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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 28, 2011

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


Thrones, Catching Fire, Snacks, Crisps, Yogurt, and Poems

I've now watched the first two episodes of HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's glorious epic fantasy A Game of Thrones, and I must confess to disappointment bordering on disgust.

They poured so much money into a lavish production, and engaged the services of so many talented actors, that it's deplorable that they're working with a script that is so very, very bad.

What you notice first is the amount of pointless nudity. Now, it happens that in the coarse medieval world of Martin's novels, there is a casual attitude toward sex. But Martin never, not once, uses sex pornographically. It's not described in detail, and it is always used as part of character revelation, relationship building, or plot complication. You don't dwell on it, you know that it happened and you move forward in the story.

But the screenwriters, perhaps compensating for their utter inability to find a filmic replacement for the deep-penetration viewpoint of Martin's writing, have taken any excuse for nudity and sex and blown it up into full-fledged, if soft-core, porn.

Moments that are fleeting or merely referred to in passing in the book are inflated into scenes that stop the story cold. Where Martin gave us a glimpse, these writers call for a lingering, jiggling closeup. The result is that the actors and George R.R. Martin are demeaned and diminished.

Combine that with the screenwriters' aforesaid incompetence at creating character and relationship in a script, and what you have is a deeply ruined adaptation.

And yet ... I watched these installments immediately after having reread (or rather listened to) the book, and I must say that I loved the designers' visualization of the scenery and structures in the book. The casting is excellent (except for the Dathraki king Drogo, who looks like a steroid-using weightlifter rather than a hard-bodied horseman) and I'm happy to replace my own images with theirs.

Also, the title sequence has an animated map of the Seven Kingdoms that is breathtaking to a cartophile like me.

So I'm going to TiVo the rest of the series and then fast forward through the stupid, utterly unsexy nude scenes, as I did with Kara DioGuardi's judging on American Idol.

But wouldn't it have been nice if HBO had presented an adult version of this masterpiece of fantasy literature, instead of giving us the lonely-14-year-old-boy's version.

*

We take eating for granted, don't we? Humans have teeth of a certain size; things taste a certain way; we tend to like certain kinds of food. We eat lettuce leaves but not oak leaves; potatoes but not tulip bulbs; and we have bred certain species of plants and animals to be ideal for us to eat them.

But in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham argues -- convincingly, I think -- that it was the taming of fire and the cooking of food that allowed our bodies to evolve to their present form.

We have teeth that can only handle a moderate amount of chewing. The other great apes have massive teeth and jaws; they eat plants that we would never dream of eating raw, and they chew for hours and hours and hours a day. Then their small intestine gives a far longer time to digestion of the chewed-up plant mass than our bodies have space to handle.

This is because the plants (and occasional meat) have to be broken down into digestible chunks. But humans do something different -- we cook all but the most easily chewed plants and meats.

Cooking does a far better job of breaking up and transforming chemical and physical bonds in our food than chewing does. We respond to the smells and tastes of cooked food -- but the real message we're getting is: This is food that will be easy to digest thoroughly.

This is one reason why mere calorie counting is quite misleading. Cooked or uncooked, food has roughly the same caloric content (i.e., available energy). But our bodies are able to get easier access to the calories in cooked food.

Raw-foodists -- and animals in various studies -- have been found to get far fewer calories from raw food than from cooked food that has the same caloric value. (Boa constrictors are ideal test subjects, since they seem to appreciate having food rammed down their throats without having to go to the work of swallowing it themselves.)

Homo habilis, an early ancestor, still had the massive teeth and jaw muscles and the protruding gut of a raw-food eater; but the next stage, Homo heidelbergensis, did not. It is precisely there -- long before speech and complex tools -- where cooking has to have begun; otherwise the small teeth, weak jaws, and smaller gut of H. heidelbergensis would have starved them.

Instead, because they could cook their food, these early proto-humans could devote far, far less time to chewing and digesting. This made hunting possible. Chimps can only hunt for about twenty minutes at a time, catching whatever is easily available; if they don't get meat in that amount of time, they have to get back to chewing plant food.

Not only that, but eating cooked food that digests quickly aids us by freeing the resources that other animals use for many hours of digestion to be used by the brain.

Our brains are so large that, waking or sleeping, they use up about a quarter of our intake of energy each day. Digestion uses a similar amount of energy; if we had to spend all day digesting food, there's no way our bodies could support our massive brains. Instead we digest for a very few hours, and have brains large enough to allow speech, complex analysis, toolmaking, mental mapping of terrain, and the complicated human relationships that make our communal lives possible.

Some of Wrangham's speculation on how cooking influenced social relationships, especially pair bonding of males and females, is fascinating though not yet complete; still, it is literally true that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," and there is no human culture in which females are not generally expected to do almost all the domestic cooking, even when they are otherwise quite egalitarian.

The compensation is that there is a huge reproductive advantage to cooking: Weaning children from milk to raw food requires that you wait far longer than weaning children from milk to cooked food. So humans can have children far more frequently, relative to their age of maturity, than other primates. This allows us to have these big-headed, slow-maturing children at a rate that lets our population grow.

When I saw the title of the book, I assumed that it would be another example of bad science writing, which almost always involves overclaiming. Bad science writers (and bad scientists) glom onto a useful idea and then claim that it explains everything.

For instance, molecular psychology was immediately claimed to "disprove" the existence of the soul, which is impossible for science even to address; global warming, which happens naturally in cycles with global cooling, was immediately overclaimed to be caused entirely by evil human activities like "industry," and to cause pretty much everything bad.

Catching Fire is science writing at its best. Everything is evidence-based, and all the steps of analysis are clear. Alternative views are considered and speculation is clearly labeled. Halfway through the book, I joined Wrangham in realizing that the old story -- that cooking food began long after our teeth and jaws, not to mention our small intestines, had shrunk to modern proportions -- simply made no sense at all.

Wrangham doesn't claim that early development of cooking explains everything, or even that it's the only possible explanation. Like a good scientist, he merely claims that it seems to be the best available explanation for the evidence we now have, and nothing seems to contradict it.

So it's worth reading, not just for the ideas, but for the way the ideas are presented. It raises a reader's standards of what acceptable science writing ought to be.

The only unfortunate thing about the invention of cooking is that while it gave us vast amounts of leisure, most of us have appetites more proportioned to a raw-food diet. That is, most of us feel hungry until we've eaten a quantity that, because it is cooked, delivers far more calories than we need.

Poverty and inefficient, cyclical agriculture used to keep most people thin; now we are prosperous, we can get easily digested food year-round, and we get fat. But compared to spending hours a day chewing like a chimp or gorilla, I'm content to feel hungry while dieting to lose weight -- I still get all the free time that cooking our food gave to the human race.

*

As long as I'm celebrating the capture of fire and the invention of cooking, let me point out some terrific limited-calorie snacks from Nabisco and Pepperidge Farm.

For me, the real problem with snack food has always been stopping. I had to give up cold cereal completely, about twenty years ago, because I could never get the milk and the cereal to come out even. I would finish a box of Kellogg's Crispix (my favorite; I sometimes still dream of eating it) in a single breakfast.

I get the munchies whenever I'm on a long car trip; I can go through a box of Wheat Thins or a package of Chex Mix in an hour. And that's a lot of calories, especially when I'm just sitting there.

The nice thing about these 100-calorie packs is that you know when you're done. Of course you pay more for all the extra packaging. But when health, not cost, is the issue, these are a great help toward self-control. And even if you simply eat all the 100-calorie packs in a box, there's a lot less of the snack in that box, because of the packaging, than there would have been if it were just a boxful of snack food!

The Nabisco offerings include six-packs of chocolate pretzels, yogurt pretzels, Lorna Doones (shortbread), Ritz snack mix (better than Chex Mix, in my opinion), and two kinds of fudge petites.

Not listed in their hundred-calorie packs, they also sell Oreo Cakesters and Brownies sorted into individual 1.5 ounce or 2 ounce packs. Ditto with Snackwells in 1.7 ounce single serve packs. Lots of great choices.

But since I've always detested Oreos (I know, this puts my American citizenship into more doubt than Obama's), for me the 100-calorie pouches from Pepperidge Farm are more to the point. Milano cookies, Milk Chocolate Milanos, and shortbread Chessmen cookies are all available.

The point is, we didn't evolve to have self-control in our eating. So we have to use our brains and our will power to keep our eating under control in this Age of Plenty. Hundred-calorie packs and pouches are a way for us to buy a little help for our will power. I say it's worth it.

*

I was in northern Virginia last week, and that means a visit to Wegman's, the east-coast answer to southern California's Gelson's and Bristol Farms supermarkets. In the cheese department (a branch office of heaven), I found packages of the most amazing crackers.

Because they're not crackers at all. They're cracker-shaped, and they're crisp, flavorful, and delicious, but they consist entirely of cheese.

