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Responding to Collapse, Part 5: finding a small town

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on December 28, 2018

 

 

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In my last post I started talking about moving from the city to a small town as a way to make adapting to collapse easier, and I listed a number of criteria for choosing a small town. Today we'll be looking at some of those criteria in greater detail.

As before, credit goes to Don Hayward, Joe Clarkson from the comment section of this blog, and, new this time, to Category 5, from the Dark Green Mountain blog and the Doomstead Diner.

Looking back on the criteria I laid out last time, I can see that I should have divided them into two sections— picking a town where you can live while BAU is still working and then picking a town that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us. For the next while we will find ourselves living in two worlds—trying to make enough of a success of life in BAU so that we can afford to disentangle ourselves from BAU and get something started to replace it.

So, to get started, just exactly how far from the city do you need to be? I am very much a "shades of gray" guy, so my answer will be in terms of a spectrum rather than a single hard number. Here in rural Canada we tend to talk about distances in terms of driving time. I would guess that an hour amounts to around 50 miles. I live about three hours from Toronto, around two hours from many other cities to the south and east of here, and about an hour and a quarter from the small city to the northeast. I am not considering a move to get farther away, so if pressed for a definite answer I would say somewhere between an hour and two hours is a sufficient minimum distance. To be cautious, err on the long end of that range, and of course I'm not saying you shouldn't be more than 2 hours from a city. On the other hand, you may find you need to be close to a city for a while yet and accordingly place yourself at the lower end of the range, while remaining aware of the greater risk that probably entails.

Many cities are quite close together and there are whole areas where there is nowhere far enough from a city to meet my distance criteria. Moving away from your current city but toward another one clearly won't help.

By the time collapse has progressed far enough for this distance to be a real concern, transportation fuels will be in short supply, either because of genuine shortages, market malfunctions or supply chain breakdowns. Initially they will be "rationed by price" to the point where they are not affordable for most of us, or they will be outright rationed by the authorities. Then there will be intermittent interruptions in the supply. And at some point beyond that these fuels will not be available at any price. So the distance from the city would have to be covered on foot or bicycle, making it, in effect, considerably longer. That two hour drive would be a multi-day walk for most people, if they could manage to do it at all.

There are several reasons for wanting to be this far away:

  • in the city there are limited opportunities for adaptation in the face of infrastructure and supply chain failures—the resources you need are just not available locally. You need to be far enough away from population centres that the local resources can support the local population
  • there will be social unrest and civil disobedience (much of it justified) in many cities—violence that you don't want to get caught up in
  • as conditions worsen in the cities, there will occasionally be waves of refugees fleeing from them. I think the aim of people in small towns like mine should to help those refugees, but if there are too many we won't be able to help them and things will go badly for both them and us. So, we want to be far enough away that the distance acts as a filter and reduces their numbers to something manageable.
  • it seems likely that there will epidemics from time to time, especially as public health systems start to fall apart. It would be good to have some distance between you and any city that is being ravaged by an epidemic. A sort of geographical quarantine.

But the main reason you're moving to a small town is for what's there, not what you are trying to get away from.

What size of small town you should be looking for?

Zero is the wrong answer. As Douglas Ruskhoff says, "being human is a team sport." You can't accomplish much, especially in the long term, as an isolated individual or family. Even a group of a few families will find themselves struggling just to survive. In my opinion, remote, isolated survivalist compounds or even lifeboat eco-villages have little future. More people means a greater range of skills and talents and more redundancy in the support systems you need to set up.

I don't think there is much hope of retreating to the wilderness and surviving by hunting and gathering, either. There is very little wilderness left and what is left is not so completely untouched as it once was. The effect of this is to make hunting and gathering more difficult and it is, in any case, a skilled and demanding lifestyle, especially if you weren't born to it. Learning those skills, when you aren't living in a group where most people already have them, would be very challenging.

What you really need is a community that is viable now, as part of "Business as Usual", and which can adapt as collapse progresses and then still be viable under post collapse conditions.

