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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 21, 2013

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


Roads, Barkeaters, Christmas Music

They're widening Battleground Avenue -- US Highway 220 -- all the way out to where it joins NC 68. It's a pleasure to watch how the plans unfold, how the engineers designed the flow of the new road -- and carefully arranged things so that traffic won't be disrupted during the construction.

I must say, however, that it's about time. This long stretch of two-lane has been an annoying choke point for inbound traffic the entire thirty years I've lived in Greensboro.

US 29 used to be as bad. I used to drive regularly to and from Danville, as I now drive to and from Roanoke and points north, and I got more and more annoyed at the way those lovely Virginia four-lanes and freeways turned into two-lane country roads the moment they hit the North Carolina border.

It was just as bad inside North Carolina. I used to commute weekly to Boone when I taught at Appalachian State, and it was frustrating that the four-lane was replaced by winding dangerous two-lane tracks as soon as we got into the mountains.

Finally somebody explained the politics of North Carolina roads to me. "The legislature is run by the Democratic Party. The Democratic voting strength is in the eastern part of the state. The west is solidly Republican. Why in the world would they build good roads where nobody's going to vote for them no matter what they do?"

Sure enough, when Jim Martin became governor, it put enough of a scare into the legislature that US 421 out to Boone actually got some serious attention. Was it coincidence that they widened US 29 after the Republicans nearly got control of the legislature (only a bribe and a party switch kept the Democrats in charge -- a close shave!).

Now, though, the legislature is solidly Republican. And guess what? US 220 is finally, finally getting widened.

No, I don't really think it's only about politics. But politics plays a part. Even with local roads -- no, especially with local roads.

For instance, Greensboro's growth pattern within Guilford County is substantially to the west and north. The west is limited by the airport, so northward is where the city tends to sprawl these days (though there's development in every direction).

Radiating into that northern development area are several main roads: Battleground/220 to the northwest, then Lawndale/Lake Brandt, Church, Yanceyville, and Summit.

As new developments are built, the traffic on these two-lane roads gets heavier and heavier. Church and Lake Brandt especially need to be widened. But projects like that never seem to become high priorities until a few people have died in traffic accidents.

What is the job of local government? Besides tax collection, I mean.

Schools and transportation, I believe. It's nice to have some parks, and we must have a jail, law enforcement, and fire departments. But if transportation isn't working, everything else is harder and more expensive.

So I confess to feelings of ire when I see vanity projects like arts centers and meaningless parks going up "without expense to the city" (which is always a lie), while the real needs of the city are ignored.

I see bus riders standing in the rain or the blazing sun because we can build an arts center but not shelters at bus stops.

I see mothers pushing strollers in busy streets because we don't build our roads with sidewalks or even shoulders, the way civilized societies do.

I see children jaywalking across major thoroughfares because there are no crosswalks, mile after mile. And even at intersections, crossing lights seem to be bestowed by whim -- yes, you may have a crosswalk leading to this shopping strip, but not to that one, even though it's larger.

Much of the blame for this must rest on the shoulders of real estate developers, who "know" the "fact" that people prefer to live on quiet cul-de-sacs rather than busy main streets.

But the result of this "knowledge" is development after development with only a single entry point. People fight to keep the city from pushing thoroughfares into and out of their development.

This is because they're short-sighted -- the traffic equivalent of dime-smart and dollar-dumb.

Cul-de-sacs are actually horrible -- for the people who live there and for the city as a whole. Why? Because in all these one-entrance developments, everybody has to drive extra miles just to get onto a main road.

My friends Andy and Deborah live in such an intricate maze that it's almost two miles from the main road to their house -- though birds can make the hop in about two hundred yards.

So because of cul-de-sac developments -- no, let's call them what they are, black hole housing projects -- we are forced to waste thousands and thousands of gallons of gasoline driving through mazes.

On those cul-de-sacs, there's nowhere to park. All the driveways converge and there's no curb. Don't bother having a party; even bringing two couples over will disrupt parking in the cul-de-sac.

Fortunately, nobody can find your house in the maze, anyway.

It's a matter of health, too -- because you have to go miles out of your way just to start getting anywhere, you cannot possibly reach any meaningful destination on foot.

And with no shoulders on the roads, forget the bicycle -- car drivers, already seething with frustration because they have to drive the same meaningless maze every time they go anywhere at all, become dangerously irate when a bicyclist forces them to slow down.

My wife and I once started the process of buying land and building a house out Church Street -- but then changed our minds after driving several times from the site to the nearest stores.

We realized how we would come to hate that drive, day after day. We realized how much more dangerous it would be to walk or run or cycle for exercise in our new "neighborhood" -- a cul-de-sac development which led to cruelly narrow two-lane roads where only would-be suicides would dare to travel without enclosing themselves in a car.

Traffic planners know the truth: Cul-de-sac one-entrance developments waste huge amounts of time and fuel, and cause traffic jams and dangerous conditions on the few arteries.

The pattern that actually works -- that leads to a combination of safety and convenience -- is the traditional grid.

Grids, with patterns of through streets crossing each other and dividing the development into predictable blocks, create many choices for drivers. The traffic spreads more or less evenly through the development, without choke points.

People seem to think the only choice is between Manhattan and suburban cul-de-sacs, but it's not true. Reread Dandelion Wine and realize that Douglas Spaulding's idyllic childhood -- like mine in pre-Silicon-Valley Santa Clara, California -- took place in street grids with houses right next to each other and across from and behind each other.

The yards were small -- though big enough for a garden or a game of catch. The sidewalk was right there, a highway for kids with roller skates or bicycles to go anywhere they wanted because the traffic flowed evenly along all the streets, and moved slowly enough for safety.

Survey after survey shows that people who actually live in such neighborhoods are happier. They spend less on gas. They walk more, with the health benefits that result. They aren't trapped in miles of traffic just to get to the grocery store.

But there's another factor at play: The illusion of wealth. Rich people have lots of land. Never mind that lots of land means mowing and mowing and mowing. And that your neighbors will be far away, and your driveway ridiculously long and hard to back down.

So you aren't living in a neighborhood at all, in most cases. And you drive and drive and drive and drive and ...

That's at the micro level. At the macro level it's made even worse by the failure of vision in our governments.

Those radiating arteries only take you into and out of Greensboro. As new commercial developments follow the population out into the county, we don't have the cross streets that would allow us to get from one place to another.

Part of the problem is the reservoirs, of course. But those are bridged well and often enough.

Suppose you live near Lake Brandt Road and you want to get to someplace on Church. You have a few choices. If you're closer in, Bass Chapel and Air Harbor will make the link-up. Plainfield Road, if you're a little farther out -- but, like Spencer-Dixon, it cuts an angle so it doesn't really solve the problem.

James Doak Parkway would be a great help -- if somebody would finish the thing! But instead it peters out at Mountain Brook Road, and starts up again on the other side of Northern High School.

Why? Maybe there's somebody who won't sell their land. But my guess is that the people who live near the dangling ends of James Doak would probably get up petitions and be all irate at meetings, demanding that the road not be finished because it would bring too much traffic!

Yeah, it would also save residents hundreds of dollars in wasted gas, and make it more economical for people to build stores near your home so you didn't have to drive as much.

Traffic gets awful because roads like James Doak Parkway are left unfinished. What's needed is not more dead ends, but more through streets. You want James Doak not to be an overly trafficked road? Build four or five more throughways connecting Lake Brandt, Church, 150, and Plainfield!

"We have too many roads already!" "Don't pave more of our beautiful countryside!"

Yadda yadda yadda. We're already building the roads, winding around and around inside one-entrance developments. We just can't get from anywhere to anywhere else without going miles out of our way. And when we do go those miles, all the roads are dangerous two-lanes without shoulders.

But we'll have a performing arts center -- just no audience willing to pay for it, and no performing groups worthy of drawing such an audience.

(If they were worthy of it, they'd have the audience, and entrepreneurs would build the performance venues without the need for public help. Is the city building movie theaters? Of course not -- because people pay to go there.)

In time -- and with shifts in political will -- highways eventually get widened. When enough people die, rural roads are widened. When traffic becomes really dreadful, they build a few more inadequate roads -- without sidewalks or shoulders.

And we put up with it because ... because we forget that it doesn't have to be this way.

*

Imagine you're in Target and have a couple of hundred bucks worth of stuff in your shopping cart. The clerk scans them all, gives you a total, and starts bagging.

You slip your credit card into the slot, a total appears, and you reach down to press the touchpad to say OK.

Only instead of $228 as you expected, the total is now $784.

What's going on? You start to ask the clerk, but you can see that he's finished bagging and there is now a lot more stuff than you had in the cart. Bags full. Where did all this other stuff come from?

I know. That doesn't happen at Target.

But it can happen online, and here's how.

My wife and I used to buy a lot of Christmas cards from the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) online store. They offered some really wonderful cut-paper cards (they still do!), and in an era when Hallmark had pretty much stopped offering any intricately cut cards, we switched to MoMA for the purchase of several hundred Christmas cards each year.

A couple of years ago, though, as I was filling my MoMA online shopping cart, I realized that I wasn't really thrilled with that year's cards. So I abandoned the cart and talked to my wife about it, and we went in a different direction that year.

The following year, we didn't even look at the MoMA cards, and since Christmas cards were the only things we ever bought at that website, we didn't go back.

This year, though, I got a mailing from MoMA and, interested in one item in the mailing, I clicked through to the site. I bought a couple of boxes of nativity-scene cut-out cards, plus a MoMA membership, and went to check out.

When it came time to enter my address, none of the blanks were filled in, and I realized I had never logged onto the site. I wondered if the website would even remember me. I signed in using my email address and password, and presto! There were my billing and shipping addresses.

I entered my credit card data and was about to click the button to submit the order, when I happened to glance again at the total. It had more than tripled.

I was baffled. How had I tripled my purchases? I went back a few screens, and the cart was still there, exactly as I had filled it. And the total was back to $228 plus change.

Ah, but the Back button had taken me to a screen from before I logged in by name. Instead of backing up to the cart, I clicked afresh on the Shopping Cart button, and now I saw a whole bunch of Christmas cards, box after box.

And I realized, finally, that the MoMA website had remembered that abandoned shopping cart from two years ago. They didn't even offer most of those cards anymore. But there they were in my cart, as if I had only stepped away for a minute instead of two years.

No doubt if I had actually submitted the order, I would have received an email telling me that most of the order was canceled because the cards were no longer available. But still, it was disconcerting to realize how long that cart could remain "alive" while waiting for me to return.

That has happened to me a few times on Amazon, where I'll sign on to find that some item I had decided not to buy a few weeks before was still there in my cart.

Imagine now if that could happen in Target. You're checking out, and suddenly there are all the items you put into a shopping cart a few years ago, but left behind in the store without paying.

In the store, if you were to walk away from a shopping cart, you would expect to remain anonymous, and everything would be reshelved without anyone knowing or caring who had filled the cart.

The internet is usually seen as more anonymous -- but computers don't forget until they're told to. And you may find years-old shopping trips coming back to haunt you.

*

I was getting uneasy -- something was nagging at the back of my mind as I wrote this week's column -- and I finally realized:

It had been more than a week since I last wrote about chocolate.

Loco for Coco is the only place in North Carolina where you can buy Barkeater Chocolates -- and that makes us the luckiest chocolate-eaters around.

Barkeater Chocolates originate in the Adirondacks area of New York, but it's not about location, it's about quality. Once I tasted the "Downhill Darksider" bar -- "63% Dark Chocolate With Sea Salt" -- I was hooked.

It was about the only chocolate that could make me set aside a Guittard Tsaratana bar. Now I keep stacks of both the Barkeater Downhill Darksider and the Guittard Tsaratana bars in the cheese compartment of our refrigerator.

They disappear with astonishing quickness, and I'm pretty sure it's not the cheese carrying out some weird culinary ethnic cleansing.

The thing about salted chocolate is that it can so easily be overdone. I tried Whole Foods' salted chocolate bar, for instance, and while it was certainly an earnest effort, it was way, way too salty.

The Barkeater folks created what is for me the perfect balance between chocolate and salt. Because it's a mild dark chocolate, it's a little sweet, and because the salt is restrained, it's a little salty. Mostly, though, it's extremely good chocolate.

It costs $2.85 at Loco for Coco, and that's more than you'll pay for ordinary chocolate bars in the grocery store.

But once you've tasted a Barkeater bar, you'd rather have one of those than any three of the grocery-store bars. So it's a bargain.

The Barkeater website -- http://www.BarkeaterChocolates.com -- offers a lot of other things besides chocolate bars, and I haven't tried any of them.

In fact, Loco for Coco has a lot of Barkeater bars I haven't tried: bars with coffee or cranberry or almonds or orange mixed in.

But as a Mormon, I have never acquired a taste for coffee, and I don't like cranberry or orange mixed with my chocolate. Almonds are fine, but their almond bar is milk chocolate and these days I prefer dark.

So you'll have to find out about the other flavors for yourselves. You're on your own. The one I'm vouching for is the Downhill Darksider bar with sea salt. And Loco for Coco has a hard time keeping them in stock because I buy so many of them.

And, for fairness, let me remind you of the Guittard chocolate bar website, too.

*

The must-have Christmas album of this season is Christmas with Judy Collins.

For simplicity, beauty, nostalgia, and musical quality I can only compare it with the greatest Christmas album of all time: Light of the Stable, by Emmylou Harris.

Both albums have a country feel to them, without really belonging to that genre. Rather, they feel as if you've gone home to relatives you never knew you had, and these are the songs that they take turns singing, and in this music all of Christmas unfolds.

Judy Collins is not young, but the simple purity of her voice is undiminished. She has never sounded trained -- not on Wildflowers, the Leonard-Cohen-dominated album that established her career, and not on Judith, the brilliant pop-folk album that had her biggest hit, "Send in the Clowns."

Instead of training, she has the sound of utter sincerity. When Collins sings, you feel as if she means every word.

So whether she's singing Tin Pan Alley classics like "Let It Snow" or "I'll Be Home for Christmas," time-honored Christmas hymns like "Joy to the World" or "The Wexford Carol," or folk classics like "Away in a Manger" or "Cherry Tree Carol," they all make me think, This is the true version; this is the song from its very root.

And if you don't know the music of Judy Collins, then do yourself a favor and buy or download Wildflowers and Judith. These albums are the heart and soul of the popular folk genre of the 1960s and 1970s, and they are still fresh today.


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