Saturday, May 28, 2011

Doing Nothing

Like many of you, I would say my normal state of motion seems perpetual. My office always seems to be piled with work. Something in the house always needs fixing. And between phone and computer, I'm usually reading or responding to something. That's not to say I always do what I need to do. As easy as it is to find a task, it's just as easy to find an excuse. However, even if I play hooky, I tend to think about what I should be doing even though I'm not doing it.

But sometimes doing nothing is a good idea. And not just doing nothing because you can't get a signal or aren't near your desk. Rather, I mean willfully doing nothing for nothing's sake. Yes, it's a rare occurrence for most, but that doesn't make it any less a good idea. And thankfully a recent change of coasts gave me just that opportunity.

We were working in San Diego, and hit a day where we started early and finished early. Still, there was other work to be done, so I headed back to my room, a task made easier by the appearance of a rainy day. But by 3:30 or so I had done all I could do that had any urgency. And since we were three hours behind the east coast, most of the people I needed to talk to were gone. A glance outside showed that the sky had cleared, and a slight wind was blowing. So rather than review another budget or write another memo, I decided to take a walk.

We were at the Hotel Del Coronado, one of the great resorts in the country. It's a landmark Victorian era structure on Coronado Island, where every room is just steps from the beach. I walked out and made a left, heading towards Mexico a few miles away. There were a few other people out there, some joggers chasing the breeze, some parents chasing their kids, but no crowds and no one paying anyone else any mind. The only sound was the waves hitting the shore rolling in and rolling out. I strolled along, eventually coming to some rocks where I sat and gazed out to sea.

As I generally do when I'm wandering someplace different, I had taken my camera along on the stroll. So I pulled it out to try and capture what was in front of me. But pictures of big spaces like that always look so inadequate when compared to the real thing. Or as Paul Theroux reflected in his essay "Sunrise with Seamonsters" about travel writing, "a picture is only worth 1000 or so words."

In that spirit, this is what I saw. The water was a green gray canvas spread out like a sheet. The sky met it at the horizon, the sweep of it a pale blue that seemed to go on forever, so far in fact that I had to swivel my head from side to side to take it all in. Far in the distance I could see islands in the mist, small bumps that disappeared and reappeared like they were ghosts. If I looked straight ahead it was easy to convince myself that there was no one else on the beach, or even the planet, but me.

Yes, they were things I should have been doing and people I should leave messages for. But for one glorious hour I did absolutely nothing. I sat and stared, listened to the birds, watched some crabs scuttle along the sand. Truth be told, I didn't feel bad, and I didn't feel like I needed to do something. Rather, if I was honest, I thought the best thing I could do was to sit for another hour.

Each week I fill this space hoping that you will read and enjoy it. In the best of all possible worlds, I hope it makes some small impression on you. And so if by chance this is a week where it has any effect on you at all, I urge you to do the same as I. Should you find yourself in a similar situation on this coast or another, in the mountains or just on a path in the woods on a weekend walk, find a place and an hour to just sit and look around. In short, follow the guidance of the great baseball player Satchel Paige: "Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits."


Marc Wollin of Bedford thanks Beth, Chris and Scott for giving him the opportunity to do nothing for a brief time. He hopes they got the same chance after all the others left, and took it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spring Season

While the official date was weeks ago, it finally feels like we've turned the corner. Despite a few cool evenings and rainy days, you can actually feel the warmth in the air and see it on the trees. After a long cold winter, spring is finally starting to spread its wings. And nature's not the only one making the change. Stores are trotting out their warm weather collections, papers are publishing their vacation planning guides and school kids of all ages are starting to see the light at the end of this year's tunnel.

It's a seasonal adjustment that brings to mind short sleeve shirts, bike rides and barbeques. If you own a pool, you're starting to think about opening it up. If you have a convertible, you're starting to dream about putting the top down. And if you're the Taliban, you're getting your AK47 all oiled up. That's because just like Ralph Lauren announces his spring collection and Home Depot puts out the word that its garden center is open for business, the Taliban has issued a press release that heralds the start of its spring offensive.

Calling the spring of 2011 "a season of shining hope," this year's announcement had some new elements, including the assertion that the insurgents intend to protect civilians, while also focusing attacks on members of the government-appointed High Peace Council. In other words, this spring's suicide bombings and village raids will be a newer, shinier, more user friendly version of the usual carnage.

In fact, as long as there has been warfare there have been seasonal pushes. In the colder months, when snow and ice make it more difficult to move, fighters have a tendency to lie low. Other times, natural cycles such as the tides are important to maneuvers, and so drives are timed to coincide with favorable conditions, such as was the case with D-Day. And the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War was timed to begin on the first day of the year on the traditional lunar calendar, the most important Vietnamese holiday.

Still, on the surface it seems a little ridiculous to announce your plans for guerrilla warfare with a press release. But it's as much about psychological warfare as it is about the actual fighting. Not that the locals are reading the New York Times or listening the BBC. Rather, the populations of the western countries that are pouring men and money into the cesspool that is Afghanistan and Hamid Karzai's corrupt government have about reached their tipping point. Polls show that support is eroding fast, even while those same populations agree that the goal itself, to rid the country of thugs, is a laudable one. Still, we've all got problems in our own backyards, so when is enough enough? When the guys you're fighting say they're going to crank it up one more time with gusto, that's when.

Now that Osama bin Laden is history, however, there might be a crimp put into those plans. With the treasure trove of intelligence that that Seals seized during the raid, speculation is that the command and control structure for the organization has gone into hiding. Add to that this past week's revelation that a sizable cache of porn was found on site, showing the ascetic mastermind was perhaps not so ascetic after all, and the whole enterprise might need to rethink its five year master plan, let alone its spring fling.

Contrast these goons with the North Vietnamese. Say what you will about Uncle Ho and his followers, you had to admire their single minded determination to take their country back. From the tunnels they built underground to the trails they carved out of impenetrable forest to the famous sandals they made out of tires, they got grudging respect out of their opponents for their tenacity. They eventually won their battle, though you can argue that the tide of history turned against them and the communists lost in the end.

Then there's the Taliban, who seem to be more bully than benefactor. If bin Laden is any indication, much like the autocratic leaders of many a failed regime, they have two sets of standards: one for themselves and one for those they subjugate. Only time will tell if they will fall apart of their own weight or gain a lasting toehold in a God-forsaken stretch of the planet. Let's hope it's the former, and their next press release is for their going-of-business sale.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks we are dammed if we do, dammed if we don't in Afghanistan. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In Praise of Lyndon

Lyndon makes a nice sandwich.

Actually, it's more than that. The guy makes a terrific sandwich. In fact, he doesn't just make it: he invents it, redefines it, creates it, polishes it, reimagines it... in short, if Picasso worked in a deli, he would spend most of time standing around watching Lyndon and thinking, "Well, he's got me beat... maybe I should go take up painting or something."

Yes, we're talking sandwich as in the kind of thing you slap together at home on a Saturday, a way station between the cereal in your past and the veal parmesan in your future. That's the way I viewed it, and indeed had created and consumed many along the way. But then I got lucky. I was at yet another corporate cafeteria, finishing up one project before heading on to the airport for the next. I debated skipping lunch all together and getting something later before I got on the plane. But I had some time to kill, so I decided I might as well get something to eat.

I wandered up in the elevator to the join the rest of the hungry stragglers. It was towards the tail end of the lunch hour, so the crowds were thinning out. A few at the hot station, a few at the salad bar, a few hovering near the remaining slices of pizza. I walked by the sandwich area, seeing signs for usual suspects: turkey, roast beef, tuna salad. Nothing leaped out at me. But then I noticed Lyndon at work.

Working methodically in his chef whites, he had a flour tortilla laid out in front of him. On it was a coarsely chopped grilled chicken breast and some roasted red pepper strips. As I watched, he took some lettuce and a sweet pickle and started dicing them finely, adding some sprinkles of oregano as he went. I looked around for a sign naming the special he was making. Nothing. But what I did see was a woman standing in front of the sandwich case watching him and smiling. I turned to her, as she seemed to be the eventual owner. "That looks great," I remarked. "What is it?" She shook her head: "Don't know. It's for Mark."

Turns out she worked for an executive at the company named Mark. One day he was doing the same walk I was, wandering around trying to decide what to have. Lyndon saw his aimlessness, and offered to make him something special. It was a hit, so Mark came back again. He never asked Lyndon for anything in particular, just to whip up whatever he thought would be good. That was two years ago. And so now, all he has to do is send his assistant up to the cafeteria, tell Lyndon it's "for Mark," and the master begins to create.

At this point Lyndon was adding a mixture of shredded provolone and cheddar cheeses to that day's masterpiece, along with some light BBQ sauce. He slid the whole thing into the pizza oven, then turned back to me. "Any chance I could get the same thing?" I asked. He smiled. "If it helps," I continued, "my name is Marc as well." He laughed and started in on another, interrupting the process to remove the original wrap with the now melted cheese, give it a quick sprinkle of fresh pepper, roll into a tight cylinder and set it between the plates of a hot pannini press.

I went and got a cold drink and came back as he was wrapping the original Mark's creation up and handing it across. I told the assistant to thank her boss for me, then turned back and chatted a few more minutes with Lyndon while he finished its twin. Here was a guy that took obvious pride in his work, and seemed genuinely pleased to be able to bring his own personal spark to what would certainly seem to be a routine task. He wrapped mine to go, said goodbye and turned to start his cleanup now that lunch was over.

But for me it was just beginning. I paid for my creation, and found a seat by the windows. I unrolled the wrapping and took a bite. It was all there: the different flavors, the various textures, a heady aroma of tang and sweet. In short, a masterpiece. I certainly hope that client hires me again. But more important than the work itself will be to make sure I adjust my schedule so my next appointment isn't until later in the day, and I have plenty of time to let Lyndon work his art. Mark, whomever you are, my stomach owes you one.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good sandwich. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Tack to Port(ly)

"I'm pretty much at my target weight.
The thing is, I haven't quite reached my target height."
--Rico Rodriguez as Manny on ABC's "Modern Family" 

Whether it's First Lady Michelle Obama and her campaign for healthier eating, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his "Food Revolution," or your doctor, spouse or even in a fit of misplaced candor, yourself, someone has likely told you that you too are not at your target weight. And since the day is over when most who are reading this are likely to grow taller, we've all got work to do.

The reality, though, is that it seems we can't do much about it. That's not to say that we shouldn't eat less and exercise more: any health professional will tell you that these are good things if you want to live longer. It's just that, in spite of it all, the bottom line seems to be that our overall average poundage is up, and we need to come to terms with it. Whether it's genetics, evolution or environment, the result is the same: as a people, we are taller and heavier. It may be an ugly fact, but that doesn't make it any less true.

On a personal level, for all of our dieting and huffing and puffing, most of us find that our bodies have a particular point at which they like to be. You can manage to strip a few pounds off now and then, here and there. But left to their own devices, our bodies seem to eventually come back to their natural level like water. Even that most radical of all approaches, liposuction, has been shown to be a temporary fix. In a study just published in the journal "Obesity," researchers found that, "After 6 weeks, percent body fat decreased by 2.1% in the lipectomy group and by 0.28% in the control." The difference was "smaller at 6 months, and by 1 year was no longer significant." Turns out the body just adds fat cells back elsewhere: "BF was restored and redistributed from the thigh to the abdomen." Turns out you can't fool Mother Nature, even if you lop off her saddlebags.

And so we have to make adjustments.  Manufacturers have been doing this for years. Dress sizes are bigger. Office chairs are stronger. Wheelchairs, ambulances and operating tables have all been beefed up (no pun intended) so that they can support the weight of users. Even the Coast Guard has gotten wise to the situation. Then did some back of the envelope calculations, and came to the realization that we better accept we're heavier if we don't want to drown.

Seems that back in the 1960's, the CG issued regs that stated the maximum number of passengers a ship could safely carry. That load was based on the "Assumed Average Weight per Person" or AAWP, which was 160 pounds. But to be real, "we" haven't seen that weight since "we" all wore bell bottoms. And so effective December 1 of this year, the AAWP will go to 185 pounds. That means that an eight-ton boat will now only be allowed to hold 86 people instead of 100. Before you run out and buy a new weekend skiff, note that the measure only applies to commercial craft and not recreational boaters. So you can still overload your 25-footer with your poker buddies, and hope they're not too drunk to swim to shore when the worse happens.

And what if you board that boat and notice that an awful lot of the passengers are pressing hard on even that threshold? Then you may want to swap your ferry ticket for a one on a plane. That's because the Federal Aviation Administration has an even dimmer, or perhaps more realistic view of the situation. They have issued guidelines that passenger loads on planes should be based on a weight per person of 195 pounds in winter clothing, and 190 pounds in summer clothing. We should all put our tray tables in an upright and locked position, and leave them that way.

It's a trend that sadly shows no signs of abating. Many new buildings have wider doorframes. Buses are now being constructed to not only hold more weight, but discussions are underway to redefine floor space, "to acknowledge the expanding girth of the average passenger." Watch: it's just a a matter of time before those "Maximum Occupancy" signs in auditoriums and ballrooms have to change. After all, even a floor can only take so much.


Marc Wollin of Bedford needs to lose a few pounds, but so does everybody. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at