Saturday, June 30, 2001


It's that time of year again.

In communities across the country, the rite of passage known as graduation is once again upon us. Whether it's Moving Up Day at nursery school, Step Up Day to the middle school, or Graduation from high school or college, parents the world over hustle to
make sure that the batteries in the camcorder are charged and the film in the camera is fresh.

There are certain rituals associated with the day, regardless of which venue. A new outfit. An appropriate gift. A celebratory party. Depending on the age of the participant and the size of the extended family in attendance, these can be approached in a small, intimate way, or as a full-blown Long Island Jewish wedding, minus the troublesome spouse that you know you're going to ditch eventually anyway.

But before you get to the cake and the ice cream, there are certain rituals that must be observed. You have to get fitted for your cap and gown. You have to show up early and practice standing in line. On the appointed day, you have to get dressed in your best, arrive with a smile on your face, and file in while mom and dad watch proudly from the bleachers. And before they make it official and call your name and hand you a piece of parchment that says you are a graduate, you have to sit for the speech.

Usually given by an august member of the community or a person notable in some way, it is filled with cogent observations about life and love as you make the transition to the next stage in your existence. Occasionally it's touching and witty. Sometimes it's soaring and inspirational. As often as not, it's banal and boring. But regardless of the tone, it almost always issues a call to seize the future, to make the next chapter count, to use the skills and lessons you've learned to date to make a difference in the world at large.

Well, no one has ever given me the opportunity to address the graduates, and the reasons are obvious. I'm not famous, I haven't given a large sum of money to any institution, I hold no lofty position. But I've always wanted to give that speech, to put my spin on the world, to offer up my thoughts to youngsters who are bravely going where I once tread, hoping to do better than I did. And so, with the conceit that comes with owning a couple of column inches on a regular basis, should the phone ring tomorrow and an honorary hood is offered, here's what I would say to the assembled multitudes.

"Thanks for having me. And congratulations on getting to this next step in your journey, the one described in the musical 'A Chorus Line' as 'too young to take over, too old to ignore.'"

"I'll try to be brief, as I'm acutely aware that the only thing that stands between you and your diplomas is my 5 minutes of fame on this stage. In fact, I've come to terms with the reality that you're focused less on my words of deep, insightful wisdom, my empathetic musings about how I was once where you are, and my rousing call to arms as you take control of the next phase of history, and more on a great looking ice cream cake that's waiting for you featuring your name written in chocolate sauce."

"Ostensibly, my whole point in being here is to give you advice. But let's be honest: I can't give you any guidance. I mean, it's not that I have nothing to offer. But the truth is that you've never listened to anyone before... so what makes me think you would take the words of a total stranger? After all, you didn't listen to your father when he told you that jumping on the couch would break the springs. You didn't listen to your mom when she told you to eat your vegetables. You didn't listen to your teacher when she told you to double space. You didn't listen to your kid brother when he told you that dad was actually standing behind you. You didn't even listen to the waitress when you told you that the plate was hot. In every case, you got burned... but you still didn't listen."

"But that's what being a young adult is all about. You know it all. You are immortal. You intuitively see the world, recognize its shortcomings, and have foolproof solutions for them all. And you can't understand why the adults in your life don't accept this truth, put your plans into action, and keep their opinions and helpful suggestions to themselves. I will tell you that time may change this perception. After all, it was Mark Twain who said that as a lad of 13, he was astounded at how stupid his father was. But when he got to be 23, he was amazed at how much the old man had learned in the ensuing ten years."

"You want me to tell you what to do? The list is long. Go kiss your brother or sister. Go wash my car. Go listen to some music and sing along. Go thank your parents and your teachers. Go change your socks after you exercise. Go eat plenty of bran. Go tell the people in your life that you love them before you don't get the chance. Go help the Cub Scouts, plant a tree, write a poem. Go do something that 50 years from now, you'll be able to point to and say 'I did that.'"

"But the odds are that you won't do any of those things. Or more correctly, you won't do them because I told you to. You'll do them because you want to. And that is the one truth I will leave you with: the only person who can tell you what you should do... is you.

"And so I won't pretend to offer you advice. Likewise, I'll pass the word on to your parents, your teachers and your Uncle Ernie. I'll tell them that like most young adults, you already know the answers. The problem, as you will discover, is that it takes a long time to learn which questions they go with. If there's any challenge you face, that is it."

"As I said, there is only one person you should depend on, one person you can depend on, to, as Spike Lee says, 'Do The Right Thing.' And that person... is you. Listen to your heart. Answer to it. Make it proud, and you'll do just fine."

"Thank you. And should you change your mind and want to listen to me, my car is the dirty green one, third from the end."


Marc Wollin of Bedford has two kids. This year, one graduates from elementary school and one graduates from middle school. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, June 29, 2001

Slow and Steady

This morning I did my own version of a triathlon.

I ran 3 miles on a treadmill.

I took an 18-mile bike hike.

Then I came home and took a long... long... hot shower.

Except for the shower, none of it was really fun. Oh, it was better than sitting at my desk doing taxes, or better than cleaning out the gutters, or better than listening to the elementary school orchestra do "Pop Goes The Weasel." But for me at least, that form of physical activity is kind of like brushing your teeth or washing your socks. You do it not because of the intrinsic pleasure of the act, but rather because you know it's the right thing to do.

I also do it because I know that the older I get, the more important it is to undertake activities that elevate my heart rate for reasons other than stress. Like most, my day-to-day routine is more likely to consist of sitting and talking, then walking to the next opportunity to sit and talk. Sustained physical commotion only comes when something goes wrong, and running around like chickens with no heads becomes apropos. Otherwise, pulse-quickening activities have to be manufactured.

Contrast that to when we all were a few decades younger. In that day and age, you were always out riding your bike or playing ball or just running from yard to yard. No one ever said you needed to exercise per se, because when you came home from school, you rarely let your heart rate drop below 150 beats per minute. There were no video games to distract you, no web to surf. You couldn't watch a movie from Blockbuster... there were no videotapes and therefore no Blockbuster. Television consisted of just a few channels filled with daytime soaps, and My Favorite Martian didn't come on until 7 at night.

Faced with that reality, running around like a banshee was the only distraction in town. But when you were younger, the only result was that you ran out of breath. Now that I'm elderly, as my doctor points out, I have to pay more attention to my body and all those little aches and pains. That sore back is just as liable to be a pinched nerve as an extra game of tennis, that stomachache an ulcer as much as an extra burrito. I've spent the last 45 years getting in touch with my own physical plant. Up until now, it's had relatively little to say. Suddenly, it wants to light up the party line.

I know that this is what happens when you get to be middle aged. But like all those who plan on living until 120, that means I'm not even half way there. So why are my ilk and I coping with all of the things that befall people of much more advanced years? All around me I see contemporaries with hearing aids, pain relievers and knee braces. Conversations can just as easily be held on the state of the Yankees as on which cholesterol medication we're taking. The sideline at a casual game of tennis or a pickup game of basketball is looking less like a Nike ad, and more like the Detroit Lions trainer's room after a loss.

My father, who's slowing down somewhere north of 70, nailed the conundrum. As he sees it, just when he's got the time and the money and the schedule to do all the things he's waited for his whole life, his body decided it would throw all kinds of annoying curve balls into the process. When asked to describe his feelings, he just smiles and laughs it off, though in an introspective moment he'll allow that he feels betrayed. Or put by another friend more succinctly, "Growing old sucks."

While I refuse to let it slow me down, I can certainly sympathize with that sentiment. Taking the last plane out and the first plane back is getting harder. A short nap before bedtime seems more and more appropriate. Helping out at Little League practice necessitates a two-hour convalescence. Just as having more checks doesn't mean you have more money, so too having the ability to squeeze in more activities does not equate to having the stamina to do them.

For me, this new world order comes home to roost most poignantly on Saturday mornings. A pinched nerve in my back means I can't lie in bed too long. So I get up and go for a jog, which usually helps to straighten out the kinks. About 2 miles in, the pain in my spine fades away... just about the time the burning from my hernia starts to catch fire. But that dissipates quickly at the end of my five-mile loop... just as my knees are stating to creak. So I go to take the weight off of them by lying down... and my back starts to hurt. To say that I feel like I'm chasing my own tail would be an accurate summation.

On the other hand, I've got no major diseases, no degenerative disorders. Other than the inevitable squeaks and rattles than can be expected from normal wear and tear, I'm still relatively low mileage with a dependable engine puttering along on an unbent frame. Lord knows that I'm no Mercedes, but I'm confident that I'm a few steps above a Hugo.

After just one season, the WWF pulled the plug on the XFL. Seems that the fan support just wasn't there to sustain the league, which was supposed to feature unbridled action, trash talking and in-your-face coverage. Unable to deliver on those promises caused viewers to find something better to do with 2 hours a week than watch a game. Well, while I too may not be in sufficient shape for prime time, at least I'm a long way from cancelled. Mark me down more like an old Timex commercial: I seem to be taking more of a licking, but I keep on ticking.


Marc Wollin of Bedford runs 20 miles a week, but it never gets easier. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, June 10, 2001

Confessions of a Bench Warmer

As a parent of two kids, there are innumerable activities they're involved in which require parental involvement and support. In the past, I've always tried to step up to the plate when some help was needed. But having taken the lead role in the past in any number of venues, more recently I've stepped back and become an assistant. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is that the kids were getting smarter and better than me. As they get older and more experienced, their skill level is slowly percolating upwards, passing my somewhat limited abilities.

After all, it's easy to coach first grade soccer. All you have to do is yell, "Dribble, dribble.... don't push, go for the ball!" But things start to change as the kids grow up. The natural athletes and performers start to emerge. No longer do simple enthusiasm and trite "Work as a Team!" speeches cut the mustard. You actually have to understand and be able to explain a zone defense, or a give and go, or a rundown. Otherwise, someone is liable to raise their hand and ask, "If there's only one out and we have a guy on second with the infielders in, should we put on a suicide squeeze or hit away?" Uh... let me get back to you on that one, OK, Skipper?

That being said, and in spite of my lack of expertise, I'm more than willing to pitch in and help out the boss. And so I offer to do whatever grunt work there is whenever I can, from taking responsibility for a particular event to running drills on a Friday night practice. After all, with a clear mandate (and instructions) from the coach, I'm the adult, they're the kids... so it should be a piece of cake.

This season has been no different. For the Little League team my 11-year-old plays on, I show up as often as I can, throwing countless grounders or pop flies or warming up pitchers. I like the kids, their energy, their enthusiasm. By and large, they're committed to playing, learning and having fun... all that any of us can ask in any situation we're in, kids or adults.

So I reported for duty before the game as usual this past week, glove in hand, ready to plug any leaks. The coach started dispersing the kids around the field, then called me over and handed me a bat.

"Run a couple of infield drills, OK? Hit to each position, then throw to first for the out. After they go around once, do it again, working on going to a different base to get the lead runner. Got it? Thanks." And with that, he turned to go over rosters with the opposing team.

Now, all that made sense. The drill sounded solid, made good sense. The kids knew what was coming and shuffled in their positions, watching me head towards the plate, ball in one hand, bat in the other. All the players knew their roles, both them and me. Only one problem with this rosy scenario.

I can't hit.

I can't hit. Oh, I can instruct my son in the proper batting form. I can demonstrate the proper stance to take a bunt. If called on in a friendly game, I can even make contact occasionally. But I've never been able to hit fungoes or grounders to a particular spot. As MC Hammer rapped, "Can't touch that."

But I had my mandate. I pointed to the kid at third, then swallowed hard. Tossing the ball in the air, I took a mighty cut... and missed completely. The kids said nothing... everybody, after all, gets one break. I tried again. A minor tip, with the ball rolling 3 feet in front of me. The kid next to me at the plate in full catcher's regalia looked up at me from him 4 foot vantage point: "Hey, man's what's a matter with you?" Oh, nothing I responded... just gotta get warmed up. Once more I tried, with scarcely better results. I looked at the catcher. He looked at me. With the honesty that only kids can get away with, he summed it up.

"You stink"

Yeah, I replied meekly, I wasn't much good at hitting this way. "But you're an adult, man... you're supposed to be able to do this." I wanted to say to him it wasn't important, that I had a good business, a family, some money in the bank, a late model car. But none of it made any difference. I agreed with him. I stunk.

But rather than break down in tears, as I might have done when I was a kid, I tried again, and got one over to the third baseman. He fielded the ball awkwardly, and made the throw to first a bit of target. With that little bit of distraction, I seized the initiative, yelling out instructions and suggestions. It took three tries to get a ball to the shortstop, a couple to second base. The kids laughed at me a little, but got into my 3 steps back, 1 step forward rhythm. We managed to work the drill a few times, and no more, thankfully, was said. Finally, the coach called us to the dugout.

As we headed to the bench, I sidled over to the kid in the catcher's gear. The inner 11-year-old in me needed some reinforcement that the kids wouldn't be laughing at me on the playground, that someone would sit with me at lunch, that I wouldn't get picked last when it was time to choose up sides.

"How'd I do?" I asked casually.

"Huh?" Now that I think about it, the response made sense. For while it was a big deal to me, striking at insecurities I'd been harboring since I was a kid, the incident was so minor as to already be off the radar screens of the others on the field. Then realizing what I meant, he looked up at me.

"Fine, coach. But you still stink."

Out of the mouths of babes....


Marc Wollin of Bedford admits that playing good enough is his very best. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, June 03, 2001

War Games

During the Gulf War, it was hard not to imagine we were all watching some sort of giant video game. Images from aerial reconnaissance mixed with CNN satellite feeds and cameras in laser guided bombs to give us an "up close and personal" feel for the conflict without ever getting our hands dirty. It may have been a war of adults, but it was largely fought by kids who perfected their skills not with rifles, but rather with joysticks, mice and keyboards.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that a recently leaked secret Department of Defense study reports that Saddam Hussein has acquired the kind of computing power necessary to train his troops in this mode of warfare. But he didn't go to IBM or Compaq or Dell to score the latest in Pentium power. Rather, he cast his sights on the Far East, and bought the most advanced imaging device on the market today. According to the report, the mother of all dictators is now the proud owner of a trove of the mother of all videogame consoles, in the form of 4000 Sony PS2's.

If you're not a video gamer, this latest Playstation might have escaped your own radar screen. Yet, for the hardcore joystick jockey, the PS2 is a dream come true. The reason lies at the heart of the black box, in the form of a chip called the "emotion engine." This little piece of silicon has enough power to rival the big workstations used by such Hollywood heavyweights as Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas' company that developed the effects for "Star Wars." The system is supposedly capable of cranking out some 75 million polygons a second, enabling you to achieve "Toy Story" like effects on your home TV, or more likely, zap alien invaders and save the human race before dinnertime.

The DOD is concerned because while it would be difficult, it would by no means be impossible to link these consoles together to form a sort of massively parallel supercomputer. According to experts, if the Iraqi strongman had the geeks at his disposal, he could have them reprogram and re-purpose the chips into a single device capable of executing at least 1.2 trillion instructions per second. That's the kind of computing brawn needed for simulating nuclear detonations, modeling chemical or biological interactions or mapping advanced weapon design... capabilities we'd obviously like to keep out of the hands of people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Al Sharpton.

When you consider that a pre-Pentium 486 chip had more power than scientists had at Los Alamos when then developed the first atomic bomb, it's not surprising that the government has very strict controls about exporting technology with advanced capabilities to potential adversaries. Just last year, in consultation with the UN Sanctions Committee, it approved the sale to Iraq of 225 PC's, but only after downgrading the Pentium 133's they contained. But the PS2's in question fall outside of that safety net, if for no other reason than they are made not in Texas or Iowa, but rather in Japan.

Would Hussein attempt this kind of computational high jump, and create a box that would enable him to perfect the mother of all weapons? Or would he simply disburse the units to various Republican Guard outfits, and use them to train his soldiers in high tech warfare? For when you get right down to it, what real difference is there between being the weapons officer on a MIG fighter having a dogfight high over the dessert with a Phantom jet, and guiding Spiderman through a three dimensional maze while combating mutant aliens and disposing of a briefcase sized nuclear fusion device? Both require advanced real time threat analysis, the mastery of complex hardware and software packages, filtering out multiple external stimuli and nerves of steel. In either case, a false step ends in your death, while success brings you not only accolades, but girls. True, in real life you actually die, an action not reversible on saying "Do Over!" But that's a subtle distinction lost on many young warriors.

Alternatively, Saddam could use the PS2's as sweeteners to further his cause around the globe. After all, he managed to chase the UN weapons inspectors out of his country after a few months of cat and mouse. All that stands in the way of a normal life in Baghdad are those pesky international trading sanctions, which effectively prevent him from acquiring western goods. Now, in addition to having lots of crude to sell, he can throw in something really desirable.

"C'mon, 10,000 barrels of Iraqi light should more than cover the cost of that order of food, medicine, jeans, mustache wax, custom made fatigues and back issues of Vanity Fair."

"I'm sorry, Saddam, but the magazines are considered contraband by the sanctions committee."

"Well, what if I throw in a PS2 console????"

"What? A PS2? Those are rarer than tickets to 'The Producers!' Just for that, I'll even throw in an extra copy of the 'Hollywood Elite' issue so you can hang up the cover!"

All are reasonable scenarios. But then again, perhaps the simplest explanation is the most likely. Saddam has a lot of houses, a lot of TV's and maybe he just likes to play NFL 2001. After all, Baghdad used to be the Paris of the Middle East. But now there are no movies to go see, no good restaurants that haven't been bombed. Faced with that kind of existence, who could blame him for whiling away the hours between conquests by playing Motocross Madness?


Marc Wollin of Bedford can play no videogame and get past the first level. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, June 02, 2001

All In One

If you root around in your pocket or purse for the most useful item you carry, there might be a number of nominees. There's the paperclip you unbend to reset your Palm Pilot and open the lock on your briefcase. There's the tin that holds your headache pills, a decongestant and vitamin C tablets. And of course, there's the chain that tames your keys, holds that picture of you and Mickey in the front the Magic Castle and provides a home for your lucky troll doll. But all of those pale in comparison to the all time champ, the Swiss Army Knife.

Available in different styles, colors, sizes and makes, this marvel of engineering offers a myriad of appliances in one place. Originally developed in 1884 and delivered to... who else?... the Swiss Army in 1891, the concept has been exported to hundreds of different applications. Whether it's a raincoat that keeps you warm, an appliance that slices and dices, a sport utility vehicle or a backpack with wheels, the idea of combining different functions into one form seems to be a hit with consumers.

For many, the veritable red gadget with the white cross is surpassed in usefulness only by the Leatherman, a kind of Swiss army knife on steroids. This combination pliers, cutter, screwdriver, file, etc. graces the belts of thousands of tradesmen, geeks, film crews and paramedics. An object of passionate desire among devotees, it has come in an assortment of standard... well... assortments. Or at least until now.

A competitor to the Leatherman, Gerber Legendary Blades, has created a web site called BYO for "Build Your One. " For a bit more than the standard model, you can craft a multi-tool of your own liking, kludging together color, finish, jaw types and blade sets from over 8000 combinations. So if your life would be complete only if you carried a blunt nose stainless steel pair of pliers, coupled with an awl, a medium screwdriver, a bottle opener and a hoof pick in one convenient orange package, prepare to be fulfilled.

Following this lead, other manufacturers have pushed the envelope in their own little niches, looking at creating products with a Chinese menu mentality. The offerings include the E-Cliner, built through a partnership between La-Z-Boy and Web TV. This $1299 leather chair with built-in wireless keyboard also includes an outlet for your laptop, a surge protector and high-speed data access. While the left arm has a foldout table for the keyboard and computer connections, the recliner doesn't ignore its roots. The right arm opens to reveal a beverage holder plus room for a book and a TV remote, making even the Archie Bunkers in the crowd feel right at home.

Or if walking and talking is more important to you than sitting and surfing, you should check out the ICD+ collection from Levi's. This line of outerwear features a coat with an integrated Phillips mobile phone and MP3 player. For $1000 you get speakers in the hood, a microphone on the collar and a remote on the cuff.

Should this trend continue, we'll soon see anything married together virtually anything with anything else. A coffeemaker with a pencil sharpener built in? A pocketbook that can chill your can of Mountain Dew? A shoe that holds your cell phone? True, Maxwell Smart did it in the sixties, but that was in a black wingtip. Here, we're talking Jungle Mocs with a difference.

Paradoxically, this melding of multiple functions into one package runs 180 degrees counter to another popular movement. Whether it's briefcases, backpacks, car interiors or jackets, there is a trend to include more pockets wherever possible. Whether it's beverage holders in your Caravan or a cell phone sleeve on the strap of your shoulder bag, the idea is to provide a dedicated place to put your stuff. Some briefcases sell themselves this way, pointing out that they include "25 pockets to hold everything from eyeglasses to digital organizers to keys."

Yet, if we're combining functions into more compact forms, why do we need more places to put things? Shouldn't we need less? If you follow the evolution to its logical conclusion, at some future moment we'll all carrying one small combination phone-wallet-organizer-garage door opener with attached sunglasses case... while we have a backpack with 137 separate molded pockets, one each for our phone, wallet, garage door opener and sunglasses.

But back to our pocketknife cum bottleopener cum electric shaver. Unfortunately, there is a tradeoff in all of these combinations. The all-weather coat doesn't really keep you as dry or warm as separate garments, and you can't get an SUV with the room and durability of a truck that rides like a car. You have to be willing to give to get, to sacrifice performance for convenience.

I experienced this firsthand when I found a squeaking door in our house after some painting. All it needed was a little shaving of the inside edge to quiet it down. Rather than get a hammer and chisel, I whipped out my little keychain scissors/knife/nail file/snow shovel to do the job. I opened it, flipped out the blade, reassembled it to working status and quickly pared a bit of wood from the offending spot. I checked to find the problem better, but not solved. So I attacked the problem again... not realizing that I had idly inverted the gadget in my hand. That meant that the blade was pointing into my finger rather than the door. A quick swipe brought not a slice of wood, but of flesh. Operator error, to be sure... but had I had the right tools, I wouldn't have been cleaning blood spots off the carpet.

Of course, at least 50% of those who carry these babies never do anything more than slice an apple with it. But like a big Mercedes engine or a hundred dollar bill behind your driver's license or a bail bondsman, it's comforting to know you have the capability. Just be careful when you flip it open... you don't want to wind up picking your teeth with a serrated saw.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always has his Swiss Army penknife in his pocket. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.