Monday, December 27, 2010

Renewed Resolve

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

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

What a load of self-indulgent crap!

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here are my resolutions for next year:

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Cookie Mastery!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jew Rae San Coz?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We are most definitely rae san coz!"

2010 Mark Feggeler

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pink Snuggie Thief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Un-Terrorist Look

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

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

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

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

But I am troubled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2010 Mark Feggeler