Saturday, January 30, 2010

DIY Payback

Payback, as someone once said, can be a bitch. A guy cuts in front of you at the line to the movie theatre, but you get better seats than him. A woman grabs the last carton of orange juice at the store, but it leaks on her. A car races up behind you, sits on your bumper and flashes their lights to pass, only to wind up several miles down the road on the shoulder with a cop. Somehow the celestial scales seem to balance out.

But it doesn't always happen in an immediate time frame or with malice. It can be a long term scenario, where all had the best of intentions, and the offenders have no reason to think they were doing anything wrong. Quite the contrary, they might even have thought they were doing right by all concerned. But eventually the aggrieved gets to set the record straight, giving the perpetrators a taste of their own medicine, albeit in a non-confrontational manner. If it sounds like I'm rationalizing, defending the parties involved even, I am. Because... well... we are they.

When we first had kids and moved into a new house, we were faced with a problem common to many: how to furnish it quickly and cheaply. We had an assortment of stuff from our old place, but needed to ramp up or spend a lot of time sitting on lawn furniture. Fortunately, the Swedes have come to the rescue of us all in the form of Ikea.

Say what you will about this mega-furniture store chain, and indeed many have. There are riffs from comedians about their size, picture instructions and checkout procedures. There are spoofs of their products and their unpronounceable Swedish names, including my favorite, the "Sokkomb," a built-it-yourself guillotine. There's even "Ikea Heights," an online series shot entirely in the Burbank store without the store's knowledge or consent. But if today you just have to have a bookcase ("Byom"), a kitchen table ("Leksvik") as well as a set of wine glasses ("Ivrig"), there is probably no better place to go.

So more than once when our kids were little, we journeyed to a branch of the store in New Jersey, and wandered the aisles looking for dressers, beds, desks and storage units. We assumed the kids were amused, as there were lots of colors and things to climb on. It never occurred to us that they would have any issue with an outing where we came back with shiny new things for their rooms.
It was only recently, some 15 or so years later, that we learned otherwise. When we mentioned the store as a source for some quick decorating to our eldest, who is out of college and renting his first apartment, he told us the truth. Turns out both he and his brother hated going there. "Could you think of anything more boring to two kids than furniture shopping?" he asked.

I was floored. "But you seemed to like it," I sputtered. "What were we going to do?" he said. "We were little. Wasn't worth complaining about, and we knew we were going anyway." One more parenting point we had misread and gotten wrong. Still, on balance, if they're going to eventually need therapy, I guess better this than because we didn't love them.

And here's where the flip comes. In helping him move into his place in Brooklyn, we offered to help him pick out and transport a bed to the apartment. The best option? The nearby branch of the chain in Red Hook. So on a busy Saturday, we joined the throngs, threaded the maze that is the showroom floor, and spent a solid hour standing next to him as he looked at a "Maal" vs "Aneboda," laid on a "Elsfjord" vs. a "Fidjetun" and decided between "Laed" and "Lillaker" support slats. He was right: it wasn't half as much fun as I remembered it.

Finally he had all the right numbers and locations. We selected all the boxes, got lucky at the checkout and managed to fit all the pieces into the car like a giant jigsaw puzzle. We got it to his place and hauled it up to the third floor. No pieces were missing and we were able to follow the pictograms and get it built in short order. All is good, and I now feel like we have atoned... at least until he needs a dresser, and we get to put a tick back in our column.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hadn't been in an Ikea in 15 years, and that was fine. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Free Service

While my micro and macro economic chops aren't what they used to be (if in truth they ever were), I don't recall any direct correlation between price and service. Go to McDonald's, order a Big Mac for about four dollars, and it usually comes out pretty quick and hot. But if you order a hamburger off their value menu for a buck, it'll probably arrive just as fast. The same happens at gas stations and stores, with plumbers and painters. Prices may vary, but it's not always what costs the most that is delivered with the highest level of service. Put another way, you can sometimes get more help in Target than you can in Lord & Taylor, assuming you're willing to go with Fruit of the Loom over Christian Lacroix.

So when you're dealing with products and services that in essence cost nothing, you hope for the best, but expect the worst. This is especially the case with municipal services (yes, I know, they aren't really free, your taxes pay for them, but go with me here). That's not to say that all public agencies or public employees you deal with don't care about their consumers. But who among us doesn't quiver at the thought of having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles?

