Thursday, December 27, 2012

Toy Story

I think it's interesting that as I look back at Christmases past, I can recall one or two absolutely unforgettable gifts I received. I know the Christmas before I turned 10, I asked for a $50 coffee table book called The Art of Walt Disney. A $50 gift was unheard of in our family in those days, but somehow, my thrifty mother managed to scrape enough leeway in her budget to authorize the purchase.

I still have that book. And it still has the date and my mother's inscription on the inside overleaf.

A treasure for sure.

But the really warm memories of Christmas revolve around the gifts that were given, not received.

Take the year I presented my Dad with toy soldiers.

I've blogged in the past about our gigantic and intricate Christmas decoration traditions involving a now-antique set of Lionel trains and the village that surrounds them (In Training for Christmas). 

Part of that village includes a small band of Scotch guardsmen, dressed to the nines in tartan kilts, playing bagpipes and drums and led by a jaunty drum major in a tall hat. The story behind these musicians -- and there seems to be a story behind everything associated with the trains and the platform -- is that my vacationing grandparents saw them in a shop in Bermuda and purchased them, liking their uniqueness and festive apparel. They don't exactly scream Christmas, but the red and green kilts go a long way toward making them fit into the overall scheme of the tiny town.

They remain to this day important denizens. The plastic, over the decades, has dried out alarmingly; one year, in setting them up, the big bass drum crumbled to pieces between my fingers. And this year, a bagpiper's feet became accidentally amputated in an unfortunate snap of limbs, but thus far, thank God, none of the injuries couldn't be cured with the help of a little craft glue and some patience.

In January of 1984, I took advantage of my college Study Abroad program to spend a semester in London. It was an unforgettable experience that I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to take advantage of.

While there, I visited Hamleys Toy Shop, the largest toy store in the world ( It was a mass of merriment, a plethora of playthings, a toybox of titanic proportions, and I wandered its five stories with a silly grin slapped on my mug.

While there, I happened on something that immediately brought Dad to mind: A set of metal soldiers, bedecked in red coats and wearing silver hats at attention. A perfect accompaniment, I thought, to the Scots band on the platform.

I bought them quickly and chuckled to myself about how well they would be received the following Christmas when they appeared, wrapped, in Dad's pile of gifts.

That April, my parents traveled to London to visit, and for a week, they toured the hotspots -- taking advantage of both the organized tours and my own collection of lesser-known but equally as interesting sites.

One morning at breakfast, Dad was chatting about a treasure he had seen in the gift shop of their hotel.

"It's a set of metal soldiers," he grinned. "I was thinking of them to go on the trains..."


I gave my mother a panicked look that she didn't quite understand and immediate started damage control. "Did you buy them?" I asked.

"Not yet," he said. "I'm still thinking about it."


Later, I brought my mother in on the secret. With her influence ("I don't think they'll match the Scots bandsmen, George. And besides, can you see yourself going through customs when we return to the U.S. and having to declare a set of toys?!?!"), he opted not to include them among his souveniers.

That following Christmas, they lie amid his packages. He tore at the paper... and beamed.

I told him the story behind their purchase and of my mother's collaboration in preventing him from buying what would have been a redundant set.

Every year following, they stood aside the band, complimenting the pipers and drummers with parade dress.

Dad is gone now; Mom is, too.

But those steady soldiers attend their duty every Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Every Christmas Is a Birthday

I am ceding control of this entry to someone else just for today.

I cannot improve on her words for the season, so I won't even attempt it.

In the name of full attribution, I'll state outright that this selection is from the book At Wit's End by humorist and author Erma Bombeck (Random House, 1965).  The writing definitely shows its age; no parent in his/her right mind would leave a child unattended in a busy store for even a millisecond these days.

But nonetheless, this piece resonates with me personally for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that my birthday, too, falls around Christmastime. It's a tough thing, and I sympathize with anyone in this boat, as your birthday becomes somewhat of a burden ("Oh, gosh, more cake this time of year? No thanks..."). It also, as a kid, led to an embarrassment of riches, with a heap of Santa's delivery, followed by additional gifts two days later.

Among the meaningful Christmas songs I haul out every year are selections from an album my Dad purchased back in the early1970s when it debuted. The artists are the Harry Simeone Chorale, the singers who gave us the definitive version of "The Little Drummer Boy." On that album is a virtually unknown song called "Every Christmas Is a Birthday." The plaintive tune has been a steady reminder to me that a Christmas birthday isn't such a bad thing after all, considering.

A sentiment echoed so wittily and so movingly by Ms. Bombeck.



 One More Ho-Ho-Ho and I'll Paste You in the Mouth

"Who cares if it fits? She takes everything back anyway. Billie Joe, if you get hit by a truck, the next time I'll leave you at home! Why did I wear these boots? It never fails. I wear boots and the sun comes out! Will you please stop pulling at me. I did buy Christmas cards last January. I just can't find them. Cheap stuff. They always put out cheap stuff at Christmas. Did you see that man shove me? Same to you, fella!

"Don't dilly-dally to look at store windows. I've got all my baking to do, the house to decorate, presents to wrap, the cards to mail ... mailman! I forgot to get something for the mailman. Boy, everyone's got their hand out at Christmas, haven't they. Did you see that? I was here first and she hopped right in front of me. We oughta get numbers like they do at the butcher counter. That would take care of those pushy ones. Same to you, fella!

"I don't care if the box fits, just any box will do. So, don't send it. Let me occupy a whole bus with it. You tell the policeman when I occupy a whole seat that your truck driver couldn't deliver it. Lines ... lines ... I'll have to get in line to die ... Billie Joe, you're too old for the Santa Claus bit. Don't think I don't know why you want to stand in line ... for a lousy candy cane. You'd stand in line if they were handing out headaches.

"What music? I don't hear any music. I think I'll just give Uncle Walter the money. He's always liked money. In fact, he's never happy with anything else you give him. And that gift exchange. Wish we could get out of that. I always get something cheap back. My feet hurt. You'd think some man would get off his duff and give a woman a seat. No one cares about anyone anymore. I don't hear any music.

"My headache's back. Wish I could take off these boots. I think we're ready to ... wait a minute, Billy Joe. I forgot Linda's birthday. Doesn't that beat all. It's what she gets for being born on Christmas Day. Now, I've got to run up to the fourth floor and fight those crowds all over again. You wait here with the shopping bags and don't wander, do you hear? No sense running you all over the place. Boy, some people have a fat nerve having a birthday on Christmas Day. I don't know of anyone who has the gall to be born on Christmas Day. What did you say, Billie Joe?"

"I said, 'I know SomeOne.'"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Adding Up the Toll

Since we are in the postmortem phase of Operation Get Dan Back to Full-Time Work, I thought it would be interesting to assess some of the hard numbers associated with this, er, project:

  • Number of days without full-time employment: 236
  • Number of weeks: 33.71
  • Number of issues with Unemployment Compensation requiring onsite assistance to resolve: 2
  • Number of hours needed to resolve those issues: 5
  • Number of resumes submitted to open positions: 181
  • Number of phone interviews resulting: 7
  • Number of first interviews: 3
  • Number of second interviews: 1
  • Number of offers: 1
  • Estimated loss of savings over those eight months: More than $10,000
  • Personal weight gain from stress-eating: 15 lbs
  • Hit to my self-esteem: Inestimable
  • My emotional reliance on my family to soldier on through this difficulty: 1,000%
  • My level of gratitude to everyone -- especially family -- who offered advice, prayer, support, encouragement, suggestions, feedback, counsel, job leads, sympathy, concern, recommendations, etc.: Inestimable 
We are still in recovery mode. The after-effects of this hit will be felt for quite some time, especially economically. But we're hopeful that things will continue on an upswing.

Fortunately, there were some high points in this swamp. Not that I would ever want to go through this again, but it wasn't all doom/gloom:

  • I spent the summer home with the girls while Eileen was full time. Back in January, we were looking ahead at June/July/August with a little trepidation: How would the girls fare home alone all summer long? Would they be okay without us? Would they get bored? Antsy? Naggy on each others' nerves?Fortunately, we didn't have to face those issues for Summer 2012. They will be part of Summer 2013, but that's another year of maturity and responsibility-building to go.
  • I titled Parker in an AKC event. We earned a Rally Novice Obedience title in July, the source of much pride. I was grateful that Eileen okayed this modest expense in a period when our belts were cinched very tight. I was heartened at the chance to share both the experience and the news with my very close-knit group of dog-friends.
  • I raised more than $1,000 for MS by participating successfully in the 2012 MS City-to-Shore Ride, one of the most rewarding challenges I've ever faced. The chance to step out of my own shell of neediness and do something for someone else was a terrific balm for this weary soul.
  • I started to blog! =)
  • I wrote a novel that has since been published on the e-market. This was a thrill beyond expectation and a very long-term dream come true.
  • I have accomplished most of the initial writing work on a sequel to novel #1, with hopes to launch it sometime in 2013 or beyond.

And for what it's worth, I did learn -- or at least gained a reaffirmed belief in -- a few interesting truths:

  • Although we are defined by the employment roles we fill, we are more accurately defined by our actions outside those employment roles.
  • When you're home alone all day long and there's no one to gripe to, it's helpful to gripe to the dog.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help. This was a big one for me. I'm the result of Proud Irish and Stoic German parentage; we suffer in silence. It doesn't need to be that way. Reaching out isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of trust.
  • Forgiveness is incredibly healing. Allowing old hurts to fester is counterproductive. I learned a lot about peace, both finding it in myself and offering it to others.
  • I married the best partner a person could possibly ask for. Our life together hasn't been an easy one -- I often wonder how much better off Eileen would have been had she married Andy Accountant or Philip Plumber -- but all the cliches about difficulty drawing us together in a tighter bond have proven to be true.
  • Through Eileen's influence, I am parenting three of the best kids ever as well. They each dealt with this bad patch in their own ways but were, for their age, amazingly sensitive, caring, and concerned.
  • God does hear prayer. Even when it looks like He doesn't. God does care. Even when it looks like He doesn't. God does bestow his love. Even when it looks like He doesn't.

This is George Bailey stuff, my friends.

No man is a failure who has friends.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Getting Carded

I love Christmas cards. The whole process: picking them out, dusting off the list, sending them, receiving them. They are as much a part of the holidays as carols and tinsel.

Our Christmas card list has grown over the years -- my habit, I guess, of my willingness to let it snowball year after year, adding new friends and colleagues and deleting no one except in the case of death.

The addition of kids changed our style of card, as we began to opt away from the crease-folded greetings with jolly pictures and cute verses. Far-flung friends and family wanted to see our growing brood, so we began including photos inside; these were eventually replaced by picture-cards that showed the girls -- often with toothless grins -- in holiday garb. 

In an attempt to provide updates on what was new with the kids, especially to those far-flung, I wrote small notes inside our cards: Amanda rolled over; Claire is now on solid food; Kristin is sleeping through the night, Glory be!

But the pressures of time and the volume of cards eventually forbade this luxury. In response, I began a yearly newsletter -- The Weckerly Wire -- to encapsulate what had gone on in our busy household over the past 12 months. It started as a once-and-done solution, a quick way of gathering all our news and updating all our family and friends in one swoop.

This was a big step for us. We have received many of these over the years, and frankly, I didn't always hold them in very high regard. I tried a different tack, however, making sure they provided the full picture of the year, not just our accomplishments and outstanding moments. The good and the not-so-good.

I also tried to keep mine light and fun. One year, I wrote completely in verse, copying the style of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Another edition parodied Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

I knew I was on to something when I would hear from recipients afterward, either through e-mail or phone, about how much they had enjoyed receiving our wrap-ups.

I wrote every year. I still have archived copies; a good way, I suppose, of keeping a continual family history.

There is one gap in the chronology, though. In 2006 when we lost Dad, I found Christmas to be a very difficult affair emotionally. I struggled with everything that year because so many of our Yule traditions were closely bound with him: trains, Springerles, Christmas music, outside lights.

It was all just too much. And so, in deference to my ongoing grieving process, I skipped that year.

I now regret that decision, just a little. Future generations, going through the annals of the family and its developments, will probably puzzle over this lapse. I hope they understand.

This year in which we face our own version of a fiscal cliff because of my eight months of unemployment, the Christmas card list has been drastically trimmed. If you were a usual recipient and this year found no Weckerly Wire in your mailbox, I apologize. It wasn't a matter of thinking less of you; it was purely a resource-allocation issue. We're trimming just about every holiday-related budget item this year, including the line item for cards.

If you're interested in The Weckerly Wire content, however, you're in luck. It's here. Its presentation on a blog may not have the charm or warmth of receiving it in your mailbox, but if you were never a fan and didn't like it anyway, you can skip it in a much more environmentally friendly manner: close your browser rather than crumple it for the trash.

"Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight," sings Judy Garland in the lyrics to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." 

Next year, God willing, our financial setback will be well behind us, and the Christmas card list can swell to its former breadth.

At lease, we hope and pray that it can.

In the meantime: Merry Christmas!

Once again the calendar has flipped 12 pages since our last yearly update. 2012 will be remembered as a tough year, but despite the difficulties, we are taking this time of the year to reflect on the positives that were part of our past 12 months.
There were two major setbacks for us this year: One was my loss of full-time employment in April. The other was the untimely death of Kathy Weckerly from cancer.
These were two big hits in a relatively short time, both of which sent us reeling. We are still sifting through the aftermath, but the passage of time, the comfort of friends, and the strength of faith have gone a long way toward helping us move forward.

Grateful and Hopeful

As I said, we continue to be grateful for the highlights of 2012:
·         Eileen found full-time employment in the waning weeks of 2011 and began 2012 with First Niagara Bank in Skippack. This was a big change for her, leaving the education field where she worked for five years. But she is using her finance skills—coupled with her outgoing personality—to offer great customer service to her clients. The branch has already recognized her outstanding performance, and new opportunities for her are opening.
·         I have also returned to full-time work, connecting with a job in the waning days of 2012. I am now the Communications Manager for the Valley Forge Convention Center and Visitor’s Bureau. Our savings may have dwindled over the course of the year, but our cup of blessings overflowed. Thank you to all who offered support, concern, prayers, referrals, advice, and friendship.
·         Amanda (19) is now a sophomore at Immaculata University, advancing toward her degree in Early Education. She is gaining increasing exposure within actual classrooms, both observing and, now, moving into hands-on assistance with her kids. She has visited grades K through 4 and is gravitating toward the younger set, where she enjoys responding to their calls of “Miss Amanda!” “Miss Amanda!”
·         Just before Thanksgiving, Amanda was reunited with her boyfriend, Andrew, who spent a semester studying abroad in Prague. She was a little lonely while he was out of the country but made ample use of the Internet to keep in touch with him. She is very glad he is home to spend Christmas with.
·         Claire (16) spent the spring continuing her freshman year at Pope John Paul II High School. In March, we thoroughly enjoyed the JPII production of Anything Goes. Claire was one of the impressive corps of tap dancers, setting the decks of the S.S. American thumping with syncopated feet.
·         As a sophomore, Claire’s academic success was officially recognized and documented; in October, she was inducted into the National Honor Society, with both parents looking on and beaming.
·         In November, Claire earned her learner’s permit, leading to much shuddering and breath-holding from her parents. Drivers of western MontCo, beware!
·         Kristin (11) did extremely well academically in fifth grade, and her string of good grades continues now that she’s in sixth. Kristin’s school, St. Eleanor, Collegeville, PA, regionalized over the summer, changing names and increasing class size. Despite having to overhaul all her uniforms (the new name is Holy Cross Regional Catholic School—a mouthful!), she has made the transitions well and is making new friends.
·         Kristin is also enjoying sports—volleyball and basketball seem to be her favorites—and is preparing for her Confirmation next spring.
·         Labrador Retriever Parker is now 1.5 years old and tops the scales at 86 lbs. As I tell strangers, “He has the body of an adult and the brain of a toddler.” Parker also earned official accolades this year, gaining both his Therapy Dog Certification and a Rally Novice title from the American Kennel Club. Parker and I are regular visitors to Limerick Elementary School, where, like his predecessor Wesley, we help build student’s reading skills.
·         I continued as part-time as music director for St. Eleanor Church. I have now been “officially” part of the staff for 10 years, guiding the choir and cantors.
This year, we were the recipients of a true gift from the heavens: A parishioner decided to offer the church her baby grand piano! It had been sitting idle in her living room for a number of years, and as she told me, she would “…rather see it being used in church each weekend than gathering dust here.” The instrument was moved and tuned and now adds color and character to our weekend Mass schedule. It’s also causing me to bone up on my piano technique, something that has been a shaky part of my music abilities forever.
·         I accepted a friend’s challenge to join her team for the 2012 MS City to Shore Bike Ride in September. I spent many of the warmer months accumulating miles on both the Perkiomen Trail and the Schuylkill River Trail so that, by race day (September 29), I was as ready as possible.
The ride was incredible, with 7,000 participants churning along from Cherry Hill, NJ, to Ocean City, NJ. The weather was a bit overcast but fortunately, no rain and no scorching heat, both of which were concerns to this first-timer. The 78-mile course was a bit challenging—especially the two formidable bridges at the end—but with plenty of rest stops and encouragement, I crossed the finish line. Eileen and the girls were waiting for me, cheering with signs a-wave.
It was a fantastic experience, deeply satisfying to do something for those less fortunate, and I am already planning on riding again in 2013.
·         We managed two low-level trips to the Shore, as is our habit. The scope may have been trimmed by budgetary restraints, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the sun, the beach, and the chance to de-stress for a time.
The second jaunt was with our good friends the Clancys to their home in Sea Isle City. Fortunately, Hurricane Sandy was very gentle on their particular home when she roared through on October 29, and they experienced little damage beyond some clean-up.
·         I may have lost my position in writing for Corporate America, but that didn’t keep me from writing in other venues. Shortly after being let go, I started a blog, responding to the call of many friends that I should be writing online. It is not fully themed to my search for employment (although that is certainly a topic), but it is more a collection of reflections both current and past. If you’re inclined to check it out, it’s here:
·         I’ve also published a novel! That dream has been with me for a long time, and finally, I was able to act on it. I was contacted by an e-publisher looking for talent. I dusted off a short-story I had written in the early 2000s and submitted it for evaluation. The reaction was extremely positive, but the length was too short. I spent the summer expanding it from about 3,000 words to 25,000 words. I resubmitted and again got green lights.
It is now on Amazon! (available here: Spurred by the initial success, I started on a sequel, which may see a 2013 e-publishing release.
So as you can see, it was still a year of achievement, enjoyment, and blessings.
I end the year eager to test my professional skills in a new setting, meeting new people and tackling new projects. I fully expect next year’s letter to announce good fortune in the next phase of my career.
We also take this opportunity to remember Kathy Weckerly as both sister-in-law and aunt. We thank God for giving her to us for the past 17 years we’ve known her, and in her name, commit to continuing on with her generous spirit, positive outlook, and tight family bonds. May she rest in peace.

Our Wish

And speaking of peace, that’s our seasonal wish for you and yours. May the final weeks of 2012 find you healthy and happy, surrounded by loved ones, warmed by the memories of Christmases past, and looking forward with faith, hope, and love to what may come.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Novel Idea

My debut novel is now available.

For all you who have said to me along the way that I should write a book, I've heeded the call.

I've written a book!

It's actually an e-novel--no paper or pages involved--but that fact doesn't lessen my pride one ounce.

The title is Intrepid, eponymously named for a dog who shares a very tight bond with her owner, and he with her. She eventually takes him for a walk on the wild side with some very unusual results.

Intrepid first existed on paper as a short story, written around 2001 or 2002. It was the convergence of a few threads of my life at that point. First was our black Labrador Retriever, who has since gone to the Rainbow Bridge.  Second was his constant need for vigorous exercise, which caused me to walk him extensively twice every day, a task that Intrepid's owner shares. Third was one of the rather unorthodox routes I occasionally took with Wesley, through a nearby cemetery, although thankfully, it has never been vandalized..

Caveat, please: By neither my actions nor my words do I condone disturbing the restful slumber inherent in a cemetery. Please, find a better place to walk your dog.

I remember the thought that lit the fuse and got me to actually sit down and write. It was post-911. And for some reason, while traipsing through the cemetery, I had this odd notion:

In the aftermath of the disaster at the World Trade Center, what if those policemen and policewomen, those heroes who had pledged their souls to the daily calling to protect and serve, what if they honored that promise even after death?

So yes, what blossomed was a sort-of ghost story, but in this case, the ghosts were't malevolent spirits intent on creating havoc and terror but, rather, watchful spirits who step in when needed. Their deaths do not dampen their commitment to helping others, in fact, in an odd way, their spiritual beings enhance their ability to respond.

One thing I've found over 15 years of dog ownership: The solitary activity of walking a dog--you, him, leash--is extremely conducive to thought. It's early morning; it's early evening; you're trotting along with little else to do but enjoy the scenery and mull. For a writer, that means ideas and words and finding the best way to link the two.

I my corporate life, I was often turning projects, articles, reports, speeches, and other assignments over in my head while walking the dog. Away from my corporate life, I remember formulating the eulogies for both my parents' funerals while walking a dog. Now, it was an opportunity to reexamine my little work of fiction.

The story turned out okay; I shared it with a few friends, both physical and virtual, and that pretty much was the end of it. It was little more than a fun October story, appropriate for when shadows lengthened and chilling tales were told around autumn fires.

Until last spring, when a friend--a fellow Lab owner--put out a call on behalf of her e-publishing unit, looking for new authors.

I was immediately intrigued. Not only did I have my short story sitting fallow, but I also had a slice of time available to work it into novella length, thanks to my abrupt and unexpected separation from full-time work.

I sent her the manuscript of the story, forcing her to promise to be blunt: If she didn't think it was worth fleshing out lengthwise, no harm/no foul, I would return it to its place of rest and move on, grateful for the feedback.

If, however, she believed there was potential, I was willing to roll up my sleeves, dust it off, and prep it for e-publication.

Via e-mail, she gave me her opinion: She loved the story and encouraged me to press on.

So amid the summer of resumes, letters, online applications, and rejections, I chipped away at it, expanding a chapter here, an episode there. New characters emerged, thematic elements, back-story.

When I finished, I solicited opinions from friends and family and incorporated their feedback as appropriate.

My little story had legs.

I re-submitted the revised manuscript. My e-publisher was overjoyed. She recommended some changes--nothing major--and targeted a year-end release date.

And here we are.

It's no Gone with the Wind. It's not even Harry PotterWhat it is, I hope, is an enjoyable tale with some memorable characters and a satisfying ending.

The exact requirements for my own assessment of a good read.

It's here, if you're interested: Intrepid: By Daniel Weckerly

And if you happen to like my little ghost story, there may be some good news for you. Thanks to the encouragement of my middle-daughter, who happened to ask me what my plans were for telling the stories of Intrepid's brothers and sisters, I've already done considerable work on a sequel.

Stay tuned.

Monday, November 26, 2012

In Training for Christmas

Among the things I inherited from my father -- my music background, my prematurely gray hair (thanks Dad!), my cooking skills -- none is perhaps as meaningful as his model train set, which has been part of my Yuletide since birth.

The legend of the trains is twisty-turny affair, of course, but the best I've been able to root it out, it goes like this: At some point in the late 1930s, when my Dad was a youngster, his father -- my Pop-pop -- was temporarily out of work, the result of a strike. Pop-pop worked for Midvale Steel ( as a machinist. The strike was long and times were tough, but as always seemed to be the case back then, my grandparents cinched their belts even tighter than usual and made it through.

They were facing a rather grim Christmas season that year when, glory be!, the strike was settled and the workers received a rather large lump sum settlement in pay. 

Despite the pressing needs of the bills that had mounted, my grandfather took a portion of that settlement check and purchased a set of Lionel trains for Christmas.

A platform was constructed, and here the story gets fuzzy, as the platform seemed to be a piecemeal affair, augmented through the years. But as far as I know, it always included a tiny village of houses that provided residence for the town inhabitants, and legend has it that those original houses were made of stiff cardboard. I've also heard tell of tales of sawdust "snow" blanketing the tiny neighborhood, which caused my grandmother no end of cleanup as it eventually dusted her carpets and furniture. So a fence was added for containment purposes. Later, lights were added, to illuminate not only the fence but the homesteads it surrounded.

Those trains have been an integral part of Weckerly Christmases ever since.

Which is not to say that they were as revered then as they are now.

My Dad and his brother -- my uncle -- delighted in running the trains at full-tilt until they would leave the tracks in spectacular displays of mayhem and destruction. Unfortunately for the Lionels, many of these disasters occurred in their basement, where the cement floor was unforgiving to the engine.

Years passed, and the trains were boxed, stored, and almost forgotten.

When my Dad married and had children of his own (my elder brother), the trains and platform were resurrected. The engine, unfortunately, was beyond repair. I've later learned that iron shortages led the Lionel Company to improvise on materials back then, and the sturdiness of some of those 1930s engines was always in question, crash damage aside.

A new engine was purchased, this is now the late 1950s, and the rear truck was modified (this would have been Pop-pop's specialty, as a machinist, re-jiggering something for utility purposes) as a retrofit for the existing tender and passenger cars.

The paper houses, too, were gone, and Plasticville residences replaced them. They didn't exactly match the style of the trains themselves, but then again, eclecticism was always part of the platform. For instance, the platform has always included a barn with animals, but scaling is a challenge, evidenced by the tiny cows and gigantic chickens that dot the farmyard.

We like to say that things like those "nuclear" chickens add to the charm.

The best part about the trains is that Santa brought them.

When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, the house blazed outside with colorful lights, but inside, things were purposefully bland. The only decorations permitted before we went to bed that night were our stockings and the creche.

Once we were asleep, my parents went into hyperdrive, The platform and trains were hauled from their storage spot in the basement (on shelving that hung over the washer/dryer). My grandparents would arrive from the City and assist, and often, a few errant aunts and uncles would accompany them.

The menfolk did the assembly and electrical work; the ladies decorated the tree.

The final task was a matter of placing our presents around the platform, and tip-toeing up to bed, but Christmas being Christmas, there were often glitches and issues along the way that caused their bedtime to stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Many was the Christmas, my Dad used to tell, that he would barely lay his head on the pillow when a set of wet toddler fingers would poke him in the eye, accompanied by a whisper:

"Dad! Dad! It's Christmas! Santa, Dad! Santa!"

Pounding down those stairs on Christmas morn was an unforgettable experience, as our entire living room had been transformed into a display that would cause both Mr. Gimbel and Mr, Macy to gasp with surprise. Tree! Trains! Platform! Holly! Lights! Tinsel!

Oh yeah, and presents!

Of course Santa was real. Mere mortals could never pull this off. Never.

As I grew, there were eventually changes to the story and the traditions, driven, I suppose, by necessity. I recall that we were asked by the North Pole if we could take down the display ourselves and pack it away. I suppose that before that, Santa Himself returned and returned the living room to its normal status. But over time, things being what they were, His schedule no longer permitted that luxury. So we would disassemble the trains and the platform and "...put all the boxes on the roof, so Santa can just swing by and pick it up."

Made sense to me!

Years continued to pass. Santa's truth was revealed to me, and decorating for Christmas no longer was an overnight sensation. But on this rule, Dad was insistent: The trains would go up Christmas Eve, not one second sooner.

It became a family project. After a hearty breakfast, we three boys would help Dad tote the boxes from the basement, move the furniture in the living room, and put up the platform. This was often an all-day project, accompanied by the sound of Christmas carols on the radio (which had gone all-Christmas, all the time, only on Christmas Eve itself, not a month prior) and the scent of Mom's Christmas cookies baking in the kitchen.

By this time, the mid-1970s, both Dad and I were involved in church music, and the call of Christmas Eve Mass often had us scurrying to finish with the trains. The benchmark we were always trying to beat was that the trains must be running by 4:00 p.m., when we had to stop work and turn our attention to showering/eating before Mass.

It was a lot of work. But a lot of fun. And such an integral part of Christmas that we didn't dare tamper with the tradition.

Except for one year. My mother's family had a tradition of a yearly reunion Christmas party that rotate through her siblings. Mom had a large family -- there were five sisters and a brother -- which meant a ton of cousins descending on the home of that year's host family.

Dad, anticipating the onslaught one year, proposed that we skip the trains. The living room was too small; there was too much risk of damage; time was short; the boys were getting older; it was time to retire the tradition.

I was heartbroken. I couldn't imagine Christmas without the hearing the mechanical churning of that engine and whiffing the faint electrical smell in the air. But he was steadfast. We would put up the tree, the lights, the decorations. But no platform.

That Christmas Eve, we were finished with our Yuletide tasks before noon. Uncertain what to do with the remainder of the day, we wandered aimlessly through the house, letting the carols unspool on the radio but merely as background music to... nothing.

None of us was happy. But the unhappiest of all? It was Dad. By late that afternoon, when it was time to clean up and prep for Mass, he moped around the living room, gazed at the lonely tree and the array of presents, and sighed:

"It doesn't look like Christmas..."

That was the last year we ever skipped the trains.

When it came time for our own children, Dad reached a decision as to the fate of the trains: They would come to me. 

And here they remain.

There were more modifications to the platform and the trains and the legend that accompanies them. Again, these were driven by necessity -- no matter how much he may want to, a music director at a church can't be supervising Santa's descent down the chimney on Christmas Eve with trains. So our timelines were shifted away from Christmas Eve, but not too early.

The Plasticville houses were also replaced over the years by a set of ceramic buildings that are much more sturdy and also less architecturally anachronistic. The nuclear chickens, however, continue to peck around the barn.

One of the changes I've made was the resurrection of the train's whistling tender. As kids, we were told that this car was "broken," but I've come now to believe that it only needed some TLC and that, perhaps, my grandmother declared it non-working because she had tired of its ceaseless, hollow whoo-whoo-ing. With the help of a Lionel train aficionado -- who, it turns out, is our optometrist --  the whistler rejoined the train display in 2010, and its happy sound is now as much a part of the holiday as carols and jingle bells.

These trains have survived more than 70 years. They've brightened Christmases that were both prosperous and lean, years good and bad, years of bonus and frugality, spirits high and spirits broken. Wartime. Peacetime. Life's ups. And its downs.

Through it all, they work their particular brand of magic. The first Christmas after Dad passed away, I vividly recall finishing up their assembly, letting them fly around the track, and breaking down in tears at the loss of their chief engineer. But that sadness was but a passing moment, for it's all but impossible to experience the trains -- to see the faint puffs of smoke coming from the little stack as it rings a whimsical town of little houses and tiny residents -- and feel anything but the comfort and warmth of deep-seated tradition.

All aboard!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for Those George Bailey Moments

I'm finding myself in an interesting position this Thanksgiving. Still out of work. Into month #7 without full-time employment. Struggling financially. Bracing for a rather lean Christmas. Tiring of the job-hunt and all its frustrations. 

Days marked by worry, insomnia, poor eating, listlessness, stress.

And yet I'm finding things to be grateful for.

Or maybe it's someOne offering gentle reminders of things to be grateful for.

I have been the recipient, along this journey of the jobless, of many happy occurrences that I call George Bailey Moments.

George Bailey, as you may or may not recall, is the everyman hero in the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, which, I may as well mention, is my favorite film of all time. Yes, above Jaws, above To Kill a Mockingbird, above Fantasia, above Singin' in the Rain.

At the climax of the film, George breaks through his crushing despondency by realizing a very powerful truth. You see, through all the prior history covered in the movie--taking George from a youth to a middle-aged husband and father--he makes sacrifice after sacrifice after sacrifice. He subverts dream after dream for his family, shunting aside his youthful aspirations of grandeur.

And he falls prey to the notion that along the way, as he's put all his goals on ice, that nobody has noticed. Not a single soul appreciates his continual acts of selflessness, whether they resulted from sheer altruism or forced by circumstance.

He suffers in silence. Or so he thinks.

But on Christmas Eve, at the bottom of a very deep pit in which he finds himself, George is shown that despite his conviction that the world doesn't care a fig for his problems, in reality, his situation is quite the opposite.

Mary, his wife, cares. His kids care. His mother cares. Mr. Martini, who he helped out of a slum, cares. Mr. Gower, the druggist he saved from committing a terrible accident, cares. Bert the cop. Ernie the taxi driver. Uncle Billy. Brother Harry. They all care.

And in the tearful final moments of the movie, George knows that despite his constant struggles and his meager income and his battered car and threadbare suits and drafty house, he is, in fact, "...the richest man in town."

His friends show him that. His friends, with whom no man is a failure.

And so I find that lesson hitting home hard this holiday. I have known failure. I've shaken its hand numerous times over the past seven months. But I also have friends--and family--that  have led me to a number of George Bailey Moments. And I am thankful for them.

Oh, how I am thankful.

The various "families" in my life have shown great concern and bountiful compassion: my close-friend family, my dog-class family (human and canine), my church family, my family of former colleagues and professional contacts, my neighborhood family, my extended blood-relation family (cousins and aunts), my college-friends family, my cyber-family.

Even a hodgepodge family of total strangers who have touched me with a kind word or an unexpected smile when I really really needed one.

I am especially appreciative of my nearest-dearest family, the one under my own roof. It has been a long row to hoe, finding my way back to full employment, and it's not over yet. And they have been with me every step of the way. They have endured my impatience, my depression, my tears, my dashed hopes, my laziness (especially with housework), my boredom, my frustrations. They have seen me be scattered, unfocused, and slipshod. They have ridden this horrible roller coaster  out of necessity, not out of choice, and all along the way, they continue to accept, support, love, and nurture me.

Especially my spouse. Eileen and I are approaching 25 years of marriage; our silver anniversary is May 21, 2013. Each day through that quarter century, she has remained true to the vow to love me in good times and in bad. 

Particularly the bad. If on some cosmic beach somewhere there are footprints in the sand where the Lord carries me through the difficulties of life, mine are the combined tracks of Eileen carrying me while the Lord carries her.

So I raise a glass this Thanksgiving to all those families. And am deeply grateful for the George Bailey Moments they provide me.

By all them--all you--I am blessed.

For all them--all you--I am thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Boughs of Folly

The musical Mame includes the well-known song "We Need a Little Christmas." Its appearance in the score occurs just after the crash of the New York Stock Market, and the penniless Mame Dennis is depressed, facing the prospects of a rather dismal Christmas. Believing that an early celebration of Yuletide to be just the thing to lift both her spirits and those of her live-in nephew, she responds immediately and with full force to the idea that it is time to "...haul out the holly, put up the tree before my spirits fall again."

Patrick, her young charge, is baffled by her timeline:

"But Auntie Mame," he counters, "it's one week past Thanksgiving Day now!"

As if to say: Okay, Auntie, I know your daily philosophy is that life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death, but the idea of decorating for Christmas now -- three full weeks before the holiday itself -- is really out there.

Auntie Mame would get along perfectly well with the modern celebration of Christmas, when retailers and theme parks -- and even households! -- think nothing of hauling out an entire forest of holly, well before Thanksgiving. Sometimes in conjunction with Halloween, even.

Don't get me wrong. I adore Christmas decorations, especially the outside displays that brighten up the darkest nights of the year. Those December evenings -- when the sun fades from the sky by 5:00 p.m. -- I love nothing more than driving home and enjoying the inflatable Santas, the trees festooned with thousands of colorful lights, the bunting and ribbons.

I just blanch at the thoughts of them when leaves are still in their full-splendor of color change and the Thanksgiving turkeys are still fattening on the farm.

It wasn't always this way.

Consider the Christmas song "Mistletoe and Holly," as sung by Frank Sinatra, which features this line:

"Then comes the big night/Giving the tree the trim."

Which implies that assembling the Christmas tree and decorating it is an activity for Christmas Eve.

Hollywood bears this out as well. The climax of the Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life shows the Bailey family prepping for Christmas Day by spending the Eve tossing tinsel on the sturdy evergreen standing in the parlor. Of course, that's before the forlorn George decides to check out early.

My parents remember when Christmas Eve preparations for Santa meant tree-trimming that night and not before. Their traditions carried over into our own, and when we were young, we went to bed Christmas Eve with only our stockings hung and the creche set up on a small table in the living room.

Imagine our wonder -- miracle of miracles -- when we pounded down the stairs the next morning and saw not only our heart's desire in the toy department, but also a tree gleaming with lights and ornaments, and all kinds of other foo-faws making the living room a red-and-green wonderland.

Of course Santa was real. Who else could pull off that kind of magic in just one night?

I'm not even sure when all this started to change. Of course the retailers played a role. Black Friday isn't called Black Friday for nothing.

The availability of artificial trees had to have played a role as well; after all, a cut tree wouldn't survive being indoors for six solid weeks.

But the biggest culprit is probably our modern world's constant time-crunch. Christmas Eve means cooking and cleaning and church and large dinners and family visits and travel and packing the car and picking up relatives from the airport and wrapping last-minute presents and jamming Locking Tab A into Holding Gasket B and who's got time to put up a tree in all that mayhem?

So we'll back it up a day.

A week.

A month.

It all starts to blur together, increasing our slide toward Hallothanskmas, that mishmash of holiday observances that takes the separate traditions of October, November, and December, places them in a Cuisinart, and whirls them all together.

The true shame of this earlybirdism is that the holidays grow wearisome rather quickly. The earlier we jump the gun on Christmas, the earlier it collapses into a din of repetitive Christmas songs, congealed egg nog, and candy cane comas.

It's Noel nullified. Over before it even begins.

Just consider how many tattered trees find their way curbside -- cast aside for the trash truck -- even before the new year. Nothing to me is more depressing than a December 26th marked by naked Christmas trees, stripped of ornaments and lights and wearing just a few shreds of tinsel, tipped over at the end of a driveway like a drunken fratboy the day after a party.

But I suppose it's all part of time marching on. Of course the Christmas decorations have to go (except in certain households, where they stay up year-round, but that's another issue altogether).

By the time the sun sets on Christmas Day, Valentines is a scant 49 days away.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name

I have renamed my blog.

It took the comment of a long-ago friend to point out the shortcomings with the former title, but once she did, I agreed 100%.

The phrase "It wasn't enough" was among the parting words from my former place of full-time employment. It was uttered in April when I was cut loose. That departure came after a period during which I was told (and believed, color me naive) that my extra efforts could actually save my position. In assessing the results, it was determined by the Powers That Be that I had fallen short.

"We know you tried really hard. But it wasn't enough."

Stuck for a title to my new blog, the time for which was afforded by my lack of full-time employment, I put the phrase to use, hoping to sap it of its power the way that racist and sexist labels are often re-defined by the people to whom they're meant to slur.

It never really worked out that way.

I see now that I was becoming trapped by it. Those offhand words -- and all they signified -- were boxing me in.

And funny enough, I'm sure my employer long ago put me in its rear view mirror and zoomed onward to the next set of meetings, projects, conference calls, sales pitches, product launches, and deadlines.

While I remained in the past. Even if it were just from the standpoint of this blog. Every time I launched a new posting through Facebook or Twitter, there it was: It Wasn't Enough.

A message wrapped in a three-day old flounder, reeking of rot and buzzing with flies.

Well, no more.

I'm looking upward, onward, forward. I like the new name -- the hope that it engenders, the positive outlook, the anticipation of things to come.

Being unemployed has opened me to dozens of pieces of advice. One of the most compelling also came from a friend (not the same person who pointed out her displeasure with my former blog's name, but someone just as insightful).

She told me this: "Be the man you are now, right at this moment, with all your experience and insight and talent and wit and drive. Not the person you were back in April when you were cut loose."

My former blog name -- a big fat albatross that I wore like a cowbell -- was a huge part of who I was in April.

But it is not who I am in November. Or who I will be in December. Or next year. Or next decade. Or beyond that.

Welcome to my newly named blog.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Death, There Is Your Sting

My head hurts. My heart hurts.

I have just come back from the hospital where my sister-in-law, Kathy Morris Weckerly, is dying.

Cancer is killing her. Or the chemo designed to fight the cancer. Doesn't matter, really. The cause won't change the outcome, which is that, at age 54, after dealing with this enemy since her 20s, she will lose this battle.

Kathy has been hospitalized since the end of September, put there originally by fluid that accumulated in her lungs. Barely one month prior, we were together in Ocean City, NJ, where she fared well, despite needing to take a nap or two during the day.

Isn't that what being at the shore is all about anyway?

Eight weeks afterward, neither Ocean City nor Kathy are the sameHow quickly things change.

Kathy came into our lives at a time when it seemed we all needed her. My brother had a rocky first marriage. We didn't care for his first wife much -- less so when she left him, taking every possession they co-owned. He arrived home from work one day and knew that the relationship was over when he found the house completely emptied, save for a lawn chair and a disconnected phone cord.

Hell apparently hath no fury like a moving man's daughter's scorn.

Paul was down and out. His fractured relationship with my parents -- born of rebellious teen years -- had caused rifts that had never quite healed. So it wasn't as if he were going to become a baby-boomerang, an adult child moving back in with mom and dad, thanks to economic setbacks.

Into this brokenness, Kathy wandered. I believe they met in a bar or something, and she could see from early on that he was at the bottom of a very deep well. Patiently, subtly, cautiously, she led him out. He rebuilt his life, starting on the inside. When sufficiently bolstered, he began rebuilding bridges on the outside.

Eventually, Kathy brought him back into the fold of our family. Best, it was a two-for-one deal, for with him came her.

Her last hurdle was to convince him to get married, a convention he had sworn off years ago. This iceberg, too, melted under her warm smile, quick laugh, and openness.

Kathy embraced all of us, warts and all. She ingratiated herself to my parents, to Eileen and me, and eventually to our kids.

Even our pets loved her. She often told the story of her first dinner with her soon-to-be in-laws. Kathy learned quickly that for the most part, where my Dad went, so, too did his dog, Murphy, a thoroughly lovable, floppy-eared, mildly disobedient Basset Hound.

During that dinner, Dad lost track of Murphy. Kathy soon found him: He was half-standing on a kitchen chair, devouring an entire pound of butter she had left in the open.

Didn't bother her. She laughed then and continued to laugh about that incident.

Our kids came along. They adored her, too. She was unable to have children on her own, but that didn't slow her from being the best aunt a trio of nieces could ask for.

Medically, Kathy was a continual yin and yang. Some days good. Some days worrisome. Never to burden anyone with her issues, she downplayed everything. "I'm okay," she'd comment. "They're watching x, y, or z, but I'm not too concerned about it."

She helped immeasurably when we were forced to bid my Dad goodbye.

She then shouldered much responsibility with my mother's needs, as Mom tried -- and ultimately failed -- to live alone. Through this trying time, Kathy was the perfect blend of pragmatism and humor; she either knew exactly what to do to solve a difficulty, or she knew the exact comment that would cause a chuckle and break the tension.

She was there 100% when Mom left us, too.

Family was crucial to Kathy. No bother was a bother if it involved family. And she was abundant with family. Her birth mother passed away when she was quite young. Overwhelmed, presumably, he father almost allowed the family to crack apart, but he eventually remarried and things stabilized. 

Then along came my brother Paul and our crew.

She made time for all, attending each birthday party, Christmas dinner, Confirmation, dance recital, and Communion along the way.

It was only this past April that she slowed down. The cancer getting active throughout her body, and the chemo she fought so hard to avoid all her life finally became a necessity.

The effects were swift and drastic. Unable to manage her work, she went on medical leave. She continued doing her best through the summer, feeling well enough to join us at the beach. Beyond that, she and Paul were planning an Aruba trip in October, and we all crossed fingers that she would be well enough to go.

She wasn't. Her kidney performance got shaky. A lung collapsed. She was just on the verge of recovering from these two setbacks when the bottom dropped out.

Scans and tests confirmed the worst. The cancer was back, it was spreading, and it was proving to be as stubborn as hell.

This past weekend, her blood pressure plummeted, the result of internal bleeding. Her doctors examined her through an endoscope to see if there were some way of stemming the tide, perhaps surgically. But there was none. The cancer -- or the chemo -- was leading to a wholesale breakdown of the structures within her organs, causing massive bleeding.

Bowels. Liver. Pancreas. Spleen. Lung. Brain. All teeming with a wildfire that could not be controlled.

It is only a matter of time before she escapes the confines of her failing body. At that moment, her bright spirit will soar onward. We wept over the initial news, and I am sure that when the final result is confirmed, we will weep again.

One more loss in a series of losses; one more exit from our lives in short proximity to the other exits from our lives. So arbitrary. So unfair.

I comfort myself with a few thoughts, though: My stint of unemployment provided  opportunities to visit her during times that I would otherwise be chained to a desk. During one of those visits -- it was just she and I -- I thanked her. I thanked her for bringing my brother back to us. I told her that my parents would forever hold her in their hearts because of the manner in which she helped heal that rift.

She nodded. She understood. It probably didn't have to be vocalized, such was the power of her insight into family dynamics. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I was able to say something so heartfelt and full of gratitude.

I also find peace in knowing that there are legions of loved ones waiting her arrival. My parents are among them.

And another soul...

A certain thoroughly lovable, floppy eared, mildly-disobedient, butter-eating Basset Hound.

Godspeed, Kathy. We love you. We will miss you. And we are richer for having known you.