Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Holiday Fable

(Note: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidence, not to mention the writer's day to day existence)

Once upon a time there was a modern American family. HE was more or less a typically suburban male, working at a profession, interested in technology, reading and music. SHE was more or less a typically suburban female, devoted to her children, family and community, interested in movies, exercise and friends. While HE was Jewish and SHE was Presbyterian, neither was devoutly religious. And so their secular outlooks and lifestyles posed no problems, and indeed, offered up twice the usual number of chances to gather with friends and family to celebrate and eat the appropriate holiday fare, be it ham or latkes.

THEY also had two CHILDREN, boys about 3 years apart. When the CHILDREN were smaller, any holiday was an occasion to indulge in all the trappings of that particular celebration, be it chocolate bunnies at Easter or chocolate coins at Chanukah. For Christmas time, that most major of holidays, SHE liked to decorate the house for the season, with wreaths and candles and a tree with lights. The KIDS eagerly participated, and HE was happy to help as well. THEY even went so far for several years as to tromp through the snow and cut their own tree, an outing to which THEY all eagerly looked forward.

But as time went on and the KIDS grew older, the process lost its allure. And so the concession was made to buy a tree that had been cut by others, as opposed to doing the job themselves. In the beginning this was also a family outing, with different prospects being hauled out of the line and examined under the floodlights, until the winner was selected by acclamation and strapped to the top of the car. Once home, HE got it set up by the picture window in the living room and circled it with lights. The BOYS hung the ornaments, while SHE saw to the rest of the room and the other decorations, making it a festive place indeed.

Alas, like all things, this stage had its own lifetime as well. Eventually there came a time when one BOY was off on his own, while the other BOY lost interest in the process. As the holiday season approached, they stopped to pick up a tree almost as an afterthought. But rather than it being a collaborative effort, SHE was forced to basically do it herself, while HE and one BOY stood by waiting impatiently. After a few cross words, they left treeless, with hurt feelings and sadness all around. Seeking to make amends, HE offered to go out again with HER to get a tree. And while they liked the smell and feel of a real one, they decided to try an artificial version, opting for convenience. HE set it up, the BOYS helped trim it and SHE fined tuned it all, and once again there was festivity throughout the house.

Time went by, the BOYS got older and HE and SHE became empty nesters. The house seemed bigger than ever, with just the two of them wandering through it. Then once again, the holidays came, and it was time to open all the boxes and decorate. Since the KIDS were gone, the task fell to HER, with HE providing mere technical assistance to set up the tree and lights. SHE worked steadily, setting out the special cards she had kept, the special ornaments they had accumulated and the sentimental decorations made by the children when they were young. SHE grumbled as she did it, partly wondering if it were worth it and would be appreciated. But slowly, from an empty room that they almost never entered except to adjust the heat, emerged a festive tableaux that welcomed all who passed by or chose to sit and enjoy. And even HE agreed that it looked good and helped to make the season special.

And then in almost no time it was Xmas eve. The BOYS came home from places near and far. FRIENDS stopped by to share the season. HE uncorked the wine and poured the drinks. And SHE put dips and snacks for all to enjoy. And ALL admired the room and the spirit it conveyed. And wherever they came from and whatever they believed, they all wished each other a joyous holiday season, a happy New Year, and peace and joy, all in a place that helped to celebrate this special time of year.

(And remember: this is a work of fiction... sort of.)


Marc Wollin of Bedford thanks all for reading this space for yet another year. It is appears weekly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquire and online at

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Tron Legacy

You'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to have heard about it. For the last three years, the Disney machine has been leaking, teasing, hyping the follow-up to a movie that was admittedly a flop when it premiered in 1982. No matter that minor detail. This time around the numbers will add up: 1 cartoon, 2 videogames, 3-D glasses, and $170 million dollars have been deployed to make Christmas 2010 the season of "Tron:Legacy." As Adam Rogers writes in Wired, "Come December 17, when the movie comes out, your butt will be in a seat and your head will be plugged into migraine-inducing Urkel goggles like everybody else. You will like ‘Tron: Legacy.' That's not a prediction - it's a command."

If, like me, you remember the original, you are at least curious as to what that order will turn out to be about. Being the geeky type (and back then, that was a pejorative characterization as opposed to now), I anxiously queued up to see the movie with friends and remember being blown away by what it was trying to do. The story was OK... in fact, I can hardly recall much of it. But as the first film where computer graphics ruled the screen, it was a tantalizing view of what could be. The "The Matrix" and other CG films were still a dozen years in the future; "Tron" was the toe in the water of where it might all lead.

In some respects, my own experience with computers is a parallel one. My dad worked in information management, though he was hardly a techie. But at about the same time the movie came out he got a Timex-Sinclair. When I visited him he showed it to me, a plastic box with a membrane keyboard about the size of an open paperback book. This early personnel computer was cheaper than Radio Shack's TRS-80, the Commodore 64 and the Apple 1, but did almost nothing. You could program it in BASIC to play blackjack (using numbers, not cards) and not much else in black and white on your TV screen. But like TRON it was a window on what could be, might be, must be coming down the road.

Not long after that I went out on my own and bought my own first computer, a Kaypro II. Considered portable because it had a handle on it, it was a 30 pound metal box that included a keyboard, a glowing green 8" screen and a pair of 5 ¼ floppy disc drives. I remember taking it out of its box and setting it up on the floor. I turned it on only to see a winking cursor: nothing else. It took a while to understand the concept of programs and machine code and a language called CP/M. Eventually I was able to write on it (PerfectWord), create simple spreadsheets (PerfectCalc) and even play an Asteroid-like game of glowing green Martians (the letter "M") attacking glowing green guns (the letter "G") to be shot down by bullets (You guessed it... the letter "B").

Now, 28 years and several dozen desk and laptops later I'd sooner be without my arm than without my computer. I don't try and buy the most cutting edge device, but look for that sweet spot between performance and price. I invariably buy machines that I think are way more than adequate for my needs, than invariably stress them to the max. And I'm not alone. After all, who would have thought that my now 80-year old mother would almost require a machine that would enable her to swap email with her friends, load and manage her iPod and video chat with her grandson in Russia? That's about as far as you can get from her early tech encounters watching her Aunt Elizabeth tune her Gloritone radio to her favorite soap opera "Our Gal Sunday."

It's a road that's hardly ending. "Tron" may represent the next evolution in visual imagery, or it may be just another sci-fi flick that gives you a 3-D headache. Likewise, I have been on a parallel path, with no assurances where I'm heading. To be fair, I certainly haven't ridden a light-cycle to this point... more like a tricycle with training wheels... but I've made progress. Like Jeff Bridges in the new movie, I'm older and slower, not sure what's happening around me and sometimes it's hard to tell the bad guys from the good ones... but at least I'm still in the game.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is already tired of 3D movies. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Shoot the Duck

The challenges are real. The war in Afghanistan is now solidly in its tenth year with no clear ending in sight, notwithstanding agreement by all that we need to get out. Despite massive amounts of stimulus and signs of increased hiring by both small and large businesses, unemployment is ticking upward. Tax cuts which were deliberately passed with a very finite time horizon to allow time to rebalance the system are set to expire, forcing less is more and more is less arguments from each side that stand logic on its head. And John McCain is giving new meaning to redefining standards as he keeps moving the goalposts as to when he'll accept a recommendation on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

But don't despair: the good news is that Congress, despite its lame duck status, is still hard at work debating, drafting legislation and rounding up the votes needed to take action. To be clear, it's not on any of the aforementioned issues. Those, along with the START treaty, immigration policy and a host of other thorny issues will never even come close to coming up for a vote. Rather, Democrats and Republicans have reached across the aisle, shaken hands and then patted themselves on the back for taking bold and courageous legislation steps in other areas.

The Senate joined the House in passing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which allows for more frequent inspections of processing plants in an attempt to limit outbreaks of food-borne illness. There was the $4.55 billion payout for black farmers and would-be farmers, as well as to American Indians who claimed racial discrimination in federal funding. And in an overwhelming bipartisan display of agreement, they have rebuked Charlie Rangel for his admitted unethical behavior with the sternest measure short of expulsion they can muster, a 5-minute talking-to. (Jon Stewart: "Charlie. Charlie. You... that was bad, Charlie. Alright. Go sit down.")

But if there's a model for lawmaking in these troubled and rancorous days, it has to be the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation, or CALM Act. Acting on the scourge of our times, those overly loud commercials that force you reach for the mute button, this bill aims to restore sanity to television viewing. "Consumers have been asking for a solution to this problem for decades, and today they finally have it," said California Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo, who sponsored the bill. "The CALM Act gives consumers peace of mind, because it puts them in control of the sound in their homes."

The House overwhelming gave its nod to the bill, joining the Senate which had done so earlier in the year. It now goes to the President for signing. But considering what else is happening in the country, is this really a good use of the precious legislative calendar? Apparently so. "If I'd saved 50 million children from some malady, people would not have the interest that they have in this," said Eshoo. "Consumers will no longer have to experience being blasted at. It's a simple fix to a huge nuisance."

It's such a huge nuisance that both sides saw fit to shelve their ideological high ground. There were no complaints from Republicans about overreaching government regulation, nor from Democrats about subsidies to widget makers who might lose market share now that they can't scream about their wares. And our nation is the better for it: all those sitting on their couch watching endless hours of TV because their unemployment benefits have run out now have protection from intrusive infomercials. In an interesting footnote, the legislation passed on a voice vote, wherein House members all yell their acclamation at the same time. In this case, louder was obviously better and got its way, which runs counter to the spirit of the law itself. But we digress.

For a lame duck session, Harry Reid has an agenda that is stunningly ambitious, especially considering he couldn't get half of what he wanted passed in the regular session. Mitch McConnell has said he'll be happy to work together and compromise with the Democrats, as long as nothing actually gets done. Regardless of which side you favor, its obvious nothing of consequence is going to happen. So perhaps we'd be best off saving at least a few bucks on the lights and the heat, and call it a day at the Capital for this year. Or as Will Rogers said about a lame duck Congress, "It's like where some fellows worked for you and their work wasn't satisfactory and you let ‘em out, but after you fired ‘em you let them stay long enough so they could burn your house down." It would be funny if it weren't so true.


Marc Wollin of Bedford, like a good many, has just about had it with everybody in Washington. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Gift of Saving

Especially at this time of year, we're all reminded of the need to be generous. In that light, what better idea than to find something or someone which needs help, and offer then a little support? There are a myriad of organizations and causes out there, each of which requires just a small commitment from you to make a difference. You generally pledge a certain sum and moral support, and most importantly, your attention to the issue at hand. The object in question gets the help it needs, and you can feel like you've done good.

The laundry list of potential needs is almost endless: type "adopt a" into Google and you get over 27 million hits. If you're serious about it there are children and pets aplenty. But if you want to make a less demanding emotional commitment, you can also take under your wing a library or a stretch of highway, a wild horse or a river. And while the dollars you offer up can certainly make a difference, it's as much about awareness as anything else. For if you know about it and talk about, it's less likely to get lost in the shuffle and be forgotten. And that is certainly the case for Save the Words.

A project of the Oxford University Press, Save the Words is aimed at doing just that: savings words which heretofore have been a part of regular speech but have fallen on hard times (actually, like "heretofore"). And there are a lot of candidates. The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for over 600,000 words, while its online cousin grows by 1800 new and revised words a quarter. Recent additions have included "vuvuzela," those plastic horns that all but overshadowed the World Cup, "bromance," defined as a close but non-sexual relationship between two men, and those darlings of economic policy "quantitative easing," "overleveraged" and "toxic debt."

Of course, the bigger the list gets, the less we use. Or more to the point, we squeeze out the old ones and assimilate the new ones. Just how many of the inhabitants of those pages get aired out regularly? While it's hard to give any precise figures, researchers say that a five year old just beginning school will have a vocabulary of around 4000 to 5000 word families, while a university graduate will have a vocabulary of around 20,000 word families. And any person in a technical field is likely to have an even bigger mouthful: for instance, it's estimated that medical school graduates have 30,000 words on the tip of their tongues, even if they struggle to remember that "gastralgia" is just another way of saying stomach ache.

That means even with doctors and lawyers talking non-stop, there's only so much that gets said. And that leaves an awful lot of orphans deep in the pages that don't get to see the light of day. Hence the Save the Words campaign.  A very clever website, it presents a collage of obsolete and archaic words which are gradually drifting into oblivion. When you peruse the site the potential adoptees call out to you (a cute feature at first which you can thankfully turn off), asking you to pick them. When you select a candidate, you are presented with a definition, a sample sentence and the chance to sign a pledge to use the word frequently in correspondence and conversation, thereby bringing it back from the lip of extinction. No subtraction from your wallet needed, just addition to your everyday vocabulary.

There are plenty from which to choose. Of course, like any grouping of orphans, some are cute and cuddly, while others are a little rougher around the edges. In both cases, however, there's a good chance that they have never graced your everyday speech. There's "senticous," a word from the 1600's meaning prickly or thorny. Or how about "obarnate," another term from the Middle Ages meaning to arm yourself against a foe. "Quaeritate" means to ask, while "ossifragant" means bone-breaking. And next time you bang your head on something, you can note that rather than being somewhat tender the resulting goose egg is "tenellous."

The trick, of course, is putting it into action. So tomorrow morning call your friend and profess your lubency to vicambulate. Then, before they call the cops, make sure they know aren't offering to do anything immoral, just professing your willingness to take a walk. And consider yourself a dutiful foster mamma or papa, and be satisfied that you have done your language proud.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves words, even those he doesn't use. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.