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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 1, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Cookies, Blanket, Sweetwater, Birth, Brainiac, Restaurants

Better get over to Fresh Market while they're still in the point-of-sale display at the cash registers: Absolutely fantastic shortbread cookies -- butter, chocolate chip, pecan, as well as shortbread fingers in minipacks -- from Dean's. (Not the American conglomerate Dean's Foods, but a Scottish company, Dean's of Huntly, Ltd.) These cookies crumble just right. I have simply never had better shortbread in my life.

And since the shortbread does have a bit of hydrogenated and trans fat, you can feel good about yourself again by buying (at the same point-of-sale display) Back to Nature brand Mini Chocolate Chunk cookies. Every bit as munchingly good as mini Chips Ahoy -- but zero trans fat, no hydrogenated oils, no artificial anything. And they're delicious. Which proves you don't have to have that nasty stuff in cookies to make them good.

Except maybe the shortbread.

*

We realized that maybe one reason one of the people who sleeps in my bed had to put an extra blanket over her feet was because, just maybe, our electric blanket, which was fifteen years old, wasn't actually working on her side anymore.

So we went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond and picked up a lovely cream-colored Sunbeam electric blanket. I like the fact that it's all cotton -- I can't stand the touch of wool or polyester. Somebody else really likes the nifty preheat function that lets her get into a bed that is actually warmer than a normal person's body temperature -- which means way warmer than her feet. We both like the way its thermostat keeps it from being too hot at night, and how it turns itself off after ten hours.

Maybe all electric blankets have these features now. This is the one we bought. It has them. We like it.

*

I listened to Dana Ivey read Sweetwater Creek, by Anne Rivers Siddons, on cd, and fell in love with her voice. But I think even if you read the book in print, silently, to yourself, you'll still hear the music in it. It's the story of a girl, Emily Parmenter -- eleven years old, I think, when the story begins -- whose mother left the family when she was little, and who adored her older brother, who was dying of a progressive disease that put him in a wheelchair.

Emily's life centers around the Boykin spaniels that her father raises. Nobody has quite admitted yet that Emily is actually the best trainer in the family. She has a connection with the dogs, as if she were speaking to them mind to mind, and her life with the pups is a happy one. Unfortunately, her father has in mind a very different plan -- to try to get her into the upper crust of Charleston, South Carolina, society, something that terrifies Emily.

Into their life comes Lulu Foxworth, recovering from an "illness" but really searching for a sanctuary from her controlling mother and other problems that she can't control. Lulu seems at first to be the kind of "free spirit" that populates stories like Breakfast at Tiffany's -- and frankly, I don't like them. "Free spirits" are usually narcissistic parasites. But Lulu turns out to be something different.

This book may star a preteen, but this book is not for readers that young. It is an adult novel -- but a beautiful one. I kept dreading that Siddons would make any of a half dozen cheap choices that could have marred this book. Instead, she walked that delicate line between cloying sentimentality and brutal reader-abuse, with the result that this book stayed with me for days after I finished it.

*

Tina Cassidy has written a remarkable book entitled, simply, Birth. It is a well-researched compilation of the science and history of how we humans have gone about giving birth. And I say "we" because men have had their paws in this process for a good long while. Some of the medical practices of the past will sicken and appal you -- though it's good to remember that most of them were well-intentioned and some of them, though cruel, did save lives.

The problem with human birth is that we have evolved these enormous brains. Then we put them in very hard skulls. Then we try to push those skulls, and the brains they contain, through the narrow passage between the pelvic bones.

Nature has tried to help. We are all born very prematurely -- like baby possums and kangaroos, we're born so immature that half our brain growth takes place outside the mother's body. That's why calves and colts can lurch to their feet and trot after mommy only a little bit after birth, while human babies have to be pushed in strollers until they're old enough to climb out of them and steal things from store shelves.

But the truth is, a lot of women have babies that simply won't fit. And when that happens, nature's simple answer is for both of them to die. That way, narrow-pelvised, big-headed women don't reproduce so much.

Medical science has finally, after centuries of trying, actually gotten to the point where they can help. Some think maybe they help too much. But the bottom line is: Almost all women in first-world countries live through delivery, and so do almost all babies, and that's a really, really big improvement.

But make up your own mind. Cassidy lays it all out for you, in more detail than some will be happy to read. She doesn't actually have an axe to grind. Basically, her attitude seems to be that birth sucks, no matter how it's done. That even-handed distaste for it all permeates the book but it's not as if it's going to stop people from making, and having, babies. Meanwhile, it sure makes you feel glad to be alive today.

*

How does a Jeopardy! champion support himself after winning way more than a million bucks (which doesn't go as far as it used to), especially when he didn't really like his former job as a computer programmer and didn't think he was particularly good at it, either?

Answer: He looks at soft, easy, cushy careers like mine, where people like me have so much leisure we can write weekly columns for which we don't even get paid except in smiles from an astonishingly charming editorial staff, and thinks: If idiots who can't even win at Jeopardy! make a living by typing stuff on a computer, so can I!

And guess what? Ken Jennings was right.

You remember Ken Jennings, right? He was the sweet, mild-mannered blond guy from Utah who kept winning and winning and winning and winning on Jeopardy last year. He's very candid about why that happened. In his new book, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs, he points out that what really trips up first-time players is the timing on the buzzer -- you can't ring in until Alex Trebek finishes talking -- and the fact that they're so nervous they can hardly think straight.

Well, after you've won a few times, you start to get the timing down perfectly, and you aren't so nervous anymore. Which gives you an enormous homefield advantage. Jennings modestly says that any number of undefeated champions might have done every bit as well as he did, if they hadn't been blocked by the rule that limited them to five victories.

And you'll be amused to know that after the summer hiatus, when Jennings came back to continue his winning streak, he found that the producers were quite aware of those advantages. They started giving the new contestants a lot more time to practice the game beforehand, so they were less nervous. Plus, they randomized the timing just a teensy bit more, so that you couldn't get into a rhythm and always control the board.

Here's the cool thing: Jennings's book mostly isn't about Jeopardy!, or even about himself (though enough of it is to keep his fans happy). What Brainiac is about is all the different subcultures in America that thrive on trivia. He deals with college bowl, quiz shows, the game Trivial Pursuit, a strange town in Wisconsin that holds an obsessive annual trivia contest run by a radio station, and all kinds of other arcana that are absolutely fascinating to people who like trivia and didn't realize there were so many others like them.

I already read and reviewed Bob Harris's delightful book Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! and if Jennings had written basically the same book, it would have been pointless. Jennings won more often ... but he also had a safer and saner life during the process. Which would have made a more boring book.

Instead, Jennings gets to use his wry wit and only-just-a-little-cynical viewpoint to give us a sympathetic yet realistic view of the dweebish underbelly of the American intelligentsia. These are really, really smart people who, instead of learning the vocabulary of Derrida or string theory, have tried to collect really interesting bits of useless information until their heads are full.

And there is a clear distinction, in the trivia community, between trivia, which is cool stuff, and minutiae, which is stuff that nobody should have to know unless they work with it for a living. If you know the names of all the vice-presidents of the United States, that's trivia. (Actually, so was being the vice-president, until lately.) If you know the maiden names of all the wives of the vice-presidents, that's moving toward minutiae. If you know how many steps it takes a six-foot tall person to walk from the front door of the Blair House to the front door of the White House, that's obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I found the content of Brainiac to be fascinating and entertaining. Even more importantly, I found Jennings himself to have a wonderful voice as a writer. A book about trivia was an obvious topic for him. But I want to read that same voice on a lot of other subjects. Jennings is good company. If he embarked on a Blue Highways or Bill Bryson-ish career of just going around and writing about stuff, I'd go along for the ride.

Well, no, but I'd buy the book, which is what I really meant. So when the million or so bucks run out, Mr. Jennings, do what I do when the checks start bouncing. Call a publisher and see if they want you to write something and if maybe they'll send you a check in advance.

Then you actually have to write the book, but hey, real life isn't a game show.

*

The most dangerous intersection in Greensboro may very well be the place where Cone crosses over Lawndale. It's an overpass, which is supposed to make it safe. But the ramps down from Cone to get onto Lawndale have no light and no merge lane, but they're angled so that your rear view mirror tells you nothing about oncoming traffic, and yet to turn your head requires almost contortionist-level flexibility. And that's just the cars.

Because the real danger is up on Cone Boulevard. There, the cars have traffic lights to help them get from the ramp into traffic. But on either side of Cone, there are large apartment complexes. So hundreds of people live there, and some of them need to cross the street. But there's no crosswalk, the sidewalks are mere fragments and go nowhere, and the lights offer no Walk/Don't Walk information.

The result is that on a recent afternoon, with heavy traffic, I saw people dodging through cars stopped at the lights on one side, then waiting on a narrow traffic island for a break in the traffic that was steadily moving on the other. There were a mother and a toddler, a husband and wife, two teenage boys, one middle-aged man alone, and two girlfriends apparently coming home from school, all moving along and across the streets.

Can't somebody in the department that decides about traffic flow please notice that sometimes people actually walk, using their feet, and it would be nice if they didn't have to play russian roulette with the traffic in order to do it?

*

Bob Newhart is about the most low-key guy ever to have had two smash hit television series. Now his book I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This! offers an amusing, likeable memoir of a life that wasn't really full of turmoil, but in which a lot of people said and did some pretty funny stuff. Will you fall on the floor laughing? No -- but that's a good thing, if you read in bed the way I do. Newhart is a likeable guy, and this is a likeable book. And you know what? His sense of humor kind of reminds me of my Dad's -- which is why my father is going to get this book for Christmas.

And don't worry about spoiling the surprise. This year I decided that instead of saving up my Christmas gifts to my parents and giving them all to them on Christmas, I'd just pack 'em up and send them as soon as I buy them, so they can be enjoying them during the months leading up to Christmas. I'm not going to do that every year. I just felt like it this time. So Dad already knows he's getting the book for Christmas, because he's already got it.

*

A couple of good chain restaurants have opened in Greensboro lately. One is Wholly Guacamole, which is located out Battleground near Laddie and Duke's. My wife and daughter have the custom of going out to dinner between karate class and a Wednesday night church meeting -- and since last year I was gone every Wednesday night, teaching at SVU in Buena Vista, they never included me. This last week, though, I was home and they invited me along.

I got to Wholly Guacamole before them -- right during rush hour on Battleground, which you know is the worst commute in Greensboro. I was immediately shown to a table and given chips and salsa, which were quite good. I ordered their guacamole. But I had to specify. Did I mean a wholly guacamole or just guacamole dip?

Here's a clue: They're both very good. The dip is pureed, no lumps, but it tastes great. The wholly guacamole is fresh avocado mixed with pico de gallo, with less avocado than we include in the guac we make at home, but still very, very good. Since guacamole is in the name of the restaurant, it better be good -- and it is.

But so was everything else. My daughter's enchilada burrito and my wife's quesadilla made them happy -- and I found the carnitas to be cooked perfectly. They give you the option of black beans (i.e., beans with flavor) and when we asked them not to put any sour cream on anything, they listened and remembered! (This is unusual in Mexican restaurants.) The service was swift, cheerful, and accurate, and we were out, fully satisfied, in half an hour -- nobody was late to anything.

National Mexican-food chains usually leave me cold. Chi-chi's, in fact, invariably left me ill. But Wholly Guacamole is a giant step above. More on the level of El Torito, the Other Good Mexican Chain.

The other good chain restaurant is Bravo!, an Italian restaurant in Starmount's new shopping center just west of Friendly Center. The place already gets almost as crowded as P.F. Chang on the weekends -- but because I'm unemployed, we can show up for dinner at 5:00 p.m., and at that hour even on a Friday, there was no waiting. So see? If you quit your job, you don't have trouble getting into restaurants. But then you might have trouble leaving ... it's a quandary, isn't it.

Anyway, the service was great -- maybe because the waiters weren't tired yet? -- and the food was above the quality of normal Italian chains. The appetizer ravioli had toasted cheese on it, so there was crunchiness in every bite with a delicious cream sauce and a streak of pesto. Our daughter, who sometimes looks at both the kids' menu and the regular one, rates this kids' menu the best she's ever seen -- and she really liked her lasagna.

My wife had tilapia, a fish that is usually rather flavorless in most restaurants. So she was pleasantly surprised that the tilapia with crab was flavorful, done through (she loathes semi-raw and raw fish), and accompanied by vegetables that had been cooked in a delicious oil. I had the parmesan-crusted chicken salad, and it was very good. Maybe a bit too much dressing on the salad, but it was good dressing.

I know it's not a race, but when you dine that early, things move quickly in the kitchen because nothing's backed up yet. So we arrived at five o'clock, and were out the door by a quarter to six, having had a leisurely, delicious meal.

Of course, the danger with a chain opening up is that everybody will go try it while the stalwart local restaurants with the same general cuisine find themselves lacking in customers. That's why we make it a point, even as we find new restaurants, to keep going back to the great local ones. When we're in the mood for Italian, we'll definitely think of Bravo! -- but we'll also think of Positano's heavenly comfort food and Café Pasta's inventive yet reliably excellent cuisine. Bravo! is a chain -- a good one -- but that means it won't aspire to go above a certain level; Positano and Café Pasta aim beyond that level on many of their dishes, and achieve it.

When it comes to restaurants, monogamy is bad, polygamy is good. When customers stop coming, even for a few months, restaurants live on such a thin profit margin that they can go out of business before you remember to come back. Too late then!

*

We have four identical lighting fixtures in our country kitchen that we love. They are suspended just the right amount from the ceiling that they don't overheat with 75-watt bulbs in them, and they cast direct light while lots of indirect light bounces off the ceiling.

But one of the fixtures had a teeny little electrical problem and stopped working. Obvious solution: Replace the fixture.

Obvious problem: The company that made them discontinued the model. (They always discontinue the one we love most. Companies do it with our silverware and dish patterns all the time. While the ones we hate continue to show up in their catalogues for decades.)

So now, what can you do but replace all four fixtures with a kind you like less? Or do you replace the one and have them not match?

Better solution: Terry Draper's Lighting Repair. They repair lighting fixtures and repair and clean chandeliers.

They came when they said they would. The made our beloved ceiling lamp work again. Our kitchen was saved. Their phone number is 274-2241. Clip it and magnet it to the fridge. Even if you don't need them now, you will someday.


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