My Photo

Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tied Up ... continued

Things seemed to go from bad to worse for Mark. He had some kind of a fight with the owner of the limo company and parted company. His car bit the dust and he was without transportation. He was doing some kind of telemarketing work for a while ... Did you ever get those calls at home from police charity organizations where the caller is firm, deep-voiced and authoritative, and you are suppose to think this is a cop calling you and you'd better cough up a donation, or next time you call 911 you'll be put on indefinite hold? Chances are that was Mark calling you, or someone like him. These companies advertise for deep-voice sales reps, and give them a sales script that implies they are police personnel.

When you have child-support payments it often doesn't pay to work low-wage jobs. As soon as you earn any money they garnish your wages and you are left with nothing. If the child is living in a reasonably wealthy situation, and won't be seriously affected, it's almost better to let the back-payments accrue until you can earn a decent salary.

Anyway I next ran into him when he was unemployed and staying at a friend's house. He was trying to get work but was at the end of his rope because he had no transportation, his "friend" wanted to kick him out, and they were about to cut off his cell-phone for non-payment. The extent of his accommodation was apparently a mattress on the floor. Not a joyous situation.
I wished I had a big house with a spare room. I would have given him a roof over his head for a couple of months so he could get back on his feet. You might think people like that just use people like me, and he had no real desire to work. You might be right. But one thing I know from 25 years of chronic illness is -- it gets the better of you sometimes. You can see doctors and fight with insurance companies till you're blue in the face but there comes a time when you're just too worn down and weak and depressed to go on. At times like this you don't need someone telling you to "smarten up." You need help to get back above that threshold of dysfunction, so you can continue the battle. Mark's life seemed a bit like that to me. I saw him as below that critical point and I didn't want to judge him for it.

But all this is hypothetical. I didn't have a big house. I lived in a small apartment and there was just room for my wife and I. A third body just would not fit.

I needed some instruction manuals written for some software. Mark had a laptop and was pretty software-savvy, so I "hired" him to write for me in his "spare-time" and gave him a $200 "advance". I didn't really think I'd see those manuals any time soon. After an emotional session when he almost broke down and cried, I also paid his phone bill for him, so he could continue trying to find work. Finally I offered to drive him to any job interviews he might arrange.

I think I took him to about four interviews altogether -- all limo or cab companies. Nothing came of it. Finally he told me in desperation he had to check into a (psychiatric) facility because he just could not carry on this way, living in such stress and uncertainty. He admitted he was depressed and acting self-destructively, and said he needed some kind of medication and some breathing space. "If not," he said, "it is not a matter of if, but when."

Perhaps in Europe or Canada such a public-health facility would be easy to locate, but in the US, the first question every place asked was - "What type of insurance does he have?" When I told them he had none, they weren't interested. We finally found a public-health psychiatric clinic that accepted uninsured walk-ins. It was a long drive on a cold gray December weekend afternoon. I dropped him off there after filling out a few forms, and waiting in a grimy waiting-room till a counsellor agreed to see him.

But they just put him out on the street with a name and phone no. to contact during the week for regular counselling. The fact that he had no funds, no food, no job, no car, no resources, and soon -- no place to live -- was not really their department. The question is - was it my department? It was two days before Christmas now, and this man was about to be sleeping on the street or in a homeless shelter. I began a frantic internet search for charities, churches, shelters, government agencies, benefits, welfare, any resource he could fall back on to help him through this time. This man had worked and paid taxes for 35 years of his life. Where was the State when he needed it? What I found out was basically this: if you're not a pregnant woman, or a victim of abuse, or a child, you might as well forget it. You are on your own.

I remember Christmas Eve I had a conversation with him on my cell-phone. I was basically trying to talk him out of suicide. I have a friend in England who works for Samaritans and I thought maybe there would be a Samaritans agency listed in our city ... There was one: however it was a church counselling agency with "reduced fees" for those who are "eligible" and it operated Monday-Friday. Hardly 911. I was in a restaurant grabbing a sandwich and my conversation must have been loud, because when I hung up a woman near me said "It's always hard trying to help friends, isn't it?" I started talking with her a bit and told her the problem. The conversation went like this:

"Well - McDonald's is hiring. He can go work there."
"But after child-support is taken out there's nothing left for him to live on."
"Oh well -- in that case he deserves his situation. The child deserves to live a good life."
"The child has a great life. Both parents are wealthy attorneys, and she lives in a big house."
"And she deserves to. If he has to pay support he must have been a bad father."
"Perhaps he was. I'm sure he did the best he could. But doesn't he deserve a good life too?"
"Not if he abandoned his wife and child."
"Why do you think he did that?"
"It happens all the time."
"Aren't you punishing him without a trial?"
"Well I certainly don't believe in welfare!"

I don't want to change the subject but there's a lot of male-bashing in charity. Sweet children and poor delicate or pregnant women are automatically innocent and deserving of help, while males are automatically guilty and responsible for their own misfortunes. One more interesting point came to light. It turned out this woman had MS and was getting care under medicare and medicaid. If medicaid isn't welfare, what is it? Of all the people for me to meet on Christmas Eve, I had to meet Ayn fucking Rand!

So why didn't I invite Mark over for Christmas? It would have been the thing to do. The answer is because frankly I couldn't stand him. Nor can my wife. Despite all I've said, he remains a negative, domineering know-it-all. I made a commitment to ferry him to job interviews and I did. I told myself I had answered the call of duty and beyond. I didn't have to adopt him. I didn't have to drive across town, pick him up, bring him home, sit around all day watching TV and eating and listening to him sound-off about his situation, then drive him all the way home again late at night. I find Christmas pagan enough as it is, without inviting Eeyore the donkey over to sit it out with me.

Should I have taken his suicide threats more seriously? "Not a matter of if, but when," he said. That is a clear enough indicator. But I reported that to all the hospitals and facilities I called, and I told it to the public-health clinic. They just let him out on the street. Surely if they did not consider him a threat to himself, then he wasn't. Still I worried about him. Friendless and cold on a mattress on a floor on bleak Christmas day, with nothing to look forward to. Am I my brother's keeper? Yes; but how literally and personally should I take that. Should I try to be like Mother Theresa, a foot-soldier engaing in one-on-one hand-to-hand combat with poverty and disease? I don't have that in me. I pay taxes, give to the occasional charity, help out the occasional friend, and try to live with myself. I suppose I think because of my taxes and my charity contributions help is always available to those who really need it. "He sees the meanest sparrow fall."

Well just try getting it! The plain truth is, in this land of the free, there is really little or no safety net for people like Mark. He just slipped through all the cracks. He could not even get a few d0llars in unemployment benefits because all his jobs for the last few years had been some kind of "self-employed" or "contractual" work, and for whatever reason - he didn't qualify. Now maybe if he spent six weeks standing in line at various government agencies, filling out forms, making endless calls, and jumping through hoops, he might be eligible for some kind of help. But all that requires time and effort, a car and a phone, a place to stay, and mostly - enough energy to face the grind. When you're at the end of a rope like he was, it was an impossible obstacle.

I say again. There is no safety net. No safety cushion. If you are not physically ill, or disabled, or a veteran, or a mother with child, or a Native American -- no one will catch you if you fall. If you cannot function in society, but have no visible reason for your failure, society seems not to care. Mark told me one day that he was thinking of holding up a liquor store, not because he needed the money, but so he could become a ward of the state prison and get three meals a day.

In London I have a friend who was diagnosed schizophrenic when he was about twenty. He's fifty now and has spent the last thirty years living on a government allowance, in a government paid high-rise apartment, with a free bus-pass. In many ways his life is much better than mine. The State looks after the less fortunate there. There are agencies everywhere willing to help. They just don't expect everyone to be an able-bodied Horatio Alger, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Starting with the Clinton administration, the US has been on a rapid withdrawal from the Welfare-State mentality. "Welfare-to-Work" was the buzz of the era, and I think that's a good thing insofar as a lot of able-bodied people took unfair advantage of government benefits. But have we gone too far the other way? My Ayn Rand friend would say no, but who -- other than family -- is there to catch and heal those who just cannot cope with society's demands? Where is the kindness and compassion that should be the hallmark of civilization?

In Virginia I rented an apartment from a friend who was a fairly successful small-businessman. He was a kind and a gentle man but he fell into some kind of dispute with his business partner, and it looked like he would lose control of his business. No one was worried: he had money, he had a nice house, he was well known and well-liked in the community, he was engaged to be married. But he fretted and worried and drove himself into a solitary frenzy over what he would do for the rest of his life. No one took him seriously. I didn't. I just told him everything would work out. So he had nowhere to go. He was in some kind of private hell and no one would listen.

I have his obituary on my fridge-door. "Passed away unexpectedly" it says, which is the standard obit-euphemism for suicide. He put a gun in his mouth.

In Georgia I installed a computer system in a store one Sunday afternoon. The manager let me in. We chatted during the day and he told me about his divorce years ago, and how he lived alone now. He said if he hadn't divorced he could have retired, but now he was obliged to keep working. But now he had a good job, and a new girlfriend who came over on weekends. He seemed worldly but not world-weary. He did not seem like a man at the end of his rope. After that weekend I talked to him on the phone a few times about computer questions... nothing out of the ordinary. Then one day about 6 weeks later his boss called me and told me his manager had not shown up for work and had not answered his phone, so he went over to his house to see if he was OK. It was another gun-in-the-mouth. No note.

There but for the grace of God go I. I find life on Earth hard enough to tolerate sometimes. A long meaningless scramble down a treacherous slope to inevitable pain and death. Not exactly a "club Med" scenario. I can no longer glibly look the other way when friends start to tumble uncontrollably down that slope. ... but even though I can't do it glibly, I still do it.

I'll finish this next time.


Blogger Richard said...

