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Empty Nest columns of 2009 and 2010

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For Empty Nests of 2007, click here.

November 2010  

Now that each goal has been achieved, it’s time for me
once again to go through

Transitions

by Mark Wiertalla

     Nothing really ends. The Internet ensures that anything we publish will live forever in cyberspace, even after the shelf life of our bodies and minds expires. 

     During the time we’ve been doing Dad magazine, my iDaughter has worked her way from a college graduate into a career as a very successful and established – dare I say senior – PR professional.  Along the way she and TechBoy got themselves married and are working their way through a couple of important goals before starting a family.  Those include looking for a house, a mortgage, more cats and taking the big trip to Paris with us next spring.  Paris was their dream destination while they dated in high school and now, ten years later, they will attain one goal while reaching for even higher ones.  

     Stepford Daughter worked at Hooters through school, graduated from Sacramento State and has returned to school to pursue a nursing degree.  There is no doubt in my mind that she won’t just succeed, she will exceed. She, her boyfriend and their little dog Leo have moved into a home in the Sacramento area.  My wife and I recently attended their house-warming party, and I have to say they are starting with the kind of home that my wife and I couldn’t even afford to dream about when we were living in our little cube of an apartment in Wayne, Michigan.  Good for them.

     Carpenter spends most of his time with his girlfriend; of all of us, he’s made the biggest transition.  His new relationship is still in that honeymoon phase but my wife and I see real promise here.  He still comes and goes – mostly goes – and I know greatness awaits him at that place where he eventually will get to.  

     To fill the hole in our home that was created when Sparky the Dog passed away, we added Jeepdog and The Monkey.  They have become the perfect companions for each other and for the humans.  My wife and I taunt each other about adding another one because the Law of Cavaliers states that, upon upgrading my beloved Jeep to an extended-bed model, there shall be room in the back for several more.  I don’t really believe that’s the way the math works, but it’s a theorem that I can’t disprove.  If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that this special place that we have created (La Casa dei Sogni) seems to magically grow in cubic size to accommodate the volume of love that we shove into it.  These doggies keep the nest from being truly empty. (The little one is asleep along my hip as I write this.)

     Through a series of contracting engagements, Wife R2V2 (Wife Release 2, Version 2) has transitioned from working for a corporate giant with a heart of icky goo to a full-time position with a company that is an awesome place to work. The funny thing is, her new employer is a competitor of my employer.  There are lots of jokes about pillow talk; people who know about this arrangement ask, “Gee, how does that work for you?”  The answer is: We can’t do email side by side at the kitchen counter, we can’t do conference calls while we are carpooling, we can’t talk about our projects.  It means we have to talk about other things, things that we have in common.  And that’s really not a bad compromise when I think about it.  

     With this final column I guess I formally transition from columnist to novelist.  After a full year of reviews with friends and family, a formal edit by my
iDaughter and thousands of tweaks, changes, deletions and plot enhancements I can formally declare The Fisherman’s Ring to be ready for judgment by a literary agent.  The next step is to actually attract the attention of an agent, and I’ve been told that it’s the toughest step in the publishing process.  I can’t predict the future or predict success, but I know that both start with a single query letter.  And after a year of research, The Brass Plate is ready to free itself from the confines of my mind and take shape within the world of Microsoft Word. 

     I set out to achieve three personal objectives through my contributions to Dad: Use writing as therapy, create a legacy for my family and develop creative discipline.  The discipline in goal number three developed to the point where I could conceive, create and complete a full-length novel.  Maybe even two.  My parents do not have Internet access, so my aunt printed the entire collection of columns and mailed them to my mother.  I’ll consider this to be validation of goal two: To have a family member recognize the value that the volume of tales represent to our family, and then preserve them upon paper.  And goal number 1?  I can tell you there were times during the writing of a column where I laughed at my stupid antics (my 50th birthday), cried (our beloved Bailey and The Last Train), decided to say it anyway against better judgment (the Inverted Indonesian Trapeze Routine) and expressed sincere love (Second Love).

     Now that each goal has been achieved, it’s time for me to transition once again.  Readers, thanks for supporting us during this time together and my best wishes for the transitions that await you.

     Grazie e arrivederci!

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April 2010

My son has matured considerably in the last twelve months.  I think he’s starting to understand 

His Journey
by Mark Wiertalla

      As different as my father and I have always been, it was always Detroit Tigers baseball that we could call our father-son activity – the one activity that mothers, sisters, daughters and even brothers weren’t really interested in.  Through natural exclusion, baseball provided us a guys-only environment that allowed us to bond and talk about all things important and trivial.  A generation later, with me and my son, wilderness hiking has been the place for us to bond naturally.  Since he turned eighteen and graduated from scouting, there haven’t been many opportunities for us to spend quality time together.  Carpenter is a busy guy, and I was fortunate to get some of his time.  Currently he’s doing a couple of carpentry jobs, taking night classes at the local community college, and using his skills to help friends with their domestic remodeling jobs. And soon he’s moving out.

      A few days after Wife R2V2 and I returned from our wonderful cruise to Mexico, my son and I decided to take a day hike while I was still sedated from the stress-free days at sea and the daily dosages of Pacifico.  We set our sights on a near-yet-remote destination called Murrietta Falls.  It’s about 6 miles in along the 27-mile Ohlone Trail, and off on a spur that drops down into a small valley.  During rainy season (called “winter” in Northern California) the valley channels the rain water down into a small rocky gorge.  Then it free-falls over a rocky ledge and down about a hundred feet to rejoin the valley floor.  We’ve made the arduous journey many times, but never at the height of the rainy season when the falls are in full bloom.  And because it had rained the previous day, we had our perfect excuse.

      A cold, windy day under a canopy of dark clouds swollen with rain ensures hours of solitude along the Ohlone Trail.  We encountered only one other person on the trail that day, and he didn’t look much like my wife, my daughters or my brother.  It was quality father-son time.
 
      Carpenter has matured considerably in the last twelve months, and I think he’s starting to understand that his journey through life is probably going to look a lot like mine.  I listened and asked probing questions about school and education, jobs and careers, friends and relationships.  I know that I spent too much time talking about career and retirement planning, wealth and investing, and fashion. (Yes, ladies, we have evolved beyond animal skins and sneakers.  He’s very proud of his new Steve Madden shoes, and I like to think that I’ve had some role in his refinement.  One day, some girl will thank me.)  But I know he’s listening much more acutely these days, and it was an opportunity to share rather than preach.

      Several hours into the hike and after shedding about a pound of water weight, we ate our lunch at the bottom of the gorge, shielded from the wind and soothed by the sound of the water spilling over the lip of the falls.  We hadn’t planned our hike well enough to think about lunch, so I grabbed a couple of apples before we left home and we shared day-old sandwiches that we had rescued from a supermarket deli case.  The sandwiches were reduced to soggy bread and without condiments they … well, the apples were sure tasty.  In contrast, the sandwiches were a perfect bonding of father-son fortitude.

      By the time my editor posts this column, it’s probable, if he follows his plan, that my son will have moved out of La Casa dei Sogni and into a condo back in his hometown.  It’s only the next town over in our valley.  Not so far away.  Not such a long journey.

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March 2010

Get a dog. You’ll have a responsibility at home, a reason to leave the office and

A Need to Care
By Mark Wiertalla


      King Charles Cavaliers are endearing little creatures.  If you’ve seen the Disney feature Lady and the Tramp, then you’ve probably gone “awwwww” for Lady.  Don’t be ashamed to admit it.  It happens naturally to anyone who has a heart.  I want to add that none of our own dogs have been able to talk, which makes me suspect that the Disney creative team took some liberty with Lady.  Still, there’s no limit to the emotions that they can share through their eyes.  Other brands of canine may mindlessly chase Frisbees for hours on end, may be herders of small children, may have natural instincts for sniffing out birds and retrieving, or may be stout defenders of the family homestead against legions of squirrels and poodles.  In contrast, Cavaliers are bred to be companions, little long-eared Cham-Wows that simply sit across their owner’s lap and suck up as much love as we humans are willing to spill.  Walking a Cavalier takes about twice the AKC’s recommended maximum daily allowance, just to accommodate the “awwwww” factor.  Without realizing why, people are compelled to interrupt whatever they are doing to bend down to stroke the fur on the head and ears of these little love sponges, fur that is as soft as a rabbit’s.  And by design and breeding, Cavaliers are eager to make a new connections and accept as much affection as a stranger can shower upon them.

      Sparky was both a Cavalier and my wife’s dog.  And although I cared for him deeply, if you believe that animals and humans can have a spiritual connection, well, he was hers and she was his.  And after losing him so abruptly, both Wife R2V2 and I felt a void in our new home.  I recognized the absence of his spirit but I was concerned that attempting to fill that vacuum with a replacement so soon would be like entering a new relationship while on the rebound.  Against my better judgment I relented, and we had a new puppy shipped to us from a breeder in Montana by Christmas.

      Within seconds upon entering our Casa, the new puppy picked me … and then he never left my side.  Since that moment, I’ve had a constant companion whether I’m on conference calls in the home office, soaking in the bathtub, running Saturday errands in the Jeep or simply walking down the driveway at 5:30 a.m. to get the morning paper.  (Note: He doesn’t actually fetch the morning paper.  He can’t spell fetch, can’t hear fetch, can’t do fetch.  He just makes sure that I fetch the morning paper.)  Maybe it was because I tended to all of the human-bonding doggie stuff, like the painfully early-morning potty training.  Or maybe because I made sure he had a walk every night.  Maybe it was because the open door on my Wrangler was an invitation to potential adventure.  Or maybe
just because we had this connection that he understood better than I did.

      There’s an analogy about Cavaliers.  They’re like potato chips: You can’t stop at one.  This Christmas we brought home a second puppy to be a companion to JeepDog while the salary-earning members of the household are away bartering their wages for dog food, puppy training classes and indestructible nylon toys that are not as indestructible as the infomercials claim.

      I’ve been surprised at how quickly our friends and acquaintances consider this collection of dogs as part of the empty nest syndrome.  Honestly, I just never saw this comment coming.  While neither my wife nor I were anxious for our children to grow up and out, we absolutely relish our independence and freedom from the constant responsibility that comes with child-rearing.  But it’s true, dogs require patience and commitment and care, all of the burdens that we’ve successfully freed ourselves of.  This dog “thing” just seems like a quantum step backward into a trap that I’m too intelligent to fall into, excepting for, of course, the Cavalier factor, which supersedes all laws of logic.  After all, it’s the classic advice that we give workaholics who are all work and no play: Get a dog.  You’ll have a responsibility at home and a reason to leave the office.

     
I had dinner recently with a colleague/friend while on a business trip, and he shared a philosophy with me that I think helps explain this need to refill the house with the responsibility of other lives.  Steve said that it’s human nature to need to care.  For someone.  For people.  And when the people in our lives that we have cared about – for so long – begin to establish their own independence, well then, I guess it leaves a fundamental part of our nature unfulfilled.  The part that needs to care.  

      Note: A this moment, I am crafting my column from a cushy couch in the lounge of a cruise ship that is headed to Cabo San Lucas.  I thought this vacation would be just a little measure of independence from the Refilled Nest Syndrome – but not so fast.  Up in our stateroom, my wife has placed a snapshot photo of JeepDog and the puppy into the frame of the makeup desk’s mirror.  Awwwww.