So when you hit a situation where the reverse happens, where you expect the worst and get the best, it stands out. This story started when I discovered that the library system where we live loans out ebooks. Much like a traditional book, the library only buys a limited number of rights-protected copies, which can only be lent out to one patron at a time. If you see one you want, you put your name on a wish list and receive an email when your turn comes up. You then have 3 days to download it, or it goes to the next person on the list. At the other end, it vanishes magically from your reader after 14 days... no late fines ever accrue.

Early in the fall I saw that there was a new unpublished book by Michael Crichton due out, one discovered in his computer after his death. When I saw the advance word, I put my name on the list. When the library got it's copy on Tuesday, November 24th, I got an automatic notice at 12:05AM telling me it was available for download. As I was finishing another book, I delayed getting it for 3 days, which turned out to be Thanksgiving morning. Unfortunately, the gremlins were at play: repeated attempts to access the system failed. I sent a note through the online trouble system, assuming that no one would look at it until after the holiday. That meant that I would lose my hold at midnight and have to go to the bottom of what was now a lengthy list to check it out.

But to my surprise a note quickly popped up from Mike at the library. He apologized for the trouble, said they were doing some maintenance and wished me a happy holiday. I quickly wrote him back, thanking him for his reply, and urged to him to enjoy the holiday with his family. I was surprised and pleased to get any reply, and thought that was that. Yes, I would have liked to be the first on my block to read the book and be the envy of all the other Crichton groupies, but I hated to stand between a guy and his turkey.

So I was even more surprised after we finished our pumpkin pie to find yet another note from him to the effect that the system was back up, and I would therefore be able to download my book before the hold expired. Needless to say, I did just that. (I can report that it's a quick and entertaining read, has characters, settings and situations that make it destined to be turned into a movie, and that Spielberg has indeed snapped up the development rights).

With the timing of the problems and the particular day in question, I certainly would not have expected any action. And indeed, Mike could have easily let it ride as he enjoyed his own holiday. You can even argue that all he did was his job, and so there is no reason to call attention to it. You could, but I think you'd be wrong.

The more everything gets commoditized, the more you have to try harder to stand out. Price is certainly a consideration in everything, but you can always find something cheaper. The real question isn't price, it's value. Doesn't matter what it is or what it costs, service can make the difference. Mike knew that. There're a lot of people that could learn that lesson.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to compete on service, not price. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Salad Days

Unless you are a native son or daughter, if I said "Schenectady" to you and asked you to say the first thing that came to your mind, odds are you'd be hard pressed for an answer. However, given a moment or two to ponder, a few things might pop up. If you have a college aged kid, you might know that it's the home of Union College, which happens to be the oldest planned college campus in the United States. If you're a Kurt Vonnegut fan, you might recognize it as the setting for a number of his books, including "Hocus Pocus" and "Player Piano." And if you're a zip code connoisseur, you might know that the General Electric plant there has a mailing address that ends in 12345.

Well, now you can add one more piece of useless information to your treasure chest of lore about "The City That Lights and Hauls the World," a reference to hometown companies GE and the American Locomotive Works. According to an "exhaustive 18-month research effort" done by Dole Fresh Vegetables, Schenectady is actually one of the "Top Salad Cities" in the country.

Just what does that distinction mean? And how did it join such other distinguished leaf-eating locales as Flint, Michigan and Richmond, Virginia on this august list? According to the study, in those metropolitan areas and 18 others, "local residents eat more salad per person than their counterparts in other U.S. cities, have the potential to eat more salad and/or are more likely to try new salad blends, experiment with salad and salad ingredients in the kitchen or serve salad as a meal." And you thought Kansas City was known for its stockyards... yes, it made the cut.

Dole conducted the research as part of its launch of nine salad "kits." (In a side note, it was a major announcement at the Produce Marketing Association's "Fresh Summit" in October, the highlight of the produce season.) The idea behind the kits is convenience in today's busy world. Since it's so hard to find lettuce and carrots at your local store, and even if you could, assembling them into a serviceable course is such a daunting task, you can now buy a kit to help you. No need to go the salad bar when you can bring the salad bar to you, and in perfect proportion.

