Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 5, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Chocolate, snowflakes, Christmas music, videogame music, corn thins
I don't know about you, but I did not need another fine chocolate company. In
fact, I needed all of them to go out of business for just long enough for me to
restore my svelte youthful body.
Oh, wait. When I was youthful I was even pudgier than I am now. Never mind.
Here it is: The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
You know, I lived for many years in the Rocky Mountains, and I can tell you
from experience, they don't grow any chocolate plants there. But whatever the
rationale for the name, they make the finest chocolate toffee crunch known to
man. Or, technically, known to woman, since I don't like toffee, and therefore
this evaluation comes from my toffee-snarfing domestic partner. (OK, my wife.
Sheesh, can't I even pretend to be cool and hip and edgy and up to date?)
They also have fabulous-looking caramel apples in more varieties than I
thought were possible. But I have braces, so those apples remain tantalizing
rumors to me.
Meanwhile, I can tell you from direct experience that their pure milk chocolate
bar is good, their vanilla creme is very good, and their aspen creme (maple
flavored) is extremely good.
The trouble is, their website, at http://www.rmcf.com/, only lets you buy
I hate assortments. Because the people doing the assortments always include
nasty things that I don't want, like chocolates with walnuts or liqueurs or ...
dark chocolates, which exist only to satisfy the cravings of pregnant women,
none of whom live at our house. If you're going to sell chocolates online, you
have to let people pick out their own assortments.
I hope they soon wise up, because until they allow me to order custom boxes
that are half aspen cremes and half toffee crunches, I won't be ordering online.
I'll just have to remember that they have a store next door to Angelato's just off
the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where I'll satisfy my carnal
chocolate lust whenever I'm in California.
I will try to forget that they also have a store in the Four Seasons Mall in
Greensboro, NC, where I could go anytime I want.
For those looking for Christmas presents that are <ahem> smaller than your
foot, you might check out Restoration Hardware (or
http://www.restorationhardware.com). Every year they have a new selection of
cool new smaller-than-your-foot presents, many of which are so cool you'll just
give up and buy them for yourself, like the nifty lighted magnifying glass that
my wife is now carrying in her purse to save us when we're dining in a
restaurant so dark that our aging eyes can't see the menu.
They have tiny tape measures, retro toys and games, and many other things
that could be used to stuff an item of wearing apparel just a tiny bit larger than
a foot. Some of them are even inexpensive.
Next week, when I'm through ordering everything I plan to order for Christmas,
I'll review a whole array of online sites and catalogues. But I'm not so crazy I'll
tell you about them in time for you to order all the coolest stuff and leave them
out of stock when I show up. Nope. This year, it's me first. Live with it.
Remember how fun it was when you were a kid and you folded paper in half,
then into thirds, and then used your cute little snub-nosed scissors to cut out
wedges and half circles and other shapes? Besides leaving great confetti on the
kitchen table, the original paper, unfolded, became a huge paper snowflake.
Many a winter we've had such snowflakes taped all over the glass door leading
out to the patio.
Well, now there's a no-muss, no-fuss version that allows you to make far more
intricate designs without spraining a wrist -- and then post it where your
friends can all look at it and attach messages to it.
It happens online, of course, at Create Your Own Snowflake
(http://www.popularfront.com/snowdays/). You see a window with trees and
snow, and flakes are falling down. You pass your mouse over any of the
snowflakes, and it grows larger. You can see many wonderful patterns; the
ones you like best, you can print out. (Actually, you can also print out the
ones that bore you completely, but why would you do that?)
You also read the messages that some people include with their snowflakes.
You can even respond to snowflakes with little comments of your own (like,
"Lovely snowflake, complete stranger!"), or you can tell the website to notify
your friends and family to come look at the snowflake you made.
Wait ... snowflake you made? That's right. Because all the cool snowflakes are
made by people like you. After all, how hard is it to cut out patterns using a
mouse instead of scissors?
To judge by some of the most dazzling designs, it must be very hard, because
compared to some of these my efforts were truly childish. No, that's an insult
to children. Mine were chimpish. (Sorry, chimps, but you're no good with
Each snowflake has a unique seven-digit number, so you can look up
particular ones. For instance, may I recommend:
2733738 -- intertwining ropes
2733681, 2733659 -- simply glorious
2733716 -- you want a doily made out of this one
2733749 -- lacy and intricate
2733792 -- daisies
2733747 -- coiled springs
2733763, or 2733722, or 2733715-- faces
Some of them seem to be animated -- I can't figure out how that was done.
And some people report that snowflake making and snowflake watching are so
addictive they spend hours doing it.
Whether as a spectator or a creator, it's great fun. And it's free. (Well, except
for the part about buying a computer and paying for an internet connection.)
It might appear that there isn't much to say about Christmas albums. I mean,
when I tell you that Sarah McLachlan has an album called Wintersong, on
which she sings a bunch of Christmas songs, what else can I say?
"Well, what does it sound like?"
"Do you know what Sarah McLachlan's voice sounds like?"
"Yes, of course."
"Well, it sounds like that, only with Christmas carols."
After that, what? The CD cover art?
"On the front cover, she's standing in snow in mountain country, she has
slept-in-looking hair, there are some blurry blotches that look like they're
supposed to be snowflakes or pixie dust or something, and she's wearing a
halter-top dress that shows a lot of skin, which suggests that she's probably
really cold, while the millions of thirteen-year-old boys who constitute her
natural audience (especially at Christmas) will be really warm."
It's fine. It's a good album, of the Christmas genus and the Sarah McLachlan
species. Can we move on now?
Bette Midler. Remember when we first heard her? It was "Boogie-Woogie
Bugle Boy" and we couldn't believe we were hearing something so thrillingly
retro in the seventies.
But the Bette Midler show had only just begun. Her lush, wavering, over-vibratoed, sarcastically over-sincere voice took old songs and new songs and
gave them a weird combination of emotional depth and shallow brassiness that
many of us are still in love with.
So when, on her new Christmas album Cool Yule she sings "What Are You
Doing New Year's Eve?" she manages a precarious balance between sweet
sincerity and a hint of musical playfulness. While the jazzy "Cool Yule" is a
dancy lark, reviving a tune by Steve Allen -- yes, that Steve Allen, the first
Tonight Show host.
The fact is, this is actually one of the best Bette Midler albums ever. She
shows all those young jazz vocalists that she can still hold her own with any of
them. Her vocalizing on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," which has so
many tricky intervals, is so deft and pitch-perfect that it suggests a virtuosity
she never showed early in her career.
There are times when she even sounds like Doris Day -- and believe me, that's
a good thing. I absolutely love her "White Christmas," and "I'll Be Home for
Christmas is a heartbreaker when she pours it on.
Yet there she is, in true Bette Midler madness, singing "Mele Kalikimaka" like a
Don Ho clone.
I'm not sure what to make of Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration. It's
being advertised on television, where it sounds kind of crummy. When you
play it on your own stereo, it's a lot better. But it's not really all the Celtic.
Sure, there are occasional Celtic instruments, and now and then the singer will
do some Celtic licks, but mostly it sounds like Christian smile music with
backup signers straight out of Snow White.
The genuinely Celtic seeming moments are very nice -- I wish the album had
more of them. But even the generic smiley passages are enjoyable. After all,
it's Christmas music, which is supposed to offer familiarity and comfort and old-fashioned stylings. So if it sounds like she's being backed up by the Ray
Conniff Singers, what of that? They were a good easy-listening vocal group.
But please. "White Christmas" on this album is so grimly sweet that you want
to go brush your teeth. Where's the Celticness here? Nonexistent -- the style
seems to have been borrowed from Amy Grant, with all the soul stripped away.
Makes me want to shake her and scream, "Stop smiling when you sing that!"
I won't switch away from this album when songs from it come up in the
ordinary rotation. But I can't think why I'd make a point of seeking it out.
James Taylor's At Christmas is an entirely different story. Taylor has always
been a multiple-personality singer. He has kind of a small, light voice, but that
doesn't stop him from singing everything from folk to blues, always with a hint
of self-mockery. He's kind of like Bette Midler that way. When he sings the
blues, there's a wink in his voice, as if he's saying, "Look, I know my voice is
too perky and light, so that even when I growl it doesn't sound like I've ever
been within fifty miles of the blues -- but isn't it fun to hear me try?"
So he does "Winter Wonderland" as if he were Harry Connick, Jr. Then he
takes on the old spiritual "Go Tell It On the Mountain," and somehow he makes
it work even though Taylor's voice is as suited for gospel music as a Smurf's.
"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" has a great opening verse, and I'm always
disappointed when singers leave it out. Especially James Taylor, because he so
could have made it wonderful. But when he duets his way through "Baby, It's
Cold Outside" with Natalie Cole, you realize that he is growing up to be the folk
music version of Michael Buble. And that, too, is a Good Thing.
And now I'm going to make you jealous because of a Christmas EP that I own
and you can't -- yet. I got my hands on a promotional copy of Shirley
Eikhard's The Holidays Are Here.
There are five tracks, but only two songs, both of them by Eikhard. For those
in the know, this is great news, because she's one of the great singer-songwriters. Eikhard is the consummate jazz vocalist. There are quite a few
good ones, and it takes nothing away from any of them to say that nobody can
match the rich, smokey quality of Eikhard's voice. It's seductive without ever
hinting that she's trying to seduce anybody. Even when she's being happy,
there's a hint of deep pain behind her voice. So that, unlike James Taylor, she
sounds like she was born to sing blues, but chooses to sing more upbeat songs
as an act of will.
"The Holidays Are Here" has the greatest "Fa la la" chorus I've ever heard -- it's
how those nonsense syllables should always be sung. And then she vocalizes
along with the guitar, like George Benson. It's a great upbeat number.
The other song, "Christmas Is Coming Alive," has a strangely haunting melody
-- especially because the lyrics are much happier than the music. This
juxtaposition enriches the words, as if they were haunted by a much sadder
song that we can't quite hear. I love this song. I want to sing it.
And here's the thing: I can. Because both these songs are then repeated on
minus tracks -- everything but the voice. I know I'll never sound as good as
Eikhard, so if I tried to sing along with her voice, the contrast would be too
demoralizing. So I'll sing along with the accompaniment.
There's a fifth track, too -- a third version of "The Holidays Are Here," but with
a bossa nova beat. As a lover of Brazilian music, it's like Eikhard thought, How
can I make Card happy this Christmas?
I have no idea how you can find and buy this CD. It's not on Amazon. Eikhard
doesn't have a website -- not that I can find, anyway. But if the situation
changes and you can get these great songs, I'll pass the word on to you right
If you're looking for fun games to give -- or simply play -- at Christmastime,
here's my take on a couple of new ones.
Gemblo is a companion game to one of our favorites, Blokus. You remember
Blokus, the Tetris-meets-Chess game where you try to lay out different-shaped
figures on a square board, blocking out opponents while extending your own
tentacles to every possible space.
Well, Gemblo is the same game -- only the pieces are based on hexagons
instead of squares. The result is that up to six people can play. But the rules
are just a little harder to learn, mostly because hexes aren't as easy to visualize
as squares are. That higher learning curve might mean that this won't be the
favorite game on Christmas day.
But it might be by New Year's.
A surefire winner is Cosmic Cows. This game is really a Yahtzee variation,
only instead of scoring X points for each dice combination you roll, you move
one of the cows toward your goal.
But the other player (or team) might roll the same thing and move it back,
which means that the game could theoretically go on forever. Sometimes you
think it might. And then somebody gets a run of luck and puts three cows
across their goal and the game is over. Lots of fun along the way, and anyone
who can understand Yahtzee can play it.
For those who've been following Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, here's good
news ... or really horrible news ... I'm not sure.
Because some of the audience for Left Behind consists of people who think
computer games are a tool of the devil, a sign of the impending apocalypse. So
what will it do to them to learn that the highly Christian Left Behind is now
spawning computer games?
No problem for me, mind you. We Mormons not only dance, we also play
computer games. In fact, I've just heard a rumor that the Mormon Church
plans to get Mitt Romney elected President by using our secret control of
Microsoft to give us access to voters' brains through their children's Xboxes.
That's a joke! It's a rumor that I just made up!
Of course, that won't stop it from circulating instantly throughout the known
world. Or at least the Christian one. ("Crypto-Satanist-Mormon Writer Orson
Scott Card Admits Mormon Puppet Mitt Romney Will Steal Presidency By
Controlling Minds Through Xbox, Then Claims 'Joke.'")
Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a game for the PC. Yep, a Christian computer
game. A born-again, rapture-expecting Christian computer game.
Nope. Heck didn't freeze over. In fact, if it's as successful as the books, it will
provide a cool alternative for gamers who really don't want to spend time on
But I'm not even writing about the game -- I haven't played it. But I have
heard the soundtrack.
Wait a minute. Soundtrack?
The sound track of the earliest videogames consisted of the plink-plonk-plink of
Pong or Breakout, or the deep thrumming rhythm of Asteroids. Then we got
thin little melodies that were so maddening you had to turn off the sound in
order to stand to play the game -- that or you'd have the horrible little tunes
playing through your brain all the next day.
But computer games have come a long way, and composers are finding that,
like movies, games are a medium where original music will get performed --
over and over.
When you think about it, musicians -- composers and performers -- have been
hit by technological nukes more than once in the past hundred years.
Silent movies, for instance, provided a lot of employment for musicians, from
the plinkety piano players in smalltown moviehouses to the full orchestras in
moving picture palaces in the big cities.
Then movies got recorded sound, and thousands of musicians were thrown out
Radio came along and there were jobs again, as orchestras accompanied live
singers performing the latest popular songs. Then the radio stations started
networking through direct cable lines, which meant a single orchestra in New
York could provide music for the whole country at once. And when radio
started playing records, that was it -- another employment crisis for
Then cds began offering near-perfect reproduction of near-perfect recordings of
near-perfect performances by major orchestras, and local orchestras really fell
on hard times.
But the worst thing that happened to serious composition was something the
musicians did to themselves. They got all arty. They started pretending that
the new anti-musical theories were so cool that only compositions that would
sound hideous to untrained ears could be debuted and performed by serious
orchestras. That last major modern American composers who still created
beautiful music from time to time -- Copland, Barber -- were sneered at as
being too sentimental. And we got Glass and Cage.
Where could composers who actually wanted to create music with beauty and
majesty -- or even with humor or tenderness -- heck, with life -- where could
such composers go? It couldn't be pop music -- that was the realm of
They went to the movies. Composers like Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent
Seven, The Great Escape), Ennio Moricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly),
Michel Legrand (Summer of '42), and Nino Rota (Romeo & Juliet, The Godfather)
did brilliant work creating music so powerful that even though we thought we
had only seen a movie, we had only to hear a snatch of the theme and the
whole experience of the film came flooding back.
There are those who would say that John Williams had the same effect on
movie music as any of the other disasters, since for a while it seemed like he
was the only composer anyone hired. But that was just an illusion -- Williams
simply created such powerful, heroic music that you sometimes didn't notice
the quieter composers.
Computer games are now coming along and offering a similar chance to a new
generation of composers. Because if you thought the soundtrack had a
powerful effect in a movie, you should see what the soundtrack of a videogame
Think about it -- this music consists of themes that are played over and over,
endlessly, as the player's avatar on the screen dies and comes back, dies and
comes back, fighting through the same sequence again and again until he
finally succeeds -- all the time hearing the exact same music over and over and
over and ... aaaargh!
Unless the composer understands how repetitive it's going to be and composes
music whose repetition can be borne.
Back to Left Behind: Eternal Forces (and you thought I'd forgotten). I think
composer/conductor Chance Thomas has done a very good job of making
strong, sometimes majestic, sometimes lovely, but mostly onward-driving
music for the game.
But a game really isn't a concert. And few game have had their soundtracks
released separately from the game itself. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to invest
forty hours of gameplay trying to get to a level a twelve-year-old can reach in
fifteen minutes, just so I can hear a music. Ain't no music good enough to be
Fortunately, the soundtrack is available as a download from iTunes. So, unlike
Chance Thomas's scores for the game versions of King Kong and Lord of the
Rings (which can be heard on the games' websites, but only sort of
accidentally), you can seek out this talented composer's work and give it a
listen. Remember its purpose and forgive a certain degree of repetitiveness,
because it's a reminder that if you give a good composer a chance, he'll make
good music wherever he is.
To some, scoring computer games is the composers' equivalent of street
But that's not a bad analogy. Most street musicians are kind of lousy. (You tip
them because it's so cold ... or hot ... and they're so earnesrt.) But now and
then you run across one that just blows you away. (The Opera Babes,
remember, began as street musicians in England.)
So it is with videogame scores. Mostly kind of sad, when they're not downright
annoying. But now and then, wonderful.
This is a wonderful one.
The worst thing about learning just how bad high-fructose corn syrup and
trans fats are is that there's almost nothing in your average gas-station food
store that you can eat! Everything contains high-fructose corn syrup, it seems.
So whenever I can duck into a health food store, I scout for snacks to replace
the ones I used to eat.
I've already talked about rice cakes, but there's something I like even better
than the best of them: Real Foods' "Corn Thins." As the name implies,
they're thinner than rice cakes, and they have almost as few calories to the
inch. However, they taste much, much better than plain rice cakes -- which
has been verified by many of my students this semester, whom I've been using
as guinea pigs as I try out new snack foods.
(You should have seen them on the day we sampled every type of Endangered
Species brand chocolate bar. They just hate it when I test things with them.
All the whining, the moaning, the shnarfing -- it's just pitiful.)
The original Corn Thins are great, but my favorite flavor is the Multigrain. I
haven't yet found the Sesame or Rye & Caraway or Cracked Pepper & Lemon
flavors in any store, and the Flax & Soy flavor I've ignored, since it seems to be
fulfilling a need I don't have.
Did I mention 23 calories per slice?
That's right. Food the size and shape of a CD, with only 23 calories each. And
delicious. I can live with that. Literally.