Saturday, December 29, 2012

If Walls Could Talk

The end of any December is filled with lists, lists and more lists, and this year is no exception. Best books. Biggest movers in the stock market. Most influential ethnic groups that the Republicans forgot about. But my fav is the best quotes of the year. There are top tech quotes, like the one where Thorsten Heins, the CEO of the company that makes Blackberry, shoots for the moon:  "We have a clear shot at being the No. 3 platform in the market." In entertainment, a promise from singer Adele to stop writing so many breakup songs: "I'm done with being a bitter witch." Or in sports, words from LeBron James on finally winning an NBA title: "It's about damn time."

The top quote, of course, is Mitt Romney's 47% comment, one that depending on your point of view, either uttered a very inconvenient yet important truth, and/or exposed his true feelings. In either case, it proved that words can and do make a difference, as it was widely credited or blamed for being a significant factor in his loss and Obama's re-election. And while most of the most notable quotes for the year did indeed revolve around politics and the election, there were a few outliers. There's the one from South Korean rapper PSY, repeated endlessly: "Gangnam Style." Or the call socialite Jill Kelley (she of the David Petraeus scandal) made to a 911 operator in Tampa, Florida, as to why the cops should rush over to protect her from the media crews circling her house: "I'm an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability."

What you don't see are the quotes that didn't make the list. Or more to the point, the quotes that came before the quotes that made the list. Therefore, as a public service, herein are the unpublished words that only flies on the walls heard, and now you too.

"What's the worse they can do to me? Throw me in jail again? Not gonna happen." – Actress Lindsay Lohan.

"It's just the first debate. I'm sure if I just lay back, he'll hang himself." – Barack Obama.

"Look, if we hang tough, we'll have to cancel four, maybe five games. Then the players will cave, and it'll be over!" - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

"So maybe 10% are old people. Let's call it 8% unemployed. About 28% have low incomes. Throw in another 1% of miscellaneous. So let's see: eight and eight and one is 17. Carry the one, add that to two and one. So we're talking, what? Give or take, about 47%?" - Deputy Romney Campaign Manager Katie Packer Gage.

"It'll be great! We'll have not one, but two, count ‘em, two world-class quarterbacks! Opponents won't know which way we're going to go! What could go wrong?" – Jets Coach Rex Ryan.

"I like Mitt a lot, but it comes down to this: I've always wanted to ride on Air Force One. And to top it off, the Boss will meet us in Asbury Park. Would you say no?" – Governor Chris Christie.

"Don't worry about it. I'll just go out there and tell the country how I feel about him, and make the case for his election. By the way: can you find an empty chair I can take with me in case I get tired?" – Clint Eastwood.

"We'll add room for a fifth row of icons, and call it iPhone 5. Revolutionary enough?" –Chin Pae Hark, Apple developer.

"He has to give in on taxes. We've compromised as much as we can. Let's see what he says now." President Barack Obama.

"He has to give in on taxes. We've compromised as much as we can. Let's see what he says now." Speaker of the House John Boehner.

"Yes, your Majesty, you will parachute into the stadium with James Bond. No, your Majesty, it hasn't been Sean Connery for a quite a while." – Danny Boyle, Director of the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good quote. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Beer, Conversation and God

So a Jew, a Presbyterian and a converted Lutheran walk into an Irish bar. Wait for it, wait for it. But sorry: while it sounds like the setup of a joke, there's no punch line. It's just another night of Pub Theology at O'Connor's Public House. The group gathers, orders some drinks and begins to chat. This being that certain time of the year, the topic for the night is the meaning of Christmas. And the decidedly untraditional setting? It's something new that Paul Alcorn, the pastor at a local church, is trying, or as he describes it to me, "A way of having conversations in a neutral space."

It's an idea popularized in a recent book called "Pub Theology" by Bryan Berghoef, a pastor now living and preaching in Washington DC. When he was in Traverse City, MI, Berghoef founded a faith based community called Watershed. Looking to expand his reach, he hit upon the pub idea. As he writes in his blog "Pub Theologian," it had historical context: "Some of the most important moments in the history of the church took place in the pub. Luther kick started the reformation over a few pints. The Church of England was started in the White Horse Tavern. Seemingly, all the best conversations take place in the pub."

And so he started a gathering at a local watering hole to chat about topics big and small, in a setting designed to attract those who might shy away from the church or even practice a different faith, as well as church goers who might feel more inclined to talk in a less imposing setting. As Berghoef writes, "The format is simple: beer, conversation and God. Everything is up for discussion, no assumptions, no barriers to entry. If you are going to get upset because someone questions something that is important to you, maybe this isn't for you. But if you think that whatever might be true ought to be able to stand up to being questioned, then maybe it is."

It's certainly nothing new. Pub Theology nights have existed for years, and can be found in places from Adelaide, Australia to Seattle, Washington. The sessions run the gamut from traditional religious gatherings held in non-traditional settings, to more informal bull sessions with a spiritual overtone. Calling it a movement is probably too strong, but the idea has garnered a certain following, and has gathered some steam in the wake of the book. As Berghoef sums it up on his Amazon page, "My argument is simple: good things happen when we sit down at the same table together and talk honestly about things that matter - and frankly, having a beer doesn't hurt."

As to our session, it was a small gathering, a generous half dozen. In front of us was beer, yes, but also wine, a drink with a piece of pineapple on it and a Diet Coke. Paul passed around a paper with some questions to get us thinking: Is there really a war on Christmas? If you don't believe in Jesus should you celebrate Christmas? Is it now more a commercial holiday than a religious one? What about religious symbols in public places? His ground rules, printed at the top, were simple: We don't need to agree; we do need to listen.  

The conversation, along with the drinks, was free flowing and respectful. We heard from moms, grandfathers, business owners and academics. It was give and take, challenges and anecdotes, stories and opinions. There were also a generous amount of laughs, and some new friends were made, along with different ways of thinking. And the only voices raised were to be heard over the Knicks-Nets game playing above the bar.

And as to the questions before the group about Christmas? I can't say we came to any definitive answers. We talked about the religious and historical connotations, the spiritual versus secular aspects, and the appropriateness of the church/state split. But the bottom line is that it did indeed came down to a Jew, a Presbyterian and a converted Lutheran sitting in an Irish bar, sharing a drink and having a meaningful conversation. And if that's what the holiday is all about, well, at least from my perspective, you could do a lot worse.


You can find out more about the local version of Pub Theology from Paul Alcorn at Wollin's column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What I Don't Want for Christmas

Every year at this time, it's de rigueur for magazines and newspapers, and yes, columnists, to compile their lists of "must have" gifts. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that, journalistically speaking, it's low hanging fruit. After all, if you're looking to fill column inches with crowd pleasing material, why not appeal to greed, desire, selfishness and envy, the emotions that make the world go round.

For the careful writer, it means surveying all the new product offerings of the past year, critically reading reviews, checking satisfaction scores and doing all other manner of due diligence. However, if you're me, that's way too much trouble. And so you wait until all the publications do all the legwork and print their year end lists, and then cherry pick from there. Throw in a quick look at a Target circular, check what's trending on EBay and voila! Before your editor can say "deadline" you have "The Ten Things You Hope You Find Under The Tree/Bush/Wreath/Candleholder/Microwave."

There's just one problem this year: there's nothing I want.

That's not to say there aren't all manner of shiny and interesting things out there. It's just that it all seems to be more of the same. Either my tastes have gotten more discriminating (not likely) or my wallet has gotten tighter (more likely) or the "wow" factor ain't so wow any more (most likely), but I find myself looking at this year's offerings with a certain amount interest but not an equal amount of yearning. It's kind of like "Skyfall," the latest James Bond offering. It's not that there's anything wrong with it. It's just that when 007 started, he was the only game in town. Now, between the "Mission: Impossible" and "Bourne" franchises, plus innumerable other hard charging and spectacular films from "Star Wars" to "Lord of the Rings" to the Batman flicks, you have to do more to make an impression. A gun that reads your fingerprints? A construction crane ripping up a train? An underground subway crash? Ho Hum. Is that all you got? I'm going for popcorn.

Wasn't that long ago that Best Buy made us all drool with images of flat screen TV's. Or Apple showed us what a smartphone could be. Or Cabbage Patch made dolls that caused parents to have fist fights in the aisles. Now, even the cars with giant bows on them all look the same. Remember when Neiman Marcus had their special holiday catalog, and had one, iconic gift that knocked your socks off, something like a trained and monogrammed tarantula? Now, the top gift listed is a pair of his and her watches (admittedly gold and diamond) with animated faces and a trip to the factory that made them. Yawn.

Take Wired magazine. Every year they round up some of the most interesting gift possibilities out there, describing them as "jaw-dropping new gadgets, tools and toys to give and get this holiday season." Usually it's a treasure trove of stuff, at least some of which seems highly covetable. And so this year I made it a point to go to their special New York City store in Soho, and see the list in the flesh.

I wandered around, looking at the supposedly must-haves. There's a Leica camera that only takes black and white photos. Interesting, but for $8000? Going more downscale, a Wawabot water bottle is BPA-free, but other than a do-it-yourself design on the face, much like other bottles and more expensive starting at $25. And does anyone really need another Furby, Hasboro's little tribble-esque doll that speaks in Furbish and now has LCD animated eyes? Sure, this one has its own interactive iPhone App. But these days so do house plants.

Yes, I liked the Nerf Hail-Fire Blaster that fires up to 144 foam slugs before requiring a reload. The Obsessive Chef cutting board engraved with a grid and angles so my dicing will be perfect appeals to my sense of order. And for cheekiness I liked Finn Magee's picture of a desk light that lights up like a real light. They have a picture of a clock too. And yes, it tells time.

But all in, I'm OK without. I'll happily settle for some peanut butter cups. Or maybe a dozen donuts would be a fun treat. As for durable goods, however, I think I'm good. There is, however, one thing I'd like to get from Santa: no bills.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has enough stuff. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Danger, Will Robinson!

How are we still alive? I don't mean that as philosophical or religious musing, though you could certainly take it that way. But as one friend wrote me after my recent appeal to save Twinkies from extinction, "Everyone knows that Twinkies are NO GOOD for you. But WE ate them!!!!!!!!!!! And WE turned out all right, didn't we?????" I would have to agree with him. All in all, there is no known record of anyone ever dying from an overdose of junk food, though in his particular case they obviously inflamed an overactive punctuation gland.

Speaking for myself, considering the innumerable hot dogs, bologna sandwiches and yes, Ding Dongs I've consumed, it's amazing I'm still walking around among you. However, at least in the case of Hostess, it was the company's unhealthy finances that drove them out of business, and not the products. That's not to say that there hasn't been a concerted effort to encourage us all to make healthier choices in our diet. Even prime offenders pay at least lip service to the idea: the former Kentucky Fried Chicken is now KFC and promotes a grilled version of its flagship product, and you get apple slices with your Happy Meal at McDonald's along with a smaller portion of fries. But if success in the world were strictly about nutrition, people everywhere would have risen up years ago and marched with pitchforks on Cinnabon. Rather, check on the chain at any airport: there are lines down the concourse.

Beyond diet, though, it is truly amazing that any of us are still roaming this earth. Whether it was stuff we did as dares, or games we played with our friends, or even officially sanctioned parental behaviors and activities, the list of things we did as kids that should have killed us runs to many pages. And yet, through some combination of dumb luck and divine intervention, the amount of fingers cut off and eyes put out is mercifully small. My wife, for instance remembers riding around with her folks in the family car while standing up in the back between the two front bucket seats. Today, were you to try the same thing, you would be arrested, right after they picketed your house as a child abuser, and just before your kid slapped you with their own lawsuit along with a bill for therapy.

Leaving aside the obviously dangerous teenage years, and the unholy trinity of drugs, sex and alcohol, if you google "dangerous things we did as kids" you get 248 million results. There are books, lists and remembrances (fond ones at that) documenting a catalog that no sane parent would countenance today. They range from simple stuff like climbing trees and drinking from garden hoses, to street surfing by hanging on the bumpers of cars and sledding down a hill through traffic. We ate school paste and poked each other with lead pencils. My personal fav was when the "fogger" truck would come through town spraying mosquito repellant, and we road our bikes behind it in the cloud. Can you say Agent Orange? It was bliss none the less.

You can call it more responsible parenting, the emergence of the nanny state or simply Mayor "No Large Soda for You!" Bloomberg. No matter the label, there is a growing perception that we've overcompensated. That's not to say that you should take that Nerf Blaster away from your kid and replace it with the BB gun you had. But as the book "Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)" points out, the bottom line is that "mastery minimizes danger." And just like eating Twinkies, while it's not necessarily advisable to Superglue your fingers together or lick a 9-volt battery, it likely won't kill you either.

Financial professionals are always going on about the "risk-reward" equation. In investing everything carries some risk; the question is, is it worth the return. However, it's a concept that goes way beyond money. If the price is death or serious injury, then likely not. But if the price is experience and knowledge, and the ability to move to the next challenge or a better idea of how to solve the problem, than it's a trade-off worth making.  Yes, I do ride my bike wearing a helmet. But I also ride it down a hill at top speed while there are cars on the road. So far, so good.


Marc Wollin of Bedford always carried a pocketknife as a kid. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Tweets from the Top

They are numerous ways of counting and bemoaning the end of civilization. Not civilization with a capital "C," meaning mankind and cities and towns. But civilization with a little "c," meaning books by John Updike and face-to-face contact and appreciating art hanging on a wall. For sure you can blame demographics or income levels or even the ozone layer. But in most cases the prime suspects are some variant of technology. Conversation? That would be email. Deep relationships? The usual villain is Facebook. Walking down the street and running into someone, figuratively? That would be smartphones, which cause you to walk down the street and run into someone, literally.

Up until now, the drive to digitize the world has come from the bottom up, and has predominantly revolved around lifestyle issues. Your co-workers post their whereabouts on foursquare and you read books on your tablet. Stores send out electronic coupons to be redeemed on your iPhone, craft show artisans swipe your American Express card through their Square connection and you settle up that bill for dinner with your friends via PayPal. Forget e-mail; it's e-everything.

We're starting to see things, however, of a more consequential nature be influenced by digital advances. The most recent prominent examples were the well documented dispatches from the front lines of the Middle East courtesy of Twitter, which were credited as one of the driving forces behind the entire Arab Spring. That's not to say that your despots and presidents and crown princes don't have an online presence. After all, the web is nothing if not cheap and open, and most governments and rulers at least pay lip service to free media and easy access. They also like to appear contemporary and connected, like Ed Sullivan introducing Topo Gigio as something for the kids in the audience.

But I noted recently something that showed an inversion. The New York Times, the paper of record, an organization that prides itself on primary sources and scrupulous fact checking, is quoting on its front page a Twitter feed. Not the denial of a starlet caught in yet another scandal, nor the strangled voice of some student demonstrators. Rather, as the Middle East is erupting yet again, the Times is talking about the targets the Israeli military is hitting, and using as its authoritative source the army's own Twitter feed.  

Yes, a Twitter feed. One hundred and forty characters, and not a period more. Or as published, "Overnight, as the conflict entered its eighth day, the Israeli military said in Twitter posts that 'more than 100 terror sites were targeted, of which approximately 50 were underground rocket launchers.' The targets included the Ministry of Internal Security in Gaza, described as 'one of Hamas's main command and control centers.'"

 Of course, you don't have to read those tweets in the paper. You can sign up yourself, and join the more than 205,000 others who find out what a country with a iPhone wants say. That means that sandwiched in between friends' musing on Corvettes and sushi, you could get notice of a bombing raid in Gaza, possibly directly from the pilot: "JTLYK, big strike 2day. U r not going to bleave how accur8 we are! CUL8R"

And the etiquette of Twitter demands that should you sign up to follow @IDF, they will at least consider following you back. And whose dispatches does the official voice of the Israeli Defense Forces receive? Among the 86 Tweeters it follows are some you might expect, like @AmbShapiro, the US Ambassador to Israel, and @StateDepartment, the feed from the US Department of State. But it also gets the most up to the minute musings of @MajPeterLerner, who describes himself as an "Israeli with British roots. Serving in the IDF. Loves good humor, spiffy & courteous remarks." And @EytanBuchman, whose profile notes that addition to being Head of the North American Desk in the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit, he's "also a pretty good guy, into technology and not bad at lame magic tricks."

And if the Israeli Army can tweet as one voice, what's next? Sure, @Hamas or @UnitedStates, but also other non-official, yet single entities. So sign up now to see what is being said by @Hollywood or @Detroit or @SiliconValley. And be the first to hear from @WallSteet when it tweets, "OMG! Fed does8 have a clue. YOYO!"


Marc Wollin of Bedford still doesn't know how to tweet correctly. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at