Special Guest Post and Query From Author Eric Nuzum

You can read Eric’s near-daily musings on his Web site. His latest book about vampires, chickens, germs, and death–entitled The Dead Travel Fast–has recently come out in paperback. You can get more info on picking it up here.

If Everything Fell Apart…What Would You Do With Your Life?

by Eric Nuzum


So let’s say that the current economic crisis gets bad…really bad. So bad in fact that your job is gone, you can’t live in your house/apartment/commune/whatever, and you have to declare bankruptcy. Let’s imagine it gets so bad that you pretty much lose everything and have to start over again with nothing…what would you do with your life?


I posed this question to my friends Matt and Katy at dinner Monday night.


Just like so many other people out together for dinner…or around coffee tables in homes because they don’t want to go out and spend any money…we were talking about the economy. We were talking about how scary it is. And we were all saying that the worst part is not knowing how bad it will eventually get before it gets better again.


(I’m sure you’re making a note to yourself right now to never go out for dinner with me, lest you come home totally bummed out.)




While listening to my friends talk, I wondered out loud if the “worst case scenario” is really all that bad. “To be frank, the ‘worst case’ doesn’t scare me at all,” I said. “It’s all the cases between best and worst that keep me awake at night.”


As is the norm when I philosophize, my friends looked at me with a degree of puzzlement. “I mean, the ‘worst case scenario’ is scary, but it could also be looked at as total freedom. No expectations. No responsibility. Just a clean slate.”


“So if you had that–even if you got it via a terrible, frightening situation,” I continued. “What would you do with your life?”


Katy and Matt fumbled around a bit. Both work in media, and both their initial answers were a desire to “tell stories” without worrying about ratings, sales, or income. These answers felt too easy to me (basically because mine wasn’t terribly different).


After a bit more probing (there is another reason to avoid dinner with me–any dinner that involves “probing” of any sort isn’t going to be very pleasant)–anyway, after some probing, the real answers started to emerge.


“I think I’d become a park ranger,” Matt announced.  Story continues after the jump.


Now we were getting somewhere.


Matt wasn’t sure where he’d want to be a park ranger–but he was pretty sure that he’d want to be a park ranger at some big expanse of nature, like Yellowstone, rather than being a park ranger at the “Dolly Madison House National Park”–or some other type of landmark-ish locale. This was especially odd considering that being around nature and animals and dirty stuff isn’t the type of thing you’d expect from a semi-compulsive germ-o-phobe like Matt. I mean, Matt won’t even touch the handrail on the Metro escalator, but tracking an injured antelope is his definition of total freedom.


Katy held on to the “being a great writer/authoring the Great American Novel” for awhile, then said she’d probably just move home to her parents’ house and get a job as a waitress or bartender. She was so caught up on this post-apocalyptic life of service-industry servitude that I thought she’d never emerge. Then she piped in, “Well, maybe I’d just find an old, unused space and start a coffee house. Nothing fancy, just something I could run on my own.”


This idea was so interesting to me because, as she admitted, when she was a young girl, this was her dream. She said that as a child the only thing she ever wanted to be was…a coffee shop owner.


When I heard the two of them talking about what they’d do if the world fell apart–they answered by telling me their dreams. Not just dreams that they’d thought up that moment, but dreams they’d held onto for years.


Then I wondered aloud again, “Well if these are our dream lives, what’s stopping us from living them now?”


Katy and Matt shook their heads. They didn’t know.


“I mean, here we are worried to death about the disruption of life as we know it…but the disrupted lives aren’t the ones we really want to live, right?”


Again, we all got bummed out by these questions. So much so that we decided to leave the restaurant and walk two miles to a different restaurant, just to eat pie.


So I ask you, dear readers, three questions:

  • If everything were to fall apart, what would you do with your life?
  • If this is your dream, then why aren’t you trying to do it?
  • Considering all this–is the idea of everything falling apart really all that terrible?


62 Comment

  • Prince Of Petworth

    I guess I’ll take first crack. I’d rent a cheap room in a group house in Petworth. Then I’d take PoP full time and finally “go pro”. I guess in a way I am trying to accomplish it. I suppose if “everything fell apart” it would just expedite the process.

  • I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be a need for a city planner or a GIS analyst. But if all else failed, I’d drive a taxi.

    If taxis became obsolete because some robot took my job, I might (shudder) go back to hotel work.

  • It’s close to impossible to get a job as a park ranger – no one leaves the job, and govt funding for parks has been reduced, eliminating positions.

  • Now we know why they don’t call you the “OptimisticParakeet.” 😉

  • As I teacher, my job just may be recession-proof, unless all the families and kids move away.

  • Well, I would fall back on plan B, which I guess has always been my dream plan A.

    I would *gasp* move back to Kansas and live in the amazing 1864 building that my family owns (mortgage free). The dream has always been to renovate and live there. The renovation part might not be in the cards if the economy was tanking that bad but you could do a couple of cheap and quick fixes to make it habitable.

    I wouldn’t need a car because it is right downtown in the middle of everything.

    As for money, I haven’t quite figured that one out but my grandmother’s still live there so I doubt they would let me starve to death.

  • I just posed this question to my husband and he said he would move back to Oklahoma and live in the Creek Nation. He is Creek so I guess he has that great cushion of free housing, food and healthcare. Of course, I doubt they have enough money to feed, house and provide healthcare to every single Creek and if the economy is that bad I think they would be facing that situation.

    I wasn’t too excited about that prospect but eastern Oklahoma is a beautiful place so I guess it wouldn’t be that bad.

  • Since I’m a grad student, I really thought this crash wouldn’t affect me, until I realized that it will affect the number and quality of jobs for the next year. Should I be unable to snag anything … honestly, maybe Peace Corps? I’ve heard conflicting reports about their efficacy, so should anyone have suggestions for a better volunteer program (for which the volunteer doesn’t have to pay) I am all ears.

  • Like many of you, I’ve given this question some thought over the last couple of weeks. In some ways, I suppose, I’d be happier. why? Because a great deal of these societal
    “must-haves” would be gone. I think, however, this would be a difficult reality for folks in a city in which what you are and what you do/achieve is the lifeblood of existence.
    What does one do when the ready mades are gone?

  • Would pack up the kid, cats, paints & brushes and head back to Central PA. Maybe I’d go back to my first job at The Diner.

  • I suppose if everything went to hell I’d try to live out my dream of forming a self subsistent organic farm where I’d be capable of producing enough food and energy for a small group of family and friends. However, since farm’s require a great deal of capital to start up and I’m not exactly independently wealthy… I suppose I’d probably fall back on one of my childhood dreams of becoming a trophy husband, cult leader, 3rd world dictator, or firetruck.

  • hipchickindc, my uncle and some of his friends almost bought The Diner when it was up for sale in the 70s. Unfortunately it fell through in the 11th hour.

    I would open a shop as well and it would sell gourmet hot chocolates some with booze, it would also have snacks and other confections.

  • i would move all of my stuff to the attic so that PoP could have my cheap room in our petworth group house 🙂

  • If your jobs are all failing and the economy is going to hell, how/why would you start a business of something that people don’t really need to spend money on to survive? ie coffee shops and gourmet chocolates. I would not imagine that the banks would give you loans and then, if everyone was jobless who is going to buy your merchandise? Sorry to be a Debbie Downer here, but these senarios just don’t make sense to me.

    Now booze, that might sell in times of economic depression…

    Haha a firetruck- what is that from again?

  • now we understand the value of owning real estate outright without a mortgage. I would move into the property I own now (despite lack of indoor plumbing and heat) and homestead. I would work in a free clinic and would plant a garden and re-use everything (as previously suggested) and would barter too.

  • Anyone who has thought about this question should read “the four hour work week” by Timothy Ferris. Its all about focusing on the things you would do if money wasnt an object, then it gives you a rough plan in order to make it happen. Very Interesting read.

  • clearbluewater33, The Diner has changed hands a couple of times since I worked there in the ’80’s. I used to have a couple of the chrome counter stools from when they took out one of the front bays.

  • i think share cropping would be the way to go…i would work out a plan with my roommates and the surrounding neighbors to get the program going. i would also start catching squirrels for thir meat and fur (woudlnt those black squirrel pelts make something wonderful?). from there, i would focus on my art and design, putting all of the ideas i keep pushing to the back burner into actual tangible pieces. some would have a practical use, some would be more form than function… either way, i think i could scrape by with whatever i got from selling my wares.

  • I’d probably realize my lifelong dream of becoming a gigolo, servicing all the park rangers and share croppers in Petworth. I mean, some professions are pretty much depression proof, right?

  • No surprise that someone brought up Tim Ferriss, his 4 hour work week is a must-read even if much of it doesn’t apply to you and is inaccurate, it’s an idea generator.

    I have kids, so I have almost no options. The time for me to live out my wild fantasies of being a musician ended around 1997. If everything collapsed then I’d move in with my family.

    AngryParakeet and Kalia are right. I flirted with start ups over the last 10 years and they’re 100% dead right now. No new businesses in 2008, period.

    If the economy REALLY collapses then people will need used computer equipment and need their small appliances repaired. That’s a doable business.

  • Funny- if i had read this 24 hours ago I’d have probably said a response like “move to upstate ny with family and into my mom’s enormous house that we paid for. Make long commute or job in NYC and live as cheaply as possible.”

    Now? I have to wait for some possibly unhappy test results and talk about the ‘next step’ with a doctor.

    I’m not looking for hugs or whatever people look for on these message boards- I just wanted to say that there are different layers in everyone’s life. Value what you have.

    I actually got on this link because I looked up E.Nuzum’s blog after finishing his book- a book that really got me laughing. Thanks

  • Flipfloppirate,

    Here are a few resources to get you started living the farmer dream:

    NY Times article on new farmers

    Center for Rural Affairs’ info for beginning farmers and ranchers

    USDA’s loan programs for beginning farmers and ranchers

    Hope you can make it happen. We need more farmers committed to doing it right.

  • I’d join JAG and see the world while litigating.

    If i couldn’t be a lawyer…i’d be a math teacher somewhere in Latin America

  • I just stumbled on your blog this morning, guided here by the googled phrase ‘it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.’ I’ve been ruminating for the last several months about just how to bring my fruitiest dreams to fruition.
    I propose a new entitlement program (don’t go confusing me with a Republican now 😉 ) which is essentially a mid-career sabbatical for all the non-faculty of the working world. I work in the esteemed yet bureaucratic world of higher ed, but alas am a lowly civil servant who gets no such employer- and universe- supported “sabbatical.” I am an artist down deep and a decade of paper pushing had me nearly out of hope, but then I had a ‘lucky break’ last summer which allowed me to embrace my artist life during Minnesota’s most gorgeous months while I was recuperating from a broken leg.
    All I can think about is this: “What if my Artist Life could be my ‘Real Life.’ I don’t want to walk away from or lose all my earthly possessions. The best case scenario would be a financially supported period of time (between 3-12 months should be sufficient) to see if my artist life could be self-supporting and self-sustaining. I don’t want a handout; in fact I just want to be the first in a LONG LINE OF MANY who get this opportunity to take a mid-career sabbatical.
    Ultimately I would restore any funds that I used during my sabbatical, to a foundation/non-profit/funded entity of some sort. I would also pledge to DOUBLE or maybe even TRIPLE the return on investment if I could get some big name publicity for the project. I’d repay the funds through dollars (because I think I would be an awesome artiste and just need to find the people who want to pay me to be me), or through ‘in-kind’ repayment (i.e. I’d settle up by working for a company/companies that are supportive of this maniacal yet really good idea). Either way it’s a virtuous cycle of ever-increasing positivity: I benefit, the investor benefits (think about the ratings!), and the universe benefits. There it is: a win-win-win for all. And I hate the term win-win-win so I prefer to call it a virtuous virtual version of Anti-SPAM, because 1) it is good for you; 2) it tastes good; 3) the idea will succeed or fail based on it’s merits; and 4) the universe needs some good people with good ideas doing good work right now… especially as the threat of global economic collapse lingers.
    I’m open to any and all ideas, and I’m so glad to have found this post. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one that thinks a global financial meltdown (and starting from scratch) doesn’t have to be such a bad thing. Please share your thoughts.
    Jen D
    aka ctrlaltdeleteGIRL
    aka Anti-Gen-X
    aka just another penniless philanthropist

  • Once you have kids, these wide-open thought exercises are much less fun.

    Back to Eric’s questions:
    1. I would write and read and garden. Maybe even small scale farming. With critters.
    2. The uncertainty of such a life would kill me with stress. Before kids, I could have handled the uncertainty.
    3. Yes, the idea of it “all falling apart” is pretty terrible. I like having a roof and a nice tight door between the world and my babies, and enough money that while I may worry about college tuition and cutting-edge cancer treatment, I never worry about groceries.

  • @Perry, thanks for the info. I just signed up for the CRA newsletter and although I’d havta spend some time working as a farm hand before I qualify for the USDA loan its good to know such a program exists. NOW, I just need to find a farm that adequately involves itself in organic/sustainable agriculture and can afford to pay/keep/teach an extra hand.

  • EE, after the Great Depression of 2009 hits, kids will once again be an asset for this type of scenario. They can all work on Flipflopirate’s farm!

  • It’s scary to think about it, but if my wife and I both lost our jobs and had to sell the hous, I’d gradually sell off our possessions on eBay/Craigslist. Then I think we’d move to a small town somewhere where costs are low. Get a McJob, I guess.

  • @Hipchickindc I did my senior seminar on establishing sustainable small scale agricultural entities on roughly 15 acres of land for families in deleloping agrarian societies. I don’t see why I can’t remodel it to encompass the plight of american post economic apocalipic society. I will gladly employ all your children as laborers on the farm and only ask for an 1-time immediate donation of capital to insure the success of the commune and the proper nutrition of your loved ones…

  • Flipflopirate, I’m in. My child already has a thriving dog walking business. I see no reason why she would not be a successful farm laborer.

  • Sorry to sound harsh, but the premise of getting ANY type of job in a wholesale economic collapse is pure fallacy. Believe it or not, the positions of cab drivers, park rangers and every other “worst case” profession are currently taken by others – people who are giving their best in these jobs today. So put your slacker fantasies to bed and get back to work to save this country from economic ruin.

  • @Anon 1:13 – I will save this economy when I feel like it and not a minute sooner. I’m currently enjoying the seldom discussed dialogue of personal, financial, and professional responsibility by this nation. I enjoy it only slightly less than the divine ramblings of a group of urbanite bloggers who unsurprisingly posses a lexicon of trade skills and interests that were never quite vetted in their mind and have frustratingly bubbled to the surface yet again during these times of uncertainty. I see no reason why the rare effervescent expression of hopes and dreams should be considered detrimental to the recessed state of our economy or our society. If you’re not hip to our dreams of farmers, rangers, or firetrucks then frankly m’dear, I don’t give a damn.

  • @Flipflopirate: SNAP!

  • oh flipflopirate. that (1:29 pm) is pure poetry!

  • I am looking forward to the day where it is socially acceptable to live in a tent in DC.

  • I used to have fantasies that the Y2K bug would decimate the world, and send us all back to pre-computer days…and that a majority of people wouldn’t be able to handle it and “opt out”…leaving more space for those of us who just want to survive and be happy. I’d have headed off into the wilderness with my hubby, dog, a horse (or two) and some guns and just become a hermit. I’d need the guns to fight off the ravening packs of religious/military freaks who’d come through trying to take what they thought they wanted….

