A calculation almost every American man over fifty has made in his head

There is one calculation that almost every American man over fifty* has made in his head that he will almost never admit to. The ones who have made it more than once and many times a year are the ones who have families and responsibilities who now find themselves at the scary end of a medical diagnosis and/or the threat or reality of unemployment.

That calculation is:

Am I worth more dead than alive?

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The columns and totals never really see a piece of paper, but they are nonetheless very real.

In the assets column:
That term life insurance that has five more years before it expires and has no value: $250,000.00; Cash in the bank: $50,000.00; That 401(k) I started too late; $30,000.00; Stocks and bonds I randomly bought; $35,000.00; House equity, assuming it can actually be sold in this economy: $100,000.00… and on through the value of furniture, cars and power tools in the garage.

In the liabilities column:
I just got fired, so my unemployment is only $481.00 a week but bills with mortgage and food is $2,100 a month, losing $200.00 a month… I’ll soon lose my health insurance and COBRA is a $900.00 set back per month making that $1,100.00 a month just standing still… if I am unemployed for more than six months, that will be about $10,000.00 gone from the bank account, making the past couple years of savings a waste of time… chances are, I will be unemployed for the rest of my life in this economy, so that will just stretch on, losing my family $20,000.00 a year with me being alive. I will lose my health coverage in less than a year and a half… That is a lot of cash, and that life insurance policy just inched its way to being one year less valuable with no employment in sight…

I just got diagnosed with a pretty serious health condition that will make it difficult for me to work. I will soon be out of a job as my employer will get tired of me calling in sick all the time… I will lose my health care coverage.. if I go into the hospital, that will cost about $8,000.00 a day, depleting my cash in about a week… the mortgage is due in a week… the last tuition bill is due in a couple months… and on and on down to how much dog food is left and how much that will cost to replenish…

If I die today, my family will be ok. If I die in a year or two, my family will be bankrupt, penniless and possibly homeless.

Sure, the kids will say that I am worth more to them alive than dead, regardless of how much money I have. Yeah, “I love you even if you are broke,” “you bring joy to others around you” and “life is not always about money” are things I expect to hear from friends and family.

But I know they are not true. Not really.

Our culture rewards those who are healthy and able to work and shuns those who have fallen on hard times. It guts the sick, dying and unemployed quickly in order to salvage what it can before the corpse begins to rot. It knows the time value of money.

Men know it too. We have made those calculations in our head at every turn throughout our lives. When we buy a house, we calculate how long we’ll have to be employed at this job to pay the mortgage in full. When we have kids, we calculate what we’ll have to earn and sock away to pay for the birthday parties, soccer practice, bicycles, cars and college tuition even as we watch them laugh and dance as if they haven’t a care in the world; even as we laugh and dance with them. We worry our backs and minds will give out before we are able to deliver them into adulthood and breath a sigh of relief when we no longer have to be concerned they won’t have enough to eat.

When we get to about fifty, we eventually make the ultimate calculation. We arrive at a break-even, whether anyone wants us to or not; whether we admit it or not.

The only thing we fear more than getting it wrong is losing the ability to execute if we ever needed to.

*With the exception of highly-paid politicians or the super-rich who never have to worry about health care. For clarification, this isn’t me. I’m fine and gainfully employed at my own company despite my best efforts at getting my boss to fire me 🙂 This is a persona of a 50+ year old man who had a “good job” for most of his life.

Dern ye, ya shoulda taken d’pie

When I was fifteen, I worked as a cook for The Viking Village Smorgasbord on Snelling Ave in St. Paul, MN. It’s not there anymore and someone long ago turned the building into a furniture store. A few decades have passed since I last clocked in, but a few stories stick vividly in my brain as if they happened only yesterday.

In “The Cities,” as we were wont to say, we prided ourselves on being urbane, but we were surrounded by the State of Minnesota that had its share of dirt farmers. On this particular weeknight, a farm couple wandered in for dinner. He was wearing his best overalls and she, her best go-to-church Sunday dress. Neither had very many teeth, their faces were ruddy with sun and wind and their hands gnarled from years of manual farm work. They held all the cash they were going to spend in The Cities in their hands. Maybe it was all they had left, maybe all they started out with or everything they planned on spending but you could tell it wasn’t much.

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We should be careful about filling people with ambition

I had a pretty lively discussion with someone on the twitter this morning who had some strong opinions about how everyone should be self-employed and that we should quit relying on “The Man” for a job. I expressed some concern that before cheering them to jump off the ledge, we should perhaps maybe encourage people to first assess the risks, that they should jump with eyes wide open.

Twitter being what it is — by the end of the discussion — I was accused of scaring people, looking for more ways to fail than to succeed and killed fifty people on the highway with a load of wood.

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Fannie and her big blue car

Windmill Cookie

Windmill Cookie

We had just moved into the big house on Van Buren Ave. in St. Paul in 1968. There were only four of us kids then, my two younger sisters were still babies. My mom didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood except Fannie, a rather plump, proper lady who lived straight across the alley from us facing Blair Ave. I’m not quite sure how they met, but I think it was at the laundromat that used to be on the corner of Blair and Dale, the one with the 5¢ Coke machine that dispensed glass bottles.

When Fannie walked, her girdle and underthings swished beneath her dress. She always wore a pastel-colored dress, even in the winter. She had white hair that was cut short and gold-framed glasses. I don’t remember her ever smiling, but her face was friendly and pleasant to look at. It was the face of a calming, comfortable grandma.

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What frying pans and grammar have in common

Saute Pan

Saute Pan

Thanks to Sister Mary Clarentia (who we adoringly called Sister Tarantula or The Tranch for short) in seventh grade, I fell in love with the usage rules of the English language. When I went on to high school, Sister Ursula, (Sister Rubber Lips, sorry. † self) my Latin teacher, showed how language had even stricter rules. In my senior year, Ms. M-P (the first person I knew who had a hyphenated last name.. she still scolds me that she doesn’t want me to use her real name in my blog) showed me that these rules can be manipulated to create all ranges of emotion and bend people to your will based on your words alone.

Wow, that was real power, I thought, I wanted more of this seductive drug.

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Living in the land of plenty

Donut - Land of Plenty

I remember growing up in St. Paul, there was a donut shop on University and Dale that made the best raised donuts in the world. They were big and my favorite was a chocolate with crushed peanuts on top. We would take a special trip there every few months and only get one donut for each of us. The donut would take forever to eat.

We had the same relationship with the Dairy Queen on Rice St. We would visit the DQ on the Sundays our family drove down by the Mississippi to watch the barge traffic. We didn’t go for those drives often and we would always only get a small cone per kid. No matter how hot it was, that ice cream would last for a long time.

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Don Draper was a poser and so can you. The myth of graphic design

Mad Men

My editor wrote this little thing this morning. Since I’m also a Mad Men fan, I asked him if I could repost it here for you. He reluctantly agreed, but only if I give him full credit. He is such a stickler for the rules. Here is his post as it appears on his blog.

There is a current narrative going on within the creative community lamenting the demise of professional graphic artists. One such narrative appears on my favorite design blog, Before&After Magazine.

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Je ne parle pas français

I’ve only met my maternal grandmother twice in my life. The second time was when we visited them in Maine for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. She died two days later. My grandfather died less than a year after that.

This is the story of the first time I met her. Her name was Leda Boutot Pelletier.

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