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
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 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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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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