Saturday, December 26, 2009

What Will We Talk About?

While it's always dangerous to generalize, it's probably a safe assumption that most will be happy to let 2009 enter the history books. That's not to say that there won't be challenges and crises a plenty in the new year. But unless you are James Cameron, this was the year that certainly proved that Murphy was indeed an optimist.

Still, all those trials and tribulations provided much fodder for discussion throughout the year. From the coffee shops to the water coolers, from the chat rooms to the twiterati, there was lots to dish, both dirt and otherwise. And since the pendulum in almost any given area seemed to gyrate wildly from one extreme to the other, if you didn't keep up you could be left behind. Indeed, back in March it seemed like the Dow could go to 500 and the Mets could win the pennant... and how wrong both of those outlooks turned out to be.

So what did we thumb type our 140 characters about? The big story that kept us talking was the economy. It was a roller coaster ride that made more than one person lose their lunch, be it from the Four Seasons or McDonald's. Early in the year both the financial and job markets tanked. Interestingly enough your tank didn't tank: while gasoline prices pulled back from their record highs from the prior year, it stopped dropping somewhere below two bucks a gallon, and then started climbing again. While almost all the markets, from housing to stock, have recovered to varying degrees, it has become of late a tale of 2 cities, with the shining one on the hill being Goldman Sachs and the shanty towns being everywhere outside of Wall Street.

Seems we spent even more time talking about the movies. That's because all that economic uncertainty translated into big numbers at the theatres. Movie attendance was up over 4%, with the focus on escapist fare. The top three grossing films as of mid December were "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and "Up." And lest you think they nosed out any high minded, serious films that stimulated soul searching discourse, number 4 was "The Hangover." It's also worth noting that the year in entertainment brought much discussion about vampires, though I don't if that's to be considered a good thing or a bad thing.

In sports, while the Yankees finally won the World Series again, new faces in other arenas offered up lots of possibilities for Monday morning quarterbacking with your buddies. At the US Open in tennis, Roger Federer was pushed aside by Juan Del Potro. Lucas Glover, 71st in the world at the start of the tournament, beat out a clutch of more well-known names to take the US Open in golf. And in March in a dramatic arrow by arrow finish, Yavor Hristov of Bulgaria bested Rafal Dobrowolski of Poland to claim the World Individual Recurve Archery crown, a match that's still got the locals talking.

In addition to swine flu, Bernie Madoff and Cash for Clunkers, there was lots more to chat about, thankfully much of it quickly. Susan Boyle took "American Idol" by storm, much the way the Kanye West took the microphone form Taylor Swift and told her she wasn't as talented as Beyonce. In the "why is anybody surprised," department, David Letterman slept with his interns, and Michael Phelps smoked pot. And in one that consumed many, Jon and Kate split up. My question: who are they to begin with, and why should I care?

So what will we be talking about in 2010? Topic number one will still likely be the economy. The uncertainties will continue, with the system waiting for another big shoe to drop and wreak havoc. Hopefully we've learned enough to corral the damage a little better, but I'm doubtful. Then there's healthcare. With the Senate seemingly gearing up the pass a version, it remains to be reconciled with the House version, hardly an easy task. And don't forget about the Winter Olympics, global warming and Alec Baldwin. The bottom line is that 2010 promises to be anything but boring. If I were you, I would increase my cell phone minutes and switch to that unlimited data plan. After all, you don't want to miss out on a single Tiger Woods revelation.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has no idea what 2010 will bring. As they say, fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Ties That Bind

"Good evening. I'm Glenn Beck."

"And I'm Rachel Maddow. And we... yes, we... want to welcome you to this extraordinary cable television event."

"That's right, Rachel. All year long we fight and insult each other and talk about how the other side is crazy. But tonight, for one night only, in the spirit of the holiday season, we are coming together to talk about not what divides liberals and conservatives, but rather what brings us together."

"The ground rules are simple. Each of us will offer up something we love that the other side hates. And then the other side will have to say something nice about them. Ready, Glenn?"

"Sure, Rach, fire away."

"Well, as they say, go big or go home. So let's start big. Glenn, grit your teeth, let a smile be your umbrella, and tell us something nice about our president, Barrack Obama.

"Rachel, that's not fair. He's obviously all that's wrong with the world today. He's creating a totalitarian, socialistic state that will harm generations to come, making every God-fearing American captive to...

"Glenn, put the foam back in your mouth and remember the rules. Like my mother said, something nice or say nothing at all."

"Well... if you insist."

"I insist."

"Well... hmmm... let me think. It's kinda hard. Uh... Wait! I know. He has a beautiful wife!"

"Great, Glenn! We agree: Michelle is indeed beautiful and smart and an inspiration to women of all colors and creeds."

"Wow! I have to say that was a lot harder than I thought, not to mention that funny taste I now have in my mouth. But now it's my turn, Rachel. How about you tackle.... let's see.... I know... Sarah Pallin!"

"Glenn, that's cruel! How can you ask a feminist like me to compliment a woman who represents almost everything I abhor!"

"You know the rules. If I can do it, so can you. Something nice, please."

"Something nice. Something nice. Well... she's actually better looking than Tina Fey!"

"That she is... couldn't agree with you more!"

"You're right Glenn, that was tough! But let's say we get off of politics. How about pop culture?"

"Sure, I'm game. Whatdaya got?"

"How about this? Say something nice about... Michael Jackson."

"You're kidding, right? You want me to say something nice about a pedophile freak?"

"In a word... yes."

"Geez. Michael Jackson... hmmm. I know... he sure could dance!"

"Absolutely! Nobody could dance like him!"

"And I have to say, Rachel, I still can't figure out how he did that moonwalk thing. I just wish he would have stopped grabbing his crotch all the time."

"Glenn, you said something nice...leave it at that. Got one for me?"

"Pop culture's a little harder for conservatives. Hard to be right in left-leaning Hollywood. So let's try the literary realm. Let's see you offer up a compliment on Ann Coulter."

"Ann Coulter!? You call what she's writes literature?! More like drivel in lipstick!"

"Doesn't sound like a compliment to me, Rachel. You're being naughty, not nice. Find something good, or stay quiet."

"It kills me to do this, Glenn, I have to tell you. But, let see. Ann Coulter... Ann Coulter... Got it! She has the most beautiful hair I can imagine."

"No doubt about it. It is gorgeous. Goes to prove that conservatives can be good looking too!"

"I think we've got time for one more quick one, Glenn. How about a short take on President Clinton."

"The lying philanderer? Well, as far as we know, he's not as bad as Tiger Woods. You take the same: George W. Bush."

"Best brush clearer among Texas gentlemen ranchers."

"Well done. I'm afraid, though, that we're just about out of time. Rachel, it's been fun."

"Likewise, Glenn. I still think you're a homophobic Nazi, but tonight you've been a gentleman."

"And you're pretty personable for a lesbian pinko commie."

"Thanks. And to all of you, thanks so much for watching. And remember in this special time of the year, we can all find things that unite us. Have a great holiday season."


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes all have a good holiday, whatever their points of view. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hash Browns and Mutual Funds

It was a Sunday morning, and I was in San Antonio, Texas. Our schedule had us working late that evening, but the offset was that I didn't have to be in until noon. Especially since my body clock was still on east coast time, I was up early with not a whole lot to do. I went for a long run through some nice old neighborhoods, then got back to my hotel room and caught up on a little paperwork. But by 8AM I was getting hungry. I generally hate ordering room service, so packed up my stuff and headed out to try and find a place where I could get a bite, read the paper and do a little more work on my laptop.

As I exited the hotel, I saw a Denny's right across the street. Not that I'm a big fan of the restaurant chain, but certainly on that particular day and time it seemed like a reasonable destination. As I got closer, I scanned the banners flying in the entrance. Indeed, it had some nice breakfast specials ("Southwestern Sizzlin' Skillet") and a bottomless cup of coffee ("Just $1.99!"). But the kicker was something I didn't expect to find, and made it not just an acceptable place to hang out, but the perfect place: it had free WiFi.

More and more establishments are offering free access to the internet as a way to lure and keep customers. Barnes and Noble, Panera Bread and Borders Books are just some of the major chains that have opened wide their bandwidth to anyone who walks in the door. In fact, free access to the internet appears to be the "in" gift to give this year. Google will be providing it at no charge on all Virgin America flights, as well as offering free WiFi in 47 airports through January 15, 2010. Not to be outdone, Yahoo says it will provide free WiFi for an entire year in Times Square in New York City. Even religious pilgrims were able to get in on the fun: Bayanat Al-Oula launched free WiFi service in all holy sites during this year's Hajj.

Lest you think this is just for the geeky among us, think again, or better yet, just look around you. The number of people using laptops, netbooks and WiFi enabled smart phones has exploded. AT&T, the U.S. WiFi leader with nearly 20,000 domestic hotspots, said that in the first quarter of 2009 the number of connections totaled 10.5 million, more than triple the 3.4 million connections in the same period of 2008.

But back to Denny's. When I walked in, I asked the hostess for a quiet spot in the back where I could sit for a while. After I had ordered breakfast and coffee, I pulled out my laptop and started surfing. I read the news, checked the weather and started to do a little prep work for the day. When breakfast came I split my time between some home fries and the stock market, and did a little browsing of the latest releases on iTunes to boot. A refill of coffee or two later I finally got around to doing some research and writing.

I confess I felt a little bad about taking up space that might otherwise have been flipped to another paying customer. Sure, I ordered an extra order of toast to nibble on as I sat there. But I wondered how the waitress felt. When Marta came by to freshen up my cup yet again, I asked her about it. She was unconcerned: she told me that she often had people sit there for 2 hours or more. Some held meetings, and even showed PowerPoint presentations. "Good food, nice people... I don't mind." She left me an extra creamer, and continued on her rounds.

It's certainly a crowd pleasing gimmick, and likely brings in some like myself that wouldn't otherwise choose the restaurant for a business breakfast or lunch. So go ahead and invite that new client to 21, and order the hand-cut Irish oatmeal. As for me, I'll stick with the low end, offer my prospect the Chocolate Chip Pancakes and also be able to show him my latest stuff on YouTube. And even when I leave Marta an extra five bucks on my $15 tab for taking up her space, I'll still be way ahead.


Marc Wollin has made Panera Bread his preferred road office. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Plain Speaking

No doubt about it: Harry Truman was blunt. As a straight-as-an-arrow Midwesterner, he called it as he saw it, with little concession to political niceties. On Nixon: "He's a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in." On MacArthur: "I fired MacArthur because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was." On Daniel Webster: "He was a windbag. He made a great many orations, and I imagine he did a very good job, but he was still a windbag " No wonder an oral biography of him was entitled "Plain Speaking."

Candid judgments such as these do more than just entertain: they can point us to which products to buy and which to avoid. It does no one any good to spare the truth, with the possible exception of the creators. That's why it's helpful to have a movie reviewer such as Mahola Dargis offer up this appraisal for the new "Twilight" installment: "The big tease turns into the long goodbye in this juiceless, near bloodless sequel about a teenage girl and the sparkly vampire she, like, totally loves." Think I'll skip that one.

This is especially the case with restaurant reviews. A new place opens up, and you eagerly await the appraisal of the pros whose job it is to take stock. Their detailed assessments help to illuminate the good, the bad and the ugly: "Average food, not worth the price." Or "I hate being packed into a restaurant like a number, there is no personality and no appreciation." Or "Not really my cup of foam." Guess we'll be making pasta at home again tonight.

To make it easier, many reviews cut to the chase at the end and reduce it all down to an empirical total. While the Zagat guide rates establishments on a 30 point scale in each of 4 categories, most make it much more concise. Be it stars or chef's toques or thumbs ups, the math is what counts: if there're four you expect it to be good, and if there's one, you expect it'll be closing soon.

One would think that leaves little wiggle room. Still, trying to be more user friendly, several years ago The New York Times adopted a more plain speaking approach. In its suburban restaurant reviews, it eschewed the purely objective to go with the more subjective. Hence, establishments were noted to be Excellent, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory and Poor.

Still, I guess that one man or woman's Good is another's Satisfactory. And in a society where casual speak has become dominant, where "Hey" has replaced not only "Hello" but even "Hi," where every merchant feels it's more friendly to call you by your first name when they return your credit card, those terms were obviously deemed to elitist. And so in a little noticed recent change, they took another swing, and changed the rating to be in more in line with contemporary thought. Henceforth, that new Greek place down the block will be rated Don't Miss, Worth It, In a Pinch and Don't Bother.

It's an increasing moment of frivolity for the Times, which more and more seeks to make itself more relevant to an audience that is drifting away. How else to explain the increasing use of puns in its headlines (For the aforementioned "Twilight" review: "Abstinence Makes the Heart... Oh, You Know." Or this one on Black Friday: "This Year, It May Be Wise to Skip the Shopping Maul.") They do seem to be trying their establishment best to reach out and amuse the masses, though there's little chance that they will be turning into Daily News anytime soon, and or beat my favorite lead from the Post, "Headless Body in Topless Bar."

One wonders just how far the Times will go. Frankly, we're all pressed for time these days, and so even four plateaus is probably too much. What we really want is a Roman Coliseum verdict as to whether that new bar-be-que place merits a visit or not. So I propose they do away with the niceties and give us a straight up or down vote at the end. Call it as you see: from now, simply tell me to Eat Here, or conversely, It Sucks.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves it when a waitress tells him not to order something. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.