Saturday, October 31, 2009

Making the News

With all the battles facing the Obama administration on issues from health care to Afghanistan, you would think they would have little time to squabble with Fox News. Of late, though, they've pursued all out warfare with the network as White House Communications Director Anita Dunn called Fox "opinion journalism masquerading as news," while Senior Advisor David Axelrod said Fox is "not really a news organization." It probably doesn't make a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things, but even some Democratic loyalists are starting to grouse that they have more important things to do than poke Glenn Beck with a stick, however satisfying that might be.

Perhaps they should follow the example of Ronald Regan, and ignore the media all together. Or do as the last President Bush did, and dismiss the national outlets while granting interviews to every local morning show from "Good Morning Tuscaloosa!" to "Wake Up Fargo!" And if that fails, at least make it entertaining by getting a William Safire protégé who can create such ripostes as "pusillanimous pussyfooters", "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history". Say what you will about the man's politics, he sure could alliterate.

Better yet, they could take a page from the playbook from one of the most formidable media outlets in the world. The BBC may have reach, Tass may have size and Karai National Radio can claim the title of "THE Voice of Papua New Guinea." But if you want to not just make the news but report it on your own terms, there is no better master at it than Kim Jong Il's own in-house publicist, the Korean Central News Agency of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, known affectionately by their Twitter feed of @kcna_dprk.

Granted, the department doesn't have a whole lot of competition in the super secretive state, and so their byline can be described not as "all the news that's fit to print" but rather "all the news that there is to print." Still, if you read their ongoing feed, they have writers that know how to make silk out of a sow's ear... literally.

Take this dispatch from just last week. Titled "Kim Jong Il Visits Newly-built Pig Farms," it turns a little local meet and greet into the equivalent of a fireside address on... well... pigs. It starts "General Secretary Kim Jong Il gave field guidance to the newly-built September 26 Breeding Pig Farm and October 22 Pig Farm." (Yes, they need to come with some snappier names than just the day the place was built). He gave out some nice attaboys: "He was very pleased with the fact that it has become possible to hand another structure for the eternal happiness of the people down to posterity." And then he brought it home with this rousing closer: "Saying that the construction of this modern breeding pig farm has opened a bright prospect for radically increasing the pork production, he called upon all the sectors and units to raise pigs in a big way."

And so it goes. No sleeping on the job for these scribes; they keep up a steady drumbeat of upbeat stories. Just a few days before, his far ranging knowledge was showcased when this one hit the wire: "Kim Jong Il Provides Field Guidance to Salmon Breeding Institute." Likewise, they have prominent stories on the publication of his latest book in Russia and Nigeria, entitled "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea Is a Socialist State of Juche with Invincible Might." And they even highlight his leisure activities as well: "General Secretary Kim Jong Il enjoyed music skit ‘Our Dear Ones Have Become Heroes' together with servicepersons."

But of course, you have to deal with the critics. And so rather than make the boss take them on himself, they let the people have their say, and report it with this headline: "Revenge-vowing Meeting of Young People Held." According to the official unbiased report, "Reporter and speakers at the meeting recalled that after provoking a war of aggression on the DPRK the U.S. imperialists had massacred people without distinction of age or sex in the most brutal way that would make even beasts blush with shame."

In that light, a little disgruntled prattling from the loyal opposition of Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity hardly seems to move the meter. So if Valerie Jarrett wants to provide real counsel to the president, she might tell the White House spin machine to give up on interviews with The Times and the forget the Sunday talk shows, and focus on their press releases. After all, how can you not get mileage out of a feed that starts, "Kim Jong Il Gives Field Guidance to Central Tree Nursery and Ostrich Farm."


Marc Wollin of Bedford will be guidance giving this kitchen dinner Thursday. His weekly feeds found can be in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inqurier.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Go For The Gold

Under the Senate's bill, there would be four levels of benefits —
bronze, silver, gold and platinum... while the House bill calls for
three levels of coverage —basic, enhanced and premium.
The New York Times, October 5, 2009

Well, THERE's the problem.

Forget all the discussions about runaway Medicare costs, about needless procedures, about reimbursement rates. Yes, doctors order too many unnecessary tests, and patients are crybabies that won't do the most basic things like lose weight and stop smoking. And insurance companies are slow to recognize alterative treatments that can save lives and money. Juggling and bringing order to all of those factors and a thousand others like them is the reason that the healthcare debate is the most problematic and difficult social discussion we've had since... well... maybe ever.

And it's not like there's any real disagreement that there is a problem. Everybody... Republicans, Democrats, motorcycle enthusiasts, Barry Manilow fans... will concede that while the system works, it is in serious need of a tune-up. It's not like abortion, where there can an honest debate based on fundamental beliefs on both sides. Or conversely like slavery or denying women the right to vote, where it's hard to imagine a time when people could actually muster up an argument justifying either point of view. No, players on both sides agree that action must be taken. It's a difference in method, not intent, that's making us all crazy.

But at present time one of the big sticking points in hammering out a compromise that all (read "all" as in "all Democrats") can live with is the level of coverage that people will be required to have and that insurance companies will be required to offer. As noted in the above excerpt from The New York Times, the Senate and the House have different conceptions. And just as importantly as the actual dollar amounts involved is the names of the plans themselves.

Normally we are quick as a country to embrace new names and their associated rankings. Who among us doesn't know that "super" is bigger than "big," that "grande" trumps "large," that "red" is more of a threat than "orange." If you asked around, most would agree that "black" is better than "platinum." And note that virtually overnight almost the entire country caught on to the Starbucks conceit that when ordering a $2 cup of coffee "tall" really means "small."

It's important because rankings are the stuff by which we decide what we choose and how we live our lives, be it restaurants or movies or the size of a pizza. Sometimes it's relayed as stars, sometimes as forks, other times as colors or precious metals. But whether the designations refer to quality or quantity, we need to be able to compare A to B to C to know what to pick. And if the designations aren't self evident, we don't know which way to turn. I, for one, am thankful my car takes "regular" gas, because unless I looked at the prices I could never remember which was better, "ultra" or "super."

So a major component of any successful reform bill will be not just creating a system that works, but giving names to the parts of that system. Consumers will need an easy, shorthand way to talk about the thousands of rules and regulations that will be enacted. And that means some kind of across the board sizing system that will make it possible to compare apples to apples. Just as clothes come in small, medium and large, we need a simple way to see what size tee shirt to stretch across our individual health care bellies.

In a classic comedy bit called "The 2000 Year Old Man," interviewer Carl Reiner chats with ancient curmudgeon Mel Brooks about his experiences and observations over two millennia. Among other things, Brooks points out that World War II went on longer than it should because we all listened to Churchill and were intent on finding the "Narzis." He shakes his head and laments that if he had only called them by their proper name of "Nazis" we would have found them sooner, and the war would have been over years earlier.

And so it may be with a health care. We think we know the enemy, but we've got to get our terms straight. And unless we can get together and agree that the "enhanced gold ultra" plan should be taxed while all people should have at least "basic blue regular" coverage, we'll never get anywhere.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders why bronze is the lowest Olympic medal there is. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


As told on radio's "This American Life," when Eric Hayot was 23 he went on an exchange program to China and took an opera class. Before he knew it, he was on stage singing. Accompanying him on a traditional two-stringed fiddle was 19-year-old Yuanyuan Di. Hayot fell for her the moment he saw her, and struck up a relationship. Eventually, however, it was time to return to the States, and he figured that was that. But two years later he returned to China to study, and decided he just had to find Yuanyuan again. He tracked her down through an old music teacher, and rekindled the relationship, which eventually lead to them getting married.

A good story, to be sure. But I was struck even more by a coda that Hayot added: "Everyone always asks you how you met, but no one ever asks you how you stayed together." In his case, there were trials and tribulations once they got married, including cultural and personal challenges. None were as interesting or energizing as the story of their beginning. But they worked through them, the very thing you need to do to sustain a relationship.

I relate this story because this week it has special significance for me, or should I say, for us. Twenty-five years ago my wife and I got married. And while our beginning is not as exotic as Hayot and his spouse, I like to think it has an interesting angle as well.

Back then I was a newly minted freelancer. One day the phone rang, with an inquiry from a headhunter. While I had no desire for the job she was pushing, she suggested we meet for lunch and perhaps help each other by trading contacts. Since she was buying, it seemed like a no lose situation.

We met at a Japanese place, and tried to out-wasabi each other. It was a more than pleasant meal, and as we left, we agreed to stay in touch should either of us hear of opportunities or good people deserving of them. I remember thinking that while I'd like to perhaps take the relationship to another level, she must meet with scores of guys at similar lunches, and I didn't really want to stand in line. So we went our separate ways, and talked every now and again.

One Friday I checked my answering machine to find a message from her asking me if I had dinner plans. (Little did I know her existing date had fallen through, and she didn't want to sit home. So she worked her considerable Rolodex... and since I'm a "W" she was obviously running out of options). Unfortunately, though, I was heading out of town on business, and couldn't make it, and when I returned, she was traveling as well. Eventually we managed to connect, and the rest, as they say, is history. You can say the headhunter, or is this case, headhuntress, filled the position.

All well and good, and perhaps not a bad story. But lots of couples have interesting tales of their beginnings, and part ways at some intermediate point as that high water mark fades into the distance. To Hayot's point, what has kept us going? To be sure, a lot has happened since then to us, some good, some bad, and still we are together. Why us, why not others?

For the record and for the romantics, I love my wife very much. But while that's a good place to start, for a relationship to endure there has to be more. For me at least, I think the reason is both mundane and perhaps exceptional in these times: I want to be with her. When I travel someplace new, I'm constantly thinking of when we could come back together and I could show her what I've discovered. When she's out at meetings it's fine... but it feels empty and lonely, and it's much better when we're both in the house, even if we're in different rooms. And I can honestly say that while we miss both our boys as they start to create lives away from us, being empty nesters means we have more time to remember why we got together in the first place.

Over the many years I've tried to fill this space, I've written about far away places and nearby haunts, and paid tribute to parents and kids and individuals here and gone who have made an impression on me. But I've neglected perhaps the most important one of all. Well, it's time to correct that oversight. If the last quarter century has taught me anything, it's that not only do I love my wife, but I like her as well and want to be with her. That may seem like a small thing. But it's gotten us this far, and I trust it will be the reason we have at least another 25 together.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can honestly say he's happy he's married to Susan. You can send her greetings at Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


There are any number of arcane skills that I used to pride myself on that are now useless, skills that at one point I thought would be valuable to pass on to our children. One was the best way to convert a vinyl album to a cassette tape. Another was how to change a typewriter ribbon without getting ink on your fingers. But the one I was sure would stand the test of time was the ability to read a map and find the best way from point A to point B.

Oh, how that belief has been tested. Several years ago my wife got a new vehicle with a GPS system. Dubbed "Beth" to help demystify it, she grew to be the other woman in my life. At first I pooh poohed her, taking great delight in ignoring her advice, forcing her to repeat endlessly, "Make a legal U turn ahead and return to the highlighted route." Eventually, however, I came around, becoming convinced of the device's value on a trip to France, where Beth's foreign cousin (christened "Bethany") enabled us to wander hither and yon, and never be worried about making it back to Paris and a particular stand that made a coconut, hazelnut and chocolate crepe that will live in my dreams forever.

Back on these shores I so changed my tune that I gave in and bought one for my car, where it has taken up residence on my windshield. I'm hardly alone: well over half the cars you pass on the road have the same gadget installed in a similar place. They've gotten so ubiquitous that it's rare for anyone to ask for directions to anything anymore. All one needs is an address and a clear shot at the sky, and even those that get lost in a dead end become either Lewis or Clark.

Of late, though, I've been exploring the deeper functions of the device. The default mode is "get there the fastest way." This provides a mix of highways and local streets, and 99.9% of the time that works fine. Occasionally I'll switch over to "more frequent use of local roads" if there's a tieup and I need a workaround. And I can even set custom preferences, favoring certain parallel highways over others, especially when I know that those are more likely to be traffic-free than others. But my new favorite turns out to be the "take the shortest route" option. If you select this, the computer draws the most zig zag line it can, taking every little nook and cranny available that trims two feet off the journey. Never mind that you might never exceed 40 MPH. If you have the time, it's a chance to slow down and see the world in a whole new light.

For example, in the quiet days of late summer I needed some odds and ends from a hardware store for projects on which I was working. It's a store I've been to countless times, and I know the fastest way to get there. But once I loaded up the car with my purchases, I realized I was in no rush to get home and get started. It was a nice day and I had the top down on the car. So I hit the short cut button, and started out. Almost immediately it had me turn off the main road, diving into some local streets I had always just whisked by before. Before long I confess I was lost, though by lost I mean in unfamiliar territory, less than 10 miles from our home.

Giving myself over to the device, I dutifully followed the directions offered. I passed a small farm, a pristine pond, an old farmhouse melded to a distinctly modern addition. I found what looked to be a hand-build rough-hewn great room standing by itself in the middle of a field. Before I emerged on a road that I finally recognized I had passed horses and goats, and I'd swear I saw a llama as well.

I have since repeated the exercise several times, including to a restaurant we frequent several towns away, another time to a nearby business meeting. In both cases I discovered houses, streams and even a fairground I didn't know existed. In fact, the local Grange (something else I passed that didn't know was nearby) was having a show the next day, and I'm pleased to say we went back to look at the champion chickens.

Robert Frost famously wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference." Truth be told, I can't say my GPS wanderings have made a huge difference. But I can confidently report that it has made routine journeys much more interesting.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to drive and look around. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


The room was dark, dark enough that I really couldn't make out her features. What I could make out was long hair and a medium build of some indiscriminate age, somewhere between 25 and 55. Her accent was also non-descript, though it placed her childhood north of Baltimore and south of Boston. She drummed her fingers nervously on her thighs, as if she was working a keyboard... which of course was what this was all about.
"Thanks for agreeing to talk with me. Will you tell me your name?" Our meeting had been arranged through a mutual friend, with the understanding that it would all be confidential.

She shook her head. "No, I'd really rather not. I told Mike I'd talk to you since you were just doing research, and no names would be used. I mean, it's all kind of embarrassing, and you writing for a newspaper and all."

"Then what should I call you?"

"Umm... how about Mia? I've always liked that name."

"Mia it is. So tell me, Mia... when did you realize you were an addict?"

"I dunno. I'd say it's been a year or so. It's nothing I'm proud of. I wish I could quit."

"I'm sure. Well, how did you get started?"

"It was an old college friend. She told me about it, and it seemed like it might be fun. So I signed up, and sent her a friend request, which she naturally accepted. That led to other friends, then friends of friends, then some co-workers and next thing I knew..." She trailed off and sighed. "The next thing I knew I couldn't stop posting."

"You're saying that you've become a Facebook addict?"

"Yeah... and it's ruining my life."

"How so?"

"Well, I have to constantly update my page, posting what I'm eating, what I'm watching, how I feel. And my friends comment on that and I comment back. It's getting so I don't have time to actually do anything worth posting about except the posting itself."

"And what about your friends?"

"They're in the same boat. I never actually see them in person or talk to them on the phone. I don't even instant message with them anymore. All we ever seem to do is throw a pretend pie at each other, or post a score in Word Jumble, or join another group like ‘People against backpacks with wheels.'"

"Well, you must go out sometimes. Then you take a break from your computer, right?"

"Not really. I have Facebook mobile on my phone, so I get updates if I go the grocery store or the gym... both of which I also post about when I'm out. I mean, there's got to be more out of life than being afraid to take a shower for more than 5 minutes because my iPhone doesn't have a waterproof case."

"What do you do when you're at work? You're a...?"

"I work for a real estate management company. All our properties are online, so I spend my day on a computer, updating our listings and seeing what kind of traffic they're generating. So I just open another tab with my page on it, and punch over to it to add or check it."

"How many times a day do you do that?"

She shrugged. "I dunno. I never counted. But I would say I probably post or comment on a post every few minutes. So maybe 10, 20 times an hour."

"That works out to over a hundred times a day!"

"Yeah probably."

"Do you enjoy it?"

"I used to." She sighed. "Now it just seems like I can't stop. I know it steals hours of my life that I will never get back. But I can't bear the thought of not being online, not having people read what I write, even if it's really not that interesting. It's just that..." Her voice trailed off.

"It's just that what?"

"It's just that even if I stop, it'll just keep going. And I can't bear for it to go on without me. So I guess I have no choice."

"Mia, thanks for talking with me."

"You're welcome." Her voice suddenly sounded cheerier. "And thank you too... at least now I have something new to post about." She took out her iPhone and started jabbing at it. Even in the dark, I could see her smile.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still doesn't have a picture of himself on his Facebook page. His column is posted regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.