Friday, January 28, 2011

I Heart Slovenia

I am continually amazed, surprised, flabbergasted, and flummoxed by the attention this little blog receives. While I am fully aware it is not a break-out success with thousands of loyal followers, I'm still shocked when more than two people actually give a poop about what I have to say.

Just last week, the blog passed 5,000 hits. That doesn't mean 5,000 visitors. It simply means the blog's 63 Facebook fans, who receive an email every time I throw a post out here, have been kind enough to return many times. Some of you also forward links to your friends and family. (By the way, if you have forwarded my blog to other people -- Thank you!)

What makes managing the blog especially interesting is seeing where the hits come from. Last October I removed the Feedjit tracking tool that identified individual visitors because (a) it was a major distraction and (b) it had a bit of a Big Brotherish feel to it. But Blogger still provides basic statistical information so I can identify the most popular posts and tell what parts of the world you readers represent.

As of this moment, 96.3% of all hits to Ramblings of a Very Pale Man have come from within the United States of America. Where in the U.S., exactly? I don't know, but I can hazard a good guess that the meat of them are from New York (where I was born and raised) and North Carolina (where I've lived for 20+ years).

But that means 3.7% of the hits come from other countries, and not necessarily the most obvious places. It can be interesting to see which posts attract visitors from what countries.

For instance, somebody in Russia loves the "72 O'Clock" post from September 2010. Every now and then a Muscovite still finds his way to that post. I don't understand the attraction, since it isn't even one of my favorite writings, but I do appreciate the continuing interest.

And the most recent post -- "Backpack Revolution!" -- was the first to draw interest from visitors in South Korea, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, among other countries. Couldn't have something to do with the use of the word "revolution" in the title, could it?

Regardless of the reason, and in spite of the small percentage they represent, I am tickled so many foreign visitors have found their way to the blog. In order of number of hits, these visitors represent the following countries:

Russia
Canada
Denmark
Slovenia
Germany
Poland
United Kingdom
Sweden
France
China
India
Netherlands
Australia
South Korea
Saudi Arabia
Singapore
Brazil
Iraq
Pakistan
Taiwan
Vietnam

The best part is learning about places I'd never heard of before. When Slovenia suddenly popped up last month, I had to research it on Wikipedia just to figure out where in the world it is.

Just think about it. One of the two million people living in the third-most forested country in Europe -- possibly in the bustling metropolis of Ljubljana along the Sava River, or the quaint mountain village of Slovenj Gradec with its 15th century religious frescos -- has returned to the blog 15 times in the last 30 days.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, thanks for dropping in!



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Backpack Revolution!

I'd seen it a few times during recent travels.

I'm lugging my 37-pound, black leather, businessman computer bag through the airport terminal, one shoulder hanging a good four inches closer to the ground than the other, when I'm overtaken by some idiot in a business suit and long coat with a college book bag strapped to his back.

Sure, I might be struggling with curvature of the spine while he skips along at a jaunty pace, but I look more professional. People will see me and say to themselves: "What a professional businessman." They'll see him and say: "Class was over twenty years ago, Skippy. Sell the book bag and get a briefcase."

Secretly, however, I envied Skippy.

He made it to his connecting flight free of pain. He carried his evenly distributed load on his back, freeing his hands for more important tasks like carrying a vanilla latte or a pretzel. And if he needed to relieve himself, he didn't have to worry about finding a urine-free spot on the men's room floor to place his bag. All he'd have to do is unzip and let it fly!

Meanwhile, the retractable strap from my bag cut into my shoulder. The bag bounced awkwardly around my waist and nearly decapitated a small child who got too close. In the plane, the puffed up monster barely fit into the overhead compartment.

During my last trip to Ohio, as more and more backpacks passed me by, I reached for my computer bag and felt an uncomfortable tugging sensation in my left forearm. It hurt for the remainder of the trip and several weeks afterward. During a routine physical, my doctor suggested I likely pulled something lifting the computer bag. That was all the excuse I needed.

Just a week or so later we were in Target and I purchased a Swiss Army travel backpack with a laptop pocket, and a media pocket, and a pocket for my pens, and a pocket for notebooks, and a pocket for miscellanous items, and two side mesh pockets for drinks.

All pocketed out, I transferred my business travel items from the computer bag to the backpack. Walking this morning through RDU Airport, then Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and then Columbus International Airport, I felt liberated. I breezed by stodgy old travelers with their antiquated brief cases and computer bags like a dart.

At RDU, I carried a bagel in one hand and an orange juice in the other. At Charlotte, I carried my notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. And at Columbus, I entered the men's room and relieved myself without having to put my bag down in a puddle of pee.

Change can be good.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, January 20, 2011

God Got It Wrong

Some things are beyond our control.

The clothing styles of the 1970s are a perfect example. One day, bellbottoms don't exist. The next day, we're all wearing flared jeans. One day, shirt collars are starched and understated. The next day, I'm wearing floppy butterfly collars so wide a strong breeze could carry me out over Long Island Sound.

Family planning is like that, too. When we had one child, the world seemed perfect. We were able to give her all our attention and make certain she had everything she needed to be happy and healthy. Our plan was to wait four or five years to give her a sibling, preferably a sister if my Lovely Wife had any say in the matter.

As it turns out, she didn't.

For starters, waiting four or five years would have taken greater planning skills and restraint than we apparently possess. It also doesn't help that we, as a couple, are uber-fertile. I'm pretty sure just being in the same room and thinking about having sex back then would have resulted in either one of us getting pregnant.

Only two years into our first child, we found out another baby was on the way. When we told our Daughter she would be a big sister, she innocently referred to the impending bundle as "babies."

"No, sweetie," my Lovely Wife would tell her, "only one baby."

"No, Mommy, two ones," our Daughter would respond. You can imagine our newfound respect for -- and fear of -- our Daughter when the first ultrasound revealed we were, indeed, expecting twins.

Already perturbed by the fact of the pregnancy not fitting into the timeframe of her plan, my Lovely Wife began crying once the doctor said "Now let's take a look at the other one" and she didn't stop for several days. She gradually came to terms with the idea of multiples and consoled herself by wishing for two more daughters, or at least one girl and one boy.

For my money, I didn't care what they were. Even during our first pregnancy I didn't have a preference. When my Lovely Wife asked whether I wanted a boy or a girl I would smile and say I just wanted a healthy baby. She found this an unreasonable and irritating stance to take.

"Everybody wants a healthy baby," she would say. "Do you want a boy or a girl?!"

When the time came to find out what the twins would be, you can imagine the quantity of tears that flowed when the ultrasound clearly displayed evidence of the Y chromosone at work. The oft-repeated lament over the next few months from my Lovely Wife was: "I can't believe I'm having two freaking boys!"

Even our Daughter, with her fledgling supernatural powers, was disappointed. We explained to her that God must have wanted her to be the big sister of two baby brothers.

"Well, God got it wrong," she said.

Of course, all reservations melted away once the boys made their big debut. Their mother and big sister fell in love with the little ham hocks, as did I, and life hasn't been the same since.

After the boys were born, people asked if we planned to have any more. Yeah, right. Once they start coming out in pairs, you've got to put some serious thought to the potential ramifications of your actions. Let's just say, one of the first calls we made after getting them home from the hospital was to the urologist.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Bowlful of I'm-Still-Hungry

Kids are a pain in the butt to cook for, which is not a secret, but I really didn't expect it to be this difficult.

I could understand if we were constantly cooking exotic meals seasoned with curry, star anise, or cumin. If our preferred protein were, say, rabbit or eel or boll weevil, I could again understand our children's reticence to eat what we dish out. Even if we served up items only slightly off the beaten path, like sushi or jambalaya, I could excuse their finickiness.

To be fair, our Daughter tries just about everything and has a very short list of disallowed menu items. No chili. No Brussels sprouts. No ham, although bacon is A-OK and close to the top of the list of things for which she might hurt somebody. She amazes me, really. When I was thirteen, my favorite meal most definitely was not grilled marinated salmon with broccoli and a twice-baked potato. I wouldn't have sat on a plate of that, much less eaten it.

No, our Daughter is a great eater. It's the boys that bother me.

For starters, the Italian doesn't like pasta. That's wrong in so many ways, I have trouble processing it. I find myself time and time again standing in the kitchen staring dumbstruck at him when he says he doesn't like pasta. How is that possible?

He likes macaroni and cheese, right? Right.

Macaroni is pasta, right? Right.

But if you take the cheese off the macaroni and give him a bowl of it, he won't eat it because now it's just pasta and he doesn't like pasta!

And if that weren't bad enough, he also doesn't like hamburgers or hot dogs. Not only is he refusing to live up to an ethnic stereotype by not eating pasta, he's refusing to live up to the most basic requirements of an American child by not eating hamburgers and hot dogs. Even if he disliked only one of those, I could let it slide. But both? Patently un-American.

But as difficult as he is, he pales in comparison to the German.

It's much easier for me to offer a list of the foods the German does eat than to attempt summarizing what he won't. Quite simply, he eats bread, cheese, bread with cheese, macaroni and cheese, and plain pasta. It's a miracle the boy has had a bowel movement at all in the past five years. On the odd occasion we are able to blackmail him into eating a kernel of corn or a wedge of apple, his intestines must go into shock.

For a while, taking our family out for a meal was an experiment in pissing away money. As my Lovely Wife put it: "I don't want to go to a restaurant just to order them each a seven-dollar bowl of 'I'm still hungry.'"

These are the same children who, when they are in their twenties, will discover how good food with flavor can be. They will want to bring us to their favorite restaurants, or cook their new favorite meals for us, and behave as though they are introducing us to some previously undiscovered culinary world.

That's when I'll tell them I don't like whatever it is they want me to try, and I'll order a basket of chicken fingers with fries off the kids' menu.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Radio Tease

Every now and then a local radio station changes its format. If I'm lucky, it changes from some annoying techno-pop-disco-crap to classic rock. A few weeks ago, I thought I struck radio gold when I found a station that had converted to a format focusing on rock hits from the 80s and 90s.

I hate to date myself, but if The Big Chill were remade today, it would star people my age chugging Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers and dancing around an Ikea-furnished living room to Flock of Seagulls while wearing worn-out "Frankie Says Relax" concert t-shirts and figuring out how to stream Wham and Paula Abdul videos off YouTube.

MTV might have revolutionized the music industry -- and I was one of those kids who excitedly watched it launch with the appropriately titled "Video Killed The Radio Star" -- but it destroyed excellent bands that weren't pretty enough to fit the new mold. Mainstream music in the 80s was all about big hair, spandex, fog machines and orchestrated laser shows, so to find a radio station that pays homage to the acts that actually managed to keep rock alive during the decades of synth drums and choreographed lip-synch concerts is a rare treat.

Besides, I've grown tired of the so-called classic rock stations of North Carolina. They play the same twenty songs over and over again. This one plays Aerosmith every third song. That one plays ACDC every twenty minutes. That other one must think "Freebird" is the only song Lynyrd Skynyrd ever recorded.

It's like most of these stations laid out their schedules ten years ago and haven't deviated from them since. The only time you might hear more than one song from any band's catalog is on the horribly hackneyed two-fer-Tuesdays. Talk about innovative programming. I'm pretty sure Dick Clark came up with that idea eight years before radio was invented.

So, after years of relying on my iPod for music I like, I was driving to the grocery store and searching for a little agreeable music when I paused on a station long enough to hear the guy say "rock hits of the eighties and nineties." Sure enough, they played several songs in a row that took me back to my younger days. I hastily programmed the station into preset number four on the van radio.

Over the next few days, I would dial up the station to take fleeting sentimental journeys through my teens and early twenties while toodling around town. It all seemed so perfect. Then the cracks appeared in the ice.

By the third or fourth day, I realized I was hearing "Money For Nothing" by Dire Straits for the third or fourth time. And wasn't that the second time they played Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town" since this morning? That song doesn't even match their format! Just because The BusBoys covered it for the 48 Hours soundtrack in 1982 doesn't change the fact the song is from the 1970s! Don't these people know what they're doing?!

Turns out, they don't. Thank goodness I always keep the iPod charged up and ready to go.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Friday, January 7, 2011

Meatballs, Feathers & Rocking Chairs

Having children means staying busy. In our children's younger years, it more specifically meant busying ourselves with changing diapers, preparing bottles, giving baths, and keeping them entertained.

Among all the requirements of parenthood, I always was most taken by the responsibility to entertain. When you get it right, I imagine the sensation you experience is akin to what actors or comedians must feel when they are on stage. Smiles, laughs, and applause from an audience delighted to watch you perform.

But you must remain topical and current. As your audience matures, you find peek-a-boo and funny faces no longer cut the mustard. You've got to expand your repertoire or risk being replaced by someone or something funnier, like an uncle or a cardboard box.

When the kids were big enough to take baths in a proper bathtub, one of my favorite things was to pretend to eat their feet. I know what you're thinking. Pure genius, right?

Bath time would progress normally and quietly when, suddenly, I would declare the need to eat me some kiddie toes. Giggling would give way to a manic, panicked laughter as I searched the surface of the soapy water for digits. Eventually -- because they simply could no longer resist the temptation -- one of the children would lift a toe through the bubbles. As quickly as possible, I would launch my face into the water, mouth open, fully prepared to have a tooth kicked out, and splash around like a thresher shark after my prey.

At some point, however, children mature to the point where not only would my trying to bite their toes while they're in the bathtub leave them emotionally scarred, my mere presence in the room would cross the line into the zones of "creepy" and "disturbing."

While still young, our kids now are miniature adults and more sophisticated than the toddlers who once thrilled at the idea of being pushed on a swing. They now entertain themselves with an arsenal of Nerf guns, a vast selection of movies, video games for the Wii or PS3, or the kids next door.

But every now and then, on wintery days like today or slow summer days when they tire of their electronic gadgets, we get to play with them again. Maybe just a few quick volleys of ping pong on the new table in the basement. Maybe we join them on the Wii for some fun, sporty games. Maybe even a board game. We've been fortunate that they continue to enjoy our family time.

Just the other night, after yet another threat of winter weather caused the cancelation of a dance at our Darling Daughter's school, we found we had quite a bit of time to enjoy not only our own children but a couple of our daughter's friends who were sleeping over.

We knowingly did not crowd the three 13-year-olds, but when it came time for dessert we offered both our homemade cookies and a game of Apples to Apples. Before long, the seven of us were laughing it up around the table at the mismatched combinations of words we came up with during the game -- like my favorite, "Meatballs, Feathers and Rocking Chairs." We laughed at each other and ourselves, enjoying each other's company as we always have and hopefully always will.

I'm curious to see what new entertainment will keep us close as the years advance. Who knows? Maybe in another decade or two I'll have a chance to dive after new little toes through the bubbles. Until then, I'll be a happy idiot and enjoy what comes.



© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Frosty the Psycho Killer!

The snow fell thick and wet on our clean, flat concrete driveway.

We innocently shoveled the heavy snow into a pile that later would form the base of the beast. Had we known then what we were creating, we would have scattered the glittering crystals to the winds before the creature had a chance to take shape.

When the base stood one foot high off the ground, we foolishly gathered more snow for its belly. Lovingly, our gloved hands rolled and patted until the basketball-size mid-section found its home on the wide, sprawling foundation. A final effort yielded a perfect sphere of a head, which we tenderly placed in a scooped-out basin atop the beast's neckless shoulders.

Demon-red eyes were crafted using berries, plucked from a nearby Nandina. A handful of the same berries also shaped the wickedly grinning mouth. The plastic handle of a garden tool provided its nose, and we dived into our wardrobe to give it a proper hat and scarf. Two branches, snapped from a bare scrub Oak tree, completed the seemingly benign snowman. We admired our creation for a little while before the children escaped to the warmth of the house to sit by the gas logs and play with their new Christmas toys and games.

It stood in the cold in the front yard, gathering strength and size from the continuing precipitation. I remained outside with it to shovel snow from the driveway. Several times, I swear I heard the crunching of shifting packed snow, only to find the snowman staring directly at me. Had it moved closer? Were its arms raised higher in the air than we had set them? Were the wild, berry eyes staring at me? I hurried to finish the driveway.

The next morning, nothing appeared out of place. But by midday, with the warming Sun bathing the white landscape in its radiant light, the pure white creature in our driveway let slip the first hints of the dark, evil spirit at its core. Ever so slightly it leaned toward the house, reaching out with clutching, gnarled, gray fingers. I cautiously approached it, until a berry dropped from its crooked mouth and rolled down the driveway to stop at my boot. Was it the wind, or did I just hear a muffled growl from somewhere too close?

Through the night and into the next morning I tried to convince myself the snowman was inanimate and transient. It soon would be gone, melted away into the soft sandy soil under the pinestraw, its beedy berry eyes eaten by some hungry Cardinal or Yellow Finch.

The warmer air indeed did its best to remove the unholy creature from our driveway. I woke to find it stooped and lurching toward the house, struggling against nature to escape the rising Sun. For the briefest moment I pitied it, until I knelt to glimpse its face. An angry, powerful rage burst from the beast's red eyes that hung in their sockets, defying gravity. I scurried away from it, grateful for the knowledge it would soon be gone.

But the snowbeast survived for several more days. Each morning smaller. Each morning closer to our home. Each morning more stooped and twisted than the one before. Naked and blind, dripping with sweat from its relentless struggle, it held on to its evil mission.

When it became clear we would never be free of the beast, I took a shovel from the garage, gripped it firmly with both hands, and swung it repeatedly into the creature's head and body. Slushy chunks of snowman splattered across the driveway. I stood watching as the runoff from the melting carcass continued on the beast's path down to the open garage, only to be diverted into the flowerbed by the slope of the concrete.

Safe at last, we reclaimed our driveway and our peace of mind. However, I've heard tonight's forecast calls for snow...



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Blood, Guts & Giant White Socks

Of all the genes I could have passed along to my children, the two I hoped would at least end up being recessive are those responsible for my extreme lack of pigment and random nose bleeds.

Sunburns are no fun, take it from me. Some people spray on a light coating of SPF 10 or 15. I encase myself in SPF 70 and allow the required time for it to soak in. My Lovely Wife still can't believe I got a sunburn at the State Fair in October almost 20 years ago when we started dating.

Fortunately, our daughter browns better than a buttered turkey in a 400-degree oven. And the boys, despite their apparent paleness, both aquire moderate tans during the summer months.

As for nose bleeds, I had some doozies when I was a kid. One time in high school, just before the homeroom bell rang, a gusher came on and there wasn't a tissue in sight. I walked the length of the building to the nurse's office trying not to bleed on anyone, occasionally taking advantage of the situation to gross out a few friends along the way.

Unfortunately, the Italian seems to be carrying on the tradition of the bleeding nose.

Evening hours seem to be his shnoz's favorite time of day to let it flow. For the most part, the problem is easy to deal with and far less disgusting to clean up than the average upchuck, which occurs far more freqently than bloody noses do. I venture to guess I've cleaned more vomit off floors, out of carpets and bed sheets and clothes, out of buckets, and off the backs of toilets than a janitor in a bulemia clinic.

When she was two or three years old, our Darling Daughter projectile-vomited several pounds of fishy crackers across a room, nailing my Lovely Wife square in the chest and almost destroying a shag carpet. We spent hours cleaning up that unholy mess. Thank goodness it didn't happen in our house...

In fact, the nose bleed is a no brainer by comparison. Sit the child on the edge of the bathtub, lean his head forward a little, pinch the bridge of the nose, and wait for it to stop.

A few months ago, the Italian got out of bed with a nose bleed and wandered into our bedroom with his hands up to his face. In his short pajamas, and with his complete lack of insular body fat, he sat in the bathroom shivering while we tried to stop the bleeding. I offered to get him something to keep him warm but he didn't want me to leave his side. So, I did the next best thing -- I took off my socks and put them on his feet.

It was one of those moments when you wish you had a camera, because you know you will never be able to recreate the moment, not that you would really want to if you could but you know what I mean. There he was, in shorts and t-shirt, eyelids hanging heavy over tired brown eyes, holding a tissue under his nose, giant white socks pulled halfway up his thighs, and a dreamy smile on his little face. He still had them on the next morning at breakfast.

I much prefer that image to the one that woke me a few nights ago around 1:30am from a deep slumber.

My eyes slowly adjusted to the light from the television. I had been asleep for less than an hour, having worked late into the night writing my book. My mind was struggling just to figure out where I was when I felt a nudge at my back. I turned over to find the Italian hovering over me, looking like an extra from a zombie movie. Blood covered the fronts and backs of his hands and his entire face was smeared red.

I like to think I don't frighten too easily, but I have to admit I found myself struggling to remember how to spell 9-1-1. I've seen dying snake-bite vicitms on the Discovery Channel who looked healthier than this nine-year-old, blood-stained boy standing at my bedside.

Getting him cleaned up, stopping the bleeding, and tucking him back in bed without waking anyone else in the house was easy. Getting myself back to sleep was the hard part.


(c) 2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, January 3, 2011

Un-Decorated

Do you decorate for the holidays? We do.

Come Thanksgiving weekend we break out the garlands, set up the imitation Christmas tree, trim it with hundreds of ornaments collected and crafted over the years, and generally fill every last nook and cranny of our home with seasonal decorations.

Snomwen replace candles on the mantle. A Santa-head cookie jar magically appears on the counter. Holiday greeting cards from friends and family adorn the casings of several doorways leading off our living room. Even framed photographs are boxed away in favor of old photos of our children with a Santa-du-jour at the mall.

At first, the results of the process can be overwhelming.

Normal pathways through the house become restricted. Lights twinkle seemingly everywhere. Gnomes climb a ladder up the side of a bookcase and a motorized Snoopy in Santa garb slowly rotates his head like he's trying to work out a kink. Wrapped packages begin to spill out from under the tree, further restricting traffic and making it nearly impossible to plug in the tree or turn on the fireplace, which really isn't a good idea unless you take down the stockings and shift some of the packages away from the hearth to keep the Lego's inside them from melting.

Then you find yourself growing accustomed to it all. The lights and baubles and garlands blend together until, by Christmas morning, they are a natural and comforting backdrop to normal life.

After several days, the unwrapped gifts gradually make their way to their proper places. Everybody has a turn playing with the new ping pong table, everybody eats way too many cookies, and you find your pants have shrunk a half size since you put your daily treadmill workout on hiatus. New Year's celebrations come and go, and you begin to get that itch to pack up the holiday trimmings.

When you do -- when the tree is back in basement storage and the final bits of gold glitter are vacuumed off the hardwood floors -- the house looks and feels empty. The walls seem bare, as though you've just bought the place and didn't have enough stuff to fill it. At any moment, you expect to see the tiny head of Cindy Lou Who peeking around the corner to ask: "Why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?"

Before long, however, the familiarity of the normal decor settles back in. Neat and orderly, simple and straightforward, just the way it should be. January can begin.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler