Thursday, June 24, 2010

Candy Crack

I have a sweet tooth.

Give me chocolate, anything chocolate, especially that semi-sweet dark chocolate. I buy a large bag of semi-sweet chocolate morsels normally used in baking every other week, sometimes more frequently. Don't give me any grief about it either because, according to Reader's Digest and dozens of health-oriented websites, two ounces of dark chocolate per day is good for you.

And the darker the better. Have you ever seen the gourmet candy bars that proudly declare their percentage of cocoa content? Once you reach eighty percent, it barely resembles chocolate anymore. When you take a bite, which you have to do because breaking the bar into bite-size pieces simply won't work, it all just crumbles into a fine chocolate dust in your mouth.

You might say yuck. I say yum.

But my candy fascination is not limited to ultra-dark chocolate. If dark can not be found, milk chocolate will serve as a proper substitute. I typically don't find it as satisfying but beggars can't be choosers. Just don't give me white chocolate. It isn't chocolate. Does it look brown to you? Does it taste like chocolate? It's white. Nothing white can be chocolate.

"But it's made from the oils that remain after cocoa beans are processed into chocolate," you might say.

So, it's a by-product. You know what else is a by-product? Poop. My dog's poop is the by-product of the process during which the most beneficial materials are extracted from the little nuggets of kibble we feed her. I'm not going to eat my dog's poop, therefore I'm not going to eat the oils extracted from cocoa after the best stuff has been removed. It is chocolate poop and I'm not going to eat it.

Anyway, the other day my lovely Wife and I took the kids to see Toy Story 3. As we like to do, we snuck huge bags of candy into the theatre in one of my lovely Wife's tremendous purses. We had Startbursts, Twizzlers, Raisinets and Junior Mints. A fifth bag contained a candy we had never tried before -- M&M Pretzels.

The movie was great. The M&Ms were life-changing.

It has been a long time since I have come across a treat that has to be handled like plutonium. Left in the open, unsealed and unmonitored, this thirty-ounce resealable bag of delectable temptation will vanish, reappearing later in the day just above your hips and immediately to the right and left of your stomach. Candy this good should require a prescription.

Less than a week later and the thirty-ounce bag of M&M Pretzels is gone but not forgotten, gulped down handfuls at a time and with complete disregard to health, wellness, nausea, blood sugar levels, and self-esteem.

We know one thing and one thing only from our first encounter with this dangerous concoction: We can never buy it again.



ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Blue Hairs at the Pool

What is it about people that the older some of us get, the less tolerance and regard we seem to have for the boundless energy and manic happiness of youth and childhood?

I'm not talking about those times when you're worn out, you just want to drop somewhere to take a nap, but your kids want to play Twister on the hardwood floor or have you drive them to the store to rent a movie. Or even those times when a group of obnoxious kids (any age) are screaming, kicking, crying, vandalizing, or otherwise mean-spiritidly rough housing in a way that would make any normal person question the apparent lack of adult supervision or the need to call 911.

I'm talking about those times when the good-natured antics of teenagers, tweens, toddlers and infants have no relevance to your life other than they are happening in close proximity to you.

A baby crying for a few minutes, for instance, does not annoy me. I also am not annoyed by teenagers grouped together in a public place making infantile jokes and laughing loudly, or children over-throwing a ball in a game of catch and having it bounce into my "zone," or kids peeking back over the pew in church to make faces at me. It's just kids being kids, right? We all went through those stages of development and now it's their turn.

I have to wonder, then, what happened to the little old ladies who frequent the pool at which we swim each summer.

To start with, and this has absolutely nothing to do with children, they seem to firmly believe the pool was built just for them. The rest of us are no better than the flies and mosquitoes that zip in and out of their ears, nose and eyes as they recline on the sweat-inducing plastic straps of the pool furniture. These ladies wedge themselves into the same exact spot in the shade of a roof overhang, regardless of who is already positioned there. They have no problem inching right up behind you, or shoving in front of you and blocking your path to the water and your view of your children as they play.

