Saturday, February 27, 2010

What Would Jesus Listen To?

Whether you're Jewish, Christian or Muslim, when there are knotty problems in your life that have no easy answers you may turn to a spiritual advisor. While your rabbi, priest or imam may not have the direct worldly experience that you do, hopefully their familiarity with a higher plane of thought enables them to guide your thinking through difficult situations. Be it a martial issue, the declining health of a loved one or some other personal crisis, their calm and reasoned approach can help you face down troubling times and pursue a path that works out for the better.

But it also doesn't have to be about something so laden with consequence. Religious leaders of all stripes issue guidance for their flocks on everyday matters, from dating to clothing to entertainment. True, not all members of the congregation will follow every edict to the letter. But the many homilies and fatwas out there help guide the faithful as they go about their day to day activities.

Take the Catholic Church. Over the years the Vatican has published encyclicals and papal letters to guide believers, who are a sizeable flock indeed. In a recent ceremony at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI was presented with the 2010 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook. While it doesn't contain pictures of the Vatican Glee Club and Monsignor Duncan's Third Period Theology Class, it does include a compendium of facts and figures about the Church. And key is the finding that Catholics now number about 1.166 billion, or about 17.4% of the world's population.

No matter how you slice it, that's a big base of people. They look to the Church for guidance on matters both big and small, from the spiritual to the personal. Perhaps that is why the Vatican has decided that in addition to direction on issues from birth control to pre-marital sex, it is now adding musical guidance to its plate.

It started when classical music enthusiast Benedict gave his blessing to the creation of a CD called "Alma Mater." It features the Pontiff singing passages and prayers in 5 languages mixed with original contemporary orchestral scores. Backup singers were brought in from The Choir of the Philharmonic Academy of Rome, while the house band was The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. And in a nod to the fact that papal infallibility can carry you just so far, the whole thing was mixed together at London's Abbey Road Studios.

While it proved to be a hit with the faithful, the producers wanted more. So they took the next logical step: they created a MySpace Music page with "The Vatican's Playlist." Featuring selections from the aforementioned CD, it also includes "Uprising" from "The Resistance," the fifth studio album by English alternative rock band Muse, as well as "He Doesn't Know" by the Fleet Foxes. And proving that the church is indeed a big tent, it also includes 2Pac's "Changes," a song which encourages listeners to "change the way we treat each other."

Sensing perhaps that it had found a way to reach a tough demographic, the Vatican's daily newspaper "L'Osservatore Romano" continued the outreach by publishing a list of the best rock albums of all time. They include Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon," Donald Fagen's "The Nightfly" and Carlos Santana's "Supernatural." The Beatles also made the cut with "Revolver," in spite of John Lennon once saying that "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus."

In a nod to fact that musical genius knows no faith-based bounds, the list includes "Graceland" from Paul Simon, who is Jewish. The late Michael Jackson was a Jehovah's Witness, but he made the cut for "Thriller." Interestingly, many well known Catholic stars aren't on it, including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Frank Zappa, both Eddie and Alex Van Halen, and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. And while it might not be as well know, for obvious reasons I'm somewhat surprised they didn't include Kinky Friedman's masterpiece "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore."

It's an interesting list, to be sure. It will be fascinating to see if other major religions get in on the act, if there will be a fatwa honoring Yusuf in his pre-Islam Cat Stevens days, or if the high rabbis will acknowledge Billy Joel's earlier work before he became interested in Christianity. And if you find yourself lying awake at night and wondering "Why are we here?" and "What happens when we die?" you can now add legitimately add another question to your nocturnal musings: "What does the Pope have on his iPod?"


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds himself mostly in agreement with the Church on this one. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and the Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Face of the Games

As you read this, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver are in full swing. Even if you've only watched a smattering of the coverage, odds are you have seen a variety of events and medal ceremonies, as well as numerous stories about Vancouver and its restaurants and attractions. And you've probably also seen many historical comparisons, and how this year's crop of athletes matches up against the iconic names of the past, such as Dorothy Hamill, Jean-Claude Killy and Eric Heiden.

Still, with all the focus on Lindsey Vonn and her shin, Shaun White and his hair, and Johnny Weir and his feathers, there are three other personalities you might have missed. They've been there all along, though they generally work the periphery of the events. Not competing per se, they are none the less the most public representation of the games and what the host country has to offer. So take a moment to learn about Miga, Sumi and Quatchi, the mascots of the 2010 Olympic Games.

Resembling high-concept Nickelodeon cartoon characters, the three are based on Canadian animals and mythological figures. According to their official bios (yes, someone was actually tasked with creating backstories), each has a very primary connection to the environs. Miga is a "young sea bear who lives in the ocean with her family pod near Tofino, British Columbia, and is part Kermode bear, a rare white bear that only lives in BC." She likes salmon, and her goal is to "land a corked 720 in the half-pipe." Sumi has the "hat of the orca whale, flies with the wings of the mighty thunderbird and runs on the strong furry legs of the black bear." His hobbies include Alpine skiing, and he likes hot cocoa. And Quatchi is a "young sasquatch who comes from the mysterious forests of Canada." A hockey fanatic, he also likes travel photography... ironic, since there's never been a good picture of any of his relatives.

Backgrounds aside, they're a cute and cuddly group. They appear all around the Olympic venues, as well as in the numerous gift shops on everything from hats to coffee mugs. But in the same vein that skier Bode Miller will be compared to superstar Alberto Tomba, it's fair to ask how these three stack up against mascots from past games. Have technology, training and national drive created a better furry beast than we've seen in the past?

At the very least, they represent a quantum leap from Schuss, the very first unofficial winter games mascot from the 1968 Grenoble games. He/She/It was supposed to be a skier, but was described by some as "a giant tadpole balanced on an ice skate." Unfortunately, there was nothing cute, cuddly or even vaguely appealing about Schuss, who had a giant red head that some thought looked infected.

And few would doubt that they are better than Whatizit, who was the representation the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Izzy, as he was known to his friends, had lightning bolt eyebrows, big red shoes and a ringed multi-colored tail. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games gave him makeovers, but the damage was done. Bob Costas of NBC called the mascot "a genetic experiment gone horribly, ghastly wrong."

Compare that with the icon of the 1992 Barcelona Games, Cobi. In spite of his overly-wrought description as "a Catalan sheepdog designed in the cubist style inspired by the interpretations of Picasso of Velázquez' masterpiece 'Las Meninas,'" he proved to be extremely popular. Cobi, whose name derived from the acronym of the Spanish initials of the Barcelona Olympic Committee, was used in commercials by Coke and others, and even had his own TV show for a time.

But the acknowledged king of the mascot hill is the one of which Americans saw the least. Misha was the embodiment of the 1980 Moscow Games, the Olympics we and 64 other countries boycotted as a protest over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He was a classic Teddy Bear, which nicely coincided with the animal which had become the personification of Russia since Tsarist times. But rather than being big and brutal, he was small and adorable, sporting big ears and a rainbow belt and buckle made of the five Olympic Rings. Had the boycott not have happened, he would have generated worldwide ancillary sales which could have rivaled Harry Potter.

How will Miga, Quatchi and Sumi be remembered? Will they be like Neve and Glitz, the Gumby-esque representatives from Torino just 4 years ago, who are all but lost to history? Or will they be thought of fondly like Vuko, the wolf from Sarajevo in 1984, who gained fame as a distant cousin of Wiley E. Coyote? Only time will tell. As they say in all of sport, that's why they play the game.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes the events, but has already started turning down the sound to lose the announcers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Going to the Mattresses

This is the era of the smart consumer. With the internet as your pal, you can shop and compare, look at reviews and research features. There is no excuse anymore for buying anything, getting it home, and then discovering there are cheaper or better alternatives. There is one exception, however: bedding. As complex as health care and as jargon-ridden as monetary policy, it's the place where the patent medicine practitioners of yesteryear still ply their art.

Stop by a mattress store, and you'll see: there is no standard, no regulation, no benchmark of any aspect of the market. Purveyors are free to claim whatever they want about their product, its benefits and attributes, and set prices which are impossible to compare. And since 30 seconds of lying down in a store with your clothes on hardly portends the comfort factor for a night's sleep, let along the next ten years of use, it's a crap shoot no matter how you look at it.

In need of a replacement ourselves, we were passing a local discount chain one evening and decided to stop in. The salesperson was nice enough, and encouraged us to try any or all of the showroom models. When we asked how long he had been doing this, he allowed that it was a second career, after having sold cars for a living. Based on his approach, I suspect we might have been able to figure that one out on our own.

As we approached one model, he told us about the benefits of it having a continuous coil. We turned to another, and he extolled the superiority of the pocketed coil on that one, dising the feature on the last. We plopped down on a pillow top: that way to go, he exclaimed. Then we questioned how flipable it was, and he pointed out that that was indeed an issue. He first suggested from our comments that we would like "plush-ultra-firm," though the "firm-super soft" we said we liked was probably better. He dismissed the tagged prices as fiction, and offered to make us a great deal, throwing in all kinds of extras to make the sale. "I sleep on that one myself," he confided, though, when pressed, he admitted he told people he slept on whatever one they were buying.

In spite of all that, one did feel good. However, since it was from a boutique manufacturer, we only let him run our card for $25 to hold the merchandise pending some due diligence when we got to a computer. And indeed, a little research produced reviews that were less than stellar. True, negative reviews online almost always outweigh the positive. But the tenor and uniformity of the problems mentioned, along with some sleuthing on the manufacturer itself, led us to cancel the order and head back to the drawing board.

