Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mascot Envy

Our family is rich in many ways: we have a nice house, several cars and all manner of material goods. In less tangible ways we are also well off: we have friends and family, and pursuits both work and leisure related that fulfill us and bring smiles to our faces. However, all is not milk and cookies. In one particular area, the members of our household are wanting, bereft in fact, compared to many of our more fortunate acquaintances. For while both parents and offspring attended good colleges, when it comes to mascots, we are paupers.

Unlike the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the Wolverines of Michigan or the Gators of Florida, none of our alma maters' symbols are the kind that pump up those competitive juices and inspire a whole lot of school pride.  Thankfully the institutions themselves were and are wonderful bastions of higher learning which served us each very well. But the mascots, those tangible embodiments which are supposed to represent said institutions on hats and tee shirts, are a different story. At best they are cute; at worse they are embarrassing.

Let's start with our youngest. He attends Colby in central Maine. With a campus that is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, and a demanding academic program that covers a wide range of ground, it's been a perfect fit for him. However he hasn't been as keen to embrace the school's alter ego, the White Mule. The choice derives from a time when the school's football team upturned its "dark horse" status. And what is the opposite of a dark horse? You guessed it. There is even a statue of the beast outside the gym that makes it almost stallion-like... but sorry, it's still a mule.

Then there's our oldest, who went to Williams. Again, a small liberal arts college that many rank as one of the best in the nation. And again, a perfect fit for our son and his interests. The teams there go by the moniker of "Ephs," a nod to the founder of the school, Ephraim Williams. But what does an Eph look like? In the case of Williams, the students back in in 1907 adopted the name of a popular humor magazine as their representation in intercollegiate contests. And so should you dress for battle in your football pads or tennis whites and face off against the Ephs, you will be facing the fearsome Purple Cows. It is worth noting, however, that while the Cow may not strike fear into others, it has other strengths: it was just named by Reader's Digest as "The Most Lovable College Mascot" in the country, edging out the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' Fighting Pickle.

My wife's alma mater has the most legitimate sounding mascot in the family. A fearsome cat, the lion is all that you expect a college talisman. But it's not that simple. She went to Mount Holyoke, an all women's college, and the lion in question is actually spelled Lyon, in deference to the founder there, Mary Lyon. Additionally, any ferocity attributed to the cat is somewhat tempered by its nickname, Paws.

And there there's me. I attended Ithaca College in upstate New York. Our teams were known as the Bombers, though no one had any real idea why. Turns out the nickname came courtesy of a long-ago sportswriter, who talked about the basketball team's "bomb-like" shooting, and the name stuck. It's actually taken until just this month when a campus committee narrowed down suggestions from student, staff and alumni to three finalists that would embody the name in physical form. Of course, these days, any choice of a mascot has to abide by NCAA guidelines and overall political correctness, some any obvious "bomb" or military connection was impossible. And so, just this week I got an email asking to cast my vote for the Phoenix (a throw to the Greek ancestry of the Ithaca name), the Lake Creature (a reference to the Lock Ness-like monster fabled to inhabit the lake on which the college is built) to the Flying Squirrel (honestly... I don't have a clue about that one). One can only hope that the voters do the right thing... whatever that is.

Admittedly it could be worse. At least none of our family went to Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. Nothing to do with the school's academics, its fine faculty or lovely campus with an unobstructed view of the mountains.  It's just that as bad as things are for us, at least we don't have to muster any false enthusiasm for the Fighting Artichokes... Go Artie!


Marc Wollin of Bedford is pleased that he didn't go to Whittier College: hard to cheer on the Fighting Poets. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Going to the Dogs

If you take the train to work every day, few of the people stand out from the crowd. Sure, some are tall, others short, some dress in suits, others more casually. Beyond the normal assortment of superficial traits, however, few are terribly distinctive, save for a particular detail such as the bag they carry or the shoes they wear. But every now and again one catches your eye. Like the lady with the dogs.

On any given morning you can see Kathy walking down the platform, usually with 2 pooches trailing along. To look at her you wouldn't know she has two parallel passions. One track involves helping people get their financial house in order, a profession she practices very successfully at her own firm. In fact, you might even have seen her on television in that role as a regular contributor on various business channels. Her other track focuses on a different type of needy individual: homeless and abandoned animals on whom others have given up.

An animal lover forever... "I must have been a dog in a prior life," she laughs... she didn't set out to be fairy godmother to abused and abandoned creatures. True, her first two pups were rescue dogs acquired when she lived in Colorado more than twenty years ago, and who made the move with her to New York. Then one day she was out walking them when a homeless man came by, a dog trotting along by his side. The dog sidled over to Kathy, while the man kept walking. She called after him, but he threw up his hands and kept going: "Someone did it to me, now I'm doing it to you!" he yelled. However, he did stop and come back to hand her a box of dog biscuits... "his food..." before departing and leaving her with the animal.

She took him home and cleaned him up. "He was so dirty and matted I had to wear gloves," she recalls. But once he was scrubbed, he crawled up onto her bed and made big eyes at her, and, "well, I just had to keep him." She named him Seamus, and added him to her family as number three.

Then six months later a friend had a dog that had been taken by the authorities because it had bitten someone. At the time, the policy was for dogs with that history to be retrieved within 10 days or destroyed. The friend didn't want him anymore, so Kathy went to pick him up. As she was leaving the shelter with her new charge, she looked up to see another small pup trotting down the avenue. The pup crossed over to her, leaped into her arms and starting licking her nose. She looked around for an owner, but there wasn't one. In for a penny, in for a pound, she thought. And so she added numbers four and five to her family, all in her studio apartment.

And so it went. She would give one away, then would find out about another who needed a new home, and add it the mix. People heard about her generosity, and she started to get emails, sometimes up to 20 a day. And she continued to find them accidentally on her own as well. Once on a vacation in Puerto Rico she came across a pup on a hike in the rain forest. She was busy looking for the owner when a local told her that people abandon their unwanted pets along the trail. Again, she couldn't bear to part with him, and brought him back to the mainland.

It's not like she had a formal plan, just a big heart and an even bigger soft spot. What kinds of dogs does she gravitate to? "I take the hard-to-place dogs, the 12-year old pit bill, the one with lymphoma." She tries to keep it in perspective: "They're not my children, and I know they will eventually die, but while they are here I try and give them the best home I can on this earth." Of course, none of this comes cheap in either time or money: she estimates she has spent hundreds of hours and many, many thousands of dollars to feed and care for them. But what she gets back can't be measured that way.

Now in Westchester for 8 years, she has accumulated animal charges big and small: dogs and cats, but also a horse and bunnies, some 15 all told. "Many of our clients are people with a passion. They understand this is mine, and it helps to tell them about who I am and what I believe," she says. Besides, when you get right down to it, perhaps both her 2-legged clients and her 4-legged charges aren't really that different: "Make them top dog, give them boundaries and give them love. It works for dogs, and it works for people."


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't had a pet since he was a kid. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Know Thine Enemy

There is perhaps no better way to get a handle on a leader than their writings. Lenin was prolific, with works such "What is to be Done?" and "The State and the Revolution" laying the basis for the Bolshevik uprising. Kennedy's "Profiles In Courage" highlighted instances where lawmakers took courageous stands, and gave a window into the kind of legislator he might become. And Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and Mao's "Little Red Book" (which was actually a collection of his sayings) have been studied and analyzed endlessly.

More recently, in this country, it has become de rigueur for any politician with ambitions on the national stage to follow suit and pen a tome that sets out their views and operating principles. That's not to say that all are up to Bartlett's Quotations standards. Take Tim Pawlenty's "Courage to Stand," in which he talks his interactions with the prior governor of Minnesota: "The hockey player and wrestling fan in me would have some taken pride in surviving a Jesse Ventura smackdown." It's hardly Churchill, but it's what we've got.

In that vein, much has been made of the Green Book penned by our current thorn-in-the side, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi (or Ghaddafi or Khaddafi... it might be easier to agree on a joint UN Resolution with some teeth if we could first agree on a way to spell his name). A manifesto of revolutionary thought, it was an instant bestseller in Tripoli. Of course, this top-of-the-charts performance was helped along by the fact that if you didn't have a copy you were tortured and executed, but why quibble?

But perhaps we're looking at the wrong book. Turns out that the good Colonel, after finishing a round of Scrabble with his flunkies (you have a lot more options if every "q" doesn't require a "u") indulged his fancy as a writer of fiction as well. So maybe the CIA should stop poring over cell phone intercepts and coded military traffic, use their one-click ordering option on Amazon and get a copy of his thoughts and essays, "Escape to Hell and Other Stories."

It seems that several years ago the Libyan strongman found time between plotting terrorist activities and extorting millions from oil companies to be a bit more literary than practical. Not quite post apocalyptic, his collection offers ruminations on how we are flirting with disaster through our treatment of the planet. His views of modern society represent a throwback to a simpler time, when thieves got their hands cut off, when there was no running water, when electricity didn't all make us lazy pigs. Or from his point of view, the good old days.

He is unafraid to take on the ills of the world. For instance, he writes about a rival country that is sickened by "individualism and rampant capitalism." This morality tale centers on a fictional place called "Amelica." Author's note: any resemblance to countries living or dead is strictly coincidental.

As for modern society, he pens an allegorical fable about a man who rockets into space. It proves to be an epiphany, and, on his return, he comes to understand how technology has caused the downfall of society. It causes him to consider drastic action. Called "The Suicide of the Astronaut," and written with characteristic subtlety, the man in the story, proceeds to... No, I shouldn't: I don't want to spoil the ending.

Say what you will, Qaddafi also appears to have a real flair for sentence construction. A sample: "The earth is the lung through which you breathe, so if you destroy it, you would have no way to breathe." Another: "The city is a sea, full of flotsam and snails. The snails are people." Hemingway-esque,don't you think?

Critics haven't been so kind, at least those that won't be flogged for their opinion. (The Libyan Ledger called it "a masterpiece"). Alan Smithee, writing in Entertainment Weekly, said "May we suggest a stint at Tripoli's Writers' Workshop to brush up on, say, plot, character, dialogue, tone, and coherence?" Still, Smithee does say he comes out favorably when compared with other well know observers of the human condition:  "He reminds one of Dennis Miller, albeit slightly funnier."

Still, as an aspiring writer myself, I appreciate my fellow scribe's efforts, if not the end result. With that in mind, if you drive by our place you might take note of the Bedouin tent in our front yard and the camel tethered beside it. These days, I'll take inspiration wherever I can find it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never knowingly supported terrorism in the pursuit of a story. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Snail Mail

Odds are that sometime today you emailed or texted or tweeted someone and got something back. Didn't make any difference where they were or what they were doing. They saw your note, typed a response and send it, a process that likely took less time that it did to read this sentence. That speed and ease makes its easy to forget that, short of a phone call, the only way you used to be able to reach someone was by the quaint process of scribbling something on a piece of paper, slipping it into an envelope and dropping it in the mailbox. For the kids in the audience, we called this "mailing a letter."

But that's just what Danni did back in 1993. Her father was having some health issues, and was anxious to try and reestablish some long dormant family connections. So at his urging she penned a letter to his nephew, the son of a brother who died while in the service. Trouble was they had no idea where he was. Danni took a flyer: since her uncle died while in the service, she figured there was a chance that the Veterans Administration knew her cousin's whereabouts. But VA privacy rules meant they wouldn't give her that information. And while they would accept the letter and attempt to pass it on, they wouldn't tell her if it was delivered successfully.

Still, it was the only shot they had, so off it went. And the response? A deafening nothing. Did it get through? Did he receive it and not wish to respond? Did he get it, but had issues about what to say? Good questions, all. But silence was all they heard. And so Danni and her life went on. She and her husband sold their house in Connecticut, retooled their lives and moved to the Cape. Danni's dad passed away. And every couple of years, once that internet thing caught on, she would google her cousin's name and see if anything popped up. But nothing surfaced, and it slipped to the back corner of her mind.

Then just a few weeks ago she was visiting her sister in upstate New York. They were sitting in the family room having a glass of wine and chatting when the phone rang. The answering machine was turned up, and an unknown voice began to talk. It turned out to be their cousin Mark, calling Danni's sister's after he had tried Danni's place and gotten her husband, who had given him her sister's number. As they heard who it was, and that he had the letter she had sent 18 years before, Danni responded appropriately: "I totally freaked! But we couldn't get to the phone fast enough!"

Turns out that the letter had made its way to Mark's mother who either forgot about it, misplaced it or something. She had recently died, and he was going through her stuff when he found it. "He was apprehensive but his friends convinced him to take a shot," relates Danni. "He's got no other family. So he tracked me down on the Cape, and my husband told him I'd been looking for him for forever. He called, and well... you could have knocked my sister and I over with a feather!"

They started to catch up, seeing who remembered what. Seems that part of the reason Danni couldn't locate him online was that he had changed his name legally when he was about 18. "He said he had no real connection to the family so the name meant nothing much to him. I guess that his mom kept the letter all those years was a big surprise." Still, it didn't take long to reconnect: "We talked on the phone for over 2 hours on Friday night, friended each other on Facebook, and my sister and I were able to show him pictures of the family." They made plans to get together in a central spot, he and his partner, and Danni, one of her sisters and their respective spouses.

How did it feel to reconnect with someone she had been wondering about for 18 years? "His calling us was as good as winning Mega Millions. It was exciting and a little strange as well as scary, but it was something I had waited for for so long. I can't help but thinking that my Dad is watching and smiling. I was never a patient person and he always gave me grief about that. I know it's trite, but if I learned anything it's that patience is a virtue, and good things come to those who wait."

That, and that snail mail can be really, really slow.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't remember the last time he wrote an actual letter. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 02, 2011


When I sit down to pen my weekly rant, I observe certain protocols. I open a new document, formatted just so. I check my research file to see what has accumulated over the prior 7 days and demands to be discussed. And like a prisoner in a cell (an analogy more apt that you might think, and one which my wife will corroborate) I note the number in the upper corner, crossing off the old and staring at the new. And so it was that I recognized that you hold in your hands my 800th attempt at filling 2 minutes of your day.

The last time I made a similar observation in this space was on the occasion of my 500th column. When I wrote that particular piece I received several notes from followers who said that as they read it they were afraid that I might be using the occasion to end the run. Admittedly, since it was a half-dozen years ago, I remember it as "afraid," though it's also quite possible that they used the term "thankfully" and I'm romanticizing it.

Well, that wasn't the case then, nor is it now. But a lot has happened in the intervening time, and indeed, since this riffing began. So maybe it's best to call this particular point a rest stop. And that means it's a chance to stand up, shake out the kinks and see how far we have come.

When I started this effort, I didn't really have any expectations of this kind of longevity. As someone with an attention span that considers TV commercials long form entertainment, I thought my run would be much more modest. I thought I'd write 20 or 30 columns, collect them, sell them as a book to a publisher, and the next call would be from Oprah. Fame and fortune and much merriment would ensue, and I would invite all you faithful readers to a party in some exotic yet safe place such as Baghdad. Seems I was wrong on so many fronts.

Not that I'm complaining. The space has enabled me to have an extended conversation with a wide range of people around the world. Through its appearance in the paper and via email, a rather diverse group of friends, family, associates, acquaintances, clients and some poor buggers who have gotten sucked into my orbit have been subjected to these weekly musings. Some have even seen fit to fire back, warming my heart that they have not only taken the time to read what I have written, but found it worthy of hitting the "reply" button, an act for which I am endlessly grateful.

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, it has been a long and strange trip indeed. Faithful readers have learned about female crash test dummies (#155 "Hit Her Again"), cruises for geeks (#254 "The Code Boat") and electronic passports (#583 "Marked Man"). There have been reflections on happy occasions, such as the graduation of our oldest from college (#705 "Dear Matthew") as well as sad ones, like the death of my father (#644 "Leave Footsteps, Take Memories"). Still other weeks have taken on sports (#590 "Mad In March"), food (#737 "Salad Days") and even Santa Claus (#316 "State of Alert").

To be sure, not every attempt at enlightenment may tickle your fancy, or, to be perfectly honest, even mine. Columns I write which I think are brilliant may garner no response, while others where I feel like I've phoned it in may generate a lot of mail. Yet, rarely a week goes by that someone doesn't remark to me that what I wrote struck a chord for them. Whenever I think that perhaps my editor and you dear readers have had enough, that small bit of reinforcement has been enough to keep me going. So blame those earnest souls if you must blame someone.

For those of you still here, who have either been with me from the beginning and gotten caught up in the undertow along the way, many thanks for taking the ride. But now it's time to get back into the car. I'll repeat what I wrote on the occasion of my 500th: if you'll keep reading, I'll keep writing. I can only promise you that I'll try and keep my eyes and ears open, use all 26 letters where possible, and bring a smile to your face at least once a week. Our destination may be unknown, we may even be lost, but I can tell you this: we're making very good time.


Marc Wollin of Bedford invites all to a party on the occasion of his 1000th column. Make sure to put 2013 on your calendar. Until then, you can read more regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at