No, I don't mean they're cheese-flavored or cheese-covered. I mean they are cheese. And you don't have to go to Wegman's to get them (a four-hour drive from Greensboro to the nearest one!); you can go online to where Kitchen Table Bakers lets you order their Cheese Crisps: http://KitchenTableBakers.com.

They come in flavors. The basic cheese crisp is Aged Parmesan -- that bold cheese flavor that I've loved all my life. They mix in bits of other elements to make flavors like Sesame, Rosemary, Flax Seed, Garlic, Italian Herb, Jalapeño, and Everything.

And the Aged Parmesan also comes in Mini Crisp pouches for smaller mouthfuls.

If you're allergic to gluten, then this snack is just what you're looking for. But I am not allergic to gluten, I'm addicted to it, and I still love these cheese crisps! (Our favorites: Aged Parmesan and Italian Herb.)

They're delicious by themselves, but they also dip well in salsas and sour cream dips. Crumble them on salads instead of croutons. Put things on them -- even other cheeses -- and they're still great.

And they're packaged so carefully, and shipped so quickly, that I can already verify that they arrive with almost no breakage or crumbling, perfectly fresh and delicious. They sell in three packages of a single flavor for about eighteen bucks.

*

Our 17-year-old wanted to find good yogurt snacks, and so we held a family tasting session the other night. I had brought home some Wegman's Organic Super Yogurt in standard six-ounce tubs -- lime and raspberry flavors.

Then, at Fresh Market we bought several other brands, just to try them out.

As I expected, the Wegman's Organics were very good -- but since I can't get any more of them without a four-hour drive, they're kind of off the table as a regular part of our snacking life.

Wallaby Organic Australian-style yogurt has long been my favorite, though I've been dismayed by the steadily-shrinking selection at Fresh Market and Earth Fare. I love Banana Vanilla, Key Lime, Lemon, Raspberry, and Strawberry Banana -- but of these, only Banana Vanilla and Raspberry are carried at Fresh Market. And since Key Lime and Lemon are my very favorites, you can imagine how disappointed I am at being unable to get them in Greensboro.

I've rarely seen Wallaby Nonfat yogurts in a store -- though their flavors sound promising, especially Bartlett Pear, Mango Lime, Peach, and Strawberry Guava.

Two brands simply don't make the cut, though it's not because of the flavor. Kalona Super Natural yogurts are so natural that they look lumpy and have an unpleasant, watery mouthfeel. For those who actually like ugly and unpleasant food on the theory that it's better for you (or because peasants like me don't like them), the flavors are certainly enjoyable if you can gag them down.

The other loser, Siggi's Icelandic Style Skyr nonfat yogurt has the opposite problem -- it's so stiff that you can turn it upside down and nothing moves, let along drips. Again, the flavors are intriguing and quite pleasant, but the yogurt is almost dry in the mouth, and we all agreed that we would never reach for one in the fridge.

My wife's longtime favorite brand, Liberté Méditarranée, definitely made the cut. All of us loved the Wild Black Berry, and I was very hopeful upon taking my first bite of the Coconut. The flavor was perfect, and in that spoonful from the top of the tub there were almost no coarse coconut shavings.

This is essential for me, because while I love the flavor of coconut, I loathe the unchewable fibrous coconut strands that seem to be the only way anybody ever serves the stuff. Unfortunately, the deeper I dipped into the tub, the more coconut sawdust I found. Why oh why does everyone feel the need to include dry, unchewable coconut bits in everything with a coconut flavor? Why can't they puree it to the point where you never feel anything chewy and you just get the coconut flavor?

The other winner, to our pleasant surprise, was Fresh Market's store brand lowfat yogurt. Both the Strawberry and Blueberry were quite good.

You do understand that Yoplait, long a staple of my life, got tossed a few years ago after we read the product label and rejected the high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients, along with the rest of the standard supermarket brands. If you're happy with them, as I was for many years, then all of these organic brands may be different enough from what you're used to that you might not like them.

Now, though, I'm so happy with my Wallaby yogurt, and my wife with her Liberté Méditerranée, that we aren't even tempted to go back. When we have sampled our used-to-be favorites from Yoplait, we find them cloyingly sweet. I guess there's just no turning back once you switch to the good stuff.

*

We're at the end of Poetry Month, and I want to call your attention to just a few more poets.

First, there's local poet PJ Roosevelt Perkins, whom I ran into at a book signing. His collection Seed to the Sower is a heartfelt witness to his faith, and while many of the poems fall somewhere between a shout and a rant, others are as naively sweet as this:

Hallway

PJ Roosevelt Perkins

As I walk the long hallway
I see many things around me
And though I feel I am here to stay
Could I go back eventually?
The world smells like this
Sweetness comes from dead roses
Happiness comes from pain,
Peace comes from the rain
I see many like me
Cause everyone here
Is thinking about somebody else
And I know I can't help myself
Got those songs on repeat ...

A couple of my favorite poets, Dana Gioia and Richard Wilbur, recommended Kay Ryan's Say Uncle, and while some of her poems fall into the obscure-and-not-worth-decoding category, others are sizzling with communication. One of my favorites is:

Your Face Will Stick

Kay Ryan

However bland we all
begin when picked
from the common
stock of cherubim,
your face will stick.
There will be
a spot at which
you hear the click.
Your baby ears --
pink shells -- will
prick, your look grow
pixieish or dour,
fixed upon the
inner notch or
catch you can't resist,
like clocks set up
to strike the hour.

Not only are the ideas clever, whimsical, entertaining, and wise, but also Ryan is a master of rhythm, rhymes, assonance and alliteration. This is how it's done, folks. And, to prove my point, one more brilliant example:

Cheshire

Kay Ryan

It's not the cat,
It's the smile that
lasts, toothy
and ruthless.
It's facts like this
we like to resist --
how our parts
may lack allegiance
to the whole;
how the bonds
may be more casual
than we know; how
much of us might banish
and how well
some separate part
might manage.

Enough of quoting her poems -- fair use allows only so much before I say, Buy her book and give yourself time to relish all the jewels therein.

 

Then there's Dana Gioia, the poet who proves you can mix real life with art and enrich both parts. Gioia, whose poetry collection Interrogations at Noon won the American Book Award, served for years as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts under President Bush.

Though Gioia is that rare thing, a contemporary poet and intellectual who is comfortable with a Republican administration, he worked to keep politics out of the NEA, and instead to find a role for the NEA that fit well with mainstream national culture (instead of fashionable elitist anti-Americanism, which often seems to be the only viewpoint that is considered "art.")

The result was bipartisan support in Congress for NEA initiatives like Shakespeare in American Communities, which sponsored "more than 65 professional theatre companies in touring 1,800 communities in all 50 states to perform for nearly a million students" (quoting from the NEA's online bio of Gioia).

His Operation Homecoming "brought distinguished American authors to conduct workshops among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," and Poetry Out Loud supported 150,000 high school students in a poetry recitation contest that awards $50,000 in scholarships.

Including with extensive support of community one-city-one-book and other reading programs, Gioia's NEA was activist in a good sense: Affirming the best of American and English-language culture rather than attacking American culture or offending American tastes and values, as the NEA has so often done in the past.

But his term finally came to an end, and Gioia, like Cincinnatus, returned to the plow -- or, in his case, the pen. For during his time in office, he deliberately withheld his new poetry from publication, on the principle that the head of the NEA could not possibly get an unbiased reading from editors who might hope for NEA funding or who might disapprove of administration policies.

But now he's back at work. The Hudson Review's autumn 2010 issue included his narrative poem "Haunted," a delicious ghost story in verse. For instance, here's a passage where the narrator reflects on the profusion of art in a wealthy mansion where he was guest:

Nothing quite fit together. I suspect
>sumptuous excess was the desired effect,
a joyful shout to celebrate success --
good taste be damned -- let's just indulge ourselves
and revel like a child who greets his playmates
by emptying his toy chest on the floor.
What fun is wealth if no one notices?

And here's his description of a woman, Mara, who reveled in her role as raconteuse:

[She] was especially wicked in describing
her former lovers -- imitating them,
cataloguing their signature stupidities,
and relishing their subsequent misfortunes.
(I'm surely in her repertory now.)

And perhaps the best literary envisioning of a ghost that I've ever seen:

Something was wrong. I couldn't see her clearly.
She seemed at once herself and her own reflection
shimmering on the surface of clear water
where fleeting shadows twisted in the depths.

Oddly enough, I first became acquainted with Gioia through his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" In an era when poetry has almost disappeared from the public discussion and from everyday American life, Gioia made a case for poetry that actually attempts to communicate, poetry that earns our attention by inviting the ordinary reader instead of repelling him. (I adopted his rule that at every poetry reading, poets should read as much work by others as they read of their own.)

You can sample his essays online at http://www.danagioia.net, and I particularly urge you to look at "Business and Poetry" (http://www.danagioia.net/essays/ebusiness.htm ). Nobody talks more intelligently about poetry in particular and literature in general than Gioia. And I, for one, look forward to each new poem and book of poems he will produce in the months and years to come.


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