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December 2009

Years after we had transitioned from business associates to friends, our experiences as dads sustained our unique and deep

Brotherhood
by Mark Wiertalla

      I first met Mike Sirna when we both worked for a large multi-national computer manufacturer, me working on the left coast in a product group, he working on the right coast in sales.  Within a few years he moved back to California and we ended up in the same work group with offices sharing a common wall.  After a few years, I moved on to another computer company and, when I passed an open hiring requisition on to him, he joined me there, too.  All together I think we worked with one another for close to twenty years.  iDaughter also worked as an intern with Mike and me at computer company #2 and, like her father, she shared an office wall with Mike for an entire summer between semesters.
 
      Mike was inquisitive.  It was his need to know “How does this work?” that diverted him from his university training as a geologist and into computers.  His friends, and I count myself among his inner circle, used to joke that, if you asked Mike, “What time is it?” he would tell you how his watch worked.  He was passionate about everything. There was nothing that was worthy of discussion that wasn’t worthy of absolute passion.  And at the top of his list, just one line below his wife, Gloria, and their three children, was wine.

      Mike was part-owner of a local winery that specialized in turning Zinfandel grapes into purple, velvety heaven.  Even as he developed his career in computers, he concurrently helped grow the wine business, doing everything from repairing the ancient stem-crusher to manning the tasting room.  For years he sat on the board as the business grew from a small boutique winery into a nationally recognized name in Zinfandel. The best way for anyone to learn about the wine-making business was to take the winery tour with him because, with Mike, there were no standard tours.  Eventually, he grew weary with the corporate shenanigans behind the marketing of computers and he went to work at the winery full-time, marketing the other love of his life – wine.

      Mike was about ten years older than me, and he started his family later in life, adding his youngest daughter to the family as he was approaching his fiftieth birthday.  Because my family was “complete” by my thirtieth birthday, my children passed their childhood milestones years before his did.  But we shared a unique, common fatherhood bond: Me, the father of a son with cerebral palsy, and Mike, the father of a son with autism.  My son was about ten by the time his son, Dominic, was born.  Through Mike, I re-lived the growing concerns over a baby’s delayed development, the procession of clinic visits and the battery of doctors’ tests, the anguish of the formal diagnosis, the helplessness of not knowing where the unexpected right-hand turn in life was going to lead. 
 
      There were conversations that Mike and I had about our sons that would never have been possible with any other dad.  Our stories tended to center on logistics, doctor’s assessments, health benefits, our mental state of mind, the impact upon our wives and our relationships with them.  Most dads can express only incomprehension or sympathy when these kinds of subjects come up at the lunch table.  Our experiences as dads sustained our unique and deep brotherhood between us, years after we had transitioned from business associates to friends.

      Eventually, Mike moved on to another company while I stayed at Computer Company No. 2.  About a month into his new assignment, Mike developed slurred speech and, soon after, doctors discovered the tumor.  It turned out to be an especially aggressive demon and, while it could never be eradicated, he still went through several surgeries and chemotherapy to keep it in check while he fulfilled his role as Dad.  Mike worked as long as he was able, even using public transportation to get to the office after it was no longer safe for him to drive a car.  When working was no longer feasible. he once again turned his energies to the winery, carpooling to the board meetings and contributing to winery operations.  My wife and I visited him at the UC San Francisco hospital just after his last surgery.  He was alert and, even then, we talked about family, friends and sons.  Doctors had removed as much of the re-grown tumor as they could, but the tumor and his amazingly quizzical mind were hopelessly entwined and full extraction of the growth also meant leaving him disabled.  The doctors had done as much as they could.

      Three years ago this Christmas the inevitable occurred, though many years too soon for Mike, and it’s this time of year that reminds me of him most.  iDaughter joined me at his funeral, along with many business associates whom I hadn’t seen in years.  It was a testament to how much time he had spent maintaining relationships.  After years of hearing stories about his brothers, I finally had the opportunity to meet them and I was able to hear them tell stories about him.  It was so appropriate to hear laughter at his funeral, because it was the celebration of a life completed, like the good feeling I’m left with after the curtain goes down on an excellent stage play.  I may never see that particular show again, but the memory will always be accompanied by a feeling of warmth.

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November 2009   

One of Mama Mia’s main characters closes the show by symbolically strolling towards the horizon of her future while she sings,

I Have a Dream
by Mark Wiertalla

      I’ve had the soundtrack from Mamma Mia! in the player of my Jeep for a few weeks now.  Both the show and the title tune (especially the title tune) are irritatingly addictive.  The closing song is entitled “I Have a Dream” and it’s sung by one of the cast’s main characters as she symbolically strolls towards the horizon of her future.  It’s not the strongest tune of the show in this critic’s opinion, but I still like it because it closes the show with an inspiring message of dreams and how we can use them to develop the screenplay for our lives.
 
      iDaughter and Techboy are about to move from their panorama-perfect loft in the City to a more affordable apartment in a quaint town on the peninsula.  I ache each time I think about how much they have loved their neighborhood and their life over the last two years.  But they are planning to buy a home and start a family.  They’ve made a difficult but mature decision: Sacrifice a little bit of the present and invest it for a great deal of return in the future.  I have a dream where they go away for a weekend of R&R and ask my wife and I to stay at their place to care for their children and the dog.  On a bright, beautiful Saturday afternoon, we walk our grandchildren down to Main Street (they’re back in the City) and teach them the wonders of the backwards lunch.

      Stepford Daughter and her Boyfriend are renting a home near California’s gold country with their dog, Leo. (They have a miniature Daschund that has the attitude of a lion.)  She is planning to return to school and pursue nursing after the first of the year. They’ve talked about settling in a coastal community, and I can see them living somewhere along Monterrey Bay, living the beachcomber’s life … with salaries.  I have a dream where they unlock the secrets to the work-wealth equation and realize an idyllic life only steps from the beach in some place amazing – Santa Cruz, maybe.  But there’s also Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, Pismo, San Diego.  California offers too many amazing choices for me, but I have a dream that they find the perfect place for them.   

      Carpenter appears to be searching for direction at the moment.  We don’t see him too much, but there’s still evidence that he uses his room and raids the freezer for frozen entrees.  I have a dream where he finds a way to capitalize upon the one thing that makes him truly unique from everyone else; his cerebral palsy.  Lots of guys can work hard and be construction contractors. Lots of guys can learn the skills of wood working.  But very, very few people ever develop the skills to conquer cerebral palsy.  Because they never get the chance.  Of my three children, he is the one amongst the millions.  Leadership training.  Motivational speaking.  So few people are really qualified to lead us in these business pursuits, and I have a dream that he will sort through all of the me-too careers and find his way to the echelon of the truly elite. 

       Wife R2V2 has been contracting for the last couple of fiscal quarters, and the pay has been critical to maintaining financial momentum towards our retirement (it sure hasn’t been the 401K).  But she is growing weary of watching senior managers with fewer skills being paid ridiculous levels of compensation to prove it.  Now that the economy is picking up, she’s getting besieged by calls from recruiters and former business associates.  I know a very significant and lucrative career enhancement is drawing nearer by the day.  I have a dream where she gets the director’s position that she’s ready to ascend to and that she earns twice as much as me.

      No, wait. Scrap that. That’s only a wish, worthy of no more than blowing out a single candle on a birthday cake.  A real dream would be that she makes ten times as much as I do, and still gets a company car.

      In this column a couple of years ago I talked about the scary realities of manifestation.  So instead of just dreaming about my future, I’m going to set goals and state them out loud for you.  You can read them and find your own inspiration.  Or maybe you will develop disbelief.  Either way, I know that life is listening and it has a way of returning my goals and dreams to me.  
     
      During the summer I completed my first full-length novel, The Fisherman’s Ring. It’s a fictional piece set in San Francisco’s financial district and the historic Italian neighborhood known as North Beach.  And this month I start work on novel Number Two, set in Chinatown.  My goal is to get three novels under my belt, find the right literary agent and get published.  And then take my main character to Hollywood.

      Last year I wrote a column about my financial education.  Since the stock market has turned around, I’ve started trading.  I’m still learning, but I’ve made 25 percent return on my investments this year.  In 2010, I want to achieve $1,000 a month return from my investments.  And 2011?  It better watch out …

      I enjoy my career as a product manager at the Electronic Machine Company, and I am compensated well.  But I can be doing more for both Dad and the company.  Next year it’s time for me to stop avoiding the responsibilities of leadership and step to the front of the organization and reward the company with return on its investment in me. 

      Last month my daughters and I ran a half-marathon together in San Jose.  Most notably, it was Stepford Daughter’s first run and she did fabulously.  Next year, I want to run the Big Sur Marathon with them as a relay team.  And also do half-marathons in San Jose, San Diego, Seattle, Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Ramon.  A total of six races and no less.  This may seem like mindless overachievement for a soon-to-be 53-year-old.  But running keeps my legs in awesome shape for softball.  And it’s the foundation for me to realize my real dream: To run the Honolulu Marathon when I’m 60.
 
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June 2009

We learned to work as a team when packing for the weekend, setting up a tent in the dark and finding hot dog sticks to cook dinner with.  The best family-building tool is

Camping
by Mark Wiertalla

    For many years after my wife and I transplanted our family roots into California soil we were house poor and the only way we could afford a family vacation was to go camping.  We traveled all across our new home state, camping in the extremes of the desert for Thanksgiving (cold), in the unpredictable rains and snows of the mountains (wet and cold), in the peacefulness of the redwoods, in the majesty of Yosemite and at the shore of the Pacific Ocean. We learned to innovate (“What do you mean you forgot the tent?”), we learned that when the bear is between you and the bathroom he goes first, we learned to innovate (G*D”*! firewood is wet!), we learned to respect the wile of the raccoon and the sting of the wasp (more so wasp, less so raccoon), and we learned to innovate (“Dad, the toilets have frozen over. What do we do now?”).  We also learned to work as a team when packing for the weekend, setting up a tent in the dark and finding hot dog sticks to cook dinner with.

    Through all of the miles and all of the challenges that nature had to throw at us, we still played games under a tarp when it rained, fought the cold with cheap mittens and hats from WalMart, and even picked up and moved camp when the Union Pacific claimed eminent domain.  We spent quality time as a family, seeing places, learning history through firsthand experience, building an encyclopedia of funny stories of endurance, and discovering that when the going gets tough, the tough still make s’mores.

    Camping was perhaps the best family-building tool we ever used.

    Among our trips we discovered a little jewel of a campground on the Pacific that became our favorite place for extended getaways.  It’s a couple of hours north of San Francisco, right on Highway 1 (also known as the Coast Highway) and has some of the best scenery that this planet has to offer.  It’s very remote and not so easy to get to.  But the remoteness provides natural crowd control and preserves the feeling of getting away from it all.  This past weekend was a holiday weekend and we gathered the kids-now-adults back to a family place. Years later, I’ve learned that camping has changed in some interesting ways.

    When the kids were small, planning a camping trip was rather straightforward.  I only had to accommodate my work schedule, pack the family van and make sure we had five bodies in the seats.  One of the planning challenges of this year’s trip was the number of jobs and careers that had to be accommodated and the number of places that everyone would be driving from – Sacramento, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Ramon – it made my head hurt and created a certain level of stress.  My solution was to get the cooler and other less-essential gear packed into my trusty Jeep, toss in Jeepdog, pick up Techboy and his gear, and leave everyone else to work out their own logistics.  Amazingly, every one remembered how to find their way there and I was actually able to relax.

    Meals are now way cooler than they used to be.  We always made it a point to eat well when with camping with kids.  During the years that Carpenter and I spent in scouting, I learned the art of cooking in a Dutch oven.  In recent times Wife R2V2 and I have converted some of our household favorites into gold-medal camping meals: lasagna, a hearty breakfast casserole, curried chicken on rice, decadent crème brûlée French toast, and all on just this trip alone.  But it was also a nice respite to sit back and let others bring their culinary A-game into camp.  Heffe (friend of iDaughter and Techboy) contributed a concoction called Big Ol’ Mess for Sunday night dinner and it was a winner.  Even old cooks can learn new tricks.  And the best thing was: I didn’t have to cook or clean up.

    Speaking of cleaning up, one of the most rewarding new experiences was watching others gather up the dishes and perform the washing/drying without being asked ... or threatened. 

    Jeepdog is still a puppy but he’s growing into his name.  If there’s water, it is meant to be forded.  If there are rocks, they are meant to be climbed.  And if there is a sandy beach, it is nature’s invitation to drop the gear into four-paw drive and kick up some sand.

    Even though the camp and the beach have remained pretty much the same for the last twenty years, the times have certainly changed.  The “kids” were up much later than the parents each night. It felt odd to shut off the lantern and have camp get noisier.

    And I’ll note one other experience that is unique about camping with the next generation of frontiersmen and frontierswomen.  There is way more beer involved.  On Sunday afternoon a subset of us went to tour the little town of Mendocino.  (If you’ve ever watched Angela Lansbury’s television series Murder She Wrote, you’ve seen Mendocino in the show’s opening credits.)  We left Techboy, Carpenter and Heffe in camp to guard our group’s precious cache of fermented hydration from marauders.  By the time we returned a few hours later, some other family seemed to have captured our flag, emptied our cache of sealed aluminum cans and taunted us by piling the empties upon a tree stump.  And the intruders also cast some kind of evil spell that left our small, overwhelmed crew of guardians with eyes glazed, stumbling about camp and laughing like hyenas.

    For our readership in the northern hemisphere, I wish you a happy, safe summer, one that will create a volume of magical family memories.  And for those of you in the southern hemisphere, don’t forget to pack your mittens and wool caps when you go camping.

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May 2009  

My daughter listened to my career advice, and I’ll take hers, too, in order to stay

In Good Company
by Mark Wiertalla

        In February, both Wife R2V2 and iDaughter were released back to the wilds of unemployment by their employers.  In the good company of other skilled, talented and disaffected professionals they began the long migration back to the nesting grounds of employment.  I’m pleased to say that iDaughter has scored a major career upgrade in the face of adversity and she will be wonderfully situated in a new job with a good firm by the time this column goes to HTML. (We don’t say “to print” anymore because there really isn’t much actual paper involved in the Age of the Internet.) 
 
        Recently, iDaughter and I were on the training staff of a leadership retreat and we had the opportunity to spend several days together away from jobs, housework, spouses, friends and all the other commitments and distractions that vie for our precious and limited available time.  Because she had just gone through the complete cycle of denial, anger, acceptance, résumé update, job search, interview process and hiring process, I wanted to learn more about the lessons and values that I might have instilled in her that helped with the whole process. 

        A couple of years ago iDaughter was working at her very first PR agency.  On a cold, wintery day she and I were hiking the hills around our valley and she was “relating” how her boss at the time had recommended that she upgrade her wardrobe.  As she explained it to me (and I absolutely remember this conversation and the place along the Ohlone Trail where it occurred), they weren’t paying her enough to advance beyond jeans, cargo pants and casual blouses.  I listened for a while and finally told her to “get over it,” that her boss’s advice was good advice and that iDaughter was not simply paying her dues, but investing in her career.  And perhaps her investment during that time is already paying dividends. 

        She mentioned a time, more recent, when she was considering a move from one PR agency to another.  Of course, at the time, all I knew was that we were having a conversation.  But she had called me while stretched out along the floor of her office.  She was extremely conflicted between the loyalty to her friends, her clients and her managers at the present agency, but yearning to advance in responsibility and wage by moving to an agency that could offer those things immediately.  What she heard from me was the guidance that “It’s not personal, it’s only business.”  I know that’s a rather famous line from the movie The Godfather, but it effectively puts an important life lesson into a few simple words.  Sometimes we have to put all the personal and emotional attachments aside in order to make a clear, committed decision.  And we need the courage to push up from one rung of Life’s ladder in order to reach for a higher rung.  

        There was another thing that she shared with me that, frankly, leaves me humbled.  Another aspect of my parenting that she attributes to her successful transition was that she “comes from a household that has a lot of positive attitude.”  My wife and I do tend to be glass-overflowing people rather than just glass-half-full.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  It’s taken me longer to mature than my family would have liked and, as a consequence, our household has seen more periods of glass-half-full than I want to remember.  I think my lesson here is that it’s never too late to strive to get more out of myself as a person and as a Dad.  And if she has been able to learn valuable lessons from the new Dad, then I have some validation of my own transition.

        I learned something else by listening to her.  The traditional two-page résumé written on expensive ivory stock is no longer a viable marketing tool.  See, iDaughter is a child of the Internet, and the tools used for job hunting in the present day have changed considerably.  While the Internet makes it much easier to find job postings, it also makes the application process very impersonal.  Instead, she tells me that networking sites like LikedIn are critical to making connections and getting a résumé (HTML format) into the hands of the hiring manager.  LinkedIn is also a standard for posting recommendations, kind of like a repository of our personal references.  It’s important to have a presence on Google, because that’s a tool that hiring companies use as independent evidence of a candidates’ qualifications.  Twitter is a way for a candidate to learn about the habits and interests of colleagues and managers and is an important way to quickly develop rapport with interviewers.  And she also mentioned research, research and research.  Get to know everything about the prospective employer; its officers, its organization, its products, its values, not to mention its competitors and industry.  All of it is placed at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet. 

        Fortunately, I’ve been able to establish a good reputation at my present firm – which is a good company, by the way – and my current employment is relatively recession-proof.  But I’m nowhere near retirement, and I just can’t rule out the possibility that I might need to use these tools – and my own advice – in order to stay in good company.

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April 2009

 
Our household income has been halved.  It is

Time to Recession-Proof the Casa
by Mark Wiertalla

     I’d like to congratulate the National Bureau of Economic Research for concluding that we are, indeed, in a recession.  Good work boys.  The rest of us knew you’d catch on sooner or later.

     In February the company where Wife R2V2 had worked for the last seven-plus years began responding to the recession and quietly executed (now there’s a word) a round of layoffs.  It’s been a very long time since my salary was the primary source of income for the household.  And now for the first time in our marriage, it’s the only source of income.  I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve never subscribed to the philosophies of being the breadwinner.  Doubling household income means more life options and more flexibility, and it is far more compelling to me than pride.  But the fact is, our household income has been halved and it’s time to recession proof the Casa.

Household Bills.  We’ve already refinanced the mortgage on La Casa dei Sogni to gain a lower percentage.  We took advantage of a special rate by the cable company, and we’ve cut the phone/cable bill almost in half.  Unfortunately, unemployment also rolls downhill, and now that my wife is home, we’ve stopped the cleaning service. 

Clothing budget.  The image that we choose – or avoid choosing – to present to people makes statements about us, and those statements are recession-proof.  I have some fashion sense, and frankly I have expensive tastes.  I’ve been smart about shopping.  Timing my purchases along with a sale by my favorite retailers takes only a little discipline.  My favorites are the high-end department stores that have discount outlets.  Even with the price break, the quality is very good and quality clothing can easily out last a recession. 

Eating out.  We’ve always been wary of how quickly restaurant bills can add up. But now with Wife R2V2 home, there is more opportunity to plan ahead.  Breakfast for the entire week is cooked on Sunday so it’s easier to microwave at home rather than be enticed by the conveniently expensive stop at the company cafeteria.  Evening meals are designed with leftovers in mind.  They double as a quick reheat for those nights when neither of us is up to the tasks of cooking/cleaning and consequently I can carry lunch every day.  Wife R2V2 is using coupons and promotions, and she has been able to cut as much as $50 off the grocery bill. Dining in with fresh, natural ingredients is recession-proof.

Automobile.  This is probably one of the biggest household expenses for most people in my social and professional network.  It’s been said that the worst investment a person can make is an automobile. The loan on my beloved Jeep was paid off years ago.  But commuting by train for the last couple of years has reduced auto expenses to bare minimum. When I transitioned to full-time train commuting, my monthly gasoline bill dropped from somewhere around $250 a month to about $30.  It only needed a single 3,000-mile oil change last year, and I haven’t had to replace brakes or tires for a couple of years now.  It’s up around 130,000 miles, but it’s still reliable, still fun and, because I do not rely upon it every day, it’s recession-proof.

Entertainment.  We’ve never been a household to drop a lot of coin on flat screen televisions, movie theaters, concerts or night clubs, so there hasn’t been much budget to cut here.  But we have discovered that our cable provider has a Pay-per-View option. When we’re up for some quality couch time with the new puppy and the cat, we can find a recent release for about $5 and lots of classics that are priceless-yet-free … and have endured through multiple recessions. 

Savings.
  Everyone knows that stocks have taken incredible tumbles, and the joke that “My 401K has become a 201K” is getting a little old.  But this is the area where I am throwing as much disposable income as I can, specifically at my company’s Employee Stock Purchase Program.  I believe the market is somewhere near the bottom and, as it recovers, I expect that my employer’s stock will rebound.  I want to have as much of my money poised for growth as possible.  Fortunately, I recognized the unpredictability of the stock market.  The inner governor that announces the approach of
Danger! caused me to avoid throwing money at the market before my financial skills were honed.

     I have only two words to say to my wife’s former employer. The second word is
you.

     The first word is
thank.  Thank you.  It has taken almost two months, but her disappointment with not being recognized for her contributions to your success has finally become irrelevant.  I have my wife back, and she’s worth more to me and your competitors than to you.  Her loyalty is totally recession-proof.

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March 2009

The telephone as I have known it all of my life has essentially become 

An Unlisted Technology
by Mark Wiertalla

         I’d be the first to admit that, for a guy who works in technology, I’m not very tech savvy.  Sure, I’ve evolved beyond chisel, stone tablet and dial-up.  But I’m pretty satisfied with the basic conveniences in life: Cell phones, cable TV and Internet. 

         For more years than I can count, I’ve been using an old hand-me-down cell phone that Wife R2V2 used.  I’ve been ambivalent about the currency of the technology, and the phone is old enough to remember floppy drives.  I’ve only recently learned how to use text messaging – “U R 2 cute!” still looks like some form of advanced programming language to me.  But it has been absolutely liberating to have my very own telephone number that cannot be abused by a household of women who refuse to believe that a cordless phone’s best friend is the charger.  It’s allowed the rest of the world to permanently assign another ten-digit number to me and only me.  To quote Bob Seger, I feel like a number and, to quote Chuck Mangione, it feels so good.  I’d quote George Orwell, too, but he probably would have argued against social security numbers. 

         On the last Saturday in January, I purchased a new phone.  It’s a thing called a “Blackberry” and, without realizing it, I chose the state-of-the-art model (The Storm).  I did all my research the day before when I stood between two of my workmates and then hosted an impromptu session of Technology Smack Down. Frankly, the debate between Paul the iPhone-atic and Jason the Blackberry Bigot ended in a tie, so I made my choice based upon the model that my service provider offered.

         This thing is amazing. It has an Internet browser, so now I can check the stock market and hockey scores during my train ride home.  It has a built-in camera, so I can take a picture of the new puppy, attach it to an instant message and then share it with the rest of the family that doesn’t block calls from my number.  It has a map finder.  And an alarm clock.  It can store music and play my favorites.  It has a full touch-screen keyboard, so I only need to press a key once to make a spelling error instead of three for four times.  Now I say “qwerty” all the time just like the rest of the cool kids.  My brand new son-in-law, TechBoy, has the very same model, and I think he purchased his within days of the release.  He’s my combined technical support desk and user manual and one of the cool kids that I referred to.

         I’ve had it set up so that my business email gets sent to the Blackberry.  Now I can read-and-delete while I’m riding the train or visiting “The Land of Bad Smells and Funny Noises.”  That’s a valuable time management tool for someone who gets hundreds of business emails each day and occasionally needs the use of both hands.  My Blackberry uses a technology called “blue tooth.”  It’s a feature that allows people to loiter on streetcorners and talk to themselves.  You can recognize the technology elitists among us by the blinking mushroom-like thing that seemingly grows out of one ear.  I’ve got one and by gosh it’s just the best darned thing.  Not only is there no wire wrapped around my neck, but I can drive with both hands on the wheel (Governor Schwarzenegger says I have to).  The only problem is when I wander so far away from my Blackberry that I lose the Blue Tooth signal.  I get sudden panic attacks, and I despair that I won’t find my way back home.  Usually someone that I work with helps me find my way back to my desk.   

         I used it to call my father the other day.  At his end of the conversation I could envision him talking into the green handset that is connected to the wall by the long, twisted cord that hasn’t been uncurled in twenty years.  This technology is just so far ahead of his time that he can’t imagine it.  I described my new phone to him as a hand-held computer that can make phone calls.  And it occurred to me that the telephone – as I have known it all of my life – has essentially become an unlisted technology.

         I feel like an amphibian that has just crawled out of the primordial swamp of technology and then climbed over the backs of the inferior species on my way up the next ten rungs of the evolutionary ladder.  Now I stand upon the top of the social ladder (I ignored the warning label that says “Do not stand above this step”) like a pigeon perched atop the tallest statue in the park.  Here’s the irony of this month’s column. iDaughter recently returned her cell phone to her former employer, and she needed something to use while she saved up enough money to get a Blackberry like the rest of the cool kids.  And I was waiting with a Dad-to-Daughter tech hand-me-down.  How cool is that?

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February 2009  

There’s a threat of interruption that hovers over our bed like a cloud and darkens the spirit of erotic spontaneity.  I call it 

Guestus Interruptus
By Mark Wiertalla

         I’m writing this month’s column in the midst of a crisp but radiant winter afternoon in Northern California.  Right now Wife R2V2 and I should be off in the bedroom practicing our Inverted Indonesian Trapeze routine in preparation for the 2010 Sexual Olympics qualifier.  But we aren’t.  The newly confirmed union of iDaughter and Techboy are at the house so they can perform some car maintenance and tend to some errands.  Later, son Carpenter and his new girlfriend will be here, and I’ve just learned that there are spontaneous plans for a build-your-own pizza dinner for six in La Cucina della Casa dei Sogni tonight.  Gee.  That’ll be nice and cozy.  Almost like a Burl and Ives* Christmas card.  Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that I’ll be feeding the other hunger anytime soon.

         This is one facet of being an empty-nest dad that I had not expected.  During the years when my home was filled with children and my schedule was dominated by family obligations, I always envisioned that an empty nest would allow my wife and me to run around the house naked and celebrate empty-nestedness with an impromptu sterility dance upon the kitchen table.  And there was real hope when the kids got their drivers’ licenses.  I could always say “Here’s twenty dollars. Go see a movie. Don’t come home before eleven. And, um, I wouldn’t sit there for dinner if I were you.”  But it seems like we’ve headed in the opposite direction.
The girls know the house is always open to them for a visit, and they are very considerate about calling ahead so my wife and I are not surprised.  But I feel uncomfortable telling them not to visit because “I’ve got a Booty Call into Mom and we’re planning to use the living room to expand our sexual awareness this afternoon.  Do you think you could wait until after five o’clock?”  Carpenter is a wild card because he’s still living with us and we don’t know his schedule.  Is he working?  Is he at school?  Is he meeting friends for coffee?  He’s mobile and unpredictable and we just don’t know when he’s going to show up.  That would be embarrassing for everyone involved, although I’m more worried about him having recurring nightmares and committing himself to live out the remainder of his life in a monastery.  So even if it’s only in our minds, there’s a certain threat of guestus interruptus that hovers over our bed like a cloud and darkens the spirit of erotic spontaneity.  Well, I guess it sort of hovers over the shower stall in the guest bathroom, too.

         We have a new puppy, whose daily routine begins at 5 a.m. with cries of “rescue me.”  I call it the Poop Alarm.  Dealing with cold California mornings (scroll down to July 2008 and read my “Potty Training” column) and the surprisingly warm stench of puppy scat pretty much ensures that any amorous mood I might have developed by 6:30 a.m. is quashed.  Raising a puppy: It’s not a job, it’s a doody.  At least for this puppy period in time, Saturday and Sunday mornings – usually prime time for acts of contortionist heraldry – belong to the-one-whom-you-should-not-follow-too-closely.

         There’s another aspect of empty-nest sex that I feel compelled to comment on.  There are times when Wife R2V2 and I will finish cleaning up dinner early, and we’ll see that it’s only 7:30, then we’ll wink and smile at each other and say, “Let’s go to bed early.”  And then we’ll be sound asleep by 7:45.  It isn’t that I still don’t enjoy the spiritually regenerative benefits of chapter three of the Kama Sutra.  And don’t get me wrong.  I’m stud enough for a few pages now and then.  (A full chapter? It would require two days of Viagra loading for me to run an endurance race like that.)  The fact is that neither of us have the same level of energy that we had ten years ago.  And so fifteen minutes of mattress calisthenics isn’t usually as appealing as getting an extra hour of recovery before the Poop Alarm goes off at 5 a.m.

         Life is proving cruel with regard to this aspect of being an empty-nest dad.  When we have the time, we’re tired.  When we’re energetic, it’s during visiting hours.  And when we have both solitude and energy, we have a dog, which is a bit like one of those electronic babies they issue to high school students in Life Skills class.  Maybe this is how Life self-regulates our love life to ensure that we wear out things like knees and backs before we wear out the intimate parts from overindulging in the Horizontal Flying Monkey.

* Yes, yes, yes.  I know that it’s Currier and Ives.  It was simply a humorous little parallel thought that my fingers insisted upon injecting.  Here’s wishing that all of our readers have a Holly Jolly Valentine’s Day.

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January 2009

I am proud of my daughter.  She has used a short-term investment and turned it into an equity investment in life, compliments of

Hooters

By Mark Wiertalla

         I am pleased to announce to the readership of Dad Magazine that Stepford Daughter is included in the newly published 2009 Hooters calendar.  For those of you who aren’t literate, well, you’re not reading this at the moment and anyway you’re probably just pacing circles around the calendar that you’ve already bought while you’re waiting for it to become July, or whatever your favorite month is.  This column is for the rest of you.

         Two words:  Orange shorts. Extra credit goes to those of you who have correctly identified our second mystery adjective: Tight orange shorts.

         Here’s some background for those who don’t live in or about a major American city.  Hooters is a chain of casual restaurants across the United States.  Emphasis is on casual.  There’s no need to throw on that flannel shirt – the clean one, you know which one I’m talkin’ about – or splash on an extra palm full of Lectric Shave.  At Hooters, everyone feels overdressed.  Hooters caters primarily to guys, and there are televisions mounted everywhere showing football, basketball and baseball, though not enough hockey for my tastes.  A typical Hooters restaurant is functional, and everything from the tables to the walls to the floor can be hosed down and sanitized.  It’s sort of what you’d need to do once the convention of three-year-olds leaves town….  Think of it as Chuck E. Cheese for adults.  It's famous for its buffalo-style wings (breaded or naked, covered in hot, hotter and Three Mile Island sauce) and fried clams.  And truthfully, I think they are among the best, although my waist line prefers the grilled-not-fried fish sandwich.  And there is a large selection not-to-offend pale-colored lagers with the occasional commendable specialty brew thrown in once in a while so the chain can avoid being cited by the beer police.

         But what sets a Hooters restaurant apart from the Tex-Mex place next door and the six-dollar hamburger joint down the street is the service.  The restaurants are staffed exclusively by attractive girls that are old enough to serve beer, young enough to be paying their way through college, and confident enough to wear a padded bra, tight orange shorts and a smile.  Girls like my Stepford Daughter.

         Here are the top four questions I get asked as the Dad of a Hooters Girl:

How do you feel about your daughter posing in nothing more than a bathing suit?
I am proud.  She takes care of herself and the fact that she is physically attractive is a testament to the fact that she is healthy.  That should be celebrated.  I don’t see the calendar as a statement on semi-nudity or sexuality.  Please.  All a person needs to do is turn on the television, pick up a magazine while standing in line to buy groceries, or look at the advertising along the walls of subway systems in any of the countries in Europe, as well as the one we live in.  Those are your statements on sexuality.  What she does is tasteful.

Isn’t this objectifying women? Especially your daughter?

Like any vocation or career where a youthful and healthy appearance is critical (lingerie modeling, TV newscasting, ladies tennis, software product management, etc.), a career as a Hooters girl has a half life.  Stepford Daughter used her waitressing uniform to put herself through Sacramento State University.  I only helped with funding for books and credits.  She has used her degree to land a well-paying job in the mortgage industry, where they don’t pay for looks.  And she’s held a marketing job for the restaurant and used her experience to assist with the start-up of a brand-new store.  These are the real businesses of running a restaurant, and they don’t pay for looks in these jobs, either.
         Objectifying women?  Perhaps.  But my opinion is that she’s used a short-term investment and turned it into an equity investment in life.

Don’t you worry about, you know, what guys are thinking when …?
I’ve got to admit, this makes me a little queasy.  I’ve had a subscription to Playboy for the past 30 years and, although I read it for the articles (hooray for literacy!), I believe some members of my chromosomal community can only work up the courage to interact with a calendar photo rather than interact with the multi-dimensional beauty of the real person.  This is commentary about the individual and not about the way we boys are commonly wired.

Does your daughter make good tips?
I’m glad that you asked.  Hooters Girls can make good tips.  And they certainly should make good tips. Great tips even.  But unfortunately there are too many of us – and you guys know who you are – who don’t think twice about laying down $20 for a calendar but can’t pony up a 20 percent tip for good service and a smile.  Sadly, the answer is: The tips aren’t as good as they should be.
         Here’s my request: For those of you that can’t afford the 20 percent tip, please stick to the drive-up window at fast-food joints where we don’t expect you to recognize personalized service.  Instead, the next time that cutie in the orange shorts sits down on the stool next to yours and writes her name on a napkin for you, think ahead to the day when your daughter starts to make her way through life.  Guys, it just doesn’t cost that much more to be first class.
    
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December 2008

The father of the bride’s  

Wedding Toast
By Mark Wiertalla

         To all of our closest friends and family, and to the friends and family that will be with us tomorrow at the reception, before I make this toast I’d like to share some comments about the three days of events celebrating this marriage. It may have been a surprise to many of us that Crystal and Troy chose a non-traditional location for exchanging vows.  Non-traditional is another way of saying “not in a church,” implying that perhaps this union may not be entirely blessed.  But I’d like to point out a few facts.

         Most, if not all of you, know that the elegant lady that performed the ceremony today is my sister Debra.  I think she prefers “Deb.”  Deb is here from a faraway land called Dearborn Heights, which is a little suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  And Michigan is where the heritage for half of this union is from.  In the Heights of Dearborn, Deb is very active in Christus Victor Lutheran Church and the Lutheran ministries.  As you’ve heard Deb’s readings and her blessings, she provided more than just the formalities of a simple civil service.  

         Last night Jim Braswell, Troy’s father, stood before all of us and, several times, wished the blessings of the Lord upon Crystal and Troy.  Jim’s blessing was short, but I want point out that it was heartfelt and a few, short words can have so much power when they are delivered by the right person.  

         And tomorrow, we’re going to attend a wonderful reception and wedding shower that will be hosted by Ruth and Charlie Fulger.  You should know that there were several years between the time that my Aunt Ruth graduated high school and eventually married Charles Fulger.  During those years, she was a Catholic nun.
   
         So, folks, even if I had nothing to say tonight (imagine that if you will) and even if this wonderful place isn’t formally recognized by any religion or congregation as an official “church,” I just wanted to point out that each of us has brought God and our faith to this union.  I’d like to talk about faith for just a few minutes.

         My mother converted from Catholic to Lutheran to marry my father.  Perhaps some of us can understand the heresy that this represented in the 1950s.  And I’ve repaid her for her sacrifice by spending most of my life in the Catholic Church. You see, I’m kind of a cross-breed, or perhaps a religious mutt.  I’ve been baptized and I’ve taken Communion in the Lutheran Church.  My wife and I were married in a joint ceremony presided by a Catholic priest and a Lutheran minister.  I’ve raised my own family in the Catholic Church.  And I’ve followed my daughter, Amber, into a non-demoninational Christian church.  I don’t profess to be a Good Catholic, or a Good Lutheran, or even a Good Christian.  But I do profess to have faith.

         Family and friends, I’d like to read a poem that everyone here will recognize.  It’s short and it will make my closing toast clearly relevant.  There are several versions of it, and I’ve chosen a version that is attributed to Mary Stevenson, dated 1936:
   
    One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.  Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
    In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.  Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.
    This bothered me because I noticed that, during the low periods of my life when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord, “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always.  But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand.  Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”
    The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
   
         That poem is entitled “Footprints in the Sand.”

         “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints…is when I carried you.”  Just a few simple words.  But they are so very powerful in meaning when we understand the context from which they are written. 

         There have been times when I have been carried.  When I was a teenager, my mother had cancer surgery and, before she and the family had emotionally healed from that process, she discovered a possible re-occurrence.  When my daughter Amber was young, she complained about her bones hurting.  That’s a symptom of leukemia and, even though it was a medical false alarm, it frightened me to the core.  And at the head table you see my son Andy, a fine young man, who is hale and hearty.  But there was a time, when he was a baby, that the medical community prepared Jayne and me for the worst.  At each of these times, and many others in my life as a son, a husband and a parent, I have prayed.  And during those times, ladies and gentlemen, I have put my life completely in the hands of that thing that we all call faith.  As you look at the people that represent those events, you are looking at the single set of footprints in the sand behind me.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the context for the few and simple words I have for this toast.  I ask everyone to stand please and raise your glass of water or beer or wine.

         To Crystal and Troy: Your family, your friends and our faith are here to set you upon the beach of your life.  May your faith be strong, may your beach be long, and may there always be three sets of footprints in the sand behind you.  Salute.

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November 2008

One of my evening routines had been to wait until dark to take the dog to the little park across the street so we could race back and forth

In the Darkness
By Mark Wiertalla

         This isn’t my original column on the cancer theme. The first piece that I submitted to my editor was a somewhat lighthearted review of my sigmoidoscopy wrapped around a serious third person account of a cancer story.  Shortly after I submitted that piece, however, I had a much more dramatic and direct experience with cancer.

         Over this wonderful summer one of my evening routines had been to wait until dark and then take the dog to the little park across the street from La Casa dei Sogni.  I let him off the leash so we could race back and forth (I’m faster), presumably to tire him out. 

         He surprised me one night in late September.  Instead of running in front of me to the little park across the street for our frantic dash in the darkness, Bailey simply sat down on our driveway and said, “I’d rather not tonight, old chum.” The next day he didn’t greet me from his usual perch over the back of the couch when I came home from work. (Cavaliers are like cats, they like to be elevated). He clearly wasn’t himself. Within 24 hours of the first indication that Bailey was unsettled, we took him to the doggie doctor.  Over the weekend he was in and out of the vet hospital, undergoing tests to exclude various causes.  Five days later, the tests had eliminated everything but a single, painful diagnosis: canine lymphoma – cancer of the lymph system.

         There are several treatments for lymphoma, including chemotherapy.  For dogs each treatment varies in effectiveness, cost, and quality of life.  But the end result is always the same.  It’s something like sitting down to read a much anticipated novel, only to have the author tell you after ten pages that it’s really a short story and you don’t know how many pages are left to read.

         Wife R2V2 and I accepted our roles as parents to this little animal though I don’t comprehend how fate selected us as caretakers for his life. Through only a photo on the Internet we somehow chose each other. Our house quickly adopted to someone who is stubborn, barks at the television set, loves to play with our tail-less cat (She Who Will Not Be Litter Box Trained), is extremely jealous when affection is directed at anyone but him, loves camping on the beach and prefers roasted chicken to dog food.  Proving once again that dogs are like their owners.

         The decisions for my wife and me were immediate and excruciating.  A stressful mixture of logic, emotion and guilt with no options to defer or abdicate.  Perhaps others would have decided that a life lived is better than no life lived.  Perhaps others would have been stronger and able to manage through the steady deterioration of condition that was certain to come. Perhaps.

         We chose to bring Bailey home.  We chose to spend a sunny afternoon with him in the little park across the street, where only days before we would have been running back and forth just to see if he could catch me.  All of the people he loved most sat in the grass around him, combed his ears and fed him as many doggie snacks as he was willing to eat.  As the sun finished its daily trip across our California sky, Wife R2V2 and I chose a few moments of solitude with him, and we sat with him on the little pedestrian bridge that spans the nearby creek.  It was his favorite place for a walk.  We listened to the water fall over the stones and then run under the bridge.  We listened to the birds as they serenaded him, instead of avoiding his chase.

         The train trestle crosses the creek about a hundred yards from where we sat, and the horn from the final commuter train of the day was the only interruption to our sanctuary.  The same horn that each night announced my imminent arrival through the front door, where I would find a small, faithful friend hung over the back of the couch waiting for me like an eager two-year-old.  As I think about the central role the trains have played in our lives, that last train was an appropriate and symbolic farewell.  Thirty minutes later he took up the chase after it.

         Goodbye, Bailey. There is a corner of our nest that cannot be filled by anyone but you.

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October 2008

We are children of the world, an awesomely cool place full of neighborhoods with eclectic character and people of greatness.  The best way to experience all this wonder is to pack up our belongings and

To Live There
by Mark Wiertalla

         My mother and father are still living in the house that I grew up in.  They’ve been there for almost 50 years now.  Since they live in Michigan, I can’t visit very frequently, but when I do go “home” to visit, I walk into a place that is as familiar to me as the proverbial back of my hand.  There’s a room at the rear of the house that my brother and I shared for many years.  And a converted corner of the basement that became my personal place through my teen years and right up to the day that I moved out and into my first apartment.  And when I stay with them, I typically stay in that very same room and in the same bed from a quarter century ago.  

         Over the course of my adult years I’ve made what I consider to be three critical decisions that have changed the course of my life. (It may be a surprise to learn that these decisions do not include getting married, having children or changing jobs/companies.  Conversely these are decisions that stayed true to the course of my life.)  Two of those three decisions have resulted in a physical relocation.  Twenty-one years ago, against popular opinion, I moved a young family of five across the country to California.  And most recently, I’ve made a much shorter move into La Casa dei Sogni, but a move that has had impact on all facets of my life.  Contrasted with 21 years ago, everyone in the immediate family understands what my wife and I have done, and they appreciate the kind of life that we have designed for ourselves.  By all opinion, La Casa dei Sogni is the perfect size, is in the perfect location, and is the perfect place to live life at this time.

         But when the girls come to stay with us, they stay in a guest room that is almost hostel-like, not the old bedrooms that hold nearly all of their childhood memories.  And I believe that Carpenter – who has the smallest of the Casa’s rooms – will always see our current home as a transition between the private space, which was once decorated with hand-painted hockey logos and posters, and the to-be-determined place, which he will eventually call his own.  My point is this: My children come back to Mom’s and Dad’s home, not the home they grew up in.  That place, the little house on Wildflower, now belongs to someone else. It’s been redecorated in unfamiliar color schemes and filled with alien furniture that isn’t sitting in the most comfortable places or against the appropriate walls. Seemingly, there’s no going home for them.

         Wife R2V2 and I spent our youths in homes that represented everything about our parent’s lives.  We’ll always refer to these simple square buildings as “home” and, in my case, I can still revisit years of memories today.  In contrast to our parents, we’ve used a succession of these buildings as stepping stones through life, adjusting the size, location and amenities to meet the shifting needs of our family – the little tri-level on Judith (our first and last home in Michigan), the modest-but-outlandishly-priced ranch that was our first California home (and the personal domain of Jabba the Cat when he was an energetic tiny tiger), the Little House on Wildflower (which will always be a mansion in my mother’s eyes), and now our empty nest. This periodic movement has been a vastly divergent strategy from the one that my parent’s generation used.  I feel a sadness in knowing my children will never have the ability to go home … literally.  

         But I think our nomadic ways have taught our children some equally valuable lessons.  We are children of the world.  No one limits us to the street that we grew up on, or the circle of friends from high school, or the first job that we land.  No one limits us to these things – except us.  And the world is an awesomely cool place full of neighborhoods with eclectic character, distinctive styles of cuisine, and people with greatness.  The best way to experience all of this is to live there.  In order to sail the ocean, a ship has to pull up anchor.  And in order to explore life, we must have the courage to leave port.  Once in while, at least.

         A house is just a physical location.  But home is where the heart is, regardless of whether that place is within earshot of the Union Pacific Railway, is a 50-year old suburban brick bungalow, is the attic of a historic Victorian shared with resident ghosts, or is a simple apartment where an adoring kitty awaits.  Wherever that place may be, when you’re there you know that it’s just the best place in the world to be.     

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September 2008

My son moved out of the house last month and into a

Hall of Higher Education

By Mark Wiertalla

    Carpenter moved out in July.  My wife and I have been urging him to strike out on his own for some time, knowing that the full experience of independence would help him learn that life extracts an unfair amount of expenses from the wallet and burdens us with many more responsibilities than we really want to assume.  He has been responsibly maintaining employment and paying basic bills (car loan, credit card) while living with us, and these important milestones on the way to full adulthood are not unappreciated.  Still, living at home with Mom and Dad has insulated him from many other important financial obligations and has allowed him to postpone assuming responsibility for developing other important life skills.  As a registered citizen of Dadnation, it’s my duty to ensure that my children understand as much of the full spectrum of life as I can teach them.  What they don’t learn from me and/or my wife – or perhaps what they resist learning from us – must be learned another way.

    Carpenter chose a loft in a local artists’ community with his girlfriend.  I’ve been especially interested to see how he would take on transitioning into full independence concurrently with a relationship commitment.  Like father like son, the parallels between his concurrent transitions and my own from 27 years ago are starkly similar.  

    Carpenter has a strong will and an independent mind, very much like his father had at the same age.  Over the years his father has learned through trial and error how to temper the need for independence with the acquired knowledge that no one gets through life without relying upon others for advice, financial support, emotional growth, and practical life education.  Carpenter is intelligent and far more in tune with the world around him than his father was at the same age.  Here’s my theory: The only difference between us is the elapsed time.

    The arrangement lasted only a few weeks.  He has moved his possessions back into La Casa dei Sogni.  The reasons for the sudden reversal aren’t important to the theme of this month’s column.  I’d rather dwell upon the young man that has returned to the nest, who has shown that he is a little more humble and a little more wizened than the one that left only weeks ago.  It’s already clear that there have been several lessons learned.

    Changing direction in mid-course doesn’t come without assessing a few penalties.  In his case, it’s the monetary sacrifice of a deposit and the loss of his earnings.  It’s also the time that he invested in moving twice – first out of our home and then back in.  That time represents the revenue loss from projects and jobs that he could have been working on.  These are certainly bitter pills to swallow, but they aren’t fatal pills by any means.  Thankfully they are just acrid enough to impress upon him on the relationship between actions and consequences. I can see that he has a newfound respect for the relationship between life choices and the hours of physical labor that it takes to enable them.
 
    I had concerns about the girlfriend, but I resisted passing judgment on someone I really didn’t know very well.  I can’t count the number of times that I held my words.  I can only think that I’m glad that I heeded a lesson my mother taught me: You can’t take your words back.  You can apologize, but you can’t take them back.  I’ve listened to him talk about some of the succinct comments made by his associates about the living arrangements.  The common theme among them is “told you so.”  There have been a couple of tough lessons for him about relationships in this story.  Fortunately, they seem to have been learned without the most severe of consequences.  And for this we are grateful.

    Wife R2V2 and I walked downtown with him last week, to have dinner at the local brewhouse on the eve of his 21st birthday.  After the waitperson delivered our beers to the table (two legal and one oh-so-close-to-legal) he surprised us, again.  He took out his wallet and removed a freshly minted student ID card for the local community college.  Under his own initiative and with no pre-conditions from us, he had signed up for English, a basic math class, Engineering 101 and Dad’s personal favorite, Italian.  In fact, we had our first lesson at the table: It’s pronounced eee-TA-lian, not EYE-talian.  

    He is keeping his day job.  After all, he’s learning a trade, and there is valuable education taking place in that wood shop.  And we are still holding him responsible for some of those life expenses, so he needs the money.  At the same time, he will be going to school in late afternoon and night and he’ll have homework on the weekends.  This formal education is going to be just as critical, because it’s difficult to learn and develop the skills of running a business while operating a wood lathe.  And perhaps most important, Carpenter has enrolled himself in the Hall of Higher Learning where the essential skills are taught that will help him flourish along with his independence.  It’s the same school I haven’t graduated from yet.  Maybe we’ll be able to carpool to class.

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August 2008

Life gives us 168 hours a week.  To make sure they are used in the best ways possible, even our priorities need 

A Schedule
By Mark Wiertalla

         One of my very favorite parables is the grain of sand.  It goes something like this: If a quantity of great boulders were rolled together into a pile, it may appear the space is completely full.  But in between the boulders there are gaps and in those gaps there is the room to place stones.  In the space between the stones one can fit pebbles.  And in between those pebbles, there is room for grains of sand.  Time works the same way.  Like three-dimensional space, time is finite.  But there is always room – and time – for just a little more if I’m willing to look closely.  The key is to schedule the time, much like fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together.

         Life gives us 168 hours a week – that’s seven days of 24 hours each – to use as we desire.  Reserving part of it for sleeping, we’re left with roughly two-thirds of that time to execute the roadmaps of our lives.

         When I was raising children, my life’s roadmap was used for a family-focused trip.  It probably wasn’t that much different than anyone else’s roadmap.  However, with the transition to an empty nest and the still-distant but ever-approaching end of my roadmap, those available hours have become much more precious.  I don’t want to waste them.  I’ll restate that in a positive way: I want to ensure they are used in the best ways possible.  So I prioritize and schedule.  

Career.  I am spending much more time and energy on my career than I ever have.  I sprint through my days, filling them with as many challenges as I can.  It can be argued that I am working for someone else, working to their schedule and for their benefit.  But I have a counter-argument: I, too, have benefited from this corporate relationship.  Frankly, I’ve invested years of effort to arrive at this place, the pinnacle of a career.  I have practical business skills, and they are very marketable.  Someday soon, I’ll be working for myself with thanks to the employers that have helped me learn how. 

Health.  Sound physical health leads to sound mental health.  I play softball, I train for and run long-distance footraces, and I spend time at the gym.  I schedule these things into my life not because I’m afraid of growing old, but because I want the years that I have yet to live to be as full of “life” as they can be.

Creativity.  To think is to create.  This is the area of my life that I expect to lead to my second career.  I reserve time for this Dad column.  I am working on a volume of short stories.  With thanks to my wife, my accordion has been repaired and, after its years in mothballs, I’m slowly regaining my musical skills, which include songwriting.  These things will fit together and drive my life forward.

Retirement.  I spend time each day planning for retirement.  Whether it’s my quarterly review of the 401K, the daily review of the stock market and my investments, or the weekly review of my budget for the month, I’m always asking “Am I where I want to be?”  Quite often the answer is “No,” which leads me back into creativity.

Relationships.  I ensure that I make time for my wife.  Dance class is one way, but it can be a walk downtown with the dog for a Sunday morning coffee, a trip to the symphony, a weekend of camping, a simple Saturday night date.  I make time to call people that I can’t see, like my adult children, my mom and dad, my sister, or my best friend. 

Commuting.  I am absolutely committed to the train.  (My workmates are fatigued listening to this theme.)  When I have a choice of driving to work or adjusting my business schedule to accommodate the train, I adjust the business schedule.  Commuting by car is one of the major crimes of life.  Until Wife R2V2 and I moved into La Casa dei Sogni, commuting by car stole my vitality, stole time from my family, and stole one hell of a lot of my paycheck for gasoline.  Since the move, I have reclaimed 80 minutes of time each day that I use for the priorities above.  I think I should write a column about this soon.

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July 2008

The dog and I stand outside, five feet apart, shoulders squared, mano-a-poocho, engaged in our morning ritual of

Potty Training
By Mark Wiertalla

         I’m out of bed a couple of hours before my wife each morning, so I have the privilege of ushering the dog that I didn’t really want into the garage, out the side door and into the cold darkness of the early morning for rounds – plural – of bladder and bowel evacuation.  A friend of mine – he’s a ballplayer, too – acquired two dogs only days apart and he had to train them in tandem before they ruined his house.  I consider him to be an expert in the field of canine behavior modification.  His advice was “You gotta stand there until they do it.”  So at 5 a.m. the dog and I stand outside, five feet apart, shoulders squared, mano-a-poocho, daring each other to blink first.  If the dog could talk, I have this impression that he’d say “I really didn’t care much for last night’s dinner, it being smelly, dried bits of by-products and all.” (He’s a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, so he has this stiff, British-like structure to his imaginary speech.)  “I’d much rather fancy a few helpings of your beef stew for this evening.  By the way, lad, aren’t you a tad cold standing there without a fur coat and in your knickers?”

         I respond with a curt, “C’mon dammit, get on with your business.”  With children we say “number one” and “number two.”  But because dogs can’t count (or talk) I just refer to it as his “business” and assume that he’s intelligent enough to get it.

         “Or what, you say? You’ll cane me with a rolled up newspaper, I suppose?”  He continues to stare at me like he’s waiting for me to take a leak.  Honestly, on the coldest mornings I’ve considered it, but there’s shrinkage to consider and the fact that he’s a moving target.  “Frankly, Sport, I don’t think the Lady of our House would approve.  Could get rather cold at bedtime, wouldn’t you think?”

         God, I just loathe that dog when he’s right.

         “C’mon, already. I’m going to miss my train. Get down to business.”

         The dog continues to stare at me, resolute in his mission to punish me for waking him long before breakfast will be served.  “I’m terribly sorry but, well, the truth is: I really don’t feel the need to do business this morning.”

         I know this tactic.  Oh, I know it well.  If I trust him and let him back into the warmth of La Casa dei Sogni, he will turn around and discipline me with a little custodial activity that requires paper towels and a sprayer of stain remover.  “No dice, champ. You’re just like the kids were, probing for a weakness in my parental armor and then exploiting it so you can skip your homework … or something doggie-like.”

         Now it’s 5:05 a.m.  I’m shivering and desperate for bargaining leverage. Something. Anything. Time is running out and I expect to hear the whistle of my train before I have the opportunity to get dressed for the office. “If you don’t go right now, mister, then no Cheerios for you.”  The ultimate threat.
 
         We taught our children how to use the “facilities” by floating Cheerios – yes, the breakfast cereal – in the bowl. The dog was raised by a breeder who also performed daycare for toddlers, and Cheerios became a staple of his diet.  Wife R2V2 and I use them to reward good behavior.  Or withhold them to punish bad behavior.

         “Really?”  He continues to sit there like a stone sphinx – the dog version, that is. 

         And then, just as shrinkage gives way to hypothermia, salvation arrives.  I hear the engine of an approaching car pierce the quiet calm of the morning.  I begin to count … one… two …three … and then there is a distinct plop from the driveway in front of the house.  Sparky raises his eyebrows and his eyes instinctively look beyond my shoulder to the access gate.  The morning paper has just arrived.  Yesssss.

         “Oh, listen.”  I put two fingers to the back of my ear.  “The newspaper has just arrived. You wait here while I go and fetch it.”

         I turn and reach toward the gate latch. The dog springs to his feet and begins to sniff around in the gravel-coated area that serves as his gabinetto.  (It’s Italian. Look it up.)  The standoff is broken and peace has been restored between the species.

Moral: With dogs, as in children, the threat of discipline is worth its weight in newsprint.  No, wait.  I never caned the kids with a rolled-up newspaper.  Or the dog, for that matter.  Despite what he says.

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June 2008

The need for nourishment becomes acute after the nest is empty because we lose one of our primary measurements of self-value.  Here’s my full-course

Menu for Soul Food

by Mark Wiertalla

         When the chicks are in the nest, the role of Dad is to ensure they are nourished in many ways – mentally, educationally, spiritually and, of course, physically.  We, the charter members of Dadnation, get so consumed with running and supporting nest operations that it’s easy to overlook the obvious: Dads need nourishment, too.  And the need for nourishment becomes acute after the nest is empty because we lose one of our primary measurements of self-value.  Here’s my menu of culinary essentials which should satisfy the appetites of other empty-nest dads as well:

Feed the inner child.  Just because my children are no longer children, it doesn’t mean that I no longer have a need to play.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  After all the years of working to be the best, steadiest father I could be, the need to play is stronger now than it ever was.  I still need to dance and sing because it just feels good and it makes people laugh.  Or perhaps it makes them shake their heads in disbelief.  Either way, I am comfortable with it.  And it isn’t that I am missing a sense of self-awareness.  In fact, here, too, it’s just the opposite.  I am aware that this is who I am, and I simply choose to revel in my unique space.  A typical appetizer can be found by using any popular Internet search engine to call up the music video Kitty Cat Dance.

Nourish the adventurer’s spirit.  I still hunger for the wonderment of new sights and sounds and to experience a world that, up to now, I’ve only read about.  I need to feel like that twelve-year-old who took the bus from the suburbs into downtown Detroit with my friend and $5 in my pocket to see the hometown team play at Tiger Stadium.  And with no adults to tell me to stay on the well-trodden path.  I need to take a wrong turn now and then because of the discoveries it might lead to.  I need to land in Venice with nothing more than an address for a hotel.  Or land a new job.  Or land in a new home.  There is a lesson here: Not all who wander are lost.  Some of us are simply cleansing life’s palate in anticipation of the next course.

Quench that thirst for knowledge. 
My empty-nest world is no longer centered on knowing which teachers to talk with on Back-to-School nights, understanding the psyche of adolescent softball players, being schooled by the pediatrician on childhood maladies, or learning where to shop for high-school prom dresses.  Despite the comment in my April 2008 column, ignorance is not bliss and I continually strive for a refreshing swallow of sparkling, cool, refreshing knowledge about the world around me.  I browse through Wikipedia to learn more about Eritrea.  I take two minutes to quickly scan an analyst’s assessment of the latest tech merger.  I watch a video clip of the “now” performer so I can assess why they are relevant to yesterday’s conversation in the office kitchen.  What’s going on the world?  What are the arguments on both sides of an issue?  What is the insight on a social condition?   I strive to spend my time with knowledgeable, informed people because of whom they help me become.

Enjoy a steady diet of love.  I keep my body healthy by choosing high-protein, gilled fish instead of high-fat, sautéed meats.  Or vegetables instead of cheese.  An extra helping of vegetables instead of fried potatoes.  Water versus sugary soda.  And regularly scheduled meals rather than binge eating.  In this very same way, I keep my soul healthy by feasting upon the high nutritional quality of my wife’s love.  I’ve heard the saying that “Variety is the spice of life” and I wholeheartedly agree.  But there is a difference between variety and a steady diet of empty calories from casual relationships.  And I’ll make the argument that a consistent main course of fish, vegetables and non-fat dairy can be served in a very exciting variety of ways.

Satiate that hunger for appreciation.  For the most part, my life’s work of raising and nurturing children has been accomplished.  But now it means the world to me to get a phone call from one of them asking for career advice, or asking how to evaluate a new car purchase, or confirming that there is merit to my perspective on relationships.  My ego loves to hear that I’m still cool or to hear my wife brag to workmates that she had dinner waiting for her at the end of a long day.  It may be just a side dish or a contorni, but I need to know that I’m not just another dad and just another husband and that this place in the world can only be filled by the uniqueness of me.

Have the occasional dessert of sensual satisfaction. 
(About this point, my editor is shifting uneasily in his seat, finger poised over the delete key, and rightfully suspicious of where I’m taking this particular discourse.)  Wife R2V2 tells me that I was “frustrated” in another life and that I’m using this life to mend that hole in my spirit. (Note: I’ve mentioned before that this is one of her metaphysical leanings I am unable to connect with.)  I can only say that I have learned to be very aware of the connection between my mind, my body and my spirit, and leaving any one of these unfed leaves me undernourished on the whole.  This menu is only complete with an occasional scoop of the pure, natural sweetness of life. (I'll stop short of turning this into a sundae so my editor doesn’t have to censor the end of this column.)  

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May 2008

I look up about every three or four breaths, only to confirm that I’m not there yet.  My progress is agonizingly slow.  But I have  

Higher Goals
By Mark Wiertalla

         Later this month iDaughter, Techboy and I are going to run a relay marathon.  Because I’m the somewhat experienced member of our team of five, I volunteered to take the longest segment (seven miles) and most arduous segment (two miles uphill) of the race.  I’ve been training on the weekends for a month and a half by running up the ridge that forms the western border of our valley.  Little by little, my holy trinity of heart, lungs and legs have taught me how to adjust my pace, how to land and push with power, and how to shorten the length of my stride.  In return they have responded to deepen my breathing, pump blood with more force, and build muscle from the waist down in places that allow hills to be conquered.

         On this morning, a glorious Saturday in early spring, the Jeep and I make a 9 a.m. docking in the parking lot at the base of the ridge.  My running watch is tightly clasped around my right wrist.  The time says “1:13,” which is the round-trip time for my previous assault upon the 500-foot elevation and return to the park entrance.  On this day I have two goals.  One, better my previous time to the picnic table that sits at the top of the ridge and, two, add at least a mile of flat running along the ridge from the point of my previous best distance.  I reset the time piece to “0:00”, breathe in two lungs full of resolve, hit the start button, and take the first step up.

         Training the mind to think of anything but pain is a critical skill for any physical challenge.  At this very moment, two of my teammates (iDaughter and Techboy) are running the hills along Vallejo Street in San Francisco, enroute to their own personal monster known as the Lyon Street steps.  I think about them, running towards their own personal goals.  Techboy; his very first race and training for his five-mile segment; iDaughter; taking the first step towards her first real marathon in the Fall.  Both of them running toward marriage, and doing it together.

         I trudge past a point of significance on the trail.  Several months ago, during our Sunday morning walk with Sparky the Dog, my wife and I met a runner going upward at a painfully slow pace.  He was much younger than I, and I remember thinking at that time, “what a doofus.”  Little did I know that he was showing me one of the stages that this doofus would also pass through.

         The trail makes a long, sweeping switchback, and my mind switches to the Bay to Breakers race.  Two years ago, I trained for several months so I could best the Hayes Street hill, a stretch of five city blocks in the middle of the course that separates the men from the costumes.  Now, halfway up to the clouds, it occurs to me that the physical challenge that seemed like a monster at the time – just like this monster – was only a monster because of the fear that my mind granted it.  I look at my watch during a quick break that allows the interchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to transition back to my favor.  I must be leaving scorch marks along the trail … I can’t believe the pace that I’ve been setting.

         I meet a woman, about my age, who is headed downhill and we exchange a runner’s salute.  I don’t know how far she has run this morning, but I do know how she got up the hill.  I’ve already saturated my running shorts, my shirt and my Detroit Red Wings cap with sweat.  She’s lithe and energetic.  I wonder if I will ever make running look that easy.

         I pass the point where I surrendered on my initial run, many weeks ago, when I had to sit down on a patch of wet grass and heave for ten minutes before I could regain the strength to get back to the Jeep. Today it’s become just another milestone that I’ve recycled for another, newer goal.  The rise continues for about 25 yards past the point, and I take another short, 30-second breather.  I take stock of the temple.  The knee that I injured playing softball still feels solid and strong.  No hot spots on the feet, especially on that second toe where, if I’m not paying attention, the big toe will overlap it and chafe it to the point of blister.  My lungs quickly recover and confirm, “Okay, we’re still good.”  I look up the trail and see the final hill, the one that hoists the picnic table up toward the sky.  I’m almost there, but I have to run the gauntlet of grazing cattle along the trail and make one more painful climb.

         The final stretch of trail is only a hundred yards long, but the incline is probably 30 degrees.  To use backpacking terms, this is a “buttkicker.”  Despite my penchant for assigning nicknames to people and things, I haven’t christened it yet for running; I haven’t been able to coin a humorous catchphrase for “agony.”  I just put my head down and push up off my toes, just like I’m climbing really steep stairs.  My progress is agonizingly slow.  I look up about every three or four breaths, just to confirm that I’m not there yet.  My calves threaten to tear.  My heart pounds faster.  Harder.  I have an eyewash of sweat and it stings.  My hat just can’t wick it away fast enough.  And then finally a step comes easy.  And another.  I reach the picnic table, throw off my running belt and pull off the top of my water bottle so the flow isn’t restricted.  I suck in gulps of water in between gasps for life.  My watch tells me that I have shaved a full ten minutes off my previous time.  Great, I’ve achieved one of the day’s two goals.

         From the valley floor, the horn for the Union Pacific echoes its way up the ridge.  I hear it and think that my wife is at home, counting the trains that have passed by La Casa dei Sogni since I left, and she’s caching the train kisses for when I return.  The thought causes a smile.  The involuntary reaction rejuvenates me and refreshes my stamina.  For the first time I look farther up the trail, past this point that has been my goal, but also my limit.  I thought I’d be adding some flat miles to my training regimen today.  But the ridge has set a higher goal for me.  I see a point farther along the trail, perhaps a mile distant, and I decide that it represents my new objective.  And just like life’s challenge of maintaining a regimen for health, my new goal is uphill … all of the way.

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April 2008
 
I let go of the safety of my parent’s teachings and I stretched out to grasp

A New Way of Thinking
By Mark Wiertalla

         My parents views of money were simple: Work hard, save what you can along the way, and build a good pension.  And in the end, Social Security rides in on a golden horse with a green mane to help you maintain your quality of life.

         For most of our marriage, my Wife R2V2 has handled the household finances and I remained blissfully unaware of my personal wealth and cash flow.  In fact, for most of those years I couldn’t even recite the size of my bi-weekly take-home paycheck.  But I was working hard, saving in company plans and counting on her to put a little more aside when the opportunity presented itself.  

         A couple of years ago, about the time that Wife R2V2 and I were unconsciously beginning the transition into empty nesthood, we attended a weekend seminar called “The Wealthy Mind.”  This was clearly her idea.  I went along with an attitude of  “Ah, what the hell. I might learn something.”  One of the activities in the training was for me to respond to a fairly lengthy questionnaire and then discuss my responses with my partner.  It wasn’t a test in the classic sense, so there were no right or wrong answers and no consequences.  The only objective of the questionnaire was to reveal my attitudes about money and wealth.  I remember very little else about the seminar other than this question:

    Fill in the blank: People with money are …
    My answer was: Careless.

