Let’s Start with the Obvious

Dear Will:

So the ol’ 401(k) statement arrives in the mail and I think to myself: “Don’t do it.” I hold it there, knowing that what lies within is the grimmest of grim news, a financial plunge of historic proportions in what has generously been called our “portfolio.”

Knowing better,  I open it anyway . . . and it’s horrifying. Stupefyingly so. But as is so often the case, stupefaction leads to a moment of clarity and self-awareness not seen since I acknowledged in the 10th grade that I would always be a lousy golfer. In this golden moment, it occurs to me that I never  had enough in the 401(k) plan to retire anyway. Not even close. Wouldn’t have survived the first winter without begging lumps of coal from the local soup kitchen. So what if that super secure Lehman Brothers bond hadn’t exactly paid off? In times like these, there is comfort in incompetence.

Which sort of begs a question (for our present purposes, anyway): What other “blessings” do we have to be grateful for? Let’s start with the obvious:

Dana took Bryn to see Twilight—while Seth and Peter stayed home and watched the ballgame. If that’s not a blessing, what is?

Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. He gets to sleep in every day, treat every meal like a buffet, come and go as he pleases, all without the daily scrutiny of his overbearing parents. What could be better?

Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. More time to focus our daily scrutiny and overbearing parental instincts on making Bryn and Seth miserable instead! What could be better?

What could be better? How about family vacations?

Who doesn’t love a scraped-up minivan with a busted air conditioner?  Well, we don’t, for example. But when you have to make twice daily round-trips to the ballet studio, a buck eighty-seven for gas is pretty nice. You know, considering.

Rat traps. (Don’t ask.)

Almost forgot: Luke moved into the dorms at UCLA. Now Seth doesn’t have to share a room and instead can devote precious real estate to the 140-or-so stuffed animals with which he shares his bed. Which doesn’t explain why he continues to squeeze his scrawny nine-year-old frame into the narrow patch not covered by his velveteen menagerie, but at least he now has options.

Then there’s the President-elect. Seems like we ought to say something about him since he got Dana to work the phones and Bryn to wear his shirts and even Seth to stick stuff on his bedroom wall. Luke even worked the polls this year (twice, though he hastens to point out that it was a non-partisan endeavor). Now if we could just get that annoying bumper sticker off of the scraped-up minivan, Peter would be happy too.

There’s other stuff as well. Like a job, for instance. In this environment, that’s a pretty great thing. Food on the table, even if it isn’t served buffet-style as in the dorms. Oh, and Jason Mraz (Bryn wants him in here too). Teachers. Coaches. Friends. Microwave ovens (when you get home from ballet every night at nine, that’s pretty important). Yoga. Belts. Laptops. iPods (unless you put them through the washer). Chocolate (dark especially). Books. Rain (yeah, right). Sports. The Maple Conservatory of Dance. And of course family. Dysfunctional though it may be, it’s the most precious thing of all. You know, considering.

PW

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I Can’t Find My Egg

Dear Will:

It’s done.

On Saturday I drove my firstborn up to UCLA and deposited him in the dorms. I suspect that he had that day marked on his calendar for a couple of years, so anxious was he to get out from under the oppressive rule of his dictatorial parents. We stood there awkwardly near the 4th floor stairwell of Hedrick Hall, the dad wanting to give the boy a hug, the boy hoping desperately that the dad wouldn’t give into the temptation. The dad walked away unsatisfied.

When evening rolled around I was already feeling left out and disconnected. I was hoping he would call and tell me all about it—even though I knew there couldn’t possibly be anything to tell. What does one do in the first few hours of dorm life? You haggle with your roommates over storage space. You wander around and get the lay of the land. You eat your first meal in the dorm cafeteria. What’s to tell?

Still, I wanted desperately to know. When he failed to call the next day I was really feeling it. Why doesn’t he call? I texted him a couple of times, giving him the electronic equivalent of a poke in the ribs. Nothing. I coaxed his sister into giving him a call. He didn’t pick up. I knew very well that he was making the conscious choice not to call home right away—and I understood that choice—but for selfish reasons I still wanted to hear from him. In a similar position, who wouldn’t?

My wife, for one. She had also marked that day on her calendar way back when. She has known for some time that Luke and she would both be better off once he moved out of the home. There is no doubt that he has outgrown the nest, and mama bird was eager for him to go root around for his own worms. She will miss him, I’m sure—but not yet.

And certainly not like I do. I think that feeling of loss is exacerbated by the fact that Luke is going to UCLA, just like his old man. He’s living in Hedrick Hall, just like his old man. I spent six of the happiest years of my life on that campus, earning two degrees along the way. That place isn’t merely home to me. It’s the Motherland. I am connected to UCLA on such a deep level that if I were a penguin I’d probably travel to Westwood every year to lay my egg.

Maybe what I’m saying is that I’m a different sort of bird than my wife. At any rate, these last few days I’ve felt very much like a penguin: waddling around, flapping my flightless wings, cold. And worse: I can’t find my egg anywhere.

When Luke finally called home, it was only because his kid sister implored him via text message: “Dad is freaking out. Please call so we don’t have to put up with him anymore.” (Or something like that.) His report was brief, devoid of meaningful depth or detail, just like his reports have always been. It was unsatisfying, to be sure, but it was a start. Or at any rate, it was a sign that he hadn’t just dropped us altogether. Nevertheless, the dropping has begun—of that I have no doubt.

There may be lessons in all of this. Malachi certainly taught of the cross-generational ties that should bind us (“the hearts of the fathers will turn to the children, and the hearts of the children will turn to the fathers”).  But I take no comfort from such prophecies. Instead I keep hearing the words of the apostle Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Paul was writing to the Corinthians about spiritual maturity, of course, but I still take it personally.

Luke has begun putting away his childish things. And it turns out I’m one of them.

PW

An Anchor in the Whirlwind

Dear Will:

On my way into work yesterday, I heard a report on NPR saying that, according to the Department of Transportation, Americans drove 10 billion fewer miles in May of 2008 than they did in May of 2007. That’s 10 billion. Imagine a guy who normally drives 1,000 miles in a month simply deciding not to drive anywhere for 30 days. You’d need 10 million such guys in order to make 10 billion. Incredible.

That’s what happens, I guess, when gas settles in at over $4.00 a gallon. Just this morning I filled my tank and paid only $4.15. And I was thinking I got a pretty good deal. That’s crazy.

Which is why I recently found myself online reading about how to get more miles per gallon without switching cars. It’s pretty simple, as it turns out: Accelerate slowly. Lose speed when climbing a hill. Coast whenever possible. Drive without the AC. In other words, all I have to do is change all of the bad habits I’ve formed over years and years of aggressive driving. (Update: I’ve tried, and it’s not going well.)

I also went online to figure out how to get to and from work if I were to rely solely on public transportation. It’s more straightforward than I expected: I can catch a bus on Chapman, ride it down to the train depot, and from there catch a second bus which will drop me at the corner by my office. Piece o’ cake. The only catch is that the one-way ride will take me two hours. (Let’s just say I’m not ready to make that switch just yet.)

I bring all of this up because I work for a large advertising agency. Our biggest client is a Japanese carmaker. So these issues affect more than just my “carbon footprint” and my disposable income. They threaten my very livelihood. It’s more than a bit unsettling.

Of course, I’m not alone when it comes to feeling threatened. You would be hard-pressed to name an industry which isn’t affected in some way by this recent shift in our economy. Transportation and manufacturing costs are skyrocketing even as real estate prices are plummeting. The price of everything is affected. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do get the sense that we are in the midst of a permanent shift to which we are all going to have to adapt. It will be painful, no doubt. Change generally is.

In times of such uncertainty, I confess that I draw a great deal of comfort from my faith. I get nervous for the future just like anybody else, but I feel as though my foundation is solid nonetheless. I’m reminded of these words from the Book of Mormon:

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman 5:12)

Now I’m not trying to suggest that our current economic woes are the work of the devil. All I mean is that in the midst of the current whirlwind, I feel anchored, confident that, come what may, my family and I will make it through. Somehow.

That’s my prayer, in any case. May God bless you likewise.

PW