Friday, December 30, 2011

New What?

Apparently, people don't celebrate the New Year anymore. Not according to the stores in my town, anyway.

An exhaustive search for plates and napkins that read "Happy New Year," or even ones that just show balloons with streamers and confetti popping in celebratory fashion, has yielded nothing. No horns, no hats, no plastic champagne glasses with the bases that fall off when your hands are full, no spinning crank noisemakers, no nothing.

Well, that's not exactly true. I didn't find nothing.

At Walmart, there were two end caps holding a handful of items each mysteriously priced at $2.47. A single cardboard hat that doesn't say "Happy New Year?" $2.47. A bag of four colorful horns that also don't in any way reference the coming new year? $2.47. Two slightly larger horns with glittery outer coverings that also don't speak to the purpose of the occasion? $2.47. So, if we want each of the thirty or so people who will gather at our house tomorrow night to have one cardboard had and one horn a piece, it will cost us approximately $100, and probably an extra 47 cents.

Other stores in the neighborhood weren't any more helpful. Harris Teeter barely had colored plates and napkins, forget about anything with a party theme. Lowe's Foods was equally barren of supplies, and the Rite Aid next door to it was already hawking Valentine's Day.

That left one store, the reliable store, the dependable store that always has what the other stores have already eliminated from their shelves. When in doubt, Dollar Tree.

But even Dollar Tree when I entered the store was in the process of repurposing the shelves that hold the seasonal fare. Remnants of Christmas baubles and bangles on the feature wall gave me hope I might still find New Year's items somewhere in the store. When I asked the young woman where I could find such things she gave me a look, pointed toward an end cap a little distance behind me, and grunted. I like to think she grunted. Otherwise, it was just gas escaping.

Unfortunately for me, had I been able to speak her language I would have understood her grunt to mean they no longer had any New Year's bric-a-brac in stock, but I was welcome to choose from the colorful Mardi Gras supplies. I returned home with red Solo plates, red Harris Teeter napkins, and red Walmart styrofoam dessert plates. I suppose next year I need to start my New Year's supply shopping between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

In the end, the important thing isn't what kind of plates or napkins we use, but instead the fact that we will usher in the new year surrounded by good friends. Happy New Year to all my friends and blog readers!



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Santa: Customer Service Guru

The Tooth Fairy doesn't have the best reputation at our house.

There have been a few occasions, most notably when our Italian was owed some money in exchange for a tooth left under his pillow, when the Tooth Fairy completely crapped out. It's possible the Tooth Fairy overslept, or went to bed without a single thought given to her responsibilities. The Tooth Fairy, it seems, needs to make herself a to-do list.

The first time the Italian came out to breakfast and informed us the Tooth Fairy had neglected her duties, at least she had the decency to leave a letter in the mailbox explaining how the door had been locked. To this day, I believe she was simply trying to throw blame off on me. The very next time the Italian lost a tooth, he reminded me of my past indiscretion to make sure the flighty fairy wasn't locked out.

Turns out it didn't matter. Yet again the unreliable pixie was a no-show. The Italian, being a pretty smart kid, bolted to the mailbox to find her letter of explanation instead of giving us a moment to reflect on the unreliability of fiduciary fairies. At first we thought she had forgotten entirely, for there was no letter to be found, but there it was taped to the front door. We had somehow missed it when we first went out. Sure enough, everything was my fault. Good for nothing fairy...

The one person who hasn't disappointed is Santa. Not only does Santa visit every year, nosh on some cookies, down a glass of fat free milk and leave a bunch of toys for good girls and boys, he also leaves a note to the kids praising them for a year well spent. Until last year, that is. Somehow, even the jolly old elf himself neglected to leave the traditional note. Oh sure, there were presents, but the kids were mighty disappointed to find Santa chose not to communicate directly with them. It's the kind of thing that raise doubts in the minds of even the most ardent believers.

Since My Lovely Wife and I are the kind of parents who naturally stay up late, it was no surprise for us to step into the living room this evening to find that Santa had already come and gone while we were dozing lazily in our room in front of the television. We could tell he'd been there because some of the cookies had bites missing and the milk was gone. But, most importantly, he left a letter, the contents of which are as follows:

"Dear Sara, Noah & Nathan,
How’s Lily doing? She seemed a little on the chubby side last year when I came to visit, but then who isn’t a little chubbier than they used to be? Oh, that’s right, Noah isn’t! Anyway, I wanted to apologize for not leaving a note last year. Mrs. Claus and I had all of the written out and packed in a box on the sleigh on Christmas Eve. Then, just as we started to get Dasher and Dancer harnessed up for the big ride, I saw Rudolph pull his head out of the box with a whole stack of letters. Yes, that’s right, my reindeer ate my homework... I want you all to know how good I think you have been this past year! You’ve been listening to your parents and minding your teachers. You’ve all received excellent marks at school, and you are wonderfully supportive of all your friends. Keep up the great behavior and have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Love, Santa"


The children will no doubt be delighted to hear that Santa thinks highly of them. I'm just glad to know there's someone in this world who understands the importance of taking responsibility without playing the blame onto innocent bystanders. The Tooth Fairy could learn a thing or two from this Santa guy about customer service.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thanks a Lot, Victoria...

Years ago, I was searching for something special to give My Lovely Wife for Christmas. It was a stage in our relationship when I hadn't yet learned not to waste time buying her clothes.

Word to the wise, if you're considering buying your wife clothes you should hand her instead the money you would have spent and a set of car keys. She's going to bring it back to the store no matter how hard you tried to match her size and style, and you'd better hope she gets a full refund instead of store credit so she can pocket the cash and get herself something from a store she actually likes.

Anyway, several years of togetherness had emboldened me enough to venture into Victoria's Secret to scout for a present. Why Victoria's Secret? Because Frederick's of Hollywood scared the crap out of me. Everything on display at Frederick's of Hollywood looked like Tim Curry's spare wardrobe from Rocky Horror Picture Show. There might be a few corners of Victoria's Secret that, even now, I shy away from to avoid feeling like the resident middle-age perve, but at least Victoria's Secret doesn't stock every shelf with fur-lined, crotchless, black lace panties. If that's your thing, God bless you, they just seem rather impractical to me.

So, there I was, wandering aimlessly among racks of ladies' delicates and bras, lingerie and lacy undergarments, when a sign announcing five pairs of panties for just twenty-five dollars presented itself.

I normally fret over buying underwear even for myself, so don't ask me why the notion of purchasing panties for my wife suddenly struck me as a stroke of genius. It's the kind of thing that could end in tears, reproach, and recriminations, being a meaningless Christmas gift similar in sentimental value to an ironing board or a skillet.

"Here, I thought you needed new drawers. Don't worry, they were on sale."

See what I mean? The only way to make it potentially more creepy and less heartfelt would have been if I had bought used panties from Goodwill and wrapped them with a free sample pouch of detergent.

And what if I bought the wrong size?! That's a whole nother can of worms to be opening on Christmas morning. Nothing says "I love you" like giving your wife a present that suggests you thought she was a whole lot bigger than she really is, or implies you think she needs to lose weight.

On Christmas morning when she unwrapped the pretty pink box, My Lovely Wife gave me the pitying, unenthusiastic look I should have expected. But her opinion of the gift quickly changed once she tried them on. Somehow, by the grace of some Christmas miracle that must have missed its intended target and veered off into Victoria's Secret during my visit to the mall, I managed to bring home the exact right size and style. Each Christmas since then, a box in pink wrappings has appeared under the tree.

Until now.

Because the geniuses at Victoria's Secret decided to alter the shape and fabric of one of their best selling undergarments, that perfectly proportioned panty now exists only in name, a fact we discovered last year only after the box was opened.

And so ends an annual tradition. Thanks a lot, Victoria's Secret. Where am I supposed to buy my panties now?



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Place Where Wild McNuggets Grow

Our first dog was a Dalmatian, which is kind of like owning a sixty-pound, beatifully decorated, maniacally affectionate garbage disposal on four legs.

Pepper, as we called her, never met an object she wouldn't introduce to her digestive system. A wicker bed, bark from a plum tree, asbestos shingles off our first house, broken Coke bottles, five-dollar bills from my dresser... You name it, that dog ate it.

One day she ate an entire tube of A&D ointment, a vitamin-fortified vaseline. Why somebody found it necessary to develop and market vitamin-fortified vaseline is beyond my comprehension. We had a tube of it to apply to Our Daughter's nether regions during diaper changes, because we were told that's what parents do. Pepper snuck into the room and downed the contents, container and all, resulting in several days of suffering through an excessively greasy coat and extreme sphinctal clenching.

Our second dog, a poodle named Lily, is much less daring in her adventures. There have been a few blips on the radar. Chewed window blind cords, a few strands of carpet pile when she was a puppy, and a candy bowl raid one holiday season are the only blemishes to an otherwise squeaky clean record. Unlike her predecessor, if Lily heads for something she shouldn't eat, she actually obeys if you tell her to stop, which is why her behavior the other night came as such a surprise.

It happened so quickly, I didn't even realize she had found anything in the grass while we took one last stroll before bedtime. We were barely outside long enough for her to squeeze out an ounce of poodle piddle, so I don't know how she managed to track down this particular object and carry it back into the house on the sly, all the while avoiding the urge to wolf it down.

Just inside the door, Our Daughter looked oddly at the dog and asked "What is Lily eating?"

"Nothing," I said.

Yet when I checked the dog's mouth there it was, clenched between teeth locked tightly down like a steel trap on a wild animal: a McDonald's chicken McNugget.

With fingers pinching the protruding poultry, my brain retraced our steps. All we did was cross the street, she peed in the grass, and we walked straight back to the house. How could this dog -- the same dog that takes no notice of squirrels and rabbits darting across the road not ten feet in front of her, the same dog you have to forcibly lead to kitchen scraps that have fallen to the floor -- how could she possibly have managed to root out an errant McNugget like a crazed pig foraging for truffles?

"Drop it," I told her in that deep, trailing, serious tone we all adopt when instructing domesticated animals and children to stop doing whatever it is they shouldn't be doing.

All I got was a sneering sidelong glance from a poodle ready for a fried nuggety game of tug-of-war, but I wasn't letting go. She eventually relinquished her prize and followed me hopefully to the trash can where she spent the remainder of the evening mourning the loss of her splendid catch.

Ever since, even though I tried to make it up to her the following day with a few pieces of chicken Marsala, I still find her lingering when we pass that spot across the street where wild McNuggets grow.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, December 12, 2011

Eat the Stupid Cookie Dough

Why wouldn't you eat cookie dough?

Crunchy crystals of undissolved sugar in a creamy batter of raw flour and egg, seasoned with a touch of vanilla and a pinch of salt, a liberal portion of semi-sweet chocolate morsels swimming at all depths in the magical concoction. Forget licking the bowl, if I could I'd wear it like a hat and let the delectable contents run slowly toward my mouth over the course of the day.

But there are some who warn against such behavior, not just because it gets your hair all sticky, but because of the remote threat of being sickened by E coli. I'm sick and tired of hearing about E coli. It's on unwashed lettuce, it's in undercooked hamburger, they find it in groundwater, kids catch it from goats at the petting zoo... Enough, already!

If E coli is out to get me, it's got many more creative methods at its disposal than lurking on my spatula or attaching itself to a chocolate chip. Let E Coli take its chances. I'll swallow it whole and chase it down with Imodium.

And, I'm just making assumptions here, I have to think that the quantity of cookie dough consumed might also have something to do with the problem of people getting sick. Cookie dough, like Pretzel M&Ms, should be classified a hazardous material and the government should require a special permit or licence to handle it. Simply being in the presence of this unstable substance is enough to drive the common sense straight out of the minds of the most balanced individuals.

Being a lifelong cookie dough connoisseur, I've learned from firsthand experience that I can't plunk my fat ass down in the kitchen and eat an entire tube of the stuff like a ravenous beast attacking a summer sausage. Too much of a good thing, as they say. Moderation is key to enjoying any good cookie dough.

And a note to parents: stop telling kids the raw eggs in the batter will make them sick. Rocky Balboa drank raw eggs for breakfast and we never saw him puking on the streets of Philadelphia or ducking into a public restroom because he was about to blow out his shorts. Nuff said.

So, this holiday season when the mixing bowls come out of storage and even the least talented bakers break out traditional recipes so tried and true there's no way to screw them up, do yourself a favor and dig your fingers in up to the third row of knuckles and tear away a fistful of heaven.

Just make sure the chocolate chips have already joined the party.




© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Beasts at the Buffet

Shortly before we were to be married, my Lovely Fiance and I attended a wedding reception at the very same resort we had selected to host our upcoming reception.

It was the same place where, in 1993, we had announced our engagement to our family members over a lovely Mother's Day brunch. Elegant appointments gave the dining hall the proper feel of a turn-of-the-century country club, and the main building itself was nestled neatly under towering longleaf pines. The stately beauty of the location and our sentimental attachment to it made it the perfect place for our reception, and there we were about to get a sneak peak at the skill of the staff we were entrusting to manage our special day.

In fairness to the resort itself, the primary thing wrong with the wedding we attended was the guest list. From whatever town, state or country they came, many of the guests in attendance seemed to be of the opinion they were attending a party thrown for their enjoyment rather than a celebration to honor the couple getting married.

The first indication of their boorish behavior was evident immediately upon entering the reception hall. A crowd of beefy, red-faced people swarmed the small buffet of finger foods and greedily emptied the chafing dishes of their contents with no consideration for other guests. Within fifteen minutes, the first few dozen people had carried away heaped plates of chicken tenders and meatballs while the rest of us milled about waiting for the resort to replenish the buffet.

We waited a long time.

When the couple of honor finally arrived, the crowd cheered as the they performed the ceremonious cutting of the three-tier cake. Little did we know the guests were cheering more for the cake than for the newlyweds.

Moving directly from the cake to their first dance as husband and wife, the newlyweds no doubt assumed the resort staff would cut the cake and distribute servings to all their guests. That's what I would have assumed, but I find the longer I live the more often my assumptions turn out to be false.

The hungry, hungry wedding guests had been waiting close to an hour for fresh chicken tenders and meatballs that were stubbornly refusing to appear. The prospect of a secondary source of sustenance in such close proximity sparked a ferocious feeding frenzy that would have embarrassed a school of pirhanna had there been one around to witness it.

While my Lovely Fiance admired the newlyweds on the dance floor, I watched in disbelief as wedding guests -- including those of the beefy, red-faced variety that had already eaten -- stabbed plastic forks into the middle tier of the cake and dragged their portions of the kill onto their disposable plates. Before long the upper tier and its topper swayed wildly as the wild-eyed guests continued to gut the cake supporting them. I seemed to be the only person not surprised when the entire thing came crashing down to the ground.

The very next week, my Lovely Fiance had a long and pointed conversation with the resort staff. We had no reason to think our guests would behave in a similar beastly fashion if ran out of food, but we weren't takng any chances.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, December 4, 2011

He Knows You Love Him

Some little while ago, when our daughter was only five years old and her brothers were only two, we experienced the loss of a loved one.

Within just a few months of being diagnosed with cancer, my Father-in-Law had gone from an able bodied man -- capable of driving himself and his wife back from a Florida cruise vacation -- to hospice patient. We watched in a state of disbelief as he slipped quickly away, the look in his eyes growing more and more distant with each passing day. The final night, when hospice warned his family he likely would not make it through to morning, we gathered to support my Mother-in-Law and say our goodbyes.

I had been part of my wife's family for a decade by that time, but it felt much longer. It seemed almost impossible to believe that this memorably quirky and gentle man would be only a dreamlike memory for our daughter and probably not even that for our toddler sons. That thought struck home forcefully the night we visited with him that last time.

The twins played, or watched Blues Clues, or did one of the many things that distract two-year-old boys. Our daughter was similarly distracted by family.

As the evening waned and we could no longer postpone the inevitable, we took it in turns to enter the master bedroom to say our private farewells. There was never a moment when I thought of bringing the boys in to say goodbye. They were too young to understand, and potentially too reckless to be around such a frail patient, but our daughter was a different case. She knew her grandfather well. She seemed to understand why we were spending so much time at her grandparents' house and why she hadn't seen much of Poppy in recent weeks. It would have been cruel not to give her the same opportunity for closure the rest of us were being afforded.

As I stood at his bedside holding my little girl in the crook of my arm, he watched us. Whether or not he knew we were there is uncertain. It seemed to me he noticed when I positioned her over him so she could kiss him on the forehead, though that might be wishful thinking. It also might have been wishful thinking to believe our daughter fully understood what she was doing with that kiss. She never cried, never got upset, never questioned his feeble appearance.

For my part, I thanked him for giving me his daughter and for being a loving father-in-law. The words were difficult to get out, but they came. What didn't come were the last few words I wanted to tell him before leaving the room. I tried, only to choke them back for fear of breaking down.

I fixed my eyes on anything in the room that might help reign in my emotions for just another few seconds so I could tell him I loved him. It wasn't helping. Eventually, after two more false starts and with swollen red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, I looked at my daughter's cherubic happy face.

She didn't ask me what was wrong. My sadness didn't unsettle her or make her cry. She simply smiled and said: "It's okay Daddy. Poppy knows you love him."

That's when I knew she understood why we were there.




© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, November 28, 2011

Growing Up a Muppet

Have you gone to see the new Muppet Movie yet? No? Well, what the heck is wrong with you?!

Okay, so the Muppets haven't always been a surefire guarantee of quality entertainment. The standards of excellence have fluctuated over the decades, even under the direct supervision of puppet master Jim Henson, but there's always been an endearing and undeniable sweetness to the Muppets that kept them in the hearts of kids like me who refused to mature.

It all began for us with Sesame Street's educational fortification from puppet parodies of hippie pop culture and a slew of characters who displayed by example how to (or not to) behave. The inhabitants of that fanciful city block -- even Oscar the Grouch and geeky Bert -- were our friends. They accepted us the way we were and we loved them for it.

