Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That's How We Do Things In America!

"That's how we do things in America!"

I'd like to say I pulled that quote off some uber-patriotic banner or online ad for the military. Or I could say I heard it in a country song on the radio, but I didn't because I don't like country music.

Fact is, the quote came from the mouth of my Lovely Wife while we were in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg, one of our nation's most popular historic tourist attractions that was restored and is maintained, according to Wikipedia, to educate the modern world about "how diverse peoples, having different and sometimes conflicting ambitions, evolved into a society that valued liberty and equality."

Well, the people from Wikipedia never met my Lovely Wife. They also never met the woman we encountered during our day at Colonial Williamsburg two years ago. But I should set the scene before I get into the details.

For anyone who has not visited Colonial Williamsburg, it is the restored former center of government of the Colony of Virginia. The houses, shops and other buildings are as authentic to the period as possible, while actors in period garb speak and work like those who lived in the 18th Century.

Unfortunately, on the hot July day we attended the site, the festivities were not very festive. It seemed the curators of this living museum were going to great lengths to show us that dodging horse manure and shifting a few inches at a time to stay in the shade of the largest tree along the dusty main street were the most exciting things colonial-era people had to do each day.

To escape the glaring sunshine, a hundred or so of us gathered in a small outdoor amphitheater behind the historic coffeehouse to hear one of the few costumed actors who showed up to work that day pretending to be some famous historical figure who did something important in knee-high stockings and a powdered wig a couple centuries ago.

Across the amphitheater from us sat a couple with a young son who kept whining in that special way only certain simpering brats can accomplish. His mother was no better. She prattled on in some eastern European language, unsuccessfully reprimanding her child out of one side of her mouth while clearly brow-beating her hapless husband out of the other. When he reached the point most of us in the audience had already surpassed, the husband stood up and started walking away from them. All I could think was, "Ten years too late, buddy."

His son launched after him loudly squawking "Papa" over and over again. Showing the same lack of fortitude and self-esteem that likely got him married to his shrewish wife in the first place, he returned to his seat for the remainder of the show.

When the performance was completed, it was announced that there would be a short wait before the re-enactment of the reading of one of our country's founding documents from the balcony of the Capitol building next door. While many of us sought out ye olde lavatory, my brother found a spot along the edge of the street where his kids and ours could sit while watching the re-enactment. My Lovely Wife and I joined him as our family rejoined us for the event.

Long story made short, the prattling nag from the Eastern Bloc attempted to annex the space we had saved for our children and seemed intent on parking herself in front of them, blocking their view with an ass as wide as the Berlin Wall. Gestures and nasty glances gave way to angry mutterings which eventually led my Lovely Wife to ask the woman if there was a problem.

I hate to sound like I'm rationalizing, but given the heat and the overall lack of enjoyment of the experience to that point, we were already a little cranky. The prospect of a late lunch wasn't helping, either. So, when Helga, who clearly was accustomed to getting her way, decided to square off with my Lovely little Italian Wife, she might not have expected a retaliatory strike to rival Operation Shock and Awe.

Starting off by explaining how people attending these kinds of functions usually don't stand in front of each other, especially in front of children, my Lovely Wife decided to go for the big finish by adding -- "That's how we do things in America!"

There are times when everything seems to slow down and you realize just how much data you're capable of processing in a very short span of time.

I remember with great clarity the "Oh my God" sensation in the pit of my stomach and how it mixed quite uneasily with my desire to burst out laughing at what I thought was the most deservedly, harshly, caustically funny thing I had heard all year. I remember the "she didn't really say that" look on my brother's face as his eyes popped open. And I remember the instantaneous rushing of blood to every surface of Helga's face and the complete draining of color from her husband's as he took a quick step away from his wife.

Perhaps realizing that her husband would not be backing her up, Helga simply sputtered that she was an American, too. Not content to leave a wounded animal writhing in pain, my Lovely Wife went for the finishing blow by saying, "Then act like it!"

Upon reflection, I am appreciative that the woman's husband was by degrees more spineless than I, and that the woman herself backed down like most schoolyard bullies do when someone stands up to them.

Do I think Helga deserved what she got? You betcha.

Do I love my feisty little Lovely Wife? Hell, yes.

© Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Poodle of Destiny!

The first baby my Lovely Wife and I had was our Dalmatian, Pepper.

While Pepper was a sweet dog -- and a lot smarter than we often gave her credit for being -- she was a complete menace. Because of her tireless energy we lost trees, books, bedding, our lawn, and an entire kitchen floor straight down to the plywood. And no matter what color you chose to wear, Pepper had a contrasting hair for it.

One year, Pepper developed a habit of nibbling the bark off a thirty-year-old plum tree in our backyard. I asked my brother for advice and he told me to dab the tree with hot sauce. When I explained how that hadn't worked when Pepper was chewing up her bed because she seemed to like the taste of Frank's Red Hot, he suggested I try ammonia. I had mixed feelings.

In my teens, I had accidentally taken a long sniff at a bottle of ammonia and it felt like someone was shoving hot pins and needles through my brain and into the back of my skull. I wasn't sure I could do that to Pepper. Then I looked out the window and saw her gnawing on the tree and decided to try it.

As I dabbed the ammonia onto the trunk of the old plum tree, Pepper walked casually up and started sniffing the rag. No reaction. In fact, she started chewing off another piece of bark, so I dropped the rag and poured the ammonia straight onto the tree. She lapped it up like water.

When Our Daughter came along in the late 1990s, months of ear infections and the prospect of inserting tubes in her ear canals resulted in the realization that she was allergic to the Dalmatian. After we transitioned Pepper from an inside/outside dog to strictly an outside dog, both my Lovely Wife and Our Daughter were literally breathing easier. When the twins were born a few years later, their systems proved even more delicate.

So, when it came time to welcome our second dog to the family, it was no surprise how limited our options would be if we wanted an inside dog. We could get a Chihuahua -- no thank you. We could get a Bichon Frise -- too expensive, plus it looks like an unshorn Poodle.

Then there are all the breeds that have been crossbred with Poodles. Apparently a lot of people have a lot of time to worry about mating every possible kind of canine with Poodles. These Poodle pimps have created a seemingly endless parade or Poodle-esque possibilities.

Among them are the Affenpoo, Airedoodle, Aussiedoodle, Bassetoodle, Bernedoodle, Bolonoodle, Bossi-Poo, Cavapoo, Cockapoo, Doodleman Pinscher, Double Doodle, Eskapoo, English Boodle, Foodle, Giant Schnoodle, Goldendoodle, Irish Troodle, Jack-a-Poo, Labradoodle, Malti-Poo, Papi-Poo, Pekepoo, Pinny-Poo, Poogle, Poo-Ton, Pugapoo, Pyredoodle, Rattle, Rottle, Saint Berdoodle, Schipper-Poo, Schnoodle, Scoodle, Shar-Poo, Sheepadoodle, Shih-Poo, Skypoo, Springerdoodle, Terri-Poo, Ttoodle, Weimardoodle, Whoodle, Yorkipoo, and my new favorite the Newfypoo.

The problem with all this Poo-ing around is it doesn't guarantee an allergen-free dog, just one that is moderately less irritating thanks to being diluted with Poodle DNA. The clear and reasonable choice was to forego the mixed breeds and head straight for the dander-free choice.

That year, Santa somehow managed to sneak a white puppy Poodle under our tree. He left a note for our three children telling them the elves had found her in the workshop and decided ours was the perfect family to care for her. They had already given her a name -- Lily.

Contrary to every notion I'd ever had of the Poodle being a useless, yip-yapping nuisance -- marginally better than a lizard for cuteness and no better than a rattlesnake for attitude -- Lily is quiet and timidly sweet-natured. She barks mostly for legitimate reasons and gets so excited when guests enter our house she often leaves behind what we call "happy pee." Fortunately, it's typically only a few drops, and much easier to cope with than the dreaded "poop finger" we used to get when changing the children's diapers.

Like every other member of our family, Lily has peculiarities that make her unique and interesting. When she needs water or food, she flips the empty bowl around with her paw to get your attention. If that doesn't work, she'll jump up on your leg, lean back, and punch you with both front feet.

When she needs to burn off some pent-up energy you'll see a little white blur tear through the house in circuits around the furniture, in and out of bedrooms, and up and down the stairs. These are great times to play hide-and-seek with her, or grab her rope toy and let her joyously pretend she's jerking the head off a squirrel.

And being a lifelong fan of cartoons, I never tire of hearing the clickety-clackety sound accompanying her delayed start when she tries breaking into a run from a full stop on our hardwood floors. It's a noise you'll hear several times a day in our house and it always makes me smile.

Lily will turn six in September, which will tie her with me for the oldest member of the household, unless Poodles don't follow the seven-to-one dog-year ratio. At middle age she is showing no signs of slowing down.

Just the other day while out for her morning walk, she spotted something in the grass ahead that sent her into red-alert jungle hunt mode. She crept cautiously up to the offending object, head down, butt in the air, until she was right up on the black plastic utility box at the street that housed the water shut-off for our neighbors house. Only when whe pressed her nose to it did she finally decide it posed no threat.

As the children have gotten older, especially the boys, I see them playing with her more and more. It's heartening to know they will have memories of their family dog similar to the ones my Lovely Wife and I have of ours. I kind of feel she was destined from the start to be our dog.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back To School

I can't figure out if there's something wrong with my children, or something wrong with me. As summer draws to a close, the Italian and Our Daughter are anxiously awaiting going back to school. The German? Maybe not so much, but he sure doesn't seem to be dreading it the way I used to.

Every school year starting with third grade was like some new classification of slow torture. Even the earlier years were marked by incidents that should have foreshadowed school was not for me.

In kindergarten I missed the class picture because, during the bus ride to school, my nose collided with the back of Tommy Harrison's head and bled for what seemed like hours. It hurt so badly, I honestly recall believing my nose had been knocked clean off.

In first grade I remember running across the school grounds, excited about bringing my so-called portable record player to class. I tripped and received a perfect groin shot from the 15-pound box. The next year, Toni Ann (you know who you are) threw Ajax in my eyes while we were put to manual labor scrubbing our scribblings off the desks.

By third grade, I had had enough. My unbelievably appropriately named third grade teacher, Mrs. Stern, drove any remaining desire to learn anything at all out of me. A long-lived desire to no longer be in the educational system blossomed that year and I divorced myself from the need to be educated.

There were glimmers of hope here and there. By the end of high school I had taken to writing funny little essays about silly topics to amuse my friends. In senior year I joined the humor magazine. Amazingly, I think I was even too dorky for the dorks who ran the humor magazine, and they used only a couple of the things I produced. It could be my writings weren't very well written or funny, but I'd rather keep the whole "I hated school/school hated me" theme going and instead believe they were jealous and chose to ostracize me and my work. It's easier that way.

Somehow, my children seem immune to the oppressive and soul-crushing torments of public education. They have each dealt with bullies, butt-loads of homework, and a few teachers with some really bad attitudes. I see them confronting the same dramas and problems I faced in my childhood but they aren't traumatized by them like I was.

The Italian WANTS to go back to school next week. He's excited about it! The German will admit to being ready to go back, too, if pressed to answer. Our Daughter also is eager to return to the halls of middle school, which for some reason can no longer be called junior high.

Junior high was the worst for me. I started seventh grade short and fat and finished it looking like a five-foot-ten skeleton. There were so many ways I didn't fit in that I ended up like an outcast from the Island of Misfit Toys in the cafeteria, in the classroom, and in the dreaded hallways. I wasn't a jock, a brain, a spoiled rich kid, or any of the other stereotypes John Hughes stocked detention with in "The Breakfast Club." My sole intent in junior high was to blend into the scenery and make it through alive.

So, to my way of thinking, my kids are sick. Wanting to go to school -- wanting summer to end because there's too much time on their hands and too little to keep them entertained -- makes them mentally defective. I have broken children.

At there ages, I used to dream up illnesses and hold the thermometer close to the bedside lamp so I could stay home from school. Do you think my kids are that rational? Oh, no.

Last year, both my sons received perfect attendance for the entire year. The only reason my daughter didn't get perfect attendance, as well, is because she was counted out for the day her dance troupe performed the Nutcracker for children on field trips from the local elementary schools. How can my children love school so much that during an entire academic year they never tried, not once, to play hooky?

I ask you, where have I failed them?

ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I'll Take the Calories

We watch way too much Food Network in our house.

A few Christmases ago, my Lovely Wife and I gave each other a full Calphalon cookware set and a Calphalon butcher block knife set (love that santoku blade!).

This past Christmas, Santa brought the Italian an ice cream maker and the German an air popcorn popper. Our Daughter loves helping in the kitchen. Her specialty is Fifi's French toast. I don't know who Fifi is but her toast is pretty darn good.

One year I bought my Lovely Wife one of those industrial waffle makers, the kind many hotels have in their lobbies. You know, that big black and chrome machine next to the whole fruit, opposite the stale pastries, and just in front of the eggs that were hardboiled in China three weeks earlier and packed in formaldehyde. The best part is the anticipation that builds as you wait for the red light to click on, indicating the waffle has reached perfection.

Yes, I know. You wish your life was this exciting.

Lately, the Food Network seems to be running quite a few Miller Genuine Draft commercials. They all focus on MGD-64, Miller's low-calorie competitor to the highly popular Michelob Ultra. They feature some poor schlub simultaneously drinking an Ultra and exercising to burn off the extra calories while his friends are served the MGD-64s. Earlier commercials would show someone getting an MGD-64 handed to them while their date or friend would get a supposedly proportional amount in calories of whatever they were drinking. By the looks of it, you would think the Miller beer is only a quarter or a fifth of the calories of Michelob Ultra.

The reality, of course, is that Ultra has 96 calories to MGD's 64 calories. By my math, 64 is exactly two-thirds of 96. That means only an additional 32 calories.

Well, unless I'm planning a night of binge drinking -- and I stopped planning for those after I graduated from college -- I'm not really risking all that much in terms of calories. There's no fat in those calories, either, so the beer is much less detrimental to my wasteline than the 17 Tootsie Roll midgies I ate tonight while watching the Next Food Network Star.

Extra calories aside, have you ever compared the two beers? To my taste, Michelob Ultra's flavor holds up well against any other American beer. MGD-64, on the other hand, tastes like it might have met a beer somewhere on its way into the bottle and is trying to do a poor imitation. The few times I've tried it I've come away confused whether I was drinking beer or some new bitterly flavored, carbonated water.

I know the Food Network, particularly in this slowly recovering economy, does not want to turn down advertising dollars. I just wish they would work harder to encourage sponsorship from companies that sell food and beverages with flavor instead of clever advertising campaigns.

And since when did beer become a health food? Why do I have to worry about how many calories my suds deliver when the whole point of popping open a brew in the first place is to indulge in a guilty pleasure?

Those 32 extra calories I'm taking in represent an extra four minutes on the treadmill. Heck, you can burn off the extra calories from an entire six-pack of Ultras just by walking from your car into the local grocery store, to the back where they hide the beer, up to the checkout counter, and back out to your car.

For good measure, you could always throw in some arm curls while waiting to pay.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Peripheral Vision

There are times when you receive information that sticks with you even though you might not fully appreciate or understand its meaning at the time.

Earlier this week, I attended an educational session at the National Business Travel Association in Houston, TX, about the importance of flexibility and adaptability in uncertain times. One quote that several of us in the room wrote down was: "The price of excessive focus is the lack of peripheral vision."

I copied it down because it is a great quote and because it is true. Over the past few days, the quote has taken on a deeper meaning in the wake of a terrible loss.

There is a man with whom I was friendly, which is to say I barely knew him. He was overtly friendly and funny with a ready devilish smile. He told jokes and enjoyed eliciting laughter from anyone who might be around him at any given moment.

In many ways, he was the polar opposite of a different young man I met twenty-four years in college. This fellow I knew at college was often moody, quick to anger, and willing to go out of his way to agitate and antagonize both friend and foe for no other reason than he felt like it. Despite his surface faults -- and mine -- we became good friends.

To the best of my knowledge, the primary similarities between these two men is they both were born in 1968 and they both chose to end their own lives.

Since August 1992, when my college friend committed suicide, I have wondered what could drive a person to consider such drastic action. What problem could create such consuming despair?

There have been times in my life when insecurity and fear have made me want to hide or bury my head in the sand until a pressing problem or embarrassment had passed. Even so, never have I considered the solution to any of my problems could come from eliminating me from the equation, even when I knew I was the direct cause of my problem.

Despite the dire and depressing prospect of a dark situation, I seem to remain capable of seeing a glimmer of light on the horizon. I remain conscious of the knowledge that all troubles are temporary, all setbacks offer opportunities to overcome them, and no matter how poorly I feel about myself there is always someone -- even if not always the person I expect -- who is looking forward to the next time they see me.

These truths are enough to keep me firmly grounded in the belief that I have value and purpose. Life goes on, and I cannot imagine not being a part of it. Unfortunately, not everyone is so affirmatively grounded.

Eighteen years ago, in response to my college friend's death, I wrote the following: "Bill's problems grew so great and his world became so small in early August that he couldn't remember he had many friends and relatives who would have tried to help him if he had only reached out to us."

Without a firm base of knowledge and nothing but surmises and guesses to claim as support for my reasoning, I believe the same thing happened in August 2010 to my other friend. Like Bill before him, he became so focused on a single, seemingly unsurmountable problem that he lost the peripheral vision necessary to see the prospect of a brighter tomorrow and the faces of friends and loved ones who likely could have supported him through his despair had they known he needed them.

In 1992, the death of my friend served as a wake up call for me to stop living like a wallflower, waiting for my life to come find me. I stepped up to the plate and, regardless of the outcome, started swinging. My life is richer as a result, and I owe much of it to the lesson taught to me by the tragic and unnecessary loss of my friend. I have, in the past two decades, lived a fuller life. I am doing the things I want to do with the people who mean the most to me. I am living in a rewarding present while planning for a rewarding future. I have reconnected with a long-dormant passion for writing even as I experience a daily passion for my wife and children greater than ever before.

I wish I could say the tragedy of this August will serve as a similar inspiration but I am older, more grounded, less malleable, and I hope not in need of learning the same lesson again. My hope is the lesson I learned many years ago about the value of life will this time find someone who needs it now like I needed it then.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Topless At The Pool

I've never been a model of physical fitness.

As a little kid I was skeletal. In elementary school I was short and fat. In junior high I went from being short and fat to tall and emaciated skinny in the matter of two weeks.

All through high school I remained bone skinny -- 5'10" and barely 150 pounds -- despite the fact I thought a one-pound bag of sour cream & onion Doritos contained my daily servings of fruits and vegetables. You might not remember the sour cream & onion Doritos. They were a variation of the present-day ranch flavor and turned you green up to your third knuckle. Delicious...

It doesn't help that our skinny Italian enjoys reminding me, in a very loving way that I do think is adorable, how fat I am. Just a few weeks ago he was hugging me and in the cutest voice said, "Daddy, I love you cause you're fat and soft."

I recall being self-conscious about my appearance since grade school. Some of it does relate back to being either too thin or too fat, but some of it also comes from my natural lack of pigment. I have none.

My feet could be used for road flares. If I were to ride my bike at night, rather than reflective tape on my clothes, I could just take off my shirt and illuminate an entire city block, that is if I weren't self-conscious about taking off my shirt in public.

Actually, my extreme paleness has afforded me a ready excuse to not take off my shirt in public, which should be a horrible crime anyway. There's usually no cause for it and it only disturbs people.

Fortunately, when I go swimming at the beach or in a pool, a shirt is required unless I want to spend the next three days recovering from a third-degree sunburn.

Doesn't matter what level of sunblock I use, either. I've lathered up with 45 SPF, 50 SPF, 70 SPF and recently tried 100 SPF. While effective, it does sometimes feel like I'm choking my skin with pore-clogging goop just so I can go out in the sun. And despite which SPF level I choose, an hour in the pool is enough to wash it off, especially from the shoulders where the children grab on. And in the past few years I've even taken to spraying sunscreen straight through the remaining hairs to myscalp.

So, the other weekend when we traveled to Concord, NC, to bring the kids to the indoor water park at the Great Wolf Lodge, I knew I would need to make a decision about going shirtless.

I started off thinking I would wear my blue sport shirt throughout the entire weekend since it dries quickly and would help hide my pudginess. The first dousing from the giant bucket took care of that, however. Once the air hit that forever-mildly-damp shirt, I would freeze and remain freezing the rest of the day.

So, the shirt came off for the rest of our time at the waterpark. Amazingly, no one's retinas were burned out by my paleness and no children's psyches were damaged from the site of my flabby gut. That is, at least none I'm aware of.

2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Movie For Schmucks

Yesterday I woke up with the firm belief that Steve Carrell should be in every movie.

I even wrote it in a brief review of "Despicable Me" that I posted on Rotten Tomatoes. I wrote it should be required that Steve Carrell appear in every movie, or at least every comedy, from this point forward.

Today, I cannot make the same claim. In fact, "Dinner for Schmucks" might just have toppled "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" as worst movie of all time.

It's difficult to pinpoint what went wrong when a movie is as horrendously awful as "Dinner for Schmucks." There are so many places to lay the blame for this painful atrocity, I simply have to pick one at random and hope I touch on them all as I come full circle.

Let's start with the premise. Actually, it's a good premise with potential for some great laughs. The trouble here is that the premise is alternately beaten to death and completely disregarded. And when the movie does stick to the premise, it doesn't handle it properly.

The basic idea is Tim, an upwardly mobile executive, is invited to a dinner to which the top management of his firm invite "guests" who will be put on display and judged against other guests to see who is the biggest idiot. Obvious lessons on acceptance will ensue.

Unfortunately, there are at least three distinct scenes in which Tim, the guy bringing Steve Carrell's Barry to a dinner, has an allegedly heartfelt reckoning with Barry about how he understands what he is doing to Barry is wrong. Because Tim's tension and stress are released at these intervals, we never see his frustration build and explode in grand comedic fashion. We need a few scenes like the ones we saw in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" where Steve Martin rails hard at John Candy only to have his justified rants backfire on him.

Paul Rudd, who plays Tim, is capable of frantic, manic energy but he never displays it in response to Barry's destructive influence on his life. It's like they told Paul Rudd he could be straight man and straight man only.

And not only is Rudd always the boring straight man, he is the only straight man. All other characters in this poorly-drawn cartoon world, with the exception of Tim's girlfiend, seem to have fifteen minutes of film dedicated to each of them to spotlight their improvised unfunniness and exaggerated eccentricities. As a result, Steve Carrell's dimwittedly lovable Barry is lost in a sea of cloying, over-acted, and often unfunny lunatics.

I'm not sure if the idea was to use these other loonies to make Barry seem more normal, or if the makers of this awful movie simply wanted to cram it full of actors known for improvising and just let them go.

One thing that would have helped? Editing. Maybe it's me but I don't think extended scenes of Zach Galifanakis staring into the camera are funny. And with a running time of almost two solid hours, someone should have phoned up some of the support players to tell them their scenes were being cut.

Maybe it's my soft spot for Steve Carrell that keep me from wanting to blame him for this mess. I was able to forgive him for "Dan In Real Life" so I should be able to forgive him for this too, right?

No. I held to this belief up until the final scenes of the film in which Barry puts on his show at the dinner to try and win the now-coveted biggest idiot award. Not only is Barry's performance not funny, it goes on and on and on and on and on... Just like the rest of this stupid movie.

My advice to anyone with half a brain (or more): stay home and rent "40 Year Old Virgin." You'll get to see Carrell and Rudd in a better story with better acting, funnier jokes, and more controlled improvisation.