Saturday, March 27, 2010

Give It A Rest

People: put your arms by your sides and step away from the keyboard.
I mean, all this connectedness is fine. You can catch up with your old college buddies and make dinner plans with friends. You can send jokes to your mother and post pictures for your family to enjoy. You can Facebook and LinkedIn and Plaxo until the cows come home, creating a virtual rolodex that encompasses almost every person on the planet whom you've ever met.
But just because you can doesn't mean you should. Or more to the point, you certainly can, but it doesn't have to be every minute of every waking day. Amazingly, things will keep happening to people even if you don't know about it or can't post a comment immediately. Unless you're the charge nurse in an intensive care ward, sometimes a little breathing room is a good thing. Put most eloquently by the great Lebenaese-American writer Khalil Gibran, "Let there be spaces in your togetherness." Put less eloquently, give it a rest.

I say this because it seems as if there is no such thing as down time anymore. Getting up early used to mean a few uninterrupted hours of quiet when you could have some breakfast and read the paper. No more. The first thing we all do is check our smartphones or computers, there to find messages sent from the night owls among us or those in far away time zones, many requiring as-soon-as-possible comebacks. Rather than taking time to consider the thought, idea, apology or proposal, we fire from the hip at 6:37AM. What's worse, if you respond, chances are better than even money that you'll get a blast back sooner than later. Before you know it, the shots are flying back and forth with abandon. True, your holster may fit over your pajamas, but your aim may be thrown off by your fuzzy slippers.

At the other end of the clock, remember those days when you waited to call someone back until after hours, knowing that they'd be gone for the day and you'd get their answering machine? You looked conscientious, you got to say your piece, and you felt like you were on top of the situation, all without having to engage in any dialogue. Well, forget that approach. Now if you fire off a response or reply as you sit down to dinner, odds are it will spark a question by dessert. You respond in kind, only to have the next volley appear just as the jury comes in on "Law and Order." Of course, you feel compelled to comment, which drags you away and causes you to miss that snappy comeback from Sam Waterson on the fade out.

It's no better on the weekend. Like many, I'm generally running around Monday to Friday, which means that getting a concentrated block of time to do creative work waits until Saturday or Sunday. My general M.O. was to rough something out Sunday AM, scrub it in the afternoon and dispatch it by dinner. That approach gave me a guilt-free, sense-of-accomplishment evening, knowing I could get a good night's sleep before any criticism kicked in. No longer. Once I hit the send button I know it's only a question of if I'll make it through "60 Minutes" or not before the responses start rolling in.

Doesn't matter anymore if it's your kid's birthday party, dinner with the family or movie night on a Saturday, someone somewhere is anxiously drumming their fingers, having just hit send and waiting for you to reply. In fact it's gotten so there are precious few circumstances where you can sell the idea that you are truly out of touch and can't be expected to respond. . Funerals are good. So are plane flights. Surgery is a solid excuse, but only when you're actually under anesthesia; recovery doesn't count.

That's why I'm puzzled by a specific detail in the unemployment numbers. In the blizzard of statistics from the Bureau of Labor is one that the average work week actually fell in the month of February by a tenth of an hour. Certainly not in my circle. And with averages being just that, if the people I'm dealing with are working more, someone somewhere is getting a whole lot of paid days off.

It's not that I agree with the Kapauku Papuans of Western New Guinea: they believe it is bad luck to work two consecutive days. I'm happy to put in the time, and try and keep the train moving. And yes, sometimes that means you can't work just 9 to 5. But while I'm not religious, I do think the Lord was on to something when he decided to take the weekend off.


Marc Wollin of Bedford seems to always have something that needs to get done. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Best of Intentions

It's Saturday morning, and I have a lot to do. I have to write a proposal for a new project. Two budgets have to reviewed and amended. There are bills to pay and invoices to be dispatched. On top of that, our oldest will be passing through tomorrow on his way home to Brooklyn, and will join us to celebrate his birthday which occurs in a few days. As I am the designated baker in the family, creating something in which to stick candles falls to me: he requested my key lime chiffon pie.
Of course, it's easy to plot out the right course of action. In spite of it being a weekend, the only way to look at this is like a workday. Get up early. Go for quick run. Glance at the paper and have a fast breakfast. Then head immediately to my desk to work my way methodically through the "must dos," the "nice to dos" and hopefully eventually getting to the "wouldn't it be fun to dos."
Almost immediately, the plan breaks down. I wake up before it's light to hear the wind and the rain howling outside. Normally that wouldn't mean anything. But I was on a job yesterday where I had to run from one location to the other through the drops. It was cold, it was wet, and, added to the normal demands, made for an exhausting day. So rather than hop of bed, I burrow down a little deeper, pull up the covers and figure half an hour more will better recharge my batteries for the sprint ahead.
Thirty minutes turns into sixty, and now I'm solidly behind. But before I get dressed to go running, I add some boots to my bathrobe, grab an umbrella and walk to the top of the driveway to get the paper. On the way up, my thinking is changing about the workout. By time I start back down, it has made the full 180. By my count, I figure the run would chill me and take an hour I don't really have. Better to pass, and live to jog another day.
So I shower and go downstairs to have a quick bite and glance at the paper. Normally, we get the better part of the Sunday New York Times delivered on Saturday morning. All else being equal, I like nothing more than to take it, a pot of coffee and sit at the end of the kitchen table for a couple of hours. But no time today. So I decide to quickly peruse the front section and not get sucked into all the other good stuff: the magazine section alone could kill a good 45 minutes if I'm not careful.
Still, section A is packed with intriguing material on everything from the healthcare debate to Lehman's shady accounting to Han Han, a Chinese race car driver who is also the most followed blogger in the world. It takes longer than I planned, and even then, I can help myself from skimming the Real Estate, Business and Travel sections. As much as possible, I blow through learning how Brett Gardner is perfecting his bunting technique and what do with 36 Hours in Goa, India, then head to my office.
Finally, I'm seated at my desk in front of my computer and ready to go. But just as I lay my fingers on the keyboard, a random synapse fires in my mind, as I recall an article in the travel section. Entitled "Hello Columbus," it's about the arts scene in that Ohio city. It's not that I have any interest in visiting. Rather, I love the oblique cultural reference in the headline, a nod to "Goodbye Columbus," the title of Philip Roth's 1959 novel, made into a movie a decade later. Who starred in that? It's seems important to know. A few clicks and there it is: Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw.
For some inexplicable reason, I now just have to hear the title track by The Association. Luckily, it's posted on YouTube. What a great sound; reminds me of some other chestnuts. So I punch around, listening to others from that time by Harry Nilsson and The Turtles. Interesting, most are performed by guys with white suits wearing aviator glasses. Embarrassing 30 years later, to be sure, but good stuff indeed.
Suddenly it's noon, and I've accomplished absolutely nothing. True, my brain is a bit clearer than it was when I woke up, and I've actually had a nice morning. But unfortunately, my "to do" list hasn't gotten any smaller. Still, it was fun while it lasted. Time to get down to work. On other hand, I'm feeling a little peckish: think I'll go have a snack.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wrestles with crowding out the distractions every day. In spite of that, his column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Not What I Meant To Say

Subprime mortgages. Rock reunion tours. Robert De Niro doing comedy. Like many things, all probably seemed to be good ideas at the time. But sometimes the execution makes you wonder what "they" were thinking of when "they" thought it up. Or put another way, for every "Silence of the Lambs" there is a "Hannibal."

Technology is a great example of this. Take the iCEBOX Kitchen Network System. Through a central control panel, the idea was to tie together a specially designed coffee maker, microwave and breadmaker. You would load them up when the day started, then control them from your computer at work. Hit the right buttons, and you were supposed to be able to walk into your house to a fresh pot of coffee, a fresh loaf of bread and a hot dinner. A Jetson-esque future to be sure, but one that wasn't quite ready for prime time. Or as one reviewer put it, "For the $2,350 price tag to equip your kitchen with the Beyond system, you could hire a butler and a hooker to do ten times the amount of work."

That's not to say that new ideas and approaches can't work well, sometimes astoundingly so. Who would have thought that your phone could identify a song playing on the radio, or that you could carry every album you ever bought on an MP3 player the size of a matchbook. Sometimes all it takes is a little time. Back at the 1964 New York World's Fair, I crowded into a booth with my family to call my grandmother on the first "consumer" video phone. Of course, while we could see ourselves, she couldn't see us. And even if she had the requisite device on her end, it's unlikely we would have made the call anyway: adjusted for inflation, a 15 minute chat cost about $900. Not quite five decades later our kids, be they in South America or Maine, can see and talk to their grandmother in New Jersey via Skype for nothing.

So at one end you have the promise; at the other, the realization. More often than not, however, it feels like we're in the middle rather than at either end, that exasperating place where the kinks are still being smoothed over and the missteps are frequent. You see this today with the smartphones that have virtually exploded into everyone's hands. They do more than we ever thought possible, but have shortcoming that make them truly maddening.

For instance, mine sports both GPS mapping and voice recognition. To test it, I sat in my car and said very clearly, "Navigate to Staples Office Supplies." It thought about it for a few seconds, then popped up the two stores nearest to where I was sitting. I selected one, and a a map appeared with turn by turn directions to get there. I followed the route, and as I pulled up a photo of the exact location appeared along with the notification "You have arrived." It was almost scary.

But that was under laboratory conditions. Soon thereafter we were strolling down the street in New York City. We wondered about a particular restaurant we had eaten at several months before, but for which we couldn't recall the exact name nor location. All we remembered was that the cuisine was Israeli. So out came the phone. As the wind whipped around us, we huddled in a doorway while I shouted into it over the street noise: "Navigate to Israeli restaurant." A few seconds later, up came the choices: a map of Israel, a collection of Israeli recipes and directions to Beth Israel Medical Center. I've heard their coffee shop is good, but...

Another example: when typing a note, the phone guesses what you what to say based on a few letters, then fills in the blanks. It works surprisingly well for most words, but gets hung up on abbreviations. Whenever I type "Pls" for "Please" it immediately changes it to "Ploshnick." And when I responded to a query about where I was with "FYI in NY," and hit send before I checked, it had changed it to "Dying in New York." I had to quickly call my mother and tell her I was still breathing.

Of course, barely a decade ago, even the idea of capabilities like this were merely a dream. But we're an impatient lot at best. And so with each new advance we expect more faster, going from wonderment to complaining in record time. After all, history records that Alexander Graham Bell's famous first telephone transmission was, "Watson, Come here, I need you." It doesn't record that Watson immediately set about inventing the answering machine.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is thrilled with his new phone, until he throws it across the room. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Information Whiteout

I write this in the aftermath of the latest big storm hit the northeast, the so-called "Snowacane" of February. Many have significant damage to their property or homes, or are without power and aren't sure when it will return. In that light, we got away easy. Sure, the plow guy scraped up some of our lawn, we lost a few large branches in the woods and the azaleas outside my office were crushed. We lost power overnight, but otherwise escaped intact.

But the biggest inconvenience is not that our heat went out, but that we lost our cable. And that means we have no phone, no TV, no internet. Not the end of the world, to be sure. And even that is attenuated by the fact that we can get two of the three on our various handheld devices, albeit a bit slower, with a sketchier connection and with a bit more button pushing than merely walking by and shaking the mouse to wake up a computer.

Still, we are in the midst of a blackout as if we were under attack. We've become so used to information on demand that both my wife and I are walking around the house wondering what is happening in the world. We used to both routinely check both the computer, and/or flip regularly from the weather channel to the news channels on a nearly continuous basis. In short, we were wired: we knew about the latest Iranian diplomatic snub, Lindsey Von's pinkie and the shortage of Mexican tortillas. Had we been trading George Washington Bridge Lower Level Backup futures, we would know how to cover a short in an instant.

Then there's the text side of things. Our phone rarely rings these days. Instead, like many, we have shifted to a largely character based world. From scheduling walks with her friends to our kids letting us know what their weekend plans are to me booking jobs, more is done by typing than talking. It's getting to the point where I'm beginning to forget what some people sound like, but I recognize their normal misspellings in an instant.

So with our normal portal to the outside cut off, or at least severely restricted, we've reverted to things that now seem almost historically quaint. We turn on the radio, but it seems an eternity for the top stories to cycle around (only 10 or 20 minutes, I know, but it seems longer). We thumb type our way to a movie review, then wander around the house as it slowly downloads. For weather we're reduced to looking out window and looking at the sky. As to whether or not I should take a raincoat if we go out tonight, I'm thinking of asking our neighbor if her arthritis is flaring up, a sure sign of rain.

Even my writing of this column is severely affected. Normally as I hunt and peck away, I look up random thoughts, ideas or data that I think might be of interest. But with no access to that information, I'm reduced to my own steadily failing memory and non-wealth of information. So, sorry, no stats from the NY Public Utilities Board as to how often outages occur in this area: like the old joke, I can only tell you we've felt this before, and we're feeling it again.

Several years ago I tried to catch a flight out of Chicago to get me home. I could see weather moving in, and noticed the effects start to crop up on the monitors spaced around the terminal. Sure enough, when I got to the departure gate, a delay was posted. And along with the delay was a long line of people queuing up to get information and rebook their trips.

Not wanting to stand in line, I called the 800 number for the airline. After a few moments, I got patched through to an agent. I gave her my information, and waited while she pulled up my reservation. I asked for some options, and she said she thought the next connection would be leaving form Gate 35. "Thought?" I asked. With all her systems, she couldn't tell me for sure? "There is one way to know," she said. "Walk to the window. If you see a plane at the ramp, then you might be able to take it."

And that's where we are. It's been 36 hours and counting, and the cable company won't even venture a guess as to when it will be back. I'm sure it will happen, but nothing I can do will make it go faster. I guess I'll go read a book, take a nap, and wait for the paper tomorrow to see what's happening. I hear the Olympics are going on: I wonder who's winning?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been known to sit in his car in the garage to do conference calls if his landline is out. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.