Friday, March 30, 2012

Parallel and Perpendicular

Amy is a serious, serious Guster fan. That fact is simultaneously the most important and least important thing I can tell you about her. However, the passion she shows for those indie-rock darlings goes some towards helping to understand how she approaches her life. And in truth, I can't say I even know that much about it. We've been acquaintances for several years, since she first stumbled onto this space and dropped me a line. We traded a few notes, and over time I've learned a bit more about her.

The factual stuff is pretty straightforward. Amy lives in the Albany area and works for a media company in marketing. She's a writer, and has a dog and cat named Jack and Almanzo, after the real life dog and husband of one of her favorite authors, Laura Ingalls Wilder. And she has a tattoo which is the logo of Elfquest, a fantasy series which started as a cult comic book, though I confess I don't know where. (Where the tattoo is, not the origin of the comic)

She is also an adoptee. I found that out when I wrote a column about adoption, and Amy wrote me a note. She is close to her parents, and volunteers her time at fairs where prospective parents learn about the process. Many come up to her assuming she is a parent of an adopted child, and are surprised to find she is on the other side of the equation. That sometimes leads to what she describes as a surreal encounter, or as she puts it, one that is both "parallel and perpendicular." She explains it best: "Someone will ask if I have children, and I answer that I have a boy. A few people get confused, thinking Jonah is the adopted child. ‘No,' I explain. ‘I'm adopted. My son is biological.' One lady looked steadily at me, her eyes entering mine with heavy envy. ‘You're so lucky,' she sighed. ‘You're so incredibly lucky.'"

Lucky. It's surreal only if you know the next part of the story. That's because Jonah, whom Amy calls "Boo" and who is now ten, whom she loves "more than the earth and sky," is autistic with severe behavioral issues. And those issues are so extreme that Amy finally felt she had no choice but to place him in a residential facility this past year.

While it was an agonizing decision, it was one she saw coming: "Our bright, amazing, incredible little boy has such violent aggressions," she wrote. When he was smaller, his outbursts were no less disturbing, but were at least manageable. But as he became physically bigger and stronger, they became not only difficult but dangerous. And so she made the gut-wrenching decision, one she has explored in depth in her blog.

Under the current title of "Normal is a Dryer Setting: Autism, sans sugar coating," it's a stream of consciousness posting that Amy began about a year after Jonah was born. In the beginning it chronicled the usual new mother thoughts, issues and activities, along with tidbits that can only be foreshadowing of what was ahead (When Jonah was about a year and a half, in an entry called "Something is Amiss," she wrote "He's a kid with a mind of his own, that's for sure.")

Then came January 12, 2004. The entry is called THE DIAGNOSIS. "I found out today my son Jonah has autism. For those who do so, please pray for us." Later in that post: "There are tears of a kind I've never known before." Still later: "Andy and I are so frightened." Then no posts for 4 months, after which it continues with a description of Jonah's new playgroup. And on it goes through today.

In it, she has let her frustration show through: "Sometimes I get mad. It's like that scene from 'Rainman' with Tom Cruise ranting to his brother, ‘You know what I think, Ray? I think this autism is a bunch of shit! Because you can't tell me that you're not in there somewhere!'" Of course, she has shared her love: "He's my precious little boy, and I want to snatch him up and place kisses all over him." Other entries contain equal parts struggles, triumphs and setbacks.

Amy says that her blog isn't a "triumph-over-autism story." It's an accounting of the messy life she leads, unapologetically bare for all to read. Yes, she's a writer and it's therapeutic. But, beyond that she says, "If I can help just one person feel they are not alone, then the journey will be worth the telling." And by that yardstick, it's hard not to argue that it is a triumph indeed.


You can read Amy's blog at Marc's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Mail

Virtually every week that I fill this space I get some direct response.  A trickle more than a flood, still, almost every column engenders some response from someone somewhere. Politics? "Charlie" and "Sally" like to shoot back a note (not their real names, of course). Technology? That would be "Debra" and "Jon." Music? Good chance I'll hear from "Robert" and "Nigel." And of course, almost every week I hear about the brilliance of my writing from "Mom" (actually, that is her real name).

However, in spite of having filled this space for nigh onto 17 years, I can still never tell in advance what will strike a chord. Musings which I feel strongly about may elicit barely a peep, while others which I think are throwaways draw multiple responses. All I can surmise is that since I try to write about what strikes me, there always seems to be at least one other human being who shares the same experience and finds what I pen to be of interest.

So it was that several weeks ago I wrote an ode to one of my favorite things on the planet, but one which I wasn't sure would make an impression. I'm a person of simple tastes, and so if you missed it, it wasn't about jewels or cars or, as it is for some, Apple. Rather, I urged others to celebrate with me the joy that was March 1, or more to the point, National Peanut Butter Day.

As it turns out, there were many out there who were fellow travelers. To my delight, they thumb-typed or hunt-and-pecked missives proclaiming their like-mindedness. Some offered their own favs: "I love peanut butter, especially the one with the nuts. It is good on green peppers and on celery too. Try it!!" Another: "I have it on a rice cake almost every morning for breakfast. If I wish to ‘splurge' I sometimes add a half teaspoon of blackberry jam." One proclaimed his agreement, though injected a note of ideological purity: "Love it, though I must say the Skippys and Jifs are most definitely the ‘processed cheese product' of the true peanut butter world!" Still another editorialized on my reflection that "Reese's Cups may be the most perfect food on the planet" with the response "THINKS? Seriously, what's there to think about?" And there were even those that went beyond my obsession: "I like chunky too. And try spreading some ON the Reese's peanut butter cup. Truly delish."

But as I said, one can never tell when something strikes someone in a particular way. And so I share with you a complaint I got, tongue firmly in cheek though it may be. With the subject line of "An Outrageous and Unconscionable Omission," it came from a man who has way better things to do than to take me to task. He is a successful businessman, an inventor, a musician, not to mention the winner of a Grammy, an Emmy and a boatload of other awards. I'm also humbled to call him a creative partner and friend for 30 plus years. But none of that mattered in this particular case. I stepped in it, and he let me know it. To whit:

"I am a loyal and devoted Glancing Askance reader, and I believe I have read every one of your splendid commentaries. Splendid, that is, until today. NEVER have I been so outraged and offended by an omission as in today's Peanut Butter column.  Who in the universe of peanut butter lovers would ever have the chutzpah to write 750 words about America's love affair with peanut butter and never mention Elvis???  Just last night I attended a screening party, and front-and-center on the dinner menu was peanut butter and banana sandwiches on white bread, with or without bacon. I opted for the bacon. Elvis' impact on peanut butter is still very much alive.  I strongly urge that in your next column you issue a ‘Correction' and give proper homage to The King."

Sir, consider me chastised. The publication cycle has pushed this apology back, but it is sincere none the less. I can only say that I'm glad my writings affected you so deeply, and thank you for setting me straight. My only wish going forward is that I am able to bring the same passion out of others on topics from Iran to nuclear power as peanut butter did for you. In the meantime, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. And long live the King and his sandwiches.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves hearing from readers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Everybody's a Winner

Let me say at the outset that I'm not a big sports fan. That's not to say I don't like to watch a good game of almost anything. It might be the Super Bowl, sudden death at the Masters or the last few minutes of an NBA playoff. I've also been known to tune in and catch a few minutes of a hockey game, a track and field meet or a diving competition. But I don't have a favorite team, play in a fantasy league or arrange my weekends to be in front of the set at game time. Yes, I know about Jeremy Lin, but who doesn't?

Still, I was intrigued to hear the news that baseball is expanding its playoff structure. Even if you're not an aficionado, you probably know the end result of those playoffs is the World Series, the biggest sporting event of October. But the mechanics of how they get to that point might be a little off your radar screen, so allow me to fill you in (I confess I had to read up on it in Wikipedia).

In the mid-nineties, Major League Baseball's two leagues, the National and the American, were reorganized into three divisions each, labeled the East, Central and West. To crown an overall winner, the process was fairly straightforward: those winning each division would duke it out to see who got to represent the league in the Fall Classic.

But you can't have three teams on the field at the same time. So, two possibilities: either someone would have to sit in the first round, or you have to add one to the fold. And so the idea of a Wild Card was adopted. To round out the field, a non-division-winning team, the one that had the next best record, landed a spot in the playoffs as well. That provided the needed fourth so that everybody gets to play one on one.

All well and good. But could it be better? After all, playoffs generate excitement, viewers and dollars. So what if there were more? As luck would have it, baseball got an unplanned for test-run this past September. For the first time in the 17-year history of the wild card, teams in both leagues were tied for the final playoff spot entering the final night of the regular season. Serendipitously, it was a one game playoff for which fans and sportswriters went wacky. And so the idea was planted: let's make the extraordinary ordinary, and institutionalize that particular sequence of events.

And so we have the new system. Starting this year, there will be a playoff before the playoffs. At the end of the regular season, 10 teams will still be kicking. You'll have the six winners from each of the three divisions in two leagues. Then the next two best teams in each league will square off to see gets the last spot. Is it a Wild Card Playoff? A Wild Card Championship? Or in a nod to pizza boxes everywhere, The Best of the Rest? You decide.

On the one hand, some might argue that this cheapens the playoffs: if more teams can make them, just how much does actually winning the division mean? After all, with this structure, fully 30% of the teams will be in the Championship Round. Still, that's more selective than other pro leagues: 12 of 32 make it in the NFL, and 16 of 30 advance in the NBA and NHL, a point that Commissioner Bud Selig was quick to trumpet: "This change increases the rewards of a division championship and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year, all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports."

Is this an extension of what started in elementary school, where there are trophies given out for sixth place? After all, no one wants to be labeled a loser, so just make more winners. You can even argue that's what's happened in the Republican Primary, which has abandoned the former winner-take-all format, and changed to proportional representation, enabling the four remaining candidates to claim that they are still in the playoffs. I mean race.

But as we said before, playoffs equal excitement equal money. So what's to stop baseball from adding another playoff game, whereby the top three teams that didn't win their divisions challenge one another for the final spot? Of course, three is an uneven number, so they'll have to add a fourth team as well. It's safe to assume that all this means that by October of 2018 every team will be in the playoffs.

Every team, of course, except the Mets.


Marc Wollin of Bedford was at the NBA All-Star Game and had a blast. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Look Ma, No Hands

If you spend any time on the streets of any big cty, you're bound to come across people who walk around talking to themselves. We're not talking here about the average Joe and Josette who may mutter to themselves every now and again. Rather, we're talking about those unstable individuals who are having on ongoing conversation with God or the devil or their imaginary giant dog. In most cases they should be more pitied than feared, though they can make others uncomfortable. A cosmetic approach to be sure, but one comedian suggested that perhaps we should pair those folks up, so at the very least they can at least look like they're having a conversation.

Today you see far more respectable looking people walking around talking to themselves. Or so it appears. Almost invariably (because there are those who are well dressed who do indeed walk around talking to the ghosts in their heads), if you look closely you will see the telltale blinking coming from their ear, or a dangling wire with a bulge somewhere near their collar. In that case you can safely assume that they are practicing hands free safe driving without the car, and talking on their cell phones.

Going "sin manos" in a vehicle makes sense, so much so that it has been legislated as such in any number of states. The idea is to keep your hands free so as to attend to the needs of piloting a two ton plus hunk of steel down a highway at 65 miles per hour.  (Let's not even get into the NASCAR driver who was using his phone to tweet pictures of the wreck in front of him at the Daytona 500. Start with this: he had a phone in the car? But I digress.) It's a good idea to not be on the phone while driving, but not for the reason you think. Studies show that when we turn our cars into rolling phone booths it's the conversation and not the physical act of holding the phone that's the dangerous piece of the puzzle. Cars can be driven safely with half of one's hands; the same can't be said if the driver is using half of one's brain trying to keep up with a discussion of last night's installment of "Army Wives."

But walking should be another matter. After all, we do it effortlessly from the age of three, and so the worst that could happen is a relatively harmless bump into another individual or a lamppost. And so more and more we are keeping our phones in our pockets and purses, and our eyes on the horizon. We walk along chattering like madmen, oblivious to those around us. More than once I've thought the person next to me was trying to engage me in a conversation, only to realize that I was intruding upon theirs. It's as if we all are astronauts or walking air traffic controllers, talking to some unknown and unseen mother ship.

It's not that I object to being on a call while walking down the street per se. Your time is your time. And if you want to use a stroll to connect with another rather than take in your surroundings, go for it. But I think that if you use a handd free device, you should be forced to let the rest of us know you have tuned out the immediate vicinity. Just as student drivers have a sign that warns others of their status, so too should hands free talkers wear a flashing light so we know to give them a wider berth.

Back when I was in college, a fellow student made a short film in which an exec was walking down the street. We heard a phone ring, and he reached up and tapped his left temple, followed by a hearty, "Hello! Jim, how the hell are you!" A moment later, we heard another ring. Without missing a beat, he said, "Jim, hang on just a minute." He tapped the first side of his head, than the other. "Hello? Oh, Sally, I'm so glad you called. Hang on, I've got Jim on the other line." He hit the right again, followed by the left. "Jim? It's Sally, can you hold for a minute? Thanks!" He then proceeded to jump between calls, poking himself on either side of this head. At the time, the film was meant to be a comedy. Today, not so much. All that's left is the surgical step. If only the filmmaker had shown his movie to Apple as opposed to Ogilvy. In that case, today he wouldn't be making commercials, he'd be making millions.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has both wired and wireless headsets, but hates to use them unless he's driving. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dressing Down

It's getting harder and harder to get dressed in the morning. Male or female, there used to be just two options. Work day: put on a suit. Play day: put on a pair of jeans. Sure, there were special outfits for special occasions, be it exercising or a social event or dinner out. But the reality was that most everything else was just a variation on those two basic themes.

In fact, it wasn’t long ago that a strict code of "dress for success" was the mantra instilled into all career minded individuals. Dressing down meant a shirt color other than white. Then somebody realized that people were coming to work on Fridays armed with casual clothes to change into at 4PM in order to get a jump on the weekend. So the idea was born: especially in the summer, the last day of the week became known as "casual days." Calendar creep occurred, and soon it was legal to be comfortable on any Friday during the year.

Of course, with any change in the status quo there is a need for study. So some professor got funding to examine the effect of denim on productivity. And wonder of wonders, they concluded that when people are comfortable they are better workers. The time no longer needed for straightening ties and pulling up pantyhose was going into research on nuclear fusion. Only one conclusion was possible: people should dress comfortably all the time.

Certain industries took this to heart, notably technology and advertising. It was a seismic shift from the days of IBM and its legions of blue-suited salesman, Don Draper and his Madison Avenue drinking buddies, and Gregory Peck in “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” It became an expression of one’s calling, so much so that it became actually hard to take certain professionals seriously if they showed up in a pinstripe suit. They just didn't look the part.

So now "business casual" is the state of the art in many companies, though not all. Especially in the financial, legal or sales worlds, suits and ties are still the default choice. That makes it important to know who you’re dealing with. When you book a meeting, you not only have to agree on the date and time, but on the attire. I've made the mistake of forgetting to inquire about the last point. The result has been walking into a room full of people who have on jeans and golf shirts, while I look like an undertaker. Kind of hard to fit in and act like part of the team.

So let's run down the permissible wardrobe selections depending on the situation. If you have a meeting with a new client, "Traditional Business Attire" is usually appropriate. That would include suits, ties and dresses. This is the organization man, and that includes women. Think Ward Cleaver, having a quiet dinner at home with June and the Beav, in a two piece, 3 button worsted flannel. The next step on the ladder (up or down, depending on your view of the state of western civilization) is what we'll call "Relaxed Business." Here we’re talking blazers and slacks as opposed to suits, or suits but without the tie. That is, tweak the purely casual, but don't escalate to full business formal. You have to look like you are trying to dress like a lawyer, but that it hurts to do so. So you imitate it, as though you just got to this planet, but the television transmissions you've been watching for years got all jumbled up along the way.

Most places these days are considered "Business Casual." This is defined as shirts with collars and no jeans. Pretend you're a golfer on the PGA tour, just without the spikes, or those stupid knickers. And finally we have “Anything Goes.” This is the province of the new media and tech firms, from Google to Zynga. Here virtually nothing here is off limits unless it has the possibility of getting you arrested. And even then there are allowances made for really cool tee shirts.  The net result of all of this is that your closet has to be 4 times larger and your chance of screwing up 4 times greater. Woe to him or her that misreads their calendar, and shows up in a sweatshirt on the day of the big presentation. At least for me, this all means that a career at UPS is starting to look a lot better and better, if only because I think I look good in brown anything.

- END -

Marc Wollin of Bedford has to better organize his closet. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at