Thursday, November 28, 2013

Just to Say Thanks

On this day we gather to give thanks. I'm actually reminded of an old column by William F. Buckley, Jr. Completely devoid of political content, Buckley gives thanks to the uniquely American invention of peanut butter.  Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Reprinted here from National Review:

Just to Say Thanks
By William F. Buckley Jr.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This ran as William F. Buckley Jr.'s March 26, 1981, "On the Right" column in National Review.

For many years I have labored under the burden of an unrequited passion. What have I done for it, in return for all it has done for me? Nothing. But I have wondered what I could use as what the journalists call a "peg."

I have found one. This may strike some of the literal-minded as attenuated, but it goes as follows: This is the centennial year of the Tuskegee Institute, which was founded on the Fourth of July, 1881, by Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee continues to be a remarkable institution, and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the head of a committee of illustrious men and women who are devoting themselves to raising $20 million to encourage it in its noble work.

What noble work? We have arrived at step two. It was, among other things, the principal academic home of George Washington Carver, and it was G. W. Carver who to all intents and purposes invented the peanut. What he did, more specifically, was document that the cultivation of the peanut despoiled the land far less than the cultivation of cotton, and then he set out to merchandise the peanut in order that there might be a market for it.

He discovered an estimated three hundred uses for it, many of them entirely removed from the peanut's food value. But it is this, of course, that is the wonder of the peanut. The Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that "pound for pound peanuts have more protein, minerals, and vitamins than beef liver, more fat than heavy cream, and more food energy (calories) than sugar." And George Washington Carver discovered — peanut butter.

I have never composed poetry, but if I did, my very first couplet would be:

I know that I shall never see
A poem lovely as Skippy's peanut butter.

When I was first married and made plain to my wife that I expected peanut butter for breakfast every day of my life, including Ash Wednesday, she thought me quite mad (for the wrong reasons). She has not come round, really, and this is a source of great sadness to me because one wants to share one's pleasures.
I was hardened very young to the skeptics. When I was twelve I was packed off to a British boarding school by my father, who dispatched every fortnight a survival package comprising a case of grapefruit and a large jar of peanut butter. I offered to share my tuck with the other boys at my table. They grabbed instinctively for the grapefruit — but one after another actually spit out the peanut butter, which they had never before seen and which only that very year (1938) had become available for sale in London. No wonder they needed American help to win the war.

You can find it now in specialty shops in Europe, but I have yet to see it in anyone's home. And it is outrageously difficult to get even in the typical American hotel. My profession requires me to spend forty or fifty nights on the road every year, and when it comes time to order breakfast over the telephone I summon my resolution — it helps to think about peanut butter when you need moral strength — and add, after the orange juice, coffee, skim milk, and whole-wheat toast, "Do you have any peanut butter?"

Sometimes the room service operator will actually break out laughing when the request is put in, at which point my voice becomes stern and unsmiling. Often the operator will say, "Just a minute," and then she will turn, I suppose to the chef, but I can hear right through the hand she has put over the receiver — "Hey Jack. We got any peanut butter? Room 322 wants some peanut butter!" This furtive philistinism is then regularly followed by giggles all around. One lady recently asked, "How old is your little boy and does he want a peanut butter sandwich? To which I replied, "My little boy is twenty-eight and is never without peanut butter, because he phones ahead before he confirms hotel reservations."

I introduced Auberon Waugh to cashew butter ten years ago when he first visited America, and although I think it inferior to peanut butter Auberon was quite simply overwhelmed. You can't find it in Great Britain so I sent him a case from the Farmer's Market. It quite changed his writing style: for about ten months he was at peace with the world. I think that was the time he said something pleasant about Harold Wilson. In the eleventh month, it was easy to tell that he had run out. It quite changes your disposition and your view of the world if you cannot have peanut butter every day.

So here is yet another reason for contributing money to the Tuskegee Institute. For all we know, but for it we'd never have tasted peanut butter. There'd be no Planter's, no Jif, no Peter Pan — that terrible thought reminds us of our indebtedness to George Washington Carver.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

MST3K Friday: Turkey Day

Good news, everyone! The annual celebration of MST3K known as "Turkey Day" has returned. From 1991 to 1997, Comedy Central would show MST3K marathons every Thanksgiving. Each year, Joel (or Mike) and the 'bots would have goofy host segments as bumpers between the shows. This year the marathon is online at and fans are encouraged to tweet Joel with suggestions of which movies should be streamed.

To get you ready for some Sampo-related goodness, here's a sampling of Turkey Day bumper segments from 1991.

"We gather together to watch cheesy movies"

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Black Money by, Ross Macdonald

Lew Archer is hired by a rich young man to investigate a French nobleman who stole the man's fiance. Archer finds out the Frenchman is not entirely what he seems and discovers a surprising connection to a seven year old suicide.  Soon the lies and the bodies both start to pile up.

Going into an Archer novel, you kind of know what you're going to get: rich people with secrets they try to keep buried, not to mention some of the tightest similes in all of fiction.  Here's one such example:

"He lived in the adjoining harbor city, in a rather rundown tract whose one obvious advantage was a view of the ocean. The sun, heavy and red, was almost down on the horizon now. Its image floated like spilled fire on the water."

In addition to the usual family business, Black Money also involves a Las Vegas casino. It turns out one of our suspects might have been skimming from the mob.

I love a good Ross Macdonald. Even with a lot of the same elements in play, he always finds ways to surprise you. Of course you know the suicide was actually a murder, but I wasn't able to figure out who and why before Archer did.  That's the sign of a good mystery.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Song of the Week: Little Green Bag

This song has been in and out of my head for the last two weeks.  I blame the new Moto X commercial. Of course, every time I hear this I think of Reservoir Dogs.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My Life According to Books: 2013

While looking through some old blog posts, I saw a fun one "My Life as Books: 2011".  I'm a little behind the times, but it looks like Jen and Pop Culture Nerd are at it again.  Here is my life in Books 2013:

My to-do list looks like: Dead Letters (Chris F. Holm)

If a peeping Tom peeked into my bedroom, he'd: (be) Sleepless (Charlie Huston)

If Martians meet me, they'd think: Point and Shoot (Duane Swierczynski)

My doctor is always telling me: Rework

The weirdest thing that happened this past week: (was when I was) Riding the Rap (Elmore Leonard)

I often daydream about: John Adams (David McCullough)

The government shutdown makes me: The Forgotten Man (Robert Crais)

If I win the lottery, I’d: (worry it was) Black Money (Ross Macdonald)

My superpower is: Righteous Indignation (Andrew Breitbart)

I knew I was a book lover when: (the clock struck) The Gentlemen's Hour (Don Winslow)

My blogging experience has been: The Unmaking of a Mayor (William F. Buckley, Jr)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel comes out on Blu-Ray and DVD today. I enjoyed it, but I think I need another viewing to decide whether or not I like it.  I have some issues with some relatively flat character arcs, but there is a lot about the movie that feels right. There is a hell of a lot of destruction, which is what you'd expect from a movie where a person as powerful as Superman fights someone as powerful as himself.

What is most striking about this movie is the lens through which it views Superman. Rather than a superhero movie like Batman or Spiderman or Green Lantern, Man of Steel is told as an alien invasion movie. What would we do if we found out an alien with God-like powers lived among us? Would we accept him? Would we be scared of him? Even after General Zod (Michael Shannon) demands Superman's surrender, the government is skeptical on Superman's motives.  Keeping with this spin on it, the character is mostly referred to as Clark or Kal-El and only called Superman twice.

While I said there was a problem with some of the arcs, the character of Lois is pretty good. She is shown as the real investigate reporter she is and not just a damsel for Superman to save. She traces tall tales of a mysterious stranger saving people back to Clark Kent in Kansas. In fact, it's her discovering of a superhero in our midst that serves has her introduction to Clark. He doesn't become a reporter for the Daily Planet until after he has saved the world.

If you haven't seen it, you should. I'll be watching it again.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Song of the Week: Seasons

Chris Cornell's song "Seasons" was featured in Man of Steel (2013).  I picked it out as Cornell's voice right away and think it's a great song.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Unmaking of a Mayor, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

The Unmaking of a Mayor is the story of the unique campaign of William F. Buckley, Jr. for New York City Mayor in 1965. At this point in his life, the 39-year-old Buckley had founded National Review, published six books (including God and Man at Yale), had a syndicated column in hundreds of newspapers across the country, run the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement, and had energized the conservative wing of the Republican party to a point that it nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. With this long list of accomplishments, why would he run for mayor? That's one of the questions this book answers.

In the mid-1960's, many people thought New York City was ungovernable, broken, and on an unreversible course of decline. Many of the city's problems will sound familiar with those of us who remember the period before Rudy Giuliani's election in 1993. Buckley opens the book with an account of the political system of New York, with its intricate third party laws, and follows on with a history of the previous 30 years of governance. Then he delves into what John V. Lindsay, the liberal congressman and presumptive GOP nominee, and Bill Buckley were doing in the spring of 1965.

It is customary to call any third party candidate "unserious" because they have no legitimate shot of winning and they typically have a few kook positions.  Buckley was under no illusions of his chance at winning. In a famous exchange from the campaign, a reporter asked him what would be the first thing he'd do if he was elected. Buckley quipped, "Demand a recount."  But reading his position papers, reprinted in total with reactions from the press and the other candidates, shows he really thought through the problems facing New York.

You don't have to agree with all of his proposals, but the position papers were a very compelling and thought-provoking part of the book to read. The typical politician's position papers are vague, gauzy pieces of fluff that aren't worth the paper they're printed on.  Candidate Smith promises to balance the budget by eliminating waste and closing loopholes. But Buckley's papers actually offered concrete solutions.  Bad Traffic? Reserve one lane in the Holland and Lincoln tunnels for buses. Allow delivery trucks to only park on odd-numbered streets on Mondays and Wednesdays and even-numbered streets on Tuesdays and Fridays. Pollution?  Convert city buses to liquefied petroleum gas. Add control devices to city vehicles to reduce emissions. Modernize municipal incinerators.

But the position papers also reveal some of the oddities associated with third party candidates. Buckley's traffic proposal included a Bikeway to travel above Second Avenue from 125th Street to 1st Street. His proposal for the drug problem included moving addicts to special housing so they don't get others addicted to narcotics. His affordable housing platform had something similar.  Of course, twenty years after World War II, his opponents pounced on these relocation ideas as "concentration camps".

So why did Buckley run? Part of it was to counter the leftward lurch of the Republican party under the leadership of Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. Many people were predicting that Lindsay would be the GOP standard bearer in 1968 or 1972 if he became mayor. The other reason was because he saw Lindsay and Abe Beame, the Democratic nominee, as mealy mouthed politicians who would throw bromides at each other and not discuss the things that were actually wrong with New York City.

Unmaking of a Mayor is a bracing, sometimes hilarious, account of the race and the personalities involved. It shows the difference between career politicians and those with something to say about government. Sometimes I wish people would take more risks and speak plainly about the issues as Buckley did. It's well worth the read for anyone interested in political history, New York history, and public policy.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Song of the Week: Let's Fall in Love

This is one of my favorite songs by Diana Krall. Unfortunately, I can't find a link for my favorite version (witch she played during the Smithsonian's Piano Grand! celebration), but this one is a close substitute.

Let's Fall In Love (live) by Diana Krall on Grooveshark

Friday, November 1, 2013

MST3K Friday: Best episodes to watch on Halloween

A while back, Topless Robot put together a list of the best MST3k episodes to watch on Halloween.  Since yesterday was Halloween, I figured this would be a good time to share the list.  I've seen 7 of the 10 and a couple of them are among my favorites. Here's the list, but click-through to TR to read their commentary.

10) Revenge of the Creature
9) Manos: The Hands of Fate
8) The Thing That Wouldn't Die
7) Ring of Terror
6) The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living sand Became Mixed-Up Zombies
5) The Screaming Skull (with a Gumby short "Robot Rumpus")
4) The Unearthly
3) Samson vs the Vampire Women
2) Bride of the Monster
1) Hobgoblins