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 Empty Nest columns of 2007
November 21, 2007

I’ve done my share of diapers. But this column is not about my past, it’s about why babies are great any time of your life.  In particular, there are

Three Advantages of Babies
By Mark Wiertalla

         My wife and I are empty nesters only because the nest was full at one time.  I have done my share of diapers, lost quality sleep due to midnight feedings, and developed forensic parenting skills (“Why is this kid still crying?”).  But this column is not about my past, it’s about the effects of the present upon my empty-nest life.  So, here are my top reasons why babies are great, even when the nest is empty:

Queue Priority.   Nearly all of my business travel is through a well-known discount airline. There is no reserved seating and “We, the Cattle” are herded into the big blue-red-and-orange flying corral in three groups: A, B and C.  For those who are math-challenged or still paying premium prices for in-flight meals, Group A gets the choice of the window or aisle seats, Group B gets the remaining window and aisle seats, and Group C gets the middle seat and the promise of an arm rest war on two fronts … unless you are a family traveling with small children.  Then you have priority boarding, and that means the first 30 seats are filled with families – and babies – before the Group A elitists even finish their lattes.
          So, if I’m a late-arriving member of Group B, I’m looking at a cross-country flight sandwiched between a Sumo with a nervous tick and a retired grandmother who is on her way to see her grandchildren because her daughter and son-in-law moved east to follow their jobs and she misses the babies because they have careers and his job as surgeon doesn’t allow them to vacation so she doesn’t see her only granddaughter and… and it’s easy to understand why those first 30 seats can be so important.
         Lesson: Babies are an essential business travel accessory.

Carpool Lane.  In California, we love cars (and petroleum companies loooove Californians).  Everybody has at least one car.  Lots of folks have two or more.  SUVs are considered good starter vehicles, but most Californians really aspire to some class of monster pick-up truck or urban military-class conversion.  Gas consumption is a status symbol.  There are roughly 5 million people in the greater San Francisco Bay Area and that leads to a lot of cars converged upon a limited number of freeways during the morning and evening commute windows.
         In order to alleviate freeway congestion, a special lane of the freeway is reserved for those vehicles that transport two or more passengers as an incentive to get cars off of the road.  Drivers who don’t transport two or more passengers are faced with a binary choice:
    1) a 90-minute drive home, or 
    2) hefty fines, widespread social derision and probably eternity in hell by cheating in the carpool lane.  For the privileged, life in the carpool lane is swell.  It moves along at posted speeds and reduces commute time, reduces fuel waste and preserves the fragile balance between inner peace and road rage.  Passengers is a classification for homo sapiens and is not defined by age or size, and you know where this going. The really smart commuters know to purchase car seats that the Highway Patrol can see just above the edge of the back seat windows.
         Lesson: Babies are an essential tool for a successful commute strategy.

Conversation Starter.  Let’s say two empty-nester dads are sitting outside of the local coffee shop on a pleasant Sunday morning.  They’re sipping lattes and sitting only a few feet away from their SUVs parked in the street.  They’re the same age, same build and looks, same khakis and polo shirts … in fact, let’s just say they are identical twins.  Except that one of them is also tending to a baby in a stroller.  Guess which one is irresistible?  Guess which one is the attention magnet for the hot moms?
         I’m going to stop just short of getting myself into literary damnation and say that none of us happily married empty-nest dads would ever – ever – use a baby as a devious alternative (and insensitive) pickup strategy.  Sure, we like the attention, but we are happily married, after all.  This is about the legion of unmarried empty-nest dads. We’re in this together and, guys, you know what I’m talking about.
         Lesson: “Oh her? She’s my granddaughter. I just agreed to watch her until you arrived.”

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October 24, 2007

It threw me for a loop. We were moving my daughter to her new nest, and I wasn't sure

When to Let Go
By Mark Wiertalla

     I helped iDaughter and Techboy move into their first apartment a few weekends ago. It’s a small, one-bedroom place about the same size as the first apartment that my wife and I had. Ours was a tiny little place in Wayne, Michigan, and it looked out over a dumpster. Theirs is on the Alcatraz side of Russian Hill, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and it has one of the greatest views in the entire world. I’d complain about the unfairness of life, but my editor would just highlight my gripe and hit delete.

     Their place is in a high-density neighborhood – high density for people and vehicles alike – and Techboy had to leave the moving van parked across a neighbor’s driveway to make the distance from van-to-doorstep as short as possible. Their apartment is on the third floor of a building with no elevator so, after two hours of intense manual labor, Techboy and I had emptied both the moving van and our well of physical resources. The girls decided that the boys were due for a small reward of sorts, so the four of us – iDaughter, Techboy, Wife R2V2 and I – headed down Russian Hill to the Marina district for lunch.

     Just after we settled down and ordered sandwiches and beers, a cell phone rang out. The neighbors had returned home from their walk and needed their driveway cleared. Our lunch hadn’t arrived yet, and stress levels immediately leapt from “relief” to “frantic.” Run back or walk the eight blocks uphill? What about lunch? Once the van was moved, could it be parked somewhere else? Who goes? Who stays? How quickly could we get the check?

     My wife and I looked at each other and, without saying anything, we knew the question was, “OK. What do we do here?” Typically, Dad would make the run, park the van in a distant lot at considerable expense, run back to the diner and everyone else would party hardy in the meantime. In summary: Dad would save the day.

     But this was a new day. It was the kids’ apartment, their new neighborhood, their choice of locale, their decision, and logistical challenges like this were bound to be a consequence of their choices. So the answers were: Run, take out, no, iDaughter, the rest of us, not quick enough. My wife and I helped by picking up the check.

