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

How to Fill Your Home with the Holiday Spirit

Dear Will:

Since I have a model family, I feel it my obligation to share with you some straightforward advice on how best to fill your home with the holiday spirit. I suggest you start with the decorations. . . .

A.  Put Up the Lights

You might think that it is still the Thanksgiving weekend—a time set aside for gluttony and football—when you discover, much to your delight, that the otherwise terrific guy next door has already festooned his abode with bright and cheerful electric doodads. “When are you going to put up our lights, Beloved?” your eternal companion might sing, filling your heart immediately with Christmas cheer. “Oh, I don’t know, Pumpkin,” you’ll say, “I was hoping perhaps to do it tomorrow during the UCLA-Oregon game.” Overjoyed that you have already embraced her vision, she’ll skip into the house with a fa la la la la.

You’ll start with great brio the next day because putting up the lights is always a highlight of the year for you—especially when there’s a big game on. We suggest the following essential steps:

  1. Untangle the lights. Or not. Throw away the ones that inexplicably become more tangled as you untangle them. Hum happily to yourself.
  2. Put up the first strand with brisk efficiency. After you discover that you have wrong end toward the outlet, take it down and redo it. Give the guy next door a friendly, high-spirited wave.
  3. Bang your head on the roof overhang, opening a gash which casts a Christmassy red across your pale, bald head. Chuckle to yourself as you ponder your amusing misfortune.
  4. Put up the second strand of lights. Replace the bulbs you break when you step on them. Then when it becomes clear that the plug cannot reach the socket, take it down and redo it. Whistle with contentment.
  5. Bang your head on the roof again. Just for the fun of it.
  6. Plug in the lights to check your progress. When half of the lights in one strand won’t come on, spend an hour or so trying to figure out which bulb is responsible for the broken circuit. Give up and rip the entire strand from the eaves with a merry “Ho Ho Ho.”
  7. Continue hanging and rehanging lights until dusk. Fall off of the ladder only as frequently as necessary. Pretend that you really didn’t care about the football game anyway. Think lovingly about your children who sit inside playing video games and texting their friends.
  8. Invite your sweetheart outside to admire the finished product. Give her a warm, affectionate squeeze when she says, “Tomorrow we start on the inside of the house.”

B.  Decorate the Tree

Much to the consternation of your eldest children, the tree comes in a box. Since it consists of three distinct parts, erecting the tree is a lot easier than, say, putting up the lights—which, we realize, does not explain the split lip and the chipped tooth. Be that as it may, the tree goes up in a relative jiffy.

Now comes the fun part: As the ornaments come out of the box, the time has arrived for the traditional, festive colloquy between the strident eldest children, who miss the days of yore “when we shopped for a real tree” each December, and the mom, who reminds them each year that, since we live in California, the trees that are trucked here from Oregon have been dead since Labor Day.  The substance of the discussion might go something like this:  Kids: “Tradition!” Mom: “Fire!” And so on. Until Valentine’s Day.

C.  Deck the Halls

You may not have boughs of holly, but you should have an array of baubles and oddments with which to make the season bright. As you distribute them where once you could find the remote control, observe in particular the stupefying array of snowmen which quickly establish a beachhead in your family room. (Should time allow, you may also wish to ponder the prominence of frosty décor in a place which hasn’t seen snow since there were wooly mammoths hot-tubbing in the La Brea Tar Pits.) As the kids scurry about with their favorite bits of bric-a-brac, notice how the mood has somehow shifted.

When each piece is in its place and the ancillary detritus has been stowed, ditch the yeti and go around the corner to the living room, where instead of elves and reindeer you’ll find shepherds and sheep of various varieties. Take a seat, and perhaps you’ll notice for the first time the holiday music that now fills your home, or the laughter (can it be?) emanating from all three children simultaneously. Cast your eyes about at the scene: On the wall hangs a picture of the Jesus, beside it a favorite print of timid shepherds stealing a glimpse of Mary and Joseph’s newborn son. There might be a wonderful paper crèche from Mexico City or one your son made many years ago out of aluminum foil. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spy a simple display made of olivewood which gets an honored spot on the table in the middle of the room. Notice also that in each crèche all eyes are on the baby. And who knows? You may find that yours are on the baby as well.

And so they should be at this time of year, tangled lights and plastic trees notwithstanding. It is, after all, the time of “peace on earth, good will to men”—provided, that is, that you don’t ask about the split lip.

PW