         From the perspective of a work-hard-and-save-what-you-can mentality, frivolous spending is wasteful.  Frivolous spending is disrespectful of the hard work that created the wealth.  Frivolous spending has no purpose and is senseless.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.

         As I described – or rather, defended – my point of view on money and wealth, I had an honest-to-god epiphany.  And when we get right down to it, folks, epiphanies don’t really happen all that often.  This one has reshaped the way I think and behave. And please don’t ask me to describe how I moved from one side of the wealth debate to the other.  It wasn’t a logical transition.  I just know that in that instant I let go of the safety of my parent’s teachings, balanced myself on a wire that was probably a thousand feet above my life and stretched out to grasp a new way of thinking that had always been just beyond my fingertips and out of my reach.

         When I think about it from the other perspective, people with money are able to use it to increase their own life experiences.  They use it to enable more opportunities to meet interesting people.  They use it to increase the quality of life in the years that they have yet to live.  People with money are more able to share it with others and improve the quality of life for others around them.  And … people with money are more able to work smarter instead of working harder.

         Aha.

         This revelation was the catalyst that thrust me into action.  I started with a mental evaluation of my behavior, the evaluation process going something like this:

    Admit that I’m just not very savvy about money and finances.  The ballots are all in, and it’s unanimous.  I’ve been elected King Stupid.
    Decide if it’s a weakness that I can live with.  Perhaps.  But my wife can’t live with it, and I can’t live without her.
    If I can’t live comfortably with the weakness, then do something about it.

         This process resembled the classic steps addressing a self-destructive addiction.  In the special little world of Empty Nest Dad, my addiction had been financial ignorance. After all, what I don’t know can’t hurt me.  Fortunately, I decided that, yes, indeedy, this was going to come back to hurt me in a very bad way and with long-lasting, nasty consequences that I didn’t want to think about.  If not at the time of retirement, then sooner.

         So I opened a checking account with
only my name on it.  I had my bi-weekly take-home paycheck deposited directly, and I forced myself to develop the discipline to maintain the account regularly.  I started to pay my credit cards monthly and then I developed a plan to pay them off.  I developed a budget and a savings plan.  The savings plan had a goal and a purpose: build a critical mass and invest it so it would grow at a faster pace than traditional savings accounts.  And when I finally hit my goal and the plan said, “Time to invest,” then I had to learn how to invest.  Recently Wife R2V2 and I have attended investment classes for stocks and options, and I’m poised to gamble just a little bit of the present to ensure a better future.  I’m less than two years into this transition to financial competence, and I don’t know where this road leads me next (if you give a mouse a cookie ...).  But I do know that I am at the cusp of getting my money to work hard for me, instead of the other way around.

         Work hard and save.  Mom and Dad, that’s been good advice and, with it, I’ve been able to live well, raise children to adulthood and care for my family.  But it’s good advice for a different goal than the one I have now.  The nest is empty.  Now it’s time to live larger.

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March 2008

One of the advantages of the empty nest is the opportunity to travel without kids, hence this

Travel Advisory

By Mark Wiertalla

        I’ve written previously about travel-related revelations of empty nesthood.  Wife R2V2 and I have seized the opportunity to leave the “kids” behind and explore the world, and we’ve learned a few things about travel.

        If you’re planning solitary travel, then it’s all about you, baby.  But assuming you have a companion, it’s probably more about your “baby” than it is about you.  And if your baby has a baby, then it’s not even a little bit about you.  If that’s your situation, then I suggest that your first trip should be a visit to the New Dad column.
 
          Finding a destination that maximizes the points where your personal interests intersect with your travel companion’s interests is the real challenge. In order to make this process just a little less contentious, I suggest that you focus first upon the essentials of travel.  Let’s start with food.  Everyone has to eat, and most of us have resigned ourselves to enjoying the experience.  My wife and I have adventurous palates so, if the waiter has to explain to us how it should be eaten, then we call that a “good” travel experience.  But some of us need visual reminders of the familiar in order to venture out of the nest and experience the world.  If you need to see the Golden Arches in order to stir the old salivary glands to life, then I’d suggest Muskogee … or maybe Tijuana, Mexico.   

          Speaking of Tijuana, we should talk about water for a moment.  Don’t take it for granted.  Prior to my trip to India, I was cautioned to drink only processed water (we know this better by its Latin name, beer), eschew fresh fruits and vegetables because they have been washed with untreated water, and brush my teeth
only with boiled water.  I can verify that this will help you avoid developing persistent dysentery, or the other popular sub-continental malady, explosive diarrhea.  And if you can avoid eating, breathing or shaking hands, that would be a good strategy, too.  Unfortunately for this empty-nest dad, I have an adventuresome palate.  I recommend a pre-travel cocktail of vaccinations administered by your favorite healthcare barista.  Oh, and a gastro-intestinal prophylactic is a good idea, too.

          Language is another travel qualifier.  I learned some basic Italian before my wife and I visited Italy.  Using even the simplest Italian enhanced the experience for both of us.  Especially our last night in Rome, where there was no English to be found in the pizzeria.  And I’ve learned that sign language – like pointing at clocks and holding up fingers in order to purchase train tickets – is a commonly understood language in Japan.  But if you need to see a menu written in English, then I’d suggest London.  Although the food choices in the pubs get olde pretty quickly, the ale is room temperature and, when you’re pissed, it’s not difficult to find the loo.

          Consider transportation for a moment.  Wife R2V2 and I prefer to explore on foot.  Or train or trolley or bus or whatever the locals use.  To us, an automobile is a large and unnecessarily expensive ball and chain.  Cities and culture need to be consumed at a leisurely pace, not in fifth gear.  But if you really need a car in order to feel fully confident and liberated, then I’d suggest the Queens Highway (Canada).  To a citizen of the U.S.A., it’s a foreign country, they drive on the right, there are plenty of fast food signs, and they speak fluent English.  Um, yeah, except for Quebec.  But you can always exit at Toronto and ask for directions to Wendy’s on Younge Street.  Order the Triple. You’ll have more than enough for the drive back to Vancouver.

         Our uniquely individual interests present a challenge … or an opportunity to enhance our negotiation skills.  For example, I really enjoy spending an afternoon in an art galley or museum.  That’s sheer boredom for my wife, akin to watching paint dry.  She has a strong metaphysical leaning that I just can’t connect with, and she wants to go on spiritual retreats and stuff.  If there’s nudity involved then, sure, I’m all for it.  But that always earns me a sniff of reproach.  I love adding a new ballpark or stadium to my long list of places where I can say “I’ve been there;” my wife would rather have teeth pulled without anesthesia.  She likes walking through gardens; I daydream about how large the bottle must be for all that salad dressing.  I recommend that you leave room enough in your travel agenda for personal pursuits.  Just remember that what happens in Amsterdam’s Red Light district doesn’t necessarily stay in Amsterdam’s Red Light district.

         And finally, here is my empty-nest travel recommendation for everyone.  There is no better travel value – and read along with me here, folks – than a cruise.  A cruise has all of the comforts of a hotel, and the high probability that
    (1)  the sheets are clean,
    (2)  the room doesn’t smell, and
    (3)  insects weren’t the tenants previous to you.

All of your meals are included (and don’t roll your eyes at me – I’m not talking about the buffet line).  The average person will eat world-class meals that could easily run upwards of $50 per person at restaurants.  The nightlife and entertainment are outstanding with – get this – no cover charge.  There are single-day commitments to ports of call, but if they don’t appeal, no worries.  You’ll be leaving that evening.  And if it does appeal, like Kauai appealed to my wife and me, then it’s already a familiar destination for a return visit.  There is an incredible choice of shore excursions that can accommodate the adventurous, the inquisitive and the less mobile.  There is an additional price to pay to the tour operator, but the cruise lines offer more options for touring than a person could ever find independently.  The only worry is the budget for the bar bill.  But if you can’t manage a budget, then may I recommend the Mojitos?

Empty Nest News Flash: Twenty-seven years ago, I proposed to Wife R2V2 on Valentine’s Day in her dorm room at Oakland University in Rochester (Cee Oh Ell Dee). Twenty-seven years later, Techboy proposed to my iDaughter underneath the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset for Valentine’s Day.  I’d accuse him of one-upsmanship, but a good son-in-law is worth holding onto.

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February 6, 2008


Empty nesthood presents the opportunity to refocus on the one relationship that started everything; it's a chance at 

Second Love
By Mark Wiertalla

    A friend of mine once said, “Love really is better the second time around.”  She made that statement almost twenty years ago, and this was after her divorce and remarriage.  I viewed my friend’s observation with the logical conclusion of, “Well, of course it’s better the second time around.  If the first marriage wasn’t good, then why would anyone get married a second time unless it was better.”  Duh.

    My wife and I were perhaps only a half-dozen years along our own journey when my friend shared her observation.  So my perspective on the whole second-love concept was formed from only a few years of life experience and a single marriage. Until recently I have always assumed that “second love” is synonymous with
“second marriage.  That’s my analytical self churning logically away in its comfortable little happy space, a whitewashing of all the complexities of second love with a broad brush stroke of “It’s all very simple, really.”  I’ve written previously about some of the challenges that empty nesthood can present.  Breaking out of old behavioral patterns and redefining a relationship is one of those challenges.  So twenty years later, this “Duh!” would be for me.

    But I have learned that empty nesthood also presents opportunity.  With the children on their own, my wife and I have learned to refocus on the one relationship that started everything.  In a way we’ve gone almost all the way back to the beginning when it was just us and the Murphy bed and a few bills to pay.  We’ve learned to sift through all the years of ingrained and mindless habits, outdated roles, pleasing and painful memories, and burdens and joys of parenthood.  The trappings of hard-edged, foul-tasting hulls have been thrown to the wind.  They are our hulls, and I suspect that the wind may bring them back from time to time if we’re not vigilant.  But the good times and the good memories and the lessons learned have floated through our sieve to form a fine, delicate, shimmering mound of high-quality flour that represents the very best of our former life, the very best ingredient for making something new and wonderful and sweet.

    This month, the month of hearts and flowers and jewelry and love and, occasionally, marriage proposals, I’d like to confirm that love really is better the second time around.  For those wondering “What does second love look like?” I’ve created a partial inventory:

         An afternoon stroll down a main street
         Dance lessons
         A cruise
         Pole dancing (bonus points if it’s in front of your daughter’s friends)
         A $30 beer, where price is inflated by casual ‘shopping’
         A Sunday-morning hike up to the best vantage point over the valley
         A weekend for two at a clothing-optional resort
         A small celebration of a new home with a kiss every time a train goes by (warning – may lead to perpetually chapped lips!)
         A walk downtown for dinner
         Risqué Halloween costumes
         A surprise abduction at the train station
         A sushi dinner during Friday-night concerts in the park
         A Father’s Day hike through our very own palm oasis
         A warm, sunny Sunday-morning breakfast in a new kitchen

    This second love-thing is like having a second, upgraded wife – a kind of Wife Release 2, with a minor version thrown in every once in a while, just a little something to fix a few minor bugs.  And you know what?  This one is a lot more fun than the last model – a little more trusting and more accepting of me.  And worth all of the investment.

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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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