Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Other Man

I don't know when it happened. When we first moved into our house over 20 years ago, I was gung ho to fix up, spruce up, paint up every little thing that needed work. Leaky sink? No worries, I'm on it! Grubby bathroom? I'll slap on a fresh coat this weekend!  Sticky cabinet? Just let me get my tools! It was like a giant erector set that just needed tweaking. And speaking for myself, there are few things more satisfying than having a problem you can actually solve, and then seeing the results immediately. Not to mention any occasion to use a ratchet.

But somewhere along the way the magic faded. Partially it was a lack of time: the kids were growing up and there were lots more fun activities to do. Partially it was that the problems were no longer so simple to fix: it was beyond just putting in a new washer to stop the drip, it required a whole new faucet. And partially it was just lack of interest as the house became more like a pair of well-worn jeans: sure there were some small holes (literally), but it was comfortable, and I convinced myself they added character. It was a corollary to "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." More like, "if it ain't broke too bad, do I have to fix it?"

My wife, on the other hand, had a different point of view. She saw the problems for what they were: problems. I could file away the leak in the kitchen as a minor inconvenience, not look up to see the stain on the ceiling or step lively over the broken front walk. But she knew better: they all needed to be fixed, both for us and for future generations. She pointed them out nicely, politely, insistently, but I waved it all off. Sure, I said, I'll get to it when I have a minute. Translation: leave me alone, there are important naps to take.

She also took into account the other unspoken part of the equation, namely that the issues had exceeded my limited abilities. I actually like fixing stuff, but the skills I bring to the table are rudimentary. We both recall (she with gusto, I less so) incidences in our first home. In one, I tried to replace a lighting fixture; in the other, clean out the trap in a slop sink in the basement. Both seemed to be simple jobs, ones I could handle and save the need and expense of an electrician or plumber. In both instances, things went horribly awry, with sparks in one case and floods in the other. Several thousand dollars later order was restored, but a lesson had been learned.

And so as the punch list increased, she took matters into her own hands. Taping her considerable network, she began to look for another man. She eventually connected with Vinny, and arranged a walkthrough. He cast a critical eye on the items that needed attention... the plumbing issues, the hole in the chimney, the noisy fan... and pointed out others that also needed help. He told her the things we needed to get, like some new tiles and a faucet. And when we got the wrong stuff, he shook his head at us sadly like we had screwed up our homework, then went out and got the right stuff himself. Other than having to work around schedules... his, not ours, I should point out...all got fixed toot sweet.

And the price? Not the money paid to Vinny, but the charge to me for stringing things along way past when they should have been dealt with? She trotted out her wish list of other non-critical improvements that I had waved off. The small fence, the discolored spot on the ceiling, the cracked grout in the shower? All done. Like the others, he did them effortlessly, so that they look as they should, as opposed to how they would look if, well, I did them.

Vinny has become the other man not just in my wife's life, but mine as well. He's taken the pressure off of me, and truth be told, done what I should have done. But I'm good with that. Now, if you live near us, I suspect your next call will be to us to get Vinny's number. But don't bother. We are not the jealous type, but he's ours.


Marc Wollin of Bedford had the nickname in college of "Handy," because he liked to fix things. Sadly, he's outgrown that. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Survey Says

Lots of people want to know what I think.

Well, maybe not lots. My kids don't really care. My wife asks, but it's just to be polite. And most others I know are only interested if the observation is embarrassing, funny or catty. But that's only because they know me. It's those that don't that are most interested in what I have to say... interested, that is, as long as I have bought their products, can give them money, or agree with their views.

Or that's the takeaway from the number of surveys I've gotten in the past week, at least a dozen by my count. As the cost to run them has gone down, the number has gone up. If you buy anything or sign up for something, your phone number and/or email is likely to make its way to some organization or business which feels no compunction about reaching out and touching you. And yes, that's what got Anthony Weiner into trouble, though it usually doesn't get that far.

The reason is simple. By taking the pulse of their clientele, the hope is to build a relationship and customer loyalty, or to solicit you for a similar product. It's not that this is a new phenomenon.  It's just that this targeted communication is the most effective kind. After all, you've given them your contact info, which is the holy grail of marketing. No bought or trolled lists here: you've practically begged them to come in the front door, put their feet up on the coffee table and tell you about what you are missing.

Take last night. We went to a movie at a local playhouse, and used a discount card that we have that's a perk of our cable company, which also owns the theatre. So this morning, when I turned on my computer and opened up my email, front and center was a survey asking me to rate them on any number of criteria. They wanted to know my thoughts on the friendliness of the staff (they were fine), the cleanliness of the theatre (no real complaints) and the smell of the popcorn (as always it was tempting, but at $37.50 for a medium cup packing 3000 calories, I'll pass).

Similar inquiries came this week from a charity to whom I had given a donation, a vendor in China from which I had bought a two dollar cable for my computer, and even our garbage service after I checked their web site to see if this Friday was mixed recyclables or paper day. Each peppered me with questions as to how the experience was for me, if I would come back, and what they could do better. For the record, my responses were fine, yes and nothing, except to pick up newspapers and bottles on the same day.

The real question is this: do they really care, or are they just seeing if I will respond and am therefore fodder for more approaches? More likely the latter. Studies show that interested and engaged consumers are more likely to be repeat clients. And it saves the trouble of reaching the wrong audience, like the survey I got by phone from what was obviously a conservative group. Generally I don't pick up blind 800 calls, but when it rang all our lines in quick succession, I was curious. The recorded voice said it was a non-partisan public opinion survey, and proceeded to ask if I believed in the sanctity of marriage as defined between one man and one woman. When I said "No," I heard the voice recognition software click and whirr, followed by a quick "Goodbye" and the line went dead. Guess they'll save the dime next time.

It pays to remember that surveys don't always work. In perhaps the most famous example, The Chicago Tribune, relying on responses of voters, printed its famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline on election night in 1948, only to wake up and find out how wrong it was. And lest you think that was a long time ago and the science has become foolproof, there were surely surveys supporting the introduction of Edsel, New Coke and the TV series "Cavemen." In the words of Sarah Palin, how's that workin' out for ya?

Still, I guess it's nice to be asked. At least I get the impression someone cares. So in that spirit, let me ask you: Did you find this of interest? Can we do anything to make your day better? And would you recommend us to a friend? But please only write back if you can give me a five out of five... you don't want to hurt my feelings.


Marc Wollin of Bedford responds to 100% of the feedback he gets. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Friday, June 10, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

It was a not-uncommon night on the road for me, this time outside of Washington DC. I had finished work, gone back to the hotel and dropped my stuff off in my room. Then I headed out for dinner, my companions being a book and a glass of wine. Wandering afterwards, I was looking for something sweet to top off my evening. And that's when I came across Danielle, a vision in white.

Now, before you think there was anything illicit going on, Danielle was actually behind the counter of her shop, "Danielle's Desserts," and the whites she was wearing were chef's. Like you, I've been in bakeries before, and seen some good looking stuff. But this was different. No white cakes with curlycue frosting here. Rather, each of the many phenomenal cakes and pies on display looked like it was homemade, a fact validated as I watched Danielle scrapping down a regular mixer on the back bench.

Perhaps best of all, rather than untouched complete units, each sample was partially gone. What this meant, and what the chalkboard hanging on the wall confirmed, was that a slice could be yours for the asking. There was Coconut Pineapple and Fresh Apple Crumb, Southern Caramel and Raspberry Delight. For the chocoholics there was Triple Chocolate Fudge, and for the lemonophiles Lemon Chess Pie. One looked better than the next, and I couldn't decide. "Damn you," I said to her. She laughed: "I get that a lot!"

Turns out the shop is the culmination of a 20 plus year journey for Danielle. A baker since she was a kid, she was taught the art by her mother, a necessary one to help keep her four brothers happy (and yes, they learned to bake as well). And so while she plied her day job as a senior human resources professional, she started a side business baking at night and on weekends. She teamed with a local caterer, supplying her with the stuff of which dreams are made. Then about two and half years ago a local restaurateur tapped her talents, stretching her even further.

"I always knew it was a matter of time," she recalled. "It wasn't a question of if, but of when." She finally decided to take the plunge, leaving her six-figure job to go full time into baking. She cast about for a location, never finding the right combination of the cost she could afford, the space she wanted and the traffic she needed. Then at an interview for yet another space, her contact suggested her current location, the Tyson's Galleria, a high end mall in suburban Washington. "It was a temporary space, and they were willing to give me a try. I thought I was crazy... other people thought I was crazy... but it worked out!"

And so now she has a place to call her own. I asked her what sets her shop apart. "The concept was baking from scratch, baking throughout the day, being very interactive." She does that by getting feedback from customers, and asking those who wander in to taste her newer ideas. Posts on her web site tell the story: "I normally have a fair amount of self control, but when I'm in there my knees get weak, my palms start sweating, and my heart races until I can get my hands on a red velvet cupcake." Another: "Let's just say, it is absolutely, hands-down, THE BEST Key Lime Pie EVER!" And one more: "I could come back just for the visual food porn in the displays."

As for me, it was a tough call. I love coconut, and the Triple Layer Creamy Coconut (Danielle's favorite!) looked tempting. The Carrot looked great, as did the Chocolate Pecan. But I couldn't resist one I don't often get, the Sweet Potato pie. It was spicy and sweet, creamy and full of body, and it was all I could do not to go back and break in late that night for another slice.

Danielle will confess that it's hard work, being a professional baker. "It takes a toll on your body," she says, "the constant standing, the non-stop shoulder and arm motions. If I sit down, sometimes I can't get up." But there is an upside. "The thing that gives me most satisfaction is seeing people's reaction. I'm glad I'm not a dentist or an IRS agent. People come in here and get real happy. A lot say, ‘I was having a really bad day, and I came in here and now I feel better.'"

I concur. I wasn't even having a bad day. But after a slice of that pie, I can tell you it got a whole lot better.


Marc Wollin of Bedford can't wait to return to Danielle's Desserts in Tyson's Corner, VA. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, June 04, 2011

You Can't Touch This

I put my hands out. Nothing. I pulled them back, then tried again. Still nothing. I moved them up, then down, right then left. Nada. Then just as I was giving up and pulling them back to move to another location, on it popped. I flailed forward like I was jerked by a string, trying to get in on the action. But no sooner did I get there, it stopped, and I was left high and dry.

Yet another automatic faucet had questioned my existence.

We've all become used to technology taking over our offices, our cars, our leisure time. When we check out, our purchases are scanned, tracked and analyzed, so that even before we walk out the door we are handed coupons selected just for us for our next visit. And our phones don't just allow us to make calls, but get us where we need to go, amuse us in our off hours and allow us to snap a picture of the bar code tag while in the store and determine that, yes, that garden hose is available for $1 less across town.

There are perhaps just two areas where technology plays a supporting rather than a leading roll. In the kitchen, it still takes a human standing over a pan or pot to stir, sauté or fry up your next meal. Sure, there are plenty of hi-tech helpers, from microwave ovens to computer controlled mixers to digital thermometers. But at the end of the day it still takes a skilled eye to determine that exact moment when the French toast should be flipped to get that golden hue.

Then there's the bathroom. At home, for most it's still a defiantly low tech environment. It might sport an electronic toothbrush or a waterproof radio. But unless you've installed a high tech toilet from Japan, the only power needed is for the lights and your hairdryer, and neither of those is absolutely necessary unless you're getting ready for the prom.

That's in stark contrast with the commercial restroom. At its most basic, all you need is a commode and a sink. A faucet, a soap dispenser and some paper towels, and you're good to... well... go. But over the last several decades every one of those elements has become automated. With the exception of the stall door... and there are numerous patents on file for automatic operation of those... it's now physically possible to walk into a restroom, do your business and walk out without touching anything but yourself.

That is, if it all works as designed. That's because these self flushing, auto water starting, auto soap squirting and auto towel dispensing devices usually rely on some kind of motion sensor. All well and good when that eye is clean and clear. But needless to say there is a fair amount of "stuff" (we'll just leave it at that) kicked up in said environment. And since some of that stuff settles on the sensor, it's the equivalent of wearing glasses that are coated with gunk... it's just plain hard to see. And so you wind of in the situation I was in:  patrons waving madly at the faucet or soap dispenser or towel unroller, trying to get it to acknowledge them and spring into action.

Of course, this all presumes that all these devices are checking for is your presence. Is it possible they have been programmed with other criteria? Is it like the famous Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, judging you on criteria you can't possibly discern, and passing judgment on your worthiness for its favors? "You CAN'T be serious wearing that tie with that shirt. No soap for you!"

But if all they are looking to confirm is a human presence, then we might one day consider them our last line of defense. Against what, you might ask? Well, if popular entertainment is any guide, one day we are likely to be infiltrated by zombies, vampires or extraterrestrials. Were that to happen, and you couldn't tell those left behind from those who have been infected, here's what I would suggest. Mention to your hardy band of survivors that you all might want to stop whatever you're doing for a second to freshen up, and head to the rest room. Start to wash up, but watch closely those in your party. If someone sticks their hands out and gets nary a drop, they're likely not real humans: blow their head off before they can take you down.

Or you could also just tell them to try another faucet.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves those Airblade dryers made from small jet engines. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at