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