Maybe if you understood Rand a bit better you would discover real humanity, rather than the creeping injustices, driven by our culture's ubiquitous irrationalities, that led to your acquaintances deaths, and that contribute to your own angst.

12:15 AM  
Blogger Aileen said...

Derek, this is a sad story; one that calls for action. While the government won't help, I trust that people who read your blog can. I would love to help your friend. Is there a way you could set up a Paypal account for him? Or an account at a bank? Thank you for your caring and concern!

1:58 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Aileen typifies the *real* solution —and you don't have stoop to using gov't force to rob others.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Tom Rowland said...

In a free country, you can help anyone you want to. But you can't force others to do what you won't.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

Well, Derek, I don't know Mark, don't know how to help him or what would truly be the solution for him, or even if he is still alive.

And I don't know you, either, except through this strange medium, in which we have the luxury of being bodyless and revealing only what we wish to reveal.

Be that as it may, the pain in your next-to-last
paragraph broke my heart a bit. For whatever it may be worth, I'm glad you are still here. xoxo

7:58 AM  
Anonymous Wixom said...

Re. Richard. Ah! I see you have an objectivist among your readers. How quaint.


9:50 AM  
Blogger Richard said...


There are now 26 University professors who are explicit Objectivists, whereas twenty years ago there were only two. This is because Objectivism, done right, has more validity than any body of philosophical thought since Aristotle (with due acknowledgment to the politics of men such as Locke and Jefferson)

That is not "quaint' unless, by some bizarre twist, you intend its more archaic meaning: skillfully or cleverly made; wise; skilled. Calling Objectivism "quaint" is a smears not an argument. It is merely childish ad hominem.

Pls. note that, contrary to other smears made towards Objectivism, Objectivists DO sympathize with people in trouble, such as Derek describes. Indeed charitable acts are inversely proportional to taxation and the cultural impact of welfare legislation. The socialism of a mixed economy drives people to feel short of money, that the gov't has their money so why should they contribute more. If the expression "dog eat dog" ever applied anywhere it is to this latter situation. why be charitable when the gov't is already 'eating' you(r money)?

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Wixom said...

In response to Richard, I think I should point out that argumentum ad hominem means to imply that an idea or action has a certain quality because the person involved has that quality. Example, "that statement has no merit because the man who said it is an ex-convict." I think Derek touched on it in a recent blog when he said there's no reason to doubt the validity of Al Gore's global warming ideas just because Al Gore himself leaves all the lights on and flies a private jet. But a lot of people level that criticism at his ideas. Now regarding objectivism, I did say it was quaint, but I didn't say you were quaint, Richard. how could I? I don't know you. Since my adjective was not aimed at any human being, it could not be argumentum ad hominem. It is a simple direct comment about objectivism. But I will say, Richard, your argument that objectivism has merit because it has been adopted by 26 university professors is a clear example of argumentum ad populum. If sheer numbers actually meant something then what about the other 1.1 million college teachers in the US who have not adopted objectivism? Isn't that at least as significant by your own criterion?
Anyway in my opinion you are missing the main point of Derek's blog and the body of his writings. I feel he is struggling with the application of Course metaphysics in everyday life, and is beyond sociopolitical "isms". I have read the Course a little and I think Jesus would have decreed all such isms a "waste of time." The world was created to be a place of insoluble problems to keep us distracted. Am I correct, Derek?

5:39 PM  
Blogger Richard said...


Where did I say you were accusing me of being quaint? The fact that I did not, and you have defended yourself on that basis, suggests to me that your remark actually was directed at me! Now that you have split that hair, it remains that your remark was a childish smear.

You are only marginally correct about my use of ad populum. My use of it was a quick way to show that "quaint" hardly applies to the growing support and legitimacy of a body of ideas. Of course, you knew that, but had to respond with a cheap dodge to avoid dealing with the point.

Objectivism is a growing force whereas the main body of ideas the other 1.1 million college teachers (generally) echo inbred irrationalities that contribute to the very problems Derek rightfully bemoans. Supporting that tedious status quo, whether by further ad populum or by actually trying to defend its ideas, will do Derek and the deeply depressed people he bemoans no good.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Wixom said...

All my life it has been my experience that objectivists, like scientologists and marxists are fanatical argumentitive zealots, obsessed with proving themselves right and everyone else wrong. Theirs is an unproven archaic unworkable anachronistic scheme that is dead before it ever lived. (Like Marxism.) Disagreement is not permitted. If you disagree you obviously don't understand, and need to be shipped off to re-education camp somewhere.
But it's a lot of fun, a bit like cow-tipping, knowing they are so reactive, volatile and predictable, to throw lighted matches at them and watch them blow up :-)
Sorry Richard, you are right, Ms. Rand is the author of the greatest phiosophical system since Aristotle. I think she said that herself.
I am retiring from this discussion now because it doesn't belong here. Richard if you want to post your email I'll goad you privately.

4:59 PM  


<< Home