Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Y2K With a Native Flare

Do you remember Y2K?

Computer systems with internal calendars programmed to treat the two-digit year double-zero as 1900 would not know how to process the impending change to the year 2000. All hell would break loose as financial systems collapsed, airplanes fell from the sky, governments across the globe gradually fell into anarchy with each passing hour, and Ted Nugent basked in the bunkered glory of being hailed the smartest man in America.

Fortunately, those things didn't happen all at the same time. Financial systems have collapsed, only certain governments have fallen into anarchy, and fewer airplanes have fallen from the sky than expected. Ted Nugent? Well, it's reassuring to know some things don't change.

For my part, I spent the majority of 1999 nursing the fears of the health system for which I worked. Because I knew how to format a newsletter and create fancy Excel spreadsheets, somehow that qualified me to research every last bit of technology the company owned to determine whether or not we should expect our medical equipment to suddenly stop working on January 1st. Halfway through the year, when the horrid individuals to whom I reported completely lost their tenuous hold on reality, it became necessary for me to contact the manufacturers of all electrical equipment to request letters assuring us Y2K would not affect their functioning.

Pulse oximeters, hospital beds, heart monitors, scales, wheelchairs, telephones, pagers, calculators -- nothing was too insignificant to be overlooked. Lamps, for God's sake... Lamps!!! Simply because they plugged into outlets, I had to catalog every lamp at all of our facilities and document the fact these devices that are only one step more technologically complex than a potted plant would not erupt in flames at midnight on December 31st, 1999.

I hoped at the very least for something somewhere at some point to fizzle and pop. Nothing life threatening, just enough to help justify months of work. But all was calm and quiet, and all those efforts were for naught.

Abbreviated translation:
"Holy crap! The world is ending!!"
And here we are again, facing yet another pending cataclysm thanks to an administrative-level Mayan who got a hand cramp when he reached the end of 2012 while carving out the calendar. Judging by the success of the Maya Empire, he could have saved himself time and quit somewhere in the 10th century.

Regardless of the fact the Maya people did not actually predict the end of the world, sales of bunker building supplies is at an all-time high and millions of people all over the world reportedly are working themselves into a frothy state of apocalyptic apoplexy. If these poor slobs are going to put so much stock in old calendars left lying about, then I have an old desktop calendar from 2007 that should scare the bejeezus out of them. According that thing thing we should all have been raptured nearly five years ago.

Plus, even if the Maya culture did make an end-of-the-world prediction, whose to say they weren't completely wacked out of their minds? Jules Verne predicted the invention of the taser, videoconferencing, solar sails, electric submarines, and news podcasts. The Mayans couldn't predict a 200-year drought or being conquered by the Spanish. Even Mitt Romney isn't that bad at predicting the future.

So, I don't know about you, but this Friday night I plan to enjoy time with friends and not sweat out the doom and gloom sooth-saying of a long-deceased civilization. Besides, Jersey Shore was just cancelled and we haven't heard a peep out of Ted Nugent in months. How bad off can the world be?

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Monday, December 17, 2012

Exercise Shmexercise...

Some people go the gym looking like they have no need for it. I see those frustratingly healthy folks five mornings a week without an ounce of fat on their bodies and I want to smack the crap out of them.

Other people go to the gym looking like they accidentally stumbled into the place while trying to find the nearest all-night bakery. I fall into this latter category. Four mornings of 500-calorie-burning, 22-mile-distance-covering RPM classes in the indoor cycling room, plus one morning on the treadmill, and I still rival the Pillsbury Doughboy for body shape and muscle tone.

I know what you're going to say:

   "Cut out the carbs!"

   "Count your calories!"

   "Stop eating 27 ounces of dark chocolate every day!"

Now that you've got that out of your system, let's start the return trip from LaLa Land with acceptance of the fact I will never, never, ever, never cut carbs out of my diet.

Bread, for example, is awesomely delicious and last I checked, most breads are made of carbs. And not just regular old white bread used to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carbs can be found in many different varieties of bread. Bagels, banana bread, challa, ciabatta, dinkelbrot, doughnuts, hushpuppies, hoecakes, monkey bread, matzah, pretzels and pumpernickel all are wonderfully effective methods for delivering carbs to my belly. If bread is delicious, and bread is made of carbs, ipso facto carbs are delicious.

It's not as though I haven't made the effort in the past to scale back. I've tried wraps but they aren't satisfying. I've eaten vegetarian burgers without the bun, but every time I do I end up wondering why I did it. And not to go all religious on you, but Jesus didn't tell the disciples he was the gluten-free, sugar-free, rice-flour, non-cross-contaminated specialty diet loaf of life. He said he was the bread of life. How much more of a product testimonial do you need than that?

Maybe making better fashion choices would help my self-esteem.

Just the other day, not long after cycling like a maniac for 50 minutes and feeling really good about myself, there I was walking the dog down the street wearing white socks, black sandals, gray shorts, bright red sweatshirt, and a sweat-stained black baseball cap, with my hand shoved down my pants to free a fistful of leg hairs from the deathgrip my cycling underwear had on them. It's difficult at times like that not to suddenly experience an overwhelming self-awareness. All I needed to complete the ensemble was to drool a little and urinate on myself.

I must face the fact I will never be the trim, wavy-haired, strutting-around-the-locker-room-naked-because-he's-totally-comfortable-with-his-body kind of guy. I will forever be the pudgy, balding, one-towel-to-cover-my-fat-ass-and-a-second-towel-to-drape-over-my-shoulders-to-hide-my-moobs kind of guy. I will always leave the gym after a strenuous workout looking like a dishevled, crazy, homeless man who just ran five city blocks to outrun the cops.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Monday, December 10, 2012

Knife-Wielding Children

It was declared the other night by My Lovely Wife while dining at Vito's that the boys could cut their own food from here on out.

To be fair, it isn't as though the boys squawk like baby birds for us to cut up their food into bite-size portions, and we're not intentionally trying to pamper them. It comes down to a matter of efficiency. We are efficient cutters of food, they are not. We have the ability to cut hot pizza with a knife without sending bits of it flying across a restaurant and blinding fellow diners with scalding tomato sauce. Their level of proficiency at this same task is questionable.

I suppose history will show one of our great failings as parents is not having taught our children to properly use knives. When I see the boys attempting to cut anything from steak to potatoes, I can't help thinking they'd experience greater success bashing their food with sticks and rocks in order to break off easily digestible pieces. Even Our Daughter, who recently started driving, looks as though her hand-eye coordination suffers a seven-second delay whenever she tries to use a knife.

When the children were very young, it made perfect sense not to place serated steak knives next to their plates. After all, when your diet consists primarily of fish sticks, chicken tenders, applesauce and string cheese, there really isn't much call for cutlery. But, as they have grown and their diets become slightly more sophisticated (no more fish sticks), we find we can't leave them weaponless and have them lifting large chunks of grilled meat to their mouths and tearing at it with their teeth. They need the right tools and the training to apply them correctly to the task at hand.

The Italian will welcome this change, I expect. He is passively-aggressively independent and always eager to prove his self-sufficiency. I believe the German, however, secretly enjoys our taking the reins and managing the food-cutting, if for no other reason than it allows him to keep his hands clean. He is a fastidious little bugger at the best of times. One night, several years ago, we were dining at Olive Garden when he decided to survey the table.

"Who had a breadstick?" the German asked.

We each raised a greasy-fingered hand in the air.

"Then you all need to wash your hands," he ordered.

So, now begins a new chapter of our lives as parents, a chapter in which we move away from plastic knives and safety scissors, pack away the Disney character plates and bowls, and treat our children as dining equals capable of cutting their own food.

Maybe we should plan on serving soup for the next few months...

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Happy Anniversary!

Not a proper post, I realize, but a great way to say Happy Anniversary to My Lovely Wife and thank her for 18 years of wedded bliss!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Skinny Pants

Pants are tricky things.

You can't even purchase identically marked pairs from the same manufacturer with any assurance each will fit you as well as the other. Hanging in my closet at this very moment are two pairs of Levi's, both marked thirty-six (shut up) by thirty-two and aquired on the very same day at the very same store, yet one pair fits perfectly and the other pair causes any of a variety of medical conditions, including diminished circulation, acid reflux, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and depression.

My prime time for wearing skin tight jeans was a brief window that lasted from 9:57am to 3:42pm on March 12, 1986. When that window closed, and increasingly so as the years have progressed, it became morally irresponsible of me to don tight-fitting pants. The more my natural form is left to the imagination, the better a place the world becomes. Therefore, the slimmer of the supposedly identical pants remains hidden away in the closet to be saved for those days on which I can button them without experiencing light-headedness.

The Italian does not subscribe to this theory when it comes to his own form. After all, being in the fifth grade, he has the luxury of existing primarily in a world of oblivious 11-year-olds. The girls have not yet transformed into the style-conscious butterflies middle school will make of them, and the boys are more focused on ultra cool things like dirt and origami ninja stars than they are on what clothes their friends are wearing. This creates an awareness vacuum in which children are able to wear their favorite clothes, regardless of how bizarre or poorly fitting they are, with little fear of mockery.

Which is why the Italian frequently must be rescued, against his will, from certain articles of clothing in his wardrobe. Being a typical American child, his closet is stocked with far too many choices for him to wear, even if he decided to wear a different outfit each day of the year. Despite the expansive selection available to him, he regularly chooses the same shirts over and over again. One shirt, in particular, has survived several recent purges led by My Lovely Wife. It is a gray t-shirt with a screenprint image of a drum set. If he could, he would glue the shirt to his body.

One recent wardrobe casualty was a pair of jeans that had hung around a few months longer than necessary. To label them "flood pants" would be an insult to flood pants, but showing off his ankles was not their biggest failing.

The Italian, you must understand, is a bone-skinny kid. He's so skinny, zombies wouldn't waste time trying to eat him if they ran him down during the apocalypse. If anything, they'd probably offer him a spare limb to eat. Because he is so darned skinny, not only do we need to buy slim-cut pants for his emaciated frame, the pants also need to have elastic built into the waistline so he can draw them to fit his five-and-a-half-inch circumference.

But skinny pants are not outgrown gradually. One day they fit perfectly, the next day the Italian looks like he's been shrink-wrapped in too little denim.

He vocally protested the expulsion of the skinny pants and made several futile efforts to model them for us in the hope we would change our minds and agree they did not make him look like a disco-era reject or a Christmas ornament with blue pipe cleaners for legs. His argument fell on deaf ears and the pants were added to the donation pile in the basement.

On a positive note, it does seem like his appetite has improved now that he's wearing pants that allow food to settle into his digestive system.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Forbidden Condiment

I'm guilty of breaking the rules, and so is my Rule Following daughter.

Just last week, I smuggled an illicit substance to her during the school day, on school grounds, and under the very noses of the school officials whose mission it is to keep scofflaws like me from penetrating the sacred halls of their educational institution. I loitered in my car, only mildly menacingly, waiting for the opportunity to hand off to her the prohibited package between classes and on the sly.

Yes, that's right. I brought Our Daughter her lunch.

You wouldn't think bringing your child's lunch to school would be cause for so much super-secret spy stuff. It wasn't like I was trying to hand off TNT in a nitroglycerin sauce, or sneak her a crack pipe and baggie full of crystal meth. It was a turkey sandwich, a Camelbak sipper filled with water, and a snack bag of Sun Chips. So, you can imagine my surprise when I was informed by the secretary at the main office I was not allowed to leave the bag for Our Daughter to pick up.

Evil Lunch Item
According to a new policy instituted either by the high school or the county school system, leaving lunches at the main office puts the school at legal risk by placing it in direct responsibility over the contents of the lunchbox. As explained to me, if the sandwich in question is slathered with rogue mayonnaise and sits for several hours under a hot lamp and the kid who eats it gets sick, the school could be held liable. Likewise, should some random ne'er-do-well decide to commit some random act of ne'er-do-wellness on the unsuspecting lunch items, the school also could be held at fault.

Seemed like an overreaction to me, but I played along, offering to wait at the office for them to call my daughter down so I could hand the paisley lunch bag directly to her, thereby relieving the school of any potential threat of legal action.

Or not.

Turns out the new rule also disallows my bringing to the school any food items whatsoever and doing anything with them other than standing in the main office eating them myself and possibly wearing the lunch bag as a hat, which for all I know might also be against the rules. This is the same institution that charges me $4.00 for a poorly prepared cheeseburger cooked and served by gloveless volunteers out of a dirty concession building each fall at football games just across the campus. Exactly how serious can they suddenly have become about foodborne illness?

I tried in vain to argue the ridiculousness of not allowing me to hand to Our Daughter a lunch bag she would have been carrying around with her all day long had she not left it standing by the front door when she went to school. If anything, the mayonnaise on her turkey sandwich was all that much more the better for having sat in our refrigerator at home for several more hours instead of being kicked around the floor of several overheated high school classrooms.

In the end, I had two options: (1) leave money in an envelope so Our Daughter could purchase lunch from the cafeteria; or (2) follow the wink-and-a-nod "don't ask/don't tell" instructions from several of the people with whom I argued that morning and text Our Daughter to meet me at my car so I could hand off her lunch like covert operatives trading plutonium at the Iranian border. 

It's nice to know the health and well-being of our children are being taken so pseudo-seriously that, although I could in theory drop off a loaded howitzer and a box of hand grenades without any questions being asked, I can rely on the beauracracy of the school system to keep my daughter safe from mayonnaise.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Can't-Opener

I'm not exactly sure why it is we have such trouble with can openers.

Cans have been around a long, long time. The modern canning process is roughly 200 years old. You'd think, then, since society has had so much time to perfect the art of packaging things up in all these cans, someone would have perfected an extraordinarily efficient and durable device for extricating said things from said cans. That way, when all I'm trying to prepare for dinner is a quick pasta with tomato sauce, I can easily get the sauce out of the can and into the pot.

But, by the time the pasta is well beyond al dente, I'm still fighting to get the battery-operated, self-rotating can opener to run long enough to make one full pass around the top of the can. After repositioning the demonic device for the twelfth time, it occurs to me I could have achieved faster results if I had taken the can outside and banged it against a rock, or a tree, or the driveway, or my head. Sure, a little sauce might have splattered here or there in the process, but at least it would no longer be in the can. Instead, I end up with an unopened can with three inch-long gashes at the top, none of which is large enough to allow sauce to pour out.

When it becomes clear the battery-operated, hand-held can opener will not live up to its name, I resort to the trusty manual can opener hiding in the back of the utensil drawer next to the meat pounder, just behind the micro-grater. I clamp the device to the top of the can and begin turning. Not only doesn't it open the can, the can itself isn't even moving. The blade is spinning in place, creating a slight indentation in the metal directly beneath it. So, I reposition the can opener, ensuring a firm metal-on-metal connection before wasting any more energy.

The pasta is now floating limply in its starchy broth and all I've managed to do so far is dent the top of the can and cut three hairline gashes along the outer edge of it with the electric device. Eventually, through herculian efforts involving massive amounts of denial, swearing, and a bloodied index finger, I manage to manipulate the manual can opener sufficiently to cause the top of the can to be in a state of what I will refer to as "mostly open."

I can see the sauce peeking at me. It's possible I could shake the can enough times to get most of the sauce out of the mostly open can, but I am a scraper. I'm not satisfied with the sauce retrieval process unless I can scrape the inner walls of the can with a spoon to ensure I leave no sauce behind.

One spot on the lid shows promise of giving way if I can twist the metal back and forth enough times to weaken it. I twist and turn, curse and mutter, cut another finger on the jagged edges left by the manual can opener, and with a final effort I manage to break the lid away. Sauce flies in all directions as I end up fist deep in the can. Countertop and backsplash are well-coated with pureed tomatoes, as am I.

Nevertheless, the can is open! I celebrate, hooting and hollering in the kitchen, declaring my caveman-like victory over the modern technology of the 19th Century, scraping gleefully with my spoon to retrieve every last drop of the precious puree. But we are entertaining guests, the pot on the stovetop is deep, and the sauce does not come close to filling it.

Only when I finish my scraping do I glance sideways. I take a deep breath, wipe the sauce from my wounds, and steel myself for the ensuing battle with the second can of sauce.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Nerd Rambles About Star Wars

A long, long time ago in a theater far, far away, I watched the first Star Wars movie and was enthralled. Not quite so long ago as that, in a movie theater just a few miles away, I watched the fourth Star Wars movie and was thoroughly unimpressed.

Why the different reaction? Two reasons: (1) George Lucas; (2) CGI.

Let's start with CGI.

Computerized artistry in films can be remarkable when applied with a deft hand and only when it is needed. CGI becomes problematic when it is used for no other reason than the producers can afford it. In the first three movies, the actors might have been acting against people in crazy masks and costumes, but at least they were acting. In the second set of films, the actors were largely delivering dialogue to imaginary creatures that would be added later by some guy at a computer, and their performances come off like they were delivering their lines to propped up brooms.

But the biggest problem, in my estimation, was George Lucas didn't understand why most people loved the original films. Somehow, somewhere, at some point between the 1970s and the 1990s, Lucas forgot how to make a movie that is fun to watch.

Visually stunning? Yes.

Epic? Yes.

Fun? No.

There was a swashbuckling, space pirate, nerdy machismo to the orginal films that was nowhere to be found in the prequels that followed. You couldn't help getting caught up in the action of the first three movies when everyone looked like they were having such a great time. The cast of the more recent movies all looked like they had volunteered for experimental proctological exams.

The same exact problem befell the last installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. It was loaded with CGI effects instead of the in-person stunts and complex sets we loved so much from the original films, and the actors were left dangling in the wind (or in the CGI trees with CGI monkeys) with crappy dialogue and wasted opportunities for developing their characters. I feared Harrison Ford had forgotten how to be interesting, but have since seen him in films in which he disproves this fear. Therefore, the fault must lie with Lucas and and his partner in crime Steven Spielberg. As one online reviewer wrote at the time: "George Lucas pooped on my childhood again."

So, when it was announced this week that Disney is buying Lucasfilms and the rights to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, among other holdings, I was thrilled. Oh, sure, the good folks at Disney have been responsbile fror some of the most notorious stinkers over the years, but with the influx of Pixar leadership the prospect of quality output is stronger than ever. And the sad truth is Disney really couldn't do any worse a job on the proposed new Star Wars movies than Lucas did on the last three.

Here's hoping...

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Old Man Shoes, Part II

I wanted to buy standard white sneakers, the kind I've worn most of my life. I wanted simple, unadorned white sneakers that support my arches and allow my feet to serve their intended purpose without necessarily calling undue attention to them.

They are, after all, just feet. I do not need my feet to make a statement about me. I need them to walk, to pedal the RPM bike at the gym, and occasionally to run from point A to point B without tripping over themselves and sending me into a face-plant on a hard surface.

Shoes should assist the feet in meeting this fairly limited set of responsibilities. I require only comfort and function from my shoes, whether they be for business, or sport, or casual use. My concern over shoes has never relied heavily on the opinions of others. Be sure, I would not wear sneakers with a three-piece suite, or clown shoes to a funeral, but I do not typically spend an exorbitant amount of time pondering my choice of footwear when making the purchase. The only questions that cross my mind at the shoe store are:

1. Do they fit?

2. Are they comfortable?

3. Are they reasonably priced?

4. Are they suitable for their intended purpose?

For some inexplicable reason, the last time I purchased sneakers I caved to the unreasonable whim of peer pressure. The peers in question were My Lovely Wife and Our Daughter. The two have been critical in the past for  mybuying sneakers that are, in their words, "old man shoes." Old man shoes are an insult to their stylistic sensibilities. My old man shoes are a source of embarrassment, based solely on their proximity to them whenever and wherever I am wearing them. The kind of shoe not objectionable to them is gray sneakers with touches of neon green and partially made of some mesh-like material, so that is what I purchased.

The gray and neon green mesh-like sneakers fit (check one), are comfortable (check two), and were reasonably priced (check three). In most ways they are suitable for their intended purpose, except for the inescapable and unavoidable fact my feet sound as though I am walking with whoopee cushions strapped to them.

With every step I take, a barely audible (but audible all the same) pooting gust of air escapes around my ankle. No matter how I place my foot upon the ground as I move, the sound is there, mocking me for not sticking to my guns and buying my old man shoes. Wherever I go, if those gray and green mesh-like sneakers are on my feet, I sound like Fozzy Bear testing out his new fart shoes. All that's missing is a spinning bow tie and me holding my hands out and shouting "Wocka, Wocka!"

I suspect it won't be long before I am once again wearing proper old man shoes. They might not be sexy, or stylish, or contemporary, but I'd rather have people thinking I have old man shoes instead of old man incontinence issues.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Homophobic Chicken

So, how about Chick-fil-A's stand on the gay marriage issue?

At first, the company's president said he was against it, then the company seemed to back off a little when the media got hold of his statement and it built into a PR brouhaha. Chick-fil-A responded by issuing an official statement wording the company's position in terms of support for programs that educate youth and support families in keeping with being stewards of God's trust. But I must admit I prefer the company president's firmly stated position in opposition to gay marriage to the company's wishy-washy, watered down propaganda that basically says the same thing but in a way they hope isn't as directly offensive.

I'm a big believer in freedom of speech. If the president of Chick-fil-A opposes gay marriage then he should be free to say so when asked about it. You don't like his answer? Too bad. No one ever said you had to like, or agree with, everything you hear in life. And if the entire company chooses to stand behind its president, which isn't surprising since Chick-fil-A has always promoted conservative Christian values -- you can't even get waffle fries on the sabbath, for God's sake -- then that's awesome. Solidarity! It's a free market. Let 'em do and say whatever they want, so long as they aren't breaking any laws in the process.

At the same time, no one's pointing a gun at the heads of others and demanding they eat at Chick-fil-A. Once again, it's a free market. You don't like the way a company does business, or the causes that company chooses to champion or oppose, then don't give it your money.

I'm all for equality and gay rights. I've known many gay people in my time -- and if you think you haven't, then you simply haven't been paying enough attention to the people around you -- and have never felt threatened by their presence. One of my college roommates was gay. He asked me once if his being gay bothered me. I asked if he planned to rape me in my sleep, to which he answered no. Then there was no reason for me to have any problem with it, I explained.

I say let gay people wed, let them adopt children, let them have access to all the rights afforded to traditional married couples. I highly doubt it will rot the moral fiber of our country. Our's is the same culture that slaughtered Native Americans and stole their land, captured and enslaved Africans then denied them basic rights for another hundred years after they were freed, and forced Asian Americans from their homes and into prison camps during World War II. If those atrocities toward our fellow humans didn't send our country straight to the seventh ring of hell, then I can't imagine granting a gay couple that has lived together for forty years the right to call themselves "legally married" will bring down a plague of locusts upon the land.

The activist in me says "Don't eat Chick-fil-A's homophobic chicken!" But the activist in me has a very weak backbone, particularly when he's hungry. The truth is I enjoy their homophobic chicken. It's yummy. Who knows? Maybe it takes a special kind of religious zealot to make really tasty fast food. Maybe, somewhere in the midst of closed-minded condemnation and religious rhetoric, someone got good and hungry and came up with the idea of putting pickles on a fried chicken sandwich.

Plus, if you are the parent of a young child, you understand the Law of Diminished Culinary Options. Put simply, kids can be fussy eaters, and once you find a place they like to eat it wouldn't matter if Jeffrey Dahmer worked the drive-thru and Jerry Sandusky supervised the play area, you're going to bring your family there because you know your kids will eat the food.

When it all comes down to it, whether or not I choose to eat at Chick-fil-A has nothing to do with political activism. It has everything to do with being hungry and having a craving for their homophobic chicken. But, if it makes any of my activist-minded friends feel any better, I promise to feel conflicted the next time I eat there.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Disturbing Letter

"Your mother took another person's life when she was young."

That's how a letter our daughter received a couple months ago began. She opened the letter on a pleasant evening as she was sifting through slips of paper her friends had placed in the "prayer jar" she had made as part of a week-long youth program at church. It arrived in the form of a greeting card we suspected might be a thank you note or an invitation to a party. Her expression quickly changed as she read the card. Glancing over her shoulder, words like "murderer" grabbed my wife's attention.

The fact is my wife was in a car accident twenty-five years ago this past August, almost exactly five years before she and I met. She was seventeen years old at the time, driving along a bend in a road in Southern Pines, NC, when a fellow high school student of hers approached from the other direction. His car was in her lane coming straight at her, fast. She hit her breaks. He didn't. Their cars locked, spun together like a top, and released. My wife ended up with many broken bones and needed multiple surgeries. The young man in the other car did not survive.

Maybe he was distracted by the radio, or an animal in the road, or simply wasn't paying attention. Perhaps there was a medical reason why his car veered off course and he didn't attempt to regain control . Maybe he had a seizure and was unaware of his surroundings. We will never know.

My heart always goes out first to the parents when I hear of such accidents. I can not imagine the pain of losing a child. Just last week, a sixteen-year-old bandmate of our daughter died when her car spun out of control and struck a tree. Words do not exist to express the sympathy one feels at these times. "I'm so sorry for your loss" is woefully inadequate when attempting to console the family at the funeral home. From someone like me, who has never experienced a loss of that magnitude, it is the best that can be mustered.

I would never presume to tell the loved one or close friend of a person who has died how to mourn, how to cope with the loss, how to fill the vaccuum that has been left behind. But there does come a time when the reality of the situation must be faced and life must go on. When, exactly? That's different for everyone. It might take days, weeks, months, or years, but it must come evenutally so the life of the person mourning does not stall and remain mired in suffering.

Unfortunately, some people cling to their grief and hold it closely to them like a security blanket. To let go of the pain and move on with life is incomprehensible. They see their loved ones' deaths as wrongs that have been committed and they seek to lay blame on the most convenient targets. To their way of thinking their loved ones didn't die, they were killed, and facts-of-the-case-be-damned someone must be held accountable. Whomever wrote that letter to our daughter is one of those people.

It would have been bad enough for this person to have mailed the letter to my wife and directly called her a murderer. But to target our daughter -- telling her to "Look your mother in the eyes and you will see the eyes of a murderer" -- is an indication that this person is not content with simply assigning blame. After twenty-five years of allowing resentment to fester, this person has found it necessary and appropriate to lash out at a fifteen-year-old girl in the hopes of driving a wedge between her and her mother. Needless to say, it didn't work.

We might never find out who wrote the letter, or why he or she chose to place such vitriolic language in a religious-themed greeting card with rainbows and flowers covering the front of it. That it was sent anonymously and with no return address tells me this person knows sending it was too shameful an act for which to take credit. It's easy to feel anger toward this person, but as more time passes I can't help feeling pity is the more appropriate response.

I doubt the young man who died in that accident all those years ago would have wanted him or her to waste a quarter of a century nurturing bitterness and hatred in his name. There surely must be more fitting ways to pay tribute to the memory a loved one.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My Brain Hurts

I finished school almost three decades ago, so the idea of sitting down to work on math and social studies and reading for any length of time on any given day offends me. Add to that the complexity of the work our children bring home, the amount of work our children bring home, and the general lack of understanding My Lovely Wife and I are able to offer our children once they get home, and the entire situation becomes unbearable.

And I'm not talking about college-level or even high school-level work, either. I'm talking about elementary school math. Just a quick glance at our sons' math homework is enough to convince me of one of two possibilities: (1) math has changed a whole lot in thirty years, or (2) I have the equivalent innate mathematical abilities as a domesticated turkey. Neither option is good.

When I was in elementary school, we worked on four basic mathematical concepts. They were addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. We learned to memorize the multiplication tables. We learned long division. We learned the basics and, if we paid attention, we learned them well.

These days, it isn't enough for kids to know 7 times 7 equals 49. They have to be able to prove it using any of seventeen different methods. Instead of being tested on whether they can achieve the end result, they're being tested on the different processes available to achieve the result. But it seems to me like the basic methods are being shoved aside.

I recall one night when Our Daughter was little and the teacher assigned division problems for homework but had not yet explained how division works. Our Daughter had been told if the problem asked "what is 8 divided by 2," then she should work the problem the other way around to figure out what number times 2 equals 8. This sounds easy enough, but what happens the moment you start working with two-digit and three-digit numbers? What kid would be able to figure out 3,111 divided by 183 equals 17 by trying to guess what number times 17 equals 3,111?

My favorite of the new methods for learning multiplication is the latticework process. Put simply, lattice multiplication takes simple equations and turns them into undecipherable hieroglyphics even Pythagoras and Archimedes would have trouble comprehending. Lattice multiplication stretches an equation that should take up one square inch of a piece of paper into a complex diagram that fills the entire page and consumes the lead of two pencils in the process. And, if the end result isn't correct, good luck figuring out exactly where the problem went wrong. When the teacher sends home the weekly e-newsletter instructing parents to ensure the homework is done correctly, she might as well tell us to make sure our kids understand the theory of Quantum Entanglement while we're at it.

My plea to educators around the world, if I may be so bold as to submit a plea, is to stop mucking about with the tried and true methods of teaching math. We don't need new approaches. We don't need seventeen different methods of figuring out 5 times 5 equals 25. Just teach the kids math. Sweet, simple, straightforward math that doesn't hurt my brain.

Maybe my expectations are low, but I'd be happy if the German stopped putting his shirt on backwards and the Italian stopped walking around the house tapping his athletic supporter like a percussion instrument. Complex mathematics can wait.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Death By Turkey

My Lovely Wife and I had a conversation about a turkey sandwich the other day.

Our Daughter had to stay after school for marching band practice and we were debating whether to pack her a turkey sandwich for lunch and a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, or peanut butter for lunch and turkey for dinner. Our daughter wanted the latter, but it caused My Lovely Wife some concern.

She was afraid, you see, of what might happen to that turkey sandwich as it sat all day in Senor Awesome's car in the 85-degree North Carolina sunshine. The fact it would be stored in a cooler with an ice pack didn't make her any happier.

By My Lovely Wife's way of thinking, somewhere between noon and 6:00pm, that innocent turkey and cheese sandwich could transform into a ZipLock bag full of raging salmonella capable of causing explosive diarhea, projectile vomiting, internal bleeding, collapsed lung, shingles, and twelve other symptoms never before documented by the Center for Disease Control.

I foolishly thought it would be okay. After all, when I was her age we didn't worry so much about these things.

I can't begin to count the times my tuna fish sandwich -- wrapped in wax paper and placed lovingly in a brown paper bag by my Mother -- would sit in my non-temperature-controlled high school locker until lunch time rolled around. By then, you could smell the mayonnaise halfway down the hallway and it had soaked through both layers of paper and greased up the cover of my social studies textbook. I could have sworn off tuna fish for the rest of my life, but my textbooks, notebooks, jackets and gym clothes would continue to carry that lingering Chicken of the Sea odor for the rest of the school year.

That's just the way it was. If you brought your lunch to school you ended up eating a room temperature sandwich, regardless of how much dairy product or meat or seafood went into the making of it. Tuna, bologna, peanut butter, cheese -- we didn't worry about food poisoning. We simply unwrapped it and ate it. Had we known to be more worried about contaminated food, it's very likely I would have tried faking a bout of E. Coli or campylobacter to go home early on days when there was a math test scheduled.

So, it isn't that I don't love Our Daughter. It isn't that I don't want to keep her protected from random food borne illnesses. It's just that I have a difficult time believing two slices of Boars Head smoked turkey breast and one slice of picante provolone sitting for a day in an insulated cooler with an ice pack the size of a brick could pose her any danger.

Under those conditions, my tuna fish sandwich could have lasted for days...

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Friday, September 7, 2012

Drop 'Em and Move Along

You know when you're dropping your kids off to school in the morning?

Particularly when dropping off younger children to kindergarten, there's that special moment when you share high fives and words of encouragement. Maybe they need you to open the door for them and you steal one last hug before sending them on their way into the building for the day. It's one of those occasions when you realize you are standing in the middle of a precious memory. You want it to last forever. You wave them off as they scamper away, only to have the moment tainted by some impatient clock-watcher honking his horn and gesticulating wildly at you from inside his Honda minivan.

That clock-watcher is me.

I have three kids, the youngest of which will complete their elementary-level education experience at the end of the current school year. I understand what you people with younger kids are going through, but you really must find a way to understand that I don't care.

While you're standing outside your car trying desparately to cope with the fact your children have graduated from bouncy seats and diapers to backpacks and packed lunches, there's a line of cars three miles long choking the public streets for six blocks in every direction thanks to the fifteen-minute unloading ritual you've chosen to perform.

Take it from me, your kids will be fine. Stop the small talk, kick them out of your Explorer, and keep the line moving. There are things the rest of us would rather be doing.

Like showering. I'm a big fan of showering, especially on mornings when I'm sweaty from the 5:30am cycling class and smell like a combination of dirty socks, vinegar and garlic (or, as Our Daughter calls it, "old man funk"). I also enjoy eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, wearing clean clothes, going to the bathroom, and starting my workday, each of which now has to wait because your peripheral vision is so impaired you couldn't see the angry glares of every driver in line behind you.
And here's a helpful tip. Get your kid's stuff packed up before you leave for school.

School happens almost every weekday between September and June. The local school system hands out calendars -- free ones! -- so you can find out in advance on what days there will be school. You had days, weeks, possibly even months to prepare for this morning's drop off. So why, then, is your kid juggling loose school supplies and papers like his backpack just vomited?

Please, we don't want to hate you. You seem like a nice lady, and you clearly love your children, as evidenced by the fifth pat on the head you've given your son and the twelfth hug you've given your daughter. But for the love of all that's holy, drop 'em off and move along. I promise, they won't look any different when you pick them up seven hours from now.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Da Votion

So, we've taken to reading a daily devotional, courtesy of a book from my sister-in-law.

Somewhere, deep inside me, a snarky little cynic is mocking the routine with derisive laughter, but I'm game for the experiment. My thought is it can't hurt. What's the worst that can happen? Communication and conversation? Even if the conversation inspired by the devotionals focuses only on how ridiculously pollyannaish they are, or how ill-fitting they are to our lives, then they've still achieved their goal of encouraging us to communicate.

For instance, one recent devotional talked about turning off the television and getting involved with our children's lives. I estimate My Lovely Wife and I watch approximately one hour of television a day, and many times we aren't even paying attention to it. On the other hand, this week alone we have marching band practice for Our Daughter, dinner with the grandparents, hockey practice for the boys, 10th grade check-in and fee payment for Our Daughter, back-to-school nights at the high school and elementary school, one dentist appointment, three orthodontist appointments, tailgating on Friday before the marching band's performance at the high school football game, the football game itself, and hanging out with the kids at Sonic after the game. And because my brain is like a sieve, I'm probably forgetting half a dozen other things. All this happens around work, which we're always told is less important than family, but you can't afford any of the things you do with the kids unless you make sure your at-work productivity doesn't suffer.

In other words, the person who wrote the devotional chastising us for watching television instead of interacting with our kids can cram that particular life lesson where the sun don't shine. Maybe that's a little hostile. Don't worry. I'm sure the book has a devotional about anger management.

The funniest thing to me is the bit of scripture leading off each devotional. For some reason the writers of the book really seem to put a whole lot of stock in Ephesians. All I've ever known about the book of Ephesians is that Paul, for someone who lived in the first century AD, had pretty steady access to papyrus and ink. I can't help thinking the Ephesians -- or the Phillipians, or the Galatians, or the Corinthians, or the Romans, or anyone else Paul took a fancy to sending a letter to -- were happy to get his letter but always a little annoyed at being obligated to write back.

    "Look! Another letter from Paul."

    "But we just answered his last one!"

I'm always dubious whether biblical passages used to support a point are applicable if you go back to the Bible and learn for yourself the true context of the passage. Maybe we're not getting the full meaning of the snippet we're being handed.

For instance, here's a brief line from Luke 12:1 -- "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees..."  If I ignore the fact the entire passage from which I lifted this quote is meant to serve as a warning against hypocrisy, I could end up writing an entire devotional about the soul-rotting dangers of buying matzoh and challah from Jewish religious leaders. In fact, that sounds like a fun false teaching to mess around with next April Fool's Day.

Or how about this entire verse from Hosea 3:1 -- "The Lord said to me again, 'Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.'"

That one really has me scratching my head, and I doubt even the devotional book writers could manage to work that into any kind of contemporary context. For starters, the whole loving an adulteress thing would never go over well with my mother, and especially with My Lovely Wife. It's a nice offer, but I'll pass.

And what does the Lord have against raisin cakes? I understand the whole "other gods" reference but raisin cakes? I've never cared for raisins in my baked goods and cereal, so I can sympathize, but lumping somebody who occasionally enjoys a nice Irish soda bread with people who've run off and sacrificed lambs to a statue of a golden cow seems a bit extreme.

Actually, we have found a couple of the devotionals from the book to be slightly more relevant to our lives than raisin cakes and yeast. And reading together at night, if even for a few minutes, is proving to be a relaxing experiment I wouldn't mind continuing. Maybe I should write my own book of daily devotions. There must be plenty more inspirational baking references in the Bible...

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Monday, August 13, 2012

Urine My Memories

Not to be indelicate to the female audience -- presuming this blog actually has an audience -- but something struck me funny the other day when I made use of a public restroom at a local restaurant. I mean struck me figuratively, not literally. That would be disgusting.

In that particular restroom, the urinal was mounted so high on the wall as to render it unusable by anyone under, say, seven-foot-five. It became clear after a quick glance around the tiny room it had been decorated by someone who was not a practicing man.

Let's face it, you could relieve yourself on the floor and write your name on the walls with your own feces without significantly impacting the cleanliness of most public restrooms. So, when you find one -- a men's room mind you, not just a unisex bathroom -- that has pretty little handsoaps near the faucet, extra toilet paper stocked neatly beneath the sink, and wall tiles sporting a repeating flower print, it's a safe guess a woman was in charge of the design. And a urinal positioned at a higher altitude than any other urinal in the history of modern plumbing is the final indicator of a non-user calling the shots.

Moreso than as an inconvenience to myself, I considered how utterly useless a high-mounted urinal is to my 11-year-old sons. The entire point of a urinal, as I've always seen it, is to keep men from peeing all over the seat of a standard toilet, thereby reducing the risk of inconveniencing the next seat sitter to come along. If you're then going to mount the urinal so high that men who are not professional basketball players have to stand tippy-toe and arc a stream four feet into the air to avoid free-form urinating all over the restroom, then what possible hope does the average kid have?

Of course, I'd rather have to aim high than pee on my own feet, like those old-timey urinals that run all the way down to the floor make you do. You don't see them around much anymore, but when you come across one you'd better hope your not wearing sandals.

Which reminds me of my favorite urinals of all time, that really weren't so much urinals as a step-down groove in the concrete floor. These were the specialty of some of the racetracks our Dad would take us to from time to time when we were kids. It's amazing how quickly hundreds of beer-filled men can relieve themselves when all they have to do is pee semi-indiscriminately on the floor and let gravity take over. Even the cows at our Uncle John's farm had a more sophisticated waste removal system. You knew you were at a fancy racetrack when they had that twenty-foot-long bathtub in which to pee instead of the floor groove.

So here's a little friendly advice for any ladies out there who might ever find themselves in the position of having to tell a contractor how exactly to mount a urinal:
  1. Higher than the toilet.
  2. Lower than the sink.
That's really all you need to know.

Oh, yes, don't forget dividers if you're going to install more than one. I'm already trying not to pee all over myself. I don't want to have to worry about the mouth breather next to me who smells like his trip to the restroom is already five minutes too late.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Blowout, 3 Tow Trucks, and Grease Monkey Fairies

Ryan from AAA probably didn't expect a long conversation when he called Friday at midnight to ask if we were completely satisfied with the service we had received that evening. He surely must have been expecting something along the lines of:

    Ryan: "Are you completely satisfied with your AAA experience?"

    Me: "Yes."

    Ryan: "Great. Thanks. Goodbye."

To be fair, Ryan might be a great guy. Probably a good family man, or a clean-cut college kid, with a good moral compass fixed deep inside him. And his only involvement with our situation the other night was to perform a simple follow up survey. In no way did poor Ryan deserve the verbal thumping he was about to receive, but things don't always go the way they should.


At 9:00am Friday morning, we loaded up our Honda Odyssey and left the sweltering clamminess of Long Island for the slightly less clammy sweltering of North Carolina. Our vacation was over and it was time to head home. The trip went well until we got south of Washington, DC, and joined all the traffic heading down I-95 to the Virginia beaches. We lost almost two hours in stand-still stop-and-go before breaking free of it in Richmond. The rest of the way should have been smooth sailing.

Then, about 10 miles east of Raleigh, as I was reaching 80 mph in the passing lane, a boom like a cannon blast shook the van and it felt like we'd hit a major pothole. Our speed dropped rapidly and steering got a little dodgy. Within seconds we were at a standstill on the left shoulder with a blown rear driver-side tire. That was 7:35pm Friday night.


The first indication of our impending drama was, initially, merely laughable.

When My Lovely Wife called AAA to report our blown tire, the dispatcher taking the call was unreasonably fixated on whether or not we had already traveled through, or were in, or were anywhere in the vicinity of, Spring Hope. Having never heard of Spring Hope, we instead focused on the facts we did know, which were that we had broken down on 64 bypass heading west and could see exit 427 through our windshield.

Unimpressed by our specifics, the dispatcher continued to ask about Spring Hope. Why? I don't know. Maybe Spring Hope has a really nice old-fashioned soda fountain somewhere along its main drag the dispatcher thought our kids would enjoy while we waited for service, or maybe the town has grease monkey fairies that pop out of cocoons in the roadside shrubberies to assist AAA Plus members with blown tires.

Whatever the reason, the dispatcher's inability to plot our location on the map was cause for concern. If there is any organization in this best of all possible worlds I expect should be able to pinpoint my location when I tell them what road I'm on and what exit I'm next to, it's the Automobile Association of America. A five-year-old with an iPod could've Googled our location based on the details we offered, but apparently this AAA dispatcher didn't have internet access, a functioning computer, a printed map, or any measure of innate common sense.

After five minutes on the phone, all we were able to establish was she didn't know where we were, we didn't know where Spring Hope was, and our hope of speedy service was flushing noisily down the drain.


Not to drag out an otherwise lengthy tale, but let's speak briefly about Honda's infamous locking lug nut.

It's a special lug nut that requires a key. The idea behind the locking lug nut is it deters thieves interested in stealing generic tires off unsexy vehicles like the Honda Odyssey. Honda gives you the key when you buy the vehicle, so in a case like ours we can unlock the locking lug nut, remove the remaining standard lug nuts, and remove and replace the damaged tire.

But what happens when that key breaks and simply spins without unlocking anything?

That's right, the tire becomes irremovable, irreplaceable, and Honda's brilliant anti-theft device becomes inconveniently irritating. What should have been a twenty-minute stop to swap out the blown tire for the donut in the trunk became a tow job, but not just any old regular tow job. No, sir.

Because the tire in question was a rear tire, traditional towing was no longer an option and we required a flat bed truck to carry our van home.


In addition to now requiring one of the larger vehicles in the towing service's fleet, the fact there were five of us to be transported home along with our van complicated matters. We quickly learned from the driver of the first tow truck that showed up about AAA's policy of transportating the vehicle, the driver, and maybe one other person. Anyone else traveling with us would need to take a shuttle service or taxi. I'm not exactly certain how much an 82-mile taxi ride from Knightdale to Pinehurst might cost, but I'm willing to guess it ain't cheap, so I asked to speak with the supervisor of Spring Hope's number one fan to express my dissatisfaction.

To the supervisor's credit, she spent much of the next two-and-a-half hours trying to work out a resolution to our problem. To her discredit, she left us stranded for two-and-a-half hours on the left shoulder of a major highway with no confidence she knew what she was doing, a tow truck driver just as baffled as we were, and three kids who needed to go to the bathroom.

We had developed a deep and profound relationship with the supervisor by the time we received word of AAA's final solution to our situation . Over the course of at least six conversations we had laughed, cried, struggled through conflict, and argued passionately.


Short after 10:00pm, we were told a flatbed truck with a cab large enough to carry all five of us had been sent for. In the meantime, a smaller flatbed was coming to move us off the highway and bring us to the relative safety of the Knightdale Walmart parking lot. Split between the two tow trucks, we rode to Walmart and waited for the big flatbed to arrive.

We pulled out of Knightdale with our van and entire family spot on 11:00pm. Along the way, Ryan from AAA called to ask if we were satisfied with the service we had received. As you might imagine, I had quite a few recommendations on how they could have handled our case better.

After getting dropped off at our service station of choice, and thanks to Senior Awesome's parents who met us there, we made it home with all of our belongings at half past twelve -- a mere fifteen-and-a-half hours after leaving New York. We were exhausted, angry, grimy, and ready to fall into bed. All we wanted was a good night's sleep, but AAA must have had other ideas because Ryan called us again at 1:30am to do a follow up survey.

Apparently AAA missed its calling. It would have made a lovely wake-up service.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cup o' Joe

I'm pretty sure we were heading up to New York for cousin Betsy's wedding when the coffee drama unfolded.

I don't drink coffee. Having never acquired a taste for brown water that tastes like bitter, burnt beans, the whole coffee craze that overtakes most people when they graduate from adolescence to adulthood passed me by without a second glance.

And then there's the problem with it being hot. I'm already finagling with the thermostat to maintain a domestic climate as cold as humanly tolerable, so the last thing I need is to gulp down a mug of 110-degree toilet water that'll raise my core temperature and make me break out in a full-body flop sweat. Iced vanilla lattes are the closest I'll ever get, and that's only because they're 70 degrees colder than coffee and taste like super-sweetened vanilla. When I need a jolt of caffeine, I reach for a Diet Coke.

But on that day when we started our 10-hour drive to New York, I thought it would be a great idea to try and behave like other adults and carry along a mug of strong coffee. I had stopped at Breugger's Bagels a few days earlier and purchased their refillable travel mug, which seemed like a great deal at the time. As we passed through Raleigh, I declared it necessary to stop at Breugger's to pick up bagels to nosh and top off my fancy new Breugger's travel mug.

Breugger's idea of
a travel mug.
Two problems: (1) Regardless of how much I try to convince myself it is the drink of choice for discerning adults, and no matter how many packets of Equal and spoonfuls of flavored creamer I mix into it, I don't like coffee; and (2) Breugger's Bagels' idea of a travel mug was something only slightly smaller than a whiskey barrel with a handle. I knew the mug would pose a problem from the moment I bought it, but I had already paid for it and was stuck with the prospect of making it work, whether or not I believed it could.

With a full barrel of coffee and a couple bagels to go, we walked back to the car to head off on our trip. My Lovely Wife, for whatever reason, was holding the travel mug when she dropped herself into the front passenger seat. As she landed, coffee sloshed and splattered out of the small hole in the lid and sprayed all over her white jeans shorts. Vociferous disgruntlement ensued in the form of clearly stated declarations decrying the poor design of the travel mug and the nonsensical behavior of a coffee-hating person suddenly requiring a vat of hot coffee.

A good half hour was lost trying to figure out whether or not the shorts could be saved before we finally found ourselves toodling north along US1 in a very quiet -- some might say seething -- state. Because the gargantuan Breugger's travel mug did not fit in any of the cup holders, I decided to hide it out of site of My Lovely Wife on the floor between my feet, which was a great place for it when the car was not in a state of motion, but wasn't so great once my right foot had to wander off to work the pedals.

Less than a mile up the road, at one of the first stoplights to which we came, the stupidity of the situation hit me full force as the mug tipped over, leaned like a fallen tree against my left leg, and swiftly poured a torrent of hot coffee into my shoe. I quickly pulled into the nearest gas station, threw the car into park, bolted out of my seat, and unceremoniously chucked the mug in the nearest trash can.

Ever since then, I've stuck to Diet Coke. Not only doesn't it splatter willy nilly on white shorts, or turn my socks brown, or make My Lovely Wife cranky, I actually like it.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Memory Lane

Certain experiences call up distinct memories, transporting you instantly to a time and place long forgotten. Oddly enough, the doxology did that to me the other day.

For those of you unfamiliar with the doxology -- in this case the Gloria Patri, or lesser doxology -- it is a brief expression of praise to the Holy Trinity used in many traditional Protestant and Catholic services. Let loose with a hearty doxology around any random group of worshipping Christians and chances are they'll be able to hum the tune and possibly catch some of the words before you finish. You could even call it a drinking song if communion is being served.

Having grown up in a family of Methodists (we drank grape juice instead of wine), I sang the doxology every Sunday when I was a kid. So, it came as no surprise I didn't need to read the lyrics from the program the other morning when the doxology popped up in the Presbyterian service we were attending. Twenty-plus years of Methodist training took over and I bellowed the Gloria Patri to the best of my ability. Unlike the Lord's Prayer that changes slightly from church to church -- seriously, why can't everyone just use the word "trespasses?" -- the doxology was played exactly as I remembered it.

Instantly, I was taken back to the church of my youth. I could have been sitting next to my Mother, fighting for pew space with my brothers, our Dad leading the ushers in their weekly collection duties. Even the familiar aromas of the old church seemed to surround me.

The United Methodist Church of Hempstead, located on the corners of Washington Street and Front Street on Long Island, is a modestly majestic structure built in the 1800s and expanded over time. It has that old-timey feel to it that keeps you mindful of why you're there. My brothers and I whiled away many hours at the church as our parents attended meetings and served in various leadership roles. Once we were old enough we got involved, too, helping run flea markets, painting Sunday school rooms, and serving as waitstaff for fundraisers. We knew every nook and cranny of the old and new buildings and the various passages between them by the time we left for college.

It was easy to get lost in the beauty of the historic sanctuary. With seating for several hundred people in classic wood pews, it opens tall and wide when you enter through the swinging doors from the narthex. Towering stainglass windows line each of the side walls, my favorite of which depicts an angel speaking to the two Mary's outside Jesus' tomb. The muddled darkness of a grainy cellphone snapshot does no justice to the artistic rendering best viewed at sunrise service on Easter morning as the light pours through and illuminates every last detail of the story. The other seven windows also are lovely to behold, but they pale in comparison.

We typically sat near the back of the church, preferrably the back row, center section, on the left. From that vantage point you could watch the entire ceremony unfold and people-watch all of the other parishioners. You could easily spot which of the old ladies had a new hat, which couple had the prettiest daughter, and which family was kind enough to bring a baby at which to make faces during the service.

The front wall of the sanctuary held two massive banks of pipes our organist would employ to rumble the foundations of the building with the thundering voice of God, or maybe just Bach. Whichever you prefer, the effect was impressive. He literally would pull out all the stops, his hands and feet flying from key to key and pedal to pedal during the postlude. Many times I would remain in my pew and wait for the end of the mini concert. I suppose that organ is one of the reasons I prefer a traditional service to this day. Church simply doesn't feel like church without the dynamic range of a pipe organ rattling my dry bones.

I had the pleasure of revisiting the old church a couple months back when I traveled to New York on business. Rather than waste the lunch hour sitting in some fast food chain, I drove to Hempstead and wandered in through the main doors of the newer building near the small office. Immediately, I was eleven years old, fully expecting to see my Grandfather rounding the corner from the old social hall, his full head of hair slicked back and a broad smile stretching under his bulbous nose.

I'd like to say the old place hasn't changed, and in many ways it hasn't, but as I moved through the familiar spaces I could feel the age of the structure weighing it down. Cracking paint, water-damaged ceilings, worn out carpets, and a general lack of capital improvement could be spotted at almost every turn. And the building stands now like a box in the open, all of the beautiful shrubs and bushes that lined the outside walls long since torn out. I wouldn't say the building was being neglected, but it was easy to see the money wasn't there to sustain its former glory.

Even so, the nitpicker in me fell away the moment I entered the sanctuary. Yes, the carpet inside the main door is threadbare and paint is cracking off the walls, but you simply cannot deny the grand effect of the design of the worship hall. Just entering the room causes you to speak more quietly, tread more lightly, and approach with respect.

I found it difficult to keep a dry eye as I meandered up and down the aisles, recalling who regularly sat where, envisioning my Father putting up the hymn numbers for the next service, watching the little kids leave for Sunday school after having their moment with the minister before the sermon, standing near the altar railing for my brother's wedding, kneeling at the railing for countless communions, sitting at the front of the church with my Grandfather's casket on display in front of the altar as the minister's voice faltered during the funeral service... If not for work, I could have lingered for hours.

Perhaps some day the old church will be properly restored. Maybe an anonymous donation will fund improvements, or it will be declared an historical treasure and restored for future generations to enjoy as a living museum of religious art and architecture. Who knows? I'm just happy to see it's still there and know I can return to wander down memory lane if I'm ever feeling so inclined.

In the meantime, there's always the doxology.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Storm Chasing

So, brother Tom is out storm chasing again, this time starting at Devil's Tower in Wyoming, just slightly northwest of prime Tornado Alley real estate.

Courtesy of Brother Tom.
My parents took us there some thirty-plus years ago when we drove cross country for a couple weeks. There were my parents, me, brother Tom, brother Steve, and sweet cousin Betsy hopping from one KOA campground to another in our Dodge Sportsman van and sleeping in our luxury Cox pop-up camper. Don't laugh. The thing had a sink and a stove and a table that converted into a bed. By 1970s standards, we were seeing the country in style! Parked in the shade under some tall pines it made the perfect safe haven from heat and bugs. Just don't touch the canvas when it's raining...

Although we didn't quite make it coast to coast, we sure hit enough of the major attractions along the way, Devil's Tower the least among them.

Actually, Devil's Tower was a bit of a disappointment. We were there not long after "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" showed us the happy side of extraterrestrial musical grooviness, and while I wasn't naive enough to think we'd see aliens, I was hoping for a light show or a themed gift stand. Maybe just a trained seal honking out those five memorabe notes on a rack of horns. After all, if it weren't for the movie, most of the country never would have heard of the place.

The entire trip was perfectly planned, and we spent just the right amount of time at each location to leave an indelible mark. I recall with great clarity the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone Park, riding on muleback along narrow ledges halfway down the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, admiring the reflected vista of the Grand Tetons in Jackson Lake, watching with excitement as a dark funnel cloud came rolling over us in Iowa, taking in the man made wonder of Mount Rushmore, and slicing my finger open with a pocket knife I begged my parents to let me buy.

Okay, that last one isn't the best memory, but it remains very clear in my mind. Just like the stop we made at Wisconsin Dells. You'd think we were there to admire the scenic beauty of the glacial gorge, but we really were there for the amusement parks and gocart tracks. The rides were simple, probably little better than your average county fair equipment, and I wanted to try every one.

One night at the campground in Wisconsin Dells, a bombastic lightning storm ripped through the area, rocking our Cox pop-up camper with slashing winds and scaring the bejeezus out of us all with every thundering boom, especially cousin Betsy. I suppose that's one difference between boys and girls. It's difficult for us to fully enjoy being in the middle of an electrical storm of biblical proportions when someone is screaming at the top of her lungs from fright during the entire show. Most boys are internally wired to run to the windows for a better view.

Maybe that's why brother Tom continues to return to Tornado Alley year after year. It isn't about tornadoes at all. He's searching for that perfect storm -- the lightning, the winds, the horizontal rains, the crashing thunder -- just like the one in Wisconsin Dells all those years ago so he can stand in the middle and take it all in without the distraction of a screaming girl.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Quaxting and Other Recent Advances

The problem with technology is its incessant constancy.

There once was a time -- our children and grandchildren will find it difficult to believe -- when being out of touch did not constitute a crisis of communication. Being out of touch did not mean cell towers had crumbled or satellites had plummeted from their orbits. It was a common occurrence, not a cause for filing missing person reports or raising the national security level to Orange.

If you left your house, you were out of touch. If you were driving from point A to point B, you were out of touch anywhere in between. If you were in school, at work, in a meeting, at lunch, in the bathroom, or at a movie, you were out of touch.

Out of touch was not a permanent condition. Once you got home, or to a place that had a phone, you magically became available again. You could borrow your friend's house phone to "check in" with your parents, or sit at your office desk and call whomever your heart desired to call. You were reachable, and so was anyone within reasonable distance of a telephone.

When we took vacations we didn't waste time uploading pictures to Facebook, or checking the latest trending tweets, or bitching about the weak 3G signal at the campground that kept us from streaming YouTube's latest viral videos. We played cards and built campfires. We made conversation. We were happy the toilets at the KOA campground were separated by walls. We visited waterfalls and wildernesses and skyscrapers and monuments, and we didn't have 98 megapixel high-resolution tablet cameras with which to capture our experiences. We had binoculars and Kodak Instamatic cameras with Flipflashes you hoped would fire when you snapped a picture. And wherever you were, mountains or city, highway or back country road, you were most decidedly out of touch.

But not anymore!

Thanks to cell phones and smart phones and email and Skype, we're never more than a megabyte away from each other. My coworkers can reach me via email at any time of any day, regardless of necessity. Our daughter can quack a complaint at her boyfriend via text -- a new skill we call "quaxting" -- without his having to be in the same county, let alone be aware of what he might have done to warrant her quaxting him in the first place. My son can even answer an iChat video call from his uncle while sitting on the toilet. Technology has broken down all walls, it seems, even the bathroom walls.

And the sense of urgency is spread evenly over all modes of communication to the extent every bing of a text or bong of an arriving email requires an immediate response. I used to laugh that my in-laws had a telephone in their bathroom. Now we might as well have suppository phones. One clench of a butt cheek answers it, another clench ends the call, and a good sneeze gets you through to 911.

Maybe by the time I'm old and gray I'll be able to put down the cell phone, turn off the video phone, shut down the internet service, and disconnect for a day or two. I better send out an email blast and post about on Facebook before I do, just so nobody sends the police to my door to check on me.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sexy Green Car

I dropped Our Daughter off at school today for driver's ed.

This kid will be
driving soon.
It's difficult to comprehend she's almost old enough to get her license. I'm not the kind of guy who panics much about the aging process, but that doesn't mean I don't get smacked between the eyes every now and then by the realization I'm fewer years away from being a first time grandfather than I am to being a first time father. Well, at least halfway there, maybe. We'll have to see what the future holds.

Seems like yesterday I was sitting in an auditorium at East Meadow High School on Long Island listening to our two instructors drone on about traffic safety and hoping desperately not to be assigned to the tremendously obese instructor for the actual driving portion of the class. I don't recall his name, but I've never forgotten how he hiked his pants up under his moobs in an attempt to cover his belly. Sure enough, I ended up assigned to his group. Because of his girth, the front bench seat of the driver's ed vehicle had to be rolled all the way back, making it nearly impossible for me to reach the pedals. I have no idea how the short kids in the group even managed to get the car in gear.

That was twenty-eight years ago, and now it's Our Daughter's turn.

She must already be dreaming about that perfect first car. A fashion statement to match her nails and cell phone cover, a status symbol to declare her position in the "Lord of the Flies" pecking order of high school, the purchase of her first car could require countless hours of online research, test drives and color matching. Luckily for her, no such investment of time and energy need be made. The solution to her problem sits safely in our garage.

For years, I've joked with Our Daughter that when the time came for her to drive she would inherit my Toyota Echo. Her response, even when the reality of driving was a far off distant dream?

"No way!"

Admittedly, the Echo is not a sexy car. It's small, stick, and has that odd centered dash that took some getting used too but which I now really enjoy. It didn't come with power steering, a cd player, or even a clock. It could never be a roadtrip party vehicle because there are only two doors, meaning back seat passengers have to climb in and out like clowns at the circus. There are no leather seats, no electric windows or mirror controls. The air-conditioning system is barely more potent than hanging ice cubes from the rearview mirror. And last week it clocked its 190,000th mile. Oh, I almost forgot, the dark green paint job is marred by a decade of attacks by bikes, balls, bats and a battery of assorted childhood weaponry.

But it's been paid off for six years and gets forty miles to the gallon -- city driving! And if she abuses it, forgets to change the oil (as I frequently did with my first car), or chooses to blanket the poor thing with bumper stickers, what's the loss? It's not like the car is a hot classic with collectors clamoring to outbid each other for it. Even Toyota stopped manufacturing it after only a few years and replaced it with the Yaris. The Yaris!!!

And so, Our Daughter has a hard reality to face. Sometimes the liberties of a free society come at a cost. In this case, that cost might very well be a pound of pride paid each morning she pulls that uncontestedly unsexy green car into the high school parking lot.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler

Monday, June 11, 2012

Making Mistakes

I'm big on learning from mistakes. After all, if I couldn't learn from my mistakes, then a good two-thirds of my life would serve little to no purpose.

Parenting is a wonderful testing ground for learning how many mistakes you can make in a single day, especially when the kids are very young. Like those days you're rushing out the door. Did I remember to pack diapers, bottles, pacies, thawed breast milk, wipes (the homemade kind that don't make the baby's skin prickle and bleed), bibs, spoons, cereal, fruit puree, extra onesies, and the changing blanket? And if I did remember all that paraphernalia, did I remember to bring the kid?

As they get bigger and develop that persistently annoying skill of communication, the potential for mistakes in all new areas of life becomes a reality. For instance, setting rules and holding kids accountable to them.

First of all, I'm the last person who should be setting rules and expecting anyone to follow them. I am a consummate non-conformist when it comes to following rules, not because I'm purposefully disobedient, but because I have a bad memory. If people around me insist upon setting schedules and routines they expect me to follow without having to remind me about them, they are only setting themselves up for disappointment, and no quantity of gingko biloba is going to change that sad fact.

And discipline, that's a whole 'nother bag of worms! Like most parents, I tend to pride myself on the delusional belief that I am fair. I'll be the first to tell you I am not partial to any of my three children. Each was born with equal capacity for endearment and irritation.

But we all know which one was more likely to hit the other first, and which one talked snotty to the others or wouldn't kiss them goodnight, and which one took something that belonged to the other or wouldn't share, and which one...

You get the point. More than once I've caught myself coming down heavy on an innocent party because I made a false assumption and blamed the wrong kid. In those situations, I've found it important to be the first to recognize my mistake and apologize for it. Yes, the kid I yelled at probably deserved to be yelled at for twenty things I didn't see him do, but he didn't deserve it this time and he requires an apology.

See? That's that "learning from mistakes" thing I was talking about.

And don't think the kids themselves aren't capable of helping you out when you slip up. When she was very young, Our Daughter helped my Father, a self-professed curmudgeon at times, address his behavior when she recognized his temper was shorter than it needed to be. Taking a cue from Blue's Clues, she told him: "Opa, when you're angry, you have to stop, breath, and think."

Perhaps the best advice I've received lately came from the mouth of the German. He was talking about an art class project -- a lovely drawing of a frog sitting on fallen leaves -- and how other kids in the class were growing frustrated when they couldn't get their drawings to come out the way they wanted. He said he pointed out to them how he had drawn his frog too big, so he fixed it by adding another leaf.

"I told them," he said, "when you make a mistake, try to use it to your advantage."

Excellent advice, to be sure, but I'm still trying to figure out how to apply it to my expense report. It was due yesterday and I've only just remembered it.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler