Saturday, September 26, 2009

Star Power

As the fall season heats up, much of the talk has been about what the most well-known names in show business will be doing. Jay Leno is moving to the 10PM slot on television every night, while Ken Burns has a new multi-part series about to hit the PBS airwaves. Meryl Streep, Russell Crowe and Hillary Swank all have new films, while George Clooney has three all by himself. And Broadway is anxiously waiting for "A Steady Rain," featuring the high-wattage pairing of Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig.

As for me, I've got eye on my favorites, which includes those above as well as any number of other authors, actors and musicians. I want to see how they stretch the limits of their art and branch out into new situations. However I'm also very anxious to see what happens in a similar vein with some of my favorite characters of the 60 second variety, namely Guy, Verizon Test Man and Flo, the Progressive Insurance Gal.

These three characters have become perhaps the most ubiquitous on-camera presence between shows since Madge the Palmolive dishwashing liquid lady and the poor Maytag repairman. But while those figures invariably appeared in the same situations over and over again with minor variations, the three aforementioned icons have been stretching their chops with each new iteration of their commercials. guy and his posse are branching out into new musical styles, while I recently saw Test Guy in hip-high waders. And Flo never ceases to disappoint me with new ways to be perky and retro at the same time.

For the actors who portray these personalities it's likely a mixed blessing. Steady work is steady work, but when a part becomes so identified with you that it's hard to see you in any other role it can be a heavy burden to bear. Just ask Leonard Nimoy, who swore off Spock for years (at least until JJ Abrams asked him to reprise him for the latest incarnation of "Star Trek"). The trick is to figure out how to keep the residual check coming in for lip syncing to a three-chord song about financial woes while getting the audience to take you seriously as Hamlet.

For example, Test Guy is a lot more than a one-trick pony. In real life, he's better known as Paul Marcarelli. Before he struck wireless gold, he appeared in numerous commercials both as an actor and a voiceover artist. A founding member of New York's Mobius Group Productions, Marcarelli produced and performed in works by Eric Bogosian and others. In fact, the group's production of "The Adding Machine," in which he played the lead role, garnered the award for excellence in overall production from the New York International Fringe Festival in 2001. But if you heard him say anything other than "Can you hear me now?" you would likely be surprised.

Then there's Eric Violette. He's the young French Canadian with the curly hair whose credit is so bad he has to drive a used subcompact, be a host in a pirate-themed restaurant and don leggings at a Renaissance festival. In real life he's a graduate of the prestigious National Theatre School in Montreal and is a licensed mesotherapist specializing in Shiatsu. And while he is a musician with his own band, called God Against God, his credit is actually pretty good.

It's no different for Stephanie Courtney. Long before she was cast as Flo, she was a member of famed Los Angeles improv troupe the Groundlings. You can also see her in the movies such as "The Heartbreak Kid" and "Blades of Glory," as well as one of four leads in "Melvin Goes to Dinner." More recently you might have spotted her in a recurring role as a gossipy switchboard operator on the hit show "Mad Men." In none of those, however, was she required to undergo the two hours of hair and makeup it takes to get that brightly painted look that Progressive wants from the retail help in their store.

Still, none of the three are complaining. The constant repetition of their spots means that they are probably seen by far more people than would see them otherwise. Courtesy of their corporate backers, their characters have their own Facebook pages and MySpace profiles. And their popularity has engendered fan clubs and Tee-shirts, something their individual efforts have yet to generate.

That being said, not all commercial icons are stretching the limits of their character this season. Some are strictly background, giving us all ample reason to use the break as an excuse to go to the bathroom. Too many couples are just sitting in those bathtubs by the lake, and PC and Mac need a new routine. And while he may be cute and have a great accent, sometimes a gecko is just a gecko.


Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely watches TV, and then it's more for the commercials than the programs. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

21st Century Reader Man

We are a family of readers. Our living room has shelves filled with books, as well as the basement and even the kids' rooms. Even our spare room is lined with them, along with a couple of comfy chairs and a couch, making it the equivalent of the in-house library. It's an eclectic collection, with the titles running the gamut from fiction to travel to history and everything in between. In fact it's not uncommon for us as a family to swing past a Borders for coffee and some browsing as post-dinner entertainment. Not too exciting, I'll grant you, but it passes as a big night out in our world.

So I when I received an Amazon Kindle as a gift recently, I was both excited and wary. I recognized the benefits of this latest e-reader immediately, from the ability to hold many volumes at once when I travel, to the easy-to-hold form factor. But I also love the look of books on the shelf and the ability to share a favorite with others by simply giving them the volume. Still, the advantages along with the novelty of the device have combined to outweigh the shortcomings. Indeed, I find myself reading more and faster than I did in the recent past. And there's the added benefit that when I fall asleep holding it I'm less apt to wound myself, as opposed to when I dozed off while reading "Parting the Waters," a 900 page history of the early civil rights movement. My stomach still hurts.

One of the big draws of the device is both the price and speed with which you can access books. With wireless delivery included, you can pick out a volume and have it downloaded in under a minute for less than it costs to drive to the store and buy it with a real cover. This goes for new releases, like Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" and Pat Conroy's "South of Broad." But it also is true for hundreds of oldies but goodies, from "Alice in Wonderland" to "Frankenstein," many of which are available for no cost at all.

In fact, if you sort the list of available books by price, there are over 3800 volumes which cost nothing, perhaps double that if you raise the price to $.99. Lots of classics and political tracts to be sure, but a smattering of new novels by contemporary authors as well. Some are there as loss leaders to entice you try a new writer, others just to help fill out the catalog. But no matter the reason, it's hard to resist downloading a book that cost ten bucks or more in any store when doing it electronically sets you back nothing.

Then again, you get what you pay for. For sure, it's hard to dispute the value of a free copy of "The First Men in the Moon" by H. G. Wells or "The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson" by Mark Twain. But nestled in the same price range are others I'm not so sure about. For while it's true I haven't read "An Introduction to the Mortuary Customs of the North American Indians" by H. C. Yarrow, and it might just be a steal at the price of zero, I think I'll wait for the movie to come out to make that determination.

Then there're those contemporary novels that sure feel like they might even be overpriced even at that particular price point. Take "Irresistible Forces" by Brenda Jackson, blurbed as follows: "Taylor wants a baby, not a relationship. And sexy, intelligent Dominic has perfect everything. Their procreation vacation is a whirlwind of sensual ecstasy. But when it's over, will either of them be able to say goodbye?" That sound like a winner to you?

But rather than jump to conclusions, let's read the reviews from other readers: "Even as a freebie the book's too expensive. Those are hours you'll never get back people." Or "The plotting is stupid, the writing is excruciating, the dialogue ridiculous. There wasn't a single good part to the book, well, except maybe the part when I realized that I didn't have to finish it." OK... think we know where we stand with this one. And while you can't and shouldn't judge by the title. I think I'll also take a pass on "Zombie Punter," "Murder in the Massage Parlor" and "Data Entry Hell."

It was the poet Robert Frost who said, "Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it." Unfortunately, too many of the latter have discovered vanity publishing. Perhaps they would be better served by an admonition from Will Rogers: "Never miss a good chance to shut up."


Marc Wollin of Bedford publishes this column as a blog available for the Kindle. Currently, it's ranked at 94,019 and falling. Lucky for you can read it for free regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come

For the last dozen years or so, one of my weekly habits (to be fair, one of the few good ones) has been to keep us honest. By that I mean that come rain or come shine, I take a snapshot of all of our accounts and come to a final tally of where we are at that particular instance in time. Since I get updated numbers for some accounts daily, others weekly and still others monthly or even quarterly, it's hardly gospel. But by doing what the pros call ‘mark to market" on a regular basis, I've got a pretty good picture of where we are from a financial standpoint.

The good news is that by looking at the big picture you can see some general trends. I'm pleased to say that all things being equal we have had basically an "up" progression. Not straight up, to be sure. Events have pushed it down (the tech bubble bursting, 9/11, the most recent market collapse), as have major purchases (remodeling, cars, college educations). But all in all, paraphrasing Ronald Regan's famous question from the final presidential debate of 1980, I can honestly say we are better off today than we were a decade or so ago.

Ploting the data points gives us an upward sloping "M," a pattern that has probably been enjoyed by many over a similar time frame. But of course, what we're all concerned about is not where we've been, but where we're going. Since the end of that graph was most decidedly down... and in a big way... until about March, the question is what next. And there is no shortage of opinions as to what letter we're in the processing of scribing as we speak.

It would seem that those who profess we're in an "L" have been beaten back. That's where we get to the bottom and just stay there. Conversely, some optimists think that we're in an "N," where once the recovery starts it will be straight up. Still others suggest we're in an "O," where we run around in circles, from bust to boom and back, without having any clear direction.

The big three that have the most credence among professionals seem to be "U," "V" and "W." The who support the U believe that what we're seeing in the economy since March has no staying power, and we'll bounce around at the bottom until structural changes are made and we start back up. Then there's the V's, who think that what's done is done, and we're climbing out, though perhaps a good bit less steeply than we came down. And there's the W's, the double dippers, who think it's going to be a rocky ride and the more recent good news will be met by a dose of realty, then some more upside and back again. It certainly plays to our schizophrenic nature, not to mention when paired with recent history, nicely forming my initials.

These outlooks are all based on the perception that some kind of upside is under way, that we're turned a corner, though how sharp a turn is in question. You might disagree with that basic premise, especially if you look at your kid's 529 college savings plan or were about to tap your Keogh for a leisure-filled retirement or examine the most recent numbers on employment. Or as one poster noted on the Wall Street Examiner website, "What recovery? Did I miss something?"

The bottom line is that nobody has any idea what will happen. As with our own personal chart, it takes years of plotting little ittty bitty points before a true picture even begins to emerge. Just as you can't make out the tune on a record being played at a speed of one a revolution per century, and indeed might wonder if it's turning at all, it's only after you step back and look at the big picture that you can say what actually happened. So it's hard to be writing in script when we've only just pressed the pencil to the paper.

More to the point, it's also worth pointing out the professionals that will be the ones who will eventually make this determination for the history books are the same ones who missed the whole thing in the beginning, who thought that our upwards trajectory would continue to be just that. So any authoritative statement as to what is going on should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Put another way, it's worth remembering that economists have forecasted 9 out of the last 5 recessions... so at this point in time your guess is as good a theirs.


Marc Wollin of Bedford barely remembers what he learned in Econ 101. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


The good news was that my wife was home when the washing machine decided to break and leak all over the floor. The bad news (well, good for me) was that I wasn't home to help, being on a 12-hour road trip to pick up our youngest after his first year at college. So it fell to my wife to first clean things up and then figure out the next steps.

The machine had been in the house when we bought it 20 years ago and had been repaired more than once, so replacing it rather than repairing it seemed like the smarter option. She did some quick research online to find the right machine, the best price and who had it in stock. Eventually she found a store that not only topped out in all three categories, but was willing to deliver it within the next 24 hours. Since I was bringing home a college freshman and his laundry, having a working washing machine available immediately and not a week later seemed not only prudent, but an act of self preservation.

As promised, the machine was delivered and installed. Once we had it in place, I jumped in to do my part: dutifully filling out the rebate paperwork that was part of the deal. It seems I spend more and more time doing this chore, adding to the growing pile of dated copies sitting on the corner of my desk. In fact, many times it's only when factoring in these rebates that a particular purchase becomes the cheapest option, be it for an appliance, a piece of computer equipment or fertilizer for the lawn.

But lately, when I finally get the envelope 8 to 10 weeks later and open it, I'm finding not a check to be deposited immediately to balance the books but a piece of plastic. More and more, companies are opting to fulfill their "cash back" obligation with what the industry calls a "Prepaid Rebate Card." Emblazoned with the logo of the participating merchant, the cards are loaded with a given dollar amount equal to the rebate, with the promise of using them wherever the Visa, Mastercard or American Express symbol is found... in other words, virtually everywhere you shop.

For the issuing companies, it's a good deal. In particular, it gets them around the issue of escheatment. This legal doctrine concerns the reversion of unclaimed property to the states in the absence of legal heirs or claimants. Put another way, if you get a rebate check and don't cash it, after a given period of time the money reverts to your governor. Not so with these cards, as long as they are issued by a federally charted bank. Don't use your card or let it expire... and unlike gift cards, prepaid rebate cards generally carry expiration dates... and the companies keep the funds.

Yes, they are as good as cash, but with limitations. They generally can't be used to prepay at gas pumps, forcing you to walk in and settle up after you're done. You can't use them at a restaurant unless the balance on the card is at least 20% more than the bill, to allow for a tip when the merchant tries to get it authorized. Most annoying, if you have a $20 dollar card and you buy something for $13.73, you'll carry a card with a balance of $6.27, an amount you'll likely forget until you go online or call an 800 number. At the point the only way to use it up is to ask the merchant to charge that amount with the one card, then give them a second card for the balance... or buy something for exactly $6.27. Good luck figuring that one out.

And so it is with me. On my desk I have a card with a $.67 balance, another with a $.19 balance. All in all, we're still ahead with the new washing machine and the Turf Builder we bought, even factoring in what amounts to the higher prices represented by the unredeemed cards. But it galls me to throw them out, in essence flushing $.86 down the drain. And I'm not sure I am willing to endure the look I'm sure to get from a clerk when I ask them to split the cost over two cards, with the first being for such a paltry sum. Call me frugal, call me thrifty, or call me cheap. But unless I can find a pack of Lifesavers on sale... tax included... I guess I'm out of luck.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hates to carry extra gift or rebate cards in his wallet, especially since he generally forgets to use them until after he buys something. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.