     My point is this: I felt as stressed as the kids. My first impulse was to be Superdad and just assume responsibility for everyone’s happiness and security. In hindsight, that was my pre-empty-nest dad skills naturally rising to meet a challenge. I’m pretty sure that none of the others expected me to solve the problem. Perhaps, no one even wanted me to solve the problem (gasp). Looking back, it’s an epiphany of sorts. As much as I enjoy life without the day-to-day burdens of family and, despite the considerable effort that it took to push myself into this new life (documented in columns previous to this one), it was surprising how quickly my mind stepped back into the old role. And it was rewarding to see them solve the problem. It validated that, yes, they really are ready for the big jump into their own nest.

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Empty Nest News Flash: Stepford Daughter is featured in the new 2008 Hooters Calendar. I won’t say which month, but it’s not that difficult to deduce who she is. I’ll just say that I’m unreasonably fortunate to have such a beautiful, intelligent and talented young woman for a daughter. It must be life squaring things up for that old view of a dumpster.

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September 12, 2007

Dad Unmasked
By Mark Wiertalla

     I had lunch with a lifelong friend the other day. It’s been years since we had the chance to have a leisurely discussion. Over the years it seems like it’s always been raising families, managing careers, or two thousand miles getting in the way of quality time … whine, whine, whine. We’re both the same age, and we’ve followed the same general road in life (note to reader: Most maps refer to this kind of road as “unimproved”) through careers, marriage, family and health. Despite different bloodlines, education, careers and geographical locations (California, me; Michigan, him), there are surprising similarities in our personal growth, especially when it comes to transitioning from full-time dad to caretaker of an empty nest.

     The transition into full-time fatherhood was less challenging for me than the transition out of it. Perhaps it was the limitless enthusiasm for living that comes with young adulthood and the belief that anything and everything will be possible in life. I knew that being a dad was going to be a life role for me even prior to becoming an expecting father, and I entered into fatherhood with a master plan. I intended to have my children early in life so I could devote maximum energy to the role. I wanted to be a young dad to my teenagers and share some of the best times of their lives with them, going snowboarding, dancing until the early hours of the morning, and taking multi-day backpacking treks. I eagerly – and just a little naively – took on one of the major stressors in life and moved a young family of five across the country to California because the Golden State offered the kind of life for my family that I envisioned.

     Expectations and obligations came with the role of Dad. Children had school schedules, they had mealtimes, they had learning times, they had recreation times, and they had bedtimes. Schedules were always defined for me, and I didn’t have to think about the options of how I would spend my time, like “What else would I be doing?” Children need routine, and so I adapted to household routines and, frankly, I didn’t have to think much, I only had to do. In general, when life offered choices, they were easier to make because, when children are the highest life priority, it doesn’t take much cerebral mass to choose to be a softball coach, a music teacher, or a Scout leader. Vacation choices were easy – we went camping instead of going to, say, Vegas. Parenting problems always had solutions within reach. I had my own parents to consult, and they had become Parenting Masters by virtue of charting the parenting path ahead of me. I had a network of other dads whom I could consult for innovative solutions. And there was always an inferred position of advantage in the parent-child relationship that allowed me to solve problems via authority. That wasn’t always the best tool to use but, as I’ve stated, being the Dad did make some problems easier to solve. And oddly, I think even my career choices were made easier because, as the primary revenue generator for the household, the stability of career and employment had to be respected and maintained.

     With the transition into fatherhood and throughout all of the transitions within it, I was always looking ahead, regularly defining and redefining my fathering skills and priorities and assessing the next days of my life from that single, significant perspective. Now that I can look back at the road that I uniquely forged from the vantage point of hindsight, I realize something that surprises me. Fatherhood made life easy. I am not referring to fatherhood itself – that was always a challenge. But as I defined my life around the theme of Fatherhood, there were a great many life choices I didn’t have to face. Sometimes, perhaps, I even avoided making them – with reasonable defense, of course.

     The toughest challenge of transitioning out of full-time fatherhood was letting go of the role that had defined who I was for more than 20 years because I was unmasked and I had to stand in the mirror and ask the stranger, “If I’m not a full-time father, then who am I?” Or more appropriately, “Who do I want to be?”

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August 29, 2007

Room for Funnel Cake
by Mark Wiertalla

     The fair is in town. La Casa dei Sogni is only three blocks from the fairgrounds, so my wife and I walked down the street for dinner on Tuesday night. No parking fees, a special “$2 Tuesday” entry price, and fair food. It’s only taken me 30 years, but I’ve finally learned how to treat a girl right.

     We sat under the umbrellas of the picnic pavilion eating BBQ, sipping on a bottle of water, listening to the same blues band that we could hear from the house, and drinking in everything that is unique to our new home. At each of the picnic tables around us, parents were tending to babies in strollers and squawking toddlers, assuring them that they could get cotton candy but only after they finished their hot dogs. I remarked to my wife, “Gee, it only seems like it was 20 years ago that we sat here with ours.” It was a poignant moment.

     I realized – and appreciated – how different our motivation for attending the fair is now compared to what it used to be. Frankly, it’s all about a dinner consisting exclusively of fair food. Funnel cakes, candy apples, micro brew and a plate full of Big Bubba’s BBQ (and worth it at twice the price I should add). For two empty-nesters who spend a serious percentage of their time managing healthy menus and maintaining aggressive exercise regiments, a trip to the fair is all about self-indulgence. And the $2 entry fee stripped away any self-respect that might have managed to cling to us on our walk down the street.

     We took a stroll through the midway, and I watched groups of “tweens” clustering about the arcade games and squealing from rides while spinning upside down. I said aloud, “For $25, a kid can spend the entire day on rides with their friends. What a great place to be a teenager.” I thought how differently the fair must seem to parents who watch their kids walk off the Tilt-a-Whirl laughing and feigning dizziness, or listen to them plead for tickets to ride the Matterhorn. Those times are past for us. I expect we’ll have the chance to relive them in a couple of years when the grandkids start to spend overnighters during the fair season. For the time being, I think I’ll savor the amount of time that a funnel cake lasts when there are only two people pulling at it.

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August 8, 2007

If a Dinner Bell Rings in an Empty Nest, Does it Make a Sound?
By Mark Wiertalla

     Sunday. My wife and I both rolled over at 6:30 am, which was a wonderful extra hour of sleep compared to our work week, and we got our day started. She flipped on the television and tuned it to the local jazz station – it’s a wonderful thing, this radio-through-television-thanks-to-cable technology – and then she primed and kick-started the coffee pot. While she sat down to take care of some of our personal bills and tend to some budgety-things for work, I did what I have done on a lot of Sunday mornings over the last 25 years. I made breakfast. But breakfast this morning was unique, yet another example of how change creeps stealthily into my life without asking for permission.

     This was my first morning at the helm of our new kitchen – new granite countertop, new cabinets, new stove top, new oven, new refrigerator – the entire works. On this glorious morning, with the combination of relaxing music, the warm smell of coffee, the shine of the morning sun off of the new granite countertop, I was in the frame of mind to be extravagant and creative – design the biggest, baddest breakfast that there ever was, toss in a surprise ingredient obtained from yesterday morning’s trip to the farmer’s market, maybe even use some cheese– and craft a meal that would become epicurean legend, retold across breakfast tables in kitchens across the land. Maybe even land me a guest spot on the Food Network after I figure out in which of the new cabinets my wife has hidden my favorite griddle.

     But I realized there was a fairly significant problem stewing between me and my grand aspirations: It’s just my wife and I. The breakfast table is absent the three noisy, gaping jaws that should be at the end of outstretched necks, begging for regurgitated worms. Or perhaps Dad’s famous fruit-and-cream-cheese crepes. (They didn’t always notice the difference, and now that’s a secret between us, okay?)

     Nowadays Café Dad has to deal with the loss of the regular breakfast clientele. If I look at this dispassionately, the market’s changed, nothing more, and the menu should change in keeping with the times. But it’s a whole lot easier to change the menu than to change 25 years of trial-and-error culinary training. There’s a man underneath the sweat pants and the cat-in-a-blender t-shirt, damnit!, and he misses cooking for five.

     I’ve learned how to right-size my whole breakfast production. I peel one potato instead of five. Snap a couple of sausages off the end of the frozen array instead of cooking up the entire package. Slice an end off the deck of bacon instead of sending an entire pound through the microwave. And I use the freezer frequently. For example, the sausage may initially come out of the meat vault in the refrigerator but, once opened, it goes directly into the freezer, sans two or three links.

     A more difficult problem for Chez Dad is that some of my favorite recipes – waffles, pancakes, crepes – can’t be halved or quartered. My wife, who is the skilled tradesman in Cucina Della Casa Dei Sogni (and generally likes to take Sundays off) assures me that simply cutting recipes in half results in less than half of the consumable product. And since I don’t always listen to her – usually an unwise thing for me to do – I can attest that it results in no consumable product. I did pretty well in math in school, and I can handle fractions with skill. But the concept that half the baking power doesn’t yield half the rise, or a quarter of the sugar doesn’t leave things the same shade of golden brown, well, that kind of talk just sounds illogical to me. I’m not expecting to get another 25 years to relearn my craft and a real man does not resort to Eggo. So another solution had to be found.

     And I found it by consciously changing my breakfast routine through the rest of the week. If a batch makes up six or seven waffles, then I pick a hot one off the stack, bag the rest and, as long as I’m disciplined, I can have a tasty microwave breakfast with plenty of spare time to catch my train. Sure, by the time Friday morning rolls around, I’ve grown sick of waffles/pancakes/crepes. But on the other side of the argument – and I’m arguing with myself – I’m learning that a lot less money evaporates from my wallet during the week. So this moose-turd-pie-of-a-Dad-problem does have a buttered crust after all, and having empty chairs at the breakfast table is not an entirely bad thing. One nest, minus baby birds equals better breakfast throughout the week. Now there’s some math that is perfectly logical to me.

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July 25, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me
By Mark Wiertalla

     I had a birthday recently. It was a milestone birthday, and I was proud to attain it with my health, career, marriage and love for life all intact. Way back when I was thirty-five, I set a life goal to still be able to play competitive softball at fifty. Proving once again the power of manifestation, our team had a game scheduled upon my special day. To anchor the occasion, I told the team that after the game we’d go upstairs to the sports bar for pizza and beer on the senior representative’s credit card. A birthday party, of sorts. I thought it would be a good family experience to bring everyone together for the occasion, so I called each of the kids and invited them down to the softball complex to share some birthday cake with us.

     With the chicks having flown in different directions, the logistics for this kind of event can’t be overlooked or left to the last minute. iDaughter works in the City (San Francisco) and a late-afternoon trip down to the South Bay is an hour’s commute and a non-casual commitment. She is the fortunate recipient of the family baseball gene, so I knew she would get there. And it turned out that her boyfriend – the impending graduate from Chico State’s Mechatronics program – was going to be in town and could join us. Techboy and I always have a memorable time when we go imbibing, so I looked forward to seeing him. Stepford Daughter lives in Sacramento and is easily the busiest of the three. I knew the chance would be slim, but I was hoping to guilt her into the long trip for the sole purpose of sharing a piece of pizza with dear ol’ Dad on his birthday. No dice. She had a class that night and it was the last week of the semester; could I spell F-I-N-A-L-S? I called my son, the carpenter, who still lives with us but whom I see least of the three, to make sure that I got a spot on his social calendar. I was 3-for-4. In softball terms that’s a .750 batting average and good enough to lead the team.

     Most of what happened between the last out of the game and four o’clock the next morning – when I woke up naked on the bathroom floor – is flatly incriminating. So in order to protect the identities of the people that I shall eternally blame, I’ll summarize it this way:

     I went 9 full innings with Senor Patron. And I would have won … except for that last pitch.

     The legend of iDad and Techboy grows. And when our inhibitions are sent forth to frolic, he prefers to sing Guns-n-Roses while I prefer to draw upon the greatest hits of the ’60s. 

     Carpenter is reputed to have some kind of “evidence” recorded into his camera phone. Now he smiles at me and says “YouTube.”

     iDaughter doesn’t like Guns-n-Roses, either out of tune or at 120 decibels.

     If the half of what she has told me is even partly true, my wife must love me. My fiftieth birthday was memorable, but I don’t seem to have the same memories as she does.

     Alcohol poisoning is no less painful at 50 than it was at 25. I thought I would be able to drink twice as much at twice this age. (Don’t bother looking for that wisdom in the Dad Instruction Booklet). Actually, the formula is far more vindictive: It is twice the pain with half the drink at twice the age.

     I'd like to think that my fiftieth birthday party helped me pass a few valuable and constructive lessons on to my children: Live life to the fullest. If you have to turn fifty, do it with the top down, the wind in your hair and, when you turn onto the tree-lined parkway of middle age, make sure to do it on two wheels and leave skids marks. Make it memorable for everyone. Just let someone else do the driving.

     And the game? I went 1-for-3 with a sacrifice fly, turned two double plays and the team chalked up a win. All this from a fifty-year-old left-handed shortstop.

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July 11, 2007

An Empty Nest Full of Dreams
by Mark Wiertalla

        I’m going to ask you to suspend disbelief for a few paragraphs. This column is about manifestation, and it brings together everything about transitioning our empty nest.

        For almost twenty years I’ve commuted to the Silicon Valley. If I average the amount of time I’ve spent in my car – and that stereotypes me as a typical Californian – it’s probably been about an hour and fifteen minutes each way. For those of you keeping score at home that would be about two-and-a-half hours a day. I willingly sat on the road so that my family could have an affordable home in a nice community. But enough was enough. I no longer had to be home for softball practice, or Scout meetings, or music lessons. An empty nest meant that I could set my own schedule and I was going to commit myself to commuting by train.

        My highest priority in house hunting – in fact, the very definition of “What do I want?” – was to be as close to my new source of transportation as possible. And on the days when I absolutely had to drive to the office, I wanted the daily gridlock behind me (the worst part of my hour-plus commute). A casual look at the map made the candidate community obvious. But even when the where is clear, the matter of how is a tougher challenge.

        There was another influence in this process that I should explain. In the recent years my wife and I have talked about moving to San Francisco so we could experience an urban lifestyle. So we could see what it would be like to walk to restaurants for dinner. To walk to shopping. To step out on a nice summer evening, hold hands and just go for a beer or a dish of ice cream. To get out of our cars and experience life as we have experienced it in Toronto, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence and especially The City, our favorite city in the world.

        With so much newly realized freedom and significantly reduced responsibilities to family it would have been a shame to just settle for good enough. What I wanted wasn’t about a place to live, which can easily be the focus of a downsizing plan. It was about a way to live. And our dreams were building invisible critical mass with every conversation.

        The train station was only blocks from the downtown area. I picked up a pen and drew a circle around the combination of landmarks. I didn’t say “Wouldn’t it be nice?” I didn’t say “We really should try to look here.” What I did was declare, “This is where I’m supposed to be.” Put it out there. Dream aloud so my wife and our real estate agent hear. And let life know, this is what I want.

        This is where manifestation becomes scary-real.

        One morning last December, while driving from the rental unit to the train station, I decided to turn left instead of right. Only three blocks from the station was a For Sale sign in front of a house that had been vacant since August. A house that had initially been listed out of our price range had been reduced to a price we could afford … in a little cluster of modern homes tucked away behind downtown, only three blocks away. As soon as our agent opened the front door we just knew, and within hours we started the formal offer process. But we learned that once manifestation begins, it can’t always be stopped.

        We won a short battle between three bidders with what we believe was the lowest offer. The relocation company wanted the property off their books before the end of the year and, of the three bidders, we did not have the contingency of selling a current residence. And that was because we had dared to dream and follow our children out of the nest and onto the skinny branches … with our money still firmly clutched in our free hand.

        After a kitchen remodel, which was my wife’s highest priority, the new nest can only be described as “Serendipity, Manifested.” Now I have to start negotiating with the post office to let us drop those silly numbers and street name from our address, and instead deliver our mail to La Casa Dei Sogni, which is Italian for “The House of Dreams.”

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July 4, 2007

What Did We Want?
by Mark Wiertalla

        It started out as a dare. She said whimsically, “Should we put the house on the market?” We had talked about it for years, even fitfully explored the market the year before. The girls had moved out, my tolerance of the 90-minute commute had been killed-then-tortured, the beautiful garden in the backyard was looking less like roses and more like a very large water bill. It was obvious: There simply no reason for us to stay any longer. Would I blink?

        “Sure. Why not? Let’s see what happens.”

        Sure. Let’s see what happens. Famous almost-last words. Like “Let’s pour this box of baking soda into this bowl of vinegar … and let’s see what happens.” Did anybody remember to bring a mop?

        Selling a property isn’t a casual task. Especially if it’s been a home. Just from the perspective of process, there are contracts to sign, difficult pricing decisions to make, marketing campaigns to create and an intimidating list of repair and modernizing tasks to manage and perform. Add to that the anxiety of finding a buyer, negotiating price and terms, signing even more papers, and the pressure of a closing date. And, of course, there’s the sadness that comes with leaving so many memories behind and realizing that it will be a permanent separation. But the salvation from all the work and stress is being able to close one’s hand around the keys to a new home. Feel the new dreams emanate through the fingers and up the nerves of the arm. Follow the magnetic pull coming from the new lock set in the new front door. Step through the door into the warmth of a bright new castle, smile at the smell of fresh paint, and …

        Fizzzz! “Clean up on Wildflower Drive!”

        My wife and I employed a seldom-used strategy for downsizing. Sell the house and leave ourselves homeless. Financially stable, yes (these are California prices that I’m writing about) but homeless, nonetheless. Welcome to the end of the skinny branches. Hold on tight with one hand. And don’t drop the money.

        In the scant weeks between accepting the offer and the closing we took a different path to moving our lives and home than we had for our previous moves, which were all ‘upsizes.’ Downsizing wasn’t an easy process and our upsizing experiences didn’t prepare us to navigate some of the sand bars along the uncharted route to a new life. We scrambled to put into storage as much of 25 years of our lives as we could, while canvassing the target community for hygienically acceptable rental properties. And we attempted to initiate a house-hunting campaign in parallel. The uncertainty of “How will this all turn out?” was unbearable at times. The process left us with an unsettled feeling, because we knew there was one more move unavoidably awaiting us. And not to be overlooked, moving is physically demanding work when the body nears its fiftieth birthday.

        We realized that empty-nester status entitled us to things that were perhaps as valuable as the cash-out that was sitting comfortably in the bank. For the first time in our lives we had options that adults in growing families don’t have. We could downsize and spend less money. Or we could downsize into a more desirable community for about the same amount of money. We could ignore the school calendar and take advantage of the seasonal changes in the housing market. We could choose a location based solely our needs and not the needs of a family. And really, our fears were nothing more than a failed experiment at the kitchen table. It could be cleaned up with a dish towel. Okay, maybe ours would need a mop.

        We had all of these empowering options. All we had to do was decide: What did we want? These four, single-syllable words proved to be the most empowering words of our empty-nest lives.
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June 27, 2007

Sleeping on the Skinny Branches
by Mark Wiertalla

        One of the very best parenting strategies that my wife and I used was expectation setting. Another way to describe it is outcome setting. When the kids were teens and old enough to know when mom and dad were deadly serious, we set the expectation with them that once they left the nest there would be no return trip. There would be no room at the inn when they realized that life was indeed, work, and it would be easier if they could just return to the comforts of living under Mom and Dad’s roof. Mom and Dad were planning to downsize themselves.

        It might seem a bit cold-blooded of us to tell our children – whom we love and would readily give up a kidney even before being asked – that they would not be welcome home. But life is cold, too. So we repeated the mantra, “When you leave, we are downsizing.” Eventually the girls went from complete disbelief (yeah, right…), to shock (my god!), to disappointment (they really don’t love me), to enlightenment (my friend is still tied to his parent’s apron strings), and finally to appreciation (my life is mine).

        Our girls left for college with the knowledge that independence was a two-way street with high-speed lanes for both empowerment and responsibility. They could live their college life as they chose. And we encouraged them to enjoy those years because they are a golden time. But in the end, after the graduation parties, they had to be able to sustain themselves. That outcome helped them take ownership of their education at an earlier age. From a parent’s perspective, motivating them to respect independence, accept it and plan for it, allowed my wife and me to reclaim our own independence.

        But there was another aspect of expectation setting that neither of us anticipated, and I love to tell people about it. The discipline that we developed each time that we warned/reminded our teenagers what was going to happen had an effect on us, too. As my wife and I cemented expectations for them, we were scripting our own future, and creating a vision for our post-children-raising lives. First, when the time arrived, we recognized it. And second, we found the courage – rediscovered through our own words – to step out of the comfortable nest we had spent years building and reinforcing and venture out towards the ends of the branches. Out to a place where they are skinnier and less sturdy, and where they tend to move in the changing winds of our lives. As we pushed our children towards the uncertainty of their future, we found that we had followed them. But we also discovered that place where the nest is emptiest is also the place where our own futures could be realized.

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June 20, 2007

Are You Sure Your Suitcase Doesn’t Have Room for a Rabbit?
by Mark Wiertalla

        My wife is talking about getting a dog, and I’m pretty sure that I don’t like the idea. One of the benefits of being an empty nester is that she and I can pick up and go to Las Vegas or England on a whim and without any significant preparations. The responsibility of caring for an animal changes that. And I don’t want to give up any inch of hard-earned independence after investing 25 years to reach this point.
        I’d like to talk about nest droppings, or that stuff that the chicks leave in the nest after they’ve learned how to fly and leave. Another name for nest droppings is pets. Somewhere in the Dad instructional guide – which my father never reviewed with me – there’s got to be a chapter on “Pets and Their Use in Developing Responsibility in Parents.”

        Like many households with children we had several pets. Two cats, a dog, a series of rabbits, hamsters, birds and after that my sinuses flare up and I lose track. Whether I liked it or not those little creatures imprinted themselves upon our lives and many of our family memories are linked to them. But in the new world of the Empty Nest, they become kind of inconvenient. It’s not like they can be recycled or posted on eBay or, God forbid, left in the wilderness to take their place in the coyote food chain.

        Our first cat was frisky during her kitten and young adult phases, and generally fun to have around the house. But as the kids grew older they developed other interests and, when they finally left home, kitty lost his primary sources of activity and quickly digressed into a feline version of Jabba the Hut. Cat number two was a failed attempt to replace cat number one’s biped playmates with a single, four-legged-minus-a-tail-playmate, “She Who Will Not Be Litter Box Trained.” The way the concept was explained to me was that cat number two would keep cat number one company and, therefore, more active. But the way it worked – and go ahead and skip on down to the last paragraph if you know where this is going – Jabba the Cat didn’t want to be bothered with SWWNBLBT, so he continued to eat and sleep and she began to mark her new territory, which had previously been claimed by the humans. Dad developed the triple problems of:
            1) responsibly caring for an aging pet (not very rewarding),
            2) responsibly caring for a destructive pet (not even appreciated), and
            3) keeping as much distance between the wife and the cats as four walls would allow.

        The dog experiment was never really one that I subscribed to. Comparatively, children are OK. They eventually learn to take care of the whole maintenance and waste-recycling thing. But the best that can be expected of dogs is to whine at the back door and then wag their tail after proudly soiling a virgin plot of lawn. Picking up dog doo – one of the more important yard maintenance duties if a Dad is to achieve any status in the neighborhood’s horticulture society – was less attractive to me than cleaning a litter box. I was overruled on the dog decision through ingenious use of the Son Appeasement rider attached to the Playing Softball Weekly legislation. Eventually, I learned that the solution to my problem of creeping responsibilities of animal management was one of simple math. As Lord of the Manor I enacted a decree which bespoke to the kids (by then, teenagers all): For every animal added to the household, two must go. They could choose which two, but two shall be the number. That seemed to work … for a while.

        The rabbit problem came after Stepford Daughter left the nest for college, when she decided it was a good idea to have a rabbit for a pet. The roommates didn’t like that idea as much as she did and it wasn’t long before bunny was sent home to winter with Mom and Dad, kind of like a Palm Springs with fresh leaf lettuce. I resisted attachment by refusing to use the name that Stepford Daughter has given her, and instead I simply referred to her as Bunny. Bad strategy. Bunny and Dad became close friends and we enjoyed juicy grapes, leisurely grooming sessions and playing tag about the house. But replacing lamp cords two and three times finally brought that relationship to a close, and my wife threatened to send Bunny home in a roasting pan if Stepford Daughter didn’t come and collect her first.

        The worst aspect of nest droppings that isn’t going to be a surprise. Pets have a very similar life cycle compared to their humans. There’s the cuteness of being a newborn, followed by the playfulness and exuberance of youth. Then there is the wily I’ll-define-my-space-and-my-interactions period of maturity. Of course, it all concludes with the diminished capabilities of advanced age. The difference between us and our animals is that the life cycle of our pets is long enough to extend beyond the youth of our children, but is shorter than the maturity cycle of the empty nesters that ultimately end up caring for them. The kids weren’t home to watch Jabba the Cat struggle with his hips and mew in pain when simple movement became unbearable. My wife made the arrangements, but ultimately I was responsible for the decision to bring the life of a family member to a merciful end. When doggie’s hereditary condition worsened to the point that iDaughter could no longer care for him, he came back to Mom and Dad to spend his last days. I’m still caring for SWWNBLBT and, through a lot of trial and error, we’ve negotiated acceptable terms for co-existence. But through the process she has become Dad’s cat and so inevitably her road and my responsibility for her will lead us to the same place.

        This column has a happy ending, however. I have a plan to get even. When the first grandkid finally arrives, I’m convinced that he/she will need a puppy...

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June 13, 2007

The Gifts that Keep on Giving
by Mark Wiertalla

        I’m in Witney, England, on a business trip, sitting in a pub and sipping on one of the local brewery’s finest ales. I’ve spent the better part of the week with my brain crammed full of product release issues, thinking ahead to how to schedule conference calls across three continents and even remembering to call my wife (just to hear her voice) at the precise time when she would be out of the shower but not yet into her workday. In the middle of this wonderful beer I realize that I haven’t thought at all about candy or T-shirts or key chains. These souvenirs used to be front-of-brain during my trips, and I used to plan ahead to make certain I had something to take home for the kids. How my times have changed.

        Once upon a career, when business travel meant that I was missing birthdays or softball games or school functions – all for the greater financial stability of the household – I used to make a point of bringing home trinkets that represented my destination. Some evidence to prove that Dad really got on a plane, went to some place that was only relevant to a cartographer, and did some kind of work. And then he would show up a few days later with surprises.

        In a way the small gifts that came home with me did more to temper my guilt at being away from home (and missing the tooth fairy) and less about making my absence rewarding for them. T-shirts that said “ Kansas City” or replica baseball hats for the Memphis Chicks were minimum level of acceptable penance. T-shirts from the destinations’ Hard Rock Café always went to school the next day and earned me the galactically revered “My Dad is Cool” credits that always seemed to be pre-emptively redeemed when I really needed them. But the best – and to this day this is the one memory that each of them have from all of my travels – were the bags of candy that I brought back from my trips to Tokyo.

        When I returned from a Tokyo trip, the three of them would line up, waiting for me to push my suitcase through the back door like it was a treasure chest. Japanese candy has unique flavors that are sometimes fruity and sometimes not (eeewww!), comes packaged in unusual colors and wrappers, and has funny sounding names (like Milky). It might take me hours to find an underwhelming assortment of tourist glassware and apparel. But it only took me ten minutes to walk to the convenience store near the manufacturing plant, paint a collage of brightly colored penny candy on the bottom of a basket and stroll out ten dollars lighter. (Score one for Dad. Dad for King. Long live Dad. When are you going back?)

        I set a good precedent for my kids. Now they bring back gifts for me. A postcard with the Washington Capitals logo from a school trip to Washington D.C. A postcard of the Seattle Kingdome. An ink pen from Disneyland. Not riches from my travels exactly, but certainly testimonials from my lessons.

        While I’ll return buoyantly home from England with the crown jewels in my suitcase (assuming I can get by the Tower Guard), I’m saddened by the realization that there won’t be a reception line welcoming me and the contents of my baggage. I will miss the feeling of being received like the Holy See on Easter Sunday. But I choose to look at this, not as the loss of a fond memory, but as the transition to a wonderful new period of life. One of the benefits of travel away from an empty nest is that my wife is also duckling-free and can join me practically on a whim. Our trip to London is already scheduled for the end of the month, when I’ll be back again for business.

        Gee, I wonder if I would have been revered if the kids had found sausage, mash and peas when they opened my suitcase? Look kids! Daddy’s brought vegetables!

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June 6, 2007

by Mark Wiertalla

        When I left the nest – I mean, when I finally put enough distance between myself and my parent’s nest that I literally had to fly back to visit – it was during that time when communicating with my parents, even just to say “Hello, I’m thinking about you,” required a bit of planning. Most painful for me was the letter, either typed or handwritten, it didn’t matter. Letter writing required a lot of discipline for me in order to create even a few lines of heartfelt communion. Generally my letters were overshadowed by misspellings, scratched out words, backspaces and/or liquid paper. It was a lot like having a job writing greeting cards. A better option for me was the telephone because it made conversation natural and fluid. But there were still three hours of clock between them (Michigan) and me ( California). And, gee, it still meant planning my call around their work, sleep and social schedules because of that darn springy cord that only stretched as far as my mother’s kitchen sink and was perpetually kinked in three different places.

