Saturday, January 28, 2012

Makeover at 35,000 Feet

Airlines ain't what they used to be. No longer the most elegant and fastest way to get from place to place, planes have become buses in the sky. Cabins have been redesigned to maximize every inch, everything besides the actual seat costs extra and routes have been reduced so it takes multiple stops to get from place to place. In fact, when you do the calculus of how much time and hassle it takes to get to and through the airport, take the actual flight, then get through traffic to your final destination, spending quality time on I95 is looking better and better.

Then again, airline passengers ain't what they used to be either. Blame it on the People Express's of yore or the Jet Blue's of now, but these days everybody flies. No longer a practice of just the 1%, the rest of us 99% are winging our way here and there in our cargo shorts and flip flops, ears stuffed with iPods, toting bags from McDonalds to go with our last "free" perk on board, a plastic glass of Coke. Or to paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the passenger and he is us.

Still, if you're sitting on a plane, there are a few assumptions one can make. One, you have enough money in your pocket to fly, not the cheapest way to get from place to place. Two, be it business or pleasure, you're going somewhere. And three, you have a minimum of an hour confined to a finite space with a limited amount of options to distract you. Enter the airline magazine.

These glossy publications target you, the traveling public. A cross between "People," "Vanity Fair" and "The Idiot's Guide to Flying," they are a refuge for many, if only because they don't sport an on-off switch. That's because even if you usually have your iWhatever at your fingertips, and can't remember the last time you paged through an actual paper publication, below 10,000 feet they are one of the few readily available sources of distraction permitted by FAA regulations.

So what's in them? Mostly what you'd expect. An article on things to do in San Antonio. An interview with actor Ewan McGregor. A roundup of the latest electronic gadgets to keep you amused. All this along with more granular stuff, such as route maps, listings of pay-as-you-go snacks and airport gate layouts. All this makes sense, considering the audience and the locale. And then there are the ads.

It's not that today's airline passengers don't have disposable income. It's just strange what advertisers think they'll dispose it on. To be sure, there are ads for high end jewelry and watches, vacation destinations and travel services, the kinds of things to which travelers might take a shine. But there're also a rather large number of come-ons that play to the notion that the people sitting in the seats are vain, insecure, have bad joints and are lonely. As a frequent flyer I resemble, uh, I mean resent, those assumptions.

There are numerous ads for cosmetic dentistry, hair replacement and plastic surgery. You also find specialized medical facilities focusing on joint replacement, spine surgery and treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome. And they are rounded out by ones for personalized dating services, with names like "It's Just Lunch" and "Selective Search." Now, I'm sure all are run by upstanding and skilled professionals. And if you have issues with any of those areas you shouldn't close your eyes to possible solutions. But speaking solely for myself, if I'm in need of any of these things, I'm far more likely to do a bit of research with friends, family and others who have been there and done that, as opposed to making an impulse buy based on a four color glossy: "Wow! I want some vertebrae work just like that! And they have concierge service, too!"

Still, I assume that those paying to run these blurbs have gotten at least some success from their investment, or you wouldn't see them month after month. I can only conclude that something happens to the consumer part of your brain when you get on an airplane. After all, that SkyMall catalog next to the magazine has been selling collectable reproductions of Yoda for 30 years, and he's still in there. So somebody must be buying. Or as Yoda himself might put it, "Money spent strangely, people do on planes."


Marc Wollin of Bedford wonders why all the cosmetic dentists who advertise onboard seem to be from Texas. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Super PACman

It sounds like a Zen koan: what is yours but not yours? What can promote you as long as you don't promote it? What is completely aligned with your interests but doesn't permit you to take an interest? Thanks to the Supreme Court and Citizens United, the answer is a lot easier than the sound of one hand clapping. It's this year's 800 pound gorilla of politics, the Super PAC. And I want one.

Mind you, we're not talking your ordinary, garden variety, run-of-the-mill Political Action Committee. After all, those are a dime a dozen, each promoting policies that are favorable to their contributors. They range from corporate versions like FPL PAC, which advances the interests of Florida Power & Light, to ethnic ones such as the CHC PAC, which advocates on behalf of the Committee for Hispanic Causes. And then there's the Egg PAC. Not an acronym at all, it looks out for the members of the United Egg Producers.

They are a varied lot, to be sure. Some were established to promote social causes, like the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, or to promote specific alternative medicine approaches, such as the American Naprapathic Association PAC, or even to look out for your favorite beverage, like the National Beer Wholesalers Association PAC. And of course, almost every politician with any national profile has one as well: Majority Leader Harry Reid has the Searchlight Leadership Fund, Senator Chuck Grassley has the Hawkeye PAC and Senator John Kerry has the Campaign for Our Country PAC. In the naming department, kudos go to Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his Every Republican Is Crucial PAC (ERIC PAC), Representative Darrell Issa for his Invest in a Safe & Secure America PAC (ISSA PAC) and Representative Pete Sessions for his People for Enterprise, Trade and Economic Growth PAC (PETE PAC). I guess the "G" is silent.

No, what I want is a Super PAC, a "Mission: Impossible" like entity that is a totally separate organization designed to promote my interests while also giving me the ability to disavow all knowledge thereof. Take Mitt Romney in a recent debate. Of commercials sponsored by a Super PAC that were ravaging Newt Gingrich, he said in one breath, "With regard to their ads, I haven't seen them" while in the next breath he said, "The ads I saw say say..." Now that's having your cake and eating it too.

First, my non-associated Super PAC would need a snappy name, one that is forward thinking, patriotic, promissorial and imperative. Romney has "Restore Our Future," Perry has "Make Us Great Again," Huntsman has "Our Destiny" and Gingrich has "Winning Our Future." Stephen Colbert already registered "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow," though since handing it over to Jon Stewart to be legally free to run in South Carolina, it's been renamed "Definitely Not Coordinating With Stephen Colbert Super PAC." But assuming a sympathetic unaffiliated third party can come up with something catchy, all they have to do is file the proper paperwork and they'll be ready to go. Oh yes: that and find a millionaire benefactor that's willing to promote the same agenda that I have, though not in concert. Minor point.

And it will have to operate a bit differently than most. Since my constituency is less likely to be watching TV and more likely to be standing next to me, it will have to spend its money not on advertising, but on personal advocates. Think how effective this would be. After having a run in with cop who gives me a parking ticket, I can smile and walk away. My Super PACman can stride in, and call him all the names I was thinking of, but decided not to say for fear of landing in jail. And I can honestly say I had nothing to do with it.

That's the good thing about 501(c)(4) organizations: just like Mitt says about corporations, they are people too, and can say and do what they want. And so while I can't legally ask you to do so, should you have some extra cash (mind you, there are no limits to the size of your donation) and happen to have an outlook similar to mine, you might want to consider supporting what I consider to be a fine organization. Just make your check out to what I can confirm is an independent, self-standing, non-affiliated lobbying organization: "Majority Against Ridiculous Contributions," better known as MARC PAC.


Marc Wollin of Bedford wouldn't mind if you contributed to his SuperPAC but you can't tell him about it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Too Much Stuff

We have too much stuff.

Let me be clear: by "we" I mean us personally. By "too much" I mean there’s more of it than almost anything else. And by "stuff" I mean miscellaneous items that don’t fit into any other obvious category. Mind you, I’m not referring to the various physical things you can find in our home. After all, we've lived in the same house for over 20 years, and raised two kids who are now 21 and 24. So there’s bound to be a lot of stuff from old clothes to board games to kitchen gadgets in every drawer and cabinet you open. True, we have too much of each of those as well, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Rather, the stuff I refer to is financial in nature: more to the point, while on the income side we have checks and deposits, on the liability side we have stuff. It’s all part of my feeble attempt to make sense of our monetary situation. As part of trying to keep track of what we spend, we generally try and use credit cards and checks as opposed to cash. That way we get a record of our transactions, and can sort it all out. So a trip to the grocery store is categorized as "food," a night at the moves is listed as "activities" and gas for the car is, unsurprisingly, "gas." Being self-employed, it also helps to calculate actual net income as opposed to gross: after all, post-it notes don’t grow on trees, and office expenses can be deducted as the cost of doing business. All this helps not only at tax time, but in a general way of letting us see where our money goes.

All of which brings us to now. Lest you think we are always good do-be’s, it’s not like we walk in the door and immediately run to the household ledger to enter every dime we spent in the appropriate column. Usually, when we balance our checkbook on a weekly basis, any checks get entered along with their appropriate categories. However, that’s actually a tiny portion of our outgoing cash flow. Far more is transacted on the aforementioned plastic. Those receipts go into a big tray, to be matched against the monthly bill when it comes... never a happy day.

Notice I said "matched." No assignment takes place. All we do is sync up the line-by-line listing reported by the bank against the myriad slips of paper which we have collected after every purchase. We make sure we were credited with any credits, that there are no apparent unauthorized charges, and voila! We have a rectified if not exactly balanced budget.

It’s left till sometime after December 31 to do the actual sorting. In the old days, I would take all the receipts, sit on the floor in front of the TV, and spend many nights making little piles of paper, category by category. That experience was one of the reasons I eagerly embraced an electronic checkbook early on; when you entered a check, you included a classification, which you subtotaled at the end of the year. And once the credit card companies enabled you to download that daily blow-by-blow into the same ledger, we had almost reached bookkeeping nirvana.

One element, however, remains if not labor intensive, then judgment intensive. I still have to go through each plastic entry and assign it to a category, making in any given year about a thousand "this goes here, that goes there" decisions. Most are easy, or even automatic... the aforementioned food and gas sorting, for example. But a disturbingly large number didn't seem to fit neatly into any category. Some are for multi-item purchases made on one receipt at a big box store, others from long forgotten online retailers with ambiguous sounding names. They aren't so easy to assign to "home repairs" or "restaurants." And so the catch all grouping of "stuff" was born. There’s just one problem: the stuff is starting to dwarf all other comers. More than telephone, more than automobile maintenance, more than clothes, it has grown and grown. And while we can eat out less, or stretch out an oil change for the car, I don’t know how to minimize what I can’t define. And so it grows, getting ever more blob-like all the time.

But I have a plan. No more stuff. From now on, I will insist that we note what’s on those receipts. And so starting today, I’m making a new category in our checkbook. I think I’ll call it "things."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is always amazed at how his income gets spent. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Bill's Excellent Adventure

Let's say you're a chiropractor. Let's say you were born and raised in the east, and eventually moved to Arizona. Let's say you have a fairly typical life, including an ex-wife and a son. And let's say you coached youth football in your spare time. Then let's say that one day someone approached you with a proposition: how'd you like to go to India, and spend Thanksgiving teaching American style football to Punjabis and Kashmiris and Bengalis, who think the sport is played with a round ball and your feet?

You might say that idea is crazy. But if you're Bill, you jump at the chance.

Bill is all of the aforementioned, except for the crazy part. In the course of coaching 10 year-olds in the American Youth Football Association, as well as helping to run the local league, he made the acquaintance of some guys who told him about a business venture they were involved with in India. On the surface, it's not a big surprise: the press has been filled with stories about India's size, its enormous population and its emerging economic potential. Driving that emergence is the growth of the consumer class, which is voraciously coveting all things western, including television programming and spectator sports.

Since India grew up British, that would mean cricket, soccer and rugby. But many other sports have flourished and found huge followings as well, like field hockey and badminton. Couple this love of competitive spectacle with the need to fill cable and satellite TV hours, and you have the foundation for the Elite Football League of India, or EFLI.

While the league is fronted by Indian businessmen, its brain trust includes a number of well know American football names. Mike Ditka from the Chicago Bears, Michael Irvin from the Dallas Cowboys and Ron Jaworski from the Philadelphia Eagles are all part owners of the league. Doug Plank, who also played with the Bears and is currently head coach of the Philadelphia Soul Arena Football team, is one of the lead coaches. Together, their goal is to field a slate of eight teams in time for a kickoff later this year.

But to go from nothing to a legit contest between the Delhi Defenders and the Goa Swarm is a monumental undertaking. And that's where Bill came in. Along with Plank and the rest of the American coaching staff, they had to take highly motivated and talented athletes, and teach them not only skills but the game itself. And so Bill put his life on hold, and boarded a plane for the 20 hour flight to India to teach the basics of a slant pattern to guys who grew up thinking that touching the ball with your hands is a penalty.

Not surprisingly, for one who had never been out of the country, Bill's first impressions were cultural. Once there, he had a three hour drive to Pune, where the training camp was located. "It seems that there are no rules on the road, just a mass of rickshaws, mopeds, cab vans and a few cars," he wrote me. "I saw a family of five on a moped with a child and a baby. It's absolutely something I never imagined experiencing."

But once he got to camp and settled in, he found that serious athletes are the same the world over. "I have been pleasantly surprised how well the head coaches are picking up the football schemes and terminology," he noted after a week there. He said they love competition: "The Indian people like ‘Rambo,' they like ‘300,' they want to see gladiators. The desire is there, their hard work is off the charts." And the people? "Generous and genuine. They were very kind, compassionate and hard working."

He was there about a month, both coaching and using his administrative talents to run multiple sessions with hundreds of coaches and players. Now that he's back, I asked him what he learned. He laughed: "I learned how hard it is to get anything done in India, how hard it is to communicate in a country that has so many different dialects and languages. But I also learned that desire and will really count. Skills can be taught, but you can't get anywhere without pride and respect."

He's continuing with the league, moving more into an operations role, most recently helping to hire college level and above coaches to head over. He has plans to head back, this time to help create a database of players. But even if he's in Phoenix on November 12, 2012, I bet he'll have a hot dog and a beer, and be camped in front of a TV watching the opening game between the Mumbai Gladiators and the Pune Black Tigers. And I willing to bet he'll be rooting for both.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has always wanted to go to India. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at