for relatives at home, and blogging, and being in graduate school, and a bit of consulting now and then? Doesn’t usually get you into the middle management tier. Opening and selling boxes of antiques has in general paid better for the same amount of work as temp jobs. Some thoughtful friends have handed us gigs doing programming with them, but as helpful as they are in themselves, the tub keeps draining.

For example, the taxes are due. We own eight acres of dirt, but missed the smart window for selling it, years ago, when the market was better for vacant land. Our IRAs are empty. I can net $2000/month or so, selling boxed items on eBay full-time.

Some time back, the relatively flat line marked “in” and the steep downward-slanting line marked “out” finally crossed.

Probably too late to do any good, I looked at what we had, and what we needed. Around Thanksgiving last year, when the first really overdue bills were being mentioned in 8am phone calls from the creditors, it suddenly clicked that we should have sold the vacant land long ago. It was partly melancholia, partly mourning, partly a tenacious sense that it was “valuable” somehow. I literally had never considered it. High on the list of symptoms of depression is “not thinking clearly”, and so there you go.

Like I said: last year it finally sank in. So that’s when I put my eight acres of vacant land up for sale.

But the market in vacant land is illiquid at the best of times. The property is beautiful, and more wild and inspiring all the time. It’s got a hell of a view, and loads of potential. But it’s out in the country, outside town, on a secondary dirt road, not especially visible if you’re driving too fast. And this is Michigan, so it’s not every day somebody wanting to build a custom home out in the country drives down that particular road, and happens to glance up that particular secluded driveway, and sees my own personal sprawling rolling terrain, so fraught with potential.

And yet, the taxes are overdue, and that property is about to be foreclosed upon. Also the taxes are due (and a bit, but not as badly, overdue) on our house. And there’s the full credit card, and the home equity line of credit.

The vacant land won’t sell in time for us to pay the back taxes on the vacant land.

This comes up, a lot: “Why don’t you just sell off all those boxes of stuff?”

Well, first: I am. Ten, fifteen, twenty hours a day.

A lot of well-meaning friends and colleagues seem to think this involves piling them all in the driveway on a sunny afternoon, running a garage sale as if I were opening a lemonade stand, or calling some kind of estate sale planner. Those friends are often well-meaning cosmopolitan knowledge workers, and culturally they lean towards a sort of squicky uneasiness when faced with the prospect of being “tied down” by “all that stuff.” Add on top of that uneasiness the popular notion that any sort of “keeping old things” is some kind of slippery slope that leads inevitably towards hoarding and dying unknown in a house full of rats and catshit, and often as not they really really try to convince me that selling it all off no matter what is “the way to go”.

They’re well-meaning. They really don’t know what’s in the boxes, is all. Some (mine) are boxes of antiquarian books, not old National Geographic. Some contain whole lifetimes-worth of collections of 18th- and 19th-century Americana, gathered into a meta-collection and cataloged mentally by good old Nancy. Some are stuffed with mid-century decorative arts (my Mom’s), or esoteric one-of-a-kind scientific and engineering equipment (my Dad’s).

The “stuff” and the “junk”? We got rid of all that years ago, when we were downsizing all those households. What’s left is items whose value lies in being recognized, contextualized, seen by an archivist or a collector or somebody who has an almost-complete set, except for that one missing piece.

In other words: the value, for almost all of it, is in the stories in which the things are wrapped. What any given thing is or was historically, and who it belonged to, and what it was for in context. Admittedly, those are stories that people now dead knew better than we do. But you do what you can. We can find some of it out, using a lot of hard work and our amateur historians’ skills.

But drop it on eBay, or pile it on a table in a garage sale or estate auction, and label it BOX OF OLD RADIO PARTS or NICE OLD GERMAN BOOK WITH PIX? It’ll sell for pennies. If I tell the right person that it’s a box of parts for a radar transmitter, or that the “old German” book is actually a Swedenborgian treatise on the Apocalypse, things change.

Just like vacant land, storied things are illiquid.

It takes time to find and tell the right stories, and to the right people.

Time is money.

And the money is quite literally gone.

So now we need help.

This is the part where I feel as if I’m supposed to say that writing this has been the “hardest thing I’ve ever done”.

But it turns out to be nothing of the sort. I can think of a dozen harder things I’ve done, over the years. Calling up angel investors who wanted eagerly to know how much money our startup needed, and telling them we were folding the company rather than taking their money. Sitting in dim rooms, listening to halting breathing, playing line-up-three-gems games for days at a time, year after year. Committing a big part of our last “surplus” cash towards keeping a community afloat, that I had helped build and save from misdirection, on a wish and hope.

So no. Scroll back up there 5000 words or so, and you can tell. For me, telling a story—once you have the story in hand, and the breath with which to speak it, and the right ear to pour it into—is easy.

Doing what we’ll have to do next is the hard part.

Which is why Barbara and I need your help.

Here it is:

  1. Somehow we need to find the money to pay the back taxes on our vacant land, so we don’t lose it completely.
  2. We need to sell that land. That will (as you can see from the listing) give us breathing room and a chance to get ourselves out from under debt. But it’ll take months.
  3. We start again, and pick back up our new careers: professional photographer and a social entrepreneur. The “social entrepreneur” thing I want to do is easy to elevator-pitch: Let me be the Martin Gardner of Complex Systems thinking. There. That’s it. It will be wonderful. It’s what I was made for.
  4. We continue to empty the boxes, and tell the necessary stories, and connect again to the network of people out there who know what stuff really is, and what things were and will be for in their new lives, down the road. Not because of our sunk cost in sorting and packing and storing and rediscovering all this stuff, and not because we think stuff in itself is important. We keep doing that because we said we would. It’s the stories that mattered to the people who owned this stuff, and it’s the stories that matter to those who will get it. And in case you don’t understand, yet, after all this and all that went before: stories are our true gods.
  5. And most important: we fight. Dammit. What the hell have you all done, while I’ve been away?

This year. This nation. This decaying, warming world it’s stuck on, and the paltry, crabby, pinched stories it’s willing to believe.

The storied, diverse, many-peopled world needs to be fought for more now, than ever. Writing about my mother’s death, writing about the stupid shit I’ve done with money for the decades? My eyes are dry. But look at this shit, this Neoliberal Taylorist philosophically blind contention you’ve wrapped yourselves up in. Look at how people treat one another, regardless of their party, as resources, as things, as storyless components in businesses and demographics.

That’s when I tear up. The dead I’ve spent a decade with would shake their damned heads at us. Every one of them.

So my primary pain here, now, in this situation, is that I can’t fucking fight from under this thumb of debt. I know about complex systems and social dynamics and institutional design, about code and entrepreneurship, about culture and media, about science and history and here it is and the fucking End of the World is unfolding. Fascism has come back out into the open in America, the Life of the Mind is evaporating, the work we thought would change the “world of work” has become a Taylorist dystopia, and…

And all this shouldn’t be lost.

But as things stand, I’m afraid to answer the phone. Because I know it will be another debt collector. That needs to stop.

So help us get past this place where the evil lines cross. Help us do what we need to do.

I want so much to make this a better story for us all.

The call to action

Any amount of money will help. Our accounts are all quite literally empty, and the bills have piled up.

First, and possibly the least painful and most interesting, you could look at the things I’m selling now on eBay. Buy something, if you like it. Don’t feel obliged, don’t buy randomly. But if you are tempted, consider that.

Second: If you want to send a fast one-off tip, or a more helpful handful, please consider using Paypal.me. Several folks have generously sent one-time contributions already. It works.

Third, you could join the handful of folks on Patreon who have been kind enough to support me on my word, on my promise of things to come. A little every month, right now, but en masse it adds up quickly.

Finally, the Big Guns: I am setting up a GoFundMe campaign. The description there will be briefer, more succinct, less “idiosyncratic” than what I’m comfortable putting here in my personal space. But it will essentially be the same: We’re stuck. Things are actually pretty bad. Please help.

If we can get through Step 2 on my list above, then things will be different. Out from under this thumb, we can work again.

I know the ear to pour the next stories into.

We only need a bit more air.

Thank you for reading along.

  1. Take a moment, though—in case you’re making life decisions now—and realize that when you put off having children until later in your life, then as a consequence your children will come into their own about the same time that you will be declining. Think, in other words, about ending up being far more like your children’s grandparents than their parents and peers. We don’t all decide these things, and we don’t all get to plan our lives, but there is a certain class of well-off educated middle class folks who may be thinking of putting off children until “after” their careers are established. This is fine, this is reasonable even, and if we had children it’s almost certain we’d have made the same choice. But when you do that, just understand that you will be very old when they are in their primes.