Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Joy of Swag

Let's face it: we reason most of us work is for the money. Of sure, there's the joy of being part of a team. And the satisfaction of a job well done. And the feeling of starting something and seeing it through to a conclusion. And yada yada yada. But at the end of the day or week or biweek, what really counts is the number on the check that we use to buy the necessitates of life, like chips and salsa.

Unless there's swag involved.

For those of you not familiar with the term, swag is/are the goodies that any given company, team, band or enterprise has that sports their logo. Not to be confused with officially licensed merchandise, examples are as varied as snowflakes, but also as ubiquitous as Justin Bieber missteps. Virtually desk in America boasts at least one pen emblazoned with the symbol of a well-known company, and/or a coffee mug with the same. And it can go way beyond that. At the lower levels there are can coolers and key chains and stress balls. Look to the top, and the ne plus ultra might be a winter parka or designer fleece. And if that fleece sports an Olympic or Super Bowl logo, you're talking Holy Grail material.

But just as it costs only a few cents to manufacture a medal, earning one usually requires, if not risking your life, at least showing up. And that's the right way to acquire said booty. It's not the same if your next door neighbor knows somebody who knows somebody who can get you an iPhone Developers Conference water bottle. In that case, you may as well just buy it on eBay. No, for swag to really "count," you have to be in it to win it.

Even then, there are levels of personal involvement. At the bottom are goodies from the trade show thrown by vendors who sponsor the organization. As you walk around to find out about the latest in accounting software or restaurant equipment, manufacturers' reps will offer some cheap chachka they hope you will display proudly back at home. Like an adult version of trick or treat, hold out your official carrying bag (swag itself!), and they will drop in flashlights, stadium cups, sunglasses and adorable plush animals each labeled prominently with the sponsor's name. Looking in my backpack as I write this, I see a tube of Donnelly Corp. branded generic chapstick obtained at some show. And no, I have no idea what they really make.

Further up the chain is the official golf shirt or hat or pullover given to all who attend the meeting. It's one per person, and so scarcity and exclusivity confer a higher level of value. To get this item, you have to be a registered attendee at the event. That means when you get back to home base and wear it, others in your circles will recognize you for the high flier you are, or just as likely, the guy who is way behind on his workload after having been out of the office for a week.

Finally there's the same item referenced above, but bestowed as a thank you by the client to the worker bees who make the event run. This is the world I inhabit. Me and my ilk see the stuff that the attendees are sporting, and hope that perhaps the people hiring us will score a few extra to distribute. Never mind that we are professionals, and being paid to do our jobs. Rather, it's like we're back in middle school, and covet that cool stuff that we see all the other kids wearing.

Until we get home that is. Then we open a closet to find 20 others like it that we lusted after at the time, and are now pushed to the back and forgotten. That's because the reality is this: where you gonna wear it now? Not to another client. After all, you can't wear a Pepsi jacket to a Coke event. And there are not many social occasions where the right fashion statement is a tee shirt immortalizing the 2003 National Dairy Council Strategy Summit. With one exception, that is: when you need to cut the lawn, there is nothing more stylish.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is very proud of his Olympic jacket, though he didn't go to Sochi to get it. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Gold Medal in Hype

If you watch any of the Olympics, you can't help but be impressed with the determination of the athletes. Or their skill and technical ability. Or their grace under incredible pressure. But as entertaining as the games are, I don't think I can keep watching if Scott Hamilton keeps yelling at me.

Hamilton is an impressive individual, to be sure. A four-time world and US figure skating champion and gold medalist himself, he has also overcome personal crises from testicular cancer to a brain tumor. He's a Special Olympics global ambassador, and founded the "Stars on Ice" tour, now in its 28th season. And once again this year he is one of the announcers for Olympics coverage on NBC.

Now, I'm not a big figure skating fan, but I can appreciate the level of athleticism it takes to skate down a rink at full speed, jump into the air, spin around and then land with a flourish. I could do none of that. Well, that's not strictly true. I wouldn't be able to skate at full speed, let alone jump and turn. But I could land with a flourish, as long as by "flourish" you mean falling spectacularly on the ice and crashing into the boards. That I could do.

Still, these are the people who do this for a living. And so once you get past that this is the norm, some critical commentary should be in order. Professional broadcasters are paid not to be rabid fans, but knowledgeable and critical viewers. You want to feel that you are watching any event, be it ski jumping or curling, with a good friend who has some experience in the sport, who can explain to you the nuances you don't get at first glance, and give you a candid appraisal of the talent on display. It should be a like a Super Bowl party at your buddy's house, minus the chips and salsa, though that combination would be a natural with luge as well.

And I get that this is the Olympics, so complete impartiality is not in the cards. We want to root for Team USA, and its roster of good looking, enthusiastic youngsters, each of whom seems not only impossibly photogenic, but well-spoken and poised. It's worth noting you can see those qualities on display even if you can't understand a word they are saying. After all, Sage Kotsenburg, the winner of the first ever gold medal in slopestype snowboarding, described his run this way: "Yeah. So I, uh, dropped in, and I did a Cab 270 onto the first down rail, then followed up with a half cab on, back five off, on the second feature, and then a half cab up, lay backside 180 off the cannon box, then a Cab Double Cork 1260 Holy Crail from 10 off the toe with rocket air, then a Back 1620 Japan." I actually have no idea what he said, but he did so with impressive authority.

But back to Hamilton. If you shout "Awesome!" breathlessly on every jump, every spin, every twirl, it loses its potency. Especially when even I can see that some tricks are better than others. I get that he knows these people, has been in their boots and is an enthusiastic booster. But the power of Al Michaels' famous 1980 call when the US ice hockey team defeated Team Russia at Lake Placid was precisely because he didn't deploy his powder too early. And so as time wound down and he shouted, "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" it had some heft to go with moment. If Hamilton keeps shouting "Amazing" and "Perfect" for every Yevgeny, Dick and Harry, he's crying wolf a little too much.

But it may be too late for restraint, as Hamilton's style seems to have carried over to other disciplines. I was watching the women's biathlon, that vaguely James Bond-ish of sports, where athletes in sleek bodysuits skiing at top speed morph into military sharpshooters. A big draw in Finland and Germany, it has its admirers and fans as well. But as one women stretched to make the finish line, the announcer was screaming, "Amazing! I have not seen this many surprises ever in a biathlon race in my life!" But as sportswriter Andrew Perloff tweeted, "What about Nagano in '98? How soon we forget." See, a little perspective would be nice.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would like to watch the Olympics with just crowd noise. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Slumlords R Us

It may have been twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper, well, you know. But the time frame referenced in that lyric is also about when we bought our current house. Back them it seemed impossibly large. Of course, kids and clutter slowly filled up the space, and areas and rooms we thought we'd never use found a purpose. The extra space near the furnace turned into a workshop. That finished attic off the den became a playroom, then a bedroom. And the extra storeroom morphed into an exercise room, then an office and eventually into a storeroom/exercise room/office. Now I can sit among old stuffed bookshelves while doing leg presses and checking my email.

But while it was all ours, it was not really all ours. Like most, we needed a bank's help to make it possible. We took out a mortgage to buy the place, then a home equity loan to do some upgrades. Along the way, as rates drifted downwards, we refinanced, extending the term of it all. The net result was that while we were the lords of our castle, we're weren't truly the masters. Not that a guy with an eye shade was telling us what color to paint the walls, but every month he sent us a bill reminding us that he had first dibs on the place.

As time went on we got a better handle on our financial picture, and started to alter the balance of power. Once the kids'college educations were well in hand, we started to kick a little extra towards the mortgage each month. Likewise as the car payments wound down. Each drib and drab we put towards the principal reduced the overall total, steadily eroding our 30 year albatross. And as the late Senator Everett Dirksen said, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money. To be fair, our scale was different by a dozen or so zeros, but the idea was the same.

Finally it built to a point that this past week we got a letter from our friend with the eyeshade telling us that we were within sight of a goal that we wondered if we would ever reach. One more check, and they would say what's done is done. A little legal mumbo jumbo, some indecipherable document filed with the county clerk, and hear ye, hear ye, let it be known to all who care to look that we are the sole (and soul) owners of these here premises. Our mortgage would be marked paid in full, and we would be slumlords of our own domain.

Doing so meant we would join the ranks of roughly one third of homeowners in the country who own their home outright, from a high of 38% in Pittsburgh to a low of 15% in Washington DC. With divorces and job changes and transfers happening to so many around us, it's becoming more and more uncommon to see people reach this particular milestone. In fact, some financial types would suggest that tying up that much capital in a single hard asset isn't really a good use of your money anyways. You'd be better off extending the loan even further, and leveraging your cash to obtain a better risk/reward profile with a higher alpha or beta or whatever Greek letter means "more money."

But I can tell you from at least our personal experience that, psychically speaking, the argument doesn't hold water. Yes, there are still monthly costs, from taxes to insurance to maintenance and upkeep. But the idea that the underlying dwelling and land is mine, all mine, is deeply satisfying. To paraphrase Charlton Heston, assuming I pay my annual levy to the town, the only way they can now take my house is when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers. And that feels good.

So please come and visit, and know that you are talking to the owner when you cross our threshold. No longer are we mere caretakers for some nameless and faceless functionary sitting in a cubicle in a high rise in Manhattan who holds the master key to the front door. No, the place is ours, lock, stock and triple glazed windows. But do me a favor when you come over: don't lean against the walls. We just had them painted, and now they're all ours.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never thought he would pay off his mortgage. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Getting To Know Me

It's a fine balance, this access anywhere anytime with absolute security. We want to be able balance our checkbook, invest in a mutual fund and curate our Etsy account on our phone at the supermarket, while making damn sure no one else can do it in our place. And so we layer in passwords and PINS and secret questions known only to us, securing the kingdom with personal tidbits we're sure no Edward Snoden-esque hacker would be able to ferret out.

At the same time, there's an inherent contradiction between this privacy-security thing, and living out loud through social media. It's tough to both wall yourself off from the crooks, while at the same time wanting everyone to know your take on the guacamole at Pedro's. The more you tell, the more they know, and the easier it is to pretend to be you.

Still, we think we have it all safely under lock and key. Then, whamo, Target goes and leaves the barn door open. And before you can say "Red Dot Special," one in three of us is at risk of identity theft for having bought a two-pack of deodorant. And let's be real: do I really care if the Feds get the metadata on who I called? What is far more important to me are my spending habits day after day, knowledge of which would allow hackers to use my credit cards without arousing suspicion. I can withstand a little FBI query; what I can't handle is not being able to swipe my card to buy a tank of gas.

That means that many of us are diving back into our online accounts to change the locks. Not that it's not a good idea in any case. If you're like me, a good number were set up in more innocent times, when passwords were more about preventing casual access from snoopers as opposed to preventing global fraud from international crime cartels. And so you find ones that haven't been updated since 1984, and even then it was simply "Password."

So I'm trying now to at least be a little security conscious. My passwords are longer, more random and far more involved. I use it all: letters, numbers, capitals, special symbols, Greek hieroglyphics, even things that Prince used to call himself. Now a professional will need more than the thirty seconds it used to take him to break my key; it should take him at least a minute.

I am also getting a little help from the various sites themselves. No longer is the answer to the question about my mother's maiden name sufficient to prove I am who I am. They have offered me challenge questions which are far more difficult to research, mainly because I don't remember the answers myself. What street did I grow up on? Who was my third grade teacher? What was the name of my elementary school? These arcane bits of personal trivia are not easily accessible via Facebook, and more and more frequently, my own brain.

But these days there are databases after databases out there that have old addresses and school enrollment logs going back for years. If you want to be really secure, what you need is the kind of inside dope known only to your closest friends and family, knowledge you have not shared for reasons of embarrassment or insecurity. And so at one site, I was offered as a challenge question to be asked the nickname of my first stuffed animal. Another possibility was the boy or girl I only wished I had asked out in high school. Still another was the name of the college I didn't attend but really wanted to. Not only would the right answers prove it was me, but confronting the information again and again might just take the place of years of therapy.

Soon none of this may be necessary. After all, the new iPhone has a fingerprint reader. And some others let you use face recognition to unlock them. But until all these biometric approaches take hold, we will be forced to prove who we are by simple call and response. So at least for now there's the possibility that the only thing standing between your bank account and the bad guys is the answer "Mr. Squiggles."

Marc Wollin of Bedford no longer uses "idiot" as a password. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.