Monday, December 27, 2010

Renewed Resolve

A few days ago, I started writing a blog post all about my New Year's resolutions.

In it, I reflected on how I feel I've grown as a writer since starting the blog in January, and how I was setting goals for my writing for 2011 in regards to both the blog and the murder mystery I am writing. I expounded on my methodology for maintaining "quality" in my writings and achieving self-imposed deadlines. I even began rehashing why certain blog posts might have received more hits from readers than others.

What a load of self-indulgent crap!

I enjoy writing. And now that I have fully embraced it as a hobby and publicly professed to family and friends my enjoyment of it, I intend to continue doing it. I sincerely do hope to finish the book and continue blogging in 2011. But the dictionary describes a hobby as "an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure."

Regularly. Not religiously. Not daily. And for pleasure, not out of some sense of obligation or requirement or addiction.

I have perused blogs by established authors and get the same advice thrown at me over and over again. "Make it perfect!" "Write, edit, rewrite, edit, continue..." "The writing must consume your every thought!" "Write for as broad an audience as possible, not just your spouse." "Read books by authors succeeding at what you want to do and emulate them." "Make it perfect!!"

That's a lot of pressure for a hobbyist, and to all that advice I say "Go screw!" If my spouse is the only person who reads and enjoys the book I'm writing, then I'll be content. If my spouse is the only person who reads my blog and she enjoys them, then I am happy. And just in case anyone thinks a spouse is incapable of proper constructive criticism, I would love to introduce them to my Lovely Wife and teach them otherwise.

Rather than focus 2011's resolutions on myself and my own selfish wants and desires, I've decided to listen to the voice in my head that speaks when I'm kneeling in the church pew during the extraordinarily brief moments of reflection. Not to digress, but can I ask for a true moment of silence when the church program calls for one and not just a millisecond of semi-quiet pause? I barely get out the "Hi God, it's me again" by the time we've moved on to the next calisthenic exercise...

Anyway, here are my resolutions for next year:

1. Be a better husband. I'm often lost in a fog of my own forgetfulness and entirely neglect to show my appreciation for all my Lovely Wife does for me and our children. This isn't rocket science I'm talking about, either. No big mystery to solve. I simply need to be more helpful, reverent, romantic, silly, and generally expressive of my love for her.

2. Be a better father. This includes not losing my temper and not responding crankily to the many minor requests received daily. It involves being able to acknowledge at all times -- not just when convenient -- how fortunate I am to have three beautiful, healthy children who genuinely enjoy my company and aren't embarrassed to show their affection for me in front of all their friends.

3. Be a better person. This one encapsulates many different smaller resolutions into one big one. It includes being a better son, brother, friend, parishioner, employee, coworker, volunteer, and member of my community. It addresses such things as living up to my promises and making promises I know I can keep.

If I can do these three simple things in 2011, then I will have a richer life than any book or blog could ever provide.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cookie Mastery!

There exists for each of us a food item so perfect it cannot be duplicated, nor duplication even attempted, without our rose-colored recollections spoiling our efforts.

Occasionally we try. We ask for directions, instructions, lists of ingredients, and even demonstrations. But no other critic is more harsh than our own memories. Too salty, too sweet, wrong consistency, wrong color -- we dole out judgement before the final product ever comes to be, doomed and aborted before it has the chance to fail on its own merits.

My Lovely Wife and I hold in high esteem certain foods that brought great delight to us during childhood. The very thought of recreating these foods fills us with dread. For me, there are only two favorite foods I have declined attempting during my adult life. One is my grandparents' sauerbraten, the other is my Mother's chocolate-tipped cookie.

Well, as of today, we can scratch one of them off the list.

You must understand I have never, to the best of my knowledge, experienced a holiday season without this cookie. Without trying to overstate the value of the chocolate-tipped cookie, I can tell you it represents Christmas to me. It represents the pinnacle of baked goods from all four corners of the world. It represents, in two bites, the entire goodness of humanity! Good Lord, soak it in a glass of milk for a minute and it might even be able to cure cancer!!!

My brothers understand my high regard for the chocolate-tipped cookie. Each year, beginning in November, our Mother would turn our small kitchen into a neatly-run production line. You had your basics -- chocolate chip, oatmeal & spritz -- and your slightly more exotic -- tea time tassies & rum balls.

One-year the oatmeal cookies morphed into oatmeal raisin and stayed that way. Not that I don't like raisins. I do. It's just I firmly believe they have no business being in a cookie of any kind.

Anyway, Thanksgiving would mark the beginning of the cookie roll-out, building to fever pitch at Christmas and ending around New Year's with that semi-nauseated sense of gratification you get after you've eaten your weight in all-purpose flour.

Of all the cookies Mom would pile on the festive platter, no matter how well she tried to bury them beneath the less-coveted confections, we would swoop in with surgical precision and immediately devour all of the chocolate-tipped cookies. Sometimes I did feel bad for the other cookies. A handful of rum balls and a few fractured tea time tassies would always remain on the platter like fallen soldiers on a battlefield.

And it isn't just my brothers and I who show preference for the chocolate-tipped cookie. As the years have progressed, the grandchildren make it clear each holiday season as we gather round the table for dessert at my parents' house that our chocolate-tipped cookie raid is instinctive. The need to ingest the cookie before all others is programmed into their DNA.

So, this year, knowing how much we all love the holiest of holy cookies, and not wanting to burden my poor Mother with the need to make each of us our own personal dozen to enjoy at every gathering, we gathered in the kitchen this morning to attempt mastery of the chocolate-tipped cookie.

Let's see, ingredients: half a cup of cornstarch, half a cup of confectioners sugar, three-quarters cup of margarine, and one cup of all-purpose four. Combine, then chill for one hour. Shape into individual short tubes and flatten each with a fork. Bake for 25 minutes at 300 degrees. Let them cool. Melt some semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl and gently dip each end in the chocolate. Place on wax paper and cool until the chocolate has hardened.

So simple, yet the simplest things always are the easiest to mess up. We had our moments of doubt.

They're too big! The dough is crumbling! Do we have enough chocolate?!

After baking, the cookie looked like the real thing. And after a couple dips in microwaved chocolate, it seemed as though we were nearing the finish line. All we had to do was wait for them to harden up. In the end, our tastebuds confirmed we had achieved perfection. The taste, the texture, the look of it -- all led us to cookie nirvana.

To know I have the knowledge and skill to teach our children and, God willing, our grandchildren how to make the perfect chocolate-tipped cookie fills me with tremendous pride. Who knows? Maybe someday soon I'll be confident enough to take a crack at the sauerbraten.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jew Rae San Coz?

I've been in North Carolina long enough not to be thrown too hard when someone's thick drawl twists the English language into new and interesting shapes.

I've even grown comfortable dropping phrases that, back in New England, might cause people to tilt their head sideways like a dog catching the sound of a high, distant whistle. Phrases such as "might-could," "horndog," "y'all" and its plural "all y'all" have been known to escape me, and I am not ashamed to say I enjoy sinking into their loose-fitting, casual comfort.

But, every once in a while, I come across someone whose accent is so thick, so impenetrable, so immune to the efforts of a public education, as to make it practically impossible to decipher what they are trying to say.

The morning I married my Lovely Wife, my groomsmen and I dressed in our tuxedos and went for breakfast at the waffle house adjacent to our hotel. Before delivering our morning meal to the table, the waitress asked us a question. When we stared blankly at her like babies at a spinning, musical mobile, she repeated, "Y'all want beebs?" The poor woman had to pantomime for us before we understood she was offering us bibs to protect our suits.

More recently, while bringing the German to the doctor for a follow up appointment for his broken thumb, we came across a kindly old man in the waiting room. After passing several minutes in awkward silence, he leaned over to the German and asked, "Jew rae san coz?"

Sensing he meant well, I pretended I hadn't heard him and gave him a quizzical look. He leaned forward and repeated his question to both of us. The second time around yielded no further understanding.

My mind raced to decipher the meaning. I enjoy puzzles, after all, so I should be able to figure this out without asking him to say it again.

Let's see, "jew" is easy. He means "you." Okay, one down, three to go.

On to "rae." No idea, not even a guess. Skip it.

"San coz." Again, nothing, except for his inflection, suggesting the words belong together.

Then I spot the Christmas tree behind him that the office staff decorated for the lobby.

Christmas... San coz... Santa Claus! "Are you ready for Santa Claus?"

"Yes!" I answer proudly for me and my son, startling the man with the vigor of my response.

"We are most definitely rae san coz!"

2010 Mark Feggeler

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pink Snuggie Thief

Twenty years ago, I laughed at people who complained about winter weather in North Carolina.

How seriously can you take people who raid the grocery store for milk and bread at the mere mention of a snow flurry? How can you not poke fun at school systems and businesses that shut down twenty-fours in advance of a predicted snow storm?

I hate to sound like a stereotypical old codger but when I was a kid we needed six inches of snow on the ground and the threat of more before the superintendent even considered closing school for a day. I recall quite a few mornings on which my brothers and I would reach out into the snow to measure the depth with a wooden ruler. Oh, the disappointment of only three or four inches...

During college at SUNY Plattsburgh in upstate New York -- just a short beer run to the Canadian border -- when the winter weather finally gave way to a day above 45 degrees, you would find many of us outside enjoying the sunshine in shorts and t-shirts.

If you wanted to go tubing down the Saranac River that ran behind the dorms, you had to do it in April, when the spring runoff from the mountains raised the level of the river high enough to keep you from bashing your head on a rock. The water was a bone-chilling 50 degrees. I still remember washing up on the wrong side of the river and trembling for a solid hour before regaining enough control of my muscles to walk back to campus.

When my Lovely Wife and I began dating in 1992, my future Father-in-Law would constantly offer me sweaters or jackets when he saw me leaving their house in 40-degree weather without one of my own. He was a lovely man, and well intentioned, but I doubt anything he wore would even have wrapped around my thigh, let alone cover my torso.

And it didn't matter, anyway, because I wasn't cold. I was in North Carolina. Hundreds of miles south of where I grew up and almost one thousand mile south of where I went to college. During my first ten years combined in the Tar Heel State, I barely witnessed more than an inch or two of snow. Quite quickly, my wardrobe changed from flannel shirts and knit sweaters, to short-sleeve shirts and year-round flipflops.

But lately I've noticed something peculiar. Whereas I once sought out light coats with no heavy liners, I am now the owner of several winter-weather jackets. Even my mild-weather jacket has a liner. I'm wearing gloves again, too. I have this pair of black leather gloves I've owned for several years that now, inexplicably, are with me where ever I go.

Perhaps the most rattling indicators of my thinning blood are in evidence at night.

My Lovely Wife gets cold somewhere around the end of August and stays that way until the first of July. As a result, every winter we drape our bed with an electric blanket. The first one we owned had one control for the entire blanket, meaning she would be toasty warm and I would slowly dissolve into a puddle of sweat. We now have a blanket with two controls. Well, this winter my side has been on just as much as hers, and more often than not at the same setting. This wouldn't bother me so much if I found myself waking up at two in the morning to throw off the covers and cool down, but I don't.

The final evidence of my acclimation to the Southern climes, however, came just a few weeks ago. One evening, I scurried to the computer in the basement family room to work on my book after the rest of the family had fallen asleep. Before I realized what I had done, I was wrapped in the pink Snuggie my Lovely Wife keeps in the game closet.

So, in twenty years I've gone from running around outside in shorts and t-shirt in 40-degree weather, to sitting in a 72-degree carpeted basement wearing socks, long flannel pajama pants, long-sleeve shirt, and wrapped in a pink Snuggie like some refugee from an alternate lifestyle monastery.

I'd love to keep writing about all this, but unfortunately I have to go. They've just called for a dusting of snow on Thursday, so I need to run to the grocery store to stock up on bread and milk.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Un-Terrorist Look

Over the past couple years I've been required to fly with greater frequency to a variety of meetings and trainings in different parts of the country.

As a result, the art of packing to suit the many bizarre and changing security regulations of the Federal Government has become second nature. The security check itself is merely a minor blip on my radar, protracting only when the line is cluttered with the uninitiated.

I am able, with an easy confidence, to enter the "Expert Flyer" line at the screening area of Port Columbus International Airport in Ohio because I know to have my laptop placed in its own private gray tub. This act alone, performed without asking any of the TSA henchmen if I really need to do it, immediately earns me TSA henchman brownie points. I shoot a knowing nod to the guy behind me who's grumbling to nobody about whether or not he needs to do the same.

I skillfully swing my coat, shoes, belt, cell phone, briefcase, and any loose pocket change into a second gray tub like a gymnast performing a complex yet graceful floor routine. With driver's license and boarding pass in hand, I move effortlessly through the metal detector without incident. Having pre-planned my footwear, I slip back into my laceless shoes, grab my belongings, and head to Wolfgang Puck Express for a personal-size pepperoni pizza and a Diet Coke while I wait to board the plane.

But I am troubled.

Almost every person I know who flies with any regularity has experienced delays, bag searches, or body scans during the security screening. Even my Lovely Wife once had to stand aside while a TSA henchwoman rifled through her massive purse, wallet and all, because a pair of fold-up safety scissors set off an Orange-level alert throughout RDU Airport. The henchwoman was gruff and ugly, and therefore lived up to my expectations. Still, I was a bystander, not the victim.

I began wondering during last week's trip home from Columbus why I had never been singled out by the TSA henchmen. What is it about me that glares like a beacon, telling the TSA henchmen I am so much the opposite of a threat they can feel free to smile at me and treat me pleasantly while the poor schmuck behind me gets the full frontal pat down in front of the entire terminal?

I've seen other people who are equally adept at the security screening process get pulled aside for a closer inspection of their carry -on bags for seemingly no reason. Why has mine never been checked? Other people are forced to step to the right into the explosives material testing machine and get puffs of air poofed at them, ruining their hair along with their attitudes. Why not me?

Don't I look even slightly threatening? Isn't it possible I'm part of some extremely white, middle-class, middle-age, over-weight sleeper cell?

Or forget terrorism all together and just give me the common courtesy of acknowledging I might pose some kind of safety issue. I'm taller than the guy you just frisked and twenty years older than the uniformed Marine on whom you just performed a cavity search. I'm potentially sneakier than the single mom struggling to keep her kids from crawling into the x-ray scanner while you question the authenticity of her alleged breast milk. And I've got to be smarter than the guy on his fifth pass through the metal detector due to the fact neither he nor you has figured out the big metal chain around his neck is made of metal.

The more I think about it, the TSA is insulting my masculinity by consistently and persistently giving me the easy pass through the security screening process!

Well, no more Mr. Nice Fly. Next time, I'm going to leave the laptop in the bag and make them ask me to take it out. Who knows? I might even "forget" to take off my shoes. Let's see how much of a threat they think I am then...

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Monday, November 29, 2010

Photo Finished

I love a good photograph.

Every couple years we dress everyone in matching shirts, like the people in those horrible stock photos you find in new photo frames. We head to the mall in Durham and pose for seemingly endless snapshots. And going into it you know you're going to get real high-quality pictures only if by the end you're close to tears from yelling at your kids to stay still, smile, sit up, don't kick your sister, and for God's sake stop untucking your shirt!

Not that the fidgetiness is the children's fault. After all, you're the one who booked a lunchtime studio session and forgot to pack any fishy crackers or YooHoos. If they've turned into whining little ankle biters it's only because they haven't eaten since 7:00am and their blood sugar levels have dipped well out of "cranky" and deep into "monstrous."

More often than not, the camera man or woman works some kind of magical charm and we end up taking home four hundred dollars worth of pictures of the very same people we see every day.

Not so tonight, however.

In a manner quite uncharacteristic to our frequently well-planned approach to life in general -- or I should say, my Lovely Wife's well-planned approach, since I am more like a clusterbomb of disorganization -- we didn't even begin coordinating our attire for our 4:50pm photo session until somewhere between 4:00pm and 4:10pm.

I should point out we were not driving the hour-and-a-half to Durham this time. The photo session was at our church in Southern Pines, just fifteen minutes away, and the ultimate goal of the session was to produce a single church-directory-worthy picture of our five-person clan. We accomplished that goal but it didn't stop the photographer from snap-happily clicking away another couple dozen times to try and produce that gem of a picture we wouldn't be able to help but buy fifty copies of for all of our relatives, living and deceased.

While we had a great time taking the pictures, once we sat down to view the results we immediately began tearing them apart.

"My left eye is closed," our Darling Daughter said about one.

"Why does he look like a possessed demon in half the pictures," I said of the Italian.

"My arms look so fat," my Lovely Wife complained. "Do I have my mother's arms?"

"Your arms are nothing, look at my big floppy ears!" I said. "Those things don't stop growing 'til you're dead!"

In some of the pictures it looked like the German was recovering from a stroke that left him able to smile with only half his face. In almost every picture I was smiling so hard you could see more gums than teeth. And there wasn't a single picture in which we all appeared comfortable. We looked more like the poster family for some new hemorrhoid cream.

But my favorite picture was the one with just me and my true love of eighteen years, my Lovely Wife. With me sitting and her standing with her arm around my back, it looked like I was her terminally ill husband and she was propping me out of my sickbed for one last shot to send the grandkids before throwing me in a pine box. Even the expression on my face suggested I might be dangerously close to needing a change of diaper or a fresh colostomy bag.

If nothing else, this round of photos proved I need to stand at least eight feet back from the rest of my family to appear in proportion with them. Either they are tiny people with tiny heads, or I am a lumbering oaf with a head the size of a prize pumpkin.

