Saturday, November 27, 2010

Better to Receive

If you're an early bird you might reading this on Black Friday. Or maybe you got to it on Small Business Saturday. It might even have languished until Cyber Monday. (Note: Sunday as a retail destination is still up for grabs.) But regardless of when you get to it, this column will solve a major dilemma: what to get me for the holidays. I know you're been lying awake at night thinking about it, and for that I apologize. It's just that there's so much stuff out there that it's taken me some time to sort it all out. And so to enable you to finally get a good night's sleep, please feel free to pick and choose from the following list. Not to worry: there's something for every budget.

For scribbling notes day by day I like to use a pencil, enabling me to erase and rewrite. But after the initial spate of creativity, I'd just as soon lock it in. So this year I want a Sharpie Liquid Pencil. Brought to you by the folks that make the best marker in the business, this hybrid uses a liquid graphic solution that is like lead, and indeed, can be erased for 72 hours. After that the marks become permanent. So now I can throw away my mechanical pencils and tubes of teensy-weensy leads. And it's just $5.49 for a two pack at Staples. If ever the moniker applied, this is proof of better living through chemistry.

Those who know me know I like to travel, and like to keep track of where I've been. Maps are great for that, but a little dull. So this year, I'd love to have a Hi Tech Art Map. Sure, it looks like a regular world map. But it comes with 100 push in LED's that light up in eight different colors when activated. It even has two blinking ones, which can indicate home and where I am that week so my wife can keep track. Amazon has it for less than $125. Yes, it does give off an aura of world domination, but I promise I'm really harmless.

Since my backpack is my office, my endless quest is to find things that are compact yet functional. The wireless mouse I carry is bulky and undersized, but it's hard to imagine working for any period of time on my laptop's trackpad alone. Enter Microsoft's Arc Touch Mouse. Looking as much like zen sculpture as a piece of office tech, it flops to a flat, rounded, rectangular slab when packed. When it's time for use, you arch its back to a traditional mouse shape, a process which also turns it on and connects it to the computer. Just $69 and change from, and that includes free shipping. And it proves that Steve Jobs isn't the only one with design chops.

I love to take pictures, but I don't like to lug a big camera with me. That means that often the only way I can snap a shot is with my phone. OK for quick pics, not so much for getting it all in. So I love the idea of Photojojo's magnetic lenses. Each the size of a fat thimble, one is a macro/wide angle combo, the other a fisheye. You adhere a small metal ring around the lens on your phone, then these babies snap on with a click. Twenty bucks for the wide angle, twenty-five for the fisheye, forty bucks for the pair. It's still not Ansel Adams, but it's certainly easier.

Beyond those are a few other odds and ends on which I have my eye. I like the new Global Droid Phone, which works on Verizon here and on overseas systems as well ($199). I no longer have anything in a locker, but the Master Lock 1500 which opens not with a dial but with a directional pad is pretty cool ($13). And if you want to splurge, the Aquavolo Music-Chromotherapy shower head combines a futuristic stainless steel design offering waterfall and rain settings, along with LED's and a built in MP3 player ($8500). Deliver it in person, and I'll let you have the bathroom for a test run.

Whatever you choose, just do me a favor and coordinate with all the others, OK? I'd hate to wind up with duplicates. And if you get a late start and everything has been spoken for, just give me a call: I left a few things off in your price range, and I hate to see you struggle.


Marc Wollin of Bedford really wants what he always wants for the holidays: no bills. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ride Sharing

If you have something you like, you want to share it. Readers of this space know of my love of travel. If you had the floor, it might just as easily be about music or photography or painting. Or if you're Cliff Adams, and you love motorcycling and watching the scenery go by, you make a movie.

A devoted rider for many years, Adams would motor solo and with friends whenever he could. Then, at his grandfather's 100th birthday party, he was talking to his Pop about a trip he had taken in the distant past, a nine day excursion heading west on an old Scout . At the end of his ride Pop sold the bike for little more than trainfare home. He would have loved to ride again, but, he lamented, "nobody rides forever." That planted a seed in Adams' mind. True, no one does ride forever, and the older you get, the harder it gets. So you better do it now.

He looked at his calendar and nailed own a three week period he had free. He poured over maps, called friends from around the country, and had mounts made to rig his camera to his bike. He figured he would need to travel 500 miles a day to keep to his schedule. He had no sponsor, no backers, just a desire to ride and share the experience. But that's all he needed to let out the clutch on his film "Redline America."

