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.