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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 29, 2006

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


Magical Shoes, Cookies, Trees, Slang, Lemmon, Miller, Trojans

So a friend calls up my wife and says, "I wanted to try that shoe store your husband reviewed, but it's out of business."

Unbelievable.

My wife stopped by on her way home from grocery shopping at Harris-Teeter. Where The Village Shoe had been was an empty store. Even the shelves were gone.

There are friends who think that the whole thing was a Twilight Zone experience: The store was in business only long enough to sell my wife and me three magical pairs of shoes. We've tried clicking the heels together in various combinations, rubbing the shoes while making a wish, and sleeping with the shoes under our pillows (comfy), but so far, nothing.

Apparently it was just a store that closed.

I'm always saddened when a business dies.

I have no idea what the story is here -- maybe it's like Baja Fresh, where the Greensboro store was doing good business but the chain as a whole decided to pull out of North Carolina.

Sometimes a sudden closing is because of a personal tragedy -- like when one of my favorite restaurants closed because its owner-chef was dying of cancer.

(It would have been incredibly selfish of me to interfere with his last days and beg him for the recipe to my favorite dish. I'm ashamed I even thought of it. So disrespectful. But when authors die, what I miss is their unwritten books; there's nothing wrong with that, is there? My relationship with the chef was entirely because of his art. When I think of him, I miss him terribly ... but it's because I know I'll never have that glorious parmentier again.)

As for those who immediately assumed that the store closed because I reviewed it -- I thought of that, too. But not the way you think. After we bought our shoes, I found myself with an oversized column for two weeks in a row, and twice I bumped my review of The Village Shoe to a later week.

What if I had run the review two weeks earlier? Might the store then have been flooded with customers in time to make a difference in its fate?

But how could I guess the store was on the brink of closing only a few weeks after it opened?

Usually when a business opens and then dies within a very short time, it's because of undercapitalization.

Somebody thought that he could save up enough money to pay the first month's lease, buy inventory and display shelves and a cash register, and then open up a retail business and make money from the first day.

I've seen so many mom-and-pop retirement businesses die like that.

Maybe that has nothing to do with the Village Shoe. But to any of you who are thinking of opening up a retail store please, please, keep this in mind: You are not ready to open a store until you have enough money in the bank to operate for a full year without any sales at all.

That's right. Enough money to pay all salaries, your lease, your utilities, your advertising, everything, without depending on any income from actual sales. Because whatever sales you make for the first year, all that money needs to be plowed back into inventory -- replacing the stock you sold.

It usually takes a long time, even in a successful store, to get to the point where you are selling enough to cover your operating expenses. And far, far longer to reach the point where you are beginning to amortize your startup costs.

Most retail stores make all their profit during the Christmas season. The rest of the year they run at a loss -- sometimes a steep loss. The Village Shoe didn't survive long enough to reach the Christmas season.

Small-scale retail is not for the faint of heart ... or empty of pocket.

*

But let's get back to the important thing. Shoes.

The Shops at Friendly Center has opened -- the new retail extravaganza just west of the Grande Theater complex. Naturally, because it's my duty as your roving reviewer, I spent a pleasant afternoon -- ok, a freezing windy hour just before picking up our daughter from school -- perambulating the new shopping center and checking out the stores.

It wasn't an ice creamy day and we didn't have a lot of time. But Ben & Jerry's is a known quality. One only has to say the name and even arch-conservatives who loathe Ben & Jerry's politics are there, slurping down ice cream and consoling themselves that even though a portion of their profits goes to supporting loathsome causes, at least Ben & Jerry's corporate headquarters is in Vermont, a safe distance away.

We began our walk by parking in the lot near the new Harris-Teeter hyperstore, which won't be open for a couple of weeks yet, and then walking around the complex in the direction of the parking lot south of the Grande. There we made our first disappointing discovery.

Even though the whole point of a complex of shops like this is pedestrianism, the sidewalk does not extend all the way around the big southeast building of the new center. Just as you turn the corner to go down the east side, you find a brick wall surrounding somebody's dumpsters extending right to the curb.

So pedestrians -- in other words, actual shoppers -- either have to walk all the way around the building to the west, or cross the street where there is no crosswalk, or step into the street where cars will presumably be zipping along. This will be even more hazardous for people pushing strollers -- and for people burdened with large numbers of shopping bags.

The stupidity of this is mind-numbing. Have the developers no lawyers, to warn them against folly? This is an obvious, foreseeable hazard. It's a lawsuit waiting to happen. Was their architect so incompetent he could not have arranged the building so that there was room for a sidewalk?

My guess is that the architect did just fine -- it was somebody involved in making the road that miscalculated. The road was supposed to be narrower or farther east. But by the time the problem was discovered, it would have been so expensive to fix it that somebody said, "Leave it."

So when a shopper is hit by a car at that spot, costing the developer far, far more in compensatory and punitive damages than it would ever have cost to move the road farther away from the building, that somebody who said "Leave it" will lose his job.

No, that's what would happen in a just universe. In the real world, that person will have immunized himself completely. Somebody else will bear the brunt of the costs. Sic semper idiotus.

But folly aside, what about shoes?

The news is good. Soho Shoes will fill some of the void left by the closing of The Village Shoe. On the men's side of the shop, the styles are so outrageous that men my age would be arrested for wearing them. But they're fun to look at. They remind me of the extravagances of the 1970s -- you know, when young men were wearing high-heel shoes.

On the women's side -- well, women are allowed to wear extravagant and outrageous shoes, particularly when they can be described as "darling."

The women's shoes at Soho are so darling I started forcing them on my wife. "Try this on," I said.

"I don't like it," she said.

"I don't care, I want to see it on a foot. I'm not sure it's actually real."

My wife, more closely tied to the real world, found two pair that she liked. And she patiently agreed to try on the darlingest of the shoes I found. Guess what? The two she liked didn't quite fit (remember, she has feet of a rare and difficult shape).

But the darlingissimous pair that I chose fit perfectly. And she loved them once she had them on. Those are the ones we bought -- on a shopping expedition that was not supposed to lead to purchases. You can't believe how many husband-points I got for that one.

Soho Shoes is not a practical store. Their idea of a "cheap shoe" is ninety-nine bucks. But it's a wonderful store. I'm happy just knowing such shoes exist.

We already knew Coldwater Creek and J.Jill had wonderful clothes for grownups (i.e., women who have outgrown the wispiness of youth). Sadly, Coldwater Creek seems to have caught polyesteritis -- everything we liked was lined with polyester, to which we are both allergic. But eventually they'll rediscover acrylic, nylon, cotton, and other wearable fabrics and we can buy stuff there. Because everything looked great.

Our happiest discovery was the intriguingly named upscale party store Swoozie's. Stationery for invitations and thank-you notes; servingware both permanent and disposable; decorations; surprising odds and ends -- it's fun just to walk around. Though we didn't just walk around. We bought stuff. Not anything we needed, mind you. Swoozie's specializes in "stuff you don't need."

Our favorite purchase was the one we needed least. Swoozie's sells mason jars of dime-sized crispy chocolate chip cookies called "Nam's Bits." The ingredients are healthyish -- the only corn syrup was a trace amount in the vanilla flavoring -- and the molasses flavor is so good that you don't actually need any chocolate chips to make these into great cookies.

The label says there are ten servings in a jar.

I had eaten eight of them before we got home. My wife was able to get one serving -- a handful or so. Only thirteen little cookies remained, which we generously shared with a few privileged people, who pronounced the cookies delicious and then, realizing that I had eaten probably seventy or eight of these cookies during one ten-minute car ride, they fled from my presence in awe.

I'm pretty sure it was awe.

Please go buy them out before my iron self-control rusts completely away and I return to the scene of the crime, waving my credit card and screaming, "Cookies! Now!"

*

Sometimes just knowing that The Jerry Springer Show exists is enough to make me despair about the future of the human race. Or at least American culture.

And then Springer shows up as one of the celebrity participants on Dancing with the Stars, and guess what? He can't dance all that well, but he comes across as a sweet, generous-hearted guy. The audience loved him when he learned to waltz so he could dance at his daughter's wedding. People shed tears when he hugged his daughter as he left the show.

Yet you can't escape the knowledge that he chooses to put on a television show consisting of the dregs of humanity complaining about the vile deeds of their spouses or girlfriends or parents or children, each more repulsive than the others.

So ... which is the real Jerry Springer?

Probably both. He probably thinks his tv show provides a public service. Sort of a "There but for the grace of God goes my mother" kind of thing.

*

Botanist Colin Tudge has written a thick book called The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter. But he isn't writing as one scientist talking to others -- it's actually a really long ode. A paean. A love song.

After explaining why trees are powerful, compelling, miraculous creatures, Tudge sets out to introduce us to every single one of them by name.

OK, not each tree, and not even every species -- but certainly every family and an awful lot of the genera.

It's fascinating to find out which trees are closely related, genetically, to others. In the old days, not knowing about DNA, plants had been classified by their superficial resemblances to each other. Now that we can do genetic comparisons, however, we find that outward forms have been separately evolved more than once, so that trees that have very similar traits might belong to families that separated a hundred million years ago, while others that bear almost no resemblance to each other might be close kin.

Just the thought that legumes -- peanuts and beans -- are closely related to many towering trees is disturbing.

Tudge can't go into detail about many of the trees, with the result that we get the feeling that as he names them, it's just about killing him that he can't just lead us up to one and introduce us and show us all the cool stuff. So thick as this book is, Tudge is racing through the trees, stopping only to tell us about the ones that are already famous and beloved, or the ones with something to teach us.

Not everybody is going to love this book. But I did. I kept reading bits out loud to my wife late at night, though I did stop short of waking her up to tell her some of the really strange and wonderful trees.

And trees are only the beginning. Yes, Tudge loves them -- but he couldn't stop himself from devoting several pages to telling all about the grasses, which are in one of the few branches of the plant kingdom that have no trees at all.

*

Luc Reid's Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures is meant as a guidebook for us novelists so we can create plausible characters who participate in them.

For instance, did you know the word "puds"? Well, actually, I did, as archaic British slang with a vulgar meaning, but to hikers and backpackers, it means "pointless ups and downs" -- "climbs and drops in the trail, as seen by a person who has gotten tired of them" (p. 173).

What about "power prang"? Among model-builders and radio-controlled model enthusiasts, it means "a malfunction in which a rocket turns downward while still firing its engine." A synonym is "death dive." And if the rocket in a power prang penetrates the ground at all, it's called a "core sample."

You can find out what it means for a caver to "trog up" or why you don't bother exploring a "grot hole," or why "cryptorchids" are disqualified from appearing in a cat show, or the difference between a "boss," an "avatar," and an "easter egg" among electronic gamers. You may or may not want to go "canuding" (though it's a definite no in "Groom Lake"), while it's ok to let your kids watch "ski porn" and you'd be proud to have a trucker refer to you as a "fog lifter."

I'll leave it up to you to figure out which subcultures use terms like "dequeen," "dual boinger," and "megatick."

*

The late great actor Jack Lemmon's son Chris has written a charming memoir of his father, A Twist of Lemmon. He was a fascinating man, and it's plain that Chris loved him dearly -- as did his many friends.

But the book still left me feeling vaguely sad, because what emerges -- quite accidentally, I think -- is the portrait of a deeply self-centered man with crude language and a desperate need to have attention focused on him at all times. That he still managed to make himself beloved of many speaks well of his ability to control these personality deficits; but I suspect that had he not been rich and famous, other people might have been less forgiving.

And yet ... when you compare him to celebrities with real personality defects -- the tantrum-throwers, the savage infighters, the little-guy-steppers-on -- Jack Lemmon was a saint. In the world he lived in, where egos are massaged constantly and the most vile behavior is overlooked, the miracle is that he remained as generous and open-hearted as he clearly was.

*

Larry Miller has long been one of my favorite comedians, both for his stand-up and his screen acting. In Pretty Woman, he played the store clerk who sucks up to Richard Gere -- and he keeps showing up as vaguely snotty minor characters in movie after movie.

But many people don't realize that he's also a columnist, an upholder of traditional values from the point of view of someone who used to not have them.

Now he has a book, Spoiled Rotten America: Outrages of Everyday Life. This is an antidote for those who think that all comedians today are so mindlessly opposed to family values that they would have made Stalin shift in his seat.

Miller, you see, chose to have a life -- to marry and stay married, to have kids and be closely involved in raising them, to believe in God and say so publicly, to learn from his mistakes and let us learn too.

But he's still funny. No, he's funnier than ever, because his humor (like Bill Cosby's and Jerry Seinfeld's) is nondestructive. He doesn't score laughs by tearing people down. He doesn't assume his audience has contempt for straight arrows.

In the book, Miller does riffs on why water-saving toilets don't save water, why you shouldn't commit adultery even if you don't believe God will punish you, why celebrities can't ever buy Playboy, how his wife tries to get him to wear stylish clothes, how to teach your children to know what's really funny and what's really good in entertainment ... and a thousand wonderful insights along the way.

I loved this book. I think you will too.

(Admittedly, some people might be offended by some of the language and situations described in this book. Let's put it this way -- if my column never offends you, then this book probably won't either. But if you think some of my columns have been disgusting, then you'll have the same reaction to Larry Miller's primum opus.)

*

Let's face it. You're never going to read The Iliad again. If, that is, you have ever read it. What's the point? You don't believe in all those gods, and you've already seen the movie Troy, which is way more coherent and action-packed than Homer's version.

And if you do read it, thinking you'll get the story of the Trojan Horse, you're going to be disappointed. The Trojan Horse story isn't in The Iliad. It's in another work about the Trojan War.

I bet you didn't know there were any other works about the Trojan War.

(OK, maybe you still don't care that there were other works. But now you know it, whether you care or not.)

This is all leading up to telling you about Barry Strauss's wonderful book The Trojan War. Strauss combines all the literary sources about the events of the war, and then compares them with the archaeological record, which has been growing clearer by leaps and bounds in recent decades.

The story he unfolds has a scholarly flavor sometimes, as he tells about conflicting sources or what might have really happened where the literary accounts are implausible. But he also allows himself some delightful -- and clearly labeled -- speculation and flights of fancy.

The result is an interesting narrative that does a good job of transporting us back to a culture that has long since disappeared, letting us experience events that have left their imprint on the imaginations and memories of millions of people in the generations since.


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