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