        My oldest, being a child of the Internet generation, has many more options for returning to the nest than her dad did. She uses the ubiquitous cell phone, seemingly always there so she can reach out impulsively to ask a question, coordinate some schedule or just feel a little closer. If I’m not in a place where I can pick up, she leaves a voicemail. And for those times when I’m available but she’s not in a place where she can hold an open conversation about career, love and diet, there’s the relative “social silence” of instant messaging, which is voicemail for opposable thumbs. And someday she and I are going to have a talk about how tiny cell phone displays and 50-year-old eyes don’t mix.

        Oh. And, of course, there’s email.

        I’m in the office on a Friday morning, attempting to stem the flood of incoming emails, phone calls and drop-in visits by plugging my attention into the weakest points of my communication dike. The oldest offspring drops an email into my corporate account because she knows that my corporate job requires me to be connected. (Corporate email is like that springy cord from a generation ago, including the kinks.) She reminds me and my wife – also on the corporate leash and at our daughter’s electronic reach – that she and her boyfriend are headed to the airport for vacation that night and she can’t wait and they’ll be over at six-thirty and they need to be at the airport by nine and what time will I be home so I can take them?

        I’m a little overwhelmed with the tsunami of her spontaneous urgency, and my dike finally gives way. I take a few breaths before responding, and the pause helps me realize that I – the more mature, experienced adult – am presented with not just a request to confirm that I’ll be home on time but also with an opportunity to diplomatically temper her urgency a bit. I’m in the midst of my second semester of Italian (front of brain), and I know that she’s had a class of Italian during her last semester in college (very rusty and very back of brain) so I decide to deftly establish the proper parent-child relationship by responding in Italian. It’ll take her a while to decode my reply. I’m so witty. I chuckle to myself.

        But she’s a child of the Internet generation and, with only a few key strokes, she cuts and pastes my entire email into an Internet translator. The thing about Internet translators is they are okay – not perfect, just okay – at translating words into their English equivalents. But translators don’t understand sentence structure or context. I think that I’ve told her in near-perfect Italian that “My train will be home at six-thirty, so we’ll eat at six-forty-five. I can drive you and your boyfriend to the airport this evening. Wife, can I take your car tonight? See you later, Dad.” My daughter – with the aid of an inept translator and absolutely no contribution from the expensive college education – tells me that what I’ve really said is, “My train six to arrive and means, then, we eat to six and three fourth (or seven except for fourth). Tonight, I drive you and its friend to the airport. My Wife, I can take your car tonight? Hello, I Dad.”

        Then she adds that phrase that no parent ever wants to see in an email from their offspring: “Hahahahahaha.”

        It’s bad enough that I am a victim of bad technology. She’s mocking me from a position of digital superiority.

        So the game is on. Dad and daughter rapidly exchange emails, and the game escalates into a kind of cyber-chess match for psychological supremacy. Since we keep my wife copied on the growing email thread, we manage to keep three separate employers from realizing full revenue potential because each succeeding email leaves three separate offices in fits of laughter.

        After nearly an hour, inexplicably, she moves her rook into attack position and leaves her king completely exposed.

        “LOL … So, I have one question? Is I Dad like iPod? Sincerely, iDaughter.”

        It was an innocent opening that would be overlooked by a father who possesses more maturity than I. But no. Dad will, indeed, reign supreme.

        “iDad is my new brand. You want a ride to the airport? You call it up on your iDad. Need restaurant recommendations for any city in the country? You say 'Restaurants' into your iDad and you instantly get the names and locations of the best restaurants in, say, the city you’re going to vacation in. Career advice? Type in 'What’s my future?' and iDad instantly analyzes the possibilities and steers you toward the best career choices. The iDad is a biological GPS/Wikipedia/Google. Invaluable. No one should be without one. Ask your mother.”

        This last email resigns two offices to mutual early Friday lunches. My wife signs off with an abrupt “Out of Control” and wipes the tears off of the budget that she was attempting to concentrate on. iDad eventually gets one more email asking for dating advice from iFriend, office mate of iDaughter. But iDad knows enough not to touch that one with a ten-byte pole.

        A generation later, it is much easier for my children to return home to roost, even if only virtually, than it was for me. And that’s good. Society’s infrastructure of technologies allows me to continue being a dad and share my wisdom about important life-things when my daughters and son choose to seek out a little guidance. Sometimes technology actually makes it easier for me to share knowledge – disguised as information – without the lecture-wrapper.

        I look at how the above impromptu interchange with my daughter provided a fun way for me to reassure her, “Don’t worry, I’ll be there when you need me.”

        Writing this column, I experienced a couple of painful epiphanies. First, once I moved across the country, my parents never had these same opportunities to continue parenting. The dramatic separation between parent (them) and child (me) and the loss of their life-defining role must have hurt in ways that I’ve never realized until now. My daughters and I have been able to make the separation more gradual through all of these electronic channels.

        Second, I wonder now what life-lessons I have missed because I chose to build my life and career half-a-continent away and without the benefit of parents who have never been plugged into the digital community.I certainly appreciate the fortune of being able to bridge our society’s transition into the digital age and adapt my parenting skills as we move along.But I also wonder what my mom and dad would have had to say if they had had more technologies than stamps and trim-line handsets?

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I am Mark Wiertalla

by Mark Wiertalla

        I have never thought much about what I would call myself if I had the choice, and I’ve learned this pen name thing is pretty tough. It’s a good thing my parents had the foresight to solve that problem for me. Eventually I’d like to find an Italian-sounding name. That would be cool and kind of sexy and a good fit for me. Or perhaps a combination of the street that I grew up on, my mother’s maiden name, and the name of my favorite pet. That might be clunky, but it would be less likely to be registered as a domain name. It was easier choosing names for my children. At the advice of my editor, I’ll stick, for now, with the name that I brought to the dance.

        I’m a product manager for a software company in the Silicon Valley. I’m not a writer by profession or by training, but I can rationalize my qualification to write a column because in business I’m always communicating through keyboards, flat panels and overhead projectors. I’ve written a couple of novels. There is a significant difference between a good novel and a boring novel, and I like to assess my novel-things as a quality between good and boring; let me use the word creative. During the last two Novembers I participated in the National Novel Writing Month contest and, after producing 50,000 words within the span of only 30 days on two successive occasions, I emerged a winner. My work so far has been exclusively fiction and for mature audiences. (We won’t be seeing any of that work here.)

         I’m the father of three children. My wife claims that she has always been faithful and, because each of the kids appears to bear the burden of my family’s gene pool, I’ll assume that I am indeed their father. For those of you reading this profile on government-issued desktop computers, rest assured that this status is consistent with each of my tax returns over the last 25 years. But I am only certified and qualified to hold this conversation with you because I am also a dad. There is a critical difference between fatherhood and dad-dom. It only takes a single successful sperm cell to achieve father status. However, dad-dom requires more than basic physical biology, and I’ll be writing in this column about the soft skills and the lifelong commitment to the prime objective. The prime objective, by the way, is to create and nurture children into the kind of adults who will buy a street sheet for a dollar and use Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success as a guiding principle in their lives.

         Each of my children is an adult, currently ranging in age from 19 to 25. Two of them – girls, both – have left home. The oldest works in The City (San Francisco to those of you that don’t live in the San Francisco Bay area), and she keeps an apartment with a girlfriend in an East Bay suburb. The second is a senior at Sacramento State and works full-time to cover the rent for her Sacramento apartment. While there is evidence that the third is still boarding at La Casa Dei Sogni with my wife and me (wet towels on the floor of the guest bathroom, laundry baskets overflowing with young male clothing staged outside of the laundry room, etc.), he works full-time and comes and goes on a schedule that only the energy of a nineteen-year-old can sustain.

        The general theme that will carry through my columns is my life in an empty nest. My intent is to avoid the warm, nostalgic “I remember when” stories (everyone has their own versions, anyway) and focus instead on my fatherhood experience in the moment. I’ll write about how my life has changed – and continues to change – as I transition from an active, full-time nest keeper to the role of consultant dad.

        Another character on my real-life stage is my wife of 26 years. Like me, she is a professional. She has always worked outside the home in some way, and still she has always been the principal homemaker. Cook, seamstress, ambulance driver, cabbie, conductor of the household cacophony. While our children were not latch-key kids growing up, they didn’t come home from school to warm cookies and mom-in-an-apron, either. Early in our marriage I decided that I needed a partner who would continue to grow with me and the best stimulant for growth would be sustained education and interaction with other adults. I learned that lesson from my mother.

        I’ve talked about the who (me, my wife and the kids), what (being an empty-nester), when (in the moment) in this series of columns (where), so now it’s time for the why. First, it’s not about “I want to be a writer.” That was my grandmother’s dream, and one that she realized, by the way. If this were an ill-defined ambition (I’ll try writing), then I would have just resigned myself to writing the next software Product Requirements Document. I’m also not willing to bet my retirement upon a writer’s salary, so this is not going to help me move on to a second career. But I am motivated to express my thoughts within the unfamiliar confines of a non-fictional format.

Writing as therapy. Years ago during a rough period in our relationship, my wife and I learned to express ourselves through diary writing. Frankly, I found diary writing to be as difficult as eating oysters on the half shell. I could get it into my fingers, but there was no way I could finish. Still, the experience helped me learn that, in addition to abuses of my vocal chords, I could release tension – and express joy and laughter, which are just a tad more constructive – through my finger tips. With practice I eventually found my writer’s voice. Writing keeps me balanced and provides me a channel for expression. And it probably keeps me from dumping a boxful of tacks across the parking lot at the train station, too.

Legacy for my family. When I was a teenager, my grandmother wrote a family history in the last years before she died. It was a painfully long outline of who begat whom (BOR-ing), but she wrote it in the face of the ultimate deadline, and I admire that today. Only the immediate family could relate to this type of work, assuming anyone in the immediate family had the patience to read past the prologue. I have a copy of it buried in a carton, stacked under other cartons in the garage, and it will be unearthed after the next great shifting of the Hayward Fault or perhaps after my wife and I finish our move into the new house. The scientists tell me one of these things is very likely to happen in the next 70 years. But I did read it, umm, mostly, about 25 years ago. I’m just a little ashamed to admit that I don’t remember anything about her book. (By the way, a book is the end result of actually publishing a novel. Twenty five years later, she’s still managed to stay one-up on me.) But I do remember thinking, realizing, that her book held half of my family’s history. And it was the only place on the planet where that much information on our family and how I came to be could be found. Twenty five years later, it occurs to me that now is the time for me to take ownership of capturing the essence of my life – all the stuff that represents the way my brain is uniquely wired – and not rely on someone else to perform forensic research several generations from now using Google and Wikipedia. This is the way, through writing this column, that I’ve chosen to reach across the coming years to show my great-great-grandchildren just what kind of man their great-great-grandfather was. Whether they read these columns or bury them at the bottom of an unnamed directory on their C: drive is something I’ll leave for my great-great-grandchildren to determine.

Creative discipline. I enjoy writing. Writing is the process of creating. I’ve found the novel-in-30-days hobby holds me captive in the creative mind. During those 30 days I have more energy, and fewer obstacles in my life seem like obstacles. I am more attuned to the lives and the dynamics of interrelations thriving around me, and I look outward for inspiration. There is a saying – “to think is to create” – and the more time I spend thinking then the less time I spend watching television or listening to an iPod or reading someone else’s novel. I find myself not just asking “what if?” but acting on my passions and desires, defining the “here’s how” and then living my life to its fullest. What I haven’t had (until now) is a schedule for creativity. I expect this column will help me develop that skill.

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