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