Saturday, July 31, 2010

Don't Talk To Me

It's not that I'm antisocial or anything, but I seem to be talking less. I don't mean in person. If you bump into me at the store or we go out to lunch, we'll chat and catch up on family and current events and the strange and silly things that are in the news. Sure, they'll be times when I'll be quieter than usual, others where you probably wish that I would just shut up. But be it big concepts or small talk, you'll have no doubt I'm not mute.
Remove me from your physical proximity, however, and it's a different story. More and more, my exchanges with others involve me tapping my fingers as opposed to flapping my lips. Be it email or texting, these days my connections with those across the office, across town or across the country are just as likely to be done by typing and responding as they are by speaking. I can joke, negotiate, argue, discuss, weigh in, plead, be sarcastic, fawn, kiss up or just shoot the breeze without the wind ever crossing my vocal chords, save a groan or a chuckle strictly for my own benefit.
I'm hardly alone in this change. Cellphone industry group CTIA reports that more than 822 billion text messages were sent and received on carriers' networks during the last half of 2009, amounting to almost 5 billion messages per day at the end of the year. On the email side of the house, estimates are that every day 247 billion messages are sent, though much of that is acknowledged to be spam. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, voice calls have declined 15 percent in the past two years, while the average length of call decreased steadily from 3.13 minutes in June 2007 to 2.03 minutes in June 2009. So not only are we talking less and typing more, we seem to have less to say when we do actually connect to a live person.
In fact, more and more it seems that texting is serving a dual roll. It both replaces talk, as well as serves as the precursor to it. How many times have you gotten a message that says, "Can u tk now?" or "R u busy?" Rather than just dial up someone and interrupt them, forcing them to have a conversation they aren't ready for, we use text to tee it up. In an always on, always connected environment, where anyone can be reached anytime, we use text to make sure that "on" is when we're ready for it, and not before.

Even when we feel we must call, the dynamics have changed. Used to be if you tried to connect and didn't get through, you left a message with a secretary or family member. Then voicemail became widespread, and we quickly adapted. Even if we got a live person, we would ask to be put into their VM box, so our message came through as we intended it. Yet now we've evolved past that, to where our kids tell us never to leave them a message. Rather, if they don't answer, we are instructed to hang up and text them. After all, why waste time calling in to hear a message when you can read it quicker? I confess that my favorite feature of my Google Voice account is that it transcribes every voicemail and emails them to me, enabling me to never have to listen to messages at all. Unlike Nipper, I don't pine for my master's voice.
But with this shift in mechanics comes the realization that the very nature of conversation... or rather these electronic exchanges that pass for conversation... has changed. While the substance may be the same, the very act of separating the riffs themselves from the instantaneous retorts they engender renders the whole give-and-take differently. Introducing the element of delay, even for just the few seconds it takes to read and thumb type a response, subtly changes the beast. Exchanges read more as scripted repartee than as emotional point counterpoint. Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche had a song that described it best: "Two Way Monologue."

So maybe it's time to radically rethink our phones. For when you consider how we use them these days, a new design is probably called for. Instead of speaker and microphone with keyboard appended, perhaps we need to reverse the equation. After all, speaking for myself and as Jimmy Buffet wrote, if the phone doesn't ring, that'll be me.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is amazed how much he now texts. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


The only vehicle I ever wanted was a Jeep. Not a gussied-up, citified version, but your basic 2 seat Wrangler. So when the time came to buy a car a while back, I went and took a test drive. Loud? Yes. Bouncy? Big time. Unsuitable for long drives? No doubt about it. So as usual in my life, the practical side took charge: I just didn't see how that particular vehicle made any sense considering we lived in the suburbs with kids as opposed to the deserts of Iraq.
And so I wound up with the closest things, a succession of jeep-esque conveyances. SUV's all, they did have room to haul stuff (Wranglers can be cramped), better gas mileage (Jeeps in general were known as gas guzzlers) and the ability to schlep kids and friends safely (true, Wranglers could fit little ones in the back, as long as you didn't mind them bouncing out onto the road, something many parents seemed to frown upon).
Then a couple of years later the line was retooled, and many of those concerns were addressed. So I went and took another test drive. Indeed, they had made it quieter, more efficient and smoother. True, there was no mistaking that it didn't have the ride of a passenger car, but that was kind of the point. Complaining that a Jeep doesn't feel like a Volvo is kind of like saying that a hot dog isn't a steak. No will argue with you, but if you're in the mood, you'll take the dog over the filet in a heartbeat.
And I was in the mood. Our kids were basically out of the house, so our days of using the car to multitask were gone. It was just me and my wife most times. And since the price and fuel usage were about the same as anything else I was looking at, I decided to take the plunge. I looked around, and eventually I found one a few towns over equipped pretty much as I wanted. But it carried one thing I wasn't looking for: a ragtop.
I had never had a convertible, and had no particular hankering for one. But both a hard and soft roof were part of the package, and so I went for it. That first year, the convertible version sat in a box in the basement, a bit intimidating with its latches and cautions and instructions. Fully a year went by where I thoroughly enjoyed the car with its hardtop, never once thinking about the softer alternative.

Then summer came. I walked past the unopened box and decided that it was then or never. It took a few hours of wrestling the hard roof off, figuring out how to hang it in garage, then finally installing the soft version and tightening all the right screws. By the time I was done and ready to take it for a test drive, the skies had turned gray and it had started to rain. So with the top in the fully upright and locked position, I took it for a spin to make sure it was watertight, which it was. It also demonstrated some of those other qualities that I had heard about, mainly noise and whistles.

But then the sun came out and I put the top down.

Like a kid in a candy store, I was smitten. It was fun and cool and breezy, and did I mention fun? I was happy to run errands, driving to the store for milk or bread. My wife was a good sport, as I forced her to take almost every outing sans top (the car, not her). I drove home at midnight under the stars from the city, and took it to Maine and back the same way. And I suddenly understood the attraction of the classic '57 Chevy Convertible, and it wasn't the year nor the make.

Let's be honest: whether it's an Aston Martin DBS, whose 13-speaker Bang and Olufsen system recalibrates for the extra ambient noise when the top is down for a cool $286,500, or a MINI Cooper Convertible that has enough room for you and your significant other as long as neither of you has anything is your pockets for a tenth of that, they're not meant to be the most practical cars. As such sales are just a fraction of total vehicles sold. But no matter: they're fun, pure and simple, and speaking at least for me, I can use a bit more of that.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves his Jeep with and without the top, but especially without. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

It's Not in the Mail

I confess I still get a rush when I see that the little yellow flag is up on the mailbox. A Pavlovian response to be sure, it means that there's something out there just waiting to be opened. Once that particular determination is made, I retrieve it and commence to sorting. If indeed I'm the one tasked with the responsibility, the stuff for my wife goes on the counter; if she beats me to it, she places mine on top of a filing cabinet in her office near the kitchen. Then when the absent party returns home, they peruse the stack, keep the wheat and throw away the chafe.

Lately, however, there's far less of a harvest to bring in, and even less worth consuming. Her haul usually consists of magazines and catalogs, as well as a smattering of professionally oriented organizational stuff related to her volunteer work. I get the balance: bills, statements and semi-official looking offers for additional credit cards, land in North Carolina and grass-fed steaks guaranteed to melt in my mouth.

The bottom line is that the mail ain't what it used to be. When we were kids, the postman was our connection to the outside world. Every day or so would bring a glossy magazine with pictures, or a few pages to add to an encyclopedia we were building in a three-ring binder to which my folks subscribed. Sale circulars and promotional flyers showed us the latest in toys and stuff, and letters, cards and pictures arrived from relatives and friends near and far. In an era of just three television stations... four if you counted PBS... the mail was a window looking outside of our little development.

Less than half a century later, most of that has migrated to the internet. You can sign up to get electronic statements for almost all your accounts, be it bills or summaries. Some payments still come as paper checks, but a growing number are direct deposited to your accounts. More and more sale and promotional notices are sent to your electronic inbox as opposed to the one outside, and circulation of every type of publication and periodical is way down. And with a few clicks you can get news, sports and pictures taken that day in Rome or Johannesburg or Tibet, not to mention revisit your high school class and see how much weight they've put on and hair they've taken off.

It's not just anecdotal. The Postal Service projects a decline of about 10 billion pieces of mail in each of the next two years, going from a high of 213 billion pieces of mail in 2006 to 170 billion projected for 2010. Indeed, mail volume was down 12.7 percent in 2009 and fell another three points through the first six months of this year. And less stamps means less revenue: the Postal Service lost $1.9 billion through the first two quarters of 2010 and is facing a deficit of approximately $7 billion next year.

There's no magic solution to balancing the books. After you've wrung as many efficiencies out of the system as possible in terms of automation and streamlined processes, you have no choice but to raise prices and decrease service. And so a two cent increase is planed for the end of the year, post offices are closing, and there's another push to go to 5-day a week delivery.

Unfortunately, this is one more bullet we'll just have to bite. For at least at this point in the process it's not like we can do without the paper versions of everything entirely. The legal and financial communities require hard copy, so you can't just say it wound up in the spam file, which is where much of their output actually belongs. Sure, you can read "People" online, but I for one don't want to bring my laptop to the beach. And where would the check be in if it weren't in the mail?

Perhaps your grandchildren's grandchildren will find it quaint that a person used to come to your house once a day to give you missives. For now, though, I'm still old school: when I see that that little yellow flag is up, my heart beats a little faster. For sure, the pickings are getting slimmer, but some days all its takes is a four color flyer from Target to make my day.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still looks forward to getting the mail. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Straight Talk

"The chair recognizes the honorable member from the great state of Alabama, Senator Sessions."

"Thank you Mr. Chairman. First let me say, Ms. Kagan, that we are honored to have you before our humble committee, and appreciate your thoughtful answers to our questions."

"Senator, thank you. It is indeed a pleasure to appear before such a distinguished panel. And I welcome the chance to have an open dialogue with you and provide answers as best as possible to the many thought provoking and important questions you wish to pose to me today."

"Ms. Kagan, thank you for your kind response and your willingness to be forthcoming and frank in this most important exercise of our cherished democratic principles."

"Senator, I stand in awe of this most time-tested process, and am humbled to be a part of this great continuum of our great country."

"Let me begin. What the hell makes you think you are qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice? You've never been a judge, never written an opinion, never argued a case before the high court."

"Well, Senator, aside from the fact that there's no requirement for any of those things, I have an MA in philosophy in addition to my magna cum laude JD from Harvard Law, have clerked for justices at the Court of Appeals level and the Supreme Court level, taught law, ran Harvard Law and currently serve as the chief legal officer for the country. You tell me if I'm qualified."

"Ms. Kagan, you served as a clerk to two very liberal judges and as a political operative in the White House under President Clinton. How can the American people think you'll be completely impartial?"

"They can't. But, sir, hard as it is to believe, I can have personal opinions and still listen to the evidence and make decisions based on what's in front of me. Sure, I'd like to change a few things, but it's not like I'm the queen. I'd be just one vote out of nine. I'll listen, talk with the others, read the applicable statutes and make a decision based on all that. Isn't that the job of a Justice?"

"Are you saying that for all laws that have been passed that you disagree with... campaign reform, gun control to name of the most recent... you'd immediately vote to overturn them all?"

"Sure, if it worked that way. But it doesn't. If it's been decided, it's done with, like it or not. True, new cases come to the Court all the time. But they aren't all or nothing. Rather, they are focused on very specific issues. The job of the court is to see if, in those particular areas, the statue is legal. If it is, so be it. If it's not, we kick it back to you. As I said earlier, you idiots make a dumb law, it's our job to tell you. You can fix it or not."

"Fifteen years ago you wrote that the judicial nomination process is ‘a vapid and hollow charade.' Still think that?"

"Absolutely, sir. We've all learned that it all about posturing for the senators, and deference for the nominee. The trick is to follow Justice Roberts' lead, and say nothing, while refusing to comment on anything controversial on the grounds it might some day come before the Court. Bottom line, If this isn't a game of ‘gotcha' I don't know what is. But I don't think you can get me."

"Ms. Kagan, to summarize: why are you such a commie pinko liberal?"

"Senator, because I am. Get over it. We all know that unless you find a smoking gun in my background, which isn't there, I will be confirmed. You may not like it, but quite frankly, it's not your turn to make the call. You guys got Roberts and Alito, we got Sotomayor and now, in all likelihood, me. Your side is still ahead on points, so relax. Maybe a few presidents down the road, it'll change. These things run in a cycle, and sooner or later it'll happen, but that's how the game is played. You know it and I know it. Now, I'm happy to answer more questions, but I suggest we get real and wrap this up quickly. Hungry? My treat."

"Thank you Ms. Kagan. We have indeed found common ground. On that note, I yield the remainder of my time back to the chair, and move we adjourn to lunch. Kagan's buyin'."


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes the political theatre of the hearings, even if they accomplish nothing. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

I Love A Piano

There are few aural experiences like walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Almost every bar or restaurant has some kind of live band, playing everything from blues to zydeco. Stop in front of any one, and you can listen to a specific song; walk on and it fades away only to be replaced by the next. The closest parallel is twisting the tuning knob on an old radio from station to station, except there is no static between the selections.

Walking down the street in New York is hardly the same thing. Yes, there are a myriad of sounds competing for your attention, and they do blend from one to the next. But rather than music, it’s more likely to be subways or construction or traffic. Few make you stop and take notice, save the siren that is obviously coming your way.

So as I walked uptown on Broadway I was pleasantly surprised to faintly hear the sound of a piano working its way through the din. The more I walked, the more pronounced it became, a sound that was obviously coming from a real instrument and not from a recording. It seemed to be emanating from the little vest pocket park I could see up ahead nestled among the approaches to the Holland Tunnel, but that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But actually it did. As I got closer, I could see not one, but two upright pianos sitting back to back with a cluster of people around them. At one was a young lady busy playing a piano rag; at the other, a little kid was picking out single notes. Neither instrument was new: one was a natural color, the other had sort of a decoupage design on it. Steel cables anchored them to a fence, and each had some plastic laminated sheet music perched above the keys. And both bore a decal that said "Play Me, I’m Yours."

Turns out that Play Me I'm Yours is is a public art project first staged in Birmingham, England, and the creation of British artist Luke Jerram. Jerram wrote that every time he went to his local launderette, "I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realized that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. I hoped that placing a piano into the space would act as a catalyst for conversation."

But it’s a big step from one piano between the washers and dryers to 60 spread around the city. The germ of the bigger idea grew out of a disaster with another of his projects. "Sky Orchestra is a performance artwork of mine that involves playing music in surround sound from 7 hot air balloons at dawn. In 2007 we were commissioned to perform over Birmingham. We all turned up to perform but got the weather prediction wrong and it was too windy to fly. We had to pay all the pilots and musicians for this failed attempt and had no artwork to show for it. With most of the budget blown, I had to think of a new artwork in just 3 weeks. Play Me, I’m Yours is that artwork."

Since its first appearance in Birmingham in 2008, he has staged it around the world in such cities as Sao Paulo, London and Barcelona, and this year will include Belfast, Cincinnati, and Pécs, the fifth largest city in Hungary among others. In each, volunteers are enlisted to look after the pianos, unlocking them at 9AM and closing them up at 10PM, as well as covering them if it rains. Beside that, there is no restriction. Photos on the project’s website show people playing them, singing next to them, even doing handstands on them.

As for me, I found a spot under a tree, and listened for a while. After a bit, the young lady moved on and kid got called by his mother to head home. I had to catch a train as well, so got up and headed uptown. I hadn’t even gotten out of the park when I heard more music behind me. It took me a few moments to identify the opening notes of Elton John’s "Funeral for a Friend." I smiled and keep walking as it faded out. But no worry; I changed my route and headed towards Astor Place, where I was hoping to find another.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always wanted to play piano. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.