  • @flipfloppirate,

    Certainly you’ve read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. If so, you might remember that Pollan spends a fair bit of time writing about the innovative, sustainable methods of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms.

    Polyface is only 3 hours from DC, near Staunton, VA, and they offer 12-month and summer apprenticeships. No previous experience required.

  • street philosopher and molitov cocktail merchant.

  • Homer Simpson might suggest we live under the sea, with all kinds of friendly, tasty sea creatures for company.

  • I’ve always wanted to run a B&B and my husband has always wanted to have a restaurant, so since the economy would be shot, could we manage the logistics and cooking for flipfloppirate’s urban commune? We meeting planner may not be in demand in the corporate world right now, but I could organize a mean commune!

  • @Perry – I’ve skimmed Omnivores Dilemma and I’m aware of Polyface. I’m currently tossing around the idea to apply for the 2009 apprenticeship, I had the chance to visit the farm during college as a case study for my crop science classes and I wish there were more established sustainable farms that offered these programs. I believe that they may be one of the only viable corridors between the world of academia and practical experience for those of us who did not grow up on a proper farm but want to get involved in the world of agriculture.

  • I really want to be a hobo and ride the rails, seeing the country.

  • Midge:
    That was my fallback, Plan B, in case the whole mad-bomber thing didn’t work out…

  • @flipfloppirate – I think there might be more opportunities out there than you realize, though I’m sure that one’s understanding of “more” might depend upon your willingness or ability to relocate.

    At minimum, I can say that more apprenticeship and training programs are popping up. I just don’t see much in this immediate area then in places like or Massachusetts.

    Other sites to check out (if you haven’t already) include:

    Growing New Farmers (which serves the Northeast U.S., including Maryland)
    Northeast Workers on Organic Farms
    Organic Farming Apprenticeship Programs
    Growing Growers: Kansas City
    World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms
    Organic Volunteers (related to WWOOF)
    The Greenhorns (for fun and community)

    Finally, you might just want to contact (or visit) the National Agricultural Library in nearby Beltsville. Their Alternative Farming Systems Information Center has a directory of Educational and Training Opportunities in Sustainable Agriculture, or you can just ask them questions. They’re great and might be able to point you to more stuff than I have here.

  • How about growing weed in the back yard? People will surely need something to cheer them up, right?

  • A nation of weed farming… Finally a silver lining to this mess! 😉

  • My younger siblings grew, um, weed on my parents farm. Now I won’t say they harvested bales, but there was always an ample supply for friends and family lasting through the long cold winter [of northern Frederick County].

    If things fell apart, I’d pack up my pup and move to the farm. Grow vegetables, enjoy the farm fresh eggs, go fishin’ at the lake, cut down wood for the wood stoves….oh, we do that already at the farm.

  • All this discussion of jobs and living places reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about drastic climate change, much of which is set here in DC. One of the main characters, faced with suddenly having to be out of his apartment and unable to line anything else up, decides simply to live in Rock Creek Park.

    It probably is a good “what if” for economic distress too, even though it’s climate issues that drive the book. Frank, the character in question, happens to have good outdoor skills and copes with some challenges of living outdoors well and others… less well. Robinson doesn’t paint an image of bucolic paradise free of responsibility for Frank either.

    The trilogy is referred to as the “Capitol Code” series though I have no idea why – maybe it’s explained in the third book, “Sixty Days and Counting” which I have not read yet. The first book is “Forty Days of Rain,” and it’s been out long enough that you should be able to find it in the library without an issue if you are interested.

  • Urban farming, and an enormous amount of romance, bicycling, and reading books.

    Might even get around to building an “Earthship”, a-la Mike Reynolds.

  • I think people are actually answering the question: “What if my current life/job/personal finances” fell apart? That’s a lot different than what you would do if *everything* fell apart.

  • I read over many of the responses and most of them seemed like fantasies. “I’d become a poet and learn to eat air as my primary food source.”

    Come on, people, it take months and months to get something to grow from the ground in a form that you could actually have a substantial diet. What would you do while the seeds start to germinate and grow?

    Only two people even mentioned the responsibility for kids. While you’re chasing your muse and waiting for something to sprout from the ground, what are your kids suppose to do?

    Sorry, this has been a crappy Friday and I’m in a sour mood, but most of these responses seem to have come from inner desire to be free of the responsibilities of our lives. I enjoy the challenges of my life as it is and I’d find a way the enjoy the life that I got handed to me.

    If it all fell apart, we’d reinvent ourselves the best and quickest way we could. There’s bellies to feed and a roof that needs someone to support it.

  • I’ve been wanting to build/live in an earthship: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthship

    If I lost my apartment, I’d probably apprentice for a bit w/ those folks out in NM, move back to the east coast, and get a bunch of friends together to build a bunch of them. Not sure what I’d do after that, but I’d find it hard to give up playing with computers/electronics.. XOs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OLPC_XO-1) are low power and rugged enough that they’d make ideal machines in this sort of landscape.

  • If everything fell apart, I’d probably pack a bag and start wandering. But things would have to suddenly fall apart, almost like in a post-apocolyptic sense.

    during the wanderings, I’d keep a sketch book. Afterwords I’d become a carpenter or something to that taste, and work on a graphic novel that will never get published because there isn’t enough economy to support stuff like that. I’d get a dog too.

    My dream is to do something I like and be able live off of it, and right now that’s drawing, before it was making crates.

    Dreams can change, and when mine does, I will probably leave and find a new one.

  • What’s way more likely to happen to the poster and the readers of this posting if everything went to hell is something like this cheery little piece:

  • I’d sell my log cabin, move to New York, and become a CDO trader on Wall Street.

  • I’ve always wanted to give real estate a shot, maybe as a mortgage broker.

  • If EVERYTHING fell apart we’d wander the world in feral packs, eating babies roasted over a fire a la “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I don’t blame people for daydreaming about a less apocalyptic future. Dang, can’t we at least daydream about the things we want to without being told we’re doing it wrong? Fantasizing is fun!

    As for me, I don’t know. My current life is pretty cerebral, so I guess I’d learn how to do something with my hands. Maybe I shall become a bard.

  • My friend introduced me to your site. (nice! can i link you?)

    The house I liven in is on the brink of foreclosure, I was also just told about getting laid off within a month.

    Check out my post, we;re exactly on the same page it;s funny,

    I’m reading a book called When All Hell Breaks Loose, by Cody Lundin, you might like it.

    thanks for your post!!

  • First of all, jamarleo, hope the test results are not so bad…

    Secondly, just realized what a fool I’ve been with my lawyers who basically wasted my money over the years. With all that money, I could’ve prepared a survival cabin someplace. To the lawyers on this post: have some decency and help us when we come knocking on your cabin door hungry.

  • I would stay at home, work in my garden, and weave.

    Already working on that — have the garden, have the loom. Need more time for both! And no, it wouldn’t be that terrible, barring bad weather / crop failures.

    But I agree, community organizing/networking is the way to go. We’re all so isolated (see: Bowling Alone); that has to change. I’m working on that, too.

  • Very interesting observation. Economic bubbles cause a milsallocation of resources. Houses are built where they aren’t needed. Individuals focus on the money to be made by speculating on the bubble asset rather than doing something more productive. Actual productive activities (agriculture, shops, industrial production) are priced out because of the high cost-basis caused by the bubble asset.

    As the property bubble collapses, some of those millions of real estate agents, mortgage brokers, derivative speculators and others who depended on the distorted priorities of this bubble economy will find work elsewhere. Some will go back to doing something they really love which meets a real demand. This adjustment will be difficult, but will result in a better, more efficient world for all of us. Unfortunately, politicians from both parties, the Fed and treasury secretary are determined to avoid allowing the real economy to surface.

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