Friday, January 31, 2014

16 Degrees Below Stupid

Four days.

That’s how long two inches of snow and a few consecutive nights below freezing will keep kids in central North Carolina out of school. Every night this week, promptly at seven o’clock, we’ve received the call that the next day of school is cancelled.

I hate to sound like one of those “knee-deep in three feet of snow, uphill, both ways” kinds of people, but to say I am flummoxed and flabbergasted is an understatement. When I was a kid, we needed six inches on the ground and the threat of more before our administrators would even consider cancelling school. And they would wait until the last possible second to let you know.

Matter of fact, they wouldn’t even let you know. There were no calling systems, text messages, tweets or Facebook posts back then. The only way you found out if you could ditch your books and break out your galoshes was to watch the scrolling bar along the bottom of one of the five available television networks (three national and two local) like a hawk. If you looked away for a second and missed your spot in the alphabetical string of school districts you were screwed and had to wait another fifteen minutes for the next rotation to begin.

It wouldn’t be so bad if our county’s single Tonka snowplow could get to every street. At least this time they managed to salt most of the roads before the snow fell, but snow isn’t our main problem. The entire 24 years I’ve lived in the Sandhills of North Carolina, snow has never really been the problem.

It’s the ice.

It’s the melting snow running across poorly pitched roads that refreezes during the night.

It’s the acres of black ice that cover rural roads lined by trees so high they never let in the sun.

It’s the jackass tailgating you for five miles until he can gun it past you who hits the patch of black ice you were anticipating you might eventually come across and loses control, fishtailing wildly until he kills himself, you and every fur-bearing mammal within a hundred yards of the scene of the crash.

And to top it all off, our school district does not have a single day built into the year that our kids can miss. No cushion at all for inclement weather in a territory prone to winter ice storms, tornadoes, and even the occasional hurricane, meaning each of the four days our kids have missed this week will need to be made up on a Saturday and during breaks.

I would hope, if nothing else, this latest protracted snow flurry teaches the students of our county the meaning of the word “contingency.”



© 2014 Mark Feggeler

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Noshing Neanderthal

According to an article in the latest Reader's Digest, egg yolks and lemon will be the new "big" things in eating this year. I'm not sure who, exactly, determines that egg yolks and lemon will be the new "big" things, but that's the prediction, nonetheless.

It's sad, really, because even though I'm an ardent food admirer, I'm not a particularly "big" fan of either egg yolks or lemon-flavored anything. Egg yolks are fine as a baking ingredient, or for omelets and scrambled eggs, but that's about it. And lemon's only purpose, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel better about the low-grade chemical furniture lacquer you spray all over your house when you're dusting. Neither item is going to win a popularity contest if I'm the judge.

But the article states there are other hot food stuffs to be watching out for this year, so perhaps I am despairing too soon.

Gluten-free pastas will hit the ground running, which is good for them because I'm likely to have a sizable head start when they arrive en force. See, I'm willing to scale back in certain areas for the sake of trying to save myself from gaining a few unneeded ounces, but I can't fathom the purpose of a gluten-free pasta. I'm not diabetic, or even pre-diabetic, or even predisposed to the potentiality of the possibility of becoming diabetic, so I'm not sure why I'm suddenly supposed to be excited about a variety of non-flour, carb-free, gluten-free, tough-as-hemp pastas that probably don't taste anything like real pasta.

It's also the year of dairy-free dairy products. Almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, and any other artificially thickened watery extracts of non-cow origin are supposed to be all the rage, making real milk passé. Funny, but I like my milk to taste like milk, and fresh milk at that, not something that's left over when you accidentally leave a jug of milk sitting in the back of the fridge two weeks beyond the recommended expiration date. Again, I've managed to scale back from whole milk to skim milk, but I refuse to drink anything calling itself milk that didn't come from a mammal.

Unattractive poached chicken.
Then there's cooking methods. Seems steaming and poaching will make a comeback as people across the developed world embrace these healthier ways to prepare foods without depleting their nutritional values.


Yummy grilled chicken.
But have you ever poached anything? I haven't, so I looked it up. Poaching involves cooking in liquids at low temperatures. It requires patience and time, neither of which I have in any great abundance. Poaching a chicken breast can take up to thirty minutes. I can grill that sucker in less than ten, or five if I slice it thin and turn the grill on high. Carcinogens from burning the meat? Part of the price we pay for life at the top of the food chain. Besides, how many times has the Cooking Channel told me "color equals flavor?"

Maybe I'm the problem here.

Maybe my unwillingness to let go of the conventions with which I'm familiar in favor of the fun fads of the food industry makes me a culinary stick in the mud -- a noshing neanderthal. But no matter how many times I read about the power of kale to cleanse my intestinal tract and pack my bloodstream with four-thousand times the daily recommended allowance of every vitamin known to man, nothing is going to make me want to eat it. It's a bland, tough leaf and I'm not a rabbit.

At least kale is on the way out, or so I've heard lately. And that's the best news about fad foods -- their fifteen minutes of fame come and go fairly quickly. Wait long enough and perhaps a food you actually like will be the next "big" thing.

Of course, a food like chocolate doesn't need the PR. After all, it is chocolate.



© 2014 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Pool of Tears

We are quickly approaching a milestone. Our Daughter will graduate from high school in 2015 and head off to college.

That sounds like we still have plenty of time, and from her perspective 16 months might seem like an eternity, but to her parents it will seem like the blink of an eye. I know this because the past 16 years seem to have gone by just as quickly.

Ever the advance planner, earlier this week My Lovely Wife took Our Daughter with our twin sons in tow on her second official college tour. The four of them spent the better part of the afternoon roaming the grounds of UNC Greensboro in an effort to determine whether the campus is suitable for a determined student who wants to accomplish a concentration in pre-dental studies. The tour went well and UNCG now ranks high on the list of possibilities.

As we discuss different schools, comparing and contrasting their highs and lows, I think I am spotting a peculiar trend beginning to take root.

For those who believe they know My Lovely Wife well, they might be surprised to find she is much more emotional than she appears on the surface. More often than not she is a model of obsessive-compulsive efficiency. Yet beneath that uber-organized exterior is a mushy, squishy core that melts easily under the right circumstances. Turns out that preparing to send your first-born to college is one of those circumstances.

Her lower lip trembled several times during the recap of their tour of UNCG. This morning at the breakfast table the lip started again and conversation paused twice while she fought back the urge to weep openly in her Cheerios. Even a passing conversation during a laundry-folding session about the benefits of the college's study abroad program culminated in the need for a reassuring hug.

Need I remind you the child is only halfway through her junior year of high school? What this means is that I am looking ahead to more than a year of separation anxiety bubbling to the surface without notice during the most mundane activities.

Gassing up her car?
We're going to gas up her car only fifty-seven more times before she leaves for college... (Sniffle, sniffle.)

Setting out breakfast?
We're going to set out breakfast only five-hundred-and-forty more times before she leaves for college... (Whimper, snort.)

Folding socks?
We're going to fold her socks only one-thousand-two-hundred-and-twenty-seven more times before she leaves for college... (Uncontrolled sobbing.)

Not that I'm immune to this condition. I'm just as mushy and squishy, if not more so. Besides, all it takes to make me cry is to place me in close proximity to someone else who's already crying.

Between the two of us, My Lovely Wife and I better stock up on discount tissues at Aldi.



© 2014 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, January 12, 2014

All I Need Is Gas

It used to be you drove up to the pump and gassed up your car.

The procedure was simple, involving an empty gas tank, a pump, and cash. You watched the meter whizzing through the numbers and slowed the flow when you neared a total cost matching that of the bill in your wallet (usually a ten or twenty). Then you walked up to the dirty office to hand over your payment. That was it. Maybe you washed your windshield, or bought a Coke, but gas-wise you were done.

These days, thanks to technological advancements, gassing up your vehicle isn't so easy. Removing the human element from the gas-purchasing transaction should simplify the process. It doesn't.

For example, no self-respecting human being would be comfortable forcing you to play a game of twenty questions before allowing you to make a simple purchase, but a fully-automated electronic gas pump programmed to glean as much information out of you as possible doesn't mind making you jump through hoops like a trained monkey. It begins inconspicuously.

   "PLEASE SWIPE CARD."

   I do.

   "CREDIT OR DEBIT?"

   I press the button for credit card.

   "ENTER ZIP CODE."

   I wonder why this is necessary and do it anyway.

   "CAR WASH?"

   Yes.

   "DELUXE CAR WASH?"

   No.

   "FUEL INJECTION CLEANER ADDITIVE?"

   Of course not.

   "DISTANCE PLUS MILEAGE BOOSTER ADDITIVE?"

   Huh?

   "DONATE $1 TO FOOD BANK?"

   No.

   "HOT DOG, DRINK & CHIPS FOR $2.99?"

   Not hungry.

   "ENTER WEIGHT."

   One-eighty-five.

   "ENTER  REAL WEIGHT."

   Hey now!

   "YOUR SESSION HAS TIMED OUT. PLEASE SWIPE CARD."

At this point, I give the pump a swift kick and start trying to figure out how long it would take me to bicycle from Raleigh to Baltimore to visit my clients.



© 2013 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Edit Me, Big Boy!

You might know that I've written and self-published two books. One is a murder mystery written for an adult audience ("Damage"). The other is a paranormal adventure for middle-grade kids ("The Psi Squad").

Well, I finally finished the first draft of the second book in the "Psi Squad" series and am set for the most rewarding part of the process -- edits and rewrites. Writing a book is like assembling a model with parts that fit roughly together, leaving bumpy bits and sharp edges. Editing and rewriting are like taking sandpaper and paint to that model to make it all smooth and pretty.

It's good to have a high opinion of your writing while you're writing it. After all, if you aren't excited about writing your book, you can't really expect anyone else to be excited about reading it. But you can't let it bring you down when, upon review of your completed first draft, you quickly begin to realize it isn't the masterpiece you hoped it would be.

The other night, for example, I read the opening chapter of the new Psi Squad book to my sons. I had already performed a quick and sloppy edit on chapter one and believed it to be in excellent condition. After reading it aloud -- one of the best things anyone who writes anything from an epic novel to an off-hand Facebook post could ever do -- it became clear there were at least three harsh transitions and a moderate amount of unnecessary verbiage.

All this despite the fact my editor had already reviewed the material and assured me it was error-free. In fact, I believe the words "perfect" and "no mistakes" passed his lips several times. I know you're thinking "get a new editor," but that's easier said than done, since my editor is half of the twins that are my sons.

The Italian is an avid reader and connoisseur of some of the finest literature ever to pass through a middle school library. According to the asinine Lexile system presently being thrust mercilessly down the throats of students in our school district, he is a sixth-grader who reads at a college freshman level. Mind you, he is still expected to show growth in his reading skills, which means he is required to consider reading books that fall within his lexile range such as those by Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Or, he can read a nice nonfiction book, like Stephen Hawking's "The Origin of the Universe." But I digress…

In short, the Italian got the job of editing my manuscript for three reasons: Nepotism, No Cost, and Begging. (I should point out that he begged me to let him edit the book, not the other way around.) He pestered the living daylights out of me for months about wanting to edit the next Psi Squad book, although I suspect his motives were less of a helpful nature than they were selfish. He wanted to read the book before anyone else, most especially his twin brother.

His "editing" of the first few chapters magically required no red ink and resulted in not a single criticism. He found no typos, no grammatical mistakes, no incorrectly used character names, and no plot holes. This is what happens when you hire a drooling fan to do the job of a slash-and-burn critic. Fortunately, the errors I am finding while reading the book to the boys are easily rectified. Even better, the boys chuckle when they are supposed to and I haven't had to explain any parts of the book to them after the fact.

Now that I know better than to trust a twelve-year-old who loves me to edit my book, I can start searching for a proper editor. I wonder if my Mother would be interested?



© 2013 Mark Feggeler