Friday, August 12, 2011

I don't think I'll live as long as my financial planner thinks I will.

The average male in the US lives 75.6 years. The average Masterson male? Well, my Dad is the current record-holder as far back as anybody can remember. He's 67 and in good health, but so far he is defying the tally sheet.

But this is not a post about morbitity. That would be morbid. This is a post about mutual funds.

I saw a speaker today at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit who yelled a lot and pointed his finger a lot and smiled a lot on words that most people tend to frown around. But he said something that spoke to me:

"I don't want to fill a retirement account and buy a boat and die some day. I want to have stories to tell..."

I immediately thought of Tyler Durden, who told me not to die without scars. And I thought of my friend Andrew (see: who encouraged me to live a life story that merits retelling. And then I thought of my financial planner, who told me that I need a safe retirement and buy so much life insurance that Bayla will never have to worry about money when I pass.

I'm saving like I'm going to live to 90. I'm putting money away. While other people starve for want of a meal or freeze for want of a roof or die of malaria for want of a mosquito net, I am squirreling money away on the long shot that, despite generations of evidence to the contrary, I might make it past 80. I'm slowly investing in something that I am reasonably certain I will never ever have the opportunity to enjoy in full, and the remainder of which will be taxed at 50% and handed to my already-grown-and-financially-stable daughter. I am trying to make the wholly imaginary octogenarian years of my life as comfortable as possible.

Let's face it, when I drop that money in the old 401(K), I am really not investing in a storehouse of old-Justin-pills . I'm making myself feel better, now. I'm convincing myself that if only I can invest enough money now, I can avoid the inevitability of my own mortality. I'm buying imaginary water from the Fountain of Youth in tiny decanters.

The problem is, there are lots of people who need that money now. There are lots of ways for that that money could be used to make my story worth telling right now. I think I will squirrel away less, and find something more real, and less imaginary, to do with some of that money now.

I'm not advocating not saving, or being financially irresponsible; just being less focused on trying to pretend to secure an imaginary future. What would happen if you planned as if you were going to die at the average age of 75.6 years (men) or 80.9 years (women), but lived in the realization that some very non-imaginary things may deserve your money now? What would you do differently today, if anything?


Friday, July 22, 2011

I have a confession to make: there is a dent in my couch in the shape of my ass.

It is a relatively new couch; just a couple of years old. It's a sturdy couch, a nice thick foam-covered-in-leather cushion in the seat...not the loose cotton-stuffing type that lends itself to butt dents. No sir, this is the genuine article... I think it might have been fair for the manufacturer to even tout it as butt-dent-resistant.

This is embarrassing. Do you know how many hours of laying/sitting on a nice leather couch it takes to create a butt dent? A lot. A whole lot. If it were a ten-year-old couch, or one of those well-seasoned couches that goes through the decade-long Couch Circle of Life (living room, family room, basement, college dorm, son/daughter's first apartment, curb, back to someone's living room, repeat) I could understand it. But no, I made that butt-dent through countless unfocused hours of sloggily lazing about on that couch over the last two years. And here's the thing: I didn't even enjoy that time all that much. It would have been one thing if I spent it doing exactly what I wanted to do, but I think I just default to that position; it is a weak sort of "home base" for me when I'm not sure what to do with my time and energy.

I tell you that to tell you this: I have wasted many, many hours of my life and I plan on not doing that anymore, because it's dumb.

It's not about "watching TV is bad," or "vegging out is bad" or "hooray for exercise, now blast those quads!" It's simply about being intentional with one's hours. I'm starting to think that the two greatest blasphemies are squandered time and self-pity, and I dare say that squandered time may be the worse of the two. If I want to watch TV or a movie, I will... but it should be because I want to enjoy the experience. I will dial up the program I want to see, that I chose beforehand, and I will take it in with presence and attention. And when it is over, I will turn it off. I will surf the internet with direction, and if I don't have direction, I will attend to one of the fifty other things I would like to accomplish. In short, I will choose my attention, not piddle away to a static default.

When I was single, I thought I was as busy as any human can get. "Where has all the time gone?" I thought.
When I got married, I was amazed at how much busier I got. "Remember when I was single, and I had all that free time? Where has all that time gone?" I thought.
Then I had a child. And I thought, "What did I do with all of my free time when it was just the two of us? NOW I am busy."
Then I became a half-time single parent. And I frequently think, "What did I do with all of my free time back when I had a partner in parenting and taking care of the home? Where has all that time gone?"

The couch ate it. I will feed it no more.


Saturday, July 09, 2011

It's nice to see you again, blog. It has been far, far too long. May I tell you a story to catch you up a bit?

Very late last night, lit by the last orange embers of a summer campfire, someone smarter than me told me of a book that has inspired him to consider his life as a story, and himself as a character in that story. He asked me if someone were to see my life written as a story or reenacted as a movie, would it be worth reading or watching? Would it be interesting enough to stick around for the ending? Memorable enough to talk about in the break room the next day? Meaningful enough to shed a little light on the reader/viewer's own life? He identified a few elements that make a compelling story: exterior tensions and risks, overcoming adversity, ultimate victory against all odds...but the one that stood out to me most was character arc; the idea that a great story needs its central characters to change to be interesting: Darth Vader goes from well-mannered rambunctious kid to dark lord, Jason Bourne goes from confused and wandering ass-kicking-robot to hero driven by love, Jenny comes back to Forrest to start a family with the only man who ever loved her.

He told me of many intentional choices he and his wife have made and continue to make to live a story worth telling; he did so with neither bravado nor pride, he did so in kind instruction. Then he asked me about my story. I sipped a dram of bourbon from a plastic cup and glanced into the wispy burn of the fire's final moments, and I felt a strange sort of melancholy. It wasn't regret, not exactly; but rather a familiar dull weight in my chest that reminds me that my story is not yet stunning, but that my character is in the middle of a remarkable character arc.

The last year and a half has been, without exaggeration or effect, the most rapidly changing and ultimately character-defining season I have experienced yet. I changed positions in my company twice, adopted a baby, got separated (on the way to divorced) from my wife of eight years and drained the bank account in the process, and have learned to be a half-time single parent of a one-year old. My character today is starting to look pretty different than my character of two years ago.

There are stories within each of these chapters, and these are probably stories worth telling. But I'm not going to, not right now. I am instead going to tell you several things I've learned in the process, in the hopes that in doing so, I might remind myself of my own character arc to date, and even begin to imagine how the outline for the next chapters might look. Here are a few belief changes that have defined and driven my own character arc in the last eighteen months:
  • Great marriage is a partnership of self-realized individuals. A married person must love their spouse choicefully and work hard at that relationship, but must never forget that what his/her spouse truly needs is a whole person to be married to... the most important promise I can make to a future spouse, if there should ever be one, might not be "I will forever work on our relationship," but rather "I will forever work on becoming the man I was made to be."

  • Boys are everywhere; men are hard to find. I could write for weeks about this, but many others have already done so, and have done well. A real man is both strong and sensitive, fully present to his life, and ceaseless in his work on himself and his world. He loves the woman and the world into beauty around him.

  • Parenting Is Insanely Hard, and Impossibly Rewarding. Being a single parent with half-custody is not half as hard as being a full-time single parent. It is exactly as hard, just half of the time. I had no idea what parenting really felt like until I was the only person there to do it... and I am so grateful for that chance. I cannot ignore her, hand her off, or wait for someone else to fix her problems for me. When she is with me, I get 100% of the frustration, sadness, and exhaustion, and I get 100% of the reward, love, and sense of satisfaction of actually seeing a real human being grow and flourish in my care. I know this sounds nuts, but I feel really lucky for that.

  • Humility Is the Only Sensible Reality. Humility is not a character trait or a personality bonus, it demonstrates a basic grip on reality. No one; no one who reflects in earnest on the magnificence of the world around him and the simultaneous sacred depth and chaotic absurdity of the human experience can live in arrogance or pride. Our world, our spirit, our experience is too deep and too profound and too ridiculous to merit it. As someone who frequently falls into the insecurity of arrogance, I'm praying that my character remembers this.

