Saturday, April 28, 2012

Animal Warfare

We are at war. Not in Afghanistan, with the Taliban or the drug lords of South America. Not with the socialist left or the tea party right. No, ours is a very private war, conducted as one of attrition over years and years in and around the battlefield that is our house. Our opponent is the mother of all battlefield mothers, Mother Nature. Or more specifically, not with her as much as with her representatives.

We dealt first with the tanks, better know as the deer. We fenced off our plants, denying then an edible refuge in the lean months of winter. It took a few years to tweak our defenses as they are nothing if not relentless. But eventually we tightened the netting enough or added an extra post or a plank of wood that deterred them from turning our azaleas into nubbins. It's not that some plastic netting staple-gunned to a pole will actually stop a ravenous 200 pound doe. Rather, they eventually get annoyed with a mouth full of plastic and move on to the next opportunity. I'm proud to say that this year all plantings survived the cold and the foraging, enabling me to kill them myself by over fertilizing in the spring.

Of course, as any general knows, if you can't beat them head-on you work the margins. And indeed, the chipmunks came next. Readers of this space may recall my very public spat with one or more of these guerrillas as they undermined our newly re-laid flagstone walk. Looking out to find a pile of dust next to a crack in the stones lead me a network of tunnels that would have done a Stalag prisoner proud. We were not to be vanquished that easily, however. Last fall I picked up the stones and stuffed rocks and plastic gutter screens in their path. That held till just recently when a new pile emerged several feet away. My wife tried the same technique, a new Manginot Line which so far is holding. Should we see a breech in that fortification, we'll have to seriously consider the nuclear option, and go all cement on their asses.

And now it's the partisans' turn. We imagine they are raccoons, though they've never had the guts to show themselves. We just know that on nights where we use the grill on our deck, the next morning finds the cover astray and, to put it politely, piles of presents between the sliding glass door and the grill. We tried burning all the scrapings off the grates, emptying the grease catcher and cinching the cover tighter. No soap. It's gotten so that we have to look carefully before we slide open the screen and venture out lest we step on a, well, active mine.

My wife did some research, and found that, Geneva Convention aside, chemical warfare may be appropriate. Seems that raccoons are not terribly fond of ammonia. Either that, or the fumes disguise those of chicken with my special dry rub which we assume draws them to our place. In either case, we have a new routine, whereby after we cook and finish a delightful aromatic salad topped with feta cheese, cranberries and grilled anything, we defy the international community and lay down a withering splash of white NH3 as a potential deterrent. It seems to work. However we found some live rounds the other day, though we were unsure if we forgot to deploy our arsenal or not. One also wonders if, in some New Yorker cartoon version of our situation, there are two raccoons rooting around the grill, when one looks up and says," Hey! What are you doing? Do you have to do that on the deck? Can't you get out to the yard?!" And the other responds, "Sorry, I know it's gross, but whenever I smell ammonia I just can't hold it!"

So far we are maintaining our position. And defense is certainly easier than offense. But to be realistic, while we are the homesteaders right now, they were here first. And if the lesson of Vietnam taught us anything, it's that colonizers, however noble their ambitions, will lose in the end. If that's the case, and they do eventually drive us off their land, we can only hope that our superior economic and cultural system eventually wins out. Then perhaps our childrens' children will be invited to a barbeque as show of species solidarity, where they can see the remains of our home as a tribute to those battles long ago.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is debating when to take down the deer fencing this season. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Reverse Engineering

For anything I buy, whatever the price point, whatever it's intended use, I just assume that it will have certain characteristics. I assume it will be attractive and stylish. I assume it will work as intended. I assume it will offer good value for the money. I assume it will be so intuitive that I never need to really try and figure out how it works. And I assume it will be well designed and engineered so that its use will be all but effortless.

After all, with the critical feedback loop that is the internet, can any company afford to release a product that doesn't meet those criteria? Thirty second after anything hits the virtual shelves, someone somewhere has gotten their hands on it, torture tested it, and posted an online review giving it three stars, or four thumbs up, or five ducks. And if it doesn't measure up? Well, lo to the firm that puts out a can opener who's self adjusting blade doesn't self adjust correctly to a can of StarKist tuna. Within minutes of Amazon announcing it as a special of the week, KitchenGal will be up with a post that says, "Tried to use and splashed oil all over my blouse. Do not buy."

Still, the overwhelming majority of comments posted online are generally positive. That's not to say they're aren't complaints and negative reviews for just about anything. But any smart buyer will take a look at the overall universe to get a sense of the landscape. Maybe you check out a couple of "expert" reviews from recognized professionals.  Then you look at the specs as published by the manufacturer, and how the product measures up against that empirical yardstick. You scan the posts from the huddled masses, getting the overall drift as to real world experience. Finally you put the word out to friends and neighbors to see who's got what, who likes what, and who has a coupon code and knows where to get the best price with free shipping.

Still, maybe I expect too much.

Turned out we needed a new coffee maker. The old one was in the process of giving up the ghost, sputtering, not getting hot and occasionally burping loudly while splashing grounds up and about. Worst of all, it was intermittent in its bad behavior. Several random times it misbehaved for my wife. I listened to her travails, then proceeded to make a pot with nary a problem. She went to her office grumbling, about it, me, whatever. But then it screwed me as well, and not withstanding the smile that quickly crossed her face, the battle was joined.

She asked around and did the research, sending me a few links for this model or that. After all, we both used it, so we both should have a say. Like her, I read about one's "stylish design" and another's "brewing pause feature." There were glowing user reviews: "Jackpot! Great coffee! Temp is right on." And counters as well: "Would be nice if there was a light on the small clock." There were even cryptic ones: "Seems a little jankie." I confess I had to look that one up. (According to the Urban Dictionary, jankie means "something messed up, wrong, stupid.")

Finally, we (read she) weighed the positives and negatives and made a choice. A brand new Cuisinart model, it seemed adequate to the task. You add water and grounds, press a button and out comes coffee. Some buttons make perfect sense: "Brew" and "Program" are obvious. Others are more cryptic: "1-4" indicates... what? Even after reading the instructions, which say it "provides double heating of the water," I have no real idea of what it does.

But my biggest quibble is in the filling portal. I hate to go all Andy Rooney on this, but did the engineers who designed this ever think about actually using it? You have this big pot. You have this little opening. It's all but impossible to pour all the water down the shoot without spilling some on the counter or down the side or onto the hot plate. Sure, it can be done, as long as you pay careful attention. And when was the last time you paid careful attention BEFORE you had your cup of coffee? Huh? Huh? Do think Apple would have made an iPot with a water intake module that small? Huh? Huh?

Sorry. I'm done now.  I'll be fine. It's early, and I just need a cup of coffee.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to read the paper with, well, a cup of coffee. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Oh and Three

Oh! somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere they're serving tea;
But the faithful are a-flutter: the Yanks are Oh and Three

Yes, it's early in the season, and they've barely begun to play;
It's likely by the time this hits your desk, the story will fade away.
Still, it's a nagging feeling that Bombers have in varying degree;
They haven't even played at home. Did I mention? The Yanks are Oh and Three.

After all, a new season dawns, and the last didn't end so well;
And things like this happen, though certainly not for a spell.
And so again the hopes are high, the faithful only want the best;
And every year the fans assume the Yanks will beat the rest.

So even if the start is slow, it's nothing to dismay;
By All Star Break, come mid-July, things will be the proper way.
They'll be a race, no doubt that true, the others won't lay down;
But if you're a Yank, there's no doubt which team will paint the town.

For if you root for New York, it's a pact that you have made;
To feel sorry for the Mariners, the Royals and the Braves.
They may be good this year or that, it matters not for long;
For is there a team so celebrated in story and in song?

As for the Sox, just another club, some years better, some years worse;
Good players for sure, history as well, but there's the Bambino's curse.
All in all, they don't measure up, though many would disagree;
Still that's the thing, you pick your fav, it's one great rivalry.

Sure, there may be bumps, an ankle turned, a hip that doesn't heal;
But in the end, you know they'll win, there is no other deal.
For while the cast may change and turn, there's many who have scored;
There's Roger, Mickey, Joe, the Babe, Lou and Whitey Ford.

There're questions this year as there always are, about this guy or about that;
Will Derek's knee become a thing? What about Alex and his bat?
But it's a long way to October, and when push finally comes to shove;
You know that Mo will bring the heat, the ball straight into the glove.

A side note: no matter how it goes, the Bronxers have a view;
That even if the year is bad, they are still the chosen few.
For even if a Yankee has a day when nothing's looking set;
They say out loud for all to hear, "At least I'm not a Met."

Finally from me, an apology, to that poet long ago;
It was Earnest Lawrence Thayer who wrote how Casey took a blow.
And how the crowd hoped to the end that his swing would be the last;
But Mudville was quiet, for despite the hope, no miracle came to pass.

New York's no Mudville, that's for sure. It's a comparison that's apt;
There's football, B ball, the Garden and more, pucks waiting to be slapped.
So if this seems wrong, I differ with you, there's something here to prove;
And if I stole and tweaked a bit, well, I think Thayer would approve.

Oh! somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
By now those Bomber faithful are likely jumping up with glee;
But when they lose, it'll all come back: the Yanks started Oh and Three


Marc Wollin of Bedford knows a few Yankee fans. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, April 07, 2012

What is Hip?

What is Hip? Tell me, tell me if you think you know.
- Tower of Power

As was the custom, we were playing some music as people were filing in before the meeting. Sometimes those running an event have a particular set of tunes they want us to use, usually reflecting a theme that is relevant to the content. Sometimes the goal is to set a mood to help get people in the frame of mind for topic to be discussed. And other times the music selected is for the simple reason that it is the favorite of the boss (that's boss with a small "b," as in the person running the meeting, and not Bruce Springsteen)

But as often as not, no preference is stated. Then the choice is left to the guy in charge of the audio. Every one of these pros I have ever worked with has their go-to stuff, but it generally falls into one of a few categories. Uptempo jazz is a favorite, as it doesn't get in the way of conversations and helps to set a positive move. Carefully selected classic rock is sometimes used, though one person's fav is another's dog. Some guys have choice side B cuts and lesser known tracks that sound like you should know them, but don't. Regardless, the idea is the same: keep it upbeat, and give those checking their Blackberries something to tap their foot to while they are waiting for the action to begin.

This meeting was no different. Josh, like many of the guys in this line of work, is a talented musician and composer in his own right, and has access to stuff not in the mainstream. The selections he usually plays are rock and roll tunes that he was turned on to by another pro, ones recorded by some musicians in their extended circle. Hardly the work of a garage band, they are highly polished tracks, ones that sound like they could have been taken from the second side of a hit album. Complete with horns and hooks, it's gotten so I find myself humming them long after the show is over.

As the place was filling up, we went through our usual pre-show rundown one last time. Lights? Check. Slides? Ready to go. All other technical areas? Everything was working properly. And music? Playing appropriately in the background. All well and good. But then word came up the line, a request from the client in the room: "She wants something different for walk in. She wants something hipper."

Hipper. Now, here we had a dilemma. For in the immortal words of Tower of Power, what is hip? According to the Urban Dictionary, hip is defined as "Cooler than cool, the pinnacle of what is ‘it'". The day before, we had done a show where there was a tie in to the rap superstar Jay-Z, and so we had some of his tracks lying around. Was that hip enough? Or was that too hip? Perhaps we would better off with the top song on Billboard that week, fun.'s "We Are Young." Or maybe some Kelly Clarkson. While we were debating this finer point among ourselves and trying to decide what to do, a clarification from the client was delivered: "She wants some Bon Jovi."

Well. There you have it. Bon Jovi is hip. Or put differently, Bon Jovi is hip? All this proves is that hipness, like beauty, is obviously in the eye of the beholder. Far be it for me, a middle aged white guy, to define contemporary musical tastes. However, I think I can safely say that there is no current universe where Bon Jovi defines hipness. Except, of course, to this one person. And since she was the client, we scrambled to find some "Livin' on a Prayer." None was close at hand, so we went with The Cars and "Just What I Needed." To a Jon Bon Jovi fan, a poor substitute perhaps, but at least in the same musical universe.

Once again, Tower of Power said it best: "Hipness is what it is. And sometimes hipness is what it ain't." In this case, it definitely ain't. But if she was happy, then so was I. I guess we just need to add a slight tweak to the old adage: not only is the client always right, the client is always hip.


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