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

Monday, June 4, 2012

How Not To Write a Book

So, there's this book I've been writing over the course of the past two years. I wouldn't call it the Great American novel. More like the moderately decent Southeastern regional dime novel. I've wanted to write a book for the better part of my adult life, but I kept convincing myself such an unwieldy task was beyond my capabilities, like it was brain surgery.

One of the three things that challenged that outlook was this blog. After all, if I could find time to tap out these silly little posts, I certainly could find time to write a page or two here and there. The second thing was when I viewed the task as a puzzle. Ever since I was a kid I've enjoyed working on those large interlocking puzzles. Piecing together a novel shouldn't be all that different. Each page is just another piece that drops in to help create a larger picture. The third and final shift in my thinking on the matter came when I learned about online self-publishing. I had no more excuses. It was time to write a book.

It's a murder mystery of sorts, with characters shaped from bits of people I've known or heard of during my life. No one character is modeled directly after any one real person. [This is where I should write some cleverly structured sentence to use fancy words like "melange" and "gallimaufry," but I don't feel up to the mental challenge at the moment.] Suffice to say to those of you who know me, if you read the book and think a character is based entirely on you, you're wrong.

Some of the settings might seem familiar. For instance, the main character is a newspaper reporter. The office in which he works is very similar in layout to the one in which I worked many years ago. My coworkers from those days should have no trouble envisioning it if they read the book. Believe it or not, I worried about this for quite some time. Why was I doing it? Nostalgia? Laziness? Was I subconsciously trying to make a point about my first post-college job? No. As it turns out -- and this was a revelation -- I did it because I wanted to. Creating an environment similar to the one in which I worked back then, with its back-to-back cubicles and limited privacy, worked well for the kind of book I was trying to write. End of story.

In fact, much of the writing of the first draft involved time wasted worrying about what people might or might not recognize from real life, as though it were my authorly responsibility to utilize nothing from the real world and completely fabricate every aspect of the fictional environment. Looking back from where I am now, I'm amazed I didn't require some sort of anti-anxiety medication when writing the first draft.

I certainly needed it when I began work on the second draft. It was painfully clear upon reading what I had written I had no idea what I was doing in the first five-to-ten chapters. Utter crap. All of it. I made several half-hearted attempts to salvage it, but it was futile. After a couple months of delays, the rewrite began in earnest as just that, a complete rewrite. Every word, sentence, paragraph, page and chapter would need to be rewritten from scratch. Eventually, I thought, the quality of the material would level off and I could begin lifting large chunks and dropping them in. Not so. I'm almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the rewrite and have finally come to terms with the realization that not a single bit of the original warrants "ctrl-c/ctrl-v" inclusion in the second draft.

With every stage of the book, my initial assumptions about the process and schedule have been wrong. For instance, I thought:

  1. I could start off writing the scenes that seemed most clear in my mind, then come back later to string them together with connective scenes. Wrong.
  2. I didn't need an outline to keep the story clear in my head. Very wrong.
  3. Once I outlined the story, the structure wouldn't change. Even wronger.
  4. It would take 12 months to complete the first draft. Fairly wrong.
  5. It would take 3-4 months to complete the second draft. Unbelievably wrong.
When you take into consideration the number of books and articles I've read over the years on how to go about writing a book -- and given the fact my college major was Writing -- it truly is astounding how thick-headed I've been from the onset of this adventure and through every twist and turn along the way. But you know what? I wouldn't want it any other way. You can learn a lot from books and teachers, journals and professors, but the best way to truly understand anything is to jump in with both feet and figure it out for yourself.

Unless you plan to be a brain surgeon. You might want to stay in school for that one.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler