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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 11, 2008

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


Maps, Dripless Honey, Girls Like Us, Talk Radio

The Middle East was the cradle of civilization -- but that just means it has had a lot more years for civilizations to rise and fall. If you want to get a good idea of the sweep of history there, go to a website called Maps of War and look at their slideshow of the "Imperial History of the Middle East."

If you're a map freak like me, you'll love it just for the sheer mappiness of it. But it's also very educational. Political entities come and go -- some last for centuries, some merely a few generations, and some are ephemeral.

There's map of religious history, showing the rise of the major world religions and their spread throughout the world, another of the march of democracy. Now and then I'd quibble with the interpretations of history reflected on some of the maps, but by and large they're accurate. It's a fascinating website that really helps you visualize history.

http://www.mapsofwar.com/images/EMPIRE17.swf or http://tinyurl.com/yej2qa (The first link is the direct one; the second is a "TinyURL" link that takes less typing time, but leads you to the same site.)

*

You can find the most wonderful things if you browse through Fresh Market every week or so. The folks there are always looking for cool new stuff to offer for sale. The frustration is that sometimes they have something terrific as a special promotion -- but you go back for more a week or so later, and it's gone.

That just happened with some chips from a company called Food Should Taste Good. I'm not sure whether that's actually a good brand name -- it sort of leaves them wide open for the obvious negative reviews. I guess they must be very confident of their product. And with good reason! We bought the olive chips and the multigrain chips -- the latter were the favorite, but we liked both. Unfortunately, we couldn't find any when we went to Fresh Market on Monday.

Another product, though, seems to have a permanent place on their shelves: Granja San Francisco honey in the most incredible no-drip bottles.

You know how it is with honey. In no time, the outside is sticky, and anywhere you set it, you get sticky spots and rings. Because honey drips.

But not the honey from Granja. The bottles look weird because they seem to have no top. Instead, you open them from the bottom. You'd expect that when you flip open the ... lid? base? ... it would be smeared with honey, but it isn't. The aperture truly cuts off the flow the moment you stop squeezing the plastic bottle and nothing gets out.

Of course, if you pour it carelessly and handle it carelessly, you can still smear the honey that you poured. But the container itself leaves no drips. Can you believe it? Something that works as advertised!

Here's the bonus, though: Not only is the container dripless, but the honey inside is exceptionally good. The bottles tout the fact that it's the #1 selling honey in Spain -- and no wonder. If they can keep their quality up, both the container and the honey inside should make this the top-selling honey in the U.S. and everywhere else.

The container alone should become standard issue for all honey sellers -- and syrup makers as well. But companies don't always adopt obvious good ideas. For instance, we've had the microwave-size syrup bottle for years now, but judging from the grocery store shelves, it certainly hasn't replaced the old standard too-tall-for-nuking size.

No problem -- there's still room in the world for honey sold in little honey-bear-shaped plastic bottles. Just as there's a place in the world for alfalfa rather than clover honey.

The flavor I've seen at Fresh Market is "Blossom," but Granja also sells "Rosemary and Lavender Honey" with the subtitle "A taste of the Mediterranean," and "Eucalyptus and Linden Honey."

I'm ordering both online from English Tea Store (http://www.englishteastore.com/), though other online companies sell it, too. Straub's (www.straubs.com), for instance, has reviews of the different flavors with lovely phrases like "Eucalyptus has a slightly herbal edge, bold but not overpowering." (If you know what that means, you're smarter than I am. An herbal edge?)

*

People talk about classic rock 'n' roll from the 60s and 70s as if that were the only kind of music there was. But for me, the dominant music of that era came from the great singer-songwriters, especially the women: Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, Carole King, and Carly Simon.

Three of those women now have their first serious biographies in a single book, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation, by Sheila Weller.

Weller's research -- which consists largely of interviews with friends, ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, and family members of these three singers -- has led her to fascinating information, and she's a good enough storyteller that I enjoyed every page, yet wished it had been longer.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the book is that she tells all three stories at the same time -- but jumps around in time to do it. After all, Carole King was the composer of monster hit songs almost a decade before Joni Mitchell came to the fore, and Carly Simon came even later.

And while there are similarities among them, the differences are profound. Carole King was a Brill Building composer, and even though her first splash came with R&B songs for the Shirelles, she was definitely from the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Only later, when she began to cut her own albums, did she shift into the folk-rock vibe that marked her record-setting masterpiece album Tapestry.

Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, was a folkie from the prairies of Sasketchewan, and she only gradually concentrated on writing her own songs -- most of which are so quirky and personal that other people really can't sing them well. Hers is always the definitive rendition.

Carly Simon grew up among America's intellectual and artistic elite -- her father, the Simon of Simon & Schuster, kept the house filled with guests of so much prestige that it was almost a miracle that shy Carly was able to put herself forward enough to get a singing career.

But all three wrote songs that defined a generation -- and lived the lives that earned them their songs of heartbreak, love, anger, and hope. They have so many husbands and lovers among them -- and overlapped on so many of them -- that it's hard to keep them all straight.

Yet each remained true to herself -- true to her own disastrous choices, of course, but also true to her musical vision, even when the audiences refused to go along.

There are stories of courage, heartbreak, loss, and triumph; the book is compulsively readable; and I'll be you'll do what I did, and break out those old albums (or download them from Amazon or iTunes) in order to hear the songs again.

Meanwhile, to read about Janis Ian -- whose life is, if anything, even more tumultuous -- you'll have to wait till July 24th, when her Society's Child: My Autobiography, comes out. Because Janis and I have been friends for several years, I had the chance to read the book a couple of months ago, and it is, in a word, brilliant. But I'll review it at much greater length closer to the time of publication.

With both these books and all these lives, I can't help but compare them with what was going on in my life. While they were caught up in the amoral world of pop culture, I was going to college, getting my degrees, writing poems and plays and stories. But I did it all inside something much closer to normal American society at the time. Most of us weren't sleeping around; most of us weren't into drugs; most of us weren't even against the Vietnam War, or at least not so vocally that you'd notice.

And nothing in any of their lives makes me think that the lives they lived were remotely better. Maybe being on society's cutting edge isn't as cool as people like to think.

One thing that has definitely gotten worse in the intervening years is the media. These women could have secrets and private lives; nowadays, that's almost impossible, as Britney Spears has discovered. So in a way it was a blessing for King, Mitchell, Simon, and Ian that their careers, for various unrelated reasons, faded from the intense white-hot lights before media ownership of the lives of the rich and famous became quite so destructive.

It was bad enough then, as you'll discover when you read these books.

*

By the way, I'm having a great time doing a weekly talk show -- TRN Weekend, which is syndicated by Talk Radio Network, the same folks who bring us Rusty Humphries, Laura Ingraham, Jerry Doyle, and the inimitable Michael Savage, among others. I am the least of their offerings, and I'm still learning how it's done, but it is so cool to be able to talk through my ideas instead of writing them.

Unfortunately, no Greensboro station has picked up TRN Weekend (I'm on Saturday mornings from 9 to 11 a.m. Eastern), but we may be able to get the show up as a podcast for later downloading. There's something exhilarating, though, about going out live. Like the morning when I'd only had three hours of sleep -- that didn't go well! But my pre-Mother's Day broadcast gave me a chance to talk about my wife as the mother of our children, and it's fun to be able to answer back to audio clips of Obama, Hillary, McCain, and others.

And I love to talk with total strangers who call in -- sometimes to point out how wrong I am, sometimes to bring new perspectives that reinforce my point.

It has also changed the way I look at the big guys. I used to complain about Sean Hannity's tendency to hammer his point for way too long -- and I'm still right about that on his Fox TV show with Alan Combes. On radio, though, people are constantly tuning in and out -- you have to learn to repeat yourself so people can follow the discussion.

Guys like Rusty Humphries and Sean Hannity make it sound so easy -- but that's because they're very good at what they do. Whether you agree with them or not, they give good radio! It's way harder than it sounds to get your ideas out there, clearly and entertainingly. They have a lot of people working to support them -- you'd be amazed at how much is getting said to them while they're talking, either through headphones or via their computer monitors. But ultimately, it's the hosts who have to sort everything out and make sense of it.

Who knows? Maybe I'll actually learn how to do it well enough that I can have a show that airs in Greensboro!


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