From now on, we'll leave the family portraits to the professionals -- the nineteen-year-old college kids who run the franchise shop at the mall.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Friday, November 19, 2010

The First Break

About a week ago, the German fell and broke his thumb. Being the diligent child he is, he didn't break just any old bone, he broke the growth plate -- the part of the bone structure responsible for ensuring his thumb develops properly along with the rest of his body.

As a caring parent whose responsibility it is to ensure the safety and well-being of my children, I responded accordingly when he entered the house holding his hand and crying.

"Can you move your thumb?"

"It's just swollen. You probably just sprained something."

"It'll be okay with a little ice. Or is it heat? I'll look it up online."

"Go show your mother."

Unfortunately, my Lovely wife's responses were amazingly similar to mine. We iced his hand and by the next morning some of the swelling had improved but he still babied his hand and didn't seem able to move his thumb with full range of motion. So, we did what all concerned parents should do -- we spent the day shopping in Fayetteville and took the entire family to play indoor laser tag.

By the next morning, it was obvious we couldn't rely on a "time heals all wounds" approach. After going to school to participate in the Veteran's Day program -- hey, he had a line to perform -- I signed him out and brought him to the family practice our children have gone to since our Darling Daughter was born 13 years ago. Sad to say, it seems we need to change practices. Not only did they leave it to us to find an orthopedist who would take our insurance, they ushered us out the door with crappy x-rays and no sort of treatment or stabilization whatsoever for the German's hand. I'll leave it at that because I'm still too pissed to write about it without excessive use of foul language.

Fortunately, we located an outstanding orthopedist who took our son's injury seriously. After a thorough exam, followed by a three-dimensional CAT scan of the injured hand, our second meeting resulted in the confirmation the German would require surgery to realign the bones and insert a pin to hold them in place. What the swelling had hidden and the standard x-rays did not show was how his thumb was off kilter by 35-degrees.

Now, both my Lovely Wife and I are free-cryers. You give us half a reason to well up and we unashamedly will. Just the thought of the German being admitted to the hospital was enough to choke me up.

When the time came early Thursday morning to bring him to Outpatient admitting, I was concerned about our ability to hold it together in front of him. The last thing anyone -- especially a 9-year-old boy being wheeled through a hospital for his first ever surgery -- needs is to be surrounded by blubbering idiots over-reacting to everything anyone wearing scrubs has to say.

"He'll need to wear this gown."

"A gown?"

"And when we take him back we'll take him in a wheelchair."

"A wheelchair?!"

"Here's the remote for the television."

"Remote?!?!?! Waaaaaaaaaaaah..."

But we held together well, even when we entered the staging area and they inserted the intravenous line into the back of his right hand. The German was amazing. He watched the entire process like it was a documentary on the Discovery Channel. When I looked at my Lovely Wife, I could see the tears beginning to build in her eyes. At last, was I finally being given the opportunity to lose control?

As it turns out, no.

Not long after the IV went in, the nurse added some "happy juice" to the flow. Several seconds later another nurse asked Nathan why he was there. He lifted the cast to his face, stared at it blankly, and finally answered, "I lost track of everything."

We couldn't help laughing.

The nurse turned to us instead for answers to her questions. The German interrupted a couple times with seemingly disassociated comments such as "Max-A" and "Nellcor," both of which were written on the pulse oximeter taped to his index finger. Little did we realize that general anasthesia could be the solution to his dyslexia.

In the end, our brave little man made it through the entire day without an "ouch," a whimper, or any apparent fear. Most shocking is that his Mother and I made it through without a single tear.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Saturday, November 13, 2010

What Price Movie Night?

Let's set the record straight from the get go: we are a Disney-loving family.

We've spent enough money on Disney movies, vacations, toys, clothing and other assorted paraphernalia that our children ought to be entitled to Disney-funded college scholarships. When we travel to Disney World, we schedule and map the experience ad nauseam. We know which park we are visiting on what day, where we will be eating at exactly what times, and we carry a customized itinerary with us lest we forget.

Some time in early 2011 we will board the brand new Disney Dream -- our first Disney cruise. Not that we're obsessing, but my Lovely Wife and I have read every blog post and watched every snippet of construction video Disney has thrown out to the cyber world. I could probably walk the ship, bow to stern, with my eyes closed and tell you exactly where I was.

Such is our fascination with and admiration for all things Disney.

So, when the German and the Italian selected a classic Disney feature cartoon for our family movie night this evening, I was suitably pleased. Which one did they pick? No, not Cinderella. Not Dumbo, either. Not even Jungle Book. The Italian nominated and the German seconded The Sword in the Stone.

Released in 1963, The Sword in the Stone was the last animated feature released while Walt Disney was still alive. It was a financial success at the time and fairly well received by the critics. Of course, this was only one year before Gilligan's Island premiered on national television and won the hearts of millions, which goes to show even fifty years ago you couldn't put much stock in public opinion.

It might seem strange to those of us too young to recall but the Disney studios did not always sustain the film-a-year average the company has maintained since 1985. At the time of its release, The Sword in the Stone was only the third animated feature film from Disney since 1955's magical Lady & the Tramp, and it would be another four years before the release of the passable Jungle Book. This makes it all the stranger to me that the film should lack not just one or two, but all the ingredients that make other Disney films delightful. You'd think with that much time to pull the project together it would work on at least one level.

But our sons had happily and jointly selected the mercifully short film for our viewing. Although I know they were more excited about the prospect of a shared family experience than which movie we ended up watching, I still didn't want to hurt their feelings by ragging on the film they had picked. I remember my younger days spent playing songs for all in the house to hear and thinking how much fun everyone else must be having listening to my music. Doesn't everyone want to hear "The Tennessee Birdwalk," "You Can't Roller Skate In a Buffalo Herd," or the flip side of the "New Zoo Review" album for the millionth time?

If my parents could humor me way back then, then I can do the same for my children now, especially when all they really want is to snuggle up next to us and share an hour or two. Unfortunately, our love for our children didn't make the movie any less painful to watch. After 79 minutes of horrendous story-telling, screeched dialogue, and mind-bogglingly disassociated musical interludes, the only reward necessary for our time served was the smiling faces of our boys as they thanked us for letting them climb into our bed for a movie night.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rug Doctor No More!

Each year -- when just the right amount dirt, grit, blood, vomit, dog pee and food stains have ravaged our contractor-grade beige carpets -- we run to the local grocery store and rent the Rug Doctor.

Renting the Rug Doctor is no small task. The machine itself is awkwardly heavy with a bizarre weight distribution. No matter how I position myself, I've yet to lift one into my van without later thinking "I shouldn't have done that."

Then you have to buy all the chemicals. You really need only two chemicals but they sucker you into buying the spot remover for pre-treating those tough, set-in stains. I'm sorry, but if dragging a fifty-pound monster that spews soap and hot water, abuses the carpet with rotating scrubby death, then sucks out the dirty water with the power of a jet engine doesn't get out the spot, neither will a few extra squirts from a nine-dollar bottle of the same exact soap.

The main two chemicals you need are the cleaning solution and the anti-foaming agent, although I've never understood the anti-foaming bit. I know you put it in the dirty water collection container to keep the dirty water from sudsing over and wrecking the Rug Doctor, but I can't help feeling foolish spending $20 for a chemical whose sole purpose is to keep the shampoo I just spent $40 on from foaming. Seems cosmically counter-productive to me.

And for all the size, weight and girth of the machine, it has a really small bladder. Seriously, I've known hamsters with greater constitutions. Seems like every three sweeps along the carpet requires either the emptying of the dirty water or the refilling of the cleaning solution.

Anyway, as the title of this post suggests, we no longer need to rent the Rug Doctor. It can stay forever chained in its cage at the grocery store with its siblings.

We are now proud owners of the Bissell ProHeat CleanShot 2x. For $200, we were able to purchase not only our liberation from the rentable monstrosity -- which, let's face it, probably holds lingering traces of a hundred other families' grit, grime and spilled fluids -- but also the freedom to deep clean our carpets at whim.

With a carefree filling of a tank with water and the loading of only one concentrated cleaning solution, we are free to attack whatever carpet-contaminating catastrophe comes our way.

The best part? No anti-foaming agent!

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dancing Away From Monkeys

We humans like to think of ourselves as advanced beings, intellectually superior to other animals, granted dominion over the creatures of land, sea and sky by a higher power. How can we not be superior?

Take a look at your typical domesticated canine, for instance. Despite a rich history of anthropomorphisizing the skills and talents our beloved best friends, what can we point to as being their greatest accomplishment? The most advanced thing our poodle can do is flip her empty food bowl around to let us know she's hungry. That and a reasonably sound mastery of her bowel movements are really all she has to her credit.

Some domestic pets aren't even that smart.

Years ago I had a teddy bear hamster name Bologna. I was all he had. If not for me, he would have slept in pea-soaked shavings surrounded by mounds of his own poop, foraging for his own little pellets of food. I kept him clean and fed, bought him a wheel and a plastic ball to run around in, and even lavished him with special treats. The worst thing I ever did to him was name him Bologna. But every time the evil little fluff ball could, he'd bite me.

I suppose you could say I should have learned the "once bitten, twice shy" lesson but I stubbornly waited for him to learn the "don't bite the hand that feeds you" lesson. Neither of us gave in, but since the lifespan of a healthy teddy bear hamster is only three years, you could say I won out simply by the fact of not being a hamster.

However, while my life expectancy might dwarf that of a semi-exotic rodent, a recent exercise in corporate team building got me wondering just how far our species has danced away from monkeys, as a commentator on BBC America Radio recently described the evolutionary process.

If you've never participated in a high ropes course, let me explain it for you. Imagine your basic playground jungle gym. Now bring it into the woods, feed it anabolic steroids for a few months, hang some ropes from the highest points, and there you go. Throw in a couple tons of dangling logs, a few rock-climbing walls, and some port-a-johns to complete the scene. The entire complex looks like a minimalist Cirque du Soleil stage.

Despite the safety of the groin-compactors the instructors like to call harnesses, it's difficult for me to be comfortable with the idea of trusting a group of people that can't manage to turn in weekly reports on time, or even agree on how they should be filled out.

Honestly, we can't retain basic instructions long enough to properly carry out the most basic of our job responsibilities, so why exactly am I supposed to be satisfied with a four-minute review on the importance of belaying? Doesn't the instructor realize most of us are too focused on trying to pry 3-inch wide straps of canvas out of our asses to understand what she's saying about climbing safety?

In order to survive the day -- by which I mean avoiding a scene in which I am peer-pressured forty feet into the air by a boisterous mob of cheering adrenaline junkies -- I volunteered to be one of the first to go up the rock-climbing wall. When finished with that, I climbed a ladder to a thing that looked like two obese telephone poles mating in mid-air while dangling from an unreasonably thin wire.

Although my success was middling with both events, I admit to finding the experience invigorating. It seems preposterous the amount of satisfaction, and splinters, one can get from climbing a pole. All good things do come to an end, unfortunately, and once high enough for my liking I asked to be lowered to the ground.

The most entertaining part of the day for me was listening to one of my coworkers proclaim the animal-like qualities of the strong performers. One team member who scrambled to the top of a pole in a matter of seconds was praised as having the climbing skills of a lemur, while another was matter-of-factly labeled a spider monkey.

I'm not sure what animal my attempts might have called to mind. Probably not something too complimentary but I think I'm okay with that. My feet were designed for flat surfaces, not the rough rounded edges of towering obstacle courses. Let the lemurs and spider monkeys of the world have their fun scaling heights and leaping into the great abyss tethered only to a vague hope in humanity and a first-time belayer.

I'll keep my feet on the ground and ponder whether some of us haven't danced a little farther away than others.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Monday, October 25, 2010

Manner Rant

I used to get myself in trouble pretty frequently by running my mouth about the wrong things at the wrong times.

I had to learn as I grew older that I couldn't just spout whatever came to mind without checking if I needed to filter my comments due to my surroundings. It took me a long time to realize some things are better left unsaid, or at least held back until they can be said privately.

In college and at my first few jobs after graduation, I was caught mouthing off about one person or another by someone lurking around a corner. Sometimes I was even stupid enough to say something inappropriate about someone in front of their closest compatriots, or worse, in front the very person I was talking about.

For someone like me, who might suffer diarhea of the mouth but doesn't really want to purposefully hurt anyone, these situations are extraordinarilly embarrassing. In those moments, I feel I not only let down the person I've hurt or insulted, I've let down anyone whose trust I felt I had earned up to that point. It's bad enough to intentionally cut someone to the quick, but to stumble into it like a fool with no control over his own words seems inexcusable.

And, really, if not me or their mother, who can I count on to set an example for our children on how to behave?

Politicians act like petulant children screaming to be heard over each other's din. The celebutants today's society idolizes wouldn't have warranted enough care to be spat upon thirty years ago. And I see so many parents running scared from their children, kowtowing to avoid a "Mommie Dearest" re-interpretation of their child-rearing skills, that there are far too few well-behaved playmates to choose from for our children.

Fortunately, over the years I've managed to cut back on embarrassing myself with my own words from multiple times per year to once every few years. And when I do put my foot in my mouth or act like an infintile ass, I apologize. After all, if I'm not a big enough person to own up to my mistakes and make amends for them, how can I possibly expect to instill in my children the need to behave like proper, mature, responsible human beings?

At the same time, I find it amusing that while I have gained an ability to judge myself more harshly and not give myself an easy pass when I eff up, I find it exceedingly difficult to overlook another person's faux pas. It's another of my character flaws I have struggled to overcome -- taking the comments of others too much to heart. I sometimes lack an ability to understand when someone is kidding around with me versus offering up criticism with either constructive or inflictive intent.

In recent years, I have learned the best way to deal with any sort of criticism is not to take it personally. If someone is truly offering well-inentioned constructive criticism, then the message will eventually get through if I am open to self-improvement. If, however, the intent is simply meant to inflict damage at my expense -- or at the expense of those I love -- then I need to be the bigger person and let the comment pass without wasting my time in response.

Besides, it only damages me if I let it. The one who dealt it was already damaged.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Oh, The Smells You Can Smell

Ever have that moment when an errant odor wafts its way up your nostrils and suddenly leaps to the deepest recesses of your brain to flush out some long-forgotten memory?

Sometimes it isn't so much a memory of a person or event as it is a sense of place and time. You're going along, minding your own business, when the earthy odors of your neighbor mowing his lawn brings you back to the days when you ran through your sprinkler in your old cutoff jeans. Or you pass a vendor on a city street and, just for the briefest moment, you'd swear you were helping your Dad carry pretzels and drinks for the rest of your family back to your seats in Shea Stadium to watch the Mets.

A few months ago, while walking the dog in the moonlight along the street just in front of our house, a most specific and recognizable odor greeted me. It was there and then it was gone in a second, but in that second I flashed back to the chicken wings served up each night by the grill near the student center at SUNY Plattsburgh. They were awful -- even by drunk college student standards -- but they were cheap, available until midnight, and a short walk from any dorm on campus.

Even stranger was the accompanying trace odor of sweet-and-sour sauce. I had to look around to make sure I was still in North Carolina walking my dog and not cutting along the winding path from Adirondack Hall to the Sundowner at the Angell College Center. When I realized I hadn't dreamed the last 20 years I was relieved but also a little bit hungry for some chicken wings.

The most recent occurrence of this kind happened just yesterday as I waited for my darling daughter to finish getting ready for bed.

Ever since she was old enough to tuck in, I have enjoyed the nightly ritual of seeing her off to bed, ensuring she has what she needs, is comfortable, and all is right with the world. When she was very young, we would make up stories together -- usually the same ones over and over again -- and I would have a difficult time pulling myself away and saying good night. We've moved through the years of reading to her at bedtime and progressed to the days of telling her to put away her iPod, plug in her cell phone, and turn off the television.

Last night, after she finished washing her face and brushing her teeth and her lights were off for the night, I stepped into the kids' bathroom to straighten up. I can't tell you exactly what various elements combined to create the aroma in the tiny room -- soap, perfume, scented face wash or flavored lip balm. All I can tell you is the aroma screamed "Teenage Girl!"

Without warning, I was transported back to my Aunt's house in Baldwin, NY, where my cousins Susie and Betsy had created a similar aura of frilly girliness. And the era it brought me to was their teen years, when they changed from being kids like me and my brothers to these alien creatures that spent countless dollars and hours on achieving the perfect looks and smells. For years after, I would struggle to understand what happened to the little girls we used to play with.

Standing in the bathroom of my house decades later, in that brief olfactory moment, I saw my darling daughter's future spreading out before me and heard the rustling of the pages as the first long chapter of her life came to a close.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Challenges, Diets & Favorite Foods

I am, by nature, optimistically cynical, which means I am willing to give something new a try but I don't really expect it to work.

That was my frame of mind a few weeks ago when, in an effort to lose a few unneeded pounds, my Lovely Wife and I decided to take the Special K Challenge.

If any of you have ever taken the Special K Challenge, you'll know the most challenging part of it is figuring out how the Kellogg's marketing department managed to pull this scam over on us. To be fair, they never refer to it as a diet, just a challenge.

And it's only for two weeks, so they're not proposing a dramatic lifestyle change. It's more a brief exercise in caloric intake control that just happens to fill the Kellogg's coffers along the way. I flaunted my radical contempt for authority by substituting Honey Bunches of Oats.

If nothing else, I expected the massive increase of fiber intake to either benefit my wastline or take a toll on my colon, yet even that lingering promise/threat went unfulfilled. I lost all of of three pounds for my trouble, and I didn't drop a jean's size, like the model on the back of the box -- who probably has never struggled with weight issues -- implied I would.

Am I surprised? No. But it did get me thinking about all of the things I would rather be eating that are worth the calories and fat they carry with them.

Along with spicy chicken wings -- which are a natural goodness and really should be considered health food based solely on how content with life they make me feel -- there are certain meals that hold a special place in my heart. Some are home-cooked and others are from restaurants. For the sake of keeping this post from rambling on forever I've limited myself to a Top 10, presented in no particular order.

1. Lobster Pizza from Red Lobster: I ordered it for the first time recently because I've been meaning to try it. While certain menu items at Red Lobster never seem to live up to their promise, I can strongly recommend the Lobster Pizza for its great combination of sweet lobster and sauce, salty cheese, and crunchy crust. Not a substitute for real pizza, mind you, but a wonderful appetizer.

2. Pepperoni & Mushroom Pizza from Vito's: I grew up in New York on Long Island. There are two things you get accustomed to growing up in New York on Long Island. One of them is outstanding bagels, piping hot in the morning with cream cheese piled a mile high. The other is great pizza. It's almost impossible to find a bad pizza on Long Island, so you can imagine my culture shock 20 years ago when I moved to the middle of North Carolina and experienced the dreadful monstrosities passing for pizza. Thin cracker crusts, bland sauce no better than ketchup, and cheese that looked like plastic shavings and tasted about as good. Then, in the heart of Southern Pines, I found Vito's Ristorante and my tastebuds were saved!

3. Sauerbraten: I was a fussy eater as a kid, which, as George Carlin pointed out, is just another way of saying "huge pain in the ass." But this was one meal that my grandparents served a few times each year that always made me belly up to the table. My Grandmother would blend the perfect flavors together, cooking and simmering them for just the right length of time. Then my Grandfather would carve the meat like a surgical machine, all the slices the same thickness and fork tender. Smother some mashed potatoes or potato pancakes in the thick brown gravy and you have a perfect meal.

4. Sesame Chicken w/ Pork Fried Rice: Anyone's from any restaurant will do. I discovered this combination during college when a dumpy little Chinese restaurant in downtown Plattsburgh offered the chicken for $5 and a bathtub-size portion of fried rice for $3. You could make it last two or three days, providing you avoided those late night college munchies.

5. Spare Ribs and Rice: My Mother used to prepare some unconventional spare ribs in a slick red sweet & spicy sauce and serve it with plain white rice that soaked up that sauce like a sponge. She was convinced they were the favorite meal of my brother, Steve, but I always looked forward to them.

6. Braised Short Rib w/ Gnocchi at Eliot's: Sticking with the rib theme, my Lovely Wife and I enjoyed a special dinner earlier this year at Eliot's on Linden in Pinehurst. She had Elk, which was great, but my braised short rib was astounding. It fell apart in its light gravy that also soaked into the gnocchi. I traded out the collard greens for sautéed mushrooms and enjoyed a rustic, earthy delight.

7. Lobster & Filet in Puerto Vallarta: During a trip to Mexico, the concierge at the resort recommended to us and another couple to try Felipe's in old Vallarta. A 20-minute deathcab ride later and we were sitting on the back veranda overlooking the bay and dining on a meal for two that consisted of two whole lobsters, two small filet mignons, and several shrimp each. Perhaps the most spectacular meal I've ever eaten -- and the company wasn't bad, either!

8. Bread Bowl & Soup at Panera Bread: Okay, I know it's a chain, but they do have amazing bread bowls and some excellent soups to pour in them. The bowls soak in the broth and turn into delectable flavor sponges.

9. Buffalo Chicken Sandwich at Dugan's Pub: I've eaten at Dugan's quite a few times over the years, and it's been a long time since I've needed a menu. Every time I go, there is only one item I want. For starters, they give you an enormous breast of chicken soaked through with the tastiest buffalo sauce I've ever experienced. Then they top it with a thin slice of cheese, put it on a tasty soft bun, and serve it up with beer-battered french fries. Give me an extra cup of the buffalo sauce, a diet coke, and a bib, and I'm a happy man.

10. Grandma's Meatballs: Shortly before she died, my Mother-in-Law taught us how to make her highly-coveted meatballs and sausage in tomato sauce. Apart from the fact this flawless meal satisfies on many different levels, the kids love digging their hands into the raw ground beef and pork to mix it with the eggs, cheese and chopped herbs. The kids and I mix and shape the meatballs, my Lovely Wife browns them to perfection, and we build the sauce together in our biggest pot. Throw in some sweet Italian sausage for added flavor and I could eat it every night and twice on Sundays.

I could keep going but I've got to stop or I'm going to lose control and completely ruin my diet. Even though the Special K Challenge has now gone the way of the dodo, I am trying to behave myself and get back to the low 180s where I feel most comfortable. I only need to lose another five pounds, so it shouldn't be too difficult.

On the other hand, we have a big container of Grandma's Meatballs in the freezer...

What are some of your favorite meals?

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Privacy Schmivacy

Recently, I changed the look of this blog by removing the Feedjit tracking application that told me who visited and when. In its place, I installed a simple counter so I can still get an idea of general traffic flow.

Although I had received one or two comments about the "Big Brother" feel of the Feedjit tracker -- as if Big Brother cares if you're reading a blog about Disney removing hamburgers from a few of its menus -- concern over your privacy is not why I removed it. The reason the tracker no longer adorns this blog is because I was wasting too much time and energy checking and rechecking the stats it provided.

It got to the point where every time I passed a computer, a sudden compulsion overtook me and demanded I pull up the blog to see who had visited last. Was I getting an even distribution from different regions of the country? Were most of the hits coming from the areas of the country in which I've lived? Someone from Wisconsin visited -- should I try to write something funny about cheeseheads?

Part of the problem is that I live and die by numbers at my day job. Understanding the trends, patterns of use, pacing, and return on investment of each of my accounts -- in addition to being able to forecast future revenues with reasonable accuracy -- is essential. It's only natural I should fall into the same micro-analysis of the data offered to me about my blog.

Unfortunately, the "cool" factor had worn off and it started making the blog seem more like work. I was trying to read into the data information that possibly wasn't there. This defeated the very purpose of the blog, which was to allow myself an expectation-free zone in which to practice writing and have a chance to vent my thoughts on whatever subject struck my fancy. It's called "Ramblings" for a reason.

I admit to liking the map feature, which I blogged about recently (see post HERE). It was interesting to know people in different countries had visited my blog but it didn't tell me anything useful. After all, does it really matter whether someone from Bali accidently stumbled across a random post while surfing the internet?

"Hey Putu, come here!"

"What is it Nengah?"

"Read this funny post about PayPal. No, wait. That one isn't very funny."

So, as of this week, the visitor tracking is out and the simple hit counter is in. However, don't kid yourself into thinking your information still isn't being collected by Blogger and every other website you visit. The internet is all about cookies, and data mining, and hounding you to the point of being able to tell what brand of tissue you prefer or where you might want to take your next vacation.

But that's okay. Privacy is overrated and really just a perception anyway. Every time you step out your door -- or even before if your blinds are up -- you are subject to the scrutiny of the public eye. Why should the internet be any different?

Think of every website you visit as just another shop at your local stripmall, or storefront next to the corner deli. If you see a storefront selling something questionable or unsavory to your tastes, don't go in. If you choose to go through the door, the proprieters will make assumptions about you, try to collect your information, and try to sell you something before you leave.

And in the non-virtual world, you'll probably end up on countless security video tapes, so make sure you dress nice and don't pick your nose.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Friday, October 8, 2010

Qualities of Time

Time is flexible, like sweat pants on a cruise ship, stretching to wrap around the ever-expanding girth of our lives. What once were fixed parameters now seem magically to bend and bulge in order to contain all of the activities we cram into every hour. Einstein's theory of relativity needs no further proof to defeat those of Galileo or Newton than this past week.

In the span of only a few days, our children have participated in more extra-curricular activities than the Brady Bunch and Partridge Family combined from all their seasons, and I'm including the two-hour movie specials and pop music careers. And it doesn't stop with the kids. My Lovely Wife and I have been sucked in to volunteering our time when our time already was a hot commodity. Somehow, somewhere along the way from blissfully ignorant single lives to 40-something parents of a teenager, we lost control.

A little more than eighteen years ago, I didn't think there was enough time in the day to do the things I wanted to do. I had to wake up, shower, and go to work. At some point I had to make time in my busy day for buying a fast-food lunch and returning home to my parents house to eat a dinner prepared by my Mother. I was so pressed that I didn't have time for the luxury of exercising, or writing the novel I dreamed of writing, or getting a second job to supplement the pennies I was making as a newspaper reporter. After all, there was all that sitting around on my ass doing nothing that needed to be accomplished.

Then I met my Lovely Wife. We started dating and suddenly there wasn't enough time to do all the things I needed to do while spending with her all the time I wanted to. We were busy people with separate careers. Before long we had a house and a dog and jobs forty miles from our house in opposite directions. We didn't have enough time to do all the things we wanted to do!

Then came Our Daughter, beautiful little creature that she was, and suddenly we had to squeeze in childhood preparation classes, labor & delivery, diaper changes, daycare, breastfeeding, bath times, preparing bottles of pumped breast milk, potty training, nighttime feedings, wellness checks, and countless times packing and repacking the diaper bag. How could we possibly find time for anything else in our crazy lives?!

Then came the boys. Screw the childhood preparation classes -- been there done that. Labor & delivery? Three hours, no pain for me, tons for the Lovely Wife delivering twins with no painkillers. Double the diaper changes, double the daycare costs, double-fisted breastfeeding, everybody in the bathtub, nobody wants to take a bottle. What's the dog doing? How many onesies are in the diaper bag? Why can't they potty train at the same time? What the hell is thrush? How much vomit can come out of one dog?! When can we get a minute to ourselves?!?!?!?!

Then a brief calm...

Where are the children? Outside playing with the neighbors? That's great. Sure is nice and quiet in here, now that they're more independent.

What's that? After school band practice? That's not a problem, sweetie. It's great you're so dedicated. What? Sure, I can get her from dance to Girl Scouts. Are you sure you want to be treasurer of the PTA? Yes, you would do an excellent job. I'd be happy to take over the PTA website, it sounds like fun. Band Boosters at the middle school? Okay, but I'm not going to get too involved. Yes, I'm the secretary.

You have a PTA meeting on Monday? What time do we have to get her to dance Tuesday night? The boys have Cub Scouts Wednesday night but first we'll bring the kids to the homecoming parade on Broad Street in Southern Pines and swing through Wendy's on the way home to drop off their sister before I bring them to the meeting. Okay, on Thursday, you bring her to dance at 5:30 after shopping for a birthday gift for her friend's sleepover party on Friday, we'll all eat dinner at different times, I'll leave for the Band Booster's meeting at 6:30, you bring the boys to the free Jack Hanna presentation at the high school at 7:30, which is when I'll leave Band Boosters to pick her up and bring her to catch the end of Jack Hanna...

In the end, time expands to allow all these new and exciting experiences. Unlike some who stress and wonder how we have the time to do so much, I can't help but look back on my younger days and wonder how I could have wasted so much time doing nothing.

Life might be hectic, chaotic and relentless at times, but it's better than the alternative.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What About the Cooking?

Um... Hey, Food Network.

I've been wondering how you're feeling lately. You seem a little, well, "off" these days.

There was a time when you were always on, when I counted on picking up some helpful tips and new recipes from you on a daily basis. It didn't matter what time of day, either. Whenever I turned to you, you were there with a cooking demonstration led by someone seemingly well-qualified to handle their ingredients.

You presented yourself with a simple eloquence I could understand and appreciate. Sure, maybe you gave us five different chefs offering similar takes on the same dish, but your homey lack of pretentiousness made it all the more endearing. Besides, it gave us the ability to choose whether we wanted to learn from Tyler Florence, Alton Brown, Giada de Laurentis, Bobby Flay or Rachel Ray how to make the perfect chicken parmesan.

When you did reach outside the traditional cooking show format, we enjoyed the distractions of such fare as "Iron Chef America," "Unwrapped," "$40 a Day," and "Good Eats." You were the underdog, the little cable network that could, and we were all pulling for you.

Those days, sad to say, are gone.

Like a parent doling out too much candy to hungry children, you're settling for immediate gratification over long-term sustenance.

You seem to have forgotten that while we might like the sugary delights of your flashier offerings, we don't need a steady stream of them. Every now and then, like it or not, and for our own good, you need to make us eat our Brussels sprouts. They might not be sexy, but when you cut them in half, drizzle them with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper, and roast them on a baking sheet in the oven for 20 or 30 minutes, they really aren't half bad. Trouble is, I never would have learned that from your current programming.

Just look what you've done to poor Tyler Florence. His "Tyler's Ultimate" cooking show was our favorite. The recipes we took away from his first few seasons inspired us to try new recipes, purchase proper pots & pans and even a high-quality knife set. I even shaved off part of my little finger on a mandolin trying to master one of his recipes. The only complaint we ever had about him was his unrealistic cooking times for chicken. Apparently, his oven runs a few hundred degrees hotter than ours.

But in the past month or two, the only place we've seen our former favorite is hosting the pathetically contrived "Great Food Truck Race." This show, like so many others you have vomited out lately, provides the most meager amount of entertainment combined with almost no culinary information. Half the people on the show looked as if they hadn't showered in a month, so I can't imagine how you'd think we would look at them and say "I gotta eat summa what they're dishing out!"

While we thoroughly enjoy "Next Iron Chef" and "Next Food Network Star," we have to wonder if you've established some outrageously high quota on how many new celebrities you intend to spawn each year. You're already squeezing out your cooking shows to the point of having to establish a second channel just to carry them all. Where will you put all these new people?

And for being a channel based on food and how to prepare it, you're doing a great job of cannibalizing yourself. Most of the shows you rolled out this year are variations of shows you already had. "Food Feuds" is a barely tweaked variation of "Throwdown," except it promises the kind of staged strutting and posing one might expect to find on Bravo's many "Housewives" shows. "Meat & Potatoes" is an even less tweaked variation of "Diners, Drive Ins & Dives," but with a fraction of Guy Fieri's charisma.

Please, I'm begging you, don't go the route of MTV or Bravo. Don't forsake the format that brought you to where you are. Let your new channel take on the gameshows and reality programming you hope will bring you untold riches and leave your flagship channel alone.

And for goodness sake, somebody tell Alton Brown to take a vacation and eat a cheeseburger.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Friday, October 1, 2010

Shopping For Dummies

My Lovely Wife and I have been married -- to each other -- for nearly 16 years.

In almost all that time, we have perpetuated a weekly ritual of grocery shopping to keep our cupboards stocked and our fridge full. That's close to 5,800 trips to the grocery store. You might think, with all that practice, we would have perfected the process by now. After all, our staples haven't changed much and our tastes in food seem to remain constant through the years.

So why do we spend the better part of each and every Friday struggling to come up with a complete shopping list? Are we suffering some weekly recurring form of dementia? Should it really come as a surprise to us that we need to buy milk and bread?

Every Friday brings the same conversation:

"Do we need toilet paper?" she asks.

"I don't know," I say.

"Do we need orange juice?" I ask.

"I don't know," she answers.

"Do you have cereal on the list?" she asks.

"No, I don't," I say. "That's a good one."

What the hell is wrong with us? We act like someone invented breakfast since the last time we went shopping and now, like monkeys throwing rocks at the moon, we have to figure it out.

And why do I have to ask if we need orange juice? I'm the only one who drinks it! No one else in our house could possibly be more knowledgeable about how much orange juice remains in the container, yet I don't know if we need more and I expect my Lovely Wife to tell me what I should already know!

It's like we go through our week using up all of our purchased goods and sundries, and then on Friday morning -- right before we sit down to make out our list -- we take "stupid" pills. We might have just finished a five pound jar of peanut butter five minutes earlier, yet we're still going to go back and forth for ten minutes trying to figure out if we need more.

And not only do we completely forget certain essentials -- like, say, food for instance -- we overpurchase other items that have no bearing on our lives in any way, shape or form. "Honey?! Why do we have seven boxes of Snausages?" Sure, we don't have any milk for breakfast or meat for dinner, but you can be darn certain the twelve-pound poodle has enough treats to last halfway through our next dog.

That's why I am going to approach this in a way that is logical and practical -- two words not often attributed to me.

I am going to sit one night at the computer and develop a master list of items we typically need, or at least should be checking to see if we need, each week. Then we can print it out each Friday and not have to rack our brains trying to remember all of the things we use every day.

Call it "shopping for dummies."

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tomorrow, the World!

When I started writing this blog, I had no expectations. I figured, at best, there would be a handful of family members and friends who would kindly humor me by reading a few posts from time to time.

"Oh, look," you might say upon seeing my note on Facebook alerting you to a new post being published. "Mark just put out a new little blog on his little rambly thingy. It's called 'A Sock In My Shorts?' I don't like the sound of that. It sounds dirty. I think I'll wait for the next time he writes a syrupy sweet one about his family."

Truth be told, I'm not much of a blog reader. I'm not much of a reader at all, actually. My reading happens in fits and spurts, and I get tremendous satisfaction if I reach the end of a Reader's Digest three-pager about a spelunker who had to chew through his own rappelling gear in order to save a kitten from a mountain lion before my legs fall asleep from the pressure of the toilet seat pushing up into them.

Strange to think I was an English major in college. And a lit major for the first two years! I guarantee in those first two years at SUNY Plattsburgh I read maybe -- maybe -- five books from cover to cover. While I never cheated or plagiarized anyone else's work, there were plenty of times I turned in six-page, ten-page and even twenty-page papers after staying up until 2:00am in the all-night study lounge at the student center, yanking quotes from chapters I hadn't read to support a thesis I hoped was correct.

One time, I wrote a paper on the first half of "War and Peace." Problem was, I had read only half of the first half of "War and Peace."

Have you ever read it? It's 1,200 freakin' pages long! I can barely make it to the end of an Emily Dickinson poem and they're expecting me to read this never-ending borefest? Ten pages into it and I was hoping all the characters would pull an Anna Karenina and throw themselves in front of a moving train...

Anyway, I plucked a thesis out of my butt and wrote the paper. Then I started skimming through the book for supporting quotes. As I skimmed, I realized my thesis was wrong by 180 degrees. I literally was able to leave my paper mostly intact, drop in the quotes I had found, and where I said something wasn't true I simply changed it to say it was true and vice versa. That was the only "A" I ever received from Dr. Burde.

So, having suffered a lifelong aversion to reading, I'm always surprised to see so many people embracing the activity so rabidly. As someone who fancies himself a writer, I appreciate it, but I'm still surprised when anyone reads anything I have written. In January when I published my first post to this blog, I was amused at how quickly certain people picked up on it.

Now, when I look at the tracking of hits coming with each new post -- particularly those that have catchier titles and are muchly more betterly wrote -- I'm amazed to see visits to the blog by people living in places in which I know for dead certain I cannot possibly know anyone. Look at the map of the United States below. Every flag represents someone from a city who visited this blog.

If I rack my brain over each location, I'm sure I could come up with the usual suspects from Facebook for about ninety percent of them. A few of them are probably just me checking in while I'm traveling for business. Houston and Charlottesville definitely are. But that doesn't explain the map below.

I'm pretty sure I've never traveled to Bangladesh, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Italy, England or Russia. And I don't have any penpals in Moscow or Dubai of whom I'm aware. I can understand how someone in New South Wales might stumble across my review of "Dinner for Schmucks" from some intermediary website or search engine, but please tell me why the hell someone in Dhaka surfed their way to "Toilet on the Edge." Twice!

While I'm trying to keep this international notoriety from going to my head, I have set what I think is a perfectly reasonable goal for "Ramblings of a Very Pale Man." Before 2010 draws to a close, I want to be able to track hits from every continent. So far I have North America (no thanks to any support from Canada or Mexico), Eurasia, and Australia. All I need to get is South America and Africa. I doubt I'll have much luck with Antarctica. Something tells me they don't have a very strong WiFi signal down there.

But if you think there's a chance of a penguin with bluetooth checking in one day, I'll keep it on the list. Maybe my next post should be all about krill recipes and the dangers of leopard seals.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wall of Absorbancy

There are things men are incapable of accomplishing.

I don't intend to get into a comparison of gender strengths, although my Lovely Wife and I both bring to our relationship certain characteristics that help each of us balance the other.

For instance, I am often laid back to the point of being catatonic, while she is sometimes hyped up like a poodle on crack. We've been together long enough that I have learned to be more responsive and she has learned to relax.

Another example is money management. Early in our relationship, my Lovely Wife assumed it should fall to the man of the house to pay the bills and manage the checkbook. I accepted the challenge, not wanting to dissapoint, but failed miserably. I learned two important lessons from that experience: (1) acknowledge your weaknesses and ask for help when you need it, and (2) the county water authority will happily cut you off on Friday afternoon, leaving you without functioning plumbing until Monday morning when their administrative offices reopen.

My Lovely Wife excels at managing money, so I leave the job to the professional. Now, ask her to decorate a cake or bake brownies and you might have something to worry about.

In all honesty, my favorite cake of all time was made by my Lovely Wife and children about five years ago to celebrate my return from a business trip. They used a mold of Mickey Mouse's face and tried valiantly to ice it according to the directions. Upon my return I was greeted with a handmade "welcome home" poster and a diseased-looking visage of a beloved Disney character. I affectionately refer to this cake as "Mickey Mumps."

One of the things that has generally fallen to me over the years, in part because I enjoy it and also because my Lovely Wife used to work on Saturdays, is the weekly grocery shopping. When the kids were little it was customary to see me heading through the aisles of the local Walmart pushing a double stroller with one hand and pulling a shopping cart with the other. In more recent years, shopping has become much simpler as I can escape on Saturday mornings without the kids in tow.

I try to group items on the shopping list based on where they are positioned in the store to avoid backtracking. I start with the non-food items and then work my way through the grocery aisles from back to front, ending with freezer items (so they don't melt in the cart while I'm shopping), produce (so I don't sprinkle grapes through the store like some healthy Hansel), and breads (so loaves don't get crushed into flatbreads by giant cans of pineapple juice).

On rare occasions, an item makes the list with which I might not be familiar. A few years ago, my Lovely Wife had scribbled the word "pads" on the list. Give me credit for being smart enough to understand what she meant.

I knew what she needed. Unfortunately I don't spend much time rifling through her section of the bathroom cabinetry trying to discern exactly what brand, size and style she prefers, so I asked for clarification. On the back of the list I copied down all the pertinent information and felt I had the knowledge necessary to make the correct purchase.

But when I got to the store, passed the pharmacy, turned right down the toothpaste aisle, and finally made it to the back wall where they hide the pads, I was greeted by a never-ending wall of absorbancy. Even though I knew the exact name, word for word, of the product I needed -- and even though I knew what color packaging to seek out -- I could not find it. I traveled up and down the aisle several times, examining packages, comparing the descriptive words to those scribbled on the back of my shopping list. I learned more in that one outing about feminine hygiene than I ever dreamt possible to know, all the while trying to guess which product would best serve if I couldn't spot the real thing.

Let's see...

Always Ultra Thin Wings Overnight Scented? Sounds like someone in China came up with that string of barely related descriptives.

Stayfree Overnight Maximum Protection? That could be a complimentary night's lodging in a locked-down prison.

Carefree Original Long Medium? Well, that doesn't even make any sense! Were they drunk when they came up with that one?!

By the time I realized I would not be going home with the correct item, I had unnerved at least a half-dozen women by loitering in their hygiene section and chuckling merrily to myself with every pack of pads I handled. I'm not particularly concerned, and I was not at all embarrassed about what I was shopping for, I'm just glad I picked something and moved along before security showed up.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tears At Last

We worry about our little German for several reasons, not the least of which are chronic hives and dyslexia.

The hives we seem to have under control. Two inexpensive over-the-counter medications taken with breakfast are enough to keep the blossoming of itchy red patches at bay. He hasn't had a major flare up -- in which every inch of his skin itches and swells, leaving him almost unrecognizable -- for nearly two years.

The dyslexia is more frustrating because there is no easy remedy. It brings with it years, if not a lifetime, of hard work to build and maintain his reading fluency. We don't skirt around this challenge because we don't want it to define him. It is neither an indication of his intelligence nor an excuse for giving up.

I like to think that we are doing a good job addressing these challenges, and I no longer worry about them as much as I have in the past.

However, over the past three years there has been something else about the German that has had me even more concerned than hives and dyslexia. Since October 2007, I have waited and watched for an indication of his ability to properly manage one of the most important processes we human beings need to manage. I'm talking about grieving.

When I was growing up, death was simply something to be dealt with. We weren't morose or morbid about the subject but we didn't shy away from funerals when a family member, friend, or member of our church died. My brothers and I attended wakes and funerals and, in the process, learned how to pay our respects and channel our grief.

In October 2007, not long after celebrating her 75th birthday, and after years of declining health, my Mother-in-Law fell into a coma. Because she had cheated death so many times before, we held off telling our children how sick she was. At the time, our daughter was ten and our boys were six.

The night my Mother-in-Law died, her children found they could not bring themselves to remain at the hospital. Although I wanted to be with my wife to comfort her in her time of need, in the back of my mind I had already decided to stay by my Mother-in-Law's side so she would not die surrounded only by medical equipment and strangers. It was the least I could do for the woman who gave me her daughter and the amazing life I have as a result.

I was pleased to know that my Mother-in-Law's sister, brother, and sister-in-law were coming from Florida that night to see her one last time. I met them at the entrance to the hospital and we sat in the lobby to talk before going up to the room. They arrived with mixed emotions and struggling with denial. Over the course of an hour, our discussion ranged from hopefully futile suggestions, to frustration, to anger, to open weeping. In the end, when they had exhausted their questions and seemed prepared to accept the inevitable truth, I had to make certain they fully understood the purpose of their visit. I have never felt more heartless than when I looked at them and said, "You're here to say goodbye."

They did say their goodbyes, and then her sister and brother left the hospital to begin mourning in their own ways. Her sister-in-law stayed behind with me at the hospital.

The process itself, though marred by the clinical setting, was actually awe-inspiring. I had never watched a person die -- and I hope not to have the opportunity again any time soon -- but I admit to feeling both humbled and honored to be in her presence at this important moment. My responsibility, as I saw it, was simply to comfort her and let her know she was not now, nor would she be afterward, alone. Her sister-in-law and I held her hands, gently stroked her hair, and quietly reassured her until she was gone.

Late into the evening, I returned home to inform my wife. The following morning, we gathered our children on our bed and told them Grandma had died.

Our beautiful daughter, who in her short life has already displayed more empathy and kindness than most adults I know, wept quietly and hugged her mother. Our heartbroken little Italian, however, unexpectedly unleashed a barely human wail, like a wounded animal howling in pain. It was perhaps the first time I understood the true meaning of the word "inconsolable."

But as terribly pitiful as his cries were, they were nothing compared to his brother's stone-faced silence. He never cried, never really asked us any questions. He seemed to take the news as one might accept the change in a flight schedule -- not good, but nothing I can do about it. His only visible reaction came in the form of a massive outbreak of hives that his then-prescription drugs struggled to control. He also has kept a picture of him and his Grandma by his bed ever since.

For months afterward I would ask him how he felt about Grandma, especially when his brother had broken down again into tears over her, as happened frequently, but he remained emotionally detached from the subject. I have feared all this time that he either lacked a fundamental empathy for others or, more likely, he internalized his emotions so much they couldn't escape. Neither option is a healthy one.

Remarkably, something I had long since given up hope of seeing bubbled to the surface the other night after our traditional bedtime reading.

In the book we are presently reading, one of a pair of twins dies suddenly. Although they didn't react straight away, I could tell by their expressions that my twins were affected. After the book was closed and they were sent through the house to kiss their mother and sister goodnight, the Italian returned with tears in his eyes. As is the case when he is emotional, his thoughts returned to Grandma. While consoling him, I noticed the German was hiding his face under the blanket my Mother made for him when he was a baby. It sounded like he was crying.

I don't know if it was the shock of the twin in the story dying, or compassion for his brother, or if he was simply ready after almost three years to let his feelings show, but something finally got to him.

Moving over to his bed, I pulled off the blanket. His eyes were red and tears had leaked down his face and onto his pillow. When I asked if he was crying, he shrugged. When I asked why he was crying, he shrugged. When I asked if he was crying about Grandma, he broke down and hugged me.

I've never been so happy to see my children cry.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Monday, September 13, 2010

72 O'Clock?

I woke up several times the other night in my Richmond, VA, hotel room. This is not an uncommon occurrence when I'm on a business trip.

For starters, I am a homebody and don't really like traveling without my Lovely Wife and kids. Okay, maybe sometimes I do enjoy traveling without the kids, but not without the wife. Even on those few occasions when she is the one traveling and I have our comfortable king bed all to myself, I tend to lay awake for hours in the flickering glow of the television. After almost sixteen years of marriage, there is something unnatural about trying to fall asleep alone.

So, this past week in Richmond, as I closed the notebook in which I scribble passages for the book I'm writing and turned off the lights in the hotel room, it came as no surprise that sleep initially eluded me. My mind reviewed the day's events and I realized, among other things, that I had forgotten to pack deodorant. I don't know about you but I need deodorant. Without it, my armpits become incubators for unnaturally potent odors, even on the coolest of days. Since mental notes to myself never seem to take hold, I turned on the light and wrote "buy Dry Idea" in the notebook, then switched the light off and tried again to fall asleep.

Sooner than is customary, I found myself in dreamland. Even as I began to dream, I recall thinking how strange it was for me to be asleep so quickly. Before long, though, I was awake and looking around the room trying to figure out what city I was in and what time it was.

The trouble with working for a hotel chain that has only one product is the tremendous consistency of the room decor. This is a great selling point for our frequent clients because it means they know what to expect from each of our inns. For me, however, a founding father of attention deficit disorder and a strong candidate for early onset Alzheimer's, waking up in essentially the same room whenever and wherever I travel is a disorienting experience.

Am I in Ohio? Maybe Maryland? This couldn't be the April training in Tampa, could it? No, that was months ago. The October meeting in Columbus? No, no. It isn't October yet. I'm going to Annapolis for a military travel fair. That's in September. This is September, right?

And if not knowing where you are isn't bad enough, figuring out the time is another troublesome task. When I'm traveling, I live in constant fear of oversleeping. Think about it. You've just driven two-hundred miles to meet with an important client. Do you really want to screw it up now just because you didn't hear the alarm clock?

Wiping sleep out of my eyes, I struggle to find the bedside clock. There it is, facing the other way because the light had been shining in my eyes when I was trying to fall asleep and I turned it away from me. Unfortunately, I am comfortably positioned in the very middle of the king bed. If I move around too much to reach the clock, only to find out I still have hours to go before it's time to get up, I might not be able to get back to sleep.

So I look around to find the microwave clock. There it is, clear as day. It says "72."

I rest my head back down on the pillow and prepare to slip away, until my brain finally catches up with my eyes. I could almost hear the conversation between them. My brain questioning my eyes, doubting them, asking for confirmation. Begrudgingly, my eyes open again and, sure enough, there are the big yellow numbers. For what seems like long enough for a minute to pass, I watch and wait, wondering if I will witness the change from 72 to 73. Guess what? It never happens.

Eventually, I'm awake enough to realize what I am looking at is the thermostat on the air-conditioning unit next to the bed and not the microwave clock, so I sit up to search for the real thing. This pattern repeats itself two more times before it's finally close enough to morning to just go ahead and get out of bed.

When I'm finally showered and dressed, wearing a watch whose battery died at 11:26 the night before and gathering a ream of printed directions because my GPS had been recalled the previous week (seems people don't like their GPS bursting into flames due to an overheated battery) I head out for my first call of the day -- Target, to buy deodorant.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ties That Bind

I've already written about my twin boys, the Italian and the German, but I hope you'll indulge me as I turn back to them again for another post.

You see, I'm constantly amazed by them, especially in light of how so many other people's children interact with each other. All too often, I hear the bickering and squabbling of siblings in stores, on school grounds, at church, or even in our own yard when our children are playing with the neighborhood kids. I'm sure in these situations I am catching the worse behavior and missing the tender moments these children may share, or at least I hope I am.

And I'm not going to deny that my boys, and their sister, have their tense moments and occasional cross words. They do, and my Lovely Wife and I do our fare share of refereeing. Much like umps at a ballgame, we probably make some bad calls from time to time, but that's the joy of parental privilege. We don't always have to be in the know to be the final authority on what is right.

However, as Our Daughter edges closer to high school and our boys now have fewer years left ahead of them in elementary school than behind them, our ability to dole out blind justice and assert the high authority we enjoyed in their younger years is diminishing. They actually expect us to employ reason and sound judgement in the decisions we make over everything from the clothes they wear to school, to which one needs to get in the shower first, to when they can get a cell phone or an iPod. It's difficult to believe these are the same children who less than a decade ago could be thrilled to giggling by an impromptu game of peek-a-boo.

Parenting aside, I am encouraged by the overwhelming lack of enmity between our children. Our Daughter enjoys mothering her brothers possibly as much as we do, and they display a constant and genuine fondness and love for her. Equally important, though possibly less surprising because they are twins, is the easy relationship between the Italian and the German. As the years drop away, they seem to retain the same level of need and want for each other's company.

From the first time we split them up while shopping at the mall and they ran to each other and embraced like old souls who had been separated for years, to the time the Italian cried and asked "Why would you do that to us?" when we told them they would not be in the same class in school, they have each been the other's best friend.

When they were infants, barely able to stand, the sounds of their raucous laughter would echo through our small house from their room as they crawled in and out of each other's cribs. When our fiery Italian blows his top at the wrong time and earns a timeout, as he did just the other day, it is the German who can be found sitting next to him on his bed, rubbing his back and telling him not to cry. When we ask them if they would like us to use the spare bedroom in our house to give each of them his own room, they hastily refuse the offer.

I would say that my high opinion of them and their visible regard for each other is the result of nothing more than good old fatherly pride, if not for the numerous occasions on which my Lovely Wife and I have received praise from family, friends and total strangers about how much they enjoy watching our children interact.

Most recently, during yesterday's church service, the boys were struggling with a case of fidgetiness the likes of which would normally have drawn multiple harsh looks and whispers from my Lovely Wife and me. Yesterday, however, we were distanced from them by Our Daughter and my brother-in-law, so no inconspicuous reprimands were forthcoming. They hung on each other, leaned on each other, took turns wearing my Lovely Wife's coat, used the coat as a blanket, figured out they could both wear the coat at the same time, hung on each other some more, doled out noogies, and paid almost no attention to any part of the service.

Later in the evening, when picking up Our Daughter from a church youth group program, our assistant rector's husband explained how he had been sitting two rows behind us in church that morning. He and the newly-hired youth group leader caught the entire show our boys put on. Slightly embarrassed, I began to apologize but stopped when he said how much he enjoyed watching the way they played together like best friends.

I know they will grow apart as time goes on. They will have their own friends and interests, possibly go to different colleges, start dating and eventually marry, and have families of their own to support and nurture. My hope is that they will always remain close at heart to each other and their sister, even if time and distance keep them apart.

© Mark Feggeler