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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 28, 2016

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


HB2, Graduation, Cruise Views, Cupcakes

As North Carolinians begin to face the relentless punishment that always comes with defying the Inquisition, it's possible for some people to take a perverse kind of joy in resisting the insane demands of the extreme Left.

The trouble is that in the long run, everybody gets punished as hostility grows. And since we know, from forty years of experience, that the courts will strike down any law if it offends the Inquisition, it's only a matter of time before the bullies get their way (in the name of tolerance, of course).

But what if it were possible to reach a compromise, a piece of legislation that accomplishes everything that the Republican legislature cares about and meets enough of the restroom needs of the privileged groups that everybody can live with it?

I would have said it wasn't possible. But a year ago, Utah -- arguably the most conservative, and definitely the most Republican, state in Union -- passed a landmark LGBT rights bill.

They were trying to solve the problem of various cities passing a patchwork of anti-discrimination laws. But instead of imposing the Republican majority's will the way HB2 does, the LDS Church pulled together gay advocates and representatives of various religious groups to -- get this -- talk to each other and see what compromises might be possible.

Now, "compromise" is an ugly word among Republicans these days. The whole Drumpf phenomenon seems to be a reaction against any kind of compromise between Republicans in Congress and the doctrinaire Leftist President. If a Republican in office compromises with the other side in order to get half a loaf instead of none, Sean Hannity will call him a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and he'll face a primary challenge ... and lose.

But Utah Republicans are a little bit different -- because most Utah Republicans owe their first loyalty, not to their party or the dogmas of conservatism, but rather to the LDS Church. So if the compromise bears the imprimatur of the Church, then the Republicans who enacted the legislation will not be punished at the polls.

So here's what happened in Utah. The Utah LGBT rights bill added sexual orientation and gender identity to the anti-discrimination laws governing employment and housing. However, there were some exemptions for religious institutions.

As for bathroom facilities, here's what the Utah bill says: "This chapter may not be interpreted to prohibit an employer from adopting reasonable rules and policies that designate sex-specific facilities, including restrooms, shower facilities, and dressing facilities, provided that the employer's rules and policies adopted under this section afford reasonable accommodations based on gender identity to all employees."

Notice that this language does not impose a uniform one-size-fits-all policy that every public restroom must abide by. "Reasonable" is a term in law that can be adjudicated, but it leaves people free to work out, step by step, what's needed in each town and each business.

To some, this might seem like a complete capitulation to the demands of the bullies of the Left -- but it is not. Because they also worked out key provisions to protect religious liberty and freedom of speech.

The law specifically forbids employers from firing or downgrading or otherwise punishing employees for expressing religious and moral beliefs and commitments in the workplace, as long as they do so "in a reasonable, non-disruptive, and non-harassing way."

And an employer can't punish employees for their political and religious advocacy outside of their work hours, including "convictions about marriage, family, or sexuality."

In other words, while accommodating the reasonable needs of the LGBT community, the law also forbids the Left from their Soviet-style practice of trying to make sure that anyone who disagrees with them is never allowed to earn a living again.

How has the Utah law been received? Quoted in the New York Times: "It is a landmark," said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization. "This is a Republican-controlled Legislature with a Republican governor, and this will be the first time that a Republican-controlled process has led to extension of protections for L.G.B.T. people."

A quote from the Washington Post: Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