Each kit contains all the makings you need to put together this difficult culinary preparation. Simply open the bag and pour out the lettuce, carrots and other crunchy stuff, add the enclosed dressing and enjoy. That's so much easier than taking out lettuce, carrots and other crunchy stuff from your fridge, adding your own dressing and enjoying. Can't you feel the stress of making a salad just fade away?

Or let's say you're the confident type who's not afraid to plunge in on your own. But like a fine wine, maybe you need a little support when selecting which of the many ingredients in the produce aisle should accompany whatever else you're making. In that case you might turn to Dole's newly designed "Salad Guide." Each of their 32 prepackaged blends of edibles now includes two five-point scales to help you make the perfect selection. The "Taste" scale goes from "mild" to "bold," while the "Texture" guide goes from "tender" to "crunchy." Add to that the suggested "pairings" on the packages, and you have a no fail salad. For instance, the "American Blend" starter ("Taste/1, Texture/5") goes well with "Bacon Ranch Dressing, crispy onion strings, and shredded Cheddar Cheese." Who would have thought?

Now, I know we've become obsessed with our iPhones aps and our Wii Fit scores. I know there are only so many hours in the day to customize and update our Facebook pages and follow Ashton Kutcher's Twitter feed. And I know that in spite of the popularity of Iron Chef and Emeril and Rachel Ray, processed and prepared foods are a huge market for a busy public. But I would like to think that as a country, we could take a stand and recognize that even the most distracted, pressed for time, culinary challenged individual can make a salad from scratch and succeed on their own terms. In these tough times, it would be a reaffirming nod towards all that made this country great.

Still, Dole must be on to something, or else they wouldn't have committed this much muscle to the market segment. So buy the kit if you must, or use the "Spring Mix" if you're in a rush. But take a stand: add cherry tomatoes AND sunflower seeds to either, and assert your rights as an individual.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has recently discovered the pleasure of dried cranberries in almost any salad. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Right Word, Right Time

I'm trying to figure out how to describe what stage I’m at in my life. While in my mind I’m still in college, my body is increasingly acting as if it is much further down the pike. The sad truth, of course, is that I’m somewhere in between, well past my twentysomethinghood, yet not quite in my "back when I was your age-dom." It all leads to one inescapable conclusion: if I’m not young and I’m not old, I have to be... horrors... middle aged.

As a friend pointed out, there is good news in that label: it that means you expect to be around for at least as long as you’ve been here already. It was Theodore Roosevelt who said, "The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty." More likely, though, I have to accept the reality as defined by comedian Jonatahan Katz: "I'm officially middle-aged. I don't need recreational drugs anymore, thank God. I can get the same effect just by standing up real fast."

As the middle child of society’s family, it’s a difficult stage. We middlers get neither the senior citizen discount nor any respect accorded those more eminent in age and bearing. Likewise, since we’re no longer the baby of the family, we’re neither thought of as cuddly nor precocious. We’re supposed to have figured it all out and know all we need to know, while at the same time not thought of as being terribly receptive to new ideas. Like a puppy past its puppyhood, we are no longer cute nor paper trainable.

Yet, there are good things about this time, or so I tell myself. By now I’ve figured out the best pizza and Chinese places, can identify the person who answers the phone by first name so I get extra sausage or duck sauce, and know exactly when to call on the way home from work so it’ll be hot and ready to go when I get there. I’m not embarrassed to go to bed early if I’m tired, and I have a pretty good handle on which decongestants work best for me. And you can fault my fashion sense, and well you should, but I know how to dress comfortably.

And comfortable may be the key. After all, as Mark Twain pointed out about age, it’s an issue of mind over matter: "If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." It’s not that I don’t care about things, it’s just that I’ve accepted who I am and the world I inhabit. I know my imitations, and do the best that I can with what I have, while not getting too crazy if my dreams don’t become reality. It’s a realization that only comes once you lose the brashness of youth, and know what you can change and what you can’t. Sure, I still want to make the world a better place, insure a more peaceful future for our children and promote better understanding among people of different nationalities. But I understand it’s almost as important to put the right fertilizer on the lawn.

I hate to say I’m ceding the future to my kids, but there’s a certain amount of that. While we have the energy, we do as much as we can. At the same time we work to get the next generation ready to pick up wherever we leave off. Much like a relay race, it’s about running as hard as you can when you have the baton, ready to pass it off to more rested legs when the time comes. You can only hope you don’t fumble the pass as you catch your breath, watch them accelerate away from you, and cheer them on.

Still, what to call this state? In chumming around for a term that better describes who and am what I’ve become, I have settled on one from the 19th century. Popularized by Benjamin Disraeli, it is what linguists call a "portmanteau." The word originally referred to a large traveling case made of leather, which consisted of two halves that are connected with a hinge. In that spirit, a portmanteau word is one which joins two words to make a new one. In my case, it my tendency to tell stories about my past as I get older, stories my wife has now heard innumerable times, coupled with my slide towards senility. Henceforth, I will no longer acknowledge my middle-aged-dom. Rather, should anyone ask, I will merely say I am entering my anecdotage.


Marc Wollin of Bedford only feels old when he’s awake. His column appears regularly in The Record-review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

They Said What?

I'm a word person. I love a well turned phrase, a pithy utterance, an alliterative response. That's not to say I don't like visuals... in fact, I make my living off of them. But words... just 26 letters strung together and arranged in an almost infinite variety of ways... can do so much. I've always taken to heart the admonition of writer Paul Theroux, who said in his wonderful essay "The Cerebral Snapshot" that, "For a writer a picture is worth only a thousand or so words."

That being said, not all that is said or written is Shakespeare. True, if you've kept your eyes and ears open this past year, you would have seen and heard any number of comments on the big issues and stories of the day which made a meaningful impression. But there were many others that... thankfully...will likely be lost to history. Still, for entertainment value alone, they're worth noting. So as a coda to the final year of the first decade of the new century, it's probably worth revisiting some utterances that, in no particular order, made a minor splash in the past 12 months.

"Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." -- Model Kate Moss, asked if she had a personal motto.

"How can I kick myself? There are other people to be kicked." -- Martha Stewart, when asked about the insider-trading scandal at her firm..

"I owe 30% to genes, 30% to good sex, 30% because of a healthy lifestyle. For the remaining 10%, I have to thank my plastic surgeon." -- Jane Fonda on looking good at 71.

"I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he's talking." -- Alan Grayson, Democratic Congressman from Florida, about former VP Dick Cheney.

"I don't know why she would have felt threatened." -- Serena Williams after her tirade at the US Open.

"I will take questions from the guys, but from the girls I want telephone numbers." -- Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, at a youth rally in Rome.

"We would have said: 'We'll take those three but probably lose the drummer.'" -- Simon Cowell on why the Beatles would have failed in on his show.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not Secretary of State. I am." -- Hillary Clinton at a press conference in Congo.

"I had to hold my nose and stop those firms from failing." -- Ben Bernanke explaining why he used taxpayer money to bail out firms like AIG.

"I have only two passions: space exploration and hip-hop." -- Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, 79, who is producing a single with rapper Snoop Dogg.

"A great pair of knickers should be taken off with more joy than they were put on." -- Model Elle Macpherson.

"He [Madoff] is going to be sentenced to 150 years. I hope he lives a long life." -- Richard Friedman, an accountant who lost more than $3 million.

"Daddy, the plane turned into a boat." -- Martin Sosa quoting his 4-year-old daughter's reaction on US Airways Flight 1549 ditching into the Hudson.

"Shakespeare has too many lines." -- James Bond star Daniel Craig on why he won't be do the classics.

"Stop wearing a suit and tie to bed." -- Former US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on his New Year's resolutions.

"I don't want to be alone. The aloneness is so alone. " -- Kate Gosselin of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" on her life as a single mom.

"The governor is hiking the Appalachian Trail." -- Spokesman for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

"You give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders." -- Jesse Ventura.

"I'm so sorry Anne, Meryl, Kristin – oh God, who's the other one?" -- Kate Winslet upon receiving a Golden Globe and forgetting co-nominee Angelina Jolie.

"Surfing is a very spiritual thing for me. It's like being directly in touch with God." -- Cameron Diaz.

"First of all I think it's important to realize that I was actually black before the election." -- Barack Obama on the "The Late Show with David Letterman." Letterman's comeback: "How long have you been a black man?"

"Susan Boyle could look really hot if she just wore some pretty dresses." -- Paris Hilton.


Marc Wollin of Bedford will be listening and reading in 2010. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.