Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Elements of 2011

Big news! (Or at least what passes for big news in the world of chemistry.) This year saw the naming of three new elements on the periodic table. As is customary, the scientists involved in the discovery got first crack at coming up with a new moniker, much like naming a puppy. In the case of element 110, they called it Darmstadtium, after the town in which it was discovered. For 111, they went with Roentgenium, in tribute to the discoverer of X-rays. And 112 will be known forever as Copernicium, after the Polish astronomer Copernicus, who proclaimed that Earth was not the center of the universe.

In fact, a number of other unusual elements have also been created this year, just not in a lab. But they too have strange behaviors and structures, and can be hard to pin down. Herein then is a look at those that streaked across the sky in 2011, some to be around for a while, some to never been seen again.

Gaganium: A fast moving particle which almost continually changes its appearance, cloaking itself in bizarre coverings of other elements, including ME(at), SP(andex) and BU(bbles). Has never been seen at rest.

Romnimium: A particle originally discovered in limited amounts in Massachusetts in 2002, there had been talk of the discovery of a large supply in 2008, though that proved incorrect. Again this year there is talk of a large find, though scientists are having a hard time confirming it is the same element as sighted in the past, as many of its properties have almost completed reversed themselves.

Euronium: A particle discovered in 1999 that is actually a combination of a 23 other unique substances, this element was reasonably stable until this year. But as one substance has been decaying, then another, the entire particle has become unstable, with the result that it may disintegrate violently. Scientists in Germany are working to shore up the weakest links, the so called Greek force, to prevent an explosion.

Weddingarium: Discovered in Britain, this particle was created with great fanfare by the joining of two very minor particles, Williamonium and Katium. While the combined particle itself is expected to have little influence on anything at all, the actual melding of the two produced a cataclysmic light show that was blinding in intensity. This intensity also revealed a heretofore hidden substance, the so-called Pipa particle.

Newtonium: A particle once thought to be decaying to extinction, now threatening to render a number of other similar elements inert, notably Bachminium, Perronium and the aforementioned Romniunium. Highly charged, it has been known to attack so called "looker" cells. In its former state it was known as a particle that caused disruption deep inside the complex Beltway molecule, but now appears to act the same way from outside.

Osaminium: An elusive particle thought to be found only in caves in Afghanistan, it was finally discovered in Pakistan in front of a television. Due to its highly toxic nature, scientists destroyed it and disposed it at sea.

Packerarium: A particle characterized by its green and yellow wavelengths, this particle seems to smother most other particles with which it comes in contact. Consisting of 11 quarks at any given time, the one at the center of its structure, dubbed the Rogers boson, may be the most pure boson ever discovered.

Bieberarium: A very new particle discovered in Canada, it creates a strong force attraction for other similarly aged particles, who cluster around it whenever to appears. Interestingly, older particles have no attraction to it. Scientists have no idea of its half-life, and whether it will last another year or decay quickly.

Debatorium: A particle formed briefly when 6 or 7 highly similar quarks, each virtually indistinguishable from the next, come together. Once assembled, it exhibits a very agitated state, throwing off a high level of energy in waves. After a series of these waves, the particle disintegrates, typically reforming far away several weeks later, after which the process repeats. Seen most easily through a Foxscope.

Obaminium: A particle discovered with great fanfare just 4 years ago, it was originally characterized as one with limitless energy and ability to bind with all types of disparate particles. As it has decayed over time, scientists have been puzzled by its move to a lower energy state and its inability to meld with other substances.

There are reports that scientists are experiencing fatigue trying to chart these new discoveries, with their fleeting and complex tracks. Or as one chemist was heard to say, "In the new year, I'd give anything for a good old piece of lead."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is looking forward to new scientific discoveries in 2012. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Santa Ap

"I am Siri's cousin Santi, your holiday personal assistant. How can I help?"

"Santi, I need to talk about Christmas."

"Checking. There is no one named Christmas listed in your contacts."

"No, Santi, I need help with the holiday Christmas."

"Christmas falls on December 25th every year. Would you like me to add it to your calendar?"

"Santi, no. I need help with Christmas presents."

"There are approximately 3.79 million Christmas presents nearby. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Uh, no Santi. I need presents for my family."

"Checking. There are texts in your inbox from Billy Johnson and Carolyn Johnson and Mrs. Marge Johnson containing the word 'present. '"

"Santi, tell me about Billy's list first."

"Billy's List is a web site listing the top horror movies by box office gross since 1950. It was started by Billy Colligan, a 23 year old college drop-out now ranked 746 on the Forbes list of Top Millionaires under 25."

"No Santi! Our son Billy Johnson!"

"I found a Billy Johnson, age 13, in your contact list. Do you want me to call or text him?"

"No, Santi. Just read me the text from Billy Johnson containing the word 'present.'"

"Reading. 'Dude, as a Christmas present I would like a new videogame. '"

"Santi, do you know which videogame Billy wants us to buy for him?"

"Checking. There are 197 videogames in stores nearby. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Santi, what kind of video game is best for a 13 year old boy?"

"Checking. Males in the age range of 12 to 15 prefer videogames which include shooting, cars and scantily clad girls. There are 5 scantily clad girls nearby. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Uh, no Santi. Read the text from Carolyn Johnson, age 17, containing the word 'present.'"

"Reading. 'Daddy, what I really want as a present is a Kardashian Kollection faux fur coat. You're the best!'"

"Santi, where can I find a Kardashian?"

"Checking. I have found 37 reality shows containing Kardashians. Do you want me to record them?"

"No, Santi! What I meant was at what designer store can I get a Kardashian Kollection faux fur coat?"

"Checking. Kardashian Kollection can be found at Sears, next to the chainsaws. Would you like a map?"

"Later! Santi, read the text from Mrs. Marge Johnson containing the word 'present.'"

"Reading. 'Honey, you know the kind of present I like. Whatever you get me will be fine. Love you.'"

"Santi, what kind of presents do wives like?"

"Checking. Wives like jewelry as presents. I found 4 jewelry stores close by. Do you want a map to them from your location?"

"Santi, is there anything I can get for my wife as a present that won't cost an arm and a leg."

"Checking. I'm sorry, I can find no presents that meet that criteria nearby."

"Santi, one more thing. What is the correct greeting for this time of year?"

"Checking. The correct greeting is Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year."

"Well then, Santi, Happy Holidays to you."

"Checking. There are 27 other holidays which are happy. Do you want me to add them to your calendar?"

"That's OK, Santi, I get it."

Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes all can find a map to a happy holiday season. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Not Tom, Dick or Harry

For a while it looked like Michelle had a real chance. Then it was Rick's turn until he imploded. John hasn't been able to break through, nor the other Rick. And Ron has his core of supporters, but can't seem to go beyond that. But until he bowed out it looked like Herman had a real chance. Despite his perceived shortcomings, Mitt is still a strong possibility. And after being left for dead earlier in the year, Newt has defied all pundits and currently holds a commanding lead at the front.

Notice anything about the leaders in this year's crop of contenders jockeying to challenge the president? Yes, they are all conservatives. Yes, they all are for a strong defense. Yes, they all believe taxes are too high, regulation too widespread and government too big. But look at their names: each has a moniker that doesn't come close to breaking into the top one hundred or even one thousand of the most popular names for kids today. They aren't your usual Tom, Dick or Harry... literally.

All this in an arena where name recognition is the very currency of the realm. On that basis, you would think a John (baby name rank: 26), a Michelle (125), two Richards known as Rick (127) or even a Ronald known as Ron (342) would resonate with the public. Those are names we trust, names we are comfortable with, so much so that we give them to our kids.  But perhaps that is part of the problem: they are so common that they don't stand out. In fact, out of a pool of about 55 million registered Republicans, two of those running for the highest office in the land go by the same nickname, even if one is actually a Richard John and the other James Richard. Perhaps Rick Santorum would be better off if he went with his childhood nickname of Rooster.

In that light, you can also posit that's why Herman (1868) did so well at first, why Mitt (13,906) has never disappeared below the fenceline and why Newt (11,676) is making such a strong move. Forget policies and ideology: considering the sample of just 43 individuals in 235 years, our choices for leaders has been heavily weighted towards the unusual. While it's true we have had three Georges and six James's, we've also had a Millard, a Woodrow, a Chester, a Rutherford, a Grover, a Lyndon and a Ulysses. And this year's contest will pit whoever is chosen against a guy named Barack, a name so unusual in the American experience that despite that fact that his very existence is a role model for many, its ranking on the baby name charts only went as high as 8503.

Perhaps the ultimate name for a presidential candidate would be one that stood out all by itself with no qualifier necessary. Then there would be little confusion with your ex-boyfriend, or that annoying college roommate who drank all the beer in your mini-fridge. Recognition would be immediate, and there would be plenty of room left over on campaign buttons and bumper stickers for slogans. Using that line of reasoning, it's surprising that the party elders haven't started a movement to draft Cher, Madonna or Bono.

Of course, it's absurd to think that voters will select a candidate on the basis of a name. Or is it? This was the year that introduced the binary question on pop culture as some kind of litmus test for voters to use in determining fitness for the presidency. In one debate we found out that Rick Santorum preferred Jay Leno over Conan O'Brien, Tim Pawlenty preferred Coke to Pepsi and Ron Paul preferred BlackBerries to iPhones. What should one read into the fact that Newt picked "American Idol" over "Dancing with the Stars?" And Michelle Bachman couldn't choose between Elvis and Johnny Cash. Does that indicate her inability to pick should it ever come down to a choice between the right to privacy and the need for security? You be the judge.

But names, like relatives, are given and not chosen. Is it fair to hold anyone accountable for choices their parents made? Obviously not. And so whomever is the challenger, whether their name rolls trippingly off your tongue or makes you wonder what his or her parents were thinking, one can only hope that voters do more than take the WC Fields approach when they make their choice: "Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against."


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds the Republican debates the best reality show on TV. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Unempty Nest

It's quiet again. In fact, you could say it's the lull before the next storm. Not that slack time between the freak Halloween snow and the first real accumulation of winter, but rather that interim between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the kids have come and gone and will come again. We went from quiet home to apartment complex and back, all at headsnapping speed. It's not that we don't love our boys and welcome having them back home so we can spend time with them. Rather, it's that we've gotten used to quiet and space, and well, their visits unempty the nest.

It's true that back at the beginning the prospect of the two of us home by ourselves seemed terrifying. After all, we had spent just 4 years alone in each other's company, followed by 21 as a threesome, then foursome. So on a purely mathematical level, we had 5 times more experience thinking of ourselves as a trio or quartet as opposed to a duo. Then 3 years ago our youngest went away to school, and we were forced to sit across the table and talk to each other with no buffer. Many a relationship has faltered on far less.

But wonder of wonders, we got used to it. It wasn't better, merely different, and in this case, different wasn't necessarily bad. Yes, there were still many times where we missed a fresh point of view, or someone with an actual preference on what to make for dinner, or a person with whom to watch a movie or football game. But as we settled into new patterns, we found that there were even positive elements about our newly achieved status quo.

It's not like its anything big. After all, the boys still have their own bedrooms, which lie fallow in their absence. So from a pure space standpoint their presence hardly impinges on ours in any meaningful way. They were always very independent, and so we can still out to dinner or see friends and not worry about them. And we have a third car that they can share if both are home, so transportation is hardly an issue, other than getting a momentary start when we see a vehicle in the driveway that we're not used to seeing there. But still, their departure enabled us to discover a few states of minor bliss that are disrupted by their presence.

High on the list is getting my socks back. When the kids were little and growing, separating a pile of clean clothes was a no brainer: the size of the stuff made it easy to sort out the three sets of male attire. But once they got to be my height, it got harder to parse the load coming out of the dryer. I would find my things in their rooms, and theirs in mine. Once they went away, however, it went back to a simple binary decision: girl stuff went to my wife, boy stuff to me. But when our now 21 and 24 year old were home over the holiday, my socks mysteriously evaporated. Now that the kids have returned to their usual places, so too have my footies.

Likewise, the food situation changes. To be fair, there is always plenty in the house at all times, so other than finding out that the leftover pizza has been scarfed down for breakfast the next day and is no longer available for lunch, it's not a deal breaker. But it's the little things that we've gotten used to. In their absence our supply has contracted to where the entire fridge is no longer taken up with gallons of milk. Leftovers stay leftovers, enough to provide an entire additional meal for one or both of us on a subsequent night. And on those nights when we don't feel like cooking, we're fine with a salad or soup or even a bowl of cereal, as opposed to someone wandering by going, “So what's for dinner?”

Boys, if you're reading this, don't take it the wrong way. We love having you home, and you are welcome any time. But understand that as we are getting older, our ability to adapt and change is more limited. As much as it feels strange to you when you come home, know it is similar for us. So just take it slow when you return. And give me back my socks.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves having his kids home. Really. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

On Beyond Beta

Every morning when I first turn on my phone I see a bunch of icons in the upper corner. A big "M." A little phone receiver. A thought bubble. Finally, a little file with a check through it. Each of the first three means something came in since I last looked which requires my attention, in this case, email, a phone call and a text respectively. The last requires the least attention, but is by far the most interesting. It tells me about problems I didn't know I had, and improvements I didn't know I needed. It's the icon informing me that one of the myriad of programs I have was updated overnight.

Now, on the surface, that's a good thing. It's means that somebody is looking at a product or ap or service, and figuring out ways to make it better. True, just as likely they are ironing out bugs that were there when they first shipped it out the door. But considering that there's a more than excellent chance that I didn't pay for what I'm using, it's hard to complain that it wasn't exhaustively stress tested before it was released to me, the unsuspecting and decidedly cheap public.

It's an attitude that the technical world calls "always in beta." Beta used to indicate a product that wasn't ready for prime time, one that was available only to a select group of techies that signed up and were willing to endure a less-than-final iteration as the price of being on the cutting edge. They were expected to put the product through its paces, and provide feedback to the designers and developers so they could make a final version ready for the public. Indeed, it was a geek badge of honor to say, "Yeah, I'm a Beta tester for Google Voice / Microsoft Office / World of Warcraft." Only the coolest nerds need apply, a phrase which admittedly all but defines the term oxymoron.

But times have changed. In the hurry-up, get-it-out-there, build-critical-mass-quickly, all-but-the-first-is-last world that is technology, there is no time to shake anything out until it's all but perfect. And so anything that can be updated is. That means that once a product feels usable it goes out the door, hoping to gain a toehold while not pissing off too many people with its shortcomings. So what if a few of those angry birds explode collateral pigs without a direct hit. Get the public hooked, and we'll update to sturdier swine come version 1.1.

Thankfully this predominantly happens in the world of software and services, and not with physical things. Imagine a refrigerator whose ice maker randomly hurled cubes across the room, or a car whose brakes intermittently went into anti-lock mode, or a treadmill that sped up every time it clicked over a new mile. Needless to say, you would take it back screaming to the store where you got it. Sure, it's probably fixable, but for what you paid you shouldn't have to walk into your kitchen and duck.

And that may be the key: most of the aps and services that come still in beta cost us zero, or precious little. It's not that $.99 is nothing. But at that price point you have to keep your expectations in line with the deliverables. Sure, my Gmail occasionally hangs up, or Skype will drop a video call between me and the guy I'm chatting with in Paris or Pandora will freeze when playing a song. But considering the cost/benefit ratio involved, I guess I can be a little more forgiving. After all, just today I downloaded Google music, and through it uploaded 8000 songs to some far away computer which enables me to listen to any tune I have on demand on my phone at any time. Cost? Absolutely nothing. So I need to chill a bit if it burps every now and again between "She Came In Through" and "The Bathroom Window."

In that light, perhaps we've moved (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) on beyond beta. "New" doesn't capture it, "improved" is a given, while "final" is a state that will never exist. So if Alpha is the initial release phase of a product and Beta is the testing stage, maybe we're now live in Delta, the Greek letter that is representative of change. Whatever you call it, it is a modern truth: few new things these days ever stay the same.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is continually amazed at what he can download at no cost. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday

If you're a Steely Dan aficionado, "Black Friday" conjures up visions of a stock market crash: "When Black Friday comes/I'll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor." If your sensibility runs more towards rapper Lil' Kim, her version of "Black Friday" is focused on dissing fellow hip hopper Nicki Minajs: "It'll be a murder scene/I'm turning Pink Friday to Friday the 13th." But if you're a retailer the term conjures up the sweet day when the red ink runs out and your year turns to profits.

But what to buy? Every year virtually every publication runs an article under general heading of "the best stuff to give." Usually it's themed to their audience, with Esquire offering up "The 25 Most Stylish Gifts under $100" while Bloomberg BusinessWeek has "The Executive Gift Guide 2011." In this space however, we have a more focused mandate: to find the things that make you roll your eyes as to how anyone could buy such a thing, while at the same time thinking "wait a minute! This would be perfect for..." In that spirit we offer the following list, with the explicit disclaimer that I covet none of the following.

New York Yankees ProToast Toaster: For the fan who just has to be reminded of his or her team before they even have their morning sip of coffee, there's the ProToast Toaster. Drop in two slices of bread, and out they come with the team's logo toasted in the center. Not to worry: as an officially licensed product of Major League Baseball, there is one available for every club, including one for Mets fans, which randomly burns the entire piece of bread.

Plush Sushi: Because nothing says fresh uncooked fish more than a stuffed representation of it. Turn your bed from a Teddy Bear hospital into your very own smiling, cuddly bento box. Available in tuna, shrimp, and wasabi and ginger versions. Sorry, but the salmon roe version is sold out.

Bacon Everything: It's true that 2008 was actually designated "The Year of Bacon" by several major food publications. But just as it takes time for the hits of Fashion Week to make their way to your local Target store, so too has it taken time for the all things smoked pork to trickle down to, well, all things. This year you can buy bacon candy canes, a sparkling bacon Christmas tree ornament, bacon frosting and bacon flavored popcorn. And my personal favorite, a tee shirt with the symbols for barium, cobalt and nitrogen printed along with their atomic properties. Of course, taken together, they spell "BaCoN."

Lil' Vampire Pacifier: Forget having a merely cute baby. How about having one with eternal life and taste for human blood? Nicely timed to coincide with the release of the newest "Twilight" offering comes this orthodontically correct sucker, one that sports luscious red lips and a full set of teeth including sharp canines. Now your offspring will have a reason to stay up all night and cry, though it's not for a bottle.

Butterfly in a Jar: An heir apparent to those whose only pet was a rock, this is exactly what it sounds like: a glass mason jar with a butterfly in it. But it requires no food or even air. The butterfly is electronic and is activated by sound. Tap on the glass and it flitters around just like the real thing. Fun to have on your desk, or use it to drive your cat wild. Just put it out of their reach, or it'll likely get knocked down, break and your kitty will wind up with a battery in her belly.

Chocomize Custom Chocolate Bars: Know someone who has a sweet tooth, but also some other serious food jones that a regular Snickers bar won't pacify? Then head over to, and make a custom creation that will keep their blood sugar cooking. Start with your choice of chocolate, then add any of the more than 100 options, from beef jerky to gummy bears to curry powder. Or pick one of the favorite combinations, like The Zimmern, named for celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern: dark chocolate with mini pretzels, Pop Rocks, cayenne pepper and coffee beans.

Should none of those seem appropriate for your givees, there are plenty more: perhaps a radio controlled zombie, or a plush angry bird you can launch at people rather than pigs, or even a 1300 piece Lego model of a 1962 VW Bus. As for me, I said explicitly that I had no interest in any of the above. That being said, I confess I'm rethinking the chocolate.


Marc Wollin of Bedford needs nothing, yet will eat almost anything. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Next Right Thing

The opening act was done, and had left the stage. The waitress came around to refill coffee cups as the headliner and his accompanying guitar player made their way to the stage. Maybe 40, 50 people in the audience, twice as many empty seats as filled ones. The singer was a short, slightly-built kid with floppy hair and stubble, 22-years old as it turned out and looking barely that. He popped up on stage, bypassed the piano at the center and bent down to strap a rattle onto his left foot. The crowd, if you could call it that, giggled a little as he picked up a large gourd covered with shells and gave it a trial shake. He tentatively stomped on a wooden bar in front of the microphone, producing a deep thud like a bass drum. He glanced at the guitar player, who was holding a stick in his hand, ready to bang it straight down on the stage. They nodded at each other. And then came one of those moments that took my breath away.

It began with a steady beat and rattle, more a tribal thumping than a melody. In a piercing alto he began: "As the sun goes up over the sea/everyone was singing in a minor key/Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and priest/Gathered around for the jubilee./Two old ladies still waiting on a sign/growing bitter with age like a yellowtail wine./Shouting at the junkies in the court street light/Do The Next Right Thing or The Next Thing Right." Goosebumps went down my spine: Seth Glier was on stage.

Glier may just be the next right thing, but in spite of his tender age he's hardly a newcomer. His first 5 song EP "Why" was released in 2004, and since then he's had 4 more, the most recent being this year's "The Next Right Thing." A native of Shelburne, MA, Glier attended Boston's Berklee College of Music for a year before dropping out: "I wanted to play for people not grades, "he says. With his best friend and accompanist Ryan Hommel, they spent the last year in a blue Prius driving this way and that on their way to 250 performances. "This year," he told me, "I think we'll only do 150." He laughed: "I have a girlfriend in DC now, and want to have a life."

To be sure, his music echoes his influences, people like Joni Mitchell, Martin Sexton and Randy Newman. But he brings his own sensibilities to it, infusing it with an emotional content that's hard to imagine in one so young until you hear some of his back story. "This year is my dad's 20th year of sobriety" he tells the audience at one point. And at another he talks about how, when he's home, one of his responsibilities is to wake up his brother. The audience titters a bit, but stops dead once he continues: "My brother is 26, autistic and non-verbal. I get him up, get him showered and get him breakfast. I learned to communicate with words better once I realized how to communicate to someone without them."

That aside, it all comes down to the music, and Glier's singing and songwriting knocks you over. His songs are soulful, emotional, and on stage he takes each by the throat and shakes it alive, to the point that he's literally falling off the piano stool. In "Walk Katie Home" he talks about being so smitten with a young lady that he would drive 4 hours to New York City where she lived just to walk with her. (It didn't last," he said after. "She's now in Germany dating a glockenspiel player. That's life, I guess"). In "No Place to Land" he feels sorry for those who gain success at the expense of losing their personal moorings: "I lost you, dismissed you, tonight I miss you/I've been flying with my life in such command/that I've got no place to land." And my favorite, "New World I See," as yet unrecorded, is smooth and heartfelt about another girl you just have to meet: "Kentucky, keep your whiskey/ Georgia, keep your peach/My Carolina is sweeter than sweet."

I love live music, and have seen a lot of performers. And while many others have seen 30 Springsteen concerts, or followed U2 to 10 different cities, my particular passion is singer/songwriters or groups which are unheralded or little known. I love passing on discoveries to others, music you might not have heard of, and truth be told, may never really break out. But I don't think that's the case here. So consider yourself tipped off: Seth Glier is making the rounds. Get into him now before others tell you what you're missing. It's The Next Right Thing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves live music of any type. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Guns, Not Butter

Some of the most eye opening things you discover aren't the things you discover at all, but where those things lead. Take books: I'm an avid reader, and always on the lookout for something new and different. In that pursuit, I plumb the usual places: Amazon's new releases, the New York Times Book Review, recommendations from friends and co-workers. And more often than not I come across the usual suspects: new efforts from Erik Larsen (very good), Neal Stephenson (in the middle of, but good so far) and Jeffrey Eugenides (on my list). But then I came across one from Linday McCrum... and it took me further.

McCrum is a photographer who divides her time between New York and California. Her usual business is portrait and fine art photography. But for the last three years her personal project has been pictures of women and their weapons. From the 280 sessions she's had, she gathers her 80 of her favorites into a book that sold out at Amazon on its first day, "Chicks with Guns."

The captivating photos include subjects you'd expect, such as women in law enforcement and competitive shooters. But it also includes a picture of Alexandra of Houston Texas, with a gun in one hand and her naked three-year-old baby boy in the other. Then there's the caption for the photo of Jen from Minnesota and her handgun: "Any girl would understand when I explain it was something I saw and HAD TO HAVE. Some women experience that feeling with clothes, some with jewelry. For me it was with a large firearm."

There's lots more of interest about the book and its topic that gets you thinking. Writes McCrum, "Gun ownership is a really serious and complex issue, and it deserves serious consideration. It deserves far more than sound bites geared toward people's fear and hate. This project is not about politics or policy. I'm not interested in glorifying anyone, nor am I interested in vilifying anyone. I was just really curious."

Now, you could leave it there. There is plenty to discuss and debate about the underlying issue, as well as the photography itself. But that's when I took the next step. In perusing the reviews posted for the book, I came across one by Kathy Jackson. A positive outlook, it wasn't her comments but rather her credentials that caught my eye. She, too, is an author, but with a dog in this fight: her paperback is entitled, "The Cornered Cat: A Womans's Guide to Concealed Carry." Even more, Jackson is the managing editor of Concealed Carry Magazine.

So off I went to their web site. A magazine celebrating the carrying of firearms unobtrusively, it has articles that cover every aspect of the topic There's "Concealed Carry for the Petite Woman," with tips for dressing so your Ruger blends in with your wardrobe. There's "The Challenged Shooter," with a discussion on hiding your Glock in your wheelchair.  And there's Jackson's own article on "Five Great Carry Finds." It reviews some of the latest trends in holsters and purses, including the Flashbang women's holster which suspends from the center of your bra for easy drawing, though "it proved difficult if not impossible to draw from the neckline, so don't look to this product to solve the dresses problem for you."

There're practical discussions as well, like Mark Walters' column called "Living an Armed Lifestyle." As he writes, once you get over the idea that there are indeed bad people in the world, and you have to be armed to protect yourself, you have to make a number of choices. This begins with such weighty matters as deciding whether to indeed break the law and carry a concealed weapon where it's not permitted. But it also includes such mundane choices as taking a stand and not buying Sticky Fingers brand BBQ sauce in the grocery store because "the Sticky Fingers restaurant chain won't allow law-abiding citizens in their eateries." And there are self-image questions as well: "are you willing to buy larger pant sizes to accommodate an inside the waistband holster?"

Here in the east coast megalopolis, where guns are generally equated with crime alone, this is eye-opening stuff. But dismissing it all as the dangerous pursuit of a small right wing contingent would be a mistake. For as McCrum says about "Chicks with Guns," she learned two lessons when working on her book: "The first is that on the subject of guns, nobody is neutral. And the other is that when you get outside of the blue-state cities, everybody has a gun."


Marc Wollin of Bedford shot .22 rifles in Boy Scout camp, but that's the extent of his firearm experience. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Trick or Treat Storm

For those of you who live in our area, these sketches will seem familiar. For those of you who live to the south, these will sound like dispatches from Mars. Either way, following are random snapshots of some goings-on surrounding what most will come to call the Halloween storm of 2011.

Wintertime: In the space of 10 minutes, we went from fall to winter. I got up and went out running into a gray, damp Saturday morning, wearing shorts and a sweatshirt. The leaves were the usual autumn assortment of reds and golds, with more on the trees than on the ground. When I got back, I checked my email, and glanced at the paper before heading up to take a shower. By the time I had gotten the shampoo out of my eyes, the lawn was covered in white and you couldn’t see the next house on the street.

If a Tree Falls in a Forest: All night long, it sounded like we were in a war zone. There was an ongoing volley of “crack” and “pop” and “bang” and “thud.” But it wasn’t bodies, it was trees. With the leaves still up and the snow being of the heavy, wet variety, the weight and stress on the branches was extreme. They would bend as far as they could, then snap and plummet to the ground, often taking others with them. We heard some bounce off the roof, though thankfully none came through.

The Immediate Aftermath: By Sunday morning it was over, and a bright blue day belied that anything had happened. Still, no power (yes, we have a generator; again, you were right, honey), no cable, no phone, no internet. We spent an hour dragging huge branches off the driveway and walks, and trying to sweep snow off the buried shrubs which sprang back to life as though on springs. A walk down the street saw similar damage to others, with a few worse off: a smashed car, a huge tree resting on a roof. Worse physical damage than from Hurricane Irene, though not as much water.

The Lay of the Land: After 28 hours without power, we decided to go out to see about getting a hot meal (our generator provides lights, heat, water and several outlets, but doesn’t provide enough juice for the oven or cooktop. And there’s only so much you can do with a George Foreman grill). It was like driving on an obstacle course. Trees hung over roads. In many places, space was reduced to a single lane, as trees had fallen on one side and the plows just plowed around them. Most neighborhoods were without power. In the main street of each town, block after block was dark, followed suddenly by lights. In those areas, stores and restaurants were packed, as people looked to stock up on supplies, get food or just get distracted.

Free Ride: Had to go to work Monday, so left early. Word was that while trains had been suspended for a day, they were running normally for the commute, though sprinkled with delays. As I walked to the station, a train was pulling in. I ran and caught it to find it all but empty. As I found a seat, an announcement: "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. This is a special transit train being operated by a yard crew. We are not uniformed. We will be making limited stops. We will not be collecting tickets. If you need assistance, I may be identified by my big MTA winter coat, and my Boston Red Sox hat.”

And Lest You Forget: I had just come from a cold, wet, storm ravaged community that was reeling for the second time in as many months from weather related destruction. But that was there. In the city the roads were dry and the grass was green. I jumped on the subway to head downtown and glanced around to see the usual assortment of passengers. Well, not quite the usual. Sitting in the corner was a young woman chatting with a friend. The woman had a white porcelain face with red polka dots and big blue tears. Complimenting that were white gloves and leggings with the same polka dots, making her look like a doll. She wore a bright yellow wig and had matching yellow shoes. At the Spring Street station, she got up and walked off like nothing was unusual. And perhaps it wasn’t. It was New York City. It was Halloween. And life goes on.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was without power for 123 hours after the storm hit. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 29, 2011

All in One

Whether you use a slow cooker or a casserole dish, the idea is to put a bunch of different ingredients together into one pot, let them cook and serve it up to a hungry audience. Normally you take care to pick certain ingredients, carefully balancing the tastes and textures so just the right flavors come through, and even though it's all coming out of the same pot, there is definition to what you're eating. That is, unless you're Kentucky Fried Chicken.

More specifically, you used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken. Now you're KFC, a nod to both a snappier and shorter tag, along with the realization that these days "fried" is a four-letter word. Admittedly, back when Harland "Colonel" Sanders started the chain it seemed like a name for the ages. But just as Radio Shack no longer sells radios and tries hard not to look like a shack, its hard sometimes to escape your own history.

Regardless of what you call it, the mainstays are still there. Fried chicken, along with the traditional sides like mashed potatoes, corn and gravy. Each is still available to sooth those southern tastebuds that even Yankees have. And there is might have stayed. But then somebody in the R&D department had an idea: What if they put it all together? After all, people are ordering the items separately, so why not save them a step? Not as a Value Meal or Dinner Box or All-In-One, where you package each separate item together is a single carrier. No, I mean really together, as in a casserole. Only they don't have casserole, so they opted for a bowl. And voila', the KFC Famous Bowl was born.

As described on the company website, they start with a "generous serving of our creamy mashed potatoes, layered with sweet corn." Then because two starches are not enough, they added breaded, fried chicken and "drizzle it all with our signature home-style gravy, topped off with a shredded three-cheese blend." And that's the old version. As of this month, you can add bacon on top as well, because as they say in their ad campaign, "everything is better with bacon". Hard to argue with their tag line, "It's all your favorite flavors coming together."

And what a together it is. But it's not the calories (680) or the total fat (31 gms) or even the sodium (2130 mgs) that troubling here, though you can take issue with any of those numbers (and those are all before they add the bacon, which probably adds another 60 calories and a bunch more fat and salt). And it wouldn't be fair not to point out that the chain, like every other one out there, does offer healthier alternatives like salads and grilled chicken. But let's face it: you don't go to KFC to get a yogurt. You go to get fried chicken. Whether or not you go into cardiac arrest after chowing down is between you, your doctor and the Colonel, but it's not like you don't know what you're getting yourself into when you open the door.

Rather, it's the idea of dumping it all into one bowl that's troubling. Yes, some foostuffs are natural compliments: pancakes and syrup, peanut butter and jelly, bagels and cream cheese. But the idea of just layering up virtually every item in the palce and eating them with a spoon starts to sound suspiciously like reverting to baby food, where mom creamed it all together to hide the vegetables. Perhaps its best summed up by Eric Trinidad writing in The Huffington Post: "I felt like I should only be having this when recovering from dental surgery, or if I'm being spoon-fed in a hospital. Have Americans gotten so lazy that we'll just put everything in a bowl and eat it like horses going to a trough?" In fairness, though, he also notes, this: "At the same time, there's something awesome about living in a country that gives us that option."

When I was growing up there was an ice cream place near us that had a special we got only when there was a bunch of us. They took a scoop of every flavor they had, and added every topping available. It was a big gloopy mess, and the name said it all: "A Pig's Dinner." Now I'm sure that the marketing department at KFC thought that "Famous Cheesy Bacon Bowl" had a better chance of bringing them in that that moniker. But especially with the bacon on top, this silk purse is indeed a sow's ear.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes fried chicken, though we rarely eats it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bordeaux on the Hudson

Back a dozen or so years ago, when work was slow and things were tough, Greg and his wife had a routine to escape the malaise. They would drop their then toddler off at her grandparents, and head to a local vineyard. There they would get a bottle and a couple of glasses, and sit outside looking over the hills. Amid sips and stares, things didn't look so bad, and they could imagine a better future. And wouldn't it be fun, they mused, if that future might someday include a vineyard of their own, where they could repeat the experience with a vino of their own vintage.

Several years later when they were checking out a new home, they discovered a bonus. Formerly owned by an old Italian gentlemen, the house had a patio with a pergola, an open topped frame that helped to define the space and kept things cooler in the summer. And what was growing up and around the structure? Not just any vines, but grapevines loaded with fruit suitable for corking.

Greg describes it as the quintessential case of be careful what you wish for. When I talked to him the other day, he was only too happy to chat: "I need a break from the harvest." For that erstwhile dream a dozen years ago has blossomed into an all-consuming hobby, one like any other that has its benefits and drawbacks.

"We grow about 200 pounds of grapes a year, in two varieties," he told me. The first is Catawba, a red grape that they use to produce a white wine. The other is Cesar, a notoriously fickle grape that produces a dark, tannic wine that is usually softened by blending with a Pinot Noir. "Other than the fact that we grow a difficult grape in the wrong soil and in the wrong climate, it's a piece of cake," he said.

Once picked, they have to squeeze out the juice. Like many non-wine making consumers, my only frame of reference is Lucy stomping around in a big vat. Greg just laughed: "Two things about that. One, grape stems are pretty sharp, and it actually hurts to step on them. And second, would you want to drink anything my feet stomped on? Yes, the alcohol produced would kill off anything harmful, but it's not a pretty picture."

Rather than go the Lucy route, he uses a stainless steel system that handles the processing, and has the added benefit of not turning his feet purple. And literally, there is a bright spot at the end. "I've always wanted a Ferrari," says Greg, "and my corker is made by a company called Ferrari. I still hope someday to have a sleek, red one, but for now this will do."

The math works out this way: 200 pounds of grapes yields about 19 gallons of liquid, which equates to about 95 bottles of wine. I asked him about any tax implications: do the "revenuers" of the government come looking for their cut? Turns out that federal law says that you can make up to 200 gallons a year for personal use. "But that's like a thousand bottles of wine, which equals about 3 bottles a day per person. Now, that's some serious drinking."

Of course, the test is in the tasting. "In our case, we let it mellow for about a year. It softens it, and creates a better flavor." They play with the process and the time a bit, seeing how they can tweak it to make it better. Greg says it will never ripen into a "colossal Bordeaux," but it's fun and it's drinkable. "What we get tends to be very dry, very alcoholic, and after a couple of glasses, starts to taste not too bad."

As to the name they bestow on their creation, they keep it simple: "We call it Plonk Blanc and Plonk Rouge." I looked up "plonk." It's an "unspecific and derogatory term in British and Australian English for wine that is notably inexpensive or judged to be of poor quality." Rather, in this case, it's Greg's homage to his favorite London Barrister, Horace Rumpole. After a long day at the old Bailey, Rumpole would stop into Pomeroy's Wine Bar for a glass of the "House Plonk - Chateau Thames Embankment."

But there's another way of looking at it as well. UK journalist Max Davidson equates plonk with "youth, excess, self-indulgence in times of penury. Forget grown-up wine. With plonk, the sweetest bouquet of all is the taste of a few pence saved." On that note, Greg, I raise my glass.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can't say he knows much about wine beyond that he likes it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 15, 2011

It's Not Butter

We try to do the right thing, we really do. We eat lots of salad, and throw in beans and fruit as kickers. We have cut down on our consumption of beef to almost nothing, and fish shows up on the table at least once a week. Our pasta is whole grain, our milk is 1% and our bread has so much fiber in it you could use it in place of wallboard.

Not that I'm complaining. I know it's all good for me, and assuming I don't get hit by a bus tomorrow, it will hopefully let me live longer with fewer problems. That's not to say I'm a nutritional saint. I still have a weakness for peanut butter cups and strawberry Twizzlers. If I'm working late, I'm likely to grab a chain store hamburger for the ride home. And especially when I go on the road, I have a tendency to eat stupider, partly as a reward to myself for the disruption to my routine, partly because I am likely to be eating alone and the only person to disapprove of my dietary choices is me, and I forgive myself very quickly.

However, in our home, even I've willingly made the turn. While my wife makes it a point to shop for healthier alternatives for us both, be it low fat yogurt or brown rice or egg white substitute, I've made major sacrifices in my own convoluted personal dietary world. I've all but given up on cookies. I'm happy with a piece of fresh fruit, especially if it's been chilled a bit in the refrigerator. And I have cut down on my ice cream consumption to once in a blue moon. It may not sound like much, but we're talking sea change here.

But I think we've gone a butter too far.

It's not like we eat a lot of it, either. We usually have a stick in the fridge and a pound or so in the freezer, but it's almost exclusively used for cooking and baking. For everyday consumption, like shmearing on a piece of whole grain, low carb, high fiber toast (yum!), we have tubs of spreadable stuff. I say stuff, because I couldn't actually tell you the brand we used. It's some well-known combination of processed oils enriched with a panoply of Greek lettered vitamins, minerals and acids that they tell me are not just good for me but "essential" to my health. What I can tell you is that it is vaguely butter-esque. That, and yellow.

But the latest product of modern food chemistry to show up on our fridge goes by the name of Smart Balance Light. On the outside, it's a variation of the usual sunny looking container that is de rigueur in the "buttery flavored spread" category. And the product itself it's a little less canary than some of the others, with a tone a bit closer to taupe, though not alarmingly so. But appearances aside, it all comes down to taste. Now, perhaps there are those of you reading this that swear by this delicacy, that find it creamy and delicious, that can't wait to pop open a container and slather your whole wheat bagel. Let the record show that I am not in your camp.

It begins with a consistency more akin to spackle: spreadable is not an adjective I'd use to describe it. Perhaps our fridge is too cold, but even when applied to bread fresh from the toaster, I have to use a disconcerting amount of elbow grease to move it around the surface. As to taste, there basically is none. No butter, no cream, nothing. The best that can be said of it is that it greases the bread, making it easier to swallow. And while there's something to be said for a slogan like "lubricates your food," it's not drawing me in.

I'm all for healthy living. I'm willing to make diet and lifestyle changes that in the aggregate will help me live longer and better. And I'm happy to try new products with an open mind towards improvement, whether they be consumable by the eyes, ears or mouth. But just as I have no desire to watch Star Wars on my smartphone, I have no desire to eat something healthy that has no taste appeal. My mom and a thousand scientists have said everything is fine in moderation. So at least for me and my light wheat, multigrain English muffin, the only smart balance is just a little bit of butter.


Marc Wollin of Bedford tries to eat healthy, most of the time. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 08, 2011

No, You're Not Sorry

My hotel room in Los Angeles had a nice view of the valley, and I had a fresh cup of coffee. I had just settled in to work when I heard a loud "CLICK," then silence. The lights went out, the air conditioner went off and the clock next to my bed went blank. It took me a moment to process what was happening. Yes, I had just come from the hurricane ravaged east, and was used to dealing with power outages and such. But this was Southern California. It was 10AM on a Wednesday, the sun was shining and I was in the middle of the city. No way the power could be out. Could it?

I opened the door and stuck my nose out into the hall. Sure enough, it was dim, lit only by emergency lighting. A maintenance guy was walking by, so I asked the obvious question: "Did we just lose power?" He shook his head. "Yes sir, it seems that way." Was it anything he did? I thought perhaps he was working on the floor, and cut it to fix something. He shook his head. "No sir, nothing we did. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience."

Now, I understand the service ethos that drove the comment. I'm sure he was sorry in the abstract for any hassle it caused me. And if it was the hotel that was the locus of the problem, he was stepping up as its representative and taking the blame. But at that moment the chain of cause and effect hadn't been established. Still, it was a nice thing to say.

I retreated back into my room and looked out the window. No lights in adjoining buildings, no traffic signals: it was a Beverly Hills blackout. The phone, which obviously was still working, rang. I picked it up to find a member of the front desk staff confirming it was indeed a utility issue, and not building specific. No, she had no idea what caused it. No, she didn't know how long it would last. Anything she could do for me, she asked. And then concluded like her associate in the hall: "Sir, we are so sorry for this."

But to be clear, neither could actually apologize because they didn't cause the affront. After all, the very definition of the word is "an expression of remorse or guilt over having said or done something that is acknowledged to be hurtful or damaging, and a request for forgiveness." Even if you go back to a more classical formulation, it doesn't line up. Apology derives from the Greek "apologia," which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. Mr. Maintenance and Ms. Front Desk didn't cause the blackout, so there should be no remorse to express, nor actions to defend.

It's just that those in the customer service field have learned that a sympathetic "I'm sorry" is the fastest and most surefire way to get a leg up, so much so that virtually every interaction with a disgruntled customer starts that way. Guilt or blame has nothing to do with it. Rather, it's a preemptive strike designed to defuse the situation, regardless of who is the aggrieved party and who is the agriever. I'm sorry for the difficulties you had when overdrawing your account. I'm sorry the item arrived after her birthday since you waited too long to order it. I'm sorry the size you ordered doesn't fit your big butt. I'm sorry you're a moron. Really. I'm very sorry.

Now admittedly, the apology trend is better than alternative. In the old days, the blame was squarely on you. It was a criminal justice system whereby you were guilty until there was incontrovertible proof you were innocent. That evolved into a stalemate best described as the "there's no problem here, don't even think of mentioning it or I will just glare at you" approach.  And now here we are today, where rule number one is that the customer is always right, and rule number two is if the customer is wrong, see rule number one.

But perhaps the pendulum has swung a little too far. These days we apologize preemptively when we think there might be any disagreement:  "I'm sorry, but I think ‘Modern Family' is a better show than ‘The Office.'" Other than in politics, where the word doesn't seem to exist, we seem to take pains to not offend even when we aren't. Put another way, perhaps Elton John was wrong; "sorry" does not seem to be the hardest word.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always seems to be apologizing, though he's often not sure for what. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Touch of Zen

If I said "Touch of Zen" to you, you might think of the 1971 movie with Billy Chan, Ying Bai and Ping-Yu Chang, the inspiration for such later gems as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Or you might think of the store in West Islip, NY that sells martial arts equipment. Then there's the health club and massage parlor in Walnut Hills, CA, the floral arrangement with bamboo by Buds, Blooms and Beyond in Tampa FL, or perhaps the salon in Albuquerque, NM. But odds are you wouldn't think of me and my cell phone.

Yet, increasingly, that's where I find myself. In a time when everything is faster, at our fingertips, always connected, I find myself having to practice the ancient of art of meditation when I want to make a call, look up an address or enter something in my calendar. Want me to Google the name of the movie where Harrison Ford gets amnesia after being involved in a robbery? Patience, Grasshopper.

It's not supposed to be like this. Whether your preferred eco-system is Android or Apple, whether you have a shiny device from LG or Motorola, whether you have a 3G phone or a 4G LTE smartphone or a 7Q giga-nano-hyper smarterphone, information in today's world is supposed to be like Chinese food: it's there before you order it. Like just-in-time manufacturing, when you turn and reach for it is supposed to be at your fingertips. If you do it right, you shouldn't even have to break stride as you walk down the street, punching up the closest organic taco place, knowing that your order with the burrito with local jack cheddar will hit the counter as you walk in the door.

And then there's me. Short of being an engineer, I consider myself a fairly well-informed geek. I have a holistic picture of how devices work, how to tweak them to make them work better and how to fix them when they have issues. And so to fix my particular device, which once was as speedy as a rocket ship and now has more in common with a tricycle, the person I would likely turn to for help is someone like me.

Yes, I understand that my phone is two years old, which in smartphone-dog years means it may as well be hand cranked. And I know I have downloaded and installed my fair share of dumb programs that take up space and bandwidth, be it the "Steamy Window" ap that coast my screen with "steam" like it's in the shower, or the "Obama Camera" that inserts the president into any picture you take. But I also know how to kill said stupids and run the thing lean and mean, so that those distractions and others are distant memories, and not memory hogs.

So I'm at a loss as to why my phone is crawling. From the time I wake it up to when I holster it in frustration, every action requires a deliberate press and wait. Let's say I want to check my phone log to see if I missed any important calls while in the subway. I do my secret pattern to unlock the phone: wait 10 seconds. I press the phone icon to get to the next menu: 10 seconds more. I press the log button: yes, 10 seconds. Digital is supposed to be on or off, much like being pregnant: you either are or you aren't, there's no middle ground. I would understand better if the phone didn't work at all. But it's hard to convince me that the bits and bytes are feeling their age, and are taking longer to go from here to there.

And so I wait. I press and I wait. I look around, check the weather, then look down to see if I can take the next step. I press again. I watch the people, check the traffic. I press again. I wonder what my wife is thinking of for dinner. Then I look down, and see the entry of the person I wanted to call. I press the screen, and think whether I need to stop by the bank as it connects. I mean, what other choice do I have? My upgrade doesn't kick in for a month or so. That means unless I want to pay $1825 for a new phone which will shortly cost me less than $200, I have no options. Excuse me, there is one more: throw it against the wall, then dance merrily on the splintered remains while screaming obscenities at the top of my lungs.

Patience, Grasshopper.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is counting the days till his "new-in-two" benefit kicks in. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Theory of Relativity

As we have done in the past, my wife wanted to host a gathering for as much of her family as could make it. We sent out a bunch of invitations, but as usual for these things not everyone could attend. No matter: all were lovely people, and it was good to reconnect and catch up. There were cousins, in-laws, siblings and friends. And then there was baby Alice.

The kind of baby that makes you want to have another, she was as cute as button and quiet to boot. I welcomed the chance to take her for a while, and she seemed comfortable perched on my shoulder. If you have kids that are grown, this was the best kind of infant to offer to hold: well behaved, not too fussy and giveable-backable to the parents when the tide started to turn the other way.

Those in attendance made the expected comments about how contented she looked as I held her (she smiled a lot), how much she liked me (what's not to like?) and did I want to keep her (absolutely not). But as the two of us strolled around the house, I started to wonder: just who was she? Not animal, vegetable or mineral, but how did she fit into the gathering? She came with her parents, who were cousins of my wife. And since the crowd contained a gaggle of siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, in-laws and friends (and I thought I even saw a neighbor who wondered in looking for a couple of eggs and stuck around for a drink), we needed a Venn diagram to plot the connections.

Like an Abbot and Costello routine, the question is who is first, who is second, who is removed and who is nothing? The basics we all know, and are easy enough. Have the same parents, and you are siblings. The children of your siblings are your nieces and nephews, while you are their aunts and uncles. And those nieces and nephews are cousins to one another. Some slight wrinkles: if only one parent is in common, your siblings are "half," while if the relationship is through a second marriage, then it's a "step" away.

For many of us, that's as difficult as it gets. True, were we elsewhere in the world, there might be some subtle variations. For instance, in Sweden your mother's brother... your uncle here... is your "morbror," and while your father's brother... also your uncle here... is your "farbror." Some Polynesian languages use the same words for male and female cousins as for brothers and sisters. And in France, where they tend to treat affairs and liaisons much more casually than we do here, both your daughter-in-law and your stepdaughter are your "belle-fille." Remember, they also consider Jerry Lewis a god.

But even if you stick to these shores, it can get more complex. That's because families morph, expand and contract. Or you meet a bigger group, and want to chart your cousin's cousins, or start talking to those of different generations. So unless you are the Kardashians and call everybody "ex" or "defendant," it gets more complicated.

According to genealogists, you look backwards. More specifically, you look back along your ancestral line, and see where there are commonalities. Relationships are derived from the point of view of where you and another overlap. Go up one step, and you have parents. If they are in common, you have siblings. If you have the same grandparents, but not the same parents, you are cousins. But if you have the same great-grandparents, but nothing else, you are described as second cousins. And thirds have great-greats in common, fourth have great-great-greats... you get the idea.

But what if you hail from different generations? That's when "removed" comes in. You and your first cousins are in the same generation (two generations younger than your grandparents). But your mother's first cousin is your first cousin, once removed. That's, because your mother's first cousin is one generation younger than your grandparents and you are two generations younger than your grandparents. This one-generation difference equals "once removed." Likewise, twice removed means that there is a two-generation difference. You are two generations younger than a first cousin of your grandmother, so you and your grandmother's first cousin are first cousins, twice removed.

All of which brings me back to baby Alice. She is the next generation of the cousin of my wife. So to my wife, she is her first cousin once removed. But to me? Well, since I am related my marriage, you could say she is my cousin-in-law once removed. Or you could just say she's a cute baby. Me, I'm going with the later.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has 1 sibling, 6 cousins and who knows what else. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Ma'ams

It was the usual back and forth email exchange we all do. I sent a note to a supplier I have worked with for years, requesting some equipment for a project. I tried to make the message as complete as I could, but obviously not complete enough. The project manager queried me back about one loose end: was billing to me or to the end client? I responded as succinctly as possible, adding what I thought was a note of respect: "To me, ma'am." The project manager quickly wrote back, "Ew. You ma'am'd me."

So much for trying to be nice.

If you look it up, both "sir" and "ma'am" are nominally titles of respect or courtesy, not insults.  While both are used all over, it is far more prevalent in the south, and has even been enshrined into law in Louisiana. Dubbed the "Aretha Franklin Bill" as a nod to the song "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," they have a statute on the books that requires children in kindergarten through fifth grade to respond with a polite "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am," or "yes, sir" or "no, sir" when speaking to teachers, principals and other school employees. Or as a northern friend who visited Houston put it, "I've been repeatedly ma'am'd here... it's a veritable ma'am-appolussa!"

In these parts the terms are used more intermittently, usually to convey that the person offering up the appellation defers to the person being addressed. In fact, unlike in the military where it is almost used as punctuation ("Sir, yes sir!"), it's not uncommon to hear said title and a first name mixed into the conversation, which is surely the yin and yang of familiarity and deference: "Well, Ken, I think you have the right approach, if I say so myself, sir." That's what they call covering all your bases.

But while "sir" can be used with no trace of irony, "ma'am" carries more baggage. Originally a colloquial shortening of "madam," it began as a respectful form of address to a married woman ("miss" was for unmarried women), and was later restricted to the queen, royal princesses or by servants to their mistresses. And today? Perhaps the sentiment is best captured by actress Helen Mirren in her role as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on "Prime Suspect." As she explained to her male subordinate, "Listen, I like to be called governor or the boss. I don't like ma'am. I'm not the bloody queen, so take your pick."

Most women I talked to would seem to agree, and you can find countless other examples.  In the premier episode of "Star Trek: Voyager," Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway told a young male ensign that "ma'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain." In the seminal comedy "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Mary and her neighbor Rhoda decide there's nothing worse than being 30-ish and single, except maybe being called ma'am in an episode entitled "Today I am a Ma'am." And Senator Barbara Boxer interrupted a brigadier general who addressed her as "ma'am" at a congressional hearing, and asked him to address her as "senator," saying "I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it."

In my own very unscientific survey, ma'am seems to jab a female like a poke in the ribs. Los Angeles-based writer Jill Soloway once wrote "It makes me think I'm fat and old, like an elderly aunt." And New York Times reporter Natalie Angier wrote that it can be an unnecessary station-break comment on one's appearance in an otherwise routine and pleasant social exchange: "Hello, middle-aged- to elderly-looking woman, how may I help you this evening? Thanks, prematurely balding man with the weak chin, I'll take that table over there, in the corner."

Then there's Al Bundy. The patriarch in the comedy "Married... with Children" was also against ma'am, though from a slightly different angle. He and his friends, tired of being dominated by women, formed "NO MA'AM," which stood for the "National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood." Not to be outdone, the women formed F.A.N.G., short for "Feminists Against Neanderthal Guys."

Al Bundy. Barbara Boxer. Mary Tyler Moore. Names you'd be hard pressed to put into the same sentence in any other context. But none want ma'am to be the state of affairs. I, for one, will do my best going forward. When no official title is apparent, I guess I'll just have to find an alternative. "Buddy" and "pal" don't really cut it, "sister" and "dear" are too familiar and "hey you" too impersonal. So female person, if I don't talk to you, understand it's my way of showing respect.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is finding out more and more that when talking, less is more. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Taking the Pledge

Raise your right hand and repeat after me: I pledge to buy handmade goods for myself and my loved ones, and request that others do the same for me. I pledge I will not text while I am driving. I pledge to reduce unnecessary idling by turning off my vehicle when stationary for more than 5 minutes unless in traffic. I pledge to catch and release, to save money and spend it wisely, and to play an active role in building a strong, vibrant and diverse Michigan economy. Actually, scratch that last one; I live in New York, so I don't really feel obligated to buy any Mackinaw Island Fudge.

Those are just a smattering of the innumerable pledges that are being solicited online. And while I may be unwilling to profess fealty to my Wolverine friends, you might be so inclined. In fact, if you're the type that feels compelled to make a formal commitment to a course of action or type of thought, there is no shortage of opportunities. Do a search for "take the pledge," and somewhere on the order of 6 million possibilities come up. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals(PETA) wants you to promise "never to go to a circus that uses animals," while the Clark Fork Coalition in Missoula, MT want you to pledge to "clean, inspect and dry your boat, boots and waders." And at Cornell students are encouraged to "Take Back The Tap" and choose tap water over bottled water, though in a bit of serendipity, local keg distributors have similar signs up and aren't against any synergies that might occur.

Pledges have gained new-found visibility this season as the Republican presidential hopefuls have been trying to out-promise each other to sign on to as many intractable positions as possible. Most well-known is the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" championed by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, to never ever, ever raise taxes. There's the "Cut, Cap and Balance" vow to promote a balanced budget, the "Pro-Life Citizens Pledge" focusing on anti-abortion and the "Marriage Vow" pledge, which, among other things, states that signers of the document recognize "the overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy better sex." With regard to the last, it's worth mentioning Bill Maher's point that while that may be true, it's just not with each other.

But while it's easy to agree on the advisability of not texting while driving, most things aren't that clear cut, and certainly not in the arena of politics. Tea Partiers aside, who really believes that everything is so black and white? That's not to say that you can't have strongly held positions. It's just that taking a stand to the point of swearing you will never consider an alternate view regardless of the circumstances or evidence seems a fool's errand. Or at the very least, it's certainly not the marker of a person who says they will lead all the people by acknowledging the challenges, considering all the options and then choosing the one that is the best for the majority.

There are ample examples of this in history: slavery, strip mining, child labor to name just a few. In each case, the prevailing point of view at the time was considered gospel, with overwhelming opinion on one side of the ledger. Sentiment was such at one point that if it been suggested to potential leaders that they sign a pledge guaranteeing the women never be allowed to vote, there's no doubt many would have. Now it's harder to imagine that that point of view was ever considered legitimate.

Which brings us back to Bill Maher. He is promoting a pledge which is a seven point common sense approach to politics, one that admittedly is couched in his own particular style. The second plank is "No driving a truck or eating at a rural diner or any other homespun kiss-ass bull you wouldn't normally do." Three is "no more flag pins, because you're running for President of the United States, and I think we can safely assume you're on the team." And six, "you have to stop saying that ‘the American people are smarter than that,' and admit that a lot of the American people are morons." Say what you will about his politics, the man has a point.

But perhaps the most important position is the first. If we can get all in the mix to sign it, Democrat and Republican alike, perhaps we can get on to more important stuff. It's very simple, and it would solve a lot of problems. Number one is this: after this, you have to pledge to sign no more pledges.  Pen, please.


Marc Wollin of Bedford pledges to never sign a pledge. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, September 03, 2011

An Irene Diary

On May 31, 1944, General George S. Patton, addressing his troops in England on the eve of their deployment to be part of D-Day, famously said this: "Thirty years from now when you're sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you ‘What did you do in the great World War Two?', you won't have to say, ‘Well...I shoveled shit in Louisiana.'" In a decidedly modern spirit, here's our Irene diary; decide for yourself whether we hit the beaches, or, well, you know.

Saturday/12PM. Cloudy: Turned on Weather Channel. Biggest storm hit Northeast. Decided some precautions were in order. Took all furniture on deck, flipped it over and put close to house. Took potted plants off railings, put on the ground. Charged phones, made sure there were batteries for flashlights.

Saturday/2PM. First rains, breezy: According to Weather Channel, storm surge could wash away New Jersey. Maybe it WILL be bad. Downloaded movies to Tivo to have something to watch when we inevitably lose power and cable. Downloaded books to Kindle and iPad. Civilization must survive.

Saturday 5PM. Steady, light rain, winds: On Weather Channel: "Hurricane Irene poses an extraordinary threat and is one that no one has yet experienced from North Carolina to the mid-Atlantic to the Northeast to New England." Wrote down time for end of the world. In preparation, defrosted chicken. Mulled over what to cook. Eventually made Chinese stirfry with vegetables and chili sauce. Not my best batch...too much soy sauce. I blame Irene.

Saturday 7PM. Rain picking up, tress start swaying: On Weather Channel: Congress has been washed away. Or maybe just had some water in the Capital basement, hard to tell. First major local problem: storm drain in driveway backing up. Could be the beginning of the end. With rake, pulled leaves from drain. Crisis averted. Started watching "The Adjustment Bureau."

Saturday 930PM. Rain starting to pelt house, trees bending: Verdict: even as entertainment in a hurricane, movie just OK. Cleaned out storm drain again. Turned back to Weather Channel. I was wrong: end of world AND of New York City. Everything shutting down, even Starbucks in Manhattan. Proof of end times.

Saturday 1130PM. Pounding rain, sweeping winds: On Weather Channel, all is darkness. But that's because correspondent is on beach at night. Bedtime.

Sunday 330AM. Howling wind, stinging rain: Wake to sound of motor. Power went out, generator kicked in. Mental note: Yes, honey, you were right. Got up, checked refrigerator, hot water heater, well pump. All still working. Called in power outage, first on block. Turned on Weather Channel. New Jersey still mysteriously there, New York about to be submerged. Went back to bed.

Sunday 630AM. Sweeping winds, rains, dark skies: Cable, phone, internet all out. Must come to grips that we'll have to talk with each other. No end to suffering: unlikely to get Sunday New York Times, and hard to read Style section on smartphone. Still, gennie means coffee, hot shower, lights. Formally eat crow: yes, honey, you were right. On the bright side, no cable, so no Weather Channel: we might already be drowned, just don't know it.

Sunday 930AM. Sky brightening a bit, rains easing: Reconnoiter around yard. Huge tree from neighbor's house came down, split, half in our yard, half in theirs. KO'd some bushes, but no one hurt. On street, huge tree across road, blocking us in. Text contact at Fire Department for help. They say sure, maybe someday.

Sunday 1130AM. Rain easing, winds dying: Check out neighborhood. Climb through fallen tree on street. On next road, little babbling brook is now roaring rapids. Another big tree down there. Two neighbors with chain saws come out just looking to cut something. Help them, tell them about our street. Impromptu neighborhood gathering, many help. Work party forms, tree cleared. Only minor injuries.

Sunday 5PM. Rains ending, wind picking back up again: Still no power, cable, phones, no estimate of fix. Stove, oven not on gennie, so defrost more chicken, fire up grill. Another crisis: DVD with "West Wing" on it in player in room not on gennie. Have to carry to other room, plug in to eject, then use different DVD player and find episode where we left off. Family very brave throughout challenge: proud of ingenuity, stoicism.

Monday 7AM. Bright blue sky, light breezes: Still no power, phone, internet. Start cleanup on yard, cleanout gutters of leaves and debris. Weather Channel Online: who cares anymore? Gennie still cooking: yes honey, you're still right. Speaking of cooking, is it too early to defrost...chicken?


Marc Wollin of Bedford and his family all came through storm fine, just inconvenienced. His column, come rain or shine, appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 27, 2011


"Don't you want me baby?
Don't you want me oh?"
-The Human League

I apologize.

If you came of age listening to the radio anytime around the Reagan presidency, at this exact moment, you're now going "dum, dum da dah dum... dabadabadada." That's because whether you liked this song or whether you hated this song, in 1981 you heard it played approximately 1,472,386 times, and it is embedded in your brain. You may not have thought about for 30 years, but now that I've brought it up, I guarantee it will haunt you as it came back to haunt me.

I blame it on David Mitchell. Not the lyricist, singer or producer of the tune in question, he's an English novelist. Having enjoyed his historical novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," I decided to check out some of his other works. That led me to "Black Swan Green," a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a 13-year old boy growing up in the eighties in a village in Worcestershire, England. In one of the very first chapters, Jason talks about how his sister is holed up in her room listening to "The Human League." And so it began.

If there's any comfort, it's two things: the song wasn't by Barry Manilow, and you're not crazy, it's a documented condition. It even has a name: earworms. Not the parasite that Ricardo Montalbán dropped into the helmet of Chekov in "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," but rather it's all about your brain's need to fill in gaps where it only has partial information. According to researchers studying this at Dartmouth (yes, Dartmouth!), when they played part of a familiar song to subjects, the participants' auditory cortex automatically filled in the rest. In other words, their brains kept "singing" along long after the song had ended.

There's ample historical precedent to this. It's widely written that Mozart's children would "infuriate" him by playing melodies and scales on the piano below his room, but stop before completing the tune. He would have to rush down and complete the sequence because he couldn't bear to listen to an unresolved scale. But even if your piano skills aren't up to Ludwig's, you can still fall prey. While it's true that musicians are more often bothered than non-musicians, women are afflicted significantly more than men, as are people who are neurotic, tired or stressed. In other words, you.

In fact, James Kellaris, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, has found that as many as 99% of us have fallen prey to this phenomenon. On average, the episodes last over a few hours and occur "frequently" or "very frequently" among 61.5% of the sample. As Kellaris writes, "Songs with lyrics are reported as most frequently stuck (74%), followed by commercial jingles (15%) and instrumental tunes without words (11%)." What seems to unite them is a simple, upbeat melody, as well as catchy, repetitive lyrics and a twist such as an extra beat or unusual rhythm. Not surprisingly, these factors are also what make songs or jingles popular in the first place (like the Chili's, "I want my baby back baby back baby back ribs" jingle, which made Kellaris' list of the most insidiously "stuck" songs).

But that's just fill-in-the-blank. Why do we keep repeating it over and over and over until we want to scream? While they don't know for sure, experts describe it for us mere mortals as a "brain itch." They surmise that your brain hates to have holes. And just like a mosquito bite, repeating it scratches that spot. Others postulate that earworms are simply a way to keep the brain busy when it's idling. Of course, we all know that the more you scratch a bite, the more it itches. And so it becomes self replicating.

So what is the calamine lotion for earworms? For sure, another song can dislodge the first, but it can also start a whole new pattern. You can also switch to an activity that keeps you busy, such as working out. Some report success by, in a homage to that Star Trek episode, picturing the earworm as a real creature crawling out of your head, and then stomping on it.

There is one more remedy: try listening to the song all the way through to get away from the hook. And so if you are where I was, here you go: "Don't, don't you want me? You know I don't believe you when you say that you don't need me. It's much too late to find, you think you've changed your mind, you'd better change it back or we will both be sorry."

All together now...


Marc Wollin of Bedford is easily distracted. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Doing Battle

Accounts of confrontation between man and beast are legendary. There's Ahab in "Moby Dick" and Chief Martin Brody in "Jaws." Bill Murray has an epic battle with a gopher in in "Caddyshack." Even politicians have gotten in on the act: Jimmy Carter was attacked by a "killer rabbit," while Sarah Palin bested a caribou.

Me, I have a chipmunk.

Yes, a chipmunk. Those little stripped ground squirrels that move like rats on speed. Out here where the deer and the antelope play, we have oodles of the little fellas running around the yard. Usually we see them emerging or disappearing into one of the countless holes they've dug around the garden, gathering up nuts or seeds or chasing each other across the lawn. They're cute, they're cuddly... that is, until it becomes me vs. them.

In our case, we had finally decided to reset our front walk. Made of flagstones, countless cycles of freeze and thaw had turned it from a pathway into a minefield. One stone heaved this way, another that, others balanced like covers on a tiger pit, ready to flip over and swallow you up if you stepped on an edge. It got so we were reluctant to let anyone come to the front door, lest they twist an ankle and wind up in the hospital.

So we hired a couple of guys to fix it up. They spent two days picking up each piece, laying the jigsaw puzzle out on the lawn, then adding a smooth sand base and replacing the stones. Finally they filled all the seams with stone dust, making a flat, stable and attractive runway that took you from the driveway to the front door. All well and good.

But the next morning when I looked out, I noticed that some of the seams at the end were dustless and hollow. I assumed the guys working had just missed them. I grabbed a shovel and trundled out to the woods to find some leftover stone dust they had dumped there, then came back and filled them in. A few hours later I looked out and saw the same thing. Strange I thought; perhaps a small sinkhole existed. I repeated the process again, wondering what was going on. Then a chance glance an hour later showed the cause: a busy little chipmunk with feet firmly planted on either side of the inch and a half slot was digging madly. As I opened the door to go out, he disappeared down the rabbit hole he had created. The battle was on.

I first tried filling the slot with some rocks, then dust. Soon enough that was dug out. I swapped some stones around, moving the biggest slot to another spot. I looked out to see him at the bottom of the now narrower opening on his back, tail sticking up through the crack, paws clawing madly at the stone. I won, I thought. But not so fast. It took a little longer, but he soon found the bigger slot I had created a foot away, and commenced excavation there. Finally I removed a bunch of the flag stones and stuffed some plastic gutter mesh into his tunnels, then reset and refilled all. As of this writing, it's been a week, and no sign of my tormentor.

It calls to mind the writer Calvin Trillin, who tells the story about one of his favorite attractions in New York City for out-of-town guests, the Tic-Tac-Toe playing chicken in Chinatown. You put a quarter in the slot, a light goes on and the chicken plays the game to win a pellet of food: "Nearly all the people I take down there have precisely the same response," writes Trillin. "After looking the situation over, they say, 'But the chicken gets to go first.'" His response? ‘'But she's a chicken. You're a human being. Surely there should be some advantage in that." Unfortunately, it doesn't end there: "I'm embarrassed to say that some think for moment and then say, ‘But the chicken plays every day. I haven't played in years.'"

Likewise with my chipmunk. Yes, I bested him. Yes, our walk is now fixed. Yes, I made it animal proof. But it was hardly a fair fight. After all, he's a chipmunk, and I am a grown man: it feels a little like a beat up on a kid. I confess I come down every morning and look out to find no digging, and I feel both satisfaction and sadness. I actually feel bad I messed up his hard work. And so he and his ilk are back to being cute and cuddly. But if I see a pile of dust again... well, I'll go Navy SEAL on his ass in a New York minute.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hates to do yard work. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Soul Redefined

It was an uptown 4 train in New York City. Guy got on with a guitar, introduced himself and quickly broke into a tune. No denying the guy had talent: it was a soulful cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." As we pulled into the next stop, he passed the hat. So far, all was going according to script. But then something new. He thanked the crowd, and said that if they wanted to hear some of his original music, they should go to iTunes or his web site. He stood up his guitar case, on which was a sticker with a picture of him and the address,

And so I went. Kevin Hunt, aka Vo Era, is originally from Chicago. By his own admission, he was a rebellious kid, falling in with some gangbangers and drugs near his home in Englewood, a rough and tumble inner city area. Fortunately, when he was about 15 a friend and his grandmother got him to church. While he was there and "starting to get a better insight into life," a lady who was a known as a local prophet looked at him: one day you'll be a musician, she said. As he told me laughing, "Some people don't believe in prophecy, but I do!"

So he went and bought a keyboard, started learning it, then moved on to guitar and bass. He eventually quit high school: after all, no need for that when you're going to be a star. But he knew he still needed practice; he wasn't that good yet. So while he played and wrote, he supported himself with a bunch of odd jobs. Eventually he saw his mistake, and went back for his GED.

Walking into a bank one day, he had a revelation: "This is pretty chill: a desk, some business cards, a nice place to work." Armed with a smile, he talked himself into a job as a teller, then two years later moved to another institution as a personal banker. For six years he worked finance during the day, then burned the midnight oil practicing and gigging.  Eventually his manager at the bank sat him down: he was slacking on the job, and had to make a choice. Of course, for him, there was only one. He quit, and went to work fulltime as a musician.

He started playing on the subway, trying to make a few bucks. That led to some invites to private parties and some club dates. Eventually a friend tipped him off to a sandwich place called Potbelly that was looking for lunchtime entertainment. He auditioned, and was offered the job, with the understanding he had to play a 3 hour set of cover tunes with no repeats. He only knew 8 songs, but quickly learned a bunch more to cover the time. He went from 2 days to 6, and had himself a steady, paying gig.

When his then girlfriend, now wife, got a medical residency in New York, it was the perfect excuse to do what he always wanted: get out of Chicago and come to the Big Apple. He started by working the same angles, getting a gig at two Potbelly restaurants in Manhattan, as well as trying to connect on the subway. He started setting up some social media sites, and is now actively working to push into the college market and internet radio.

He calls his music "Soul Redefined." I asked what that meant. "I like jazz, rock, R&B, but I'm not restricted. Everything I do has a soulfulness to it." And what does he want people to get from his music? "I write about relationships, attraction, hard times and real life. But no matter what the subject line is, it's all about the passion; whatever it is, I want people to feel the passion behind the music."

I had to ask about the name. "I had a friend who called me 'KeVo.' So I started just calling myself 'Vo.' But when I googled it, I got like 60 million hits. So I pulled out a thesaurus and started looking for a last name. Then I stumbled across 'era.' And it just sounded right: Vo Era." He laughed: "And then I thought it: era is about time, and this is mine."

It just might be. You can find Vo playing gigs in NY, online, at iTunes and yes, still on the subway. I asked him how hard that is: "It's tough. Lots of times people aren't paying attention. But the key is to always focus, and channel your energy on the small amount of those who are listening to you. It's all about keeping the positive energy." That, and making sure the prophecy comes true.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves live musicians wherever they play. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 06, 2011


On the nightstand next to our bed is a nice wooden box containing a number of watches I've accumulated over the last several years. No antiques or high end Swiss chronographs, but rather a sport model with digital and analog readout, another with a nice moon phase dial I got for my birthday, even one I got from a client in Hong Kong with Mao on the face. I used to pick one out every morning when I got dressed based on my mood, and off I went.

Then, like many things in my life, I decided to try and simplify. As I was running a good bit, I bought a simple training watch with a nice big digital readout and a built in stopwatch. It was basic black with a rubberized band, and I made that my default choice. Whether I was wearing a suit or shorts, khaki pants or gray pin-stripped suit, or yes, running clothes, I strapped it on and was out the door. As such, for the last several years, all has been unimaginative but dependable in the time department.

Then just the other day as I was talking to someone, I unconsciously reached to my left wrist to adjust my watch. As I slid it up my arm a bit, I felt the cut in the band. I sneaked a look down and saw that near where the buckle sat was a tear in the rubber. Closer examination revealed that the cut was halfway across the strap, and was well on its way to completing its trip. In fact, when I went to tighten it, on the assumption less jiggling around would prolong its life, I learned that that assumption was dead wrong, and it snapped in two.

No matter, I thought: I have all those other nice timepieces in that box next to my bed. When I get home tonight, I'll pick one out and give it some air. But when I riffled through them, I realized that none worked. Nothing mechanical: it was all about power. Every one of them used a battery, and even though they have a serviceable life of several years, it had been that long since I had worn any of them, let alone replaced the battery.

So, options. I could pick out any one of the watches I had, and replace the battery. I could take the one with the broken band and replace it. I could pick up a new one, perhaps a different style that better matched my current needs. All easy, all relatively inexpensive approaches to solving a timeless problem. Or I could do nothing.

I could do nothing because we call carry a clock in the form of our phones. For many, this approach has been standard operating procedure for a number of years, even dating back to the days of pagers. Since it's always on and updated continuously, it's actually more accurate than most timepieces. If there's a disadvantage it's that it takes more effort, both physical and noticeable, to sneak a look. Hard to be chatting with someone and casually pull out your phone to check the time without looking like you can't wait for them to shut up.

Still, I decided my wrist would go commando for a bit. At first, it was strange. Like a missing limb, I keep looking for the phantom at the end of my arm only to see and nothing. I reached for it often, only to wind up scratching the missing spot a lot. And more than once I jumped in fright, glancing at my wrist to see it naked, only to remember it wasn't lost but au naturel by design.

Then a funny thing happened: I relaxed a bit. It's not like I didn't know what time it was: Lord knows there are clocks and readouts everywhere you turn. And there are certainly times you need to know the time. But other times, not so much. When I was chatting with someone, I focused more on them. When I was reading, I concentrated more on the book. Even when I was taking a walk, I spent more time looking around than figuring out how much time I had left.

The question sounds like a Zen koan: do you get more out of time when you can't tell what it is? I don't know, but as of this writing I'm still timeless. I don't think I've haven't missed anything. And if you ask me if I've got a minute, I can tell you yes, even if I can't tell you when it's over.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still likes watches, even though he doesn't wear one. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at