  • Hard Work is How You Get Things. File this one under "duh," but somewhere along the line I got the impression that if I dabbled in enough interests for long enough, I would naturally pick them up and find myself a fully-realized man. It turns out I was wrong, and I was lazy. If I want to be fit, I must work hard for a long time. If I want to be informed, I must learn hard for a long time. If I want to be spiritually connected, I must work hard at connecting for a long time. If I wish to become a skilled writer, I must practice hard and for a long time.

  • Self-Pity Is a Curse. I cannot choose actions for others, and I cannot choose what the world will offer me... but I have full control of my choices. Self-pity presumes otherwise on both accounts, and disallows both accountability and gratitude. I may be sad, confused, and lost at times, but I may not pity myself; it is a heresy against all I am given, and all I am able to choose.
I'm sure there are dozens more, but this will do for now. I want to live a life worth retelling; I've no aspiration that the story will actually be retold, but merely that it be worthy of being retold... that I have honored all that I have been given by living a life worthy of it.

It's nice to see you again, blog.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Hello blog world.

A: I realize that not many follow the blog. To those that do follow, I'm grateful and flattered and entirely undeserving given my recent dearth of posts.

B: I'm not going to post on this blog for a while.

The reason is, Stacy and I recent underwent an adoption process which requires a great deal of confidentiality, for the safety and protection of the baby. As much as I love to write, I have been waiting to decide what I want to do... and what I'm going to do is to continue my blog privately on Facebook (as I have been doing) and discontinue it on here until the privacy concerns have been satisfied.

Thank you so much to the many, many folks who have read and posted comments on this blog... it has been an INCREDIBLE form of expression and catharsis for me, and has allowed me the impossible luxury of sharing my deepest thoughts without fear of face-to-face confrontation or rebuttal. THANK YOU. If we're friends, I'll see you on Facebook. Otherwise, I'll likely pick it up again soon; I'm just going to pause for now.

My very best,

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It has been a long, long time since I've posted.

I'm starting to wonder if my zeal for life is somehow tied proportionately to the global economy? It seems that when we are in times of plenty, so are my hopes, my aspirations, my trips to the gym, and my blog posts. When we are in tumult, the dreaming, running and writing stop. It's a bit unnerving that AIG and Fannie Mae may have more control over my daily life-improvement choices than I do... but I digress.

So, with that all said, here is a random list of the 5 saddest non-country songs I can think of, with a few relevant lyrics (but click and listen to the whole song where you can).

#5: Alone (Blues Traveler)
In order to truly understand the sadness of this BT bar anthem of unrequited love, download a picture of John Popper circa 1995 and stare at it as you listen. Picture this overweight songster with a meeky alto voice and a homemade vest of harmonicas trying his best to keep the attention of the one woman who could make him truly happy...

I said I love you
She began to cry
She said she needed a friend
I said I'll try
Soon we'd say nothing
Somehow I never wondered why
You see, she left me
She left me
I'm alone

Beauty and the beast
Was how it seemed to be
A love like hers
Ain't meant for guys like me
Some call me crazy
Some politely call me free
But either way you see
You see, she left me
She left me
I'm alone

I guess some day
Love will soon be here
And maybe then
I'll see things more clear
I guess I got excited
Cause it felt so near
You see, she left me
She left me
I'm alone

#4: When I Fall (Barenaked Ladies)
I love this ode to the underappreciated and underrealized. Here's a man whose life's work, at its best, amounts to leaving nothing behind, and who knows it... all the while his every day forces him to stare in at contemporary royalty and wonder what it's like in the air-conditioned comfort of being somebody who matters.

I look in the boardroom; a modern pharaoh's tomb
I'd gladly swap places, if they care to dive
They're lined up at the window, peer down into limbo
They're frightened of jumping, in case they survive.

Look straight in the mirror, watch it come clearer
I look like a painter, behind all the grease
But painting's creating, and I'm just erasing
A crystal-clear canvas is my masterpiece

I wish I could fly
From this building, from this wall
And if I should try,
would you catch me if I fall?

#3: Slow Dancing in a Burning Room (John Mayer)
The only thing sadder than unrequited love (see #5) is perfect love going wrong, and being perfectly conscious as you are unable to control its gradual demise. To me, it's the romantic and spiritual equivalent of Lou Gehrig's disease. I love this song for its wrenching tension of holding and dancing with the only love you've ever had, and realizing that it will never, ever work. As you listen, let Mayer bring you into that last dance, and feel the heat from their bodies as you feel the slow burn from the support walls melting around you.

It's not a silly little moment,
It's not the storm before the calm.
This is the deep and dying breath of
This love that we've been working on.

I was the one you always dreamed of,
You were the one I tried to draw.
How dare you say it's nothing to me?
Baby, you're the only light I ever saw.

We're going down,
And you can see it too.
We're going down,
And you know that we're doomed.
My dear,
We're slow dancing in a burning room.

#2: Hush, Hush, Hush (Herbie Hancock feat. Annie Lennox [written by Paula Cole])

I don't know who Paula Cole was thinking of when she wrote this song, but I wish I had. With as sad as songs 3-5 were, this one rises head and shoulders above for me... the crushing story of a gay man dying of AIDS at the age of 20, and his father sitting nearby trying to comfort him. He waited his whole life to come out and find true love, and it was too late to save him from the mistakes made in the dark corners of his closeted life. If you don't cry during the bridge, you may want to check your pulse.

Long white arms
Losing their strength and form
Sixty year man on twenty year old skin
Skeleton, your eyes have lost their warmth
Look to your father for some support

Oh maybe next time
You'll be Henry the 8th
Wake up tomorrow Alexander the Great
Open your eyes in a new life again
Oh maybe next time
You'll be given a chance

Hush, hush, hush

Says your daddy's touch
Sleep sleep sleep
Says the hundredth sheep
Peace peace peace
May you go in peace

#1: Praying for Time (George Michael)

I once had a Christian-savvy friend of mine tell me that the saddest verse in the Bible is the verse in Job where God searches the planet for a righteous man and can only find one (Job), and that Job eventually lets him down too. "Praying for Time" seems to believe that Job has long gone, and we are left with no one. I made the mistake of listening to this song on the way to work once, and had to pull over outside of my office and cry for a good ten minutes before I could go in. I hope you listen to this (the Carrie Underwood version is surprisingly moving) and find something genuinely worthwhile to do.

This is the year of the hungry man
Whose place is in the past
Hand in hand with ignorance
And legitimate excuses

The rich declare themselves poor
And most of us are not sure
If we have too much
But well take our chances
Because God stopped keeping score

These are the days of the empty hand
Oh you hold on to what you can
And charity is a coat you wear
Twice a year

So you scream from behind your door
Say whats mine is mine and not yours
I may have too much
But Ill take my chances
Because God stopped keeping score
And you cling to the things
They sold you
Did you cover your eyes when
They told you
That he cant come back
Because he has no children
To come back for

So... it's hardly an exhaustive list, but I'd like to hear yours. What are the 5 saddest non-country songs you can think of?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Words ...
Originally uploaded by Ieneke.
I was recently reading a book about writing, and the art of writing, when I came upon an apocryphal tale of the power of brevity. I’m not sure where and when and even if it happened, but it’s rumored to, and it doesn’t matter if it did because the story is just as powerful as a story.

The story tells us that Ernest Hemingway, an American literary deity who was maligned by Classics scholars for his undecorative, straight-to-the-point writing style, was dared by a friend and contemporary to “write a compelling short story in six words.” The only rules were that the story must have a beginning, middle, and end, and must be compelling enough to get published. Hemingway accepted, and spent an evening or two with pen to paper, scrawling out miniature narratives. He returned with a story so compelling, and with such depth, that it was published the very next week in The New Yorker. The story read:

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

As I read this little gem of writer’s folklore, I was struck by how powerful, rich, and deep this six-word story was. It brought so much to mind...let my imagination fill in the plot gaps and the faces and the names... but what was more remarkable was how much it explicitly told me. In six expertly selected words, I could access 29 years of human experience to instantly and powerfully fill in these gaps with more than just conjecture... I could lean on my gut to fill in the gaps...and without wild subjective conjecture or speculation. Someone had a baby on the way (pregnant, likely), and planned ahead. She anticipated that child, she looked forward to it, and even planned far enough into the child’s life to invest into shoes the baby wouldn’t need for several months into his/her life. Then, something happened. Likely something dreadful. The baby was gone, the dream with it, and the shoes rendered a purposeless reminder of what should have been. The would-be parent even went so far as to sell the shoes; to post an ad to both remunerate her now useless purchase, and to excise this tragic memento from her home.

This is a tragic story with a beginning, middle, and end, and is every bit as emotionally compelling and haunting as some of the best short fiction I’ve read. And it reminds me that, when crafted carefully and artfully, even a few words can tell a very big story. Whether in a letter to a loved one, a Carlos-Williams poem, a song lyric, a quotation scrawled on a blackboard, an epithet yelled at an enemy, a commercial concept, a political mantra, etc. etc., it only takes a few choice words to make a huge impact. And when I sit down to write long summaries of research, or tell a neverending tale to a friend, or to pen lengthy blog entries (such as this one), I do well to remember that, and to flex the power of selection a bit.

As an aside, if you haven’t explored this genre of “flash fiction” (stories written in a few words or a single sentence), I encourage you to check out and There are some very funny, sad, and encouraging pieces on there [one read something like, “‘I’ll never do that again,’ he thought, as he slipped cautiously into the warm tub.”]. And I hope you’ll try to write your can’t possibly claim you don’t have the time. Here are four one-sentence short stories I wrote on a flight back from Orlando:

“No one will hear you scream through the gauze,” he told me as the nitrous took over.

As I groped for my wallet in the dark, the morning sun made it clear she was not, in fact, a flight attendant.

The only sound left was disposable booties toeing the linoleum floor, and the long, thin electronic whine.

“’How much,’ will never matter again,” he told himself, as his last quarter scraped his final ticket.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The order in which I hunt down and eat specific ingredients in my Grilled Chicken Salad:
  1. Grilled chicken
    This one is a given. Always go for the meat first. It's sustaining, life giving, and tastes like meat. As the "Grilled Chicken Salad" name implies, the rest of the salad is simply a medium to hold up the meat.

  2. Dressing-saturated croutons
    Everyone knows that dressing is, right after meat, the main reason you eat a Grilled Chicken Salad. However, since "dressing" isn't an ingredient you can hunt out discreetly, you have to seek out the most efficient dressing-carriers...the porous dressing-sponge known as "crouton." I will warn you here, mixing saturated croutons and unsaturated croutons is dangerous, as you will chomp down as if expecting a marshmallowy wet crouton, and instead crack your pearlies onto a granitesque dry one.

  3. Cheese Shreds
    After picking out the meat and dressing-saturated wonderments, the next best tasty is the Cheese Shreds. Unfortunately, much like the dressing, Cheese Shreds are more a fluid than a solid, and tend to spread ubiquitously throughout, making them difficult to solo out without accidentally tining some of that yucky lettuce. Your best bet here is to use the side of your fork as a shovel, and scrape around the outside of the bowl or carryout container, as Dressing+Cheese creates a covalent bond with Container, and will result in a delightfully minimal cheese-to-lettuce ratio.

  4. Non-Saturated Croutons
    Well, it's not great, but it beats lettuce and tomatoes (see "Lettuce and Tomatoes" below for further information).

  5. Lettuce and Tomatoes
    Lettuce and tomatoes are the primordial stew from which the salad phylum evolved, and I think we owe L&T a debt of quiet gratitude for that. However, as far as vittles go, Lettuce and Tomatoes are less of an ingredient, and more of a penance for eating the other salad components.
    Author's note: For those who consider Lettuce a separate ingredient from Tomatoes, and one which merits its own address... well, you're wrong. By the time they've lived in the salad for a few minutes, they taste exactly the same. And shut up.

    The only ingredient I seek out less than Lettuce and Tomatoes is Onions, which I actively avoid scooping up with every forkload. I still have no idea why raw Onions made it into the Salad Canon, but presume it was clever lobbying by the Red Onion Association, and certainly not due to consumer demand. These sour and spicy groundlings are magnificent in other applications, and delictable when cooked... but in a Salad only serve to make everything taste like onions, and to leave your breath reeking like humid shoe closet.

Other "improv" ingredients, such as broccoli, egg, and bacon bits, cannot be addressed here, as giving this apparently limitless collection of foodstuffs proper review would make the blog unweildy and even more unreadable. Please consult your local Salad provider for more information on these rogue additions.