When The Muppet Show first aired in 1976, those of us who were still wishing we could fly like Super Grover or binge with Cookie Monster were ready. Kermit, the only crossover from Sesame Street, guided the way to a more adolescent sensibility while retaining the harmless charm we trusted.

I can only assume being at that perfect age to experience the Muppets' development from children's programming to family entertainment is similar to the experience of those children who recently grew up with the three primary protagonists from the "Harry Potter" books and films. There's a kinship kindled from such extreme familiarity and the overwhelming sense of connection to the characters. Just as so many teenagers (and adults) today know every last detail about the magical world created by J.K. Rowling, so do many people my age fondly recall details of a world populated by Muppets.

Released last week over the Thanksgiving holiday, the latest Muppet film recalls the very best of Kermit-led entertainment, warts and all. Drippy sentimentality, a 50-50 ratio of success for all jokes and sight gags, a slew of cameo appearances, inspired new music and characters, unnecessary plot lines that slow the movie down, references to skits and songs so ingrained in our collective subconscious that even the most jaded people in the audience find themselves humming along -- it's all there!

You see, I don't ask for perfection from my Muppets, the same way I don't ask for perfection from my children and My Lovely Wife. Expecting perfection only sets one up for disappointment because nothing is ever perfect. The only thing I expect is a non-stop, machine gun approach from which I'm assured only the possibility of enjoying myself if I overlook what falls flat and choose to focus instead on the bits and pieces that touch my heart, or my funny bone, whichever is more receptive at the applicable moment.

In an effort to either inspire a new era of Muppet entertainment or offer the Muppets the opportunity to go out in style, the makers of the new movie have given us Muppets at the top of their game. And, similar to the first movie all those years ago, the focus this time is on the Muppets themselves.

Go see The Muppet Movie. You owe it to the kid in you.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hockey?

So, the Italian and the German want to play hockey next year. More specifically, they want to play roller hockey. We do live in the Sandhills of North Carolina, after all. Ponds crusted over with four inches of ice are in short supply.

In preparation for the spring municipal elementary-age roller hockey season, our boys have been working since summer to hone their roller blading skills. The Italian, by this point, glides effortlessly along, executing hairpin turns and managing slopes and rough terrain with uncharacteristic grace. The German hasn't yet let go of his fear of falling, so he plods along, one foot at a time, arms flung out like some creature from a low-budget 1970s roller disco zombie movie.

The biggest surprise is the Italian, normally, is the uncoordinated twin. He's skinny and strong, but also clumsy and impatient. Take swimming, for instance. The cherubic German slices through a pool with the mechanical consistency of a precision machine while his Italian brother barely makes half the progress as he flails at the water like it's challenged him to a no-rules death match.

My greatest concern about the two of them playing hockey isn't the threat of injury from flying pucks, high-sticking, or hot-headed opponents. It isn't even the smell from sweat-soaked socks, shirts, and assorted hockey equipment. What concerns me most is my lack of understanding about hockey.

Please allow me to drive that point home a little more emphatically: What concerns me most is my complete and absolute lack of knowledge about anything in any way related to hockey, or just about any sport ever invented by man or beast. If it involves teams, sides, competitiveness, a ball, a basket, a net, a stick, a bat, a horse, a jersey, or any combination of those items, I probably don't understand it and won't find any way to feign interest in it.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid my indifference toward sports has rubbed off on my sons. It's possible they are the only people in the world who know less and care less about sports than I. Not that we haven't tried to get them interested over the years.

We tried soccer when they were about five. Why soccer? I can't recall. Personally, I find it more exciting to count the hairs in my nose than to watch a soccer match. The boys seemed interested, at first, but after a few games we realized the German was more interested in wearing the little orange cones like a hat, and the Italian was more focused on chatting up the girls on the field of play than paying attention to the ball.

Baseball the next year wasn't much of an improvement, and neither was golf the year after that. Any interest they showed early on quickly waned. Not being a sporty kind of guy, I can't say that I was altogether disappointed.

But now they want to play hockey, a sport as comprehensible to me as quantum physics. With any luck, this phase will soon pass and I'll find myself sitting in their school auditorium watching them perform supporting roles in "Beauty and the Beast," or some other scaled-down version of an off-Broadway play with homemade costumes and paper mache backdrops. I understand paper mache and can stitch a mean hem, so these things make sense to me.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, November 7, 2011

Off the Rack

The size of a problem sometimes can be measured in inches. In my case, however, the measurement itself poses a new problem.

Being neither tall nor short, thin nor fat, lands one in a confundatory middle ground that clothiers must assume can be served with approximates and guesstimates. The exceptionally-sized people of the world might find it frustrating never to be able to purchase clothes off the rack, but what they don't appreciate is the Law of Acceptability those of us who can have had to accept.

Do these jeans look good on me? Well, they poof out around your ass and make your legs appear bowed. But they fit around the waist and hang well at your heel. They're acceptable.

I have managed to reign in my weight recently, so I don't need a thirty-six inch waist. However, I certainly haven't shed enough pounds to warrant needing a thirty-four inch waist. What I need at times like these is for some retailer to order and stock pants that measure thirty-five inches in the waist. Yet, for some reason, the only jeans I regularly find in a thirty-five inch waist are buttonflies. It bewilders me that they even make buttonflies anymore. I had a pair of buttonfly jeans back in high school and I nearly peed myself five times just trying to get the damn things off in time.

And don't get me started on shirts and suit jackets.

When I buy a suit, it's a silly exercise for the tailor to even wrap the tape measure around my chest. I need a forty-three regular. Okay? Got that? A forty-three regular. Now, go into any men's clothing store and try to find me a forty-three regular. Regardless of the store, there are always only five crammed between the forty-twos and forty-fours, and they look like they've been hanging there since 1944.

Shirts are easier to find, but we go right back to the Law of Acceptability.

How does this shirt look? Well, it's baggy around your belly and you're tucking three extra feet of shirt into your pants. But it fits you well across the chest and the collar is roomy enough that your head doesn't look like it's going to pop off. It's acceptable.

A large shirt is just small enough to restrict breathing, pinch my armpits, and untuck if I so much as think of moving. An extra-large shirt, which is what I end up buying, can sometimes make me look like a kid who raided his Daddy's closet for a game of dress-up.

Maybe someday, before I die, someone somewhere will realize that people come in all shapes and sizes, including those in between the ones they already think we are.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Friday, November 4, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Wishing for all the most wonderful things for My Lovely Wife on her birthday!

From the moment we met backstage at a dinner theater in Southern Pines ("Your name's Teri, right?"), I have watched her change from stranger, to girlfriend, to wife, to mother -- all with a grace and ease (and the occasional panic attack) that continually inspire me and make me proud to be her husband.

Thank you for all that you have given me. Where would I be without my Myrtle Mae, my best friend, my love, my soulmate, My Lovely Wife?

Happy Birthday, Teri!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

An Inconvenient Fish

It was a big deal when we brought the twins home from the hospital. Having already survived the first years of parenting a single child, we knew we were in for double trouble and tried our best to be prepared.

First and foremost was ensuring that our 3-year-old daughter did not feel overlooked or pushed aside in all the excitement. After all, she was going from center stage spotlight in a one-woman show to equal billing with two relative unknowns in a loosely scripted performance. We began the assimilation process in the hospital with the sharing of gifts. She gave the boys their very first rattle toys and they each gave her a doll. I'm still astonished at the quality of shopping that can be accomplished from within the womb. For my wife's sake, I hope they were internet purchases.

As we had hoped, Our Daughter instantly became a second mother to her little brothers. Upon their arrival home she desperately wanted to introduce them to their new surroundings and dazzle their two-day-old eyes with the magnificence of her prized possessions. That's when things started to slip sideways.

Months earlier, at the North Carolina State Fair, Our Daughter won a goldfish. I don't have anything against state fair goldfish, unless, of course, they choose to come home with me.

The state fair goldfish is not the most robust creature on God's green earth. Its lifespan is anywhere from a few months on the outside, to a few seconds after the crack-skinny carnie fishes him out of the barrel and ties him up in that little plastic bag. Also, they smell, and not like fish. A fish smelling like fish makes sense to me, regardless of the unpleasantness. But somehow a goldfish creates an odor like no other swimming thing. It hovers in place all day long, eating orange mystery flecks, and trailing impressively long strings of excrement that somehow make an entire room smell like a rotting squirrel in a stagnant pond.

Our Daughter was proud of that smelly state fair goldfish. She named her Dorothy and fed her every day. Dorothy was the very first thing she wanted to share with her new brothers. Unfortunately, even though Dorothy had managed to survive all the way from October 2000 to May 2001, it was the very day we brought the boys home from the hospital that Our Daughter found Dorothy floating belly up in her bowl with bulging eyes and a ghostly white pallor.

Stupid, smelly state fair goldfish.

After consoling her over the loss of Dorothy, we were happy to see Our Daughter regain her composure and focus instead on the greater meaning of the day. Okay, so the fish was dead. There remained an entire house full of wondrous baubles and bangles with which to dazzle her baby brothers, like that bottle of sand art. Perfect! It was shiny and colorful and sparkly and just the kind of treasure any 3-year-old girl adores.

She plucked the bottle off its low shelf, enthusiasm spreading in a wide smile that drew upwards through the tracks of her tears of mourning, and headed down the hallway to show off her prize. Seconds later, our sweet sniffling daughter burst out in peals of ear-shattering cries. The top of the bottle had broken off in her hands, cutting her finger and sending a rainbow shower of fake sand all over the beige hallway carpet.

Sometimes fate seems determined to spoil a special moment.

You might be tempted to think the experiences of that day served as a looming omen of the quality of their future relationships, but young children are far more resilient -- and forgetful -- than most adults. Our Daughter and her brothers are sweetly loving to each other, marred only by brief requisite eruptions of female teenage hormones and tweenage little brother obnoxiousness.




© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, October 24, 2011

March On By

Sitting in the shadows of towering pines on a raw North Carolina Saturday, the autumn sun setting low behind chilled metal bleachers as our boys struggle to keep from spilling hot chocolate on their lap blankets, the impending end to our first season of high school marching band lies only one week away.

Like many of the phases in the lives of parents, our introductory season as marching band volunteers in support of Our Daughter and her classmates came upon us with a bang, only this time the literal bang of a bass drum. The responsibilities ahead appeared daunting at first. Then, before we knew it, we were in the thick of things, learning as we went. Now that we feel as though we have finally figured it all out, it is time to forget everything we've learned and move on to the next phase.

If the hours and days dedicated to the marching band seemed long to us, they were twice as taxing for our diligent flautist. She learned to march in step with more than one hundred bandmates without missing a beat of the fifteen-minute program they all memorized. My Lovely Wife and I learned how to manage parking at band competitions, prep water stations, and set up pit equipment such as marimbas and drum major stands. We dedicated a few Saturdays and Friday nights. She forfeited several hours after school twice a week since the beginning of the school year. She had to choose between band and ballet. So long to toe shoes and "Nutcracker" recitals, hello to marching in the cold and rain on muddy fields.

The amount of preparation and work that goes into a single marching band performance at a single high school football game is remarkable. One week of summer camp for incoming freshman. Another week of summer camp for the entire band. Monday and Wednesday after school rehearsals until 6:00pm, if not later. Finally escaping home football games at 10:30pm, or returning from band competitions at 11:00pm, only to meet up with friends over tater tots and milkshakes at Sonic Drive In for another hour before wending wearily home.

I can say that while I will miss the activity, I'll appreciate the newfound down time. Frantic flurries of activity can be fun, but they are weak substitutes for quality time. The time has come for the kids to put down their instruments, shove aside the extra workload, and return to the already challenging task of being high school students.

And despite how impressed I have been with the quality of the music the band has created, I will not miss the "Sound of Music" medley they have performed so incessantly that they all surely must be afflicted by nightmares in which a green-and-gold clad Julie Andrews chases them across Austrian mountainsides with a Sousaphone. I've heard "Edelweiss" so many times it makes my butt itch. I can only imagine how the high schoolers who have to play it over and over must feel.

So, although an important chapter for our high school freshman is coming to a close, we will savor a final performance this coming Saturday as the marching band competes one last time. The friendships Our Daughter has forged will carry her through the remainder of the year. And before she even realizes it, we'll be driving her to the 2012 marching band summer camp.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, October 20, 2011

I Have a Question

The Italian speaks quickly, determined to make his point and move on like a rapid-fire Nerf gun to the next on his list of discussion topics. He doesn't hold back. Ever.

He talks during the favorite song you're struggling to hear. He talks during dinner. He talks while watching television. He talks to himself in the shower. He talks when using the computer. He even talks when he's talking, sometimes tripping one conversation over another in his haste to express all the thoughts in his head.

In terms of vocabulary, the Italian has the best developed of the five people under our roof. He reads semi-voraciously -- a fourth grader reading at an eighth grade level -- and has the retention of a steel trap, so his stockpiled arsenal of words is varied and vast.

The German is more reserved. He often assumes a distant role, allowing others to take the lead in the doing while he absorbs through observation. No less intelligent than his twin brother, he is deceptively inquisitive. Make no mistake: his silence and the faraway look in his eyes are a facade.

When he does speak it is with great deliberation and lengthy pauses. Whether due to his dyslexia, or simply to a naturally laconic nature, discussions with the German require patience and assistive prompting when he's searching for the correct word or the best way to express a thought. On those rare occasions the German has something to say, it's important to brace yourself for the conversational equivalent of something akin to a cross between twenty questions and Mad Libs.

There are two ways in which these conversations begin. More often than not, he'll walk quietly up to you and state "I have a question."

When this happens, there is only a fifty-fifty chance of being posed a question to which he does not know the answer. It can often be a thinly veiled ploy to draw you into a conversation, or to get you to explain basic details, about something you've already discussed.

His other frequent conversation starter arrives in the form of a question. "Guess what?" the German will ask and wait for you to inquire.

Sixty percent of the time he will enlighten you about some nugget of information he learned during the course of his day. Thirty percent of the time he will recall some shared experience to reminisce about it with you. Ten percent of the time, by the time you respond to his "Guess what," he will have forgotten what it was he wanted to tell you.

But don't worry when that happens. If you're still in the mood for a conversation, all you have to do is find the Italian. Just follow the sound of his voice.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bra Shopping in the Laundry Room

So, I'm stepping into clean underwear after taking a shower. Almost immediately, it becomes apparent this simple first step of dressing myself will not end successfully.

My foot barely makes it through the leg hole and all progress stops halfway up my thigh. A fleeting sensation of disorientation leaves me wondering if the world is shrinking, or if I've suddenly ballooned out of my wardrobe.

Then I notice the lettering across the waistband does not match that of the brand I typically wear. These are Hanes, whereas the looms I prefer yield fruit. Clearly, I am attempting to wear my son's underwear. About time, too.

Not that I enjoy stress testing the elastic in other people's clothing, but it's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who mistakenly sends the wrong under garments to the wrong members of the family. Even though the boys stand far below my height, their clothes are entering that gray zone of no longer being so radically different from mine that they are easily distinguishable as children's clothes. What this means is I can soon look forward to the wrong socks, wrong jeans, wrong shoes, and even the wrong Disney t-shirts cluttering up my closet and dresser.

Over the past few years, as Our Daughter inconveniently and deliberately matured into a variation of My Lovely Wife, it became difficult for me to determine which garments belonged to whom. I really did give it my best effort at first, but now I try not to waste too many brain cells on something I'm likely to get wrong anyway. When the only significant difference between two bras coming out of the laundry is color of material, it's a hopeless cause.

The best thing to come out of it has been the indirect reinforcement of an earlier mandate to stop placing bras in the dryer. Since my underwear has never been nearly so finicky about the drying process as theirs, I initially struggled to follow this rule.

These days, I search dilligently for brassieres before shifting wet clothes from the washing machine to the dryer. I hang them on pegs around the laundry room so they can air dry, leaving me free of the difficulties of sorting them later and allowing the ladies of the house to shop through the laundry for them at their leisure.

I just hope there's enough room for all our tidy whities once the boys get to be my size.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Naughty Bits

I've discovered the key to bloggerific internet success and I'm ready to share it with you. Lean close to your computer screen and I'll whisper it in your ear.

A little closer.

Closer...

Here it is. Don't tell anyone, okay?

Naughty words.

You must understand how foolish I felt upon discovering this simple truth after having spent the past two years worrying about the content of my blog posts. Content, feh! What good has it done me to fret over wording, context, grammar and style? Where is the reward for baring my soul (or at least my chocolate cravings) to the world?

Had I known all this time that the key to driving traffic to my silly blog lie in the placement of a few carefully combined mischievous morphemes in the title of each post, I would have scoured the world to quarry a collection of indecorous utterances for just that purpose.

Forget about sentimental stories of my children and Lovely Wife. Forget humorous rants about whatever might be striking my fancy on any given day. Forget, again, any rules learned through years of schooling and professional practice regarding sentence structure and supporting a thesis. They all have led me nowhere in a great big hurry.

Blog post titles such as "Toilet on the Edge," "Pink Snuggie Thief," and "Sissy Hissy Fit" also have not paid off in comparison to the value of the time spent creating them, especially when compared to the traffic generated by two little words in the title of one recent post. What are those two words?

Naked Midgets.

Back on August 11th, I published a post titled "Frilly Beds & Naked Midgets." The post initially received the same immediate response most of my posts receive. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it. I wrote it, some friends and family read it, and we all moved on with our lives.

But two months later it has not died. It is the most visited post of the 130 I've written so far, with a 60% lead on the next closest post. Each and every day it receives at least one more hit. Think I'm exaggerating? A quick check of the stats shows exactly 31 surfers finding this blog in the last 30 days because they searched for those words and only those words.

So, with the data seemingly backing up my hasty hypothesis, I fully intend from this moment forth to craft salaciously suggestive titles for all future blog posts, regardless of the content. Keep an eye open for my next post, "Chunky Butts."