Departure day started ominously when smoke started to seep out from under his gas tank: seemed one of the wires to his monitor melted. He fixed it, but road closures, traffic and rain compounded the headaches at the outset. Still, he was determined to ride hard to catch up and get back on track. So he roared through New Jersey and continued through Pennsylvania, riding hard for ten hours before catching a few hours of sleep, then heading further west into the Badlands.

There he hit yet another obstacle. The road ahead was closed, riddled with potholes due to shifting ground. A sympathetic Park Ranger heard his story, and gave him a tip. He zigged and zagged, and got on a little further down the way. But while checking his viewfinder as opposed to looking at the road, one of those potholes rose up and bit him. Luckily, neither he nor the bike we're badly hurt, though he lost one of his cameras. Just two days in, and it seemed to be over before it started. He decided to flip a coin. Heads he would continue, tails he would call it a day. When it hit the ground, Pop was looking up at him. On he went.

Finally, he got to the stuff of which a biker dreams. His route was to include Needles Highway, a 14 mile stretch of road in South Dakota that is lined with rock spires and pine trees. Alas, the signs said it was closed for paving. But in fact, the signs weren't accurate: it was open, just unmarked. Adams had hit that small window when it was virgin pavement, smooth as silk with no lines yet marring its surface. He jumped on it as if he were the first to ever take the route. If there was a sign the trip was meant to be, this was it.

The ride continued through such spectacular scenery as the "Going-To-The-Sun" Road in Glacier National Park and the Cherohala Skyway in Robbinsville, North Carolina. Adams documents all this using custom onboard bike and helmet mounts. He also enlisted other biker friends to ride alongside, providing perspective so it's not just scenery whizzing by. And he takes ample time to stop and shoot the local inhabitants: not people, mind you, but moose and birds, flowers and fauna. All of this is accompanied by his own musings and running commentary on his trip, mixed with a music soundtrack written and played by a variety of friends.

What emerges is a film less about motorcycling and more about wandering. It won't make you so much want to ride as it will make you want to see the country. For while it's easy to plan your next vacation to the warmth of the Caribbean, the excitement of Las Vegas or the bright lights of Paris, to do so is to forget what exists here under our very noses. Adams traveled 10,000 miles, and never once crossed an ocean. And in doing so, he contradicted his Pop. The old man said "no one rides forever." But with "Redline America" you can, and you can do it again and again.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was captivated by "Redline America" despite the fact that all his bikes have pedals. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Double Dip

When you travel on business, you have certain destinations you need to get to and specific rhythms you need to follow. The destinations usually revolve around offices you need to be at, while the rhythms are fairly rigid. Contrast that with traveling as a tourist, where the destinations tend to be museums and historical sites, while the rhythms have a more relaxed feel.

While they certainly are not mutually exclusive, usually it's tough to combine the two. It's not that you can't go sightseeing after a day of meetings in Cincinnati (no offense intended to my friends in Cincy). More to the point, as most road warriors will tell you, when you finally wrap up for the day you just want to have a bite of dinner, catch up on your email and get some rest before the forced march begins again the next day. It's not that there's nothing interesting to see; it's just that on balance the bed in the hotel outweighs the desire to visit the Queen's City's National Sign Museum.

However, you occasionally get lucky and wind up with some extra time in a place that all but dares you to turn your back on it. That was the situation myself and an associate found ourselves in this week. Our schedule was similar to one we might have in New York or Boston or Atlanta: finish up in one city, then race to the next, usually well past any civil dinner hour. Up early the next day, packing in far too much to do with the locals, then meeting up with others for a drink and a bite before heading back to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep. But in this case, all bets were off: we were in Paris.

Like most business trips, our hours were chock full of work, starting at 6AM and going the full day. Between the schedule we were trying to keep and damage done to our body clocks from the time zone changes, we were pretty wiped out virtually all the time. Added to that was the fact that we were working and staying in La Defense, a manufactured business campus technically outside the city limits. Other than the signs in French and the Eiffel Tower in the distance, we could just as easily been in downtown Houston.

But we were in Paris! The last day of the project was no different than others: first call at 6A, non-stop go-go-go, finally a short break for a delivered sandwich at 130P (admittedly on a freshly made baguette). But when all was in the can, we saw it was about 4P on a Friday, and our flights back weren't until morning. The right thing to do would have been to go back to the hotel, and work the phones and email to the States, still in the middle of it's day some 5 hours behind us. Think how much we could accomplish! But did I mention? We were in Paris!

So we changed into walking shoes and jeans, and grabbed the Metro to the Place de Concord. We strolled towards the Tuileries on an uncommonly warm and clear November day, and stopped to get crepes; hers with sugar and butter, mine with Nutella and coconut. We meandered towards the Louvre, then crossed the Seine. Having been to Paris several times and knowing a little about where to go, and having a traveling associate who was game to walk and just look as long as I gave her time to snap pictures, we wandered the Left Bank heading towards the heart of the Latin Quarter.

The cafes were packed, and the shops will still open. Since it had been a few years since my last visit, I made a few wrong turns. No matter: like the old joke, we may have been lost but we were making very good time. Eventually we found our way to a tiny square I remembered, rimmed with open fronted cafes. As we sat in one and had a drink, a brass band made up of college students took up residence and performed an impromptu concert. We eventually wandered into a tiny restaurant nearby for a thoroughly French meal, finishing it off with a cup of gelato from a small shop on the square.

We finally grabbed a cab for a long ride back across the city to our hotel. I'd venture to say we were pleased with ourselves for performing that rarest of double-dips: a successful business trip AND a quintessential tourist excursion at the same time. I can only wish for you the same on your next outing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to share travel experiences with others. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Up All Night

Perhaps the last time you did it was when you first had kids. Or maybe it was when a close friend got married, and there was that pre-wedding party. For sure you did it in college, most likely near the end of the semester when you realized that 20 page paper on Shakespeare wasn't going to write itself. But unless that's your usual shift, most of us just don't stay up all night anymore.

I'm not talking about "can't sleep" staying up. Rather, it's when you plan on remaining awake long after the rest of those around you have turned in. I've had a lot of those nights lately, a combination of just being busy, as well as traveling to different time zones and work which requires quick turnaround. And while it's been a "long strange trip," I did it with coffee and adrenalin and the occasional chocolate cookie, though I keep flashing on the the Grateful Dead's formula of "Livin' on reds, vitamin C and cocaine."

For me, it came in 2 waves. The first was in various hotel rooms in different time zones. Because of my travel schedule, business was happening here after business was happening there. As such, I put in a full day in the locale I was in, then conducted another via phone and email once I got back from dinner, eventually collapsing for a few hours of sleep in the wee hours before doing it again. The effect was not unlike an astronaut being isolated in a capsule in a far away environment. When I looked out the widow where I was it was dark and quiet, with only a few people or cars moving about in the middle of the night. But viewed down the phone and data lines it was high noon in New York, with a commensurate amount of activity.

Mind you, this isn't something that could be done effectively probably even 5 years ago, and certainly not as cheaply. But with email and Skype and my MagicJack phone thingy, I could see, read and hear in Brazil or Russia as if I was down the block in New York. Indeed, while I felt compelled to tell people where I was out of fear the lines would sound bad, the connections were so good they either didn't believe me, or gave no thought nor concession to my situation and time. And since I had absolutely no distractions sitting on the phone and my computer in a bathroom in Russia at 2AM (so as to keep the noise down while my family slept), I actually could respond quicker and more focused than had I been at my desk.  It's a long way to go to get some quality office time, but it worked.

In the second instance we spend two back-to-back all nighters in New York City as we raced to get a time sensitive project out the door. They were planned for and I had a small team with me. But there were definitely times that each of us literally fell asleep in the middle of a discussion. When that happened we let the offending party catch a few moments of shut eye and just kept going around him or her. They awoke shortly with a start to see we were further down the road, and joined in after shaking themselves out like a dog after a bath.

Of course, this being the Big Apple we were never the only ones awake. When I walked out at 3AM to get some cold drinks and snacks for the gang, there were numerous delis open for business who thought it completely normal for a guy to roll in in the middle of the night for a bunch of sodas and chips. I passed one restaurant that advertised African and Caribbean home cooking where it was nearly impossible to get a seat, as it seemed every cab driver in the city was taking their lunch break there at the same time. And the next night when we realized at 4AM that we were running out of blank CDs, I had my choice of two places within a block that carried multiple possibilities. Nothing like a little comparative price shopping while the sun is still a fever dream in the future.

But then it was over. I was back on a regular clock with the normal human beings. Back to rush hour trains, lines at the coffee wagon and running out of chicken salad in the bodega for the day. I confess I like the light, but there's no denying there are definite advantages to keeping the schedule that Sookie Stakhouse keeps.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has gotten to where if he sees a bed he sleeps, with no questions asked. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.