Saturday, January 25, 2014

Rise, Not Shine

It certainly seemed like a good idea. My wife was in need of a new phone, as the battery was not holding a charge. Normally, we would just replace it and toss the old one in a box. But when mine went through a similar midlife crisis, it happened to coincide with my bedside clock breaking. Rather than get a new one, I took my old phone and its stand, and downloaded a snappy clock program. It now sits happily next to my pillow, giving me a high tech display to stare at at 3AM when I can't sleep.

In her case, however, there was one small complication. In addition to an alarm clock, she has a white noise machine on her nightstand (she says I snore; I call it deep breathing). Having tried a number of models over the years, I eventually got her a combination device that goes whoooshhhhh in the night and BRRRRING in the morning. It works fine, but it's not the most user-friendly box; more than once the alarm has gone off and she has jabbed at it, only to hit the wrong button. Suddenly the sound of waves fills our room, as I groggily awaken thinking we're in the middle of a tsunami in the Philippines.

I did some checking, and sure enough there were some nice speaker stands for her old phone, as well as several clock/noise apps. Since Christmas was coming, I thought the pair might make an interesting present for her. (Some of you might ask why I thought it was a good idea to get her a glorified AC adapter and computer program as opposed to jewelry; please don't go there.)  

I eventually chose a Sony device with good reviews. When she opened it, she looked at it and said, "Uh, thanks? This is for?" I explained my reasoning: her old machine was difficult to program, it was not terribly attractive, she would soon have a surplus phone, this was an elegant upgrade to that. I was excited; she was suspicious. As one of the kids said with a grin, "I think this is a present Mom will have to appreciate over time."

It took a few weeks before we got around to replacing her phone, freeing up her old one. I spent a few days testing apps, eventually settling on one that seemed the best. That evening I went upstairs, moved her existing device to the other side of her table, and installed the new setup. She walked in and eyed it warily. "C'mon," I said brightly, "I'll show you how to use it. We'll even keep your old one for backup!" She gamely listened to me explain it, smiled tightly, got her pajamas on and got into bed. When she was done reading, she turned up the sound and turned out her light.

Next morning I awoke a few minutes after the alarm should have gone off, but didn't. Turned out the power saving function on the charging stand had kicked in, and disabled the phone. Second night we awoke to an alarm. She stabbed at the phone, but it wouldn't quiet. I jumped up and tried, but I couldn't silence it either. She left me there trying to figure it out. I eventually realized it was the old clock next to it ringing; we hadn't set the phone correctly. Third night I turned over at 2AM to see nothing; I hadn't disabled all the screen saver functions and it went blank. And on it went. The controls were hard to see. The screen was too bright. After a week of trying and tweaking, I threw in the towel. I returned the original device to its place closet to her pillow, and prepared to return the unit to its maker.

But a sudden reversal of fortune: just after I printed out a return slip, she happened to remark that it would be great if we had a radio in the kitchen. Wait! The speaker stand was perfect for that! I download a radio app, plugged it in, and NPR wafted gloriously over the stove. It was a winning present after all: it just turned out to a case of right device, wrong application. As for waking up, well, we're back to where we started. And I have simply resigned myself to dealing with the occasional tidal wave.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hasn't needed an alarm in years. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Same As It Never Was

I just felt like blueberry pancakes.

No big deal, I used to make them every Sunday for the kids when they were small and even beyond. A little mix, some milk and eggs, a handful of frozen or canned berries, and before you could say "maple syrup" they were bubbling and hissing and ready to be flipped. And since it was a Saturday morning, and I had no place to go and nothing special to do, I decided to whip up a short stack.

I like to cook (and eat, for that matter), and so am well acquainted with the contents of our fridge and larder on an ongoing basis. However, being empty nesters, our pantry has evolved over time (perhaps devolved better captures it) as we've made scarce first kid-friendly stuff, then teenage goodies, and finally young adult edibles. Save the occasional bag of cookies and some ice cream, we now are heavy on healthy, low-fat, organic, multi-grain chow, much of it leaving you feeling after you eat it that you'd seriously consider manslaughter if someone got between you and a Fluffernutter.

And indeed, it had been a while since I last plumbed the pantry for a sojourn to Waffleville. Still, I had no doubt we had the appropriate stuff hidden away; it's an ongoing joke that in case of an all-out attack there are supplies a-plenty at our house to get us through most nuclear winters. To be sure, some might be past their "fresh if sold by" dates, but that doesn't mean they're dangerous, just a little stale.

Sure enough, after some digging I found a box of Bisquick stuffed in the back of the pantry behind some cans of broth. Like Twinkies, its shelf life is probably a decade or so at least, so no issues there. I dug to the bottom of the freezer and found some berries in a bag, though it's possible they last saw sunshine during the first Bush presidency. And I knew we had eggs and milk, so on paper at least I was in Fat City.

Perhaps that's an unfortunate choice of phrase; you might argue as to my exact location, but "fat city" wasn't one of them. The Bisquick was of the "Heart Smart" varietal. The milk we had was 1%. We did have eggs, but we also had egg substitute as suggested on the box. Even the "butter" was yellow and greasy in name only; it was a "canola-oil blended buttery tasting spread," rich in a veritable fraternity of acids. (Omega? Delta? Kappa? I'm not sure which.) At least the berries hadn't been de-sugared. I think.

Still, once I found all the ingredients, and resurrected and rehabilitated an old griddle from the basement storeroom, I was good to go (the better griddle, it slowly came to me, was pressed into service as part of a starter set of cookware when our youngest got his first apartment). My mouth watering, I greased up the pan and measured and mixed, all the while fondly recalling the many times I had done the same for an appreciative audience of youngsters in their PJ's and slippers. And while I was alone this time, I still couldn't wait for that first warm, melt-in-your-mouth taste as the cakey flapjack and the oozing berries mixed with the sweetness of the syrup (even it that was of the low fat variety then and now).

But alas, it was not to be. That first bite was deja-vu-esque. My taste buds had been in that zip code before, but the neighborhood had most assuredly gone downhill. Individually, perhaps, the reduced fat content of each of the ingredients might have had a subtle effect on the end result. Together, the cumulative lack of body turned a decadent taste into one that was beyond pedestrian. I took another forkful to make sure. Yup, I was eating cardboard.

I tossed the remaining batter, and washed the dishes. By the time my wife got home, the only evidence of my folly was the lingering smell of char in the air. Yes, there are comfort foods that make you think of times gone by, but I would submit that many are best recalled fondly as opposed to being recast in a modern mold. Thomas Wolfe famously said you can't go home again. In light of my experience, allow me to paraphrase: sometimes, you can't eat at home again either.


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

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Word Count

Consider these items. The Senate Intelligence Committee report about the CIA interrogation program is over 6000 pages. A Federal judge issued a ruling on the NSA surveillance program that ran to 68 pages. On many lists of the best book for 2013 was Donna Tartt's third novel "The Goldfinch," which clocks in at 784 pages. All of which beg the question: who the hell is reading this stuff?

Not I, and I consider myself a reader (actually, I have read "The Goldfinch," but the central point still stands). Fiction, nonfiction, biography, newspapers, magazines, it doesn't matter. I'm not fast: I'll be the first to admit it often takes me longer than it should. Sometimes the topic or story is complex, and I have to retrace my steps so it all makes sense. Others times the book is written by a foreign author and/or about a distance place, and the names confuse me (Wait a minute: was that Ahmed's sister Aidah who was killed with Aaeedah's boyfriend Abd Al-Alaaa, or was it the other way around?) Other times it's as simple as I nod off and drop my Kindle on my face. But I keep at it, making up for lack of speed by volume.

And I can't say that everything I read is good. Sometimes the idea or angle is interesting, but the story or the writing is pedestrian at best. In that case I may just blow through it quickly, not caring that I track every nuance because basically I don't care. (So what if the zombies take over Kansas City; would anybody give a hoot?) But once I start something, I generally finish it, even if I have to come back for a second or even a third running start.

That's being said, I know I am in a relatively small fraternity. You can argue whether it's good or bad, but most people spend more time reading Facebook posts then then they do an actual book, be it electronic or print. And while relevance is often cited as a reason, so is length. That's hardly surprising in a world where the 140 character tweet has attained the status of a classic haiku.

For a while, it seemed we were heading the other way. Amazon, which was founded on the concept of selling books, grew hand over fist. There was an arms race between Borders and Barnes and Noble as they tried to outdo each other in opening 25,000 square-foot monuments to books of every stripe. And blogs and self-publishing lowered the entry bar to almost nil for authors to get their works out to their own specific publics, be they niche or adoring.

Fast forward, and Amazon now makes less than a third of its sales from "books, music and other media." Borders is no more. And blogs have faded, as Twitter has become the publishing media of choice to reach a crowd, be it to foment a revolution (the Arab Spring), announce a discovery ("We have ICE!!!!! Yes, WATER ICE on Mars! Woot!"), or criticize the government (a high school student in Kansas who met Governor Sam Brownbeck at a forum tweeted "told him he sucked," then defended herself by saying "I wouldn't apologize for the tweet itself because, like I said, that was aimed toward my audience.")

But still they go to press. While the publishing industry has suffered mightily, that hasn't stopped both traditional and non-traditional forms of the written word from expanding almost exponentially. Maybe it's because we don't have to read all that bad handwriting, but whether it's touch or thumb typed, the number of words being churned out seems to be multiplying like rabbits. Like bodies in a Quentin Tarantino movie, the word count goes up and up, be it government rulings on important issues, critical and snarky comments about restaurants and TV shows, or novels fun and fantastic.

And yes, the bloat extends to columns as well. And so I make you a promise if you stick around these parts. Like a bride eyeing her wedding day, I will hold my word count down lest I not fit into my dress. I may have to jettison a few metaphors, scrap a simile or two, perhaps pass on some literary sleight of hand. But here, in this space, we will hold the line or (sorry, out of space).


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

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Year of the Salamander

Sorry, hate to be the bearer of bad news. But you stretched out the break as long as you could, and now it's really, definitely, completely, finally over. No more "what's one more day after a Wednesday holiday?" No more "Hey, it's a snow day!" It's time to get over the muscle memory of writing "13," and set your sights firmly on the coming year. Yes, we have resolutions to break and promises not to keep, but that's a given. The big question is simple: what's next?

To be sure, it's a year for the Olympics and the World Cup. There are plans for some big tech releases, from the iPhone 6 and the iWatch to a new Grand Theft Auto. And keep your eyes on the box office for new installments in the latest franchises of Spiderman, X-Men and The Hunger Games. But these are all singular events, relating to a specific time or relatively short span of the calendar. Rather, we need to be thinking big picture.  

What might help is a theme, a tag line, something we can use to remind ourselves on what we should be focusing for the coming twelve months. Mind you, that's not the same as falling back on the Chinese zodiac, that more than 2000 year old astrological classification by animal and element. By that method it's the year of the Yang Wood Horse. And while the new cycle starts on January 31, the traits implied by that sign, including a yearn to roam, sturdiness and a desire to fit in, are applicable only to those either born this year or in a prior equine annum. And since the zodiac cycle repeats every 12 complete calendar flips, this means you if your actual birthday was in 1906 and you are turning 108. If you're less than a centenarian, start there and do the math.

Thankfully, picking a theme isn't something to need to do alone. Depending on your interests and priorities, any number of organizations have examined the landscape and held forth. That means that tomorrow when you get up, you can renew your commitment to protect/kill/remember/forget/try/ignore/praise/ridicule the most important aspect of the coming 12 months.

Let's start overseas. In Scotland it's the "Year of the Homecoming." That means a focus on all things Scottish: John Muir (the country's best known naturalist), single-malt scotch (May is "Whiskey Month") and golf (the fortieth Ryder Cup will be held at Gleneagles). You can run from Bessie in a marathon at Loch Ness, view a "brutally realistic" re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn (no Mel Gibson in sight: this fight featured Robert the Bruce, not William Wallace) or listen to "Piping Live," which promises to be the largest international bagpipe festival ever. Get your earplugs ready.

If that's too much for your inner lad and lass, maybe your focus should be on something over which you have more control. After all, color gurus (yes, there are such people) say that 2014 will be the "Year of Radiant Orchid." Following up on last year's "Emerald," it is described as an "enigmatic purple," and is already being included in the spring collection of Juicy Couture and Emerson by Jackie Fraser-Swan. But get it right: make sure you request Pantone 18-3224, or you might get just plain purple, which would be very uncool.  

The United Nations, being the huge cross border organization that it is, has declared a bunch of "International Year of The's." As such, 2014 will simultaneously be the "Year of Crystallography," the "Year of Family Farming" and the "Year of Small Island Developing States."  This all follows the hoopla you may remember when they proclaimed 2013 the "Year of Quinoa." Good times, for sure.

And yes, there's more. It's hard to argue with making 2014 the "Year of the Brain" in Europe (full disclosure: it was declared by the European Brain Council). There is controversy, however, in Flower Mound, Texas, where the mayor declared it "Year of the Bible." But at least we can probably all get behind the declaration by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. Following up on last year's successful "Year of the Snake" campaign, PARC has declared 2014 the "Year of the Salamander."  And yes, you can get a calendar, so you can be reminded of it every single day.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is waiting for the "Year of the Nap." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.