Wednesday, July 28, 2010

With a Pal Like That...

We had been thinking for some time about buying Rosetta Stone so our geniuously brilliant progeny could unleash even greater levels of brilliance by learning a second language.

They're like sponges at that age. Give them anything and they absorb it, remember it, and use it against you like an intellectual smart-bomb when the time is right. You won't know what hit you when they use their brilliance against you but you will know to take credit for aiding the development of their devious minds.

Me? I'm barely lingual, so forget about bilingual. I remember just enough Spanish from my four years of mandatory classes in junior high and high school to get my butt kicked. I even took one semester of German in college, but I also took a semester of pottery and you don't see me cranking out hand-thrown vases on a regular basis, so don't think I remember any German either.

Searching around on Ebay the other day, my Lovely Wife found a deeply discounted Rosetta Stone package offering Levels 1-5 of their German language software for only $129.99. Since we have family in Germany -- my Mother was born there -- we figured this was perfect and exceptionally priced.

Being a salesman by trade, I should have known that you get what you pay for. Even so, we forged ahead. We placed the order through eBay and made our payment through PayPal.

In the mail on Monday arrives a small envelope from an address in New York. Opening it reveals a generic computer disc and a poorly typed note explaining it is our Rosetta Stone German Levels 1-5 package. Immediately the word "piracy" starts flashing in front of me like a poorly edited montage from an old black and white movie.

Curious to see if the disc even contains anything, we popped it into our iMac only to find that, while the disc does contain some working parts, the last two levels don't do anything.

Since we have an email address for the seller, my Lovely Wife sends him/her an email explaining the situation. Long story short, the seller, whose name we don't know and whose emails for some reason are laced with Asian lettering, offers the following solution exactly as typed here: "I think I can't fix this problem right now. is that ok I return you $40 to resolve this?"

Um... We're screwed.

I really don't want $40 back at this point. I want my $129.99 back and I want to report this guy for selling pirated software and trying to pass it off as the real thing. At worst, I expected the bait and switch to involve us receiving a used Rosetta Stone package in place of the new one we were promised. I had no intention of buying a 30-cent disc with unlicensed software burned onto it under the direction of a money-laundering Chinese techno-pirate by some rebelious teenage geek in New York.

My bright idea to resolve our problem is to contact PayPal and lodge a formal complaint. Even though the process might not be quick and easy, surely they will want to know that someone is selling fraudulent goods and using their service to launder the money. Right?

Within minutes of submitting the complaint we receive this from PayPal:

"Our investigation into your claim is complete. As stated in our User Agreement, the claims process only applies to the shipment of goods. It does not apply to complaints about the attributes or quality of goods received. Therefore, we are unable to reverse this transcaction or issue a refund."

So, it seems that if you were to use PayPal to buy, oh I don't know, let's say a desk, and you instead received a rotten turnip, PayPal isn't interested because the seller did, after all, send you something.

To be fair, their email did go on to say that PayPal "does not tolerate fraud or illegal activities." Not that they'll do anything about it.

And it seems to me they aren't the ones having to tolerate it anyway, since their policies apparently shift the need to tolerate the problem directly on to users like you and me.

I'm pretty sure that we will, at some point, purchase Rosetta Stone properly -- at least once we save up and take out a second mortgage -- but you can be darned sure we won't be using PayPal to make any future purchases.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Sock In My Shorts

First of all, Ewwwwww.

Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm not talking about trying to impress anyone. I'm talking about self preservation.

A little over a week ago, my Lovely Wife asked if I would like to join her for a Saturday morning cycling class at our local fitness center. She has been going to these classes several times a week for many months now. In addition to being a great aerobic workout, they have done wonders for her back, which takes a beating from hours each day with her arms in the air cutting, coloring and styling people's hair.

It isn't as though I have been resisting her efforts in the past. When we first started dating almost twenty years ago, I joined her for step aerobic classes. The day after the first class I could barely walk. Muscles in places I never knew had room for muscles hurt. I had a choice to make: go back for another class or roll over and die like a big weenie. I went back and that's all it took. The soreness immediately disappeared and we regularly attended classes together.

Since then we have lived what I imagine is the typical life of a young American middle-class couple. House, marriage, dog, second house, first child, second and third children on the same day (twins maybe not so typical), second dog, third house, etc. Many of those listed items (by which I mean the children) have a way of eliminating time normally spent exercising. A decade or so of trial diets and dusty exercise equipment purchased with good intentions kept us from ballooning as we continuously fought the good fight to fit in our clothes.

In the last year or two, the growing self-sufficiency of our children has afforded my Lovely Wife and me some free time to reclaim our lives. For my Lovely Wife, this has translated into time at the fitness center. For me it has translated into time spent writing. Not that I haven't been getting my exercise. Each morning I (try to) get on the treadmill for a quick walk/run to burn off several hundred calories. This hasn't turned me into a GQ model, but it has kept me about five pounds lighter on average than I had been.

So, I agreed to join my Lovely Wife for a cycling class. I had my reservations.

First of all, I don't have a pair of cycling shoes that clip onto the pedals. This was easy to get over because, after all, I have ridden bikes since I was a young kid and never had these high-tech shoes. The lack of shoes that clip to the pedals never caused me harm on a moving bike, so not having them on a stationary bike should not be a problem.

My greatest concern, based on what everyone has told me, is how the bike seat will treat my nether region. My sweet cousin Betsy has likened cycling without the proper equipment to being educated on how it feels to be gang-raped. I have never had the need to feel what it might be like to be gang-raped, so I went into the class with inadequate padding and genuine fear.

I enjoyed the class. My Lovely Wife and her brother helped me select and set up my bike. We climbed on and warmed up, waiting patiently for the instructor to begin the class. When she did, she explained that the program would take us from comfortable, to breathless, to uncomfortable. To be honest, if uncomfortable were the goal of the class, it would have been achieved as soon as I saw my brother-in-law in his padded biking shorts.

Maybe my time on the treadmill has not been for nought because after the class and even the next day I did not experience rubber legs, aching calves, or severe chest pains. The only negative reaction came in that lower area, between the front and back, which is an area you really don't want hurting. It's amazing, considering how generally useless and private this area of the body is, how much involvement it has with everyday living. Sitting, standing, walking, crouching, climbing steps, they all seem to agitate this nether region when it is sore.

When this past Saturday rolled around, I was asked again if I would like to join in. I said yes and immediately started wondering how I would avoid another few days of posterior pain. While in Greensboro on Friday, we almost stopped at a cycling shop to purchase some padded pants for me, but even the idea of my pasty white butt crammed into tiny black sausage casings made me more uncomfortable than remembering how they looked on my brother-in-law.

As the time approached, I developed a plan. Adding a second pair of underpants would surely do the trick, I thought, so I pulled some on and then put on my gym shorts. I walked around for a few minutes. I sat and stood and crouched and climbed and tried in every possible way to test the effects. The end result fell short of my expectations.

Then I was struck by lightning!

There, floating in my underwear drawer, alone and useless, was the answer: a single, solitary white sock. I took the sock, folded it in two, and quite unceremoniously but with surgical precision inserted it directly over the very place that the week prior had felt violated. I immediately knew this would work. Who could have known that proper cycling protective gear could possibly involve a white sock and an extra pair of Fruit of the Looms?

Sure enough, I left the class later that morning feeling confident, energetic, healthy, and proud to tell the world about the sock in my shorts.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Burgers Are Out?!

I fear my faith in Disney World -- that holiest of holy purveyors of Americana -- might have been shattered!

Someone representing their Portobello Restaurant this very evening posted on Facebook that "burgers are out." According to this subversive propaganda, which I think somehow links to an as-yet-unidentified international conspiracy, meatball sliders are replacing burgers on the restaurant's menu.

Deep breath... Count to ten, slowly.

Okay, shake it off. It must be a mistake. Meatballs?

Now, I love meatballs as much as the next man, maybe even more. It's no mistake that I married an Italian, and while I didn't marry her just to get her Mother's meatball recipe, it did sweeten the pot. What also sweetens the pot is the homemade tomato sauce my Mother-in-Law taught us to make. Throw in a few sweet Italian sausages and you have yourself a party in your mouth!

Meatballs have every right to be on every restaurant's menu. They've earned it. They're yummy, and fattening, and they make you happy.

But to suggest these delectable Italian lumps of ground meat and seasonings should take the place of iconic American lumps of ground meat and seasonings is, well... It's un-American! That's what it is! And for this to happen at Disney World, the mecca of American capitalism and overindulgence, is sickening.

I say, let the meatball take center stage for a little while before it joins the ensemble cast of a menu. I'm fine with that. The burger has no ego to protect. It's unassuming and gracious.

Just look at all the other foods that get along so well with burgers: pickles, coleslaw, chili, cheese (too many kinds to list), onions, breads & buns of various backgrounds, bacon, ham, lettuce, barbecue sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, special sauces made of wildly different ingredients (but mostly just a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup with some relish thrown in), relish, and bleu cheese dressing.

And don't forget that staple of Italian cooking itself, the tomato. The tomato loves burgers so much it can go on sliced or processed into ketchup! I don't see it double-teaming meatballs like that, do you?

Come on, Disney, quit screwing around!

You want to have your luau feast at the Polynesian? Go for it! You want to feature cuisines from around the world at Epcot? More power to ya! You want to serve me a turducken and tell me it's the latest craze in Portugal? Well, that would be a little strange.

But when you think you can topple the greatest, most beloved representative of American culinary culture from its rightful place at the top of the mountain and then boast about it to the world on the internet, you have gone too far.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dark & Pooky

What is it about basements that make them so creepy?

When I was a kid, our basement was both a sanctuary and the scariest place in our house. Okay, maybe the eaves of the house where we stored old keepsakes and treasures were scarier, but I'm talking about creepy heated living space.

Ours was the kind of house where the television did not overtake the fireplace as the focal point of the living room, so the finished half of our basement became the de facto family room, complete with a sofa and two comfortable chairs aimed purposefully at a modern black and white television. Before too long, my parents purchased a color television with a pull-knob on/off switch, a volume control that looked like a car's cigarette lighter, and two knobs for changing to the seven or eight regular channels and the five or six UHF channels, even more if you spoke Spanish.

The basement itself really was not creepy. With the entertainment it offered, enhanced in the early 1980s by the addition of a wired brown cable box and a VCR big enough to house a nuclear arsenal, the basement truly was a place to retreat to with a glass of milk and a bag of Oreos for hours of respite and quiet.

No, the creepy part of the basement, for me anyway, was restricted to a very definable and small area located between the third step up from bottom of the stairs to just inside the room itself. This "portal" was the place you ran through on both the way up from or down to the basement. You might wonder why. The reason is simple: the door to the other side...

Like many New England basements of the time, ours was split into a left and right with the staircase dividing the two fairly evenly. At the bottom step you turned either right to the finished side or left through a door to the unfinished side. The finished side was open and comforting. The other side, not so much.

The unfinished side of our basement had a painted concrete floor and an impressive oil burner that heated our water and sent steam hissing through radiators in the different rooms of the house. It had a small, dark storage area under the stairs that held our toys and was just big enough for someone to hide in. It had a workbench with all of our father's neatly-arranged tools and a weaving pattern of cords along the ceiling that served as clothes lines for the washing machine tucked into the far back left corner of the room. It had two utility lights that lit the front and back halves of the room equally poorly, shining a harsh glow on anyone -- or any thing -- within a few feet of it but casting deep shadows around the periphery. On laundry days, the hanging clothes blocked even more of the light from reaching the walls where our common-property toys and games were kept on metal shelves.

As you descended to the basement, you paid attention to see if the door to the other side was closed. If so, it typically meant safe passage. If not, it could mean something hidden just around the corner to your left could reach out and grab you, dragging you back into the laundry-scented darkness and into the floor drain where it lived. Even worse, it could be an older brother waiting to scare the bejeezus out of you and steal your Oreos!

Whatever my mental issues are with basements, our children seem to have developed their own. Five years ago, when we moved into our newly-built house, we envisioned our basement family room as the center of activity for our three kids. Our builder had cleverly overcome my Yankee instincts to cut the basement up left-to-right and instead finished the entire back half of the basement, leaving the forward half unfinished for storage.

During the first few years in the house, the kids flat-out refused to go downstairs without an adult chaperone. I must admit, despite my long-standing fear of the basement with which I grew up, I didn't understand it. Our basement has windows along the entire back wall that let in copious amounts of natural light. There's a huge television down there too, which was enough to make me overcome my childhood fears on a daily basis and run the gauntlet through the "portal." I simply could not reason out why they were afraid of the basement.

As they have gotten older, they have gotten over their fears to the degree that they now realize the basement can offer them the same quiet hideaway our old basement offered me and my brothers. They take full advantage now of the fifty-five-inch television, the computer, the games in the storage closet, the open expanse of carpeted flooring, and they even can play for hours in the unfinished "other side" of our basement.

I think the best understanding of why basements strike some of us the way they do came not from my own reflections or from observing my children overcoming their fears, but instead from a tiny visitor who came one day with his family. The small boy, as toddlers seem to do, was having fun playing at the top of the staircase leading from our living room to the basement. He repeatedly would go only a few steps down and then come quickly back up.

When I asked him if he wanted to go downstairs, he shook his head and said: "It's dark and pooky."

I think that pretty well sums it up.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Voices In My Head? Not.

We have three children. They are all wonderful people in their own ways. We love them unconditionally.

One of them, the Italian, is an inquisitive and highly intelligent child. There isn't a single discussion held in his presence during which he will not ask a question, or maybe ten.

Sometimes his questions stem from the annoying habit most of us practice from time to time when we are only kind-of listening to the other people and need to ask them to repeat something they've just said. Most of the time with the Italian, however, his questions are related to his desire to be educated.

For example, last week over breakfast one morning my Lovely Wife was talking to me about her retainer. The word "retainer" had barely finished tumbling out of her mouth when the Italian interrupted to ask: "What is a retainer and what does it do?" A fair question, but his serious expression and the fact he asked it like Larry King grilling a politician (as much as Larry King can grill) made us chuckle.

Not only does the Italian ask lots of questions, he also talks without stopping. He is enamored with the sound of his voice and believes everyone else also should be. If he isn't bending your ear he's talking to himself. If he isn't talking to himself he's mimicking funny voices he has heard on television shows or in movies. If he isn't mimicking cartoon voices he's singing his favorite song to you, or his siblings, or the dog. I'm often amazed we have any idea at all what our other children's voices sound like.

Every parent has those days when we say, "I'm going to change my name, because if I hear 'Dad' one more time I'm going to lose it."

Unfortunately for our other son, the German, he must feel the same way about his name. I'll wager if I counted the number of times in one day the Italian says the German's name, it would reach quadruple digits. Observing them throughout the course of a typical week has convinced me that Germany might not really have wanted to start World War II, they just needed to get away from their incessantly babbling neighbors to the south.

"Hey Germany. Germany! Hey Germany. Do you want to play on the Wii? Germany! Do you want to play on the Wii?"

"Not right now, Italy."

"But Germany, you can be player one. Come on, Germany. Germany! You can be player one but I want the black controller. Germany, can I have the black controller? Germany?"

"I don't want to play right now, Italy."

"Germany, you can be player one! Come on, Germany!"

"Look, Italy, I can't play on the Wii right now. I have to... I have to go check on Poland! Oh yeah, Poland. You go play the Wii and I'll let you know when I get back from Poland."

The biggest trouble used to come when the Italian and the German were in the same class at school and even before then during preschool years. Both would have had the same experiences during the day, and they both wanted to tell us about their shared experiences when we picked them up. The German, in his slow and halting way, would start talking about what the class did in the school garden. Halfway through, during an inevitable pause as the German searched for the right words, the Italian would finish the story in a matter of seconds. Big German tears would flow...

The boys just turned nine, and if Our Daughter is any indication, we will blink and they will have turned into teenagers. If they go the typical teenage boy route, then we should expect them both to turn sullen, moody and quiet.

I think I can handle the sullen and moody if it means I'll get a few years of quiet.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Toilet on the Edge!

Maybe our kids have powerful colons.

Maybe our plumbing is a little dodgy and can't handle, um, big loads.

Maybe the fact we go through an entire big brick of toilet paper every six hours is stressing the city sewer hook-up at the street. After all, those big bricks are equal to 48 normal rolls.

Whatever is going on, we have become good friends with our local plumbing service. They send us hand-signed Christmas cards every year. If it were a public company, we would have seats on the board by now. We probably could take all those business cards they leave behind and recycle them into yet another big brick of toilet paper.

Our most recent adventure with the valiant plumbers started two nights ago.

Once again, it would seem the kids were too big for the pool as the water in the toilet refused to return to pre-flush level. A grumbling, gurgling, bubbling noise rumbled up from under the floorboards, scaring the poodle and making our wallets tremble in fear with each toggle of the chrome-plated handle.

It seems like only yesterday the plumbers were here to flush the main line from the house to the street because of a noteworthy deposit made by the German that apparently could have clogged a Roman aquaduct. This time I was determined to disengage the offending matter from our excrement transport system myself.

The first attempt involved standing over the empty bowl, staring determinedly down into it, and flushing the toilet. Amazingly, this accomplished nothing. The water drained but the gurgling and low post-flush water level persisted. A good dozen flushes later, combined with some normally effective scowling, resulted in no additional progress.

Kicking the toilet was out of the question as that would only crack the porcelain and injure my toes, so I moved to plan b.

Our plunger is stored in the garage, encased in a plastic grocery bag and tucked under the mop sink. Neither the bag nor the location do anything to protect our family and visitors from potential contaminants or the unsightly image of a soiled plunger, but I'm not going to spend any more time dealing with that nasty thing than is required. If I could chuck it out the window and forget about it after every use, I would. It isn't even a very good plunger. Made entirely out of plastic, it does not properly establish a seal once inserted in the bowl. That said, it has served me well in my scatological battles.

Again scowling but this time with a renewed air of confidence thanks to my handy plunger, I inserted the weapon into the bowl and started plunging. Nothing. I flushed and plunged at the same time. Nothing. I flushed and plunged in a slow and rhythmic manner. Nothing. I cursed, flushed, and plunged like a maniac whose life depended on unclogging that freaking toilet. Nothing.

Then I remembered a secret weapon purchased years ago at a garage sale and presently wedged into a dusty corner of the basement storage room. I retrieved the antiquated toilet snake from its hiding place, unwrapped it from the thirty-year old casing, brushed away the chunkier bits of rust, and inserted it into the toilet per the Old English instructions on the yellowing wrapper. It followed its course with only a little persuasion and then it was ready for action. I twisted the handle and waited for the ancient device to release the obstruction. Nothing.

Already late enough into the day to justify not calling the plumbing service, we let it lie overnight. In the morning, and after repeated testimony from me to the effect that the clog could not possibly be in the toilet itself, my Lovely Wife suggested we fill the bathtub with hot water and try flushing the main line ourselves. Sheer brilliance, I thought, and did as she suggested. Nothing.

The toilet stubbornly gurgled, burbled and bubbled and refused to return to proper water level. For two days, at this point, we had avoided using the toilet for fear of worsening the problem while concurrently spiking our water usage to new heights in our attempts to solve the problem. Defeated and forlorn, we called for help.

When they arrived -- almost eight hours early, for such is their top notch treatment of regular clients -- there were two of them, both prepared to wrestle the porcelain beast into submission and delve headfirst into battle with the four-inch PVC pipes in our basement.

They walked around the house, opened and checked the main line to the street, but found no sign of trouble. They followed me to the basement storage area and stared up at the pipes as though trying to employ my first tactic of determined scowling but accomplished even less than when I had done it.

They followed me to the bathroom where they flushed and listened. They flushed and listened again. After several more flushes they decided the draining sounded healthy. They proclaimed my toilet healthy. The damned fools! It's a toilet on the edge of madness!! Can't you hear the gurgling? Can't you see the water level?! This toilet has lost all sense of reason and must be nursed back to health!

Sensing my hopeless helplessness, one of the plumbers lifted off the lid of the tank. He reached in only an inch or two and grabbed the little refill hose that is supposed to hang into the tube leading to the bowl. It had popped out of the tube and was no longer doing its job. He put it back in the tube and, immediately, the toilet righted itself.

Fifty dollars later, I am grateful to be only fifty dollars lighter. I wish my pride had suffered so little a loss.

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Please Move Over, Mr. Pokey

This past Saturday, my Lovely Wife and I left the comforts of house and home behind to travel to Orlando with our children.

Starting off from within North Carolina meant two-lane roads until we reached Interstate 95 at South of the Border, the tourist trap roadside fireworks stand that developed at some point in the not-too-distant past into a mini-carnival slash strip club mini-mall just over the border into South Carolina. At that point, you graduate to a four-lane highway with speed limits ranging up to 70 miles per hour.

In South Carolina, just as in North Carolina, slow drivers seem to understand their responsibility to keep to the right. Should they forget, all you have to do is start creeping up behind them. They catch sight of you in the rearview mirror, flip on their blinker, and move over to the right lane.

Halfway through Georgia, this understanding seemed to be slipping away. You know what I mean, don't you?

Pretend you're me, zipping along at a perfectly reasonable speed of say, 75 or 85 miles per hour. You come up behind someone in the fast lane who thinks maintaining speed limit is fast, so they refuse to move over.

"Put on your blinker!" you silently scream inside your head. They don't.

"Move over!!!" you add, again screamed inside your head but possibly muttered under your breath. Again, they don't.

After 12 miles of being boxed in by the driver in the fast lane who is keeping perfect pace with the semi in the center lane, you seize an opportunity to shift two lanes over to the right lane, pass the semi at about 90 miles per hour, pray there are no troopers watching, and eventually shift back to the fast lane ahead of Mr. Pokey and reduce speed to a reasonable 80.

By the time you reach the Florida border, every third driver is related to Mr. Pokey. Just so you know, Mr. Pokey is not always old, or a man. Any driver can be Mr. Pokey.

I would love to add Mr. Pokey as a character in every driver education program across the country. Have a voice kick in like Goliath the dog from the old clay-mation kids' show Davey and Goliath.

"What are you doin', Davey?" he would say.

"I'm trying to be a safe driver, Goliath," Davey would answer. "If I drive at speed limit in the fast lane then it will force everyone behind me to drive safely, too!"

"Oh, I don't think that's such a good idea, Davey," Goliath would advise. "Nobody likes a Mr. Pokey.""

"Why Goliath? Is that because trying to force other people to do what I think is right and safe might actually backfire and cause an accident because people aren't expecting someone to drive so slow in the fast lane?"

"No, Davey. It's a bad idea because that chubby, pale guy in the Honda mini-van is going to ram us!"

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler