Saturday, February 25, 2012

Holiday Time

If you're looking for an excuse to kick back and celebrate, you've got several sterling opportunities coming up. You got your Easter and your St. Patrick's Day, your Earth Day and your Cinco De Mayo. But those all pale in comparison to the one holiday that hits me right where I live, the one that means more to me that all those above combined. For March 1, just scant days from now, is National Peanut Butter Lover's Day.

To be fair, it's not officially a holiday. There is no Presidential Proclamation, no Act of Congress, no ethnic group that has celebrated this occasion going back for centuries. And don't confuse it with other similar celebrations, such as National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day on April 2, or National Peanut Butter Cookie Day on June 12. Worthy occasions both, but not the purebred affair. No, March 1 is a day reserved for those who are just as happy to open the jar, stick in a spoon and enjoy the substance in its most elemental form.

I know I'm not alone in this. The average American consumes more than six pounds of peanuts and peanut butter products each year, and the average kid will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he or she graduates high school. Four of the top 10 candy bars manufactured in the country contain peanuts or peanut butter, while the nuts themselves account for two-thirds of all snack nuts consumed in the USA. Of course, there are those of you who don't like peanuts, or heaven forbid, are even allergic. But even if you've never touched the stuff, the numbers are what they are because I personally have more than made up for your reticence several times over.

No less than our Mom-In-Chief has said she's one of us. In spite of Michele Obama's campaign to stem childhood obesity, she keeps a special place in her stomach for what's really important. Yes, she has a White House garden filled with kale and broccoli and spinach, and has even been known to encourage Special Forces soldiers to eat their veggies. Yet when asked at a live Town Hall meeting this month in Florida about her own eating propensity, she said her favorite food to stoke her up before a workout was peanut butter and apples. Peanut butter and apples! You go, girl! Er, First Lady!

I should also point out that in spite of the current movement in the country to prove one's purity, I'm hardly an ideologue in this area. I'm OK with those who prefer smooth, though I'm a chunky guy myself. And I have been known to eat a Reese's Pieces or two (of three or four). I'm OK if you combine it with strawberry jam, or spread some on a banana, or use a version over ice cream. And In my younger (and thinner) days, combining a well slathered piece of bread with one equally adorned with Marshmallow Fluff was the height of haute cuisine.

Thankfully, others haven't been content to let the state of the art stagnate. At this year's Pillsbury bakeoff, there is a special “Jif Peanut Butter Award" given to the best recipe that uses at least a ¼ cup of Jif Peanut Butter. Finalists include May Beth Mandola's Peanut Butter Boston Cream Cake and Nadine Clark's Thai Chicken Subs. The winner? You'll have to go to Orlando in March to see if Mary Field's Peanut Butter Creme Cookie Cups get crowned.

Don't laugh: this is serious business. We're talking the very definition of a cash crop, one that contributes more than $4 billion to the country's economy each year. So don't go lumping this date in with National Tapioca Pudding Day (July 15) or National Papaya Month (September). Those are similar, though none of them are as official as the one described in Presidential Proclamation #5157, which reads, "Now, therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim March 6, 1984, as Frozen Food Day,"

But that comes later in the month. Instead, end the dictates of big government, and take matters into your own hands. Come March 1, go to your cupboard and take out your Peter Pan or your Skippy and chow down. Lick the spoon clean, and willfully get some stuck to the roof of your mouth. And pay no attention to the fact that some idiot also made March 1 National Pig Day. Hard to imagine something so silly, isn't it?


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks Reese's Cups may be the most perfect food on the planet. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Fighting Words

In a speech he gave to the Conservative Political Action, Mitt Romney was defending his record as redder than red. "I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor," he said, adding the modifier "severely" to his prepared remarks. While it's not his official campaign slogan (that would be "Believe in America"), and it probably wouldn't play well in the general election, you have to admit that "Severely Conservative Republican" isn't a bad catch phrase in the current how-far-can-you run-to-the-right Republican primary.

It was New York Governor Mario Cuomo who famously said that while you govern in prose, you campaign in poetry. Indeed, having a catchy slogan to put on bumper stickers and buttons is almost as important has having a non-affiliated Super PAC or spiffy looking campaign bus. The idea is to reduce all that you believe in and stand for to a short pithy phrase that will draw voters in and make them pull the lever for you. It's completely beside the point as to whether or not the phrase is true or deliverable or bears any relation to reality: that's the prose part, and it comes later if you win. (For reference, see the Wikipedia entry under "Obama, Barack: Yes, We Can!")

There are scores of examples that worked and worked well. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln went with "Don't Swap Horses in the Middle of the Stream," while Wilson summed up his biggest accomplishment in 1916 with, "He Kept Us Out of War." George H.W. Bush's "Kinder, Gentler, Nation" captured what we wanted to be, while Hoover's "A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage" perfectly encapsulated the pre-depression mindset. Ronald Regan had two of the best, with his 1980, "Are You Better Off Than You Were Four Years Ago?" and his follow-up of "It's Morning Again in America." The first drew a sharp distinction to Jimmy Carter, while the second neatly sidestepped any discussion of his first four years and made it about the next. (The more accurate formulation of "It's Noon in America" doesn't have quite the same snap.)

The problem is that there are only so many ways to arrange the key words needed to make a slogan that works. It has to be positive, personal and declarative, specific enough to highlight the differences with any others, while vague enough to attract voters not completely in step with your point of view. It's like a game of patriotic Mad Libs, where all you get is "America," and have to add two verbs and a noun.

Romney got boxed in early on when he tried to push "Keep America American," which someone pointed out was a central theme of Ku Klux Klan publications in the 1920s. Rick Santorum had his variation in "Let America Be America Again," until it was discovered that the language echoed the words of pro-union Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. In that vein, you have admire Ross Perot. While he wasn't successful, his slogan had no chance of being compromised: "Ross for Boss."

So they try and try until they find a winner. Newt Gingrich started out with "Win the Future." But that didn't quite nail it, so he flirted with "A 21st Century Contract with America." But too many don't remember the 20th century version, so he road tested "Leadership Now." And he's also giving a spin to "Rebuilding the America We Love." Unfortunately, his own personal history has prompted any number of suggestions from others, including "Newt Gingrich: A New Era of Openness (OK with Callista)," "Newt Gingrich: Wife #3, Country #1" and my personal favorite "Gingrich '12: Traditional Values, Unless Your Name Rhymes with ‘Flute.'" However, considering the way things are going in Washington, perhaps the best suggestion might be "Newt Gingrich: The Last Time He Was in Government, They Still Kinda Did Stuff."

As of this writing, President Obama is still looking for that "Hope and Change" magic, though there's nothing official. As Richard Stevenson writes in The New York Times, the ones that he'd like to use aren't subtle enough: "It Would Have Been Worse Without Me," "By Comparison to the Other Guys I Look Pretty Good" and the very truthful "Change Takes More Than One Term." But since the one thing that has stayed high is his personal favorability ratings, perhaps he'd be best to take a page from Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower didn't focus on policies, programs, the past or the future. He made it all about him, and won with the very simple "I Like Ike."


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never put a bumper sticker on his car. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Master of Obsolete Things

I feel for Blackberry, I really do. Here was a company that was THE technology darling, whose devices all but defined contemporary business. For years, the mark of a connected, on-the-go successful individual was the little black box attached to their belt that was whipped out to check email, proving to all that said person was, well, a connected, on-the-go successful individual.

Then came the iPhone and Android and all phones smart and flat. And in the technological blink of an eye (or "i" if you prefer), Blackberry went from owning half the market to commanding less than 10%. All this makes them a candidate for what The New York Times calls "The Hall of Fallen Giants." There they are lining up to join such once king-of-the-hills as the Sony Walkman, the Polaroid Instant Camera and the Palm Pilot, every one of which I have in a drawer somewhere in my office.

However, my simpatico feelings for Blackberry don't come because I owned one and tossed it aside for shinier trinkets. In truth, those ubiquitous boxes were one technology I never flirted with, unlike, say, pagers. (Should I be asked, I can produce several models of that indispensable device in various sizes and flavors, all of which are useful today for absolutely nothing.) Rather, while I was never a giant like any of the aforementioned objects, there are any number of skills I used to pride myself on which are so obsolete now as to be considered useless at worst and quaint at best.

Any parent has had this revelation. Just when you figure out the best way to shampoo their hair without getting it in their eyes, or get the knack for paper mache, or get really, really good at Jenga, it's no longer necessary. There you sit on the floor with your blocks, looking for a 5-year-old to crush and there's none to be had. Oh well. Back you go to your books and your Time magazine and your PBS, nostalgic for a mastery which will never be tapped again, and wondering if it would be weird to have a dinner party and at some point in the evening challenge all comers to a game of Clue.

In the vein, there are (or more to the point, were) numerous adult competencies which I was good at, dammit, which are laughable now. I was very good at figuring out to squeeze the maximum amount of music onto a cassette tape. I was great at changing the ribbon on a typewriter. And when it came to being able to read a map and figure out how to get from point A to point B, no one was better. You remember maps, right? They're what existed before GPS turned us all into zombie drivers: "Turn left in 200 feet. Bing! Turn left now."

It's the same thing professionally. There's barely a piece of equipment that I learned on that's not more suitable today as a museum relic, or more likely, a boat anchor. Now a 13-year-old with an iPhone and a computer sitting in her bedroom has more capabilities than I did when I was one of four geeky guys sitting in a room with enough gear and blinking lights to make the casual observer think they were visiting NASA.

It was driven home the other day when we were setting up a job. Someone of a similarly advanced age was reminiscing on a break. He looked at me and said, "Boy, I remember the days when you were the go-to-guy for DOS!" That's DOS, as in Disk Operating System, one of the first personal computer languages. Did you hear that? I was the GO-TO-GUY! And today? Well, I'm still the go-to-guy for DOS. Unfortunately, that system hasn't been used since 1995. Or to paraphrase an old friend, I'm the expert of today fulfilling the needs of 10 years ago.

So, Blackberry, I know how you feel. Then again, maybe it's not too late. Many a company, person or product has been given up for dead, only to squeeze out new life which catapulted them back to success. The current deification of Steve Jobs and Apple is perhaps the most prominent example, but there are others. How about Detroit, Old Spice or Hawaii Five-O? A trio of things that under no other scenario could appear in the same sentence, all had good runs and saw their fortunes fade, only to reemerge. So it is possible. I just keep saying to myself two words, over and over: Betty White.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is getting to the point where he has forgotten more than he remembers. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Just Walkin'

Walking is what my wife asks me to do on a Sunday afternoon. If it's a quiet day AND if all the things we have to do have been done AND if it's reasonably nice out, we'll go for a walk. An hour or two later we're back home and on to our next activity.

Matt Green is a bit more focused. At the moment he's about a month or so into his current walking project. I say "project" because Matt's walks are to our Sunday's jaunts as an aircraft carrier is to a dingy. There was his first big one, a 150-mile tour of New York City in five days in 2007. Then there was his coast-to-coast stroll from Rockaway Beach, New York to Rockaway Beach, Oregon in 2010. And then there's this one

Matt's currently embarked on a quest to walk every public street in New York City, excluding expressways and highways. With something north of 6000 miles of roadway, he figures that when you add in bridges, pathways and doublebacks, he'll log somewhere around 7500 miles. "Walking five or six days a week, while also allotting myself a nice stingy American number of vacation and sick days," he expects it will take him about two years to complete his journey.

He accepts donations to support his project, and is staying with friends "old and new." Should he run out of money, he's ready to shelve his journey, work to make some cash, and then pick up where he left off. His routing is somewhat random: "Each day I will simply walk somewhere I haven't yet been. As my map begins to fill in, my options will become narrower and narrower until, finally, there are no streets left unwalked. At that point I will probably drink some beer and sit down for a while."

While Matt has always liked to walk, he didn't always do it full time. He had a real job as an NYC civil engineer, restricting his walking to off hours. "Moving through the world at three miles an hour, you can fully take in your surroundings. There's nothing separating you from your environment." He assumed others might feel the same way, and so he began to organize walking tours, like "The Bridges of New York County" or "The Solstice Walk." And then something clicked, and he came up with his idea to amble across the country.

He views his New York City exploration as a nice counterpoint to his USA journey: "Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I'm going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place." I asked him what he does in those minutes. "When I walk, I just walk. The idea of trying to come up with something else to do seems silly to me. If walking isn't engaging enough by itself, then why bother doing it for thousands of miles? I try to stay focused on the present moment, which means keeping not just my eyes open, but my ears (and nose, I suppose) as well."

And the why? "Articulating the goal of this walk is a work in progress. I'm careful not to try to sum it up in something neat and tidy, because I don't think human motivations are ever that simple." He says that, sure, he wants to get to know the city better, and learn it on a level that no tour can give you. Beyond that, "it gives you a sense of ownership, and makes you an active participant, when you start learning about things because you've discovered them, and not just because someone told you about them."

But the part of his explanation I like best involves an experience he had in Moorhead, Minnesota. There he came across a museum that had a handmade replica of a twelfth-century Norwegian church. The guy who built it happened to be there, and someone asked him why he did it. His response? "I don't know." Said Matt, "It was really inspiring to me to hear that. Instead of coming up with some story that fits the human desire for a moving narrative, he just told the truth: there's something deep and hidden in these pursuits that drives you in an intense way, but can't be easily converted into words."

And so Matt walks. Today it's Brooklyn, or maybe Queens. All he knows is that tomorrow he'll pick another street, and as he says, "eventually walk by the home of every person who lives in the city." No real reason needed, none given. Or as the title of his blog so succinctly sums it up, "I'm Just Walkin'."


Marc Wollin of Bedford promised to join Matt on his journey for a day. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at