Saturday, November 30, 2013

And They're Off!

If you are Jewish, the rush, be it emotionally, physically and/or economically, is already over. That's because for the first time since 1888, the holiday most closely associated with Hanukkah is not Christmas, but Thanksgiving. And so if your turkey this year was accompanied by latkes as opposed to mashed potatoes, as the saying goes, stick a fork in you because you are done with your gift gathering. You can sit back and watch the rest of the populace go mano-a-mano in the great tradition known as the "Christmas Shopping Season."

Even if you take the Hanukkah shoppers out of the equation, this year's retail slugfest promises to be even more competitive than the last. That's because through yet another quirk in the calendar, there are just 26 shopping days between turkey day and Christmas, 6 fewer than last year. It's just one more reason pushing big box retailers like Walmart, Macy's, Kohl's and Best Buy to push Black Friday to Thanksgiving Day itself. And lest you think it's just the brick and mortar retailers that are the only ones ramping up the action, Amazon recently announced a deal with the US Postal system to deliver packages on Sundays.

So what are you going to have to wrestle away from that woman in front of you in line just pretending to be a grandmother? For sure there will be tablets and videogames, sweaters and gloves, as well as things that sparkle in the light and others that require batteries to do the same. But a quick look finds some things that really are different, certainly enough so that those receiving them will not be lying when they say, "Well! I never saw that coming!"

For instance, with cold weather approaching, you might want to consider the Call Me Gloves. For sure this pair is cozy warm, but they are also Bluetooth enabled, and sport a microphone in the pinkie and a speaker in the thumb. When your phone rings, just press the "Answer" button the left cuff, and hold your hand up to your face in the universal "call me" hand symbol to talk. Just be prepared for lot of weird looks as people see you chatting into your hand.

If you know someone who takes their barbeque seriously, you might want to consider the Pit Boss Pro BBQ Tool Belt. Just like a carpenter has the perfect spots for a hammer and tape measure, the Pit Boss has a holster for tongs, a loop for a thermometer, pockets for shakers of seasonings and bottles of sauce, and 2 insulated "quick draw" cozys for beer. It also comes with "Chow Chaps" that clip onto the belt and hang down, so the grease on the tongs doesn't get on your pitmaster's pants.

Cyclists, are like golfers, are always looking for that special something to perfect their ride. Odds are the ones you know already have a helmet, water bottle and gloves. They likely also have a handlebar mounted cycling computer or mount for their phone, and a mirror to see behind them. But bet they don't have video. That's right; just like the one in your Lexus, the Rearview Bike Camera with its handlebar mounted screen lets them see behind themselves without turning around. Now they can tell if someone really is following them.

Finally, if your tough guy or girl thinks they have the stuff, the Bear Grylls Survivor Course just opened its US outpost in the Catskills. Gyrlls, know as much for his lack of squeamishness in the wilderness as for the lack of vowels in his name, has taken his popular cable TV "Man vs. Wild" show, and made an audience participation experience like few others. Taking reservations now for the inaugural outings in the spring, you can sign up for a 5-day survival course or 24-hour family adventure. Personally speaking, I'd like to see how he preps his two younger boys to handle survival when they get to middle school: his seven-year old is named Marmaduke, while his 4 year-old is Huckleberry.

Better get going. None of these items will last, and you don't want to get caught having to settle for buying yet another set of socks. Unless you just give up on this year, that is, and set your sights on next: in that light, note that there are just 391 days till NEXT Christmas.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't even started to think about the holidays. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Colder Older

You can debate the cause, haggle over the actions needed or not, and try and link current worldwide shifts to it. But the underlying data and science is indisputable: the world is getting warmer. That has implications for food production, as warmer weather favors some crops and threatens others. It will have health repercussions, as more moderate climates will increase the prevalence of some diseases while decreasing others. And in this country, with 39% of the population living in counties that are directly on the shoreline, rising ocean levels due to ice melt will reshape our population centers, driving people inland. Oklahoma City could well be the new Miami.

So if it's getting warmer, why am I so cold?

Yes, I know it's turning to winter, and the weather snapped last week from 40 on Tuesday morning to sub 20 wind-chills by lunch. But then this week it's inching its way back up, with forecasted 60 degrees or better for mid-November. There is some research that suggests that these increasing and unusual swings are also a result of global warming. Called "weather whiplash," it's not so much these "but I just pulled out my heavy coat, and now you're telling me I just need a windbreaker?" kinds of days. It's a more wholesale change in the overall seasonal variation, the kind that makes for a wetter than normal spring or dryer than normal fall, where the resulting outcome is that crops don't grow.

Still, on a personal level, while I know I should care about the wheat harvest, I'm more concerned about why I feel the need for wool socks. It's true we keep our house colder than many. With a big house, four heating zones and just two of us bouncing around, we use setback thermostats and active fiddling to get heat only where we need it. My wife and I have more or less mastered the situation, pushing up the temperature selectively as we inhabit certain spaces, augmented by almost always having on multiple layers of clothing. That would also explain why our oldest came home for a visit, and appeared at breakfast in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. We had forgotten that other, less hearty souls were entering our custom environment, where polarfleece is de rigeur.

But regardless of the wider and wilder swings outside, we are master of the inside. Still, as I sit here writing, my feet are colder than usual. It turns out that there is good scientific explanation here as well, and it has nothing to do with climate change per se. Yes, there is a chance that I have an underlying medical condition that is causing my discomfort, something like hypertension or diabetes. It could also a side effect of the daily medications I take, just as some antihistamines cause increased sensitivity to light. But as with most things, the simplest explanation is most likely the most correct: I'm simply getting older.

Turns out your mother was right: she really was feeling colder than you, even if she made you put on a sweater too. As we age, our metabolic responses slow down, as well as our circulation. The net of that is that we feel colder even if the temperature is constant. Interestingly, studies have also shown that older people may have lower temperatures in general.  According to a study done at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, mean body temperature decreased with age. In fact, low body temperature turns out to be biomarker for longevity. But the science is still unclear on the correlation itself: are the older colder, or the colder older?

Either way you look at it, I've been pushing the thermostat up sooner and further. Should you come to visit, you can rest assured it will be more comfy and you can safely take off your scarf. By the same token, when I come to your place or head out to work, expect me to almost always have a fleece on over my shirt and under my coat. For now at least, I'll just try and adjust for my own world, and leave the big picture forecasting to the experts to figure out. Or as ex-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda noted, "The only way I'll worry about the weather is if it snows on our side of the field and not theirs."


Marc Wollin of Bedford just bought a new setback thermostat for the bedroom. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Throwing in the Towel

As of this writing, while we have had ongoing discussions as to how much more we can take, we haven't set a pull-out date. But until that time is decided and announced publicly, it would be foolish to let down our guard. So we've erected fortified barriers to protect us. We've undertaken regular scouting missions to find breaches in our perimeter. And we've worked closely with the locals to see if we can turn the tide. But as much as we hate to admit it, we just know are going to lose in the long run. And when all is said and done, they're going to take back their territory.

The Taliban, you ask? No, the deer.

Every year at this time, the leaves turn their brilliant ambers and russets. But what is a sight to behold for us is an indication that the food in the fridge is spoiling for them. And so our four-footed friends, who have been gorging out of sight since spring, start to edge their way closer and closer to those ornamental plants and shrubs around the house. The ones that we've carefully shaped and pruned. The ones that provide screening and coverage. The ones that stay green. They, however, see them in a different light: as a snack just waiting to be gobbled.

And so come Halloween (or actually when I see my neighbor Ron doing it in front of his house), I crawl under the deck and haul out the posts and the plastic fencing. When we first moved here twenty plus years ago, we used thin poles and lightweight netting that "disappeared" when we put it up. It didn't take long to realize that a 200 pound buck would push through that like it was tissue paper. It dissuaded him from nibbling not because it physically stopped him, but because he got tired of a mouthful of plastic. That meant that it worked OK in the beginning, less so deeper into the season as it got jostled by weather and attempted breaches, and then not at all as it got colder and they got hungrier. Several times a winter I had to trudge out in snow boots with a staple gun in hand, and try and rescue the dangling shards and reknit them into a barrier. Needless to say, it was a losing battle by February.

Then one year a lawn guy suggested we put up sturdier stuff. So we moved from the lightweight set we had to a more industrial strength approach. The uprights are now 4 inch rough-hewn posts, while the netting is a black version of the type they use at construction sites to stop people from falling into foundation pits. Held together with plastic tie wraps, it's a formidable defense, though we do feel like we are living inside of Stalag 13.

But it's hardly a permanent installation. With frost heave pushing the post foundations here and there, and snow weight causing the netting to sag and buckle, I still have to make a few excursions in the bitterest of weather to tighten up our defenses.  Occasionally I have to counter-stake a post that won't stay upright, or construct a patch for a spot on the netting that's been eaten through. I feel like the little Dutch boy on the dike, jamming my fingers into holes that keep springing up, hoping the wall will hold until the water recedes, or in this case, till spring comes. And while I may breathe a sigh of relief come April, I know I will only have to repeat the whole exercise again next October.

At the University of Wyoming, on the limestone facade over the engineering department this is chiseled: "The Control of Nature is Won, Not Given." With respect, I would disagree. I think a more accurate construction would be "The Control of Nature is Borrowed, Not Won." Sure, you can hold a river at bay, shore up a dam, or in our case, tighten the fencing. But sooner or later we all give in, and Mother Nature will reclaim her rightful place. The jungle took back Angkor Wat and the Mediterranean is working on Venice. In that light, in our neck of the woods, we know the outcome: Bambi will eventually win.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is ready to toss in the deer fencing towel. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Other Left

Quick quiz: I'll name a cable news outlet, you say "left" or "right." I say Fox News: you say right. I say MSNBC: you say left. Let's move on to web sites. Huffington Post? Without a doubt, left. Drudge Report? Most would say right. Now, newspapers. Wall Street Journal? Right, for sure. Washington Post? Lefty, no doubt. And for the bonus round: CNN? Sorry, there is no category "trying hard to be in the middle and just wind up looking silly."  

Now, subscribing to one side or the other is no sin in and of itself. People have a point of view, and they are welcome to espouse that. Just don't try and pretend otherwise. Is there anyone who really believes Fox News is "Fair and Balanced?" After all, it's a high bar: if you have as your slogan "The Ring of Truth" (Joliet Herald-News ) you hold yourself to an impossible standard. That's because in today's world, virtually any "truth" can be challenged by a competing point of view available within three clicks on Google. Perhaps it would be better for news organizations to stick to more generic slogans. I mean, it's hard to argue with the Telegram and Gazette in Worchester, MA when they say "We've Got News For You!" And who can quibble with the Mason Valley News in Yerington, NV with their proclamation, "The Only Newspaper in the World That Gives a Damn About Yerington."

But what if you're a so-called "paper of record?" The New York Times deems itself so, famously saying since 1896 that it carries "All the News That's Fit To Print." While that may be the case, there are few who would argue that the paper leans left. As such, to many conservatives, it is just another house organ of the liberal elite, or as Sarah Palin calls it, the "lamestream media."

With one exception, that is: style and grammar. Since 1999, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has been the unseen arbiter of how the paper writes. If for no other reasons than the paper’s history and circulation, that has made it one of the de facto standards of everyday grammatical usage, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. The guide recently received an update, reflecting the changing times. As described in the "After Deadline" column, "We're deleting some outdated entries: we don't expect a rash of college girls or authoresses in our pages. Dated, offensive or insensitive terms like mongoloid or admitted homosexual don't seem to require guidance any longer. And yes, we all know that bikini, for the bathing suit, is lowercase; no reminder necessary."

So it caught my eye when I saw an article in the NYT on a political contest in Alabama, accompanied by pictures from the scene. A modified triptych, it had one large shot of a candidates forum, under which were two snaps of the gentlemen facing off against one another. The captions for all three were contained in a single paragraph, set below and to one side. The first line of text was devoted to a description of the scene on top, while the next line went as follows: "At far left, Bradley Byrne; at nearest left, Dean Young."

Now, there was a construction I don't think I've ever seen: "nearest left." In a row of people, perhaps you might start at the "far left" and work your way across. But in a simple set of two? I would have gone binary: "on the left is Bradley, on the right is Dean." Could it be that the word came down that we wish to discredit one side so much that we will henceforth use left as often as possible, and not even acknowledge the other side of the coin? Or in a nod to the classic sitcom "Newhart " and the brothers Larry, Darryl and Darryl, are we now talking about left and my other left?  

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. But these days we find ulterior motives in everything. Apple's new operating system is remaking the world of design, and Obamacare is a threat to our very freedom. In this case, however, it may be just what it seems: a bored writer's attempt to have some fun and slip something past his editor. After all, as Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


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

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Good Bank

They may not be making any profit, but one thing you can say about Amazon: they give good service. If you have a problem, the process and response is almost always painless. Contrast that with the financial arena. Be it a bank or investment company (and they are more or less inseparable these days), trying to resolve a problem with a loan payment or mortgage can mean entering the seventh circle of Hell. But we put up with it because, as Willie Sutton is credited with saying, that's where the money is. (He actually never said that; a reporter made up the quote.) So when I was balancing my checkbook recently and saw a missing deposit, I gritted my teeth for what was to come.

Quick setup: for some accounts, we use Fidelity Investments. Via their online portal, I pay bills and move cash around as needed. Recently, they opened a physical location near us, and I have gotten several calls and emails from John, the guy there who was tasked to be our "prime" contact. But having occasionally gone in to that location and others to deposit checks, and had merely OK experiences, I have been just as happy to transact via mail and web.

So when I discovered the missing deposit, I clicked online and sent a note. It was a relatively small check, one of a weekly series generated by my business. Some weeks I don't even bother depositing them; I accumulate several, and send in a batch. Recently, I started saving the stamp, and used the new "take a photo of your check and the funds magically appear in your account" app. Ain't technology amazing?

My note was bucked to John and his associates, and they sent me an email. Seems the check was marked as a duplicate and was being returned. I assumed human error was in play: it was duplicate amount, not a duplicate check, and someone in their back office just got confused. It happens. Not a big deal, I would just resubmit it. Have a nice day.

When I got it back and tried again using the electronic photo feature, the system rejected it. A little more steamed this time, I sent another note. John responded that the system must be having issues. If I just stopped by or sent it to him, he would resolve it himself. I did so, and a few days later got yet another missive: it was still showing as a duplicate, and they would return it again.  

At that point I had enough. I had the original deposit slip clearly showing two checks with identical amounts, not duplicates. I fired off a terse email, stating that if they couldn't do their job, I would do it for them. I demanded copies of all checks in that amount for the last 90 days. I would show them the one-for-one match, and why it was their screw-up. They wrote back, saying I would have the images shortly. And because they were sorry for the trouble I was having, they put $100 into my account as a goodwill gesture.

Now, I have NEVER had a bank give me anything beyond a refrigerator magnet. It cooled me down a bit as I waited for the copies to arrive. When they did, I went to work, anxious to show them the error of their ways. Of course, you know the punch line: the error was mine. I had deposited the check once via the phone app, not marked it as such, and then sent it in physically as well, the very description of a duplicate deposit. I wrote John and his people a chastened note, apologizing for being yet another stupid client, and asked them to reverse their goodwill deposit. They graciously refused, telling me to keep it as a token of the value they place on my business.

So while there may be official "bad" banks as an accounting gimmick, on the basis on this experience, I have to place at least one in the "good" category. John and his gang at Fidelity earned my trust and their stripes. True, Amazon will let me download music, while Fidelity won't let me do the same for cash. But certainly on the service front, they are closing in on the gold standard. And odds are that the download money thing may not be far behind.


Marc Wollin of Bedford pays his bills online on Sunday mornings in his bathrobe. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.