Saturday, August 25, 2012

From Here to Ethiopia

The cabbie and I exchanged a few words, the usual stuff about weather and traffic. As we continued across town, we each drifted back into our own worlds. A few blocks later, he started singing softly to himself. While I wasn't really listening, I unconsciously started humming as well. He looked in the mirror and said, "Did you know you were singing in the same key as I was?" I laughed, and told him about one of my many theories of the world: that unless you were singing a specific song, you latched onto whatever melody you heard, and sung it until you heard another one. Trying to prove my point, I asked him what he was singing. "It's an Ethiopian pop song," he replied. Well, so much for my theory; there wasn't much chance I would be riffing on it later in the day. But all was not lost: it was how I met Abdi Nuressa.

Abdi was born in a small village in Ethiopia, but moved with his family to the capital city of Addis Ababa when he was a just a baby. He grew up there, going to school and playing lots of soccer with his friends. In 1997 as a teenager, he came to the US to go to college, moving in with extended family in Manassas, Virginia. While he was always singing as a hobby, his aim was not music; rather he was planning on studying business. And so he enrolled at a local college and began to take classes. But as the opportunity arose, he started to sing more and more, performing at weddings and with friends, and pretty soon music started to take center stage.

While he placed great stock in education, he decided he had to at least try and pursue his music. How did it sit with his parents? "Well, my parents were in Ethiopia, which made it easier!" he laughed. That said, he knew the path would be a difficult one: "There is no easy thing in America, especially if you're going to be successful." He started by networking with other musicians, Ethiopian and otherwise, while driving a cab to make ends meet. And he kept singing, catering to an appreciative audience.

That audience is predominantly the growing Ethiopian community in this country, which numbers close to half a million. Washington DC has the largest concentration of immigrants and their descendants, so much so that there is a section of the city called "Little Ethiopia," and an "Ethiopian Yellow Pages" that runs to 1000 pages. And like any immigrant group, many of them seek out not only the food and culture of their native land, but the music that they grew up on, and that is now playing in the clubs and on the radios at home.

Abdi's music sits squarely at that intersection. Additionally, he made the decision to do his singing in Oromiffa, which is the native tongue of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo. While he is Oromo, in Ethiopia that language is just one of a number of native dialects, while schools teach Amharic and English. But said Abdi, "When I started to sing in Oromiffa, I found my roots."

It took him more than three years of driving a cab, saving, performing and recording to make his first CD. Called "Irree Aadaa" (The Power of Culture), it contains any number of traditional songs, but also contemporary tunes, some written by others, some by him. "They are traditional sounds with modernized instruments," he says. It has even produced two music videos, "Aayyaana Laalattuu" (Gold Digger) and "Wal-argaan Hinoolu" (I Don't Know When I'll See You Soon), both of which can be found on YouTube.

Abdi is currently at work on his next CD, recording ideas in his cab on his phone between fares, and honing his craft at a weekly gig at a restaurant in town. He continues to sing at weddings and community events, pulling together a band as needed: "I'm always working," he laughed. As to what he wants people to take away from his singing he says, "I want people to get happiness from my music. Music for me was like a hidden place. I want people to go to that place. And I want them to have a learning experience, especially non-Ethiopians, to learn about the Oromo culture and language."

And all this because we were humming in the same key.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves music and talking to musicians. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Inventing a Better Mousetrap

It's easy to forget as we tap on our phones and swipe our tablets that there was a time not too long ago when coming up with a new idea meant something physical, not digital. Not that Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn aren't impressive pieces of imagination realized. Rather, inventing something new meant far more than writing code. It meant coming up with an idea, sketching it out and then actually building a prototype to convince people that it could really exist.

Originally, the Patent Act of 1790 required that anyone applying for a patent send a model of their invention to Washington. Over the next 90 years, over 200,000 were submitted. Needless to say, owing to the pace of inventing in America, space became an issue, and many models were warehoused where they were eventually destroyed in a fire. Still, there were plenty left to put on display, and it became a major tourist attraction. Just like now, there was a feeling that anyone could invent something and make a fortune.

But space was at a premium. Eventually all the models were put in storage, and the requirement to actually submit one was abolished in 1880. In 1924, Congress started an investigation as to why so much money was being spent to store these now useless artifacts. Some were returned to their inventors, museums took others and the rest were sold at auction. Sir Henry Wellcome, the founder of what is now Glaxo Smith Kline Pharmaceuticals, bought the majority and was going to set up a museum, an idea that never came to fruition. After his death, they were auctioned off again and again. Eventually they were acquired by Alan Rothschild, a businessman in upstate New York, who has tried in fits and starts to build them a permanent home.

In the meantime, parts of the 4000-piece collection are on display at various times and places. I stumbled upon one such display in a small gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Called "Inventing a Better Mousetrap" it showcases 32 models that show both the ingenuity of people with an idea, plus the model making talents that anyone who ever build a plastic airplane and had parts left over can't help but look at in awe.

For example, if you've ever sat on a swing when there was no one around to push you, you can appreciate Benjamin Schaffer's 1868 idea for an "Improvement in Swings." You push a foot pedal forward and it glides back. Or Conrad Bartling's 1888 model of his "Fence Making Machine," which shows exactly how the posts and wires get put together as you turn the crank. Or A.F. Kitchen's 1868 Rube Goldberg-like "Theft Protection Device," which consists of a door, a weighted chain and a pistol. You can imagine how it works.

Then there's Henry Rosenthal's brainstorm in 1875. Dr. Rosenthal was frustrated when he went out shooting. When the box of live birds was opened, more often than not they would just sit there as opposed to fly off as targets. According to his patent application, "the pigeons will not leave the trap when it is sprung, and have to be frightened out by shouting and throwing stones, etc., which tends to make the sportsman nervous and frequently causes him to lose his shot." His solution was a crouching cat-like doll with coils in its legs. Open the trap, pull the cord and the cat sprang towards the cage, scaring the bejesus out of the birds and into the air, with no noise to distract the guys with the guns. Today there would be an app for that.

There are many more examples, each a brilliant stroke of inspiration, brought to life in miniature. They range from Abraham Morris' "Sofa Bedstead" (an early forerunner of the sofabed), to John Chase Jr.'s "Improved Brick Pressing Machine" to George Evans' elegant "Extension Ladder." And yes, though there is doubt that anyone beat a path to their door, John Kopas and George Bauer actually did make a better "Mousetrap," and you can see how it works for yourself, complete with stuffed miniature mouse and cheese.

The exhibit will be in Washington through November. You can also see one of the other traveling versions throughout the country, or peruse the models online. If you're really into it, you can make an appointment to see the mother lode at the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum in Cazenovia, New York. But no matter how you see it, doing so reminds one that ideas can be made real, and there is no limit to what can be imagined... and built.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves drawings and models of real things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 11, 2012

No Good Night

Some mornings I wake up early and am the first to slip into the bathroom to get ready for the day. Other times it's my wife's alarm clock that rings, and so she is up and about before I am. In either case, we each have our own morning routines, and generally don't interact right away. But sooner rather than later, when we cross paths, almost always the first thing we ask each other after we say "good morning" is the simple question: "how did you sleep?"

These days the answer is almost always "lousy." Unlike when we were younger and would put out heads down on a pillow and wake up 8 hours later, our nights are more fits and starts. More specifically, they tend to be a series of catnaps connected by trips to the bathroom, staring at the ceiling or working our way through a mental checklist of things to do the next day. We chalk it up to age or diet, to staying up too late or going to bed too early. Maybe it's because we exercised too much; maybe it's because we moved around too little. But the truth is we have no idea why one night we sleep better and the next worse, though it's mostly worse.

If there's any comforting fact it's that we're not alone: studies show that nearly 20% of people in the country experience some form of insomnia on a regular basis. And it turns out that we have company on a much broader scale. In fact, whether you count sheep in Swahili or Bengali, you are part of what some scientists are calling an emerging global epidemic.  In a recently released study in SLEEP, the official publication of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, researchers say that sleep disturbances may indeed represent a "significant and unrecognized public health issue among older people, especially women" in both rural and urban areas. (Of course, when your field of study is sleep, everything tends to look like a nap not taken, but that's another story altogether).

The study included community wide samples in 8 countries across Asia and Africa, and surveyed 24,434 women and 19,501 men age 50 years and older. It seems that no matter where you are in the globe, if you are getting older, you aren't having sweet dreams. True, some demographic groups fared worse than others: according to the researchers, "there was a consistent pattern of higher prevalence of sleep problems in women and older age groups. Additionally, lower education, not living in partnership, and poorer self-rated quality of life were consistently associated with higher prevalence of sleep problems."

There were a few bright spots on the globe, where a good night's sleep is more the norm than the exception. In India, 6.5% of women and 4.3% of men reported sleep problems, while in Indonesia the numbers are even lower: just 4.6% of women and 3.9% percent of men said they lay awake at night. At the other end of the scale was Bangladesh, where nearly half the women (43.9%) and nearly a quarter of the men (23.6%) reported sleep problems. Since Bangladesh eventually sprung from the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, one could wonder if that division was based not on who was Hindu and who was Muslim, but rather who was awake at night to make the trek.

All of this belies the accepted wisdom that our 24-hour, internet-driven, always-connected lifestyle is what's keeping us up. After all, it's hard to make the same case for the rural populations of Ghana, Tanzania and Vietnam, to name just three of the other countries that were part of the study. Yet, sample populations in each of those locales reported various elevated levels of insomnia, more akin to those seen in Chicago or Dallas. And while it's certainly possible that a large number of 55-year-old women in Thủ Dầu Mộ,, a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, can't sleep because they're strung out over the latest firmware update to their iPhones, it's probably not likely.

Still, there is the thought that misery loves company. A comedian once remarked that we might feel more comfortable if we took all the people who walk around New York talking to themselves, and paired them up so they could at least look they're having a conversation. In that vein, should you find yourself lying in bed at 3AM, sign onto Skype and look for someone to chat with in Bolivia or Peru: bet they can't sleep either.


Marc Wollin of Bedford sleeps when he can, because he doesn't sleep when he should. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, August 04, 2012

For What It's Worth

Sitting on a shelf in our finished basement are books, some dried flowers and a few random objects. Some might call them knickknacks, some tchotchkes, some simply junk. One in particular is a three-inch high sculpture of a gazelle-like creature with its head tucked back, made out of some kind of resin. It was given to my wife by a business associate who brought it back from Africa more than 20 years ago. Regardless of the original cost, were we to have a garage sale, someone might take a shine to it and offer us a nickel to take it away. 

But pretend for the moment that there was a story associated with it. Not a different provenance, mind you, just a literary connection. Let's say that I told you that it originally belonged to a young English girl named Eileen. Back in 1849, she had ventured with her father, the Duke of Waterford-on-Thames, to Cameroon after her mother had died. There she became friends with a small boy name T-ku-s'more, the son a powerful tribal chief. He gave her the small gazelle as protection. He told her if any bad spirits or rival tribes accosted her, she need only show it and they would understand that she was there as a guest of his father and leave her alone. She kept it with her always. Eventually she went back to England, keeping the gazelle as a reminder of her time with T-ku-s'more. 

I could go on. But here's a question: would this elaborate story make a difference to the gazelle's value? Would it now be worth more than a nickel? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. At least that's the upshot of a fascinating "literary and anthropological" experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. Called "Significant Objects," it started in 2009, and has blossomed into a recently published book of the same name. The idea is to take an item, and invest it with significance by creating fiction about it. According to their hypothesis, "the object should acquire not merely subjective but objective value."  

You can say it's hogwash, but the results says otherwise. To see for themselves, the two "curators" started by buying various castoffs at thrift stores and garage sales, never spending more than a few dollars on each. Then they paired each object with a writer, and asked them to create a story in any style or voice than involved the object. Finally, to test if the object is now "significant," they listed each for sale on eBay. As they say in their ground rules, "care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author's byline will appear with his or her story." 

The results are fascinating. A paper fan which originally cost $1.00 fetched $21.50 when accompanied by a story by writer Lakin Kahn. A one-paragraph description by Colson Whitehead boosted the original price of a 33-cent scuffed wooden mallet to a value of $71. And a small Russian figurine, which originally cost $3.00, when paired with a story from writer Doug Durst, finally went for $193.50. All in, the first wave of $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk brought $3,612.5, which went to the contributors. Subsequent outings have raised sums which were split between the writers and various literary-related charities, such as "Girls Write Now," the first organization in the United States with a writing and mentoring model exclusively for girls. 

By themselves, it's likely neither the object nor the fiction would probably fetch much. So why do they conjure up a buyer together? Perhaps the best explanation comes from a write-up in The Independent of London: "If this is a cynical marketeer's scam, rather than a mildly romantic social experiment, then consider me conned. What a thrill to be the nominal owner of a tale told by a favourite author, and to possess the very thing that inspired them – even if that significant object is too darned ugly for any sensible person's mantelpiece." 

As a writer, it's nice to see that there's value in the words. Or more correctly, the words bring value to something else. And so if you like the story of Eileen and T-ku-s'more, I'm happy to flesh it out. And then, with my wife's permission, I'll package it with the gazelle for your enjoyment. All I ask is that bidding starts at $1000.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been writing for a long time, usually for nominal value. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at