Friday, April 29, 2011

I Got Nothing

You know the great thing about Disney movies? There are so many of them, it doesn't matter if a few of them suck.


Wow! That one really sucks. Nothing like making a movie for kids that makes you feel guilty about being white. Not that I think white kids don't need to understand the ugly truths about American history. They do. I just don't believe it's up to Disney, Mel Gibson, and a personified raccoon to shove a big morality lesson down their throats.

And sucky as "Pocahantes" is, it's not nearly so miserably awful as "Hunchback of Notre Dame." You have to wonder about the thought process behind funding a kid's movie about a disfigured man, a super hot gypsy woman, and a sexually deviant clergyman. What exactly about that screamed "children's feature length cartoon musical" to the suits at Disney's not-so-wonderful world of executive decisions?

The great thing about what makes something suck is that it's entirely subjective. For instance, my list of all time most horrid Disney films differs greatly from My Lovely Wife's. Topping her list would be "Wall-E."

See? I don't understand that at all. "Cars" maybe, but "Wall-E?"

What gets Disney off the hook for its occasional putrescence is its prolificacy. (It's a word. Look it up.) For every sucky movie Disney made that tanked at the theater, there are four others that soared through the air like Tinkerbell.

My point is that anyone, even an uber-imaginative braintrust like Disney, can suffer dry spells as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. (More specifically, the desert side of the Grand Canyon, where the Brady Bunch went on vacation and got locked up in a ghosttown jail because apparently that's hiliariously good fun.) Which is why I don't worry too much about these blog posts being perfect. If Disney can afford to suck a little, then so can I.

There are times when all the bloggerific ideas are locked tightly away in some secret little vault to which I do not possess the key. Now and then I look back at the increasingly long list of posts I've published and am surprised by a few I had forgotten. Then I read them and understand why I forgot them. They suck.

Same thing goes for the fiction I'm working on. Sometimes I belly up to the computer or notebook with all the enthusiasm in the world, but nothing worthy of being written presents itself. At these times, I force myself to write something, anything, just to keep up the practice of writing.

I know if I maintain my productivity, and achieve a prolificacy, I stand a good chance of sucking less than more.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dry Bones

I hate to sound like I'm prosyletizing, because I genuinely respect people's right to worship (or not worship) whatever religions they were born into, or have journeyed to through the course of their lives. In this day and age, as in most, religion tends to be more of a divisive issue than a unifying factor, so it isn't a subject I like bringing up much.

The community in which I grew up seemed to be comprised primarily of three groups: (1) Irish Catholic people; (2) Italian Catholic people; and (3) Jewish people. We were German Methodists. Not that there weren't any other WASPs in our town. There were. It's just, with the exception of gaudy Christmas lights, we tended to keep a low profile.

As a kid, I remember thinking of religion as something separate from everyday life. On Sunday mornings you prayed, sang hymns, threw a dollar in the collection plate, and went to Sunday school while the adults tried to stay awake during the sermon. Once you got home? The clip-on tie went back in the closet, you watched the end of whichever Abbott & Costello movie was playing on Channel 11, and didn't think about church again for another six-and-a-half days.

After high school, religion and I parted ways. Nothing sour, no great turning away. More of a drifting apart and a general apathy. Religion wasn't a necessary or expedient ingredient in the recipe of my life. Perhaps I'm a faulty Christian for not taking away from church some blazing enlightenment to guide me through life. Perhaps I'm too guarded, cynical, apathetic, critical, or lazy to get everything I'm supposed to out of religion.

In recent years, however, it seems to have made something of a comeback.

Now, I'm not about to run off to some monastery in the hills, or tithe all my earthly possessions to the first church I stumble across. Unbridled fervor in any aspect of life makes me uncomfortable. I don't trust it, mainly because I have found it often is not accompanied by reason, discretion, or tolerance. But I am finding an increasing sense of calm from having found a congregation to which I feel comfortable belonging.

For starters, there's the nostalgia factor. I got dressed up and went to Sunday school when I was a kid, so to see my children doing the same warms those squishy, drippy, sentimental chambers of my heart.

