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