Now I will agree that for some activities a lone individual is best, and for others 2 to 5 people is ideal. But these are specific, short duration jobs within a larger context.

At this point some of you are probably thinking of "Dunbar's number"—"the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person." That number is somewhere between 100 and 250 people, and there is definitely something to the idea. But I would say that this is more like the lower limit on size for a viable community. Larger communities are made up of smaller, overlapping circles of people who know each other in the "Dunbar" sense.

The upper limit on the size of a viable community is determined by how many people the surrounding geography can support without fossil fuel powered agriculture and shipping. Typically that would be a few thousand people, possibly as many as 10 to 20 thousand in ideal circumstances. A counter example would be Edo (now Tokyo) during the days of the shoguns, which grew to over one million people without the benefit of fossil fuels or modern technology. But these days climate change is reducing the carrying capacity of almost every area, and you must remember that the size of small towns will increase first as former locals return from the city and then again as refugees arrive. Set your upper limit around ten thousand to begin with.

So, distance and size will help narrow things down somewhat, as will the climate change based criteria I mentioned previously. But still, which town to pick?

Probably the most important consideration is connections in the community. If you grew up in a small town, if you still have family there, or even close friends, then that town has to be very high on your list of places to consider. If you have limited resources, those connections may prove vital in making your move possible.

Next, I think you have to be looking for a place where you can find accommodations and earn a living in the short run while "BAU" is still in operation. As Category 5 suggests, once you have found a likely looking small town, it would be a good idea to live there in rental accommodation for a year or two in order to get to know the place better. It takes more than a few brief visits to really size a place up and figure out how to fit in. And for those with limited resources, renting on an ongoing basis may in any case be a better alternative than taking on a mortgage you can't really cope with. In today's uncertain market, it's wise let your landlord take the risk of investing in real estate.

Financial considerations also have to be very high on your list of priorities. Eddie at the Doomstead Diner has written an excellent article entitled "Some Inconvenient Truths About Collapse Economics". He challenges the idea, common among kollapsniks, that the only things worth investing in are preparations, gold, silver and farmland. At some point in the future that may be true, but you have to have a plan for surviving in the meantime, and that will likely involve taking part in an economy that you know has a limited shelf life—even putting some of you money into conventional BAU style investments in the short term.

I'll be going into more detail on this in a future post, but some degree of preparation is a very good idea and you should spend some money on it, but not every cent you have. It is also good to have some ordinary cash on hand, and even some actual physical gold and/or silver carefully hidden where you can get at it if you need it. Farm land, while it is tempting, is currently very expensive per acre and since it comes in large chunks, likely to be out of reach for most people. Remote farms may cost less, but leave you too isolated.

When I talk about "collapse progressing", it may sound like I am envisaging a uniform run downhill, but my regular readers will know this is not the case. Collapse progresses unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. This is good news if you are thinking of moving, because there is likely some place where things are better than where you are now, especially if you are flexible and willing to adapt to a new situation. There are "eddies" in the stream of collapse, places where things occasionally stand still or even improve somewhat for a while.

I think this is very true of both real estate and employment considerations.

A great many cities are experiencing real estate bubbles today. Accommodation costs a lot to buy or rent there and the situation is only getting worse. This is less about the demand for housing and more about malfunctioning markets and people with money trying to find somewhere to invest it at a good rate of return. But since there is no real demand to justify those real estate prices they will eventually decline, and decline precipitously. The trick is to get out with your assets intact before that bubble bursts.

Aside from high prices caused by investment bubbles, there is also often a clear relationship between distance from good employment opportunities and the cost of housing. Housing in small towns away from big employment centers (which are almost always in cities) is very likely to be less expensive. So if you don't mind a longer commute, if you can telecommute, or if you can make the big leap of finding work away from the city, you will likely find housing that costs less.

But I've read that in the United States towns with more affordable housing also offer jobs that pay less, so moving there may not solve your problems. It seems to me that this will be determined by what level the minimum wage is pegged at, if there is one. So states (provinces here in Canada) with a decent minimum wage would be a good place to look for work.

Handymen and skilled tradesmen are most always in demand, as are skilled professionals. Even small towns have a few relatively unskilled jobs in service industries and there will be seasonal work in agriculture and tourism. One of the few justifiable reasons for delaying this move is to find a job to support you in your new location. Just don't make this an excuse for not moving.

I live in a small town that is in an economic eddy, being a bedroom community for a nearby nuclear plant which employs several thousand people. (It's one of the largest nuclear generating developments in the world.) This is "energy sprawl", where lower EROEI energy sources require a lot more infrastructure, and just happen to create jobs building, operating and maintaining that infrastructure in the process. So such opportunities do exist.

How you approach these opportunities will largely depend on your own personal circumstances—your socioeconomic class, in particular.

The Upper Class

If you are a member of the upper class—the "one percent"—you can do as you please, at least for the moment. But in a really serious financial crash, your wealth is likely to evaporate, and you probably don't have the sort of skills that will be needed in the aftermath. For all I care, you can jump out a fortieth floor window and end it all quickly. But if you hope to survive, you'd better be prepared to fit in and keep a low profile, among people who are likely to be resentful of the rich, who they see (correctly) as responsible for the mess the world is in.

No doubt though, you will be focusing on ways of keeping BAU rolling along and maintaining your status within it. Good luck with that.

The Middle Class

Indeed, a willingness to let go of BAU should probably be seen as the distinguishing difference between the middle and upper classes. Though currently, especially in the U.S., many middle class folk mistakenly think that if they support policies that benefit the upper class they will themselves eventually be able to ascend into that class. Of course, the upper class does everything they can to encourage that attitude, with no intention at all of benefitting anyone but themselves.

There are two traps here: one is thinking that you have much chance of joining the upper class and the other is thinking that it would do you any good if you did. If you're currently in the middle class, you likely have enough resources to respond to collapse in a fairly effective fashion. Don't miss the opportunity.

If you already own a home or at least have quite a bit of equity in it, you may well be able to sell it, buy a house in a small town and still have enough cash left over to retire early and invest in preparations. You should do this soon, before the real estate bubble bursts. If you are already retired, you can probably do the same thing and end up in better financial shape than if you'd stayed in the city.

If you are middle class but younger, you are likely working at a job that is keeping you in that class, and this will make the proposition of leaving the city much harder to consider seriously. But perhaps you can commute or even telecommute from a small town. Or find a small town with a local industry that needs people with your skills. If you are renting or have only recently bought a home and don't yet have much equity built up in it, then renting in a small town may cost you substantially less than your current rent or mortgage payments. Don't make the mistake of believing that real estate prices will keep going up forever.

All middle class people should look ahead to days of further economic contraction and consider taking a "deliberate descent" approach to life. That is, learn to live with less, so that when that is all you have left, it won't be so much of a shock. As John Michael Greer has said, "collapse now and avoid the rush." And of course, living frugally will make your resources last longer.

The Lower Class

It can be difficult to see where the line should be drawn between the middle and lower classes, so I am going to simplify things and lump everyone who has a somewhat decent, secure job with benefits, and who owns a home or is renting while saving with a reasonable expectation of being able to buy a home in the foreseeable future, into the middle class. We'll leave other assets and debts as an issue for another day.

Below that is the lower class which for the purposes of this discussion includes, at the upper end, those who have a job and can afford accommodation and a vehicle to drive to work, down through those who have to choose between accommodation and a vehicle, and may end up working but living in a vehicle, through to those who are jobless and homeless. The majority of these people, if they have a job, are members of the "precariat". That is, their job is not in any way secure and does not pay enough to make the rest of their lives secure either. If you are a member of the precariat, you don't need to be told about "deliberate descent"—you're already living it, though I would guess not willingly.

No doubt it is somewhat presumptuous on my part, as a relatively "fat cat" middle class guy, to offer advice to lower class people. Though I did grow up on a small family farm in a family that was just barely middle class at best. And my kids have certainly spent their share (and more) of time in the precariat. But I don't really have a lot of experience at being poor and when I have problems, I am accustomed to using money to solve them. For people in the lower class that’s rarely an option.

Nonetheless, I have a few things to say that I hope may be of help. Lower class people are, I think, farther along the collapse road than the rest of us, and may well be less bothered as things fall further apart—it will all just be more of the same shit to them. Psychologically they are quite resilient but, materially speaking, they have very limited resources to deal with specific problems as they arise, and in that sense they will be harder hit. So, for lower class people, the need to get out of the cities is no less, but the challenge of doing so may be greater.

Many of the problems faced by people in the lower class come from the degree of isolation in which they find themselves. I think there are great possibilities for small groups of disadvantaged people to get together and share housing, food, transportation and so forth. Sadly, we have largely forgotten the skills for getting along in such circumstances, or have been convinced by those who are in power that such skills are worthless. The neo-liberal approach of using money to mediate all relationships between people leaves us at the mercy of those who control the money and that of course is exactly what they want. I think there is a lot of potential in various sorts of co-operative ventures to break out of this trap.

I've been doing a bit of reading at Sharable, a website that "aims to empower people to share for a more resilient, equitable, and joyful world". This is essentially what I am talking about here. It would certainly be a move in the direction of the adaptations we'll have to make down the road in order to succeed in small isolated communities.

Well, I think that's enough for now. Next time we'll continue with this, looking closer at criteria for choosing a small town as place to live as BAU goes further downhill and we can no longer rely on it completely for the necessities of life

Canadian Prepper: Perspectives from the Great White North II

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on December 29, 2015

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A few weeks ago I ran into a series of videos created by Canadian Prepper, "After the Collapse" for his You Tube channel, which as the name suggest is more oriented towards Prepping than analysis of Collapse Dyamics.  However, he crosses over to this area just as we  cross over into discussions of Prepping, on what CP calls the "Macro" scale.  The macro scale is for people concerned with how society itself will reform in the aftermath of collapse and how to prepare for that, not just physically but psychologically also.

In Part 2 of our Podcast, we discuss personal preparations, what type of collapse is likely to happen, and what kind of people will adapt to collapse most effectively.  CP also talks about his own steps in preparation, shelter in place versus bugout, and the climate issues that different regions have in determining your type of preparation.

Although he still considers himself an "Amateur", the production on his videos is extremely well done with a lot of eye catching video clips and well chosen music soundtracks to give it audio punch.  In fact, his example has prodded me to get up to speed on video production and move from Soundcloud to YouTube with our interviews and audio productions.  Thus Part II here is up on our Collapse Cafe YouTube Channel & embedded above.

We look forward to further collaborations with CP and invite his You Tube followers to come in for a Collapse Meal at the Diner any time.  We are open 24/7 with the best Doom Discussion anywhere on the net.  Just remember to wear your Flameproof BVDs. :)

In case you missed it, here is Part 1 of our chat with Canadan Prepper.

Part II is also available on Diner Soundcloud as audio only with mp3 download.

EBOLA-BUSTERS! TOP MEN ON THE JOB!

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on October 23, 2014

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Snippet:

…The Tried & True meme here in Amerika when anything isn’t going exactly as planned is to Send in the Marines, aka enlist the Military as the Ultimate Problem Solver. This I guess is because the military has proven so effective in Vietnam, Aghanistan, Iraq et al? The military has done such a fabulous job with establishing Peaceful Democracies after dropping the Death from Above that we can trust them to handle an Ebola epidemic? WTF?

So, in the Dumb & Dumber Military Solution, besides the 3000 Sacrificial Lambs being pitched into the middle of the Plague in Africa, the other media propaganda Prep to prevent wholesale PANIC is the announcement that the Military is forming a Crack team of 30 Ebola-Busters who can be deployed anywhere in the FSoA inside 36 hours to handle any Ebola case that crops up inside the FSoA. Man, even the Ghostbusters couldn’t handle all the Paranormal Activity inside the Big Apple when Evil started running amok there, and those guys HAD all the best Slime Fighting Equipment! LOL….

No Worries folks,  the Pros from Dover & TOP MEN are on the Job!

For the rest, LISTEN TO THE RANT!!!

What if Ebola Comes to Amerika?

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Published on The Economic Collapse on July 30, 2014

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This Is What Is Going To Happen If Ebola Comes To America

If the worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history reaches the United States, federal law permits “the apprehension and examination of any individual reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease”.  These individuals can be “detained for such time and in such manner as may be reasonably necessary”.  In other words, the federal government already has the authority to round people up against their will, take them to detention facilities and hold them there for as long as they feel it is “reasonably necessary”.  In addition, as you will read about below, the federal government has the authority “to separate and restrict the movement of well persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill”.  If you want to look at these laws in the broadest sense, they pretty much give the federal government the power to do almost anything that they want with us in the event of a major pandemic.  Of course such a scenario probably would not be called “martial law”, but it would probably feel a lot like it.

If Ebola comes to America and starts spreading, one of the first things that would happen would be for the CDC to issue “a federal isolation or quarantine order”.  The following is what the CDC website says about what could happen under such an order…

Isolation and quarantine are public health practices used to stop or limit the spread of disease.

Isolation is used to separate ill persons who have a communicable disease from those who are healthy. Isolation restricts the movement of ill persons to help stop the spread of certain diseases. For example, hospitals use isolation for patients with infectious tuberculosis.

Quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of well persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill. These people may have been exposed to a disease and do not know it, or they may have the disease but do not show symptoms. Quarantine can also help limit the spread of communicable disease.

Isolation and quarantine are used to protect the public by preventing exposure to infected persons or to persons who may be infected.

In addition to serving as medical functions, isolation and quarantine also are “police power” functions, derived from the right of the state to take action affecting individuals for the benefit of society.

“Isolation” would not be a voluntary thing.  The federal government would start hunting down anyone that they “reasonably believed to be infected with a communicable disease” and taking them to the facilities where other patients were being held.  It wouldn’t matter if you were entirely convinced that you were 100% healthy.  If the government wanted to take you in, you would have no rights in that situation.  In fact, federal law would allow the government to detain you “for such time and in such manner as may be reasonably necessary”.

And once you got locked up with all of the other Ebola patients, there would be a pretty good chance that you would end up getting the disease and dying anyway.  The current Ebola outbreak has a 55 percent percent mortality rate, and experts tell us that the mortality rate for Ebola can be as high as 90 percent.

Once you contracted Ebola, this is what it would look like

Sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. That is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and internal and external bleeding.

The “external bleeding” may include bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and just about every other major body cavity.

So how is Ebola spread?

Well, medical authorities tell us that it can be spread through the blood, urine, saliva, stools and semen of a person or animal that already has Ebola.

If you are exposed to the disease, the incubation period can be from anywhere from two days up to 21 days.  But the average is usually about eight to ten days.

In other words, you can be spreading it around for over a week before you even know that you have it.

There is no vaccine for Ebola and there is no cure.

Not everyone dies from the virus, but most people do.

Needless to say, this is about the last disease that you want to catch.  And the doctors that are treating Ebola patients in Africa are going to extreme lengths to keep from getting it…

To minimise the risk of infection they have to wear thick rubber boots that come up to their knees, an impermeable body suit, gloves, a face mask, a hood and goggles to ensure no air at all can touch their skin.

Dr Spencer, 27, and her colleagues lose up to five litres of sweat during a shift treating victims and have to spend two hours rehydrating afterwards.

They are only allowed to work for between four and six weeks in the field because the conditions are so gruelling.

At their camp they go through multiple decontaminations which includes spraying chlorine on their shoes.

But despite all of those extraordinary measures, multiple doctors have already gotten sick.

For example, one of the doctors leading the fight against Ebola, Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan, died on Tuesday

A doctor who was on the front lines fighting the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone has died from complications of the disease, Doctors Without Borders said Tuesday.

Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan fell ill early last week while overseeing Ebola treatment at Kenema Government Hospital, about 185 miles east of Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown.

He was treated by the French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres — also known as Doctors Without Borders — in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, up until his death, spokesman Tim Shenk said.

And two American doctors that went over to Africa to help fight the disease are now battling for their own lives…

Dr. Kent Brantly, who was treating victims of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, is currently being treated in an isolation unit in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, the AP reported Tuesday.

“I’m praying fervently that God will help me survive this disease,” Brantly said in an email Monday to Dr. David Mcray, the director of maternal-child health at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas. The Texas-born Brantly, 33, completed a four-year medical residency at the hospital, the AP said.

Brantly’s wife and two young children left Liberia to return to Abilene, Texas, days before he began to show symptoms of Ebola. They are being monitored for any signs of fever, a City of Abilene spokeswoman told the AP.

A second American, aid worker Nancy Writebol of Charlotte, N.C., is also stricken with Ebola, according to CBS/AP. Writebol had been working as a hygienist to help decontaminate people at an Ebola care center in Monrovia.

This is not like other Ebola outbreaks.

Something seems different this time.

But instead of trying to keep things isolated to a few areas, global health authorities are going to start sending Ebola patients to other parts of the globe.  For example, one German hospital has already agreed to start receiving Ebola patients…

A German hospital has agreed to treat Ebola patients amid widespread fears of a possible outbreak of the deadly disease in Europe. Over 670 people have already been killed by the disease in West Africa with doctors struggling to control the epidemic.

A German hospital in Hamburg agreed to accept patients following a request from the World Health Organization (WHO), Deutsche Welle reports. Doctors assure that the utmost precautions will be taken to make sure the disease does not spread during treatment. The patients will be kept in an isolation ward behind several airlocks, and doctors and nurses will wear body suits with their own oxygen supplies that will be burned every three hours.

Will Ebola patients also soon be sent to hospitals in the United States?

And of course there are many other ways that Ebola could spread to this country.  For instance, all it would take would be for one infected person to get on one airplane and it could all be over.

Federal authorities seem to have been preparing for such an outbreak for quite a while.  As my good friend Mac Slavo has pointed out, “biological diagnostic systems” were distributed to National Guard units in all 50 states back in April…

The Department of Defense informed Congress that it has deployed biological diagnostic systems to National Guard support teams in all 50 states, according to a report published by the Committee on Armed Services. The report, published in April amid growing fears that the Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus might spread outside of West Africa, says that the portable systems are designed for “low probability, high consequence” scenarios.

Some 340 Joint Biological Agent Identification and Diagnostic System (JBAIDS) units have thus far been given to emergency response personnel. The systems are “rapid, reliable, and [provide] simultaneous identification of specific biological agents and pathogens,” says executive officer for the DOD’s Chemical and Biological Defense group Carmen J. Spencer.

Let us certainly hope for the best.

Let us hope that this latest outbreak fizzles out and that we won’t even be talking about this by the end of the year.

But experts are warning that if a major global pandemic does break out that millions upon millions of people could die.

If that happens, many people will go crazy with fear.

And we got just a little taste of some of the paranoia that an Ebola epidemic in America would create in Charlotte, North Carolina earlier this week…

A corridor of Carolinas Medical Center – Main’s Emergency Room was roped off on the first floor, near the entrance Wednesday.

A security guard was posted outside, to prevent anyone from crossing the line.

During a 4 p.m. press conference Katie Passaretti, who is an infectious disease specialist with CMC, said precautions were put into place when patient was brought in Tuesday night.  The patient was traveling from Africa and arrived at the hospital around 11:30 p.m.

Around 3 a.m. the security precautions were put into place at the hospital, Passaretti said.

Passaretti said they determined the patient did not have Ebola.  The patient has been discharged home.

It is not too hard to imagine forced quarantines and people being rounded up and shipped off to Ebola detention facilities.

In fact, if Ebola were to start spreading like wildfire in this country, many people would actually start demanding such measures.

For example, one member of Congress is already proposing that citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (and any foreigner that has recently visited those nations) be kept out of the United States…

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, proposed that citizens of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as “any foreign person who has visited one of these nations 90 days prior to arriving in the United States” be kept out of the country. He urged the secretaries to “consider the enhanced risk Ebola now presents to the American public”.

So what do you think about all of this?

What do you believe will happen if Ebola comes to America?

Unfinished Lives

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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on February 23, 2014
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True freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

–David Foster Wallace

 

This story has been in draft form for months, because I have not known how to write it. Also because the subject is so sensitive, so personal, and remains filled with grief such that one fears to tread for fear of setting off a mine and injuring others.  It has been percolating for months; so it is time.

OBITUARY

Thomas A. L.

Thomas A. L., 18, of Virginia Beach, VA passed away Sunday, November 24, 2013. He graduated  High School class of 2013, was a Computer Science major at a local university and enjoyed drawing, making animation videos, and classical music.

Left to cherish his memory are his parents, sister, brother, extended family, friends, colleagues etc, etc.

A memorial service will be held  . . . and hundreds of people attended his memorial service.

Why?
His name was Thomas.  He was the son of Contrary’s cousin. Thomas was tall, handsome, and by all accounts (I never met him),  smart as a whip, quick witted, blessed by nature:  brilliant enough  to earn a full ride to a local university, an athlete, handsome enough that a local photographer recruited him for portraiture for his own portfolio. From those photographs, you see the features that distinguish Contrary’s family: the high cheekbones and strong eyes. (Somewhere in the central European part of Contrary’s family line The Hun stepped mightily, leaving behind generations of high cheekbones, elongated eyes,  and in the males, bushy eyebrows that are the characteristic tell of the Mongol stepping on a bloodline. You would swear that some of Contrary’s brothers rode with Genghis Khan in a past life.)

Thomas was a star. He had all these gifts, and the ginger hair of the Irish. From outward appearances, he had  everything going his way. And now he is dead.

One never knows what goes on behind closed doors. From as the story comes to me, the young man returned to the town where his father lives, went to the middle of the ball field in a public park, doused himself with flammables and set himself ablaze. Leaving behind a residue of grief, loss, guilt, anger, regret and the endless, unanswerable question, “Why?” which ultimately ends nowhere. Even now, months later, the loss remains.

I wrote some months ago about daughter’s friend Jonathan, who came to dinner at my house one evening. He was incredibly soft-spoken, such that I had to strain to hear him when he spoke. He was incredibly intelligent as well, and was the best man at a wedding that I photographed. And he too took his own life.

And then there is the young woman who lived in my neighborhood, a 15-year-old girl, all bright blonde hair and smiles. An honor roll student, long-distance runner, a Girl Scout, and a teacher’s assistant. Also dead by her own hand. The obituary mentioned depression.  You cruise the news articles, and the comments afterward, and so many write about how the loss of their best friend, their son, their daughter, a wife. People start support groups,  foundations and other well-intentioned efforts, but whatever good they do, it’s too late for the unfinished lives of the lost. The grief that pours out of these comments is overwhelming.

Some say time heals, I’m not so sure….he left an empty spot in our family that will never heal.

***

We look for answers. WebMD lists causes of depression that include physical or sexual or emotional abuse, interactions with medications, conflict, death or loss,  substance abuse, illness, even social isolation and genetics. There are as many reasons as there are unfinished lives. There are no answers, but as the body count mounts many ask “what’s going on?”

These unfinished lives represent not only a staggering and unrecoverable loss for the families affected, but also to at least some extent, an indictment of a morally bankrupt way of life quickly skittering to its endgame.

We raise entire generation of people who interact with others via keypad.  We go to great lengths to keep from engaging with one another in a meaningful way. Did we intend to create a society so inhuman, so impersonal that our best and brightest  can no longer bear to be a part of it?

Came across the story of the making of this remarkable little piece in Adweek. (This is Water from Patrick Buckley on Vimeo.)

It’s been viewed a million times since last night alone and has single-handedly resurrected the voice of troubled literary genius David Foster Wallace, bringing his words to a global audience that might not even recognize his name. And it was all done without permission. “This Is Water,” a cinematic interpretation of Wallace’s bleak-yet-inspiring 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, has quickly become one of the week’s most passed-around videos. . . 

Naturally, I wanted to know more about the author, David Foster Wallace, and how he came to give this remarkable talk at a commencement ceremony at Kenyon College. Then I learned he too is no longer returning phone calls.

Wallace was a novelist, short story writer, essayist and professor of English and creative writing. He was widely acclaimed for a 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which was critically acclaimed. From what is available from public sources, he apparently lost a battle with depression in 2008 and took his own life at  home,  leaving behind both a wife and an unfinished manuscript, The Pale King.

I loved the message in “This is Water,”  as I am exactly the kind of person who needs to hear it most, probably three times a day.  I marveled that a man capable of this level of insight and imagination could take his own life:

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

And this:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Wallace ended his life at 46, leaving behind a huge sense of loss for his unrealized potential, for the works that would go unwritten. He dies with his work incomplete and his legacy tantalizing, as pass those other precious young people whose lives pass much closer to the ambit of my own life, yet who remain as unknowable as this author.

The  paradox  is that over the last 50 years, we have reached an unprecedented apex in material well-being. Yet  for all that, many suffer an existential despair that manifests  itself  via self harm and a loathing for living.  Last year writer Tony Dokoupil published a story in Newsweek entitled, “The Suicide Epidemic.

Throughout the developed world, for example, self-harm is now the leading cause of death for people 15 to 49, surpassing all cancers and heart disease. That’s a dizzying change, a milestone that shows just how effective we are at fighting disease, and just how haunted we remain at the same time. Around the world, in 2010 self-harm took more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined, stealing more than 36 million years of healthy life across all ages. In  advanced countries, only three diseases on the planet do more harm.

And this assumes we can even rely on the official data. Many researchers believe it’s a dramatic undercount, a function of fewer autopsies and more deaths by poison and pills, where intention is hard to detect. . . [one researcher] thinks the true rate is at least 30 percent higher, which would make suicide three times more common than murder.

What are we to make of the fact that the suicide rate for Americans 45 to 64 has jumped by more than 30% in the last decade? And suicides in the military has also escalated as well.

Doukoupil discusses Thomas Joiner’s theory of suicide in his article: Why do people die by suicide? Because they want to. Because they can. 

 

The theory is explained in detail if you follow the link.  Joyner has defined a “clearly delineated danger zone,” three overlapping conditions (represented by the Venn diagrams) that combine to create a dark night of the soul. At a time when the institutions that used to bind American society together have crumbled beyond recognition, we lear that belonging and community are important.

In a website and forum where most of our discussion goes to determine strategies for survival for ourselves, our families and community suicide strikes a discordant note. It doesn’t factor.   And new generation faces less abundance, fewer jobs, lower wages relative to inflation, a state wholly captive to corporate interests, and no help coming. So much abundance at the end of the age of oil, and so little meaning. Little wonder young people feel alone.

For those  raised in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, who internalized the teaching that suicide is a mortal sin and that all life is sacred,  such thoughts are more foreign than the prospect of cross-dressing. But we live in a time when even the CDC has defined self harm as an epidemic. We draw our own conclusions, but one of them is inescapably that we have failed to leave our children a world worth inhabiting.

So we’d best get busy.

 

**

(If you are interested in knowing more about the life and work of  David Foster Wallace and struggle to surpass “Infinite Jest,” read this fine New Yorker article, “The Unfinished.”)

 

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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