The church to which we now belong recalls memories of the church my family attended during my youth. The fellowship with parishioners we've come to know, the interesting sermons that cause us to reflect on topics we otherwise might not have, the many programs offered for the children, the propriety of doctrine and ceremony combined with the looseness of familiarity and good-natured joviality, and an overwhelming sense of "as-is" acceptance -- these qualities bring me back to the understanding of religion I knew as a child.

Oddly enough, the most meaningful times for me are those when nothing is happening. Those intermittent moments of silence sprinkled throughout the service force a contemplation one typically doesn't make time for elsewhere in the week. And they are particularly poignant when placed in context of a thought-provoking parable or world event. During the course of the service, with a child's head leaned sleepily against each of my shoulders, and My Lovely Wife with her arm around another child, I am given brief moments to slip off the petty, cluttering concerns of a comfortable life to think about the things that matter most.

Over the course of the past few years, these dry bones have grown back some of the sinew and flesh they lacked. They might not carry me through the pearly gates when my time comes, but I'm okay with that. I'd hate to leave so many of my friends behind.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, April 25, 2011

Send Money Instead

Why do politicians visit the aftermaths of natural disasters?

I consider it one step short of those idiotic weather people who stand in the midst of a gale so we can watch them get battered to and fro before they duck back into the relative safety of their hotel rooms. They might be idiots, but at least they can claim the advantage of firsthand experience.

Okay, I understand the PR value a politician gains from arriving on the scene after the fact and getting caught on camera consoling strangers with whom he or she never otherwise would have any contact. It looks good to the general public and the voters. They gain sympathy by association just for having the hurricane-ravaged downtown district of Pigsknuckle, NC, behind them when they tell the press about understanding the people's pain. Yeah, right.

While Farmer Brown over there lost his crops, livestock and barn to the twister that rolled through yesterday afternoon, the politicians will drop in for a 20-minute briefing with the local mayor and a sight-seeing tour to gawk at the damaged Piggly Wiggly before rolling back to the state capital in their chauffered limousines.

It's a blip on their calendars and a few extra dollars from the till to repair some roads. Maybe a form or two that a staffer fills out to request some Federal aid.

And how practical is this VIP visit to the people who remain behind?

"Hey, Jimmy! A brush fire took out the old folks home, a tornado sucked the roof off the high school, and the creek flood washed away the Children's Hospital. But guess what? The governor's coming to town!"

If I'd just lost my home and family dog to a 120-mile-per-hour wind gust, would I really feel like entertaining visitors? I tend to doubt it. Chances are I'd be too busy trying to pick up the pieces, literally. If the governor really wants to help, maybe she could bring a bunch of Hefty bags and a shovel.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, April 18, 2011

I'll Teach Her Etiquette...

I read one of those tabloidy articles the other day about all the things Kate Middleton will have to give up once she grafts herself to the Royal family like a lovely pine branch to the gnarliest, oldest oak tree in the forest.

The silly bit about most of the things from which she must abstain is that they are almost entirely matters of choice, or the whim of other Royal family members. For instance, the Duke of York forbade the playing of Monopoly because they all get too vicious. Sounds about right, to me. Bunch of rich people with so few meaningful things to do they end up taking their stupid little games way too seriously.

She also will be expected to keep clear of the polling booths. No voting for Royals, apparently, although legally she could if she wanted to. And no shellfish, no more being called "Kate," no signing anything unofficial, and no eating after the Queen finishes her tacos. Not even another chip. Put the churro down and step away from the queso dip!

But isn't this a monumental moment? She's the first commoner to marry into the Royal family, and I believe it's up to her to educate them all about how common commoners can be. If the young Princes are going to bypass the time-honored tradition of marrying their own cousins in favor of slumming with the children of people who are merely only rich, then they deserve what they get.

No mamby pamby regal rules. No worrying over proper etiquette so as to avoid any improprieties at the polo grounds. No curtsying, bowing, kissing of rings, kissing of asses, or expecting the same in return.

If I could give young Kate any single piece of advice it would be this: after you take your wedding vows, as you turn to head back up the aisle toward your carriage, just as you reach the first row of stuffed shirt guests -- and please, Kate, before Elton-freaking-John sings your wedding song -- hike up your right knee, bend a little at the waist, screw up your face, and let a really loud one rip through the cathedral.

I can't imagine any better way to declare the dawning of a new age.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Friday, April 15, 2011

Letting Go or Giving Up?

Recent events in our community gave me pause to wonder if I should take on a certain, specific role of responsibility. I won't say what it is, only that it would involve attending many meetings and events throughout the next school year.

The reason for the consideration is that My Lovely Wife and I have definite opinions about what should happen, how it should happen, and who should be doing it. We've recently spent way too much time thinking and talking about all the different things that, in our version of a perfect world, need to be accomplished.

So, I've been toying with the idea of stepping up to put my money where my mouth is. After all, there are few things more irritating than a gutless loudmouth, and I know there have been times in my life when I have been one.

Over the past few days, as my leanings have shifted to and fro, I've had to take as full an account as possible of my existing responsibilities.

Certainly not more important than family, but I address it first because without my paycheck, I'm not much of a provider. Work requires attention to clients and projects. It requires analysis of trends and predictions of usage. It requires trips to Ohio, DC, Virginia and Maryland, in addition to other states as necessary. I frequently am able to control my schedule, but there are times of inflexibility.

We have three. One will enter high school next year and two will be in fourth grade. Every weekend in the fall will be filled with high school marching band activities, and every weekday will be filled with dance class, Boy Scouts, band, school play practice, Girl Scouts, yoga, and playdates. Add band concerts, play performances, and dance recitals and you have a pretty full schedule.

I have one. I enjoy spending time with her. I often don't have the ability in the course of a normal day to spend as much time with her as I would like.

Family & Friends.
We have those, too. As opportunities arise to spend time with friends and family, we appreciate being able to take advantage of them. In the past year or two, we have made a concerted effort to participate in more activities with people who, in the past, we might not have made time for. As a result, our social life has improved dramatically, and we feel for the first time in a long time that we have an honest to goodness social network of friends.

This is, perhaps, the most selfish part of my argument, but in case you hadn't noticed, I enjoy writing. I've finally arrived at a place in my life that affords me the luxury of time to write. In addition to this blog, which serves as a wonderfully therapeutic means for me to vent the errant thoughts that cloud my mind, I also am 90% complete with the first draft of a novel. In the past two weeks since this recent community event erupted into our lives, I have not completed any writing.

I fully realize that others who choose to lead often sacrifice some, if not all, of these things. For better or for worse, I am not the kind of person who can so readily do the same. Time is fleeting. I have no interest in mourning a lost minute with my family for a transient cause du jour. Trust me, I'm the kind who would.

My conclusion? If I'm not willing to jump in and help lead things down the path I believe they should be taking, then I need to shut my mouth and support the best efforts of those who are. Not so much giving up, I see it more as letting go.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mom Helped

Some people are organized. I'm not one of them, but I am married to their leader.

For my Lovely Wife, all things have their place and had better be in them. Misplaced items regularly put her "over the edge." The kitchen countertop is best when clear of papers, and the children's rooms should remain in continuous and regulated states of "neat" and "orderly." The fact I don't care if all the shirts hanging in my closet are facing the same way baffles her. And don't even get her started on the torturously entropic qualities of Legos.

While I'm the kind of person who doesn't like things unclean, untidy does not bother me at all. Two or three times a year I might get a bug up my butt about the disorderly state of my office, or my closet, or the closet in my office. Things get sorted, thrown away, re-evaluated, and reorganized. Two weeks later, it looks like it did three weeks earlier.

When we pack for trips, I usually am smart enough to rely on my Lovely Wife to ensure we have all the necessary items. Her orderly thoroughness results in an abundance -- some might say over-abundance -- of clothing and sundry items necessary for whatever trip we might be taking. Forget "Be Prepared," our state of uber-preparedness would put any Eagle Scout to shame.

On rare occasions, however, I am called on to collect and pack items for a last-minute sleepover or a night of the children staying at my parents' house. I'd like to say I've learned from the example my Lovely Wife has repeatedly set for me, but I'm simply not that smart.

One time, I forgot pajamas. Another time, I forgot pants. Depending on the circumstances, I might also forget toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, underwear, bathing suits, hats, shirts, sunscreen, sweaters, jackets, flip flops, sneakers, dress shoes, belts, medications, blankets, and snacks. Now that the children are getting older, I can look forward to also forgetting to pack glasses, phones, phone chargers, iPods, iPod chargers, deodorant, makeup, makeup remover, bras, and pads.

Whenever we head out on a vacation, the boys rapid fire a list of items they suspect I might forget, beginning with the items I've neglected in the past.

Most recently, as we pulled out of our community to make the long drive down to Florida for our cruise, I thought I was in for another game of "What Dad Forgot." The Italian started listing the obvious items, asking me if they were packed, but the German cut him off.

"Don't worry," the German reassured him. "Mom helped Dad pack, so we'll be okay."

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Life In a Yahtzee Cup

Ka-chik. Ka-chick. Ka-chik.

When you're in the final stretch of a 9-hour drive from North Carolina to Florida, you've either achieved a Road Warrior level of zen, or every last possible petty annoyance is blossoming into a full-on assault on your weary psyche.

Ka-chik. Ka-chick. Ka-chik.

The German is a lovely boy, in many ways the sweetest-natured of our three sweet-natured children. One time, when he and his brother were very young, the Italian was crying because he had not behaved well enough to earn a stamp on the back of his hand from their gymnastics instructor. Did the German gloat and flaunt his stamp? No. He discreetly licked his finger and tried to wipe off his stamp, so his brother wouldn't feel bad. You can't pick'em any sweeter than that.


All the way along the tedious drive, an hour to reach Interstate 95 followed by 488 miles straight down the eastern seaboard of North America, our children behaved better than one could hope for. They watched movies, listened to their iPods, played games, conversed, stared out the windows. Not until the very end did the Italian begin to come unglued, but then weren't we all? We all wanted to stretch our legs and vent some pent up energy. Yes, the children have been wonderful.

Ka-chik. Ka-chick.

That noise? It's nothing. Tell yourself it's nothing. If you ignore it, it will drown in the hum of tires barreling down the road and wind rushing over the van. The German really is a lovely boy.


Such a lovely boy...

Ka-chik. Ka-chik.

After eight hours in the van with another hour ahead of him, he deserves an innocent distraction. He doesn't even realize he's doing it. Look at him. He's staring at whichever movie is playing on the tiny screen that pops out of the ceiling, listening intently to the dialogue through the headphones that seal him off from the rest of the world. It doesn't seem to be bothering anyone else, so don't let it bother you.

Ka-chik. Chik-a-chik-a-chik-a-chik-a-chik-a-chik-a-chik-a-chik!

Oh, please make it stop! If he doesn't stop rattling that plastic container of Menthos gum, I'm going to lose the few remaining drops of reason keeping me focused on the pending joy of the family vacation we have planned for the next few days.

Why doesn't he eat the gum? Then there wouldn't be any demonic little pellets to rattle like dried beans in maraca! Why would anyone turn chewing gum, innocently soft chewing gum, noiseless and unoffensive chewing gum, into candy-coated castanet innards? Who could have pioneered such an evil scheme against the senses?

Ka-chik. Ka-chick. Ka-chik.

Damn you, Chiclets!

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

King Kong All Over Again

Finding the correct title for a blog post can be difficult. Good ideas don't always present themselves. In this case, too many choices have made it difficult for me to pick one.

"Why Universal Studios Sucks"

"Universal Owes Me $430"

"All Style & No Substance"

They all express how I feel about our recent trip to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando, FL.

My first experience with Universal Studios was 15 years ago, before children, when my Lovely Wife and I were newlyweds. She has never cared for thrill rides, so we took advantage of short lines in the off season to scoot me through the more notable adventures with the least inconvenience to her. Jaws was entertaining, Earthquake was under renovation, but King Kong promised a scream or two.

I'm a fan of the big ape. Almost every New Year's Eve of my childhood, when the local channels and PBS would run classic movie marathons, I looked forward to tuning in to the early afternoon showing of the black & white classic on my 13-inch black & white TV. Although the pathetically awful 1970s remake -- Jessica Lange never has regained my respect -- had come and gone long before we traveled to the theme park, my anticipation and expectations remained high.

Twenty minutes into waiting, however, it became apparent something was amiss. The line stopped advancing. People started grumbling. The message wafted through the queue like an unpleasant odor: "King Kong is not working." Disappointed, but not wanting to waste any of our time together, we abandoned the ride. I gave it one more chance later that evening, but as I approached, a sign indicated the ride was out of commission for the rest of they day.

Our general impression of Universal Studios was one of bemused apathy. Not too bad, but definitely not Disney quality in terms of total immersion into a memorable experience.

Cut to spring break 2011.

A solid year of planning had us booked on the new Disney Dream, a short cruise that would leave us an extra day or two to accomplish something else. Since the ship's home is Port Canaveral, just one hour east of Orlando, a theme park visit seemed the natural climax to our trip. But which park? Having hit all four Disney parks hard over the past five or six years, and all of us being avid Harry Potter fans, a quick visit to the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park seemed apropos.

Now, I wasn't expecting to skip down the lane in Hogsmeade, unfettered by long lines or throngs of fellow tourists crowding into Hogwarts Castle or the Three Broomsticks pub. This was spring break, and patience would be required. Unfortunately, along with patience came the need for drastically lowered expectations.

The first mistake we made was to follow the advice of a Universal Studios salesman I met during a recent tradeshow. He informed me the best thing to start with was Olivander's Wand Shop, since the line moves slowly for the brief theatrical presentation given before being allowed to enter the wand shop.

"The Castle can move 2,000 people through every hour, so save that for later," he said.

By the time we reached the wand shop, thanks to the early admission of resort guests and express pass holders, the Olivander's line already was over an hour long. We followed the advice and stood in line for the wand shop, watching the estimated wait time at the Hogwarts Castle behind us quickly building from 45 minutes to two hours, only to be disappointed by an underwhelming three-minute performance by an unenthusiastic "actor" in a very tiny room.

Ninety dollars later, with three plastic wands in hand, we decided to avoid the castle for a little while in hopes the line would diminish. My Lovely Wife wandered through the faux village of Hogsmeade while the kids and I rode the amusing Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster. Our plan seemingly working, the wait time at the castle had reduced to a reasonable length, so we gave it a try.

From the outside, it's a remarkable sight. It could not possibly look more like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that all us movie geeks wish were a real place to which we could travel. But when you step inside, the illusion crumbles. Heck, you don't even have to go inside.

Just stand on the snaking line for an hour inside the grounds surrounding the castle, and you quickly understand how lifeless an experience your tour of Hogwarts will be. Meandering through the herbology greenhouses, there are no screeching mandrakes or assortment of moving plants. The only plants are inexpensive real ones, hung high overhead in baskets that look like ones you can buy from Home Depot for about twenty bucks. You also get a great view of a tremendous blank wall.

During the next 45 minutes -- in which time we inched forward from a portrait room with only four moving paintings to Dumbledore's office -- we discovered that Universal Studios' idea of high-quality audio barely matches that of the Country Bear Jamboree. I swear, somewhere in storage I have an old Sony Walkman cassette player with clearer sound. We couldn't understand a dang thing anyone was saying, regardless of the fact we heard each repeated 1-minute loop at least twenty times.

And if you want to talk about missed opportunities, Disney's Haunted House -- one of the original attractions built in 1971 -- offers more tricks of the eye and technological wonders than anything the Wizarding World of Harry Potter meagerly doles out. I'm not sure if anyone has told the chiefs at Universal Studios, but flat screen televisions framed up to look like moving paintings are not futuristic technology. Where were the moving staircases? Where were the ghosts? Where was that sense of wonder I expected to feel?

Then, just like years before, the line stopped moving. We were trapped in Dumbledore's office for almost thirty minutes with no park employees in sight. Dumbledore endlessly repeated his bass-heavy mumbled welcome to us. Finally the announcement came: "We are sorry for the delay. We are experiencing technical difficulties..."

It was King Kong all over again.

Considering all the work that went into making the new Harry Potter section of the park look so amazing, it's pretty sad the most fun we had as a family during the entire day came at Seuss Landing.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler