Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Holiday Fable

(Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidence, not to mention the writer's day to day existence)

Once upon a time there was a modern American family. HE was more or less a typically suburban male, working at a profession, interested in technology, reading and music. SHE was more or less a typically suburban female, devoted to her children, family and community, interested in movies, exercise and friends. While HE was Jewish and SHE was Presbyterian, neither was devoutly religious. And so their secular outlooks and lifestyles posed no problems, and indeed, offered up twice the usual number of chances to gather with friends and family to celebrate and eat the appropriate holiday fare, be it ham or latkes.

THEY also had two CHILDREN, boys about 3 years apart. When the CHILDREN were smaller, any holiday was an occasion to indulge in all the trappings of that particular celebration, be it chocolate bunnies at Easter or chocolate coins at Chanukah. For Christmas time, that most major of holidays, SHE liked to decorate the house for the season, with wreaths and candles and a tree with lights. The KIDS eagerly participated, and HE was happy to help as well. THEY even went so far for several years as to tromp through the snow and cut their own tree, an outing to which THEY all eagerly looked forward.

But as time went on and the KIDS grew older, the process lost its allure. And so the concession was made to buy a tree that had been cut by others, as opposed to doing the job themselves. In the beginning this was also a family outing, with different prospects being hauled out of the line and examined under the floodlights, until the winner was selected by acclamation and strapped to the top of the car. Once home, HE got it set up by the picture window in the living room and circled it with lights. The BOYS hung the ornaments, while SHE saw to the rest of the room and the other decorations, making it a festive place indeed.

Alas, like all things, this stage had its own lifetime as well. Eventually there came a time when one BOY was off on his own, while the other BOY lost interest in the process. As the holiday season approached, they stopped to pick up a tree almost as an afterthought. But rather than it being a collaborative effort, SHE was forced to basically do it herself, while HE and one BOY stood by waiting impatiently. After a few cross words, they left treeless, with hurt feelings and sadness all around. Seeking to make amends, HE offered to go out again with HER to get a tree. And while they liked the smell and feel of a real one, they decided to try an artificial version, opting for convenience. HE set it up, the BOYS helped trim it and SHE fined tuned it all, and once again there was festivity throughout the house.

Time went by, the BOYS got older and HE and SHE became empty nesters. The house seemed bigger than ever, with just the two of them wandering through it. Then once again, the holidays came, and it was time to open all the boxes and decorate. Since the KIDS were gone, the task fell to HER, with HE providing mere technical assistance to set up the tree and lights. SHE worked steadily, setting out the special cards she had kept, the special ornaments they had accumulated and the sentimental decorations made by the children when they were young. SHE grumbled as she did it, partly wondering if it were worth it and would be appreciated. But slowly, from an empty room that they almost never entered except to adjust the heat, emerged a festive tableaux that welcomed all who passed by or chose to sit and enjoy. And even HE agreed that it looked good and helped to make the season special.

And then in almost no time it was Xmas eve. The BOYS came home from places near and far. FRIENDS stopped by to share the season. HE uncorked the wine and poured the drinks. And SHE put dips and snacks for all to enjoy. And ALL admired the room and the spirit it conveyed. And wherever they came from and whatever they believed, they all wished each other a joyous holiday season, a happy New Year, and peace and joy, all in a place that helped to celebrate this special time of year.

(And remember: this is a work of fiction... sort of.)


Marc Wollin of Bedford thanks all for reading this space for yet another year. It is appears weekly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquire and online at

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Tron Legacy

You'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to have heard about it. For the last three years, the Disney machine has been leaking, teasing, hyping the follow-up to a movie that was admittedly a flop when it premiered in 1982. No matter that minor detail. This time around the numbers will add up: 1 cartoon, 2 videogames, 3-D glasses, and $170 million dollars have been deployed to make Christmas 2010 the season of "Tron:Legacy." As Adam Rogers writes in Wired, "Come December 17, when the movie comes out, your butt will be in a seat and your head will be plugged into migraine-inducing Urkel goggles like everybody else. You will like ‘Tron: Legacy.' That's not a prediction - it's a command."

If, like me, you remember the original, you are at least curious as to what that order will turn out to be about. Being the geeky type (and back then, that was a pejorative characterization as opposed to now), I anxiously queued up to see the movie with friends and remember being blown away by what it was trying to do. The story was OK... in fact, I can hardly recall much of it. But as the first film where computer graphics ruled the screen, it was a tantalizing view of what could be. The "The Matrix" and other CG films were still a dozen years in the future; "Tron" was the toe in the water of where it might all lead.

In some respects, my own experience with computers is a parallel one. My dad worked in information management, though he was hardly a techie. But at about the same time the movie came out he got a Timex-Sinclair. When I visited him he showed it to me, a plastic box with a membrane keyboard about the size of an open paperback book. This early personnel computer was cheaper than Radio Shack's TRS-80, the Commodore 64 and the Apple 1, but did almost nothing. You could program it in BASIC to play blackjack (using numbers, not cards) and not much else in black and white on your TV screen. But like TRON it was a window on what could be, might be, must be coming down the road.

Not long after that I went out on my own and bought my own first computer, a Kaypro II. Considered portable because it had a handle on it, it was a 30 pound metal box that included a keyboard, a glowing green 8" screen and a pair of 5 ¼ floppy disc drives. I remember taking it out of its box and setting it up on the floor. I turned it on only to see a winking cursor: nothing else. It took a while to understand the concept of programs and machine code and a language called CP/M. Eventually I was able to write on it (PerfectWord), create simple spreadsheets (PerfectCalc) and even play an Asteroid-like game of glowing green Martians (the letter "M") attacking glowing green guns (the letter "G") to be shot down by bullets (You guessed it... the letter "B").

Now, 28 years and several dozen desk and laptops later I'd sooner be without my arm than without my computer. I don't try and buy the most cutting edge device, but look for that sweet spot between performance and price. I invariably buy machines that I think are way more than adequate for my needs, than invariably stress them to the max. And I'm not alone. After all, who would have thought that my now 80-year old mother would almost require a machine that would enable her to swap email with her friends, load and manage her iPod and video chat with her grandson in Russia? That's about as far as you can get from her early tech encounters watching her Aunt Elizabeth tune her Gloritone radio to her favorite soap opera "Our Gal Sunday."

It's a road that's hardly ending. "Tron" may represent the next evolution in visual imagery, or it may be just another sci-fi flick that gives you a 3-D headache. Likewise, I have been on a parallel path, with no assurances where I'm heading. To be fair, I certainly haven't ridden a light-cycle to this point... more like a tricycle with training wheels... but I've made progress. Like Jeff Bridges in the new movie, I'm older and slower, not sure what's happening around me and sometimes it's hard to tell the bad guys from the good ones... but at least I'm still in the game.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is already tired of 3D movies. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Shoot the Duck

The challenges are real. The war in Afghanistan is now solidly in its tenth year with no clear ending in sight, notwithstanding agreement by all that we need to get out. Despite massive amounts of stimulus and signs of increased hiring by both small and large businesses, unemployment is ticking upward. Tax cuts which were deliberately passed with a very finite time horizon to allow time to rebalance the system are set to expire, forcing less is more and more is less arguments from each side that stand logic on its head. And John McCain is giving new meaning to redefining standards as he keeps moving the goalposts as to when he'll accept a recommendation on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

But don't despair: the good news is that Congress, despite its lame duck status, is still hard at work debating, drafting legislation and rounding up the votes needed to take action. To be clear, it's not on any of the aforementioned issues. Those, along with the START treaty, immigration policy and a host of other thorny issues will never even come close to coming up for a vote. Rather, Democrats and Republicans have reached across the aisle, shaken hands and then patted themselves on the back for taking bold and courageous legislation steps in other areas.

The Senate joined the House in passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which allows for more frequent inspections of processing plants in an attempt to limit outbreaks of food-borne illness. There was the $4.55 billion payout for black farmers and would-be farmers, as well as to American Indians who claimed racial discrimination in federal funding. And in an overwhelming bipartisan display of agreement, they have rebuked Charlie Rangel for his admitted unethical behavior with the sternest measure short of expulsion they can muster, a 5-minute talking-to. (Jon Stewart: "Charlie. Charlie. You... that was bad, Charlie. Alright. Go sit down.")

But if there's a model for lawmaking in these troubled and rancorous days, it has to be the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation, or CALM Act. Acting on the scourge of our times, those overly loud commercials that force you reach for the mute button, this bill aims to restore sanity to television viewing. "Consumers have been asking for a solution to this problem for decades, and today they finally have it," said California Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo, who sponsored the bill. "The CALM Act gives consumers peace of mind, because it puts them in control of the sound in their homes."

The House overwhelming gave its nod to the bill, joining the Senate which had done so earlier in the year. It now goes to the President for signing. But considering what else is happening in the country, is this really a good use of the precious legislative calendar? Apparently so. "If I'd saved 50 million children from some malady, people would not have the interest that they have in this," said Eshoo. "Consumers will no longer have to experience being blasted at. It's a simple fix to a huge nuisance."

It's such a huge nuisance that both sides saw fit to shelve their ideological high ground. There were no complaints from Republicans about overreaching government regulation, nor from Democrats about subsidies to widget makers who might lose market share now that they can't scream about their wares. And our nation is the better for it: all those sitting on their couch watching endless hours of TV because their unemployment benefits have run out now have protection from intrusive infomercials. In an interesting footnote, the legislation passed on a voice vote, wherein House members all yell their acclamation at the same time. In this case, louder was obviously better and got its way, which runs counter to the spirit of the law itself. But we digress.

For a lame duck session, Harry Reid has an agenda that is stunningly ambitious, especially considering he couldn't get half of what he wanted passed in the regular session. Mitch McConnell has said he'll be happy to work together and compromise with the Democrats, as long as nothing actually gets done. Regardless of which side you favor, its obvious nothing of consequence is going to happen. So perhaps we'd be best off saving at least a few bucks on the lights and the heat, and call it a day at the Capital for this year. Or as Will Rogers said about a lame duck Congress, "It's like where some fellows worked for you and their work wasn't satisfactory and you let ‘em out, but after you fired ‘em you let them stay long enough so they could burn your house down." It would be funny if it weren't so true.


Marc Wollin of Bedford, like a good many, has just about had it with everybody in Washington. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Gift of Saving

Especially at this time of year, we're all reminded of the need to be generous. In that light, what better idea than to find something or someone which needs help, and offer then a little support? There are a myriad of organizations and causes out there, each of which requires just a small commitment from you to make a difference. You generally pledge a certain sum and moral support, and most importantly, your attention to the issue at hand. The object in question gets the help it needs, and you can feel like you've done good.

The laundry list of potential needs is almost endless: type "adopt a" into Google and you get over 27 million hits. If you're serious about it there are children and pets aplenty. But if you want to make a less demanding emotional commitment, you can also take under your wing a library or a stretch of highway, a wild horse or a river. And while the dollars you offer up can certainly make a difference, it's as much about awareness as anything else. For if you know about it and talk about, it's less likely to get lost in the shuffle and be forgotten. And that is certainly the case for Save the Words.

A project of the Oxford University Press, Save the Words is aimed at doing just that: savings words which heretofore have been a part of regular speech but have fallen on hard times (actually, like "heretofore"). And there are a lot of candidates. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for over 600,000 words, while its online cousin grows by 1800 new and revised words a quarter. Recent additions have included "vuvuzela," those plastic horns that all but overshadowed the World Cup, "bromance," defined as a close but non-sexual relationship between two men, and those darlings of economic policy "quantitative easing," "overleveraged" and "toxic debt."

Of course, the bigger the list gets, the less we use. Or more to the point, we squeeze out the old ones and assimilate the new ones. Just how many of the inhabitants of those pages get aired out regularly? While it's hard to give any precise figures, researchers say that a five year old just beginning school will have a vocabulary of around 4000 to 5000 word families, while a university graduate will have a vocabulary of around 20,000 word families. And any person in a technical field is likely to have an even bigger mouthful: for instance, it's estimated that medical school graduates have 30,000 words on the tip of their tongues, even if they struggle to remember that "gastralgia" is just another way of saying stomach ache.

That means even with doctors and lawyers talking non-stop, there's only so much that gets said. And that leaves an awful lot of orphans deep in the pages that don't get to see the light of day. Hence the Save the Words campaign.  A very clever website, it presents a collage of obsolete and archaic words which are gradually drifting into oblivion. When you peruse the site the potential adoptees call out to you (a cute feature at first which you can thankfully turn off), asking you to pick them. When you select a candidate, you are presented with a definition, a sample sentence and the chance to sign a pledge to use the word frequently in correspondence and conversation, thereby bringing it back from the lip of extinction. No subtraction from your wallet needed, just addition to your everyday vocabulary.

There are plenty from which to choose. Of course, like any grouping of orphans, some are cute and cuddly, while others are a little rougher around the edges. In both cases, however, there's a good chance that they have never graced your everyday speech. There's "senticous," a word from the 1600's meaning prickly or thorny. Or how about "obarnate," another term from the Middle Ages meaning to arm yourself against a foe. "Quaeritate" means to ask, while "ossifragant" means bone-breaking. And next time you bang your head on something, you can note that rather than being somewhat tender the resulting goose egg is "tenellous."

The trick, of course, is putting it into action. So tomorrow morning call your friend and profess your lubency to vicambulate. Then, before they call the cops, make sure they know aren't offering to do anything immoral, just professing your willingness to take a walk. And consider yourself a dutiful foster mamma or papa, and be satisfied that you have done your language proud.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves words, even those he doesn't use. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Better to Receive

If you're an early bird you might reading this on Black Friday. Or maybe you got to it on Small Business Saturday. It might even have languished until Cyber Monday. (Note: Sunday as a retail destination is still up for grabs.) But regardless of when you get to it, this column will solve a major dilemma: what to get me for the holidays. I know you're been lying awake at night thinking about it, and for that I apologize. It's just that there's so much stuff out there that it's taken me some time to sort it all out. And so to enable you to finally get a good night's sleep, please feel free to pick and choose from the following list. Not to worry: there's something for every budget.

For scribbling notes day by day I like to use a pencil, enabling me to erase and rewrite. But after the initial spate of creativity, I'd just as soon lock it in. So this year I want a Sharpie Liquid Pencil. Brought to you by the folks that make the best marker in the business, this hybrid uses a liquid graphic solution that is like lead, and indeed, can be erased for 72 hours. After that the marks become permanent. So now I can throw away my mechanical pencils and tubes of teensy-weensy leads. And it's just $5.49 for a two pack at Staples. If ever the moniker applied, this is proof of better living through chemistry.

Those who know me know I like to travel, and like to keep track of where I've been. Maps are great for that, but a little dull. So this year, I'd love to have a Hi Tech Art Map. Sure, it looks like a regular world map. But it comes with 100 push in LED's that light up in eight different colors when activated. It even has two blinking ones, which can indicate home and where I am that week so my wife can keep track. Amazon has it for less than $125. Yes, it does give off an aura of world domination, but I promise I'm really harmless.

Since my backpack is my office, my endless quest is to find things that are compact yet functional. The wireless mouse I carry is bulky and undersized, but it's hard to imagine working for any period of time on my laptop's trackpad alone. Enter Microsoft's Arc Touch Mouse. Looking as much like zen sculpture as a piece of office tech, it flops to a flat, rounded, rectangular slab when packed. When it's time for use, you arch its back to a traditional mouse shape, a process which also turns it on and connects it to the computer. Just $69 and change from, and that includes free shipping. And it proves that Steve Jobs isn't the only one with design chops.

I love to take pictures, but I don't like to lug a big camera with me. That means that often the only way I can snap a shot is with my phone. OK for quick pics, not so much for getting it all in. So I love the idea of Photojojo's magnetic lenses. Each the size of a fat thimble, one is a macro/wide angle combo, the other a fisheye. You adhere a small metal ring around the lens on your phone, then these babies snap on with a click. Twenty bucks for the wide angle, twenty-five for the fisheye, forty bucks for the pair. It's still not Ansel Adams, but it's certainly easier.

Beyond those are a few other odds and ends on which I have my eye. I like the new Global Droid Phone, which works on Verizon here and on overseas systems as well ($199). I no longer have anything in a locker, but the Master Lock 1500 which opens not with a dial but with a directional pad is pretty cool ($13). And if you want to splurge, the Aquavolo Music-Chromotherapy shower head combines a futuristic stainless steel design offering waterfall and rain settings, along with LED's and a built in MP3 player ($8500). Deliver it in person, and I'll let you have the bathroom for a test run.

Whatever you choose, just do me a favor and coordinate with all the others, OK? I'd hate to wind up with duplicates. And if you get a late start and everything has been spoken for, just give me a call: I left a few things off in your price range, and I hate to see you struggle.


Marc Wollin of Bedford really wants what he always wants for the holidays: no bills. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ride Sharing

If you have something you like, you want to share it. Readers of this space know of my love of travel. If you had the floor, it might just as easily be about music or photography or painting. Or if you're Cliff Adams, and you love motorcycling and watching the scenery go by, you make a movie.

A devoted rider for many years, Adams would motor solo and with friends whenever he could. Then, at his grandfather's 100th birthday party, he was talking to his Pop about a trip he had taken in the distant past, a nine day excursion heading west on an old Scout . At the end of his ride Pop sold the bike for little more than trainfare home. He would have loved to ride again, but, he lamented, "nobody rides forever." That planted a seed in Adams' mind. True, no one does ride forever, and the older you get, the harder it gets. So you better do it now.

He looked at his calendar and nailed own a three week period he had free. He poured over maps, called friends from around the country, and had mounts made to rig his camera to his bike. He figured he would need to travel 500 miles a day to keep to his schedule. He had no sponsor, no backers, just a desire to ride and share the experience. But that's all he needed to let out the clutch on his film "Redline America."

Departure day started ominously when smoke started to seep out from under his gas tank: seemed one of the wires to his monitor melted. He fixed it, but road closures, traffic and rain compounded the headaches at the outset. Still, he was determined to ride hard to catch up and get back on track. So he roared through New Jersey and continued through Pennsylvania, riding hard for ten hours before catching a few hours of sleep, then heading further west into the Badlands.

There he hit yet another obstacle. The road ahead was closed, riddled with potholes due to shifting ground. A sympathetic Park Ranger heard his story, and gave him a tip. He zigged and zagged, and got on a little further down the way. But while checking his viewfinder as opposed to looking at the road, one of those potholes rose up and bit him. Luckily, neither he nor the bike we're badly hurt, though he lost one of his cameras. Just two days in, and it seemed to be over before it started. He decided to flip a coin. Heads he would continue, tails he would call it a day. When it hit the ground, Pop was looking up at him. On he went.

Finally, he got to the stuff of which a biker dreams. His route was to include Needles Highway, a 14 mile stretch of road in South Dakota that is lined with rock spires and pine trees. Alas, the signs said it was closed for paving. But in fact, the signs weren't accurate: it was open, just unmarked. Adams had hit that small window when it was virgin pavement, smooth as silk with no lines yet marring its surface. He jumped on it as if he were the first to ever take the route. If there was a sign the trip was meant to be, this was it.

The ride continued through such spectacular scenery as the "Going-To-The-Sun" Road in Glacier National Park and the Cherohala Skyway in Robbinsville, North Carolina. Adams documents all this using custom onboard bike and helmet mounts. He also enlisted other biker friends to ride alongside, providing perspective so it's not just scenery whizzing by. And he takes ample time to stop and shoot the local inhabitants: not people, mind you, but moose and birds, flowers and fauna. All of this is accompanied by his own musings and running commentary on his trip, mixed with a music soundtrack written and played by a variety of friends.

What emerges is a film less about motorcycling and more about wandering. It won't make you so much want to ride as it will make you want to see the country. For while it's easy to plan your next vacation to the warmth of the Caribbean, the excitement of Las Vegas or the bright lights of Paris, to do so is to forget what exists here under our very noses. Adams traveled 10,000 miles, and never once crossed an ocean. And in doing so, he contradicted his Pop. The old man said "no one rides forever." But with "Redline America" you can, and you can do it again and again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was captivated by "Redline America" despite the fact that all his bikes have pedals. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Double Dip

When you travel on business, you have certain destinations you need to get to and specific rhythms you need to follow. The destinations usually revolve around offices you need to be at, while the rhythms are fairly rigid. Contrast that with traveling as a tourist, where the destinations tend to be museums and historical sites, while the rhythms have a more relaxed feel.

While they certainly are not mutually exclusive, usually it's tough to combine the two. It's not that you can't go sightseeing after a day of meetings in Cincinnati (no offense intended to my friends in Cincy). More to the point, as most road warriors will tell you, when you finally wrap up for the day you just want to have a bite of dinner, catch up on your email and get some rest before the forced march begins again the next day. It's not that there's nothing interesting to see; it's just that on balance the bed in the hotel outweighs the desire to visit the Queen's City's National Sign Museum.

However, you occasionally get lucky and wind up with some extra time in a place that all but dares you to turn your back on it. That was the situation myself and an associate found ourselves in this week. Our schedule was similar to one we might have in New York or Boston or Atlanta: finish up in one city, then race to the next, usually well past any civil dinner hour. Up early the next day, packing in far too much to do with the locals, then meeting up with others for a drink and a bite before heading back to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. But in this case, all bets were off: we were in Paris.

Like most business trips, our hours were chock full of work, starting at 6AM and going the full day. Between the schedule we were trying to keep and damage done to our body clocks from the time zone changes, we were pretty wiped out virtually all the time. Added to that was the fact that we were working and staying in La Defense, a manufactured business campus technically outside the city limits. Other than the signs in French and the Eiffel Tower in the distance, we could just as easily been in downtown Houston.

But we were in Paris! The last day of the project was no different than others: first call at 6A, non-stop go-go-go, finally a short break for a delivered sandwich at 130P (admittedly on a freshly made baguette). But when all was in the can, we saw it was about 4P on a Friday, and our flights back weren't until morning. The right thing to do would have been to go back to the hotel, and work the phones and email to the States, still in the middle of it's day some 5 hours behind us. Think how much we could accomplish! But did I mention? We were in Paris!

So we changed into walking shoes and jeans, and grabbed the Metro to the Place de Concord. We strolled towards the Tuileries on an uncommonly warm and clear November day, and stopped to get crepes; hers with sugar and butter, mine with Nutella and coconut. We meandered towards the Louvre, then crossed the Seine. Having been to Paris several times and knowing a little about where to go, and having a traveling associate who was game to walk and just look as long as I gave her time to snap pictures, we wandered the Left Bank heading towards the heart of the Latin Quarter.

The cafes were packed, and the shops will still open. Since it had been a few years since my last visit, I made a few wrong turns. No matter: like the old joke, we may have been lost but we were making very good time. Eventually we found our way to a tiny square I remembered, rimmed with open fronted cafes. As we sat in one and had a drink, a brass band made up of college students took up residence and performed an impromptu concert. We eventually wandered into a tiny restaurant nearby for a thoroughly French meal, finishing it off with a cup of gelato from a small shop on the square.

We finally grabbed a cab for a long ride back across the city to our hotel. I'd venture to say we were pleased with ourselves for performing that rarest of double-dips: a successful business trip AND a quintessential tourist excursion at the same time. I can only wish for you the same on your next outing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to share travel experiences with others. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Up All Night

Perhaps the last time you did it was when you first had kids. Or maybe it was when a close friend got married, and there was that pre-wedding party. For sure you did it in college, most likely near the end of the semester when you realized that 20 page paper on Shakespeare wasn't going to write itself. But unless that's your usual shift, most of us just don't stay up all night anymore.

I'm not talking about "can't sleep" staying up. Rather, it's when you plan on remaining awake long after the rest of those around you have turned in. I've had a lot of those nights lately, a combination of just being busy, as well as traveling to different time zones and work which requires quick turnaround. And while it's been a "long strange trip," I did it with coffee and adrenalin and the occasional chocolate cookie, though I keep flashing on the the Grateful Dead's formula of "Livin' on reds, vitamin C and cocaine."

For me, it came in 2 waves. The first was in various hotel rooms in different time zones. Because of my travel schedule, business was happening here after business was happening there. As such, I put in a full day in the locale I was in, then conducted another via phone and email once I got back from dinner, eventually collapsing for a few hours of sleep in the wee hours before doing it again. The effect was not unlike an astronaut being isolated in a capsule in a far away environment. When I looked out the widow where I was it was dark and quiet, with only a few people or cars moving about in the middle of the night. But viewed down the phone and data lines it was high noon in New York, with a commensurate amount of activity.

Mind you, this isn't something that could be done effectively probably even 5 years ago, and certainly not as cheaply. But with email and Skype and my MagicJack phone thingy, I could see, read and hear in Brazil or Russia as if I was down the block in New York. Indeed, while I felt compelled to tell people where I was out of fear the lines would sound bad, the connections were so good they either didn't believe me, or gave no thought nor concession to my situation and time. And since I had absolutely no distractions sitting on the phone and my computer in a bathroom in Russia at 2AM (so as to keep the noise down while my family slept), I actually could respond quicker and more focused than had I been at my desk.  It's a long way to go to get some quality office time, but it worked.

In the second instance we spend two back-to-back all nighters in New York City as we raced to get a time sensitive project out the door. They were planned for and I had a small team with me. But there were definitely times that each of us literally fell asleep in the middle of a discussion. When that happened we let the offending party catch a few moments of shut eye and just kept going around him or her. They awoke shortly with a start to see we were further down the road, and joined in after shaking themselves out like a dog after a bath.

Of course, this being the Big Apple we were never the only ones awake. When I walked out at 3AM to get some cold drinks and snacks for the gang, there were numerous delis open for business who thought it completely normal for a guy to roll in in the middle of the night for a bunch of sodas and chips. I passed one restaurant that advertised African and Caribbean home cooking where it was nearly impossible to get a seat, as it seemed every cab driver in the city was taking their lunch break there at the same time. And the next night when we realized at 4AM that we were running out of blank CDs, I had my choice of two places within a block that carried multiple possibilities. Nothing like a little comparative price shopping while the sun is still a fever dream in the future.

But then it was over. I was back on a regular clock with the normal human beings. Back to rush hour trains, lines at the coffee wagon and running out of chicken salad in the bodega for the day. I confess I like the light, but there's no denying there are definite advantages to keeping the schedule that Sookie Stakhouse keeps.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has gotten to where if he sees a bed he sleeps, with no questions asked. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, October 29, 2010

St. Petersburg 101 (Part 2)

Last week in this space I related impressions we had on a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. In that brief report, the focus was on the place and the sights we saw. In this outing I'll try and get less physical and more personal, in talking about the people in general and one set of encounters in particular.

Whenever you travel, you have to remember that, like Blanche DuBois, you depend on the kindness of strangers. And by and large all we met were friendly and helpful. True, the old babushkas working the registers in the little grocery stores or selling tokens in the Metro (for 22 rubles each, about 73 cents) had an attitude that anything other than exact change was an insult. But beyond that, mime and pointing and a few words of pidgin Russian managed to get us food, directions, admission and the occasional fresh "peeshka" or donut covered in sugar.

But without a doubt our most memorable encounters were two evenings spent with our son's host family. While he is studying in St. Petersburg for the fall semester, they provide him a room and 2 meals a day. They have accepted him warmly and eased his transition into the culture, for which we are very grateful. So when we were planning our trip, we suggested to him that we would love to thank them by buying them dinner at a local restaurant.

They accepted the invitation and made reservations at a homey Georgian place. Dinner was a fun and lively affair (and delicious as well), and we were taken when halfway through they invited us to join them several nights later in their flat for a home cooked meal. It's the kind of encounter that no organized tour can ever hope to duplicate.

Elena is a private teacher of English, while Andrei works in advertising. Her English is excellent, while he understands more than he speaks. Their daughter Nastia (short for Anastasia) and her boyfriend Igor are both students, she in psychology and he in computers and art, and both had a far better grasp of our tongue then we did of theirs.

Their flat was small, three rooms plus a kitchen and bathroom. Like many Russians they have a dacha about an hour out of the city, though it has no heat and is very rustic. It does have apple trees which provided fruit for the wonderful tart Elena made to accompany the borscht, vodka, wine and tea we shared around the table in their living room. To us they seemed typically middle class, and indeed by the end of the evening we lamented the fact we didn't live closer to one another.

Our conversations went in fits and starts, as we shifted topics and languages, with plenty of sidetracks to translate both literal words and cultural ideas. They talked with pride about the history of their country, and the hardships in particular the people of St. Petersburg endured during the war, a memory still surprisingly fresh. They lamented how the police are corrupt and not to be trusted, and marveled as to how our experience in the US is so radically different. We talked about how money and power drive governments and actions, though they have all but given up hope that they have any impact on theirs, while we take it as an article of faith that we have a say in ours.

They have a skewed view of the U.S., driven by the images they see in American films and videos, and have a hard time understanding our diversity and openness. That said, it is their dream to visit this country, particularly New York and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, visa issues make it exceedingly difficult for  individual Russians to come just to tour.

But our time together was also filled with shared experiences as much as pointing out contrasting cultures. Andrei, who has a background as a musician, was encouraged by Elena to sing a haunting Russian folk song. He then played the piano in their apartment, as did their daughter and our older son. We looked at family photos and swapped recipes: she told me how to make the apple tart we enjoyed, and my wife gave them recipes for chili. And we struggled to explain what a marshmallow was, and why in its Fluff form it tastes great on the peanut butter we all love.

It's hard and probably foolish to extrapolate from this individual encounter to anything beyond what it was: a gathering of two families from different cultures and countries and the search for common ground. But we found just that. And as big as the world is, it reminded us that it can be a small place, and we do best when we treat it as such.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes someday to host Elena, Andrei and Nastia in his home. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

St. Petersburg 101 (Part 1)

In our circle of acquaintances, it's not uncommon to know those who travel outside these shores. The locations vary: Western Europe is a usual destination, as are South and Latin America, and the major cities of the Far East. But tell someone you're going to Russia, and even among experienced road warriors you'll likely get a raised eyebrow or two. But with our youngest spending a semester there, it offered us an excuse to try something very different. And so we journeyed to St. Petersburg to spend a week and get a sense of the place.

Anyone guidebook will tell you the basics. A very manageable city on the Gulf of Finland, it sports such major attractions as the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world. Also not to be missed, (and we didn't) are St. Isaac's Cathedral, The Peter and Paul Fortress and The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  Add in the Kirov ballet, a few blini and some vodka, and a journey outside the city to Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great whose grounds and gravity-fed fountains are one of the wonders of the world, and you have a trip for the memory books.

But what follows are a few more personal impressions of the place beyond a blow by blow of the premier attractions. By no means definitive, it's some of the things that struck us as we walked... and walked and walked and walked... around the core of the city and to a few outlying areas. Colored by our own biases and experiences, while also being almost comically selective as to what made an impression on us, it is none the less what we remember most once we strip away the simple recitation of where we went and what we saw. For this week, the focus will be on the physical sense of place; next, on the people.

The first thing that caught our eye was the colors. Many of the buildings are mint green or soft pink or pale yellow or baby blue. Whether it is indeed to make them stand out from the snow as we were told, or for some other reason, it gives the city a certain fairytale quality which contrasts mightily with what you expect from a place that is so associated with historical repression.

But if the buildings are colorful, the crowds certainly are not. The people are almost exclusively white and European looking. You see slight variations from Slav to Nordic ("Piter" itself being 40 minutes by plane from Helsinki) to some slight Mongolian influence. But you literally see no dark or truly Asian faces walking down the street. Meanwhile, the clothes and shoes are 180 degree opposites of that. Yes, it is a city, but dark tones don't just predominate, they overwhelm. We passed many a store sporting huge collections of boots and shoes that Henry Ford would have appreciated: you could have any color as long as it was black.

The streets and sidewalks were pleasantly wide and the buildings refreshingly low, making it feel similar to and yet somehow different from other European cities. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that it was all but demolished in the great Siege of 1941-1945 and then rebuilt, a memory still fresh both individually and institutionally. Indeed, we were shown explosive damage from the war marked with a plaque, and further a field passed a bomb shelter adjacent to a haunting cemetery filled with war dead, whose headstones were each miniature coffins filled with fresh flowers.

But if the canals and rivers felt like Amsterdam, and the many parks and squares like London, the numerous onion dome churches and signs in Cyrillic reminded you that you are in a place the hails from a different heritage than the west. The alphabet conspires to make it all but impossible to discern at first glance what's on a given street. That being said, we were able to finally decipher the hieroglyphics enough to know the places where we could get a bite (кафе) and the ubiquitous food shops which were open around the clock (24 часа). And we noted that "yucas" only seem to come in sets of 24.

Space won't allow a full reporting of impressions made over the entire week, but there are plenty more: the leftover Soviet era buildings, the brand new sleek Mercedes contrasting with the barely running ancient Ladas, the brides posing with their husbands in front of almost every major landmark. Suffice it to say it was indeed far different than what we were used to. And the people? That, comrades, will have to wait till next week. Until then, das vadanya.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never knew he liked blini so much. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Bomb Swab

As I shuffled down the security line at the airport, I did the usual dance. Out of my backpack came my laptop; in went my keys, money clip and phone. I kicked off my shoes and placed them on the belt to the scanner, along with my suitcase and backpack. A quick self pat down to check for any leftover guns I might have missed, and I moved to the line for the metal detector. After a nod from the guard, I stepped smartly through the machine, brandishing my boarding pass in front of me like a process server with a summons.

But my road warrior persona was shattered by a "beep-beep-beep" from the detector. My smile fell as the officer put up a traffic cop hand to stop me from going any further. I felt like a common tourist as I quickly rechecked myself. Did I forget some change in a pocket? Was I wearing a non travel-friendly belt buckle? Did I neglect to remove all my hunting knives? Nothing turned up. And indeed my warden was shaking his head. "It's not you," he said even as he continued to survey the hoards in front of him. "You've been selected randomly for additional screening." He unclipped a radio mic from his shoulder and spoke into it: "Swab on lane 14."

Seems I had fallen prey to the latest procedure designed to keep us safe in the skies. The original focus on security was on obvious weapons such as knives and guns. That was broadened to include other common items which could be used in an offensive capacity like scissors and nail clippers. Of course, anyone familiar with James Bond or Jack Bauer also knows that you can create a lot of mayhem with a spoon, a dog leash or a roll of quarters. And it was comedian George Carlin who noted that if you really wanted to, you could probably kill somebody using the Sunday New York Times.

Then the game changed. After 9/11, the airlines installed hardened cockpit doors. And while weapons were still a concern, the realization came that you could blow up the plane itself without ever bothering the pilot. Exacerbated when the infamous Shoe Bomber tried to set his Nikes aflame, the authorities started to concentrate more on the possibility of explosives. And so they began a program called Explosive Trace Detection or ETD.

In ETD, a small piece of material is rubbed around the edge of a suitcase or package. The cloth is inserted into a highly sensitive instrument that can detect trace amounts of chemicals, such as the nitrates used in bombs. The test takes just a few seconds, and assuming your aren't packing a gift of fertilizer for your aunt's begonias, usually turns up negative. Seeking to keep the bad guys guessing, they added a similar random trial for hands this past February. And it was this particular program that selected me as the lucky 28th caller to win the prize.

Another guard took me over to the side and asked me to hold my hands out, palms up. He then wiped both with a small band-aid looking piece of material, then slid it into a detector. A few moments and a green light popped on. He thanked me, and I was good to go collect my stuff and head to my plane. As tests go, this one was a breeze.

Perhaps too much a breeze. According to the TSA, they have had to make some adjustments to reality. Since the machines are incredibly sensitive, they've had to turn down the dial just a bit. Seems they were getting a bunch of positive indications from people who used nitroglycerin as a heart medication. And farmers, those who have shot a weapon recently and even certain hand lotions can set off the alarms. But the agency says that the one test doesn't exist in a vacuum. Should the alarm get tripped, it would just mean further screening for that individual. And if you're more worried about germs than bombs, they say that unlike the swab they use for suitcases, the hand swabs are used once and then disposed.

While it's another invasion of privacy, the ACLU has signed off on it. That's because there is no profiling involved, no invasive testing and no invasion of privacy. Your hands are already out in the open. So other than exposing them as filthy, there is little in the way of compromising your basic rights. So if you listened to your mother and never leave the house with dirty underwear, if you're flying you may now want to apply that to your hands.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't mind the airport screening, as long as he's not stuck behind a tourist. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A View from Italia

It was a Friday night when I first met Francesco and Catia. I was having a late dinner in a hotel bar in Orlando after flying in that day. We chatted quickly for a few minutes, just long enough for me to find out that they were Italian and on their honeymoon. Catia wanted to go to Alaska or Cuba, but they settled on a tour down the east coast. They started in Montreal, then continued on to Quebec, Toronto, New York and Orlando, before ending in Miami and heading home. For Francesco, it was his second time in these parts; for Catia, her first.

Then the following night, while I getting another late night bite at a sushi bar in the same hotel, they sat down next to me again. We laughed, and joked about them following me. Then we politely ignored each other as they ordered. But when I saw Catia struggling with chopsticks, I leaned over and offered to help. And we started to talk... in English I might add. Francesco's command of the language was more than competent, Catia's a bit less so, but both were far better than my pidgin Italian.

I asked them about their perceptions of America. The first thing they said was that it was "too big." They were both struck by the many different races they encountered. "We are used to different people but in the same form, as they are all Italian," Catia told me. They were also impressed with New York being such a melting pot, though they did note that "people there seem confused about the time... always running, no one is sleeping." But they also remarked on how friendly everyone seemed.

They were quick to say what they admired about America. "This is a country of opportunity," said Francesco. "Italian people came to US four generations ago. The first generation worked hard with, but had nothing. The second generation started to have something, and it continued. By the fourth generation they were able to go to college. The US is wonderful. If you work hard, study hard, you can have anything. That's not like in Italy. There you work hard, but you stay in same place for 30 or 40 years."

I asked them what they would tell people about what they saw and felt... not about the specific places they visited, but about the country as a whole. Catia said, "America is quite the same as the movies we see." When I asked which movies she meant, she said "Saturday Night Fever" and "Rocky," this despite the fact they hadn't been to Brooklyn nor Philadelphia. I asked her to explain what she meant. "In the US you love your country. It's not like that in Italy. We don't love our country as well as you... we have no flags hanging out the window."

They offered opinions on a number of other things. I threw out a topic, they discussed it in Italian, then Francesco answered for them both. Politics: "US politicians want to do something good for the country. That's compared to Italy, where politicians only want to have more money. In Italy we have a lot of Madoffs, but they don't go to jail, they stay in Parliament." Obama:  "We admire Obama... he is like Jesus Christ. Not in a religious sense, but in that he gives everybody hope. But he says one thing and does another. He goes on expensive vacations and doesn't care enough about poor people."

I asked them what we needed to do more of or better. First on their list was environmental issues: "You Americans need to use cars with less power. You're good at recycling, but need to use less oil... you don't care about the environment enough." They also talked about the food: "You people eat unhealthy... everything is fried." And they critiqued what we consider Italian cuisine: "good, but too much garlic."

As their table was called, I asked them one last thing: would they come back? They both nodded in agreement: "We will come back, because it's the country of opportunity," said Francesco. But they also missed the slower pace and feel of their home country, and wondered if there might not be a better balance in work and play. "Italy is too slow, too safe.  America is too fast, too unsafe. Maybe we'd all be better if we were a little more in the middle."

Slow down. Fewer fried foods. More recycling. Less garlic. It might not be the whole answer to our troubles as a country, but it's a start.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to talk to people with different experiences. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Hot and/or Cold

It's tough being in the middle. Doesn't mater what it is: middle seat, middle child, middle age. In each case, you have to watch as others ahead of you get the best pickings while those behind have the benefit of being the baby and being catered to. You spend your time there muddling through and watching and waiting, hoping that sooner rather than later circumstances will change, and you can move to one of the ends where the view is better and you have some room to stretch and finally let out the clutch.

That's kind of where we are on the calendar. It's hardly cold, but short sleeves and white pants seem past their "use by" date. On the other hand it seems a little early for coats and boots, and a sweater winds up being carried as much as worn. Dress for cool and you wind up sweating; dress for warm, and you're wrapping your arms around yourself trying to conserve heat. And there's the pure mental surrender that comes with switching to winter weight anything. I can't make that turn just yet; I just can't.

My confusion extends to my choice of beverage in the morning. Back somewhere around Memorial Day I made the switch in the morning to iced coffee. Not the sweet Frappa-Coffino-Latte-esque thingie with whipped cream and a drizzle of caramel on top that packs about 1000 calories a sip. Rather, we're talking the regular brewed American stuff cooled and poured over ice. In addition to having almost no calories save the type of milk or cream you put in, it has the added value of delivering my caffeine in a form that quenches my thirst and cools my core. Like the old Doublemint commercial, for my money that's two, two, two mints in one.

However, usually within a week or two of Labor Day, the night air turns a bit cooler. And so just as I put my shorts in the back of the closet and bring my sweatshirts to the front, I try and make a clean break. I put away the big sippy cup my wife bought me that can handle two cups of joe and a lot of ice, and reach for the deep blue mug I like that isn't so massive that by the time I get to the bottom the brew has cooled to lukewarm at best.

But this year, just as I got my arms around the change, it snapped back the other way. The other day I went for an early run, then made a pot of the hot stuff. I poured a steaming cup, and took a sip. One more taste, and I knew I had made the wrong choice: I was dripping sweat like I had malaria. So I rummaged through the cabinet and found my "cold" cup, filled it with ice and dumped my mug into it. After swirling it around to reduce the temperature, I eagerly gulped it down in a single swig, lowering my body temp even as I stretched my bladder.

Of course, the next day the pendulum swung the other way. Based on my experience the day before (and with the very definition of insanity being to do the same thing and expect different results), I started out with a glass of cubes and filled it to the brim. But a sip later and I was shivering. So I fished out the ice, filled a mug and slipped it into the microwave for a couple of minutes. It emerged watered down, but hot enough to take away the chill.

So for now at least I'm trapped in a nether world, not knowing which way to turn. It forced me to recall the wisdom of Cliff Clavin, the mailman on that seminal TV show "Cheers." When asked about this very problem, he pointed out that, "When the British ruled the Punjab, they drank steaming hot pots of tea on the hottest days of the year to balance out their inside and outside temperatures. So conversely, drinking an ice cold drink on a cold day actually results in a more comfortable body temperature." But then Diane the waitress asks, "Then why do you drink ice cold beer on a hot day?" Cliff's response: "What else are you going to do with it?"

Cliff, thanks for the guidance. I guess for now I'll just have to stay flexible.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his coffee both hot and cold, but his tea only cold. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ballot Boxed

Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, a devotee of Fox or MSNBC, or a pissed off moderate in the Jon Stewart mould, you have to be thankful for one thing: we settle our differences by the use of the ballot with precious little violence. At it's heart it's very straightforward: on the appointed day you show up, indicate your choice and go home. After all is said and done, the votes are counted up and the winner announced. Barring the odd election in Illinois, there's not much more involved.

Still, any system can use a going over with an eye towards improvement, especially in light of the way we live our lives and the technology that's available. Absentee ballots are one concession to reality. Some states also allow voting in a window of time before the actual election day as a way of making it more convenient. And lately many jurisdictions have been instituting new voting systems and technologies as a way to improve speed and accuracy of results.

Conceptually all of approaches strive to do the same thing: give you a private place to make your choice, then enter same into a central repository where it will eventually be counted. At its most basic, that means marking your X on a piece of paper and stuffing it into a box. Where we live, as in many other locales, machines took over, with the old lever type monsters the standard for years and years. You went into a booth, used a big lever to close the curtain behind you, and pulled a little switch indicating your choice. Moving the big lever the other way registered your vote with a satisfying "clunk," reset the machine for the next person and opened the curtains to let you out.

But those behemoths were big mechanical albatrosses, and qualified technicians to fix and maintain them were getting in short supply. Other jurisdictions tried new systems to replace them, not always with great success, One only need remember the infamous butterfly ballots and hanging chads of Florida in the 2000 Presidential race to see where a supposed improvement was actually a giant leap backwards.

Well, I fear we may heading that way again. This year's primary in our home district featured new and improved voting machines, the Image Cast Optical Scan Voting System. Again, it's billed as a step forward, but in practicality, I have my doubts.

When you got to the polling station, they checked you in as usual by verifying your signature with those on the voter registration rolls. Assuming you matched up, they handed you a paper ballot. Yes, in this e-everything, save-the-planet, don't-print-it-unless-you-have-to world, you're handed a heavy piece of stock longer than a folded New York Times. They then directed you to a "privacy booth" to mark your ballot, which turned out to be a four-sided portable carrel with absolutely no privacy. And you used a "special marking pen," which was a regular Sharpie, to completely fill in the bubble next to your choice. I felt like a fifth grader trying to shield my answers on the test from prying classmates.

Once you had it all together, you took the ballot over to the scanner. There the poll worker armed the machine to record your vote. You then took your ballot which you so kept so carefully hidden out into the clear light of day for all to see, and fed it into the slot so the optical reader could read it and record your choices. As the paper ballot dropped into a repository for later verification if needed, the machine hummed a second, then a little screen lit up to tell you your vote had been recorded.

Progress? Let's add it up. Paper ballots. Filling in ink bubbles. No privacy. Considering we have smartphones and netbooks and Mp3 players the size of a matchbooks, that Google has become like Chinese food, delivering your search results before even you finish typing it, that we've figured out how to order a double cheeseburger with fries and a shake at a kiosk and have it ready to go by the time we drive 20 feet, you'd think we could have figured out a better way to record a vote. At least they didn't make me dip my finger in purple ink: I guess we still have Iraq beat.


Marc Wollin of Bedford voted in the primary just to try out the new machines. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Skating for Freedom

When you walk into a pizza place in New York City, you can reasonably expect to see a couple of things. The first is pizza. You'll also likely spot shakers of oregano, garlic and hot peppers. And without fail you'll see autographed pictures of a number of celebrities signed "Tony: Thanks for the pie!" hanging on the walls, leading you to wonder why Bono was in that neighborhood and why he would stop there to get a slice.

What you don't expect to see is 6 foot tall guy on rollerblades with a crash helmet holding an American flag. Now, this being New York and all, a guy dressed like that is not really that far outside the norm. So encountering him when we went to pick up some lunch merited a glance, not a stare. But he looked harmless, curiosity got the best of us and so we had to ask.

Turns out that Austin Szelkowski is on a quest to skate across America. A recent graduate in engineering from Kettering University in his home state of Michigan, he was waiting tables and trying to figure out how to build a business around his passion, "empowering young people to pursue their own passions and blaze a trail toward the lives they envision for themselves."  Perhaps taking a clue from his university's mascot, a bulldog named General Determination, he hatched a plan to deliver his message on the most grassroots level imaginable: going from town to town on rollerblades over the course of a year. And so the "Freedom Skater" was born.

He drafted a buddy to do publicity and outreach, and they started to lay out their plan. They decided that come hell or high water they would kick off their quest on Labor Day at the Statue of Liberty, even if it meant they had to hitchhike to get there. They enlisted support from friends and family, and got lucky when they hooked up with Dan Hussain, an MIT grad with a venture capital firm and a history of helping startups. They then secured an RV as their mobile headquarters, and got a local sign company to spiff it up. And with that they headed east and put rollers on the ground.

Szelkowski certainly could have taken a more traditional approach to starting a business. After al, even in recession ravaged Michigan, most people looking for work don't take off on skates for a year. Why this direction? He says it had its roots when he spent a semester in Germany. While he and his fellow students felt out of place and out of control, he finally figured out the way to cope was to give that control up and ride the wave. "For just a period of time, instead of living life, I let life live me," he recalls. "It's not to say that I was passive. I just learned to laugh with the punches. I learned to let life be an interesting and unpredictable experience. I let life be an adventure. I've never lived more fully than I did during that three month span. Never."

He decided that the way to start his business was to get out and do it. And so for the next year his goal is to skate, meet young people and skate some more. His connections are helping him set up some speaking gigs at such top tier schools as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wellesley, and MIT. He is looking to connect with kids in person at schools, and of course, online though his Facebook page and website.

What kind of message can a guy in shorts and wrist guards impart? At its most basic level, Szelkowski says it's to "pursue your dreams and live without fear." He throws out a laundry list of drivers: "passion, courage, hustle, innovation, authenticity, entrepreneurship and shared vision." But most of all he says it's about freedom: "I believe true freedom will grow from grassroots, when the seeds of these ideas are planted in the hearts and minds of young people." He envisions a movement that will "revitalize and remake the American economy by inspiring passionate young trailblazers and entrepreneurs to imagine a stronger America and take the steps necessary to build it." To his way of thinking, if those first baby steps have to be on rollerblades, so be it.

Szelkowski will be around the city until the end of month, when he heads south and then west, all with a goal of getting to Santa Monica around September 2011. You might wonder about his method, but it's hard to argue with his message. And so if you see a rather large guy skating by the side of the road with an American Flag (or just trying to get a slice of pizza), give him a wave: that's the Freedom Skater you just passed.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will keep his eyes open at the next pizzeria he enters. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Fan Tale

I spend a lot of time in dark places where I can’t see the keyboard on my computer. So when I saw a small flexible light that plugged right into my laptop, I snapped it up. As a bonus, the package also included a similarly powered fan. Built on a long gooseneck, it had a small motor and two soft, flexible blades. At first glance, it seemed pretty silly. But on my next gig, that same dark, backstage space that had no light also had no air. So I plugged the fan in, directed it at my face, and was amazed how just a little air moving past my nose kept me alert and awake. Others looked at me and laughed, until they sat where I sat, and made a note to buy one for themselves.

It became a regular part of my kit until it burned out after a few years of use. I decided to troll Ebay and see if they had it there. Indeed, the very model I had popped up quickly. So I ordered one from "The Good Item Shop," one of the hundreds of Chinese distributors that seem to have an endless supply of small electronic trinkets. The price seemed to defy any rationale explanation: $.99. And they weren’t making it up in the shipping, which was $.95 for halfway around the world. True, it would take 2 weeks or so to get to me, but at that price, I could afford to wait. Sure enough, a tiny envelope showed up half a month later with the fan inside. Into my bag it went awaiting its first real outing.

A week or so later I found myself in yet another dark and stuffy location. Out came the light and the fan. I plugged them in, then wandered away to take care of a few issues. When I got back 20 minutes later and sat down, I felt no breeze. I looked up to see the two blades just sitting there limply. When I reached up to give them a flick, the housing was red hot. I swore once, quickly unplugged it, and assumed that was that.

While I really didn’t think I would get a refund, I did want to warn others. So I went to Ebay and gave the purchase the lowest ranking possible. I signed off, and made a mental note not to waste my money similarly again. But a day or so later, an email popped up from my friends at The Good Item Shop. In slightly fractured English, it said, "Thank you for buying from us. We are so sorry for the troubles caused to you. We have made a full refund to you. Would you please kindly help us to remove the feedback? You know feedback is our life, we don't want to be killed by a person so kind like you. Looking forward to your kindly reply." It was perhaps the most earnest customer service response I had ever had, made even more so by the agent’s name: "Better."

I quickly wrote back, pointing out that while I appreciated the refund, the product was faulty, even dangerous. Not a day went by before another response: "We have resent you a replacement, could you please help us to remove the feedback? Your feedback is very important to our account, we don't want to be killed by a person so kind like you. Thankyou in advance!" And indeed, my account had a $1.94 credit posted. Now the ball was solidly in my court.

Two weeks or so later, another tiny package showed up with a replacement. I let them know I had received it, and if it worked, would indeed revise my rating. Sure enough, a response: "Thank you for your message. Could you cancel the negative feedback to us? Your value is very omportant to us. What do you think about it?" Now I was starting to feel bad. So I plugged in the replacement and let it spin for a few days: no issues at all. It seemed that I did indeed just get a bad egg, and it wasn’t a scam.  I went and revised my rating and wrote them back, thanking them for their followup and response. One more email appeared: "Thank you for your kindness."

All that for a $1.94 sale, from a merchant on the other side of the world, for a single questionable transaction. Peter Steiner had a famous cartoon in The New Yorker of two pooches, one at the keyboard of a computer and the other watching. The typist says to the other, "On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog." True, but I guess when everyone can read it, even a little howl can go a long way.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will buy more from The Good Item Shop. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Pre Pre-Election Analysis

Now that all the primaries are done and the story lines are set, we can be definitive in our analysis for the upcoming elections. All done that is, except for the one on September 4 in Guam. And let’s not forget about the one a week later in the Virgin Islands. Then there are the ones on September 14 in DC, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. And of course, Hawaii weighs in on September 18. But that’s it. Honest.
In the non-stop news cycle that we live in, it is indeed the season of the endless election. Everyone started running the day after the last one, and has been trying to validate or disprove any trends that emerged way back in the distant past that was just 20 months ago. And even though these are the just the midterms, they have been held up yet again as the "most important elections in history." And so, seeking to be the absolutely last word in analysis before Labor Day, or at least the absolutely last word before the next one, following are the dominant themes that seem to have emerged and their veracity in light of the results to date.
The Year of the Anti-Incumbent. With dissatisfaction with Washington at an all time high, the early word was that those in power would be toppled. Indeed, some high profile names, like Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania got knocked out of the process, and Lisa Murkowski is on the ropes in Alaska. But money and organization won out in most cases, from the high profile, where establishment figures like John McCain hung on in Arizona, to the low profile, where all 7 current US House members in Florida won against challengers. By some counts, 95% of incumbents cleared this hurtle towards reelection, which proves once again that all members of Congress are horrible, except yours.
The Year of the Woman. With Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Linda McMahon in Connecticut, many think that women will finally be moving to center stage. Or as Samantha Bee put it on The Daily Show, "Last night, America, scared and with a poopy in its diaper, cried for its mommy." But as to whether or not it’s a trend per se, perhaps it bears remembering what Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski said the last time this proclamation was made: "Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We're not a fad, a fancy, or a year." More to the point, as in all of politics, the winners are likely to be strong, well financed and well organized. Or as Janet Reitman reported, also back in 1992, when she asked the Alabama delegates to the Democratic Convention about the topic, they replied, "Steel magnolias? Honey, forget that stuff. We're bitches from hell."

The Year Where Nothing Is Different. While there are precious few truths in politics, the following are as close to gospel as they come. 1) The president's party usually loses a slew of seats in the first midterm elections of a presidency. 2) Voters take out their frustrations on the party in power. 3) A president's party will suffer at the polls if his job performance rating is below 50 percent. 4) Above all, the economy is the dominant driver of voting patterns when the unemployment rate is high. If you’re going to put money on any facet of the election, those are the hole cards that tell you how it’s going to break come November.
The Year of the Vote. The 1948 movie "The Naked City" ended with the tag line, "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." And so it is with political narratives: there are a lot. But they are also much like Rorschach tests, in which you see in them what you want. For some it’s a matter of conservatives vs. liberals, while for others it’s a proxy fight between Obama and Sarah Palin, while still others view it as a contest between progressives and traditionalists. However, as Chuck Todd pointed out on MSNBC, the defining characteristic of all the elections to date has been that the candidate who got the most votes was the winner. It’s that simple truth that will likely once again be validated. And at least for me, in that light, November 2 can’t come soon enough.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is seriously thinking of not listening to television or radio news until November 3. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Off the Beaten Path

Sometimes you've got time. It may be that you're early for a meeting, and so you hole up with a cup of coffee and flip through the paper. Other times you get to the airport for a pickup and the plane is delayed, so you pull into the cell phone lot and listen to the radio. Or maybe you're meeting someone to head home together on the train and they're running late, so you meander through the stores at the station.
In my case I was on the road. Once I checked into my room, I drove out and found a little barbeque place for dinner. After some great peach cobbler, I started to head back to the hotel for the night. But as it was still light outside and I was in no rush to go sit in an empty room, I decided to wander back via local roads. So while my GPS kept urging me to turn onto the highway, I kept going straight, looking to see what I might see that was new and different off the beaten path.

It's getting harder to do that. Since most of my travels are to places that support a fair amount of people and business, it's hard to wind up anywhere that doesn't sport a Target and a Home Depot and a TGIFridays. That's especially the case if you draw a circle around the centrally located airports, hotels and restaurants that cater to road warriors like me. Not that most complain: after dealing with travel, or a long day at a remote location, often the kindest words one can read are "Easy on easy off."
But if you do wander you start to see the kind of local places or regional franchises that haven't yet broken onto the national scene. And that was indeed the case in this particular neighborhood a handful of miles from the end of Interstate 73 in North Carolina. And while this trip was to Greensboro, I've had the same experience outside of Houston and Detroit and Denver. There's a lot out there that's not quite ready for prime time, but has found a toehold that, at least for right now, doesn't look to be threatened anytime soon by WalMart.
For instance, one strip mall featured a place called "Any Lab Test Now!" Recently named the second-fastest growing franchise by Franchise Times, this medical establishment enables you to get... well... any lab test now. There are the obvious biggies, like tests for HIV and pregnancy. Employers can get drug and alcohol screens done on perspective employees. Or you can spend $49 and settle that argument right now by ordering up one their newest products, the "Infidelity DNA Test."

A little further down the block was "Dan's Fan City." Started in Clearwater, Florida back in 1979, Dan's has about 50 stores in the southeast. They have outdoor and indoor models, ones with lights and without, and versions with blades or with actually fans. They even carry the Uno, a fan with one blade which looks kind of like a boomerang twirling around on your ceiling.
"Sports Clips" is just what it sounds like: a haircut place with a sports theme aimed squarely at men. There you can get their signature service, the MVP Haircut, "a precision haircut followed by an invigorating scalp massage with Tea Tree shampoo, a Classic Steamed Towel, finishing with a relaxing upper neck and shoulder massage." The stylists are touted as being as up to date on NFL draft prospects as opposed to the travails of Jennifer Aniston. And just like an oil change place that offers to top off your wiper fluid between visits, they say, "come in between haircuts for your complimentary neck trims!"
By then it was getting dark, and so I had to pass on a few others. "Monkey Joe's" seemed to be an indoor inflatable playground for kids. "FETCH" offered the same service, sans the inflatable part, for your pets. "Goin' Postal" touted shipping and office support services, hopefully without the violence the name implied. And "Massage Heights" offers, well, you can figure it out.
It's true that when you're on the road, sometimes all you crave is a McDonald's. And if you need some office supplies, it's nice to know that you can drive 20 minutes in almost any direction and eventually hit a Staples. But if you're feeling a little adventurous, it's worth going right instead of left. Who knows? You might just come across Bud Murphy's Pizza. And if you do, make sure to order their Pirogie Pizza, topped with mashed potatoes, sautéed onions, mixed cheese and scallions. That'll give you something to remember.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to just wander when he travels. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spies Like Us

Back in July, ten Russian spies working under deep cover for many years were arrested and expelled from the country. They admitted to attempting to collect information on everything from nuclear weapons to the gold market and to personnel changes at the CIA. They used cold war techniques such as buried drops and "brush pasts" in local parks, as well as newer ones such as posting pictures on the internet that had text buried in them and laptop computers connected with each other to transmit encrypted information.

No matter: the authorities had detected them a decade ago and were watching the watchers. They decoded messages, did convert searches for forged documents and set up fake agents with whom the spooks interacted. However, turns out that the ten were as much Mr. Bean as Kim Philby. Officials recovered a bag that still contained the receipt for a mobile phone bought by an agent who went by the American name of Anna Chapman: it was made out to Irene Kutsov and the address was registered as 99 Fake Street.

Perhaps this all helps a little to explain the process we are personally enduring right now. With our youngest heading to St. Petersburg to study for the fall, it presented the perfect excuse to visit Mother Russia. We did this same kind of trip when our oldest was studying in Paris: it not only assuaged our apprehension about his situation, but we got to travel and see a bit of the world.

Having been overseas for both personal and professional reasons, I'm no stranger to the preparation a trip like this can take. True, some places are easier than others: if you want to go to Spain or Japan, all you need do is get on a plane. Conversely, if you want to go to Indonesia or Egypt, some forms are required. Still, in most cases, getting the required paperwork in order is routine: fill in your travel dates, passport number and local contact info, and they hand you a drink with an umbrella in it.

Not so with Russia. Just as the spies among us were still using techniques and trolling for information as if they were in a classic Eric Ambler thriller, so too does the Russian visa form reveal the apparatchik's skills at its best. Not content to merely ask name, rank and serial (or in this case, passport) number, the whole process plumbs the depths of your life and memory, the better to route out the sleeper agent that you didn't even know you were.

To be sure, it includes requests for the usual info: the dates you're traveling, the reason for your visit, other family members traveling with you. It also includes some questions designed to ferret out those that might become a burden on the state: if you have insurance, who is paying for your trip, an official agency and hotel that is authorizing your visit. Perhaps a little overbearing, but in these economic times, maybe not too far out.

It hardly stops there: they ask your present employment or status, your educational level and institution, as well as the names of your spouse (even if divorced) and both of your parents, living or dead. Maybe it's a way of seeing if there's a chance you're Anastasia, or maybe it's just curiosity. They also request the last 2 jobs you've had before the current one, along with the contact info for your supervisor, or as they affectionately refer to him or her, your "chief." And they want to know every country you've ever visited over the last ten years, along with the date. Not that a trip to Chechnya will knock you out of contention, but maybe it means you bear a little more watching.

Finally, a round of yes/no responses is required. Have you ever served in the military? Have you ever been involved in an armed conflict? Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever been refused a Russian visa or deported? Do you have any specialized training in nuclear, biological or chemical devices? In light of recent events, one wonders if they're playing it safe, or perhaps recruiting.

And that's all on top of the official invite you have to secure, the checks you have to cut, and the onsite registration you have to go through once you get there. It's not quite the Berlin Wall, but it's doing as much to keep people out as to let them in.

Still, we've sent it all in, and hope there's no nyett in our future. In any case, it will be an adventure, and they'll be more in this space as it unfolds. In the meantime, we'll be studying our tsars, practicing reading Cyrillic and working on our taste for borscht. Pozdnyee!


Marc Wollin of Bedford is both excited and a bit nervous about their trip to Russia. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not An Option

When you look at your car today, it's almost hard to believe its ancestor was the Model T that Henry Ford first mass produced in the 1908. Yes, it has four tires, a steering wheel and an engine. Beyond those basic elements, however, nearly everything else about it has changed, from the styling to the color palette to the components that make it run. In many cases the advances are major, like the new hybrid drives that blend battery and gas powered propulsion systems. In other ways they are minor, such as the size and shape of the gas pedal. But taken in total, what you're driving today has come a long way since you the time when you could get it in any color as long as it was black.

In fact, these days color is just one of the bewildering array of options that allow you to customize your vehicle to be your very own dream machine. Go the web site for any manufacturer and you will be able to point and click your way through menu after menu allowing you to specify just about every facet of the car. You can pick the material that the seats are made of, the entertainment system you prefer, even the type of shift knob installed.
All of these are most assuredly advances, though some are more successful than others. Take automatic seat belts. It's a given that belts save lives, as long as you wear them. Still, some riders didn't buy that logic, were lazy or didn't want the belt to crease their outfits. And so back in the seventies, Volkswagen led the charge by being the first manufacturer to put automatic belts in the Rabbit. All the others followed, helped along by government mandates requiring them. Most people hated the system, however, getting strangled at least once by the devices. It took until airbags were perfected, and manufacturers were given a choice between one or the other that they died a quick death, much to relief of most of us.

And so it was with other signs of progress. Hideaway headlights seemed like a good idea. So did CB Radios in every car. But once they passed their novelty phase, the public voted with its wallet, ordering less and less of both until it made no economic sense to offer them at the dealership.
This past month brought word that yet another idea that made sense to someone is going the way of the dodo. Volvo, long touting itself as one of the safest cars son the road, was a leader with such advances as side impact airbags, three point seat belts and a collapsible steering column. In 2007, it thought it was advancing the state-of-the-art by offering a $550 option package that included an electronic key fob that would tell you if you had indeed locked the car once you walked away. But when you came back, it went one better: it included a feature called "Intruder Detector" that told you if someone was lurking in the back seat waiting to ambush you.

Created by an engineer who had seen one too many slasher movies, the system featured a heartbeat detector that allowed the user to check their vehicle before they entered it. If the key fob sported a flashing light, it meant that there was man crouched in the backseat, wearing a ski mask and carrying a machete. Of course, it could also mean that there was a kitten locked in the car, but which was the more likely possibility?
Pussy cat or ax murderer, the need for this particular piece of technology just didn't resonate with the public. And so for the 2011 model year, the intruder detector is no longer an option. You can get pedestrian detection, blind-spot alerts and active cruise control, among others. But you'll have to look in your backseat for escaped mental patients yourself.

It just goes to show that just because "they" can invent it doesn't mean that "we" will come. And in the real world, they are actually very few reported cases of this particular hazard having any basis in reality. Still, I guess you can't blame them for trying. After all, fear is a powerful motivator, and there's no telling who might buy into it. In that vein, perhaps there's a market for the "Is the upstairs extension the one making the call?" detector, which would sooth babysitters' minds the world over.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wants fewer options, not more. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

100 and Counting

In some ways, nothing has changed about the Boy Scouts since I was a kid, and indeed since the movement was first founded by Lord Baden Powell back in 1910. They still wear uniforms of khaki green and tan, still cook out over fires, still swap patches with each other with the zeal of Wall Street traders. But neither Lord Powell nor myself had envisioned merit badges for robotics, high adventure camps featuring Class 5 white water rapids or live Twitter streams from the woods updating mom and dad on who's winning the tent Nintendo battles.
Indeed, the latest display of how the movement is trying to stay current was on display the last week of July at the National Jamboree held at Fort AP Hill, an Army base in Bowling Green, Virginia. Normally, jamborees like this are held every three years. This time out, however, it was delayed for an extra year so as to coincide with the centennial anniversary of Scouting. With that as a rationale, and just as if a person were turning a hundred, there was a desire to throw a really big bash and a whole lot of people to wanted be able to say they were there.
So as the culmination of a week of camping and workshops and cookouts, the Scouts cranked it up to eleven for a blowout. Billed as "A Shining Light Across America," they gathered together on a huge parade ground at the base on a balmy Saturday night. The weather cooperated as they staged a nationwide satellite broadcast that displayed things old and new, featured a score of celebrities, and shot off enough fireworks to give the Fourth of July a serious run for its money.
Preshow festivities officially started at 5PM for the 8P show. While kids in Indian costumes performed their version of Native American dances, and Scout bands from places like Trinidad and Tobago played sets on steel drums, the various troops began to assemble. In front of a giant stage featuring large screens, a high definition video wall and rappelling towers, an audience of over 40,000 kids and their leaders took their places. They were joined via satellite with Scouts gathering to watch and participate in Jacksonville, Ft. Wayne, Durham, North Dakota and New York City's Times Square. Countless other groups and individuals gathered to watch a live web feed, bringing the total audience to perhaps double those on site in Virginia.
With thunderous music and fireworks, the kids counted down to the start of the show. The evening featured many classic Scout staples, like kids singing and dancing, candle lighting and shoutouts to various states and troops. But much was updated to appeal to the next generation. Chief Scout Executive Bob Mazzuca made his entrance by rappelling down a scaffolding onto the stage. Paratroopers dropped into the event, sing-alongs were with done to live performances from indie bands such as Switchfoot and pop-rockers like Honor Society, and the featured competition was an onstage Rockband contest fought iPad to iPad and magnified on screen for all to see.

This being a hundredth birthday party, there were taped messages from celebrities from President Obama to rocker Ted Nugent. Videotapes traced the history of Scouting's past, and previewed the future and the new high adventure base in West Virginia that will serve as the jamboree's permanent home going forward. And the one of the highlights of the night was undoubtedly a talk by Mike Rowe, the host of TV's "Dirty Jobs" and an Eagle scout himself, who made his entrance in the bucket of a front end loader to wild applause, and wore a tee shirt that said, "A scout is clean, but not afraid to get dirty."
Some two and a half hours later, after recitations of the Oath and Taps piped in via satellite played by a pair of Scouts with the Black Hills of North Dakota in the background, the event wrapped up. In the various satellite locations the kids and their families shuffled out to head home, while on site in Virginia they made their way back to their tents. It's true that when compared to Woodstock, Altamont or Bonnaroo, there was far less mud, no violence and the music wasn't exactly making history. But a lot of kids went home happy and juiced about the movement, and that's a pretty good tradeoff.


Marc Wollin of Bedford handled the Jacksonville portion of the Jamboree broadcast. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.