I don't know what it will be about, but I guarantee it'll rocket to the top of the charts!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Lullaby for Mr. Mushpie

In the book Holes, the mother of one of the main characters sings a lullaby to her tweenage son. It's a touching moment that was not lost on our boys earlier this week as we came to the end of the novel during one of our nightly reading sessions.

I did my best to craft a melody for the lyrics the author had written. The German smiled sweetly and the Italian hid his face under his bedcovers as I sang. The book was closed to the muffled sounds of sniffling.

The German is not typically mischievous, but his reaction to his brother's sudden bout of sentimentality was to find a way to draw out a few more tears by asking if I would treat them to one of the songs I used to sing before they grew too big for lullabies. The Italian immediately protested.

When our children were infants, my primary defense against a baby too cranky to fall asleep was to sing. You'll never see me on American Idol, or even at a local karaoke night, belting out showtunes and crooning ballads. My ability to carry a tune surpasses only my natural athletic ability, if only because I have no natural athletic ability.

Sometimes I would hum a simple melody while cradling one of them in the crook of my arm. A gentle swaying kept them mesmerized by the passing blur of the ceiling above. Other times a proper song with distracting words was necessary to make the tiny bologna loaves focus on my face and the sound of my voice to help them drift away to dreamland. The song wouldn't end until they were resting peacefully in their cribs or pack 'n play.

One song became my go-to staple in the battle against unsleepy babies: "Hymn," a 1997 song by Jars of Clay. I didn't abuse it. Only if other methods failed would I summon its otherworldly power to drain the fight and fuss from an irritable infant. Several years later the song "Evermore" by Alison Krauss joined the evening bedtime playlist. When the German asked for a lullaby the other night, it was one of these two songs he wanted to hear.

"I hate those songs!" the Italian declared.

He doesn't really hate them. In fact, they move him so deeply that he can't keep from crying when they are played or sung. I have the same reaction to the song "When Somebody Loved Me" from the movie Toy Story 2. Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, whatever mood I'm in at the time, that song can melt me into a pool of tears.

"Evermore" wreaks such emotional havoc on the Italian that it once was responsible for a last-minute counseling session. He would play a game during which he would tell me he loved me to the value of ten. Without skipping a beat he would then say he loved his mother to the value of eleven. I would feign shock and sadness. One night, after he had hit the joke pretty hard, I sang "Evermore" as they crawled into bed. Tears soaked his pillow even before I reached the end of the first chorus. When asked what was wrong, he cried: "I didn't mean it. I love you both the same!"

So, when our troublesome Teutonic redhead requested a command performance of their lullabies the other night, I deferred to the Italian's protests and issued a 24-hour warning to expect the songs the following night.

The advance notice definitly helped. He needed only one tissue to get through both songs.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Giddy Giggling Geese

Sometimes I get annoyed with the way our sons communicate.

In person, they're not bad. Typical kid issues arise from time to time, such as having to remind them to say hello to everyone in the room, or properly thank a person who gave them gifts. Maybe the German needs a little more prodding than his brother, but he eventually breaks free of his space cadet stupor and behaves appropriately.

It's the technology of the day that seems to rob these otherwise polite children of any sense of propriety and occasion. Granted, the boys are only 10, and 10-year-old boys are not world-reknowned for their conversational competence, but at some point you should be able to expect years worth of reminders to take root in their brains.

The Italian, who is never at a loss for words, finds it necessary for his lips to be touching the receiver during every phone call. The end result is a garbled cacophony of gutteral clatter. I now begin every telephone conversation with him by instructing him: "Take the phone out of your mouth."

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the German. Getting more than three consecutive words out of him at sufficient volume to be registered by human ears is a unique occurrence. During a recent business trip, he and I shared the shortest conversation I've ever had with another human being. My Lovely Wife handed him the phone and all the German said was:

"Hi, Daddy. You want to talk to Mommy?"

Their computer-enhanced communication skills are even more catastrophic. You would think the fact of being seen by the person on the other end of an iChat would keep the boys more focused on the conversation. After all, there that person is, on the computer, talking to us live via free video feed, one Apple computer to another. No such luck. As My Lovely Wife and I alternately shush and bark at them to be quiet, they bound around the room behind us like loose cannon members of some improvisational acrobatic troupe participating in an original performance of a production titled "Watch Me!"

When I'm traveling, I tend to find their lack of involvement in the conversation drives up my blood pressure. I often get little enjoyment from the exercise other than the obvious pleasure of hearing their voices.

That's why I was surprised at my reaction the other night when I called home from Orlando. First up was the Italian, who started in with his garbled mouth breathing before quickly gaving way to a fit of laughter. Turns out the German was giving him a foot massage -- why, I don't know -- and it tickled so much he simply could not control himself. It was clear, yet again, there would be no meaningful sharing of information, but I didn't mind.

There's something infectious about genuine, uncontrolled laughter that allows it to get into your brain and flip all kinds of switches. The first switch the Italian's laughter flipped was the "Get Over Yourself" switch, followed immediately by a quick trip to the "Lighten Up, Francis" and "Remember What It Was Like To Be a Kid" switches.

When the German took over the phone, the Italian took over the foot massaging, so then it was the German's turn to giggle like a maniac. I found myself chuckling along as if I were there with them in the thick of the tickle fight.

Tired from lack of sleep and mentally drained from delayed travel, corporate speeches, guest speakers and back-to-back breakout sessions, their laughter was more welcome than any number of words.




© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Rise & Fall of Netflix?

It's like watching an episode of "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" without the irony.

A simple summary of that iconic 1970s British television show would tell you it is about a middle management man in midlife crisis who does everything he can to ruin his career and his life, only to end up becoming wildly successful and, therefore, even more miserable.

I don't know if Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ever watched "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin" on Britcom night on PBS back in the eighties, but it seems to me like he's copying straight out of Perrin's playbook. The main difference is Hastings appears to be succeeding at failure.

I've worked for companies that pushed dramatic rate increases at inopportune moments without proper justification. Guess what? Not once in all those instances was it ever received well by the clients. Guess what else? Business declined.

In order to keep the combined DVD-by-mail and internet streaming service we were receiving, Netflix demanded a $6 monthly increase. Okay, $6 is not much money and we could easily afford it. However, all things are relative. That $6 represented a 60% increase from the $10 we had been paying. If all of our monthly expenses were to suddenly increase by 60%, we would have a serious discussion about luxuries versus necessities.

To make matters worse for Netflix, their selection of online movies ready for streaming sucks. No fancy alliteration or silly puns required to describe it. It just sucks. And how could it not?

Let's say you own the rights to a popular movie that has enjoyed a reasonably successful theatrical release and faces the prospect of up to a year of fairly strong DVD and pay-per-viewing sales before falling away into obscurity. Wouldn't you wait until your movie started slipping into obscurity before licensing it out to an online streaming service that can probably offer only a fraction of the residuals realized from those other sources? So long as my movie continued to sell a dozen copies a month through iTunes at $9.99 a download, I would probably choose to hold it back from Netflix.

So, what does that leave for the Netflix streaming customer? Crap that nobody in his right mind would bother spending money on anywhere else. Crap that bombed in the theater or vanished from the collective memory decades ago. Crap that doesn't sell on DVD, or iTunes, or Amazon. Crap so bad pirates don't even bother bootlegging it. Crappity, crap, crap.

Sure, every now and then a gem of a movie rises to the surface, but it only serves as a harsh contrast to the poor quality of all the other choices.

And what does CEO Hastings choose to do in the midst of this PR poop storm he's created? Issue a non-apology apology to all Netflix customers in which he unsuccessfully tries to affect humility while justifying the increased fees and announcing the further separation of the company's two services. Seriously, are they just making this up as they go along?

Taking a Wall Street darling and devaluing it by 50% almost overnight. Publicly forecasting an expected net loss of 600,000 customers over a three-month period. Taking one of the most recognized names in the home movie industry and purposefully disassociating it from the very service that made it a household name.

Reginald Perrin would be proud.




© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, September 19, 2011

Shoechuks & Other Necessary Things

The Italian's strength is talking, very often to the point of mental fatigue and hearing impairment on the part of the listener.

He might invent terminology here and there, but not in the way in which the German does, substituting a made up word for one he can't recall. The German is legendary for inventing the word "shniggle" when he meant to say "jiggle," and also for his meandering explanations when he simply can not find the right word. His is a unique and joyous gift.

The Italian's use of language is precise. He uses complex words to convey complex ideas. His imaginary words are deliberately and intentionally crafted.

Like "shoechuks," for example.

In case you've never heard of them, not only is shoechuk an entirely new word created by my son, the Italian, it also is a revolutionary advancement in footwear weaponry.

The shoechuk was made possible by our purchase of a large painting to hang in our family room. The unframed painting had special cardboard corner protecters that were held together by long elastic bands. Removed from the painting, the Italian found he could cram one of the protective corners over his heel and another over his toes to create a "shoe" of sorts. The elastic band served as a body-length shoe suspender.

The best part -- and the reason warmonger Dick Cheney ought to consider funding a grant for further research and development -- is that in one sorta, kinda almost swift move the Italian can grab the band off his shoulder, yank the "shoe" off his foot, and swing the two sections of cardboard around like lethal nunchucks.

Okay, maybe more like a pair of non-lethal clown nunchuks made out of bits of reinforced paper and leftover underwear elastic, but nunchuks just the same.

Every now and then, however, the Italian surprises us with a slip into his brother's area of expertise, confidently using the wrong word in the wrong situation. It doesn't happen often, but when it does it's a thing of genuine beauty.

Last Friday night, as we sat shivering on the metal seating of Our Daughter's high school football field, the Italian suggested we purchase one of the blankets being sold by the Pinecrest High School marching band boosters. To stress the potential value of the purchase, he pointed at people nearby who were draped in a blanket.

He said: "Look, it's P-encrusted!"

Now, I know what he meant. He could have said imprinted or emblazoned but he didn't. Actually, you have to hand it to him. A pee-encrusted blanket probably would do a great job keeping you warm on a cold night, at least for the first few minutes, and providing you don't mind the smell.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Make Friends With the You of Tomorrow

I am a fan of procrastination. In my opinion, anything worth doing is worth doing tomorrow.

As a result, the me of today holds a special place in his heart for the me of tomorrow because he is the person freeing up the me of today to enjoy a carefree now. Without the me of tomorrow, all deadlines and sundry responsibilities would need to be met by the me of today, which would place the me of today in an extremely unhappy now.

Of course, being the parent of a teenage daughter and two soon-to-be tween sons, I often find myself in the ethically shaky position of teaching a "do as I say, not as I do" lesson, as was the case yesterday with the topic of procrastination. Instead of preaching from the heart of my lifelong love of the gospel of delay, I had to pretend to understand and fully appreciate the value of preparedness and advanced planning.

Yesterday, when Our Daughter bemoaned the ridiculously voluminous quantity of homework due Friday, I did my best to be a cheerleader for a mantra in which I've never made any personal investment. I told her:

"Imagine how much the you of tomorrow will like the you of today if the you of today completes as much of the work that's due Friday as possible. If the you of today knuckles down and completes most of the work now, the you of tomorrow will probably be head over heels in love with the you of today."

She thought about this for a few seconds before responding.

"But the me of today won't like the me of tomorrow," she said.

"True," I agreed. "The you of today will resent and despise the you of tomorrow for being a lazy, spoiled, ungrateful layabout. But, just remember that the you of today will no longer exist. No one will care a lick that the you of today was ever upset with the you of tomorrow, least of all the you of tomorrow, because the you of today will have become the you of yesterday."

Sometimes children do listen, and Our Daughter ultimately completed the lion's share of the work in the hours following my motivational intervention. The effect of her hard work was immediately evident on her smiling face this morning when she came out to the kitchen for breakfast.

"So," I said. "Does the you of today love the you of yesterday for getting all that work done?"

"Yes," she admitted. "But the me of yesterday still hates the me of today."

In the end, I think I did a more successful job of convincing myself of the deficiencies of procrastination in terminology I could understand. I'll have to give the whole concept of working ahead and planning for the future some serious thought.

Tomorrow.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Not-So Remote Meetings

Over the years, I've attended my share of conferences.

Early in my career, I attended them as a spectator. In my role as newspaper reporter it was my job to observe and report, nothing more. I had no direct responsibilities either as a participant or a presenter. Those were the good old days.

Lately, the majority of the conferences I've been attending are related to the hospitality industry, like the one I attended in Washington, DC, last week. Many of the same people who attended the same conference last year were there again to share the same conversations over what hopefully was not leftovers of the same food.

Side note to any banquet professionals who might be reading this: If you're going to serve a variety of sliders as appetizers, please also provide ketchup, mustard and any other saucy condiments you can think of that will help party goers avoid feeling like they are eating packed sawdust on dry toast. In fact, whatever food you serve, always ask yourself if it needs a sauce, even if the food in question is a liquid. Thanks.

One of the great things about technology is the ability to avoid the travel and inconvenience of conferences by holding things called webinars, which are a high-tech way of allowing pajama-clad people to attend meetings from the unwashed comfort of their home offices while they ignore a poorly structured PowerPoint presentation.

While the speaker drones on about the topic du jour, you the attendee can go about folding laundry, surfing the internet, or generally doing anything other than paying attention to the speaker without fear of any recriminations. Forget about sneaking a peak under the table at my smartphone, I can cruise Facebook while playing with the dog and scratching myself in all kinds of places.

Or so I thought.

The other day I had the pleasure of playing the part of droning speaker. Before I could lead my monotonous ship along its communal networked course, I had to learn how to steer the virtual ship. The training opened my eyes to an unpleasant reality. Did you know the webinar leader can "see" a whole lot more than you might have ever imagined?

He can "see" when you switch out of the webinar window to look at Facebook. If your dog barks while you're playing tug of war, he can "see" that the noise is coming from you, even if there are hundreds of online attendees. He probably can even "see" that you didn't bother to change out of your Elmo footie pajamas and you're eating a cold Pop Tart for lunch.

So, the next time you think you're safely removed from the scrutiny of the corporate world, think again.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, September 12, 2011

Old Man Shoes

A few comments on Facebook the other day got me thinking. I know, this whole thinking thing is dangerous, but I risked it.

When my sons graduate from high school as part of the Class of 2020, I will be 52 years old. To some of you old fogies, that might not sound unreasonable, and I'm not typically the kind of person who gets all hung up on age, but I must say that I strenuously object to the whole concept of the fifties as an age range.

For starters, fifty is the first milestone age that sounds old. It's ridiculous to compare fifty to twenty, or even thirty, and expect it not to seem significantly older. But even when compared to forty, an age I reached several years ago, fifty has a ring about it that sounds like a somber church bell.

Take a moment to reflect on the two numbers: forty and fifty. Say them over and over in your head for a minute or two and then tell me that your mental image of a person turning forty doesn't differ dramatically from how you picture that same person turning fifty. Forty suggests a settling in to one's skin, a well-respected and hard-earned maturity, and a classy graying around the temples. Fifty suggests wisps of ear hair like out of control Q-Tips, an irreversible thickening around the waistline, and an I-just-looked-in-a-full-length-mirror understanding of why you can no longer wear the latest trendy summer shorts.

It doesn't help when Our Daughter throws out snarky teenage criticisms, like calling my latest choice in sneakers "old man shoes." Maybe they aren't flashy, or sexy, or cool, but they provide excellent arch support and they don't crowd my toes. All in all, a very practical pair of sneakers. So what if they look like I stole them off a night shift nurse at the hospital?

Back to the point, I suppose this age thing is all just a state of mind.

When I turned twenty it was a joyous occasion -- one year closer to legal drinking age! When I turned thirty, I was a new father and completely oblivious to anything other than changing diapers, thawing frozen breast milk, and figuring out how to assemble plastic children's toys with three missing parts and the wrong tools. When I turned forty, I proudly and declaratively announced it to the world: "I am forty!"

I just hope I can reach fifty with the same enthusiasm. Very likely I will, although I expect there will need to be a strong support system in place to keep my spirits elevated and help reaffirm my belief in the notion that I look good for my age.

Perhaps continuing to monitor the effects of the ravages of time on my old high school friends through Facebook will be enough to do the trick. Unlike many of those poor old bastards, I happen to have more hair on top of my head than I do growing out of my ears. For now...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Pee in a Cup?

That last hour of a long drive can be the greatest test of one's stamina. Take today, for example.

Two-hundred-eighty miles from Pinehurst to DC -- roughly six hours total if you allow for a little traffic. Stop in Roanoke Rapids for a quick chicken sandwich, waffle fries, and a Diet Coke. Upon realizing the Diet Coke was decaffienated, walk across the parking lot to Starbucks for a grande skinny iced vanilla latte.

Now I'm five hours into a six-hour trip, sipping at the watery remnants of vanilla-flavored coffee, and I'm starting to get that feeling. You know what I'm talking about. That feeling.

That feeling like my stomach is floating up into my lungs.

That feeling like one poorly timed pothole and my car will immediately smell like a reststop urinal.

That feeling like I really need a hollow leg, or a catheter, or an adult diaper.

Does it help that it's been raining the entire freakin' trip? No, it doesn't.

But I don't want to pull off for a pit stop, and not just because I'm now only 45 minutes from my destination and the prospect of a proper bathroom. Do you know how many cars and trucks I've passed? After all the work I've done to dodge and weave around the mixture of maniacs and fogies traveling Interstate 95, the thought of dropping back behind even one of them is profoundly depressing.

Only thirty minutes to go and the pressure is building. I'm reminded of a time when the boys were young, maybe three or four, and we were traveling home from a family vacation. We were halfway along one of those rural stretches of road devoid of any public facilities when the boys declared their need to pee.

In case you are unaware, the bladder of a young child is an undpredictable creature that is easily underestimated. It holds significantly more quantities of liquid than seems physically possible given the diminutive size of its owner, and when it reaches maximum capacity there is little-to-no warning before the emergency release valve opens.

Being the kind of parents who believe children urinating on the shoulder of a rural highway is neither cute nor appropriate, we employed the only decent option available to us -- Snapple bottles. Hey, Snapple always promotes all-natural ingredients, right? What could be more natural than toddler pee?

Only five minutes remaining on my trip to DC. I'm so close to the hotel, but the pressure is almost unbearable. You know, that empty Starbucks cup is looking mighty convenient...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Un-Help Line

Have you ever known the exact cause of a problem, but found yourself incapable of convincing the one person who is supposed to help you rectify it that you really do know what you're talking about?

This isn't the same as bringing your car to a mechanic, only to have that bizarre squealing sound stop two minutes before you get there. Equally annoying? Sure, just not the same thing. I'm talking about those times when you are dead certain, no question, not even the trace of a spark of a doubt in your mind. You know precisely what's going on and you can explain the situation so concisely and coherently that even a monkey could understand it.

If only monkeys manned the help lines.

Last week, when I couldn't access any of my employer's secure web tools, I did the first thing a remote office employee should do: I checked our router to make certain we had a live wireless signal in the house. We did. Next step was to see if the other computers in the house could access the wireless signal. They could. Third and final step was to reboot my work-supplied laptop, a trick that typically resolves 99.9% of its misbehavior. After the reboot, the problem persisted. Even though the laptop was picking up the wireless signal and I could dial in to the secure VPN, I still could not access my email or our intranet services.

Because of changes to our problem-reporting procedures, we can no longer circumvent our official IT help line and go directly to the people in charge of our IT department. I can understand how this makes life more pleasant and less chaotic for the people in charge of our IT department, but what it means for the rest of us is that we have to spend anywhere from an hour to an entire day futzing around with whomever answers the 800 help line before we eventually get transferred to the people in charge of our IT department.

I want to state at this time, for the record, that the person who answered the help line was as pleasant as pleasant can possibly be, and he really was trying his best to help me. That said, I wasn't filled with hope when he said "sometimes only the Shadow knows why things don't work right." Not only does he seem to lack confidence in his own problem-solving abilities, he's paraphrasing from a 1930s serialized radio show. Something tells me this guy might be a little long in the tooth.

When he asks me to explain my problem, I tell him the company's server must be down. He tells me this can't be the case since his computer uses the company's server and he isn't having any trouble. I tell him the company has a second server primarily for remote employees like me, and his voice immediately adopts the kind of tone one uses when in the vicinity of a homeless person who might be emotionally unstable.

Instead of getting out of his chair and conferring with the other IT help line staffers to see if any other remote employees have reported similar connectivity issues, he starts putting me through the expected paces.

Are you using a router?

Yes.

Can you unplug it, wait 60 seconds, then plug it back in?

I don't have to, because I can see by my other computers that the router is working.

I just have to rule out the router as the source of the problem.

Okay, since you're talking to me nicely, I will go through this ridiculously purposeless exercise for you.

Did reseting your router do anything?

Yes, now the the rest of my computers are offline.

Luckily for me, two steps shy of suggesting we wipe my hard drive of all files and restore the machine to its factory settings, the people around him intervened. Turns out the secondary server for remote employees had been down all morning. Go figure...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, August 22, 2011

God Help Our High Schooler

This Thursday, Our Daughter will enter the halls of high school as a freshman.

All I can say is if our experience last week is any indication of the administrative quality her new school has to offer, she'd better start praying now and not stop until that diploma is firmly in hand.

It started out well. We arrived early at the school gymnasium and the doors opened spot on nine o'clock as we were told they would. After less than five minutes, we had her schedule and crossed the gym to pay $23 in school fees. That's when it all fell apart.

Because there were no available electrical outlets in the gym, it was announced that fee collection was being moved across the hall to the cafeteria. While the majority of parents and students milled around, confused and bouncing into each other like sardines, we scooted out to be first in line.

A table staffed by three people blocked the entrance to the cafeteria. They were not immediately helpful. After several minutes of declarations by them detailing their complete lack of understanding of their responsibilities, one of them left to receive instructions. Several instructional visits later, we were formed into three lines: one for locker assignments, one for bus schedules, and one for payment of fees.

Bus schedules was the big winner. Fortunately, we won't need the bus, so we headed up the locker assignment line.

"My daughter needs a locker," I told the nice lady with the spreadsheet in front of her. She wrote my daughter's name next to the first locker available, then stared blankly at me when I asked, "Are you taking cash or check for the lockers?"

Not only didn't they know whether the fee was $2, $3, or $5, they had no idea how they were handling payment. One more instructional visit later, we were informed we had to stand in the fee payment line, pay the $23 in school fees plus the $5 locker fee, then come back with our reciept. Only then would we receive Our Daughter's locker assignment and combination.

Fee payment went smoothly, although I couldn't help noticing a complete lack of electricity during the process. The person who collected my payment documented it in a carbon copy ledger and tore out my receipt. There was no credit card machine involved in the transaction, no phone, not even a solar-powered calculator.

Anyway, $28 later we were back at the locker assignment table being handed a combination that was supposed to open locker number two on the second floor of building number two. Two problems: (1) There is no locker number two on the second floor of building number two, and (2) the only people around to "help" the many lost and confused sardine parents were janitors.

I have nothing at all against janitors, but there are few things less helpful than uninformed people guessing solutions to problems they don't fully understand. I should know, since I am often one of those people. In hindsight, I really should have thanked the nice woman who tried to help me for offering the most ridiculous piece of advice I have received in years.

Her solution, you ask? Clearly, "2" was not the number of Our Daughter's locker, but rather it was the last digit of her assigned locker. We simply needed to check every locker ending with the number two and try the combination at each until we found the correct locker...

You at least have to give her credit for putting some thought to it.

To make an extraordinarily long story only ordinarily long, the combination didn't work even after we found the correct locker (on the ground floor), the school did not have student IDs ready to hand out at the media center as were told they would, and I ended up handing over our PTA payment to one of the teachers because the parent volunteers had abandoned the PTA table.

This evening we head back to the school to find Our Daughter's classrooms and meet her teachers. After the remarkable first impression the school made last week, I am a little scared to see how tonight goes. With any luck, her schedule might actually match up with those that the teachers received.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wonderful Spam

A few weeks ago, for reasons unbeknownst to me (or other rational humans), the IT department of the company for which I work chose to modify its procedures regarding spam.

My Inbox has since been baraged by an inexhaustible spammy arsenal of scams, viruses and deviously flirtatious emails from practically every continent -- or, at the very least, from one very busy Asian person with many aliases and a wildly fluctuating command of American English.

Last week I decided to temporarily stop deleting these emails and blocking their senders in order to fully understand, at a single glance, the magnitude of what I was automatically dismissing as dangerous junk. After all, things aren't always what they seem. Maybe some of this spam really could improve my life.

So, let's see what I might have missed in my haste to be an over-protective Negative Nancy.

Mike G immediately catches my attention with his subject line: "I will give it to you on Tuesday." Being a salesman and a former PR coordinator, I am impressed by Mike G's ability to compell me to open his email, if only to find out he plans to give me a free Dell Notebook computer. Too bad for Mike G I'm a Mac fan.

Next up is Amber Yang. Amber asks a question. I assume it's a question, because it ends with a question mark. This would be a similarly effective technique to Mike G's, but unfortunately Amber's entire email is written in Chinese, or Japanese, or some other -ese I'm not expert enough to identify and comprehend. It's not Amber's fault that I'm not bilingual, but there you are.

Mr. Commcrusher then chooses a completely different tactic -- he issues a dare: "Watch me make $60000 in one month." Not only is he daring me, he's daring me in a bold font and with a complete disregard for punctuation. Pretty badass, if you ask me. However, he weakens his argument by ending his email saying: "I can't show you how to become a billionaire, but I can show you how I make $60,000 or more per month." While Mr. Commcrusher's use of commas might have improved as his email progressed, his decision to point out the limitations of his services (i.e., tens of thousands instead of billions) is the argument of a self-defeatist.

Then there are several sexually-oriented, though not necessarity explicit, emails.

Female Seduction Secrets Video (FSSV, for short) tells me it's my lucky day because I'm one of three people selected to watch a video that will make any woman in the world want to be with me. A mighty boast, to be sure, but I'm wondering why FSSV hasn't evolved from video to DVD, or digital streaming, for that matter. Something tells me this one might be a little dated.

Then there's Local One Night Stand Dating Community For Adults (LNSDCFA), who wants to help me hook up with local women interested in, you guessed it, one night stands. Two problems here: (1) I'm wondering how a company in La Costa, CA, can know so much about the hookers in my town of residence that it's able to vouch for their quality and discretion, and (2) LNSDCFA provides the same follow up link as FSSV, both of which include my full email address.

If I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's not a link to some horrible virus that will corrupt my company's email server, then I have to assume it's a link back to one of my own files. Not only don't I recall ever creating a video about how to help men make local hookers want to be with them for one night stands, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have saved it to my employer's network server if I had.

At least Be Naughty Dating Community (BNDC) has the guts to offer me hard statistical data. They are up front and out there about giving away 597 memberships for adults 18 years of age or over. Those are numbers -- two of them, in fact -- not vague promises. And, even though their link also contains my complete work email address, at least some of it differs from the ones provided by FSSV, LNSDCFA, SDDC (Sugar Daddy Dating Community), and FFP (Flirty Fun People).

The rest seems pretty boring. Mostly they're just repetitious reminders from UPS and FedEx letting me know "The parcel was sent your home address And it will arrive within 3 business day." It's been at least 5 business day since the first reminder arrived, so I'm doubting the parcel sent my home address will ever get here.

I don't need replacement windows. I don't want a facelift. I don't need my recent credit bureau scores, or two free Southwest Airline tickets, or thousands of Hollywood movies legally streaming through my PC or MP3 player. Not even a second challenge from Mr. Commcrusher seems exciting anymore.

But wait!

Joe P says my check is waiting for me. It's right there in his subject line -- "Your Check Is Waiting." Looks like I've finally hit paydirt, and I have our IT department's lenient security protocols to thank for it.

I doubt they'd mind if I click the link Joe P provides here in his email. How much damage could it do? Besides, my email address appears prominently in his link...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Better Late Than Never

Highway driving often is devoid of interesting distractions. Traveling Interstate 95 along the eastern seaboard is a perfect example.

Mile after mile passes, the same cars traveling alongside you through one state after another, until you forget where you are. The era of the GPS doesn't help, either. I no longer need to pay attention to road signs because the computer-generated lady with the British accent will yell at me when we're approaching our exit.

Although our recent trip to Savannah was only a four-hour one-way drive, three of those hours were spent traveling the mind-numbing vastness of I-95. Leaving home, we wended our way along country roads to South of the Border, a cultural black hole just over the South Carolina state line.

If South of the Border doesn't offend you with it aggressive marketing, tacky colors, inappropriate and politically incorrect commercialization of Mexican culture, and filthy stores hawking overpriced trinkets, cigarettes and fireworks, then nothing will ever offend you. That said, it is one of the few memorable landmarks on I-95. Go north and it's all a blur of sameness straight up to Richmond. Head south and the only thing you might eventually notice is a change from pines to palm trees.

Twenty miles into South Carolina, my focus narrowed from the tree-lined shoulders to the two lanes directly ahead of me. If not for a strange sight that caught us off guard, we would have remained that way all the way from Exit 198 through Exit 5.

Approximately 100 miles into South Carolina, almost exactly halfway through the state, is a government-operated rest area complete with blue signage and restrooms and truck parking, etc. What made this rest area so memorable? The fact the signs declared it was an official South Carolina Welcome Center.

The first thing my brain did was to run a quick diagnostic check to make sure my eyes weren't misreading the sign. Sure enough, just north of Exit 98, there we were at the South Carolina Welcome Center. Maybe I'm slow, but isn't placing a welcome center in the very middle of the state equivalent to my dropping a welcome mat in the middle of my living room?

I guess the residents of South Carolina wanted to be dead certain we had fully committed to visiting the state before choosing to welcome us to it. Lord knows, I'd hate for them to waste the effort if we're only going to turn around after 50 miles and head home. It's almost offensive, if you think about it. Why wait 100 miles, approximately one hour and fifteen minutes by my driving speed, to say "hello?"

Then again, some people aren't as socially adept as others. Maybe South Carolina is shy. Maybe South Carolina didn't want to seem presumptious by assuming we had come specifically to visit it, which in this case would be correct since we were only passing through on our way to Georgia.

In the end, it's all good. One hundred miles might seem a little long to have to wait for Southern hospitality, but better late than never, I suppose.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Frilly Beds & Naked Midgets

Hand-me-downs are essential to the newly-married.

Back in the early 1990s, when My Lovely Wife and I set up house in a tiny shack halfway between her job in Southern Pines and mine in Raleigh, we had only 850 square feet to fill and nothing with which to fill it.

The house had five rooms: (1) a bedroom with a four-foot closet, the only closet in the entire house; (2) a kitchen with twelve square inches of usable counter space and an antique stove that sparked more than it cooked; (3) a former screened porch turned foyer that housed the clothes dryer; (4) a great room that served as both living room and dining room, in addition to housing the washing machine just under the pass-through between the kitchen and dining room; and (5) a bathroom that combined all of the worst qualities of every 1970s KOA campground bathroom I'd ever experienced.

We both brought to the house personal belongings that helped make it a home. In My Lovely Wife's case, that included a bedroom suite and a set of sidetable lamps from her parents' house.

If you overlook that her childhood bed held only a full-size mattress, or that it was of a frilly French Colonial style, or that it sported an equally frilly canopy that made me question my gender every morning when I woke beneath it, it was perfect. We didn't have much money back then, so we made it work, even after our 65-pound Dalmatian developed a habit of stretching herself lengthwise between us every night.

The sidetable lamps were another matter.

I'm not closed-minded, or at least I'd like to think I'm not, but our house growing up was not wantonly strewn with images of people in varying states of undress. The first time I set foot in my In-Laws' house and saw the number of statuettes of naked and half-naked people, I knew there would need to be a period of adjustment. Cherubs were my Mother-In-Law's favorite. You couldn't swing a cat in her house without knocking over a half dozen naked midgets.

Which brings me back to those lamps.

The stately shades matched the French Colonial bedroom suite perfectly. Unfortunately, so did the golden naked ladies who held the bulbs aloft in their upstretched arms. I not so lovingly, and not so creatively, referred to them as "the naked lady lamps."

Their presence alone did not offend or unnerve me, but there were many times I felt distinctly perverted groping around in the dark trying to the light on. It might have been worse if they were naked men, I suppose. Can you imagine the quantity of glue we would have used reattaching their members after a false turn of the wrong knob?

In time, and after encouragement from me, we purchasd a more conservative set of lamps to adorn our sidetables. Almost 20 years later, the French Colonial bedroom suite is mostly gone, a few pieces hidden under paint and serving out their final days in Our Daughter's room.

It is said we become more and more like our parents as we age. I've kept a close watch on My Lovely Wife for signs of it, but so far there isn't a single cherub in sight.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, August 8, 2011

Goal: Accomplished

So, there's this book I've wanted to write.

For some reason, I've always thought of myself as a writer, even as far back as elementary school. The projects that peaked my interest were those that required creativity and imagination, particularly when writing was involved. But when you're pathologically insecure, as I believe I was during my childhood, it's near to impossible to believe in seemingly unachievable dreams. Still, I scribbled away in the quiet of my room and hid my writings away from the world.

A handful of fanciful and forgettable short stories bubbled into being during my teens and early twenties. Although I found myself fully capable of creating characters, relaying emotions and setting scenes, my root problem was an inability to develop compelling stories.

Give some people even the weakest of plots and they can create epic dramas that drown readers in rich detail about worlds heretofore unimagined. Not so much with me.

For reasons I can't explain, my style of writing does not allow me to wander off into superfluous descriptive detail for the sole purpose of painting a pretty visual image. Perhaps because my writing reflects the kind of books I enjoy reading, I tend to assume readers don't need me to tell them every last thing about a character's physical appearance or the furnishings of a room. I'm far more interested in how the characters behave and respond to what's happening around them than I am in the minutae of the world in which they live.

When the notion of writing a murder mystery presented itself to me twenty years ago, I had no idea how to go about developing a proper story. I knew only that it sounded like a really great idea.

For the longest time, I struggled to start the project. I honestly don't know how many times I wrote and rewrote the same ten pages, hoping each time to break beyond to page eleven with a clear understanding of the journey my protagonist had to take. I held to a false belief that my progress was impeded by a lack of quality in those first ten pages. Rewriting them until they were perfect was the only way to move to the next stage.

Looking back, it's clear that my primary problem had nothing to do with the storyline I was trying to get out of my head and onto paper. Sure, there were a few things here and there that seemed silly in the harsh light of day, but they were easily remedied. No, the biggest problem was me.

After close to 30 years of imagining myself a writer, there I was continuing to imagine being one instead of simply being one. I remained that kid hiding under his covers with a flashlight, scratching away in a notebook, hoping my efforts would never be discovered for fear of embarrassment should someone actually (Gasp!) read them. It sounds pathetic to me now, but that's what insecurity can do to you. It can make you doubt what you love, doubt your proven abilities, and doubt your loved ones.

In May 2010, when I finally declared my intention to write a book, it was like being set loose in the world's largest playground. I continued to struggle with the many decisions I needed to make in order to advance the project, but I was no longer working in a vacuum. And having My Lovely Wife following along with every page and providing constant feedback made it easier for me to remain focused on the story. Before long, I was working from a proper outline, drawing out maps, and charting characters and their relationships to one another without a care in the world about who saw it and what they had to say about it. I was knee deep in the creative process and loving every minute of it.

Late this past Friday night, after 14 months of sneaking to the basement after everyone else in the house was asleep, I finally finished the first draft of DAMAGE, the murder mystery I dreamed of 20 years ago when I was a fresh-out-college newspaper reporter.

I don't believe in hard sell tactics. I'm not about to say that it's the best book ever written, but it's mine, and that's enough for me.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler