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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 22, 2006

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


Trick-or-Treat, Candy, Rice Cakes, Echo Park, Casa Vallarta

Parents, will you please help me out with this? I think trick-or-treating is for children who are young enough that you aren't afraid to open your door to them -- you know, short children.

In our family, we have always had the rule that when you turn twelve, your trick-or-treating days are over.

But it's hard to make your twelve-year-old happy with this rule when only one of her friends is bound by a similar restriction.

We also have the family rule that you don't date till you're sixteen, period. But a lot of other parents think that it's just fine for fifteen-, fourteen-, and even thirteen-year-olds to pair up with the opposite sex. (And people wonder why teenagers get pregnant so young.)

In fact, in recent years, we have noticed that more and more children don't stop trick-or-treating until long after they've started dating.

Does anybody else see anything wrong with this picture?

So let's compromise. I'll keep giving candy to your teenagers-who-are-taller-than-I-am, but only if you keep this simple rule: If they're still young enough to trick-or-treat, they're too young to date.

That's not too hard to sell to your children, is it? They have to choose between the two?

That way, either we'll have less teen pregnancy, fewer abortions, less date rape, and way less unwed motherhood -- or, if we can't cut back on that, at least we won't have to give out candy on Halloween to kids who look like Andre the Giant ... but aren't wearing a costume.

*

I hate the movies in October. And the premium channels, too. They all seem to think that the only entertainment that anybody wants to watch in October is wretched, retch-inducing horror movies, just because Halloween happens -- barely -- to fall within this month.

So when your pre-teen is having a Halloween party, and they decide they want to eat popcorn and watch a movie, what's a parent to do? Most of the available horror films are either so scary that they cause psychological damage (and these are the few "good" horror movies) or else they're vile little "teen-horror" flicks that teach the vital life-lesson that if teenagers ever go off alone to make out, they will get killed in gruesome ways and then their bodies will be left on display to make theaters full of other teenagers scream and clutch each other in the dark.

Oh, wait. There are also the horror "comedies," which combine sickening violence with stupid humor. Great -- you inure them to human suffering and you lower their IQ, all with the same DVD.

Thank heaven for the Harry Potter movies. Even though the first two were directed by talent-sinkhole Chris Columbus, they're still watchable because he was forced to be faithful to the books. And the most recent two Harry Potter movies were actually good. They have scary moments, but they tell actual stories and their heroes are decent kids with courage, loyalty, honor, and other virtues.

And because these movies have witches and creatures in them, they are appropriate for Halloween. You can let preteens have a Halloween Party and not have to pay for a therapist for months afterward.

Is there any chance we can give J.K. Rowling a Nobel Peace Prize or something? (No chance she can get a literary award -- regular people actually read her books on purpose.) She has not only turned a generation of children into readers, she has also saved Halloween.

*

Speaking of Halloween, Earth Fare is offering really delicious treat-sized organic chocolates. The brand is (I swear this is true) Endangered Species Chocolate Company, and what they offer is "Halloween Treats: Milk Chocolate in a Fun Pack." Or, for women (since research shows that women are more likely than men to prefer dark chocolate), "Dark Chocolate in a Fun Pack."

I don't know how fun the pack is, but the individual chocolates are downright inspirational.

Just to ease your mind, the chocolates contain no ingredients made from endangered species. Instead, ten percent of the profits from the chocolate support endangered species and habitat recovery. (Does this mean that they are working to get white male Republicans as tenured professors in the English Departments of American Universities? Probably not.)

"Profits" is such a flexible term (at least in Hollywood) that I have no idea how much money actually goes to protecting endangered species. Nor can I vouch for what that protection consists of -- shooting elephants that gore rhinos? (It happens.)

The fact is, after eating the chocolates, they can be protecting New York City pigeons or North Carolina tree squirrels or Hollywood weasels for all I care.

Solely in order to help advise the American public on their Halloween purchasing decisions, I made the sacrifice and taste-tested these chocolates. Soon I was joined by my wife (who often wears a t-shirt that says "Will Sell Husband For Chocolates" and doesn't mean it as a joke) and between us, we have gone through a statistically significant sample of these Halloween-size chocolates.

We report that they are very good. And because the packaging assures us that nothing in them is unhealthy (except, of course, the chocolate and the sugar, but at least they're not known carcinogens), you will know you are actually making young children healthier when you give them out at Halloween.

Well, no. You know perfectly well that because this brand has never been advertised on TV, the kids will put these chocolates in their reject pile as soon as they get home. So I'm really giving them out to the kids' parents, who will finally get something wonderful as they probe through their children's rejected candy.

Or if you want to cut out the middleman and buy them for yourself, then you'd better hurry, before I can get back to Earth Fare to buy them out.

*

As the antidote to a recent binge experiment with chocolate-eating, I have taken to snacking on rice cakes. This is because they are large and bulky, they fill your mouth and take a while to chew up, and when you swallow them they make you feel full. Yet in the process they deliver to your body only 35 calories per rice cake.

This means that if you eat all fourteen (or sixteen) servings in a package, while driving up to, say, Southern Virginia University and back again (2.5 hours each way), you will only have put into your body 490 (or 560) calories. And if that is your entire food intake for the day, except for a glass of Kagome juice and a Wallaby yogurt, you will almost certainly lose weight.

Unfortunately, most people regard rice cakes as being the culinary equivalent of styrofoam. Certainly their nutritional content is not dissimilar.

I don't share their opinion. I think that plain, lightly salted rice cakes are delicious. They taste just like puffed rice, without milk or sugar. And I liked puffed rice without milk or sugar. So I'm happy ... -ish.

OK, so I pawed through the Quaker rice-cake packages in the grocery store, desperately searching for a flavor I could enjoy. And guess what I discovered? The only two flavors of Quaker Rice Cakes that don't have MSG are the lightly salted plain rice cakes, and the salt-free plain rice cakes.

MSG? Oh, thanks a lot, Quaker! Since when did Quakers have anything to do with adding toxins to food?

OK, maybe you don't mind MSG. But MSG gives me hives on my face and fingers. This is less fun than you might think.

Then I went to Earth Fare and found that Koyo Organic Rice Cakes do not have toxins like MSG; nor do Lundberg Organic Rice Cakes. And the Lundbergs come in flavors like "Caramel Corn" and "Brown Rice" and "Wild Rice" and "Cinnamon Toast" and "Honey Nut."

I used the students in my playwriting at SVU as my taste-test sample, and we can report that while the Cinnamon Toast Lundbergs were judged to be tolerable-to-moderately-interesting, the Caramel Corn and the Honey Nut were greeted with enthusiasm and rapidly consumed. (I personally polished off the Wild Rice, which crumbles easily but is worth picking up every crumb.)

Of course, the students also showed that the Endangered Species fun pack chocolates were infinitely preferred to rice cakes of any kind. And the Back to Nature Oreo-like Classic Creme cookies disappeared like children at chore time.

But this is planet Earth, so I doubt that anyone will be surprised by that. If God meant us to be able to eat our cake and look good too, he would have made chocolates and cookies have no calories and rice cakes cause tooth decay and weight gain.

*

Mystery writer Michael Connelly began his career as a newspaper reporter in Florida and California, working the police beat. Before he wrote any of his Harry Bosch detective novels, he did in-depth stories on crime and on the police who try to solve them.

Some of those early features and crime stories have been assembled into the book Crime Beat. It's interesting on several levels.

First, if you're a fan of Connelly's (and I am), it's fascinating to see how much life he is able to bring into newswriting. He follows the dicta of journalism, so it sounds like news is supposed to sound -- yet he is able to draw us to piercing perceptions, so that his work stands out from the pack, not because we're aware of style (he's no exhibitionist), but because we feel like we're getting The Truth.

Second, the crime and police stories themselves are compelling. Connelly has been close to both the darkest and brightest side of human nature -- thrill and serial killers, and the police whose courage and hard work protect us.

It's a good book, if you can bear dwelling on true crime stories that long. But if you buy it on CD, as I did, be warned: While the readers are excellent, the news stories were not edited for this book. Therefore when you read an account of a crime and then the follow-up stories, all the pertinent details are repeated each time. This is good newspaper work -- but lousy book writing, since you have to listen to the same thing two or three times in succession. I still listened to it all the way through, but not without impatience.

Soon after I heard Crime Beat, Connelly came out with his newest Harry Bosch novel, and even though the whole series has been brilliant, I believe Echo Park just might be the best.

Of course, in this case it helps that I was able to hear it read by Len Cariou. You might remember Cariou if you saw his face -- he had a recurring character (Michael Hagarty) on Murder, She Wrote, and has played character parts in dozens of TV shows and movies. Never a star. But his reading of this book shows him to be an extraordinarily versatile voice actor. It's easy to forget that it's only one guy reading the book.

It's not just that he does voices, though. Or even that he does the exactly right voice for each character. It's that he acts every part to perfection, understanding the exact nuance of meaning in every single line.

As a novelist and stage director, I can tell you how precious and rare that is. Even the best actors seem to have an uncanny knack for finding the wrong reading of a line, the one that makes no sense in the context. But Cariou never, never misses the point. It is, in short, a perfect performance.

Even if you read the book to yourself, though, Echo Park is a great experience. As "literary" writers -- with a handful of exceptions like Anne Tyler and Richard Russo -- become more tediously self-referential and aloof from the reading public, the mystery genre has become the harbor of choice for some of the finest writers working in English today. And Michael Connelly is emerging as one of the very best of them.

This is invisible writing -- the author lets his characters' voices speak rather than intruding and showing off how talented he is. Instead we get the textures of intersecting cultures -- the police, the FBI, the civilians of Los Angeles -- and intersecting lives -- two men who both grew up in the foster care system of L.A. and took wildly different turns in their lives; a man and two women who have all given their careers to law enforcement, each making frightening discovers about themselves and each other.

And at an even deeper level, this book is about justice -- what it is, what it means -- and about self-judging and self-control.

And if you haven't noticed, let me point it out: I haven't told you a single useful piece of information about the story. That was deliberate. There is truly nothing I could say that would not run the risk of giving away one of the many surprises and twists and turns of this novel. The story is dark yet filled with glimmers of light. Trust me on this -- if you enjoy mysteries or detective fiction at all, or if you merely appreciate superb writing and rich characterization, then Echo Park is an excellent choice.

You don't have to have read any of the earlier Harry Bosch novels. This novel refers back to previous events, but tells you everything you need to know about them in order to understand the current story. If you've never read Connelly, this is an excellent place to start.

*

As you might suppose, I got a lot of mail after my essays on homework. Most of it was supportive. Home schoolers wrote in to gloat, of course ("My kids don't have any homework; we finish up the day's schooling by one p.m. and the rest of the day is free reading, sports, chores, and play; and they do great on all the standardized tests").

Many parents wrote in relief ("I thought I was the only one who hated how much homework my kids do") and some were determined to take action ("I should be in charge of what my kids do at home, so I'm going to talk to the teachers").

Quite a few teachers wrote in agreement -- or surprise ("I never questioned giving homework till I saw how much my own kids had to do"; "I realized I was giving out homework just because it was expected").

To my disappointment, there were also fiery letters accusing me of wanting to make America's kids dumber, of "letting up on them," informing me that kids today are lazy and stupid and the last thing they need is to be given more time to play.

All these negative letters shared one attribute in common: They sounded like the writers were really, really angry at kids. I guess I just don't understand that attitude. I like kids. I work with lots of kids of many ages and I see them work hard and take responsibility and treat each other kindly and thoughtfully. I see other behaviors, too -- but I remind myself that they're kids and they're still under construction and still finding out who they intend to be.

And they'll never find out if they don't have any free time in which to explore the possibilities of life. There's plenty of time to work and slave when you're an adult. Why grind them down at such an early age that they never experience the possibilities of freedom at all?

Still: After all my complaining about bad and useless homework, I have to tell you about a homework assignment that our family absolutely loved.

Our seventh-grade daughter's social studies teacher gave her the assignment of writing personal and family history. There was a sheet of paper giving her various tasks to perform. She needed to locate on a world map all the countries where close relatives lived or ancestors had come from; then, on a U.S. map, states where relatives lived.

But it went deeper. She was to find out funny or fascinating positive stories about family members and ancestors. Learn about the meaning of her own name and why she was given it. Write down her own hobbies and current interests.

The assignment included creating a scrapbook with pictures. She was also asked to describe any family heirlooms. In our daughter's case, she has a pillowcase hand painted by the great great grandmother she was named for, and a swatch of hair from a great grandfather.

We devoted last Monday night to talking about that homework assignment. We enumerated all the countries where any family members she actually knew had ever lived. Her mother had lived for a semester in Paris; I had my two years in Brazil; and thanks to a peripatetic uncle, she has cousins that have lived in New Zealand, Korea, and the United Arab Emirates.

Here's why this is such a great homework assignment.

First, it really could not be done in the classroom.

Second, this is history at its roots -- going to the original sources to get firsthand information. She is doing what all history is based on -- recording what people say and think and know while they're still alive to tell her, looking at original documents, tracing stories backward in time, making connections between the events of one era and what followed later. When she's done with this project, she will know what historians do and how history is made.

She is also learning how large events -- the Great Depression, the world wars, the former Mormon practice of polygamy -- affected her own ancestors, so that she can be aware of how the great events of today -- which will be the history of tomorrow -- are, or might soon be, affecting her.

The family discussion we had was wonderful. She was excited by it. She has plunged into the assignment with vigor and interest. When it's done, she'll have something worth keeping and consulting and someday showing to her own children.

How many homework assignments is that true of?

*

After I reviewed Wholly Guacamole, it seemed only fair to stop in and try out Casa Vallarta, a Mexican restaurant almost directly across Battleground at 3915 (telephone 336-282-7070).

These two Mexican restaurants are quite different -- yet both are worth visiting.

Wholly Guacamole is a chain -- a good one, with high standards. It has that polished feeling that you get when you walk into a first-rate national chain restaurant -- everybody is well-trained, they have standards to meet, it feels professional. And the food is quite good, with signature dishes worth coming back for, and presentation on the plate that has been designed and standardized.

Casa Vallarta is not a chain. It feels like a family-owned business. All the waiters and hosts speak Spanish to each other. The service is friendly and prompt, but casual and homey. The presentation is natural and unpretentious. The restaurant is clean but was not designed and laid out by professionals, and not furnished with as large a budget.

Bottom line: The food is every bit as good.

In fact, both Wholly Guacamole and Casa Vallarta have wonderful dishes you can't get at the other place. My daughter and I are tamale lovers, and Casa Vallarta has good ones, with a delicious meat sauce. Where Wholly Guacamole has no enchiladas (only a burrito served enchilada style), Casa Vallarta has an array of delicious cheese, bean, chicken, and beef enchiladas.

On the other hand, Casa Vallarta has nothing comparable to the signature Wholly Guacamole salad (though their guacamole dips are very similar and both excellent). And when I want carnitas with tortillas, I'll go to Wholly Guacamole.

In short, after mourning the loss of Baja Fresh, we now have the choice of two very good Mexican restaurants within a quarter mile of where our daughter takes karate, so on those Wednesday nights when her schedule is absolutely insane, we can gather as a family at either place and have a good Mexican dinner for little cost and with time to spare.


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