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.


© 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