Saturday, December 27, 2014

Too X To Fail

The ruling is out: Met Life is a SIFI. Kind of like Taylor Swift, though she would be a SIMI. And Peyton Manning would be a SIQI. If that sounds cryptic, it's because you aren't tuned into the workings of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, or the FSOC in government-speak. The council is tasked with identifying financial organizations that are critically important to the health and well-being of our overall economy. And it pronounced Met a SIFI, or Systemically Important Financial Institution. Put another way, it's "too big to fail." It's not that the company can't go south; it's that doing so would hurt the entire industry. Likewise with Taylor and Peyton. She is a Systemically Important Musical Institution, while he is of the quarterback variety.

As we come to the end of the year, many things, organizations and people who thought they were indeed too big to fail turned out not to be so after all. And as often as not, the reasons for their troubles were self-inflicted. They went into it thinking that they were, if not too big, then too popular, too entrenched, too well connected, or the biggest miscalculation of all, too smart to get into trouble. Needless to say, it didn't actually work out that way.

Take General Motors. Rising almost phoenix-like from the ashes of the financial crisis, it was just 5 years ago that they required a bailout to stay in business. Serious discussion was had as to whether or not we should let them slip away as a real-life demonstration of economic Darwinism. But prop them up we did, and since then they have earned over $22 billion. True, the stock price hasn't really soared, and so taxpayers lost $10.6 billion, since the collateral we took was in shares as opposed to IOU's. That aside, as a company, it is one of the most profitable in the nation.  

But then someone turned the key. Or actually the key turned itself, courtesy of a faulty ignition switch. Costs related to the recalls essentially wiped out any first quarter profits. And that's before the law suits and settlements really get going. And all because it turns out that they knew about it and covered it up. So maybe they are too big, but obviously not too stupid to fail.

Then there's FIFA. This was the year that the world watched the World Cup. And by world, I mean the US. People who until now thought that football only meant Tom Brady were discussing the finer points of headers and corner kicks. And it wasn't just cheering for the national team, though Tim Howard did become a household name for a few minutes. Belgium and Holland, along with perennial powerhouses Germany and Argentina, all attracted huge American followings. It looked like it might finally be soccer's time on these shores.

But then the report came out about bid rigging associated with the next tournaments. Russia and Qatar secured the rights, with absolutely no one thinking that either location won because they were the best choice. (In Qatar at game time it should be about 122 degrees.) FIFA doesn't really care, because, well, they don't think they have to. They are sure that once again the fans will come and the world will watch. Again, maybe too big to fail, but perhaps not too corrupt, given a chance.

Turns out Bill Cosby was not too iconic to ignore his accusers. Justin Bieber was not too popular to get arrested. The New York Jets were not too bad to become even worse. Vladimir Putin was not too popular to stop the ruble from plummeting. Ray Rice was not too indispensable to get away with hitting his girlfriend. And Roger Goodell was not too NFL commissioner to handle it all the wrong way.

There are many more that thought that there was no way that things could turn out badly. But like Tiger Woods or Bernie Madoff before them, things have a funny way of changing directions on you pretty fast, especially when you think you can do no wrong. The bottom line is nothing is too big. Except maybe if you are Taylor or Peyton. I mean, should he ever lose his arm, the government may need to step in. The economy is one thing, but don't go messing with football.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is too small for anyone to really care. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Hot, Hotter

You know the scene. Tom Cruise, as a young, gung-ho military lawyer, confronts a snarling Jack Nicholson, playing a ramrod straight officer running Guantanamo Bay in "A Few Good Men." Cruise, as Lt. (j.g.) Daniel Kaffee, prods Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup on the stand. Jessup snaps back at Kaffee, "You want answers?!" to which Kaffee responds, "I want the truth!" In one of the most iconic lines ever, Jessup thunders back, "You can't handle the truth!"

My situation was almost the same. Except it was not a trial and I am not a lawyer, merely a person getting some lunch. The guy behind the counter was no officer, just someone taking orders. And we weren't talking about truth, we were talking about chicken.

Hot chicken to be precise. Philadelphia may have its cheesesteak and New Orleans its po'boy, but if you are in Nashville, you must find time to try the city's culinary specialty. There are a couple of places nationwide that have tried to gain a toehold selling the stuff, but they are few and far between. To get this particular variant you really have to go to the mother churches found in Music City USA.

The basics are simple: you take some chicken, marinade it in buttermilk, coat it with flour, then pan or deep fry it. After cooking, a paste made of lard and spices is rubbed onto the pieces. Consisting of some combination of sugar, garlic and cayenne pepper, the trick is to impart both flavor and heat. The result is served on thick slices of white bread accompanied by slices of dill pickle.

Of course, it's called hot chicken not because of the temperature. Most places make it at varying heats per the wishes of the consumer. At the bottom of the scale is something mildly akin to regular fried chicken. At the other end is something that one reviewer describes as "crying-from-your-eyes-and-nostrils-and-other-orifices kind of heat. Your tongue will curl up in the corner, and pray for death's swift, sweet kiss." Yeah, it's that hot.

Being one who likes spicy food, I thought I could handle something in the middle. So I decided to have my "come to chicken" moment at a place called 400 Degrees, where you order your heat in hundred degree increments. When it was my turn, I requested an order of chicken strips, a side of coleslaw and an iced tea. The gentlemen dutifully wrote it down, then asked me my heat preference. I replied, "Well, I like hot Buffalo wings, so how about 200?" He looked me up and down, sized me up as a newbie, and channeling Colonel Jessup said, "Son, these are no Buffalo wings."

I'm sure he saw the deflation and hurt on my face, because he quickly changed his tone. "Tell you what. Strips come in three, so I will give you two 100 degree pieces, and one 200 degree. And if that 200 isn't too much, you come back and we'll step you up. How's that?" I readily agreed to this face saving compromise. I paid my tab, and went to sit down and wait.  

A while later they brought me a tray. Two of the pieces had a rosy glow, but one was ruby in color. To start, I cut off a piece of the lighter colored strip. It was powerful stuff, flavorful and vibrant, a taste that made you sit up and take notice. After I did a little palate cleansing with the coleslaw, I took aim at the 200. It barely got it into my mouth before my eyes teared up and my nose started running. It had flavor, to be sure. But mixed with that flavor was fire. My tongue tingled, my ears started ringing and all I could think was, My God, what must 400 be like?

Still, I alternated back and forth, enjoying both variations, grateful for the ice cubes in my cup. The guy from the counter walked by and smiled. He returned a few moments later with a small tray. "You look a nice guy, so we made you another piece," he said. Between sips of tea, I thanked him profusely as he put it in front of me, praying to the Lord above that the new piece was colored to the century mark and no higher. Buffalo, forgive me, but you have been bested.


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

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Let the Girls Play

First the disclaimer: I live in the Northeast, so anything I write about country music is suspect at best. Like guns and NASCAR, the fact the certain things have overwhelming followings in areas outside of the Boston-New York-Washington corridor that aren't based on Yankee sensibilities seems, frankly, unbelievable. But yes, to those of us to whom brunch in Red Hook is considered the height of cool, there are places where Luke Bryan is at least as well-known as Jay-Z, where Florida Georgia Line isn't a border between two states but a group with whose song "Cruise" dominated the charts with 20 weeks in the top spot.

It's a genre that was written off as "mature" not too long ago, described by one music critic as "stoic men in ten-gallon hats and soprano women who'd lived full lives singing songs about, divorce, war, and that aching, hollow heartbreak feeling." No more. Fusing elements of rap and pop to its country roots, it's moved far beyond Johnny Cash and Ernest Tubbs and Patsy Cline to Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert and Chase Rice. You can argue about the definition, and just how heir-to-the-throne-of-George-Strait these new comers really are, but this is most definitely NOT your daddy's country. Put another way, if you know the former three and not the later, then you don't really have your finger on the right pulse point.

But while that body may have a lot of blood pumping through it in the form of airplay, there's a problem: it's mostly male. With Taylor Swift no longer considered a country girl, the charts are dominated as almost never before by men. And not just any kind of men, but young, fit, hard partying types singing about the three "b's," usually explained as some combination of babes, bars and beers. In the so-called "bro-country" movement, every night is a Friday Night, every vehicle is a truck and every girl is lit by moonlight, has painted-on jeans and loves to drink Bud.

While there's some sense that this particular pickup is running out of steam, some are trying a little harder to, if not push the vehicle into a ditch, at least let some others share the road. And that means not just songs that appeal to a more female sensibility, but performers on that side of the ledger as well. And it's the idea behind a rotating group of female singer-songwriters known collectively as the Song Suffragettes.

With the slogan "Let the Girls Play," the idea was hatched back in March by music industry veteran Todd Cassetty and Helena Capps as a way of encouraging more female artists. Having outgrown their first home in Nashville, they now convene every Monday night at the Listening Room Café on Second Avenue South. Since they started, over 60 different young ladies have taken the stage, some well-known only in their home towns, others veterans of shows like "The Voice" and "American Idol," but all showcasing their very considerable songwriting and performing chops.

On a stage backed by white damask curtains, fronted by a few old lamps and some mismatched chairs, the format is simple. Each of the five or so performers introduces herself, and plays and sings one of her own songs. They go down the line, circle back to do it again, then perform a group cover of a more well-known tune. The night I visited a solid and appreciative audience heard Betsy Lane do "Southern Crazy" while Kalie Shorr sang "God Sees Everything," each a hit waiting to be discovered or perhaps recorded by a more well-known name. There were equally good offerings from Daisy Mallory, Karli Chayne and Gracie Schram. And not one mentioned a pickup truck.

The music business is a fickle one. Talent and determination are table stakes at best, assuring nothing other than a chance to perform for your family and friends and perhaps a few interested strangers who might buy a CD. Anyone can do that. But making even a bare-bones a living at it? That‘s a different story. And becoming the next Reba McEntire or Miranda Lambert or Faith Hill? That's not a story, it's a fairy tale. But regardless of the eventual outcome, the first step is to play and be heard. And that's what Song Suffragettes is all about. Let the girls play. You just might like what you hear.


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

Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Price of Words

The week before Thanksgiving was one for the books in the NFL. Just two weeks after Jets Coach Rex Ryan opened his mouth, a move which cost him $100,000, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch didn't open his and got charged the same hundred grand. Admittedly both have multi-year deals, with Ryan making about $3.3 million this year, and Lynch averaging about $7.5 million. In that light, the impact is a bit more muted than if you or I were hit with similar fines. According to one online calculator (yes, there are such things) for a person making about $50K a year, Rex's fine was equivalent to about $1500, Marshawn's less than half of that.

Rex got his for cursing at someone as he was walking to midfield for the traditional post game "handshake-and-make-nice" with the opposing coach and team. (And this was after they beat Pittsburgh. Lord only knows what would have come out of his mouth if they had lost.) Officially the fine was leveled for "profane language," a penalty that usually carries a price tag of $11,025. But Ryan was a repeat offender, having previously been hit with a $50,000 fine in 2010 and a $75,000 penalty in 2011. Asked what his wife thought of his once again vehemently defending the Jets' honor, he rolled his eyes: "She wasn't real happy."  

On the other side of the coin, Lynch was hit for not talking to anyone at all. The league has a media policy that requires players to talk to the press after a game. Not wanting to have a chat, Lynch ducked out of the locker room following the team's loss to Kansas City. He had done that before, getting hit with a $50,000 fine for avoiding the media before the last Super Bowl. In the aftermath of that incident, the NFL held the fine in abeyance pending his future cooperation. But his recidivism didn't sit well with the folks in the league office, and so they leveled a new $50,000 fine, piling on the old for good measure. Hence the price of silence was $100,000.  

(In response, Lynch was available to talk to all comers who clustered around his locker the following week. To the 19 questions asked by reporters he responded 14 times with "Yeah," twice with "Maybe," once with "I don't know," and once with "No Juice," the last in response to what song he had listened to on the way to the field before the game.)  

The fines, while higher than many, are all well within the league's discretion, and indeed are part of a schedule of offenses.  While there is leeway as to whether or not a fine is actually assessed, the published list includes a charge for $5,512 for throwing a football intro the stands and $2,756 for unnecessarily entering a fight area where there is no involvement. A face mask infraction will cost you $8,268, while being guilty of roughing the passer will hit your wallet for $16,537. In most cases fines are doubled or even tripled for subsequent offences.

Lest you think that physical altercations are all that get penalized, verbal abuse or taunting can also get you smacked. And protecting what is really valuable, transgressions against the image and licensing agreements that the league has merit the most opened-ended penalties of all. Recently a number of players, including marquee quarterback Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco, were slapped with $10,000 fines for wearing Beats headphones after the league signed an exclusive deal with Bose. Put another way, it costs more to wear your own earbuds than to chop block an opponent. I guess it's a question which is more dangerous in the bigger picture of things.

If there's any good news, it's that the funds collected for these offenses goes to a variety of charities aimed at players, as well as various disaster relief and health-related organizations backed by the NFL. So thank you Roman Harper for hitting Devin Hester. Much obliged J.C. Tretter for that leg whip against Trent Cole. And bless you Jerry Hughes for cursing an official during the Buffalo-Miami game. You guys helped push the season total so far to over $22 million. This week let's see if someone steps it up and tries a horse collar tackle. After all, $25 million is not too much of a stretch.


Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely gets fined for anything. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.