Since we tried had tried downscale, we decided to go the other way for the next round. We headed to Bloomingdales, and saw mattress-box spring sets that cost more than a week in Rome. There was no heat from the salesperson, though not much light either. "This one has tempered coils." What, I asked, does that mean? After a moment, he said, "Well, they're tempered." He continued: "It has hand-tied springs with the finest Italian twine." Maybe that would make a difference if I were buying a rope ladder, but in a mattress? He looked at me dumfounded: "Hand tied. Italian. Finest twine." Oh, that explains it all.

Still, we found one we liked. Some quick research confirmed that it was indeed was a winner, and had a good track record. Still, we passed because we didn't want to take out a second mortgage in order to make the purchase. But then a friend tipped us off to the Bloomingdales clearance center, where they had the same merchandise at drastically reduced prices. Try it in the real store, she said, then shop it in the discount place: it seemed like a way to game the system.

We took a ride, and indeed found the model we wanted. The size was wrong, however, so they took our name and promised to call. Not a week later they did, offering up a top of the line model with no imperfections short of torn shipping case. The cost? Less than a third of what we saw on the showroom floor, even less than the car salesman was willing to give us.

I'm happy to report it's been delivered, and feels great. A good bit thicker than our old mattress, the only complaint I have is that I all but fall out of bed in the morning, as I haven't yet internalized that I'm sleeping higher off the ground. On balance, I think we've got it licked, but if you want a more realistic appraisal, give me a call in about 10 years.


Marc Wollin of Bedford feels pretty good about his Kluft. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Note to Self

If you were analyze the email messages I send out, you would find the usual assortment. Many are to clients or associates, concerned about specific projects or issues. Some are to my kids about questionable charges on our credit cards. And a good number are of the "I'll be home at 7" variety to my wife. But probably the recipient with the greatest single total is me.

You can attribute it to a busy life or advancing senility, but I find that more and more that I write innumerable notes to myself. They can be scribbled on one of the many pads of paper we have around the house, or as evidenced by my inbox, thumb-typed and tossed my direction. They remind me of calls I have to make, stuff I need to remember to bring to work the next day, or the milk I promised to pick up my way home. I have even sent a note to myself to remind me to check the notes I sent to myself, an Alice in Wonderland situation if ever there was one.

I know there must be better ways to do this, so I did a search hoping to find a program that would be up to the task. I found ones that enable you to prioritize your tasks, others that order them with different colors and fonts, and some that sound alarms. There are even those that use the GPS function built into the phone. When you enter a reminder, you enter a location to match. When you get close to where the task needs to be performed... the grocery store, the dry cleaners, your house... it notifies you that you have something to do there. A little Big
Brother-ish, but it works.

But in looking for programs of this ilk, I came across what might be the ultimate reminder program. It's not aimed so much at the mundane day-to-day errands that we all need to deal with, but something on a much grander scale. So if you believe that the world is indeed a bubbling caldron of sin, will be coming to an end shortly and don't want to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time... literally... you may want to get yourself a personal account at

For just $40 a year, believers can arrange for up to 62 people to get a final message exactly six days after the Rapture. For fellow heathens, that's the time when, according to end-of-days dogma, Christians will be swept up to heaven while doubters are left behind to suffer under a global government headed by the Antichrist. Note that Republicans should not confuse this with the first year of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid era.

According to the web site, "You've Been Left Behind gives you one last opportunity to reach your lost family and friends for Christ." You get to store and then send out 250 megabytes of documents to whomever you choose when the time comes. These might be last wills and testaments, heartfelt letters to relatives, or just "I told you so" notes where you really do get the last word.

Assuming that the end of world doesn't take down the internet and the delivery of emails (which many might argue is the very embodiment of all evil and one of the first things the Lord would go after) just how does it all work? According to the founder of the service, who prefers to remain anonymous so the devil doesn't spam him out of existence, "I have a team of Christian couples scattered around the U.S." He explains that at least one of them must log into the system every day. If they fail to log in for 3 days the system assumes the Rapture has taken place and they have been swept to heaven. Reminders are sent out for 3 more days, after which the system goes into action and sends out the emails. Kind of a "Fail/Saved" system.

Taken together, it would seem to be relatively foolproof, assuming the Messiah doesn't come during Christian Super Bowl week. After all, it was George Carlin who noted that if he were the Russians, we would attack at noon when everybody is testing their fire signals. Still, the system does have its attractions, including buddy fallback and a check/double check confirmation. I may not be born again, but it might be worth signing up. My first message? To myself, of course, reminding me to stop by the grocery store and pick up many, many loaves of bread.


Marc Wollin of Bedford leaves a pen and paper in the bathroom for thoughts in the middle of the night. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.