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.