Sunday, February 27, 2011

Negative Blockage

There are times when you simply don't know what to write. No topics come to mind, no words fall out easily onto the page or through your fingertips to the keyboard. You struggle and search in vain for ideas that do not come.

Then there are times like this past week, in which many ideas present themselves, but there isn't enough time to address them. Notes are scribbled on scraps of paper while driving at 80 miles an hour down a rural highway to man a tradeshow booth. Errant thoughts, worthy of further consideration, pass fleetingly without so much as a moment's pause as you sit through mandatory meetings. The hectic schedule of work and family and extracurricular activities leaves no time for the quiet reflection necessary for creative writing.

I've come to the conclusion I would prefer writer's block to the inability to write when the ideas are flowing.

Somewhere in the past 168 hours, I've lost at least four decent ideas for blog posts, two plot twists about which I seemed pretty excited when they came to mind for the murder mystery I'm writing, and most of the details for the conclusion of the short ghost story I work on when the murder mystery has me temporarily stymied.

And the notes that survived the week are so cryptic as to be almost useless. I don't know what I was thinking when I hastily jotted down the word "fencing" on a pad of paper next to me in the passenger seat of my little green car. Was I intending to write about sword fighting, split rails, or people who sell stolen goods? Did it relate to the blog, the book, or the short story? I'll never know.

What I do know: Despite being away from home and family for longer than I like, this week also brought many personal rewards only a fool would wish away in order to obtain the solitary confinement required for writing.

Did I spend two days away from home to attend a conference in Washington? Yes.

But I also was home the night my twin boys performed in their school musical program. The Italian sang his heart out and square-danced around the stage, and the German got to play the xylophone for an audience of hundreds. Even their big sister got into the act by serving as a volunteer handing out programs to families as they arrived.

Did I spend two days in a row manning tradeshow booths on military bases and repeating the same spiel over and over again to hundreds of people? Yes.

But I also made it to Fayetteville from Camp LeJeune last night in time to be one of 19 people cramming around a table at Red Robin (yum!), after which we all headed over to Crown Coliseum to meet even more friends for a FireAntz hockey game. The game was terrible -- the only fight saw one of our home team guys getting his butt kicked with no back up from his teammates -- but we laughed and yelled at the players and had a great time.

Did my Lovely Wife and I spend most of today making up for the demands on our time that kept us from our normal weekly routines? Yes.

But I got to spend a beautiful weekend with my best friend, our three amazing children, and a bevy of friends.

If the blog sits for a week without a new post, it isn't the end of the world. If the short story never gets finished, it's okay. If my book has to wait a few days, or even a few years, for me to get back to it, it's not a problem. I have the rest of my life to write. My life, on the other hand, won't wait for me.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Just Ask Your Gyneopthacologist

The best thing about modern television service is the ability to excessively watch, record, and replay the five channels I like out of the hundreds we pay for.

When I was a kid, we had even fewer than the "13 channels of sh-t" to choose from that Pink Floyd so famously bemoaned. Channels 3, 6, 8, 10 & 12 were nothing but snow storms between (hopefully) clear major networks, local channels, and PBS. You could add a few more viewing options if your set picked up UHF and you spoke Spanish.

On the days when I could convince my Mom I was sick (cough, cough, puppy eyes, sniffle) enough to stay home from school, the lameness of TV was painfully apparent. By 11:00am, shows like The Magic Garden and Mr. Rogers vanished. I had to find some way of surviving the barren programming wasteland until 3:00pm, when the Joe Franklin Show and Midday With Bill Boggs would finally give way to high quality reruns of Looney Toons, Tom & Jerry, and Gilligan's Island on Channels 5, 9 & 11.

I was reminded of those old times recently while sitting patiently in the waiting room at a nearby medical clinic. The television hanging in the corner of the room was on display to entertain and distract all of us from the amount of time spent waiting. In theory, I can see how someone might think this is a good idea. In practice, however, the remote often is controlled by some sedentary secretary who obviously is in dire need of passionate romance, since these "community" televisions always seem to land on either a network soap opera or a female panel talk show knock-off of The View. In this case, the wait was long enough to capture both the the talk show and the soap opera.

As awful as it might seem, what really made the biggest impression was neither the pathetic acting and silly dialogue of the soap, nor the shrill infomercial-like pandering to guests on the talk show. By the time the wait was over, it was the commercials that really attracted my attention.

It began innocently enough with my being told exactly how white my teeth ought to be. Apparently, shiny white simply isn't white enough. I need a prescription-strength whitener, or at the very least I need to discuss the potential benefits of said prescription-strength whitener with my dentist.

Next, I learned I might need a stool softener, although I'm not 100 percent certain. The product being pitched merely talked about the benefits of exceptionally soft stool, so I guess I need to start keeping a log (no pun intended) in which I note the rigidity of my stool so I can properly assess my need for the prescription-strength stool softener when I discuss it with my gastroenterologist.

The next two went hand in hand, so to speak, since one product held out the hope of lowered cholesterol while the other promised immediate and guaranteed weight loss without the need to change my diet or exercise routine. Perhaps it would work best if I crack open both pills and sprinkle the contents like garlic salt over my next slice of pepperoni pizza. But I suppose I better check with my personal nutritionist before I make any drastic changes.

I doubt any of the products mentioned so far would have any impact on my chronic dry eyes or irritating feminine itch, so it's a good thing I kept paying attention during the commercial breaks. With any luck, my gyneopthacologist will know all about the products needed to address these problems when I go in for my annual cervical refractory exam.

And, finally, we end up with constipation. According to the product being touted by the pretend doctor in the borrowed lab coat, I should talk to my family practitioner to make sure I'm not unnecessarily suffering from uncomfortable blockages. It sure does give me a sense of relief, although perhaps not the kind I need, to know there is a relative stranger in my community who is qualified to tell me whether or not I'm having trouble pooping, and what I can do about it.

Whatever the final prognosis about my medical condition, I'm just happy to be home, where I can go back to watching my recorded Food Network and Discovery Channel shows while fast forwarding through all the commercials. I'm not entirely certain, but I think eating a handful of dark chocolate and drinking a Diet Sunkist while watching an uninterrupted episode of MythBusters has already done wonders for my colon.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Dog, a Giraffe and 32 Naked Barbies

When I was a kid, I had a stuffed toy Snoopy. Correction: I still have my Snoopy, but since I got married I don't find it necessary to sleep with it anymore.

A few years ago, when my parents were cleaning out their storage area to make room for new things to forget they have in their storage area, they found Snoopy. Its gray, matted fur and flattened profile made him seem a little pathetic, which is why I suppose my Mother assumed I would not want it. Fortunately, they called to ask before they threw it away.

Our children also have their own favorite toys that I suppose will make their way into our storage bins when they go off to college, if only because my Lovely Wife and I are emotionally attached to them. Some of these toys are as much a part of our family as the children themselves. Sometimes, we like them even more than we like the children.

Our Daughter might now be at the age of crushes, puppy love and boyfriends, but a decade ago she had eyes only for Bernie, Dottie, Miranda and ShuShu. Bernie was a St. Bernard and Dottie was a Dalmatian. Miranda and ShuShu were little baby dolls. If nothing else, Miranda and ShuShu gave us pause to wonder what kinds of names our grandchildren will be stuck with.

Over time, these early-childhood toys gave way to Barbies that, for some reason, always ended up naked. We purged her toys one year only to find thirty-two naked Barbies stacked high in a basket under her bed. She made us proud, and a little relieved, by donating them along with bags of their clothes to a local charity store.

Although Bernie, Dottie, Miranda and ShuShu remain safely and lovingly stowed away under Our Daughter's bed, our boys' loyalty to their favorite toys has been considerably more fervent.

The Italian has two: Little Puppy and Hoot. If you can't guess, Little Puppy is a little puppy, and Hoot is an owl. Hoot did fall out of favor for a little while after our Poodle chewed out one of his eyes, but recently he has resurfaced for the nightly bedtime tucking in ritual.

The German took a little longer to determine his favorite. During his first few years, he would switch willy nilly between an assortment of toys at night. Eventually, maybe five years ago, he settled on Giraffy. If you can't guess what kind of animal Giraffy is, then you have even less imagination than the German. Oh, and it's rather a pinkish shade of red, which is mildly disconcerting, but it makes him happy.

It will be interesting to see how much longer the boys require their "friends" to hang about them through the dark of night. We still pack them with us when we travel, and the world is not right in its orbit should one of them go missing, so I doubt it will be any time soon. Even their sister occasionally tucks in with something, lately a teddy bear that arrived this past Christmas.

Of course, I can't criticize or poke too much fun. Not when I'm writing this while looking up every now and then to smile at Snoopy, my old friend and stalwart companion, watching over me from the shelf above my desk.



2011 Mark Feggeler

Monday, February 14, 2011

10 Pounds of Apathy

My brother told us last night he has lost 40 pounds over the past three years. Through exercise and a controlled diet, he has reclaimed his waistline and re-established a friendly relationship with his bathroom scale.

While I never have found myself with the need to lose 40 excess pounds, I have come close over the years. Even now, my weight hovering somewhere just above 190, I know I will need to get serious if I want to drop down to the low 180s before we take our spring cruise.

The trouble is, I enjoy eating.

Not only do I enjoy eating, I enjoy eating many of the things experts say will keep a ring of fat hovering above my belt, thereby increasing my chances of developing colon cancer, liver cancer, and heart disease. By the time I'm done writing this post, additional studies will probably link belly fat to ricketts, ringworm, and chronic halitosis. The only part of belly fat that's ever bothered me is the dreaded "I gotta punch a new hole in my belt" syndrome, particularly if the belt isn't very old.

Not liking chocolate would be a great place to start. I've professed my love of chocolate on several occasions, as some of you might recall. I can't help thinking people would enjoy communion more at our church if the host were coated in a thin layer of dark chocolate, and if Jesus had blessed a carton of chocolate milk instead of a pitcher of red wine. Now THAT would be a celebration!

Bread is my other Achille's heel, although I typically reserve the heels of most loaves of bread for the birds. Carbs, in general, are delicious things in almost any shape and flavor. Breads, cakes, crackers, cookies, potatoes, rice, pasta -- the addictive sugars and starches in each delectable item pack on the pounds, cause a new round of pimples to pop up all over my face, and leave me craving more.

Perhaps increasing the amount of daily exercise I get would be a good idea. Those 20-pound weights collecting dust under our bed are patiently waiting for me. The treadmill and I are no strangers, but it lately has been letting me slide with a slow stroll instead of fast run. And I'm fairly certain the floor is always there waiting for me if I want to squeeze in a few push-ups or sit-ups. Last I checked, gravity didn't charge a membership fee.

So, it's time to get serious. Only 10 pounds separate me from improved self-esteem, serving as a healthy role model for my children, and several pairs of jeans in the back of my closet.

At the very least, I need to make sure I don't frighten any children when I take off my shirt on the cruise. They'll already be blinded by my whiteness. There's no point adding insult to injury.


2011 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, February 10, 2011

CAUTION! Rule Follower

Make no mistake, we love Our Daughter. Oh, sure, every now and then we contend with a modicum of attitude. She is a teenager, after all.

Just this morning, for instance, she stormed across the living room, wrapped in a towel, and angrily declared how ridiculous it is that she has only two pairs of panties.

It isn't true, of course. There are at least eight in her dresser at this very moment and one on her body, so she must have meant to say she has only two pairs of panties that fit her with any measure of comfort. She calmed down after a minor lecture from her mother and me in which we explained how the frilly underwear fairies don't whisper to us in our sleep when it's time to bring her to the mall to buy her some new drawers.

Fortunately, these kinds of situations are rare. Ours is a house with minimal drama and a fair amount of laughter. But we've recently been informed of a disturbing development in Our Daughter's behavior by the parent of one of her friends.

This summer, as she has the past two years, Our Daughter will attend a week-long sleepaway band camp at a college campus about an hour from home. Several of her friends also will attend, and she will share a room with one of them for the first time this year. Upon learning of the room assignments, the girl who roomed with her last year gave the new roomie a warning about Our Daughter:

"She's a rule follower!"

Turns out we've raised a goody two-shoes. Last year, when the resident instructor said "lights out and no talking," Our Daughter took it seriously. She wouldn't even whisper to her roommate across the dark dorm room. This shouldn't come as a surprise to us, and it is not necessarily a direct result of our parenting. Her compulsive need to follow the rules has been part of her nature from early on.

Even in preschool, she would follow her teacher around the room, wagging her finger at her classmates and repeating whatever admonishment the teacher was doling out. In kindergarten, she once confronted a kid who was picking on someone else, not because the bullied child was her friend, just because it was wrong.

A few years later, when our school system decided to discard the traditional methods of teaching math -- you know, the ones that have proven successful for thousands of years -- in favor of a new style of teaching, it led to a few arguments over homework. In helping her understand her work, I would show her how most normal people arrived at answers to simple math problems. She would then proceed to cry about how "that isn't how the teacher wants us to do it and if we don't do it the right way she's going to mark it wrong because we have to show our work!"

It didn't help that one of her elementary school teachers reinforced this hysteria by advising us to coach Our Daughter it was better to get all the problems finished than to worry about answering them correctly. Silly me, no wonder I struggled with math in school. I always thought it was all about getting the answers right...

Anyway, my Lovely Wife and I need to address this goody-goody problem quickly. We need to make sure Our Daughter enters high school this fall with some street cred.

Unfortunately, when your daughter is a well-behaved All-County flautist who frequently makes the Distinguished List with all As, asks every week if she can help supervise her brothers' Boy Scout meetings because she loves working with young children, and is a ninth-year Girl Scout working on her silver award that might have her teaching basic dance at a summer camp for kids with special needs, street cred might be a tall order.

I'm just sayin'.



© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hush Little Puppies

A landmark was razed to the ground last week.

It had existed in its present location for less than 20 years, which means the building itself was not the landmark so much as it represented the landmark institution that lived within. Before moving into its more modern building in the 1990s, it resided in a rundown little shack only a little ways away.

I first ate at the restaurant in 1990 when I was a wet-behind-the-ears newspaper reporter and the rundown shack was still its home. It was my introduction to several Southern staples, including Carolina barbeque, the classic Carolina-style hamburger, the grilled chicken sandwich with mayo and pickles, sweet and tangy baked beans, greasy green beans prepared with chunks of bacon, and hushpuppies. Whatever you do, don't forget the hushpuppies.

Being a Yankee born and bred, hushpuppies were not known to me as being delectable balls of cornbread lovingly deep fried and served by the dozen in tiny plastic baskets. Hush Puppies were a brand of shoe. More specifically, they were the brown or black leather loafers our parents made us wear to church on Sundays or to school for class pictures. They were not soft and chewy. They did not smell like fry grease and cornbread. They were hard, smelled like feet, and caused blisters to form on the backs of our heels.

It is as incontrovertible as the wetness of water that John's Barbecue served the lightest, fluffiest, sweetest hushpuppies ever known to man. Some people don't care for them light and fluffy and sweet. Some people like their cornbread to resemble packed sand with a flavor to match. Those people are fools.

John understood how to treat his cornmeal like a gentleman should. He showered it with sweetness, formed it gently into golden nuggets, protected them from over-cooking, and served them piping hot.

The best thing to do with one of John's hushpuppies was to take a bite out of it and use the remaining portion as a scoop for the baked beans. Forget peanut butter and chocolate, these two tastes were beyond great together. Hot and tangy baked beans swimming in a thick, brown, sugary sauce that soaked into the nooks and crannies of the cake-like fried cornbread. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, for reasons unimportant to this blog, the restaurant has slowly been withering away over the past few years. Like an old hound hanging back from the hunt, it seemed to lose its will to continue with the old traditions. For me, the restaurant became a ghost long before it died.

In it's place they will erect a Cracker Barrel. A fine restaurant with some excellent food, certainly. But their cornbread crumbles to sawdust in your hands, and to the best of my knowledge they don't even list hushpuppies on the menu.

The passing of an era takes a toll on people in different ways. If you were to survey the former patrons of John's Barbecue about what they will miss most, you would probably receive a broad range of responses. Some will miss the camaraderie of old friends at their favorite haunt, some will miss the smiling faces that served them faithfully all those years, and some might even miss the pig-themed decor.

I will miss the hushpuppies. Rest in peace, little doggies. Rest in peace.




© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dear Amazon: I Love You

The first thing I ever wrote was a meandering story about a high school student traveling through time and experiencing firsthand the many historical events discussed in his social studies class. I thought it was the greatest thing ever written and shared it with my friends who, like me, were pimply high school sophomores.

Ever since then, I've known I would become a writer.

Deep inside me, longing to escape, was that great American novel. It took shape gradually over years, the first foundation stone laid in my senior year at college when I decided it would be a murder mystery about a guy named Ray. Seriously, that was all I had at the time, but I held onto it like it was a Nobel prize winner.

As I moved through my life, Ray took on new characteristics. For a while, he was a newspaper reporter. Then he was a doctor, then a lawyer, and then back to a reporter when I realized I knew nothing about doctors and lawyers. But I was a reporter from 1990 to 1993, so it seemed best to stick with what I knew.

After ten years, I had gone from "murder mystery about a guy named Ray" to "murder mystery about a reporter named Ray." Doesn't sound like much, I know. Keep in mind I've been working on this for twenty-two years and you'll better appreciate the magnitude of the development.

In the last twelve years, I found myself inventing additional important things for the book, such as a plot, a murder victim, a reason why the victim was murdered, and a cast of characters to support the story. These details came in bits and pieces, in dreams and daydreams, in blond moments when I should have been paying attention to more important things, and quite often only after I had given up on the dream of writing the book.

In other words, the book wouldn't leave me alone. It wouldn't allow me to give up.

Oh, to be sure, it wasn't jumping out in front of me with it's arms flailing, yelling "Here I am! Write me! Write me!" It would throw just enough of a bone to me when I least expected it to keep me struggling forward.

But then I did something the book wasn't expecting. In January of 2010, I turned my back on the book and started writing this blog, primarily because I wanted to write and I didn't care if it was a book, a blog, or a birthday card. Blogging offered a release through which to vent the overwhelming need to write.

After a solid year of posts, I suspected I had enough to fill a small book, so I began compiling them. Sure enough, at approximately 120 pages, the first compilation of posts from this blog -- "Ramblings of a Very Pale Man: Volume One" -- is now available for Kindle through www.Amazon.com.

If you had told me two years ago that I would become a published author on February 6, 2011, I would have laughed in your face. Had you told me that first book would be a collection of humorous essays instead of my beloved and long-suffering murder mystery, I would have called you crazy.

But thanks to Blogger and the astoundingly simple process Amazon has created to self-publish I can now call myself a published author. Without trying to make more of this than is necessary you must understand that I have, within the last twenty-four hours, achieved one of my life-long dreams. It might pale in comparison to my wedding day and the births of my children but it's a dream come true all the same.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of my friends who have been kind enough to read this blog. Thank you to all of you who have forwarded posts to friends, joined the Facebook fan page, left comments about posts, and otherwise encouraged me.

And a special thank you goes out to the mystery shopper in the UK who was the first person -- and presently only person -- to purchase the book. I have no idea who you are, and you have no idea how much you mean to me.



© 2010 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Prescription Lies

Now that the airlines have figured out how not to be a bunch of big fat liars when it comes to arrival and departure times, we need to get other industries to follow suit.

Oh, sure, we could target Amtrak, or doctors, or dentists, or appliance service companies. They all have tremendous room for improvement.

You seriously want me to believe you can't pin down to within a two-hour window what time of day you'll be dropping by to tell me you don't have the right parts in the van to fix our washing machine? I've really got to wait around in the hopes you'll show up sometime between 8:00am and 4:00pm? That isn't an appointment, it's an entire workday! You might as well schedule yourself to stop by sometime between April and June.

As frustrating as it may be to wait two hours past your appointment time for a doctor who would happily charge you $50 if you arrived at his office ten minutes late, the most important first target of the timeliness initiative must be the Walmart pharmacy.

Last night, I arrived at Walmart well before 6:00pm and handed over three simple prescriptions to the young lady working the Drop Off counter. While at the store, I planned to pick up some grape juice -- apparently our kids are trying to turn their insides purple by drinking thirty-seven gallons of grape juice each week -- so I asked the young lady how long it would take for them to prepare my prescriptions. Her answer: thirty minutes.

I peeked over at the six people busily at work behind the pharmacy counter. I glanced around me at the two people waiting for their prescriptions. I decided the young lady's time estimate was reasonable and sauntered over to the grocery aisles.

Twenty-five minutes later I returned to find a changed landscape.

Instead of six employees filling prescriptions, there were now only two. Where one coughing elderly man had sat alone on a metal bench waiting for his name to be called, three such men now sat. They hacked and wheezed in unison, creating a 30-foot no fly zone for anyone interested in avoiding the mystery grab-bag of contagion they were spreading. Three women hovered with their shopping carts around the pharmacy registers. They all shot dirty looks my way as I approached one of the registers to ask about my prescriptions.

"The pharmacist has yours finished but he's still working on your wife's," the cashier told me.

The pharmacist. You mean the guy in the white lab coat who, the entire time I've been shopping, has been standing there with an empty canister in one hand, a bunch of capsules in the other, and staring blankly at the computer monitor like he's never seen one before? That pharmacist? Well, how much longer does he think it will take?

"About twenty more minutes," she says.

Okay. I can handle another twenty minutes. The store is big, there's plenty to keep me distracted while I wait for twenty more minutes of my life to pass me by. Only it took a lot longer than twenty minutes. At the end of twenty minutes I was told it would be another ten minutes, then another ten, and then only five which actually lasted fifteen.

To make a long story short, at 7:30pm I left the store with my prescriptions. What started as a quick trip to the store turned into a two-hour adventure in waiting at Walmart.

I realize I could have left at any point but once you've invested enough time you have to see it through. Like watching a bad movie, you know it's only going to get worse the more you watch but you're more than halfway through and might as well stick it out to the end.

Next time, no matter what is prescribed, I'm just going to pick up a bottle of Flintstone chewable vitamins and pretend they are whatever medicine my doctor ordered.



© 2011 Mark Feggeler