Friday, April 27, 2018


Our boys are 31 and 28, so this recollection is a bit dated. I was helping them get into their pajamas and ready for bed, and asked them what book they wanted to read that night. Matthew thought for a moment and started, "Yesternight we read – " I stopped him before he got any further. "Yesternight?" He tipped his head and looked at me: what had he said wrong? I started to correct him: "The right thing to say is ‘last night.'" He looked confused: "But if it's yesterday, why isn't it yesternight?" Now I was the one that tipped my head. I didn't have an answer, so I resorted to the last refuge of a parent: "Because it isn't." 

I flashed back to that moment on a recent early morning meeting. We were gathering as a team to review the event we had coming up for the day: who would do what, what the timeline was, what the client was expecting. We were all half-awake as we listened to the producer detail it out, each of focusing in on the things that concerned us, and tuning out those that didn't. But I think we all woke up as one and tipped our heads to the side as I did those many years ago when the woman said, "and when he gets on stage we'll bring up the picture of him with the twibbon." 


In a room full of people with different technical skills, who travel far and wide, who interface with a myriad of different clients, I venture to say that 95% of us had no idea of what she was talking about. Now in some situations, depending on the group, if you hear a term or expression you're not familiar with, you just nod and keep going, and try and puzzle it out along the way from context or clues. But this particular gang had worked together enough times so as to be comfortable speaking our minds. I'm not sure who it was, but someone gave voice to what we were all thinking: "Wait a minute. What the hell is a twibbon?" 

Turns out not to be a new thing if you're in the know. A portmanteau just like brunch (breakfast and lunch) or smog (smoke and fog), it's a mashup of the sound and meaning of two words, in this case Twitter and ribbon. It refers to a graphic element that is sort of a "bumper sticker" for your Twitter feed. Usually used to promote a brand or a cause, it adds some visual flair to your otherwise plain 280-character text dispatches. Some might see this term as a marvelous example of the vitality of the English language. Alternatively it's the devil's spawn, or as one of the gang said that morning, "like spork and skort, that is a word that shouldn't be allowed to exist." 

Spoiler alert: if you are in that second camp you might not want to read on. Because it turns out there are numerous contemporary examples in that same vein. It's said that given enough monkeys, typewriters and time you could produce Shakespeare. Well, given enough cell phones and iPads and human thumb typing, you get a whole bunch of contractions and combinations that reflect contemporary situations in pithy utterances. And while they all make sense, you can argue whether they should be allowed to exist as well. 

Ever send a text and keep checking your phone for the response? That's textpectation. Are you one of those people that can't sleep well at home but pass out as soon as you get into a vehicle? You might have carcolepsy.  If you type away and keep making mistakes, you are obviously unkeyboardinated. If the chat you are having seems pointless it might actually be a nonversation. And those breathless texts that come one after another and are just a word or two long is someone typerventilating. 

The English language is Darwinian: only the strong survive. And it's not a recent development: Shakespeare invented "congreeted" as a verb for when people exchange hellos, and it didn't exactly make the grade. While this continue? Will we be subjected to more? Will the language ever just stop changing? You might think those are legit queries. Then again, you might think bringing up these pointless and inane questions just makes me an askhole.


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

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Not So Simple Men

In terms of music videos, "Exit 49" follows a relatively straightforward storyline that's part of the canon. The band portrays a bunch of office workers chafing under an oppressive boss. They revolt and break free, with the boss giving chase. They run to their instruments and play, with the music driving the guy back as he confronts them. There's slo-mo, quick cuts and lots of closeups of the band. Been there, done that.

Then again, there are some unique touches. The boss is a surrealistic puppet with a snake coming out of his forehead. The band runs to the beach, where the puppet chases them in the sand, eventually levitating above them. And the lead singer is an orthodox Jew with a yarmulke, sideburns and a prayer shawl. So yeah, there is that. 

None of this would be more than a weird curiosity if the music weren't so good. It's a polished and listenable blend of rap, folk, rock and indie, underlying a perceptive and well written lyric. The more you listen to it the more it starts to grow on you. In an intentional bit of irony, the band is called Simple Man, though it's anything but. 

The least simple of the men in the band is singer, songwriter and lead vocalist, Yaakov Kafka. He says he was into rap as long as he could remember, predating his embrace of an observant lifestyle and orthodox practice. As a teenager and young adult, he wrote and recorded several songs where he grew up in New Jersey. Moving to Israel to explore his religious roots and spirituality, he kept writing and recording. While there he started collaborating with acoustic guitarist Tamir Tusia, who grew up in Israel and also became observant as a young adult. Returning to these shores, they crossed paths with Eli Weiss, another orthodox Jew and electric guitar player who counts BB King as an influence. 

But while their faith informs their music it doesn't define it. And so needing some bottom for their sound they got connected with bassist Clayton McIntyre. Known as "Church" for where he played a lot, the Jamaican came from a different set of religious and cultural traditions. Add in drummer Pat Mooney, an Irish Catholic with a taste for soul, and you have a true musical melting pot. In fact, when the band sends out its samplers for gigs and airplay, they describe their music as "Genre-Confused." 

And that it is, though extremely listenable. There's a dash of Kendrick Lamar, a touch of the Lumineers, mixed with the soul of Nick Hakim and a splash of Al Green. If you inhale really deeply you can detect whiffs of trance and jazz and more. Or as my son said when I played it for him, "Not ANOTHER mixed-race orthodox acoustic alterna-rap group!?" But somehow it just works. 

As for the songs, they reflect the fact that the bandmates are older, more spiritual than they were as kids. They're not trying to preach, but they do have something to say. As Yaakov says, "In an increasingly divisive world, we feel like there is something meaningful, in both the composition of the band and message we have." Musically and lyrically they're steeped in the styles on which they grew up, though filtered through a more adult sensibility. Or as Clayton put it, "the music has to be something I'm proud of, something I can play for my son." Yaakov puts it this way: "Who am I doing this for, is it just for the moment, or is it something more?" 

What do they hope to get out of this? Well, they're not giving up their day jobs just yet. But if they can push it beyond a few hundred "likes," beyond family and friends, that would be great. Yaakov again: "A lot of our lyrics are connected to internal struggles and conflict, about being pulled in different directions, about trying to make sense of the world and find our own true voice. If people can relate to that, and our music inspires them to fully inhabit their own lives and selves, that would give us the greatest satisfaction. We want the music to be the escape, but the message isn't escapism." Or as the chorus goes in "Exit 49," "We're leaving now to see the sounds. Peace, we out."


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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Keep Calm and Carry On

It was an interaction like a million others. Rather than pick up the phone and dial customer service, I opted to click the "chat" button on the screen. Without being subjected to elevator music or a wait or a single "Press 2 if you wish to speak with an agent," I was routed to an actual person to help me out. The deal, of course, was that it was all at the one remove of a keyboard, typos and all. 

No matter: I was looking for efficiency. While some companies have started to add video chats to give that high touch feel to the customer service experience for those who wish it, this was the other extreme. I could have been texting with a sharply dressed young woman with a Wharton MBA or a bearded skateboarder with metal chains hanging from his belt. They could have 4 windows open on their screen, 2 of them customers, one their Facebook page and another with Tetris. I didn't care. As long as they had access to the company database and could type 60 words a minute, it was fine by me. 

As it turned out I got "Jessica." I have no idea if that was her real name, what she looked like or whether she was actually a she, but no matter. I was there to order a new phone for my wife on a Tuesday night, and was thrilled to be able to complete the transaction while sitting in my basement in my slippers with three windows open working on other projects. Two can play at this game. 

The nice thing about transacting this way is that the interaction is little more deliberate. That's not to say that either side wants to drag it out; quite the contrary. But as with any of the multitude of electronic exchanges we all have these days, there is a different set of expectations as opposed to those in an actual conversation. There's not that feeling of having to make idle chatter to fill the downtime, nor small talk for the sake of small talk. That's not to say it can't be friendly. But like the old Dragnet tagline, it can be just the facts, ma'am. 

Jessica seemed knowledgeable and quick, doing some fast research on the account to discover an error preventing an available upgrade, and suggesting billing options. All good. True, she did have the usual overuse of exclamation points that they teach these folks in customer service school: "Happy to help you!" and "That's no problem!" and "I'll be back on just a few moments!" It's like talking with a kindergarten teacher on crack. 

But that false enthusiasm can wear a little thin, even if it's only in print. I detailed the model of phone, its memory and color: an iPhone 8 plus, with 64 gigs of memory in rose gold. A solid choice for sure, even if not the top of the line model X. All that was required was acknowledgment. Instead I got, "Awesome! Amazing choice!" You would have thought that I had spec'd the Holy Grail itself. 

Even in print the chirpiness was starting to grate on me. "Calm down," I typed, "It's only a phone." Without missing a beat, back she came: "Oh no I really mean that! I have the 7 Plus! And I really want the 8! I'm always so happy and jealous when someone orders it!" I took a moment, then responded: "You need to get out more." 

Finally: silence. Nothing appeared in the chat box. No "I really mean it!" No "But I love that phone!" No "You're going to be so happy!" For a full 30 seconds, nothing, not even an (Agent is typing). Finally, almost meekly came back the response: "I can have it delivered or you can pick it up. Please let me know which you prefer." 

I had broken her. I'm not proud of it, but at least I had gotten us back to doing a deal, and out of a commercial. We quickly concluded the particulars of payment and other finalities and wrapped things up. She thanked me for the business, and told me she hoped my wife enjoyed the phone. Yes, she did sign off with "Thank you for being a customer!" But by then I was willing to spot her that last point.

Marc Wollin of Bedford has a mixed marriage: he has an Android phone, his wife an Apple. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Chef of the Future

If you're from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, you probably know the ubiquitous supermarket chain ShopRite. The number one food retailer in the New York metropolitan region, its nearly 300 stores serve 6 million customers a week. Those shoppers know the grocer for their wide variety of basic foodstuffs, from meat to brownie mix to Cheetos. 

But these days that's not enough. To compete with upscale specialty grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joes, they have added sections filled with organic beans, free trade coffee and gluten free mac n' cheese. To entice growing immigrant populations, they have added aisles with Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino staples, like fish sauce, Bamba and adobo. And for busy families they have added more ready-to-eat foods, with hot and cold meal bars offering everything from pulled pork to sushi. Not to worry: still on the shelves are bologna, white bread and Velveeta. 

Still, the stores were in danger of missing out on the hottest trend in food today, the DIY meal kit. Originating in Sweden in 2007 as "Middagsfrid" (roughly translated as "dinnertime bliss"), the model made its way to these shores in 2012 as Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated. Those services grew steadily, attracting competition as celebrity endorsements and rival services sprang up. There are now offerings from Martha Stewart (Marley Spoon), BeyoncĂ© (22 Days Nutrition) and even Tom Brady (Purple Carrot). More recently the 600-pound twin gorillas of retailing, Amazon and Walmart, have entered the fray, offering everything from cheesy ravioli bake to chicken enchiladas. 

In each of these kits, all the needed items are delivered to your door or available as a single unit to pick up, along with step-by-step directions to produce a finished meal. Reviews vary, but in general are fairly positive. After all, most cooking is not rocket science. It's the assembling of diverse ingredients and prep work that takes the time. In that light, the genius in these kits lies not so much in simplifying complex preparation, but in putting all the component parts in the right proportions together in one place. Then by following the explicit Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 instructions, you can turn a bunch of greens, some chicken breasts and a box of pasta into Basil Garlic Chicken Fettuccine as easily as you can say Mario Batali. 

So now here comes ShopRite, if not late to the party then trying to carve its own niche. Under the brand "The Chef's Menu" and for less than $15 for dinner for two or four (depending on the offering or on how hungry you are), you can make Thai Coconut Chicken, Chicken Marsala or even Korean Beef Stir Fry. Note the offerings: not a pork chop and mashed potato among them. That's because they are very consciously trying to differentiate themselves in a crowded field by jumping on the twin bandwagons of making your own and eating international. Or if you will, making Chef You into Chef Yu. 

Still, it's a crowded field and the competition is fierce. Consumers seem to like the idea, but a shakeout is underway. Home chefs have been moving away from subscription models like HelloFresh and towards individual offerings. That's one of the reasons that industry leader Blue Apron's stock price has plunged recently, even while in-store meal kits generated $154.6 million in sales in 2017, an increase of more than 26% over year-ago results. Seems like adults can be picky eaters just like their kids. 

A few years ago a survey of British mothers (and yes, it's still mostly women who do the majority of the cooking) found that 4000 moms admitted they made the same 9 meals over and over, while one in four made the same meal on the same day of the week. It's likely no different on these shores. With jobs, school and other obligations, it's no easy task to gather the ingredients and whip up a culinary delight for a family dinner. That's part of the attraction of kitchen appliances like the Instapot which promise to cut down on cooking time. But whether you sauté it or fry it, braise it or baste it, you still need the right stuff to throw into the pan. In that light, ShopRite is probably in the right spot. Or to update Herbert Hoover, prosperity means "a pork scaloppini in every pot."


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.