Even if they get their beloved area without constrictions, once perched you will hear them talking loudly about how terribly close they are to the bathroom doors. They don't seem to object to the actual bathrooms, in fact I think they like being close to the convenience of the bathrooms. No, they seem to object to the fact of other people using what they clearly like to think of as their personal toilets. You'll hear them muttering amongst themselves as people come and go, especially if any of those people are children, which brings us back to the topic at hand.

The other day, while lounging in the hundred-degree shade of the overhang, the first of the blue hairs arrived and crammed up so close behind us it dredged up memories of my last prostate exam. She was alone, so the mumbly grumbling was kept at bay for a little while. When the second blue hair showed up, the game was on.

"I don't know why they have to put all these tables under here," Blue Hair #1 said, motioning toward two tables piled high with pool toys, drinks, snacks and coolers.

"It leaves us no room," said Blue Hair #2, shooting sparks as she scraped a metal lounge chair along the concrete to position herself so close to my lovely wife that she could easily have assisted with her next pap smear. She looked into the pool where fewer than ten children were quietly playing. "There goes the pool today."

When the pool house gate opened a young family entered. Young mom, young dad, and two very young and well-behaved children filed in in a neat and orderly fashion.

"Hmph," grunted Blue Hair #2. "Here come even more of them."

I would hate to be the grandchild of any of these women. I can only imagine their homes are like candy-covered fairytale cottages stocked with fattening cages and ovens perfectly sized for the next visit from Hansel or Gretel.

I'm not sure exactly what these two old battle-axes thought they were buying into when they first moved to the area but apparently someone told them the neighborhood was a child-free compound, blessedly removed from the wanton frivolity of youthfulness. I suppose some people just want to grow old, shrivel up, and die surrounded by others like them, all hurrying on their way to the cemetery in their matching electric golf carts.

As I have grown older I have, from time to time, caught myself behaving in a curmudgeonly way. It is at these time that I reflect on the Blue Hairs at the pool and work hard to atone for my own poor behavior.

I was once one of three boys who would wrestle in the living room every night after dinner. I was once a teenager hanging out in the mall and laughing loudly with my friends. I was once a drunken college student stumbling my way through a residential neighborhood back to my apartment from the downtown bars. None of it was mean-spirited, and none of it was (intentionally) destructive.

I hope I can keep the curmudgeon away as I grow older. I'd hate it if, thirty years from now, someone is blogging about my lack of tolerance.



ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Lighting Up at the Pentagon

I've seen the Pentagon plenty of times from the outside, peeking down at it from the overpass while traveling sixty miles per hour on my way to or from the National Mall. It's an impressive building. Five sides, you know.

From the outside at high speeds in heavy traffic, the building, like many other things passed by at high speeds, becomes a footnote to a longer journey. Without the benefit of a close-up view to admire it's size and simple architecture, it is just another monument. It may stand for something but visually it stands out no different than the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial as a mass of concrete in urban sprawl.

Traveling to the Pentagon today, I must admit that I was much too absorbed in what I needed to accomplish to properly focus on the importance of the place to which I was going.

Did I have my rack cards, flyers, business cards, directories, displays and two forms of ID? Would the bungee cords I bought on the way from North Carolina be long enough to secure my belongings to the handcart I also purchased during the trip? Would the handcart fit through the turnstiles at the Metro? Does my SmartPass have enough money left on it from my previous trip to DC to last two round trips from Pentagon City Mall?

Even standing outside the building on line for the security screening I remained unfazed. We got through, holding up the line with all of our boxes loaded with propaganda, stood on line to get our visitor badges -- "Hey, why does yours have your name and picture on it but mine just says 'non-escorted visitor?'" -- and made our way to the courtyard.

Along the way were only a few easy-to-miss reminders of the purpose and importance of the building, like an American flag made of painted subway tiles positioned just inside the doors leading outside, or the hooded emergency escape masks packed into what first looked like oversize fire extinguisher cases.

The interior of the building has a sterile bustling feel to it, cleaner than a hospital and busier than an airport. At the same time, I couldn't help notice how genuinely friendly everyone seemed to be. When lost, we picked a woman at random and she changed route to show us the way, happily wishing us good luck even though she had no idea why we were there. Other people in sharp business wear or khaki military garb smiled and nodded. Almost everyone makes eye contact at the Pentagon.

I admit I thought the courtyard would be more impressive. Walking the short distance from one side to the other to set up our booth for the travel fair took only two minutes. A white tent long enough for twenty six-foot tables all draped with white linens stood most of the length of one of the five connecting walkways surrounding the courtyard. Within a few hot minutes, our table was set and we started receiving the first visitors to our booth.

Roughly 25,000 people work at the Pentagon, approximately one quarter of the population of the town in which I grew up, all crammed into a pretty small area each day. We visited with so many different kinds of people it was difficult to remember we were standing in the center of our nation's military command post. A career soldier would follow behind a contractor in an expensive suit, who followed a government employee from the secretarial pool, who followed a janitor, who followed a security guard with his K-9 patrol, who followed a visiting retiree with his grandchildren... You get the idea.

I'm not sure if the people responsible for the travel fair thought they were doing us a favor by placing the tent where it was, because the end result was our having a captive audience of a special kind of Pentagon employee during the event: Smokers.

The tent housing all of the booths was placed along the stretch of walkway reserved for smokers and, oddly enough, ran the exact length of the smoking section. I initially thought this a great idea. In order to indulge-- and there are quite a few smokers at the Pentagon -- people would be forced to stand close to the displays. Unfortunately, this also meant the entire population of Pentagon smokers was standing only a few yards away from us, chain-smoking themselves and second-hand chain-smoking the travel fair vendors to death.

You would think the fact of our fair taking place outside would have diminished the impact. It didn't.

Smoke wafted into our display area and became trapped under the tent's peaked roof. Several of us kept wondering why our throats felt so raw and our eyes were so irritated. By the end of the fair, I was just so ready to get away from cancer alley that any attempt to admire the Pentagon again as we exited was lost among thoughts of showering away the ashes.

Tomorrow we go in again for another round. If the weather forecast holds up, we could find ourselves lonely as rain will keep people from venturing out to our little tent. However, since it tends to have the same effect on the smokers, we might live a little longer if it rains.



ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Easily Distracted

This may mean nothing to anybody -- and, really, it shouldn't -- but there are times when I crack... my... self... up! Back in the recesses of my brain are these squishy little bits that find the stupidest things hilariously funny.

I may be walking down the street waiting for the dog to do her business, or putting an envelope in a mailbox, or sitting in my office trying to pay attention to a conference call, when a disassociated thought about nothing important becomes dislodged and tumbles like a boulder onto the rural mountain highway of my consciousness.

I try to ignore it but there it is, huge, demanding my attention, requiring that I deal with it before I can continue on my way.

Just this morning, for instance, my lovely wife explained her anxiety over having to present awards at the elementary school graduation ceremony while a stray thought worked hard to derail my focus. As she read out loud the script provided for the day's exercises, I couldn't help thinking how amusing it might be if she spoke in the voice of the jack-in-the-box from the Island of Misfit Toys. You know, the character from that Rankin & Bass Rudolph Christmas special from 40 years ago? But she should speak that way only when reading the scripted words, changing back to her normal voice when not reading from the script.

Pay attention, I told myself. She read on, unaware of my internal struggle.

Maybe the voice of Mr. Haney from Green Acres would sound funnier. She could walk up in her pretty summer dress, clear her throat and start right in with it. "Good morning, Mr. Douglas, and to all you fine ladies and gentlemen. Now I want to tell you about the greatest award ever handed out at this el-lee-mentary school..."

Pay attention!

Yep. That's how it works. I know I am supposed to be listening, being supportive and telling her she will do a great job (and I do tell her this). I just can't get around those pesky boulders.

My being equal measures assinine and infintile, many times the boulders in my way are nothing more than remembrances of flatulence. Mine, yours, someone else's, someone else's dog's, doesn't matter. Flatulence is funny. If flatulence weren't funny, most lucrative comedic ventures as we know them would not exist. And flatulence as a punch line is more well-regarded than you might think.

Did you know that Mark Twain, in an effort to amuse a friend, once wrote a story about Victorian-age stuffed shirts sitting around a table trying to figure out from which backside the horrible odor wafting across the room emanated? And why did he write this story, giving it the same loving care he gave to all his writings? Because fart jokes are the cornerstone of comedy.

Find someone who has never laughed at flatulence and you will have found a soulless drone.

So, the next time you think I'm paying attention and you suddenly notice a far-off look in my eyes, you can either tell yourself that I am concentrating hard on what you're saying or you can accept the fact I am more likely thinking of the last time you broke wind and tried to pretend it wasn't you by looking around for the source of the noise like an unpainted mime.

If I giggle inappropriately and for no apparent reason, that's a dead giveaway you should consider the latter option to be the case.



ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Steve Hackett: Prog Rock Greatness Resurfaces

Your first favorite music artist can be almost as important a factor in your life as your first crush or your first car. In fact, it might outweigh both. You likely haven't married your first crush and you probably had to push your first car into the dealership seventeen years ago in the hopes of getting $500 trade-in value.

But that first album you played until the vinyl disintegrated? It's still in its pristine sleeve hidden somewhere in your basement. You purchased the compact disc version fifteen years ago, the remastered compact disc eight years ago, and the 5.1 surround sound digitally remastered version off iTunes two years ago.

My first musical love was Genesis, right about the time they started hitting big in the early 1980s with "Abacab" and their self-titled 1983 release. From there I bought backward through the group's catalog, and then through the solo catalogs of the individual members of the group. While Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel were the popular favorites on radio and MTV at the time, I was won over by the eclectic sounds of their former lead guitarist, Steve Hackett.

The thing that drew me to Hackett's material, even as a teenager, was his mix of styles, sounds and arrangements. He worked this to great effect on his first solo albums from 1975 through 1980.

Then, when even classic rockers turned to techno-synth pop in the 1980s, Hackett unfortunately seemed to me to lose his way like the rest of them. Gone were the dramatic mood swings of the progressive era, the melodramatic wailing of the guitar, the unexpected shift to acoustics, the stately chords of the mellotron, the multi-layered vocals, the story-telling of the lyrics, and the complex bass work and drum sequences underlying it all.

However, having grown up a Mets fan, I understood the need to hang tough with my team. There were some rewards along the way. An entirely acoustic album of Nylon guitar in 1983 and then in 1986, when the Mets won the pennant, Hackett was back in the limelight teaming with Steve Howe of Yes fame for GTR. A few decent tracks, some rehashing of past glories, but more smoke and mirrors than substance. The group fell apart and Hackett was adrift yet again. The next decade saw him release several uneven albums, glimmers of greatness hidden in each, his most notable accomplishment being another acoustic album in 1988.

Then he did something unexpected that awoke the long-dormant, geeky, pimply teenage kid inside all of us prog rock fans... He went back in time 20 years to retool some of the classic Genesis songs. At first I hated it. The classic music is, well, classic. But it grew on me and I eventually learned to appreciate his take on the songs. After all, Phil Collins had reworked one of the songs off "Duke," so why shouldn't Hackett be allowed artistic freedom to put his spin on some of the songs he had helped create?

To my great delight, this project seemed to rekindle a fondness for the style of writing and playing that had brought him some measure of fame in the first place. Over the next decade he released a variety of albums that seemed to show his strengths being in the acoustic/orchestrated genre.

As enamored as I am with his abilities as a rock guitarist, his greatest accomplishment through 2005 was the acoustic/orchestrated "Metamorpheus." Anyone interested in understanding my fascination should listen to tracks 2-4 of this album. The combination of "To Earth Like Rain," "Song to Nature," and "One Real Flower" played uninterrupted and in order is breathtakingly beautiful.

Then, following up a rock release three years earlier that showed more hope than flaws, he released "Wild Orchids," his 2006 over-the-top masterpiece. The album raised the bar to record heights with its "everything-including-the-kitchen-sink" approach. Immaculately recorded and produced, in addition to featuring the strongest original music and lyrics of Hackett's career (which is saying something), "Wild Orchids" offers something for everyone. Bombast, delicacy, stylization, fiery orchestration, and the textures and intricate layering that had been missing on his electric albums since 1979. Most importantly, the story-telling had returned full force to kick out any remaining hint of formulaic lyrics.

For his latest album, "Out of the Tunnel's Mouth," my expectations were tempered, if only because I so enjoyed "Wild Orchids." I followed Hackett's personal strife over the past few years and rooted for him in his legal battles with his ex-wife and ex-partner. I've read his blog posts and listened to the sound bites offered up on his website as the album was being developed, just like a good geeky adoring fan should. As good as Hackett kept saying the album was, I had my reservations.

Well, I've owned the disc since Christmas and continue to play it over and over and over, much to my lovely wife's dismay.

You'd think I would have married a prog rock enthusiast, having lived off classic Genesis, Hackett, Yes, Peter Gabriel, Marrillion, and other similar artists since my teen years. But, no, my lovely wife is a fan of beat-driven modern disco. I'm not sure which of us thinks the other more loopy for our respective musical tastes. As a testament to our love for each other, she has learned over the years to tolerate and even enjoy some of my music -- in case she argues I would like to enter as evidence "Entangled" from the 1976 Genesis album "A Trick of the Tail" -- and I enjoy singing along to the Black Eyed Peas and Lady GaGa.

Anyway, while I still think "Wild Orchids" serves as a better showcase for Hackett's many talents, "Out of the Tunnel's Mouth" is a better album. For the first time since the late 1970s, Hackett presents a fully-conceived, tightly-knit album that focuses as much on the story-telling and composition as it does on performances and production values.

Whatever advancements come along in the ensuing decades, I can tell you now that this compact disc will be one that I keep, one that I own future re-masterings of, and one that I will never stop listening to. My apologies in advance to my lovely wife for the years of hardship this may cause her.



ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hot

I am hot. I am extremely, very, muchly, undesirably, sweatily, drippingly, head-achingly, filthily, and smelly hot.

If not for the fact of having met my wife, fallen in love, and created an amazing family here in North Carolina, I would without a moment's hesitation move to the Canadian tundra. It makes no sense at all for a pale, pasty, fluffy German from Long Island to live in a sub-tropical climate. If you're going to tell me North Carolina isn't sub-tropical, save your typing. Today, it feels fully tropical, so I was really already being kind.

The only reason I'm writing this blog post at all is because the laptop sits right above an air vent.

What the hell is wrong with people who like this kind of weather? My lovely wife loves it, so maybe she can tell me. How can you enjoy a day when the air itself is so heavy and humid you have to expend energy just to draw it into your lungs?

And did I mention that I'm pale? I can burn at the October state fair on a cloudy day. Yesterday, after only an hour in the sun spreading pinestraw, I could feel a burn developing on the back of my neck. I went inside to apply sunscreen but it was already too late.

Thank goodness our children don't have my extreme whiteness. Our daughter darkens so much each summer she no longer looks caucasian. Our Italian has beautiful skin that stays right in the middle at the GQ level of tan. Even the German tans, something I've never been able to do. Nope, for me it's always been white, to red, to white.

And as I sit here typing, I just told the boys that once I cool down we're going to Wendy's for lunch, Walmart for grocery shopping and then? Where else? To the pool to roast in the sun some more.

I must be brain-damaged.

P.S. Happy 51st Anniversary to Mom & Dad!



ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Friday, June 4, 2010

I'm With The Shniggler

It can be very interesting having a son with educational challenges.

Our German is ingeniously clever. He can build complex, moving structures with Legos and K'Nex having nothing but a photograph on a box to go by. Giving him the directions to read might actually slow him down. Reading at night with him requires patience and understanding. He can immediately recognize and fluently read words such as "complicated," or "exciting," or "incredible," but he struggles with "and" and "the." If a word starts with "h" then he will likely need help sounding it out. "H" is a huge obstacle for the German.

We walk a fine line in our home. We work hard to never make him feel stupid because he struggles to read simple words or find the right words to use in conversation. Unlike one of his school teachers from a few years ago, we don't chide him for needing help, or label him lazy because he doesn't finish a task on time. We know he frequently works twice as hard than his fellow students to accomplish less. Our goal is to ensure he doesn't get so frustrated that he gives up trying.

But that doesn't mean we won't laugh when a laugh is called for. Taking his condition seriously does not mean taking him seriously eight days a week, thirty hours a day. In my opinion, the best coping technique we can give him is the ability to recognize when he should let down his guard and allow himself, and others, the chance to laugh at something that is genuinely, even if unexpectedly, funny.

My mother's favorite example of this came one day when the German asked her about my brother, his uncle. The German could not remember his name and didn't bother trying. "Where is your other son?" he asked his grandmother. To this day, Mom enjoys refering to my brother as her "other son."

On another occasion, the German was asking my lovely wife something about her sister, who is a dental hygienist. Again, he could not remember the name of his relative, so he said: "Do you know that lady who's related to us that works on teeth?" A little longer than "your other son" but yet again a new title was created.

Sometimes, the German will just plain make up words, quite unintentionally, often without realizing he has done it.

A few months back, we were picking up one of our daughter's friends and we had our whole clan in the van. I stepped out to knock on the door and when the friend and I returned to the vehicle, everyone was laughing hard. It seems the German was explaining how his brother, the Italian, woke him up that morning. He meant to say that his brother had "jiggled" him awake but instead stated that the Italian had "shniggled" him.

I'm sorry. You have to laugh at "shniggle." To me, it sounds like a ride at an amusement park, like a really wild roller coaster that swoops through inverted loops and under walkways and into corkscrews, leaving your pants intact but magically making your underwear tear clean away. We came up with t-shirt slogans like "I'm With the Shniggler" and "I Survived the Shniggler." We laughed ourselves silly, the German just as much as the rest of us.

I am hopeful that, as he grows and matures, he does not lose his sense of humor and the understanding that the best laughs are caused unintentionally. Somehow I don't think the rest of us will let that happen.


ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Are People Crazier These Days?

It seems to come in groupings, maybe in threes, like celebrities dying.

Come on, you know! Gary Coleman died. Dennis Hopper died. Now who's going to round out the set? Somewhere in California or New York is an ailing or elderly celebrity scared sh-tless he or she might make headlines in the pushing-up-daisies section of the gossip mags.

It's the same with crazy people. You run into one, then you run into another, so you know not to let your guard down because somewhere soon the third is coming around a corner with a bucket full of unmedicated lunacy saved up just for you.

Without getting into too much detail -- by which I mean enough detail to get me fired, sued, or bitch-slapped -- in the past two months I have experienced some serious crazy.

No, I didn't leave out a word or misspell "craziness." You see, sometimes behavior is so crazy that the word "crazy" ceases to be an adjective and becomes a noun. In severe cases, it can even become a proper noun. Oh, it may sound like an adjective in conversation but what you can't see is the capitalization of the word as it precedes the name of a seriously deranged person. For instance: "I just saw Crazy Pam talking to imaginary squirrels."

Last month the crazy I experienced was work-related.

A fellow employee laid claim to an account already owned and worked by me. I stopped it. The fellow employee then sent six emails within the course of three hours, copying everyone and everyone's supervisor, explaining in wondrous detail how I was not being a team player, how I was actually the one somehow stealing an account I had owned for two years, and how I had somehow desecrated some non-existent client-salesperson relationship by calling my own client. You know, just recalling those kinds of details makes my head hurt again. I can't even begin to imagine the kind of tortured neurons and synapse relays in a brain that can dream up this kind of stuff and then convince itself it's all true. Serious crazy!

Now, in the past few days, we have experienced even more bizarre behavior. It's really too fresh and too difficult to explain without giving away who and what it is about to too many people, so I will simply say that my poor lovely wife has been dealing with something ridiculous from someone ridiculous. The worst part is she hasn't yet seen the worst part. While my lovely wife is sleeping soundly in our bed, she has no idea that a new email chock full of angry crazy is waiting to greet her in the morning.

Email is an amazing tool but it also can serve as an electronic jet stream carrying crazy from one computer to another at lightning speed. What people suffering from serious crazy don't realize is that emails are not temporary, transient bursts of digital magic that spit out their vitriol only to poof into nothingness the moment they are opened and read. A gem of a crazy email can, and often will, be forwarded.

I'm not exactly sure how my lovely wife will react in the morning when she reads the email full of angry crazy. However, after fifteen years of marriage, I have a pretty good idea.

So, now, the only thing left to do is wait for the next round of serious crazy to raise its multi-personalitied head. With any luck, I'll be busy dreaming up my own version of crazy when it comes calling.


ⓒ 2010 Mark Feggeler