Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 19, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Online Food, Gift Wrap & Tape, Flotsam, Bryson, Happy Feet
The Christmas hordes are already out shopping -- I know, because they were
in my parking place last Saturday.
Shopping locally is a good idea, whenever possible, because you're helping
support local people's jobs, and they help pay local taxes, so keeping the money
at home benefits us all.
Still, there are things you can buy online that you simply can't get locally, or at
least not as conveniently, and among those are the gifts you might be sending
to people out of the area.
Shipping gifts to faraway relatives can be expensive -- really expensive. So you
can save a lot of money by buying a gift online and having it shipped directly.
Online vendors usually have much lower shipping rates than you can get from
anybody but the Post Office -- and they wrap the present for you as well.
Especially if you are responsible for choosing company gifts to valued
customers in remote locations. So often those are really lame -- you have to
keep costs down, but that can mean poor quality or meaningless gimcrack that
doesn't really send the classy message you want your holiday greeting to carry.
The best corporate gifts -- and often the best personal ones, too -- are
consumables. Gifts that get used up so they don't clutter up the house, but
which are nonetheless memorable.
I've already talked in past columns about Cheryl & Co. and Blue Chip Cookies;
let me add a few to the list of great online consumable gifts.
First, two grocery stores. Zingerman's (http://www.zingermans.com) is a gourmet foodstore based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but offering food that sounds like they supply the best New York delicatessens.. They have brilliant selections of olive oils, cheeses, and vinegars, including gift basket combinations. One of the best sources for your friends who are mad about having the very best of those foods.
Another wonderful online food store is Gristedes Supermarkets -- again of
New York City. You can find them at http://gristedes.com -- or if you go on
Amazon and choose the product category "gourmet foods," you are taken to
Gristedes (though they don't advertise it). That would allow you to use your
already-stored Amazon address lists and credit card information. (This
affiliation with Amazon may not last, however, as they are still beta-testing
their own, far less helpful Amazon grocery.)
Gristedes really does have a lot of hard-to find items. Without going into
specifics, because somebody who's getting this item for Christmas also reads
my column, let me just say that I was able to find at Gristedes a precious and
coveted food item that isn't even listed at the manufacturers' website.
There are also stores that specialize in absolutely wonderful things. Of course
you already know about Harry & David (http://www.harryanddavid.com, or 1-877-322-1200) where you can get the best pears anywhere, as well as a lot of
other kinds of fruit.
But what if I told you there's a place you can get perfectly ripe, sweet
strawberries, dipped in chocolate or other sweet substances, and packed and
shipped immediately so the strawberries are still perfect inside?
Shari's Berries is the place that brings off this miracle. A friend sent me a box
to cheer me up, and because they were so rich and delicious that I couldn't eat
them all myself while they were still perfect (and my wife is allergic to
strawberries, and my daughter hates chocolate), I had no choice but to send
the ones I didn't eat with my wife to her dance class, where her fellow hip-hop,
jazz, and tap dancers pronounced the berries as "perfect."
You can find Shari's Berries at http://www.berries.com (or call 1-877-BERRIES). The berries are not cheap -- but then, how can they be, when they
have to be picked, dipped, and hand-decorated in such a short span of time,
and then shipped overnight? Be sure that the recipient will be home to get
those berries and eat them right away. Otherwise this wonderfully extravagant
gift will be wasted.
Another great food site -- which is a little more forgiving about delays in
opening the package, and more affordable, too -- is The Peanut Roaster. This
North Carolina-based company makes the best chocolate-covered cashews I've
had -- and the rest of their products are also first rate. They're at
http://www.peanut.com (or 1-800-445-1404).
And don't overlook Harvey's Groves (http://www.harveysgroves.com, or 1-800-327-9312), where you can choose from a stunning selection of citrus fruit
-- and off-season tomatoes, too.
I admit, I'm a little old for picture books. But I'm not going to pretend I think
David Wiesner's brilliant Flotsam is just for kids. Kids will love it -- the
gorgeous art is painterly yet clear. The story is so magical, however, that I have
to recommend it for adults as well.
It's about a boy's day at the beach, where he finds fascinating things ... until a
camera washes up on shore. What he finds inside the camera is so wonderful
and whimsical that you'll wish you had one just like it.
Give this book for Christmas -- to someone who lives close enough to you that
you'll have a chance to read it yourself.
Wrapping paper. You need it. Not every gift can just be tossed into a gift bag.
Gift bags are too pathetically easy to peek into before Christmas. Some things
have to be tightly wrapped.
And if you're my mother, they have to be taped so thoroughly that it takes a
rhinoceros with a blowtorch to get them open. (The last part of the preceding
sentence comes from the play Plaza Suite, copyright © 1968 by Neil Simon.)
The trouble with gift wrap is that so much of it is truly, deeply lousy. It's too
thin. It tears when you try to work with it. You can see through it. When you
get it home, the roll only has about eight feet of paper on it so you have to go
back and buy three times as much.
Hallmark wrapping paper is the benchmark against which all other giftwraps
must be measured. They print lines on the back so you can cut straight across
so you get a piece exactly the size and shape you need. It holds tape well. You
can't see through it. The designs are always good and sometimes beautiful.
You also have to pay for quality. It's that simple. If you go after price alone,
then you'll get fooled by the skimpy rolls of paper and the cheap junk.
If it's so lousy it doesn't do the job properly, then how much, exactly, did you
Besides, Hallmark stores also carry the most wonderful assortment of ribbons
-- with and without wires to give them shape; bows and tassels and other
decorations; and, of course, cards.
However, there's another brand of wrapping paper that in some ways is even
better than Hallmark, though in other ways it's not as easy to work with.
InnisBrook is the brand of paper that is sold by many of the local elementary
schools in order to raise money for school activities and other needs. Now that
we don't have a kid in elementary school, we order it through our nephew,
whose school sells it.
When he goes on to middle school, we'll go to http://www.InnisBrook.com and
order it online.
This paper is the real thing. Some of it even has the lines on the back like
Hallmark's paper, but it's so sturdy that you could build houses out of it. The
rolls are ample -- tons of paper on each one. The designs are different from
Hallmark's (less shiny) but just as good in their own way.
The only real drawback is that the paper is so thick. This is a good thing, when
it comes to concealing the contents. But it's a really bad thing when you
expect ordinary tape to hold the packages closed. Because paper this thick has
a strong shape memory, and if you don't crease the paper where it passes over
the corner of a package, it's going to pull the tape free.
You can overcome this by using that heavy-duty plastic tape you use to seal
boxes for shipping or moving.
Or you can make sure to wrap sturdy ribbon around every package, to relieve
some of the tension on the tape. Just be aware that if you use something as
heavy-duty as InnisBrook gift wrap, you need to work at keeping the package
Speaking of closing gift packages, there's only one wrapping tape (short of that
plastic box-sealing tape) that will do the job. The brand is Scotch, but it's not
their "magic" tape.
Scotch Magic tape is designed to be semi-removable without too much damage.
It will not hold with quality gift wrap (especially the kind with a shiny surface).
Furthermore, it has a matte finish that dulls the color of the wrapping paper
under it. It makes the little rectangles of type highly (and obnoxiously) visible
on the packages.
The answer is Scotch GiftWrap tape. This stuff really is transparent -- it
nearly disappears on wrapping paper -- and it holds very well. (Only
InnisBrook giftwrap needs additional help to be held.)
In fact, I would use Scotch GiftWrap tape all year for everything -- because I've
come to hate their "Magic" tape -- but you can only get the GiftWrap tape at
this time of year. So get a lot of it. Stock up. Use it year-round.
My only gripe is they don't make it in sizes for really big tape dispensers. And
it's also hard to find the little pre-cut tape packs for their wearable wrist
When Dave Barry first splashed into the American consciousness, I remember
seeing him appear on Letterman, promoting his very funny book. The trouble
was, Barry was not funny in person. He was cute and endearing, but not
The reason is that he couldn't wipe the smirk off his face. It was clear that he
thought he was way funnier than he actually was. It killed every joke. It didn't
look like he was witty, it looked like he was in love with himself.
Now, I'm pretty sure that this had nothing to do with reality. A lot of people,
when they have stage fright, get a nervous grin plastered on their face and
can't get rid of it. They're the ones at funerals who are desperately trying to
hide their smiles so they can look appropriately somber, only the harder they
try, the bigger their smile gets. It's completely involuntary. They cannot be
But Barry also could not be watched. That's why they got Harry Anderson to
play him in the TV series based on his life (Dave's World). Barry could write
funny, he just couldn't act funny.
I've just run into another writer -- one I think is even smarter and funnier --
who has the same problem. Bill Bryson, the American expatriate who became
a huge bestseller in Britain with his wry travel books, has come out with a
humorous memoir of growing up in Iowa in the 1950s and 60s, called The Life
and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and they made the horrible mistake of
having him read his own audiobook.
He's not a bad reader. He's just an extraordinarily dull reader.
I bet he (and the producers) thought he was merely delivering the text in a
deadpan style, rather like Steven Wright. (By the way, on Steven Wright's
website there's a list of books by Steven Wright that are "available nowhere."
Which ticks me off, because I really really want to read "The Slut and the
Monkey: The History of Marriage." Not to mention "Stanley and the Magic
Penny: Hitler's life story if he'd never been born, seen through the eyes of
The trouble is, even deadpan comics aren't really deadpan. They are actually
sly with a slack face; their intonation gives you constant though subtle signals
that they are aware of their own irony. This is what The Life and Times of the
Thunderbolt Kid desperately needed -- it should have been read by, say, Larry
Miller. Or Dennis Miller. Or Rita Rudner. Almost anybody but Bryson,
because he steps on his own gags, trails off just when he ought to get
Not as annoying as somebody who can't get over how funny he is; but dull is
Meanwhile, the book itself is excellent. Since he was born almost exactly when
I was, the childhood he describes is remarkably similar to my own, except that
I obeyed more rules and got better grades and went to a different church and
never drank and didn't fantasize about being a superhero. (I fantasized about
OK, so our childhoods weren't that similar. But they were in the same
America, and that's really what this book is about. What American life was like
in the 1950s. And why it was better than today.
Not completely better. As would any writer telling about the 1950s, Bryson has
to include his disclaimers -- he has to make it clear that the racism of the 50s
was not acceptable, and that the anti-Communists were the source of all evil in
America, etc., or he would be savaged by the Leftist reviewers (i.e., all of the
reviewers at important newspapers). You can't praise the 1950s without also
saying that it was a decade of racism and paranoia. Which is why there's a
couple of really bleak, dark sections in the book that aren't even a speck funny.
They simply have to be there, to keep things in perspective.
(Still, as long as you're pointing out the horrors of the 1950s, wouldn't it be
nice to point out that international Communism was murdering people and
repressing them far more than any American religious group, and that
Communists really did have spies in America, so that not all anti-Communists
were evil or insane?)
(No. That's too much to ask.)
Ignore my quibbles and asides. This is a funny, wonderful book, full of love for
fascinating people and lots of clever exaggeration that nevertheless rings true.
And if the only way you can read the book is to buy the audiobook and listen in
the car, then do it. Bryson is an awful reader, but his book is so good that I
still managed to listen to him mangle it all the way through -- and enjoyed it in
spite of his performance.
I was done with Antarctica. I'd seen a great documentary and a good
docudrama (March of the Penguins and Eight Below) and I've seen all the snow
and ice and wind and ocean I need to see.
I was also done with penguins. Again, I like penguins just fine. Nothing
against penguins. But I've watched them do everything I wanted to see them
do. Including watching penguin candy dispensers excrete jelly beans out their
wee fannies at the Ann Crittenden Hallmark Store.
But what does my wife ask for as her sole birthday request?
So there I am, watching Happy Feet, in which an animated penguin can't stop
tap-dancing, which causes him to be persecuted by animated-penguin religious
conservatives (of course), until his tap-dancing changes international fishing
policies, restoring the natural order so that penguins can once again proliferate
in vast numbers, providing an immense banquet for leopard seals and killer
whales, and I suddenly realized:
I like this movie. It's a more enjoyable movie musical than Chicago was --
partly because there are actually likeable characters, and mostly because the
costumes aren't so weirdly disturbing (there not being any).
No, I'll go farther. The animation and artwork approach brilliance. The animal
movements and facial expressions are only tweaked a little to make them more
human. They made the insides of the penguins' mouths as they talked and
sang almost real.
(Not that penguins actually talk and sing, but if they did, then their mouths
would probably look like this ... oh, never mind.)
The script is funny and mostly appealing. The voice actors are brilliant, not
least because three of them are Robin Williams. (I have to know, though,
whether Nicole Kidman did her own singing.)
I loved the five "amigos" -- small Hispanic penguins. (Well, why not? The
closest continent to Antarctica is South America -- way closer than English-speaking New Zealand.)
It's no more absurd to imagine penguins singing and dancing than to imagine
Oklahoma cowboys or New York street gangs or London pickpockets singing
and dancing (Oklahoma!, West Side Story, and Oliver! [Don't you ever wonder
why West Side Story doesn't get an exclamation point, when all the other
In fact, since real penguins don't talk, all penguins can do is sing (i.e., squawk,
bleat, or chirp) and dance (the Waddle, the Swim, or the Dive).
This movie is funny, it's sweet at times, it's great to look at, and if you've
watched March of the Penguins you'll keep wanting to nudge people near you
and say, "You know, penguins really do that." (But you won't actually say it,
since they saw March of the Penguins, too.)
I will confess, though, that I'm tired of movie after movie showing the bad guys
as leaders of traditional religion.
Not that this isn't realistic -- on the contrary, whenever somebody in the real
world comes up with an unacceptable idea or behaves in an outrageous way,
the people who stifle them always invoke the established public religion as the
reason why they need to be put down or kicked out.
My quibble is that filmmakers who use this tired old trope keep thinking that
the established religion is one that resembles Protestant fundamentalism.
They seem to have missed the fact that Protestant fundamentalism long since
stopped being the established religion anywhere in the U.S. except a few
counties in Mississippi and Arkansas. (Quick reality check: Where are there
any Sunday closing laws? That's where conservative Christians still get
The established religion today, the one that kicks people out of public life for
having different ideas, is the religion of the Smarty-Pants -- the religion that
dominates the American universities and news media and litterati and, yes,
film community. (It doesn't happen to have a god, but it has no shortage of
misquoted, misinterpreted, and just-plain-fabricated prophets -- Darwin,
Freud, and Einstein being among the most invoked and least understood.)
So even though this movie pretends to be about somebody bucking the
establishment and being right after all, in fact this movie is in total support of
the Smarty-Pants establishment. In the traditional sense of conservatism (i.e.,
leave the powers that be in control because they know better than you), this is
a relentlessly conservative movie, serving up the nostrums of empty
intellectualism and then depicting the triumph of Truth, Right, and the
But, as the establishment religion always does, they tell just a few little fibs to
help the medicine go down. Like, for instance, they fail to tell you that if the
penguin population exploded because the fish population exploded, then the
predator population would also explode -- killer whales and leopard seals
would feast on penguin flesh.
Not that this wouldn't be a good thing. I think overfishing is a great danger to
all of us and needs to be stopped, so we can sustain ocean ecologies at
productive levels. (Didn't the God of the old religion tell us to replenish the
It's just that this movie, by sentimentalizing the penguins, doesn't want us to
remember that penguins are a predator species (at least from the fishies' point
of view -- didn't you see the hero penguin eat Nemo?) and are not in any way
superior to the killer whales and leopard seals that prey on them.
But you can sell an audience any kind of fantasy as long as it gets them to Do
the Right Thing. It's not lying, it's "advancing the noble cause." The Left and
the Right both do it -- it's the real national sport.
But since everybody's doing it, and we're idiotic enough to believe most of the
nonsense they tell us, why single out poor Happy Feet for being Smart-Pants-establishment propaganda? That would be unfair. Everything Hollywood
produces lately fits in that category.
Happy Feet is an unusually entertaining and well-made piece of establishment
propaganda. Let's be grateful, this Thanksgiving, for what we've got, and not
be as greedy as that nasty child Oliver! (his last name was "!"), who dared to
ask for more. You know what happened to him!
Oh, wait. His kindly grandfather discovered his true identity and let him grow
OK. I do ask for more. I ask for someone in Hollywood to have an original or
even (shudder) bold thought that actually challenges the Hollywood
establishment instead of constantly challenging the ancient Judeo-Christian
establishment that lost any real influence on this nation's power elite by 1973.
Meanwhile, though, let's tap-dance! Look, I got happy feet! Tippety-tippety
TAP tippety-tip, tip, tip, TAP.
The mega-Harris-Teeter is now open at the new Shops at Friendly Center and
you can see they've really put forth an effort to make it something special. The
wine section, for one thing, is like a store within a store, though of course for a
Mormon boy like me there's no point in even walking in.
Most of the store is simply Harris-Teeter, only with more checkout lanes -- but
since I like Harris-Teeter a lot, that's a good thing.
What sets this store apart is the deli and food-bar section, which is huge. I
haven't sampled the quality of everything yet, but I can tell you that the turkey
meat loaf is so good I enjoy eating it cold all by itself, and their puttanesco
pasta salad is excellent. The whole deli is fair competition for Fresh Market's
excellent one -- each one has offerings the other can't match, so you have
reason to visit both of them.
The new mega-store isn't Wegman's or Gelson's or Bristol Farms, the great
foodstores in other areas. But for a metro area the size of ours in Greensboro,
Harris-Teeter's flagship offering is outstanding.
I only wish they would do something about the shopping cart problem. They
have a few spots for carts, but since their parking on a busy Saturday sprawls
to a long way away, you end up with dozens of parking places filled with carts
-- which means you have to park even farther from the store. (It doesn't help,
though, that they keep taping off nearby parking places for inscrutable
Meanwhile, at the other end of Friendly Center, the new Macy's lives up to the
reputation of the chain: No other department store can compete with Macy's at
Christmastime. It just feels like Christmas walking in there. And they actually
have first-rate stuff we need and like, at prices that are fair for the quality you
Sur-La-Table and Chef's Catalog are both excellent online and over-the-phone
sources of kitchen goods -- but people who live in Greensboro simply have no
reason to use their services. That's because we have The Extra Ingredient at
Friendly Center. In a not-very-bit space they cram the most amazing selection
of wonderful items. We never regard our Christmas shopping as complete until
we've stopped by The Extra Ingredient to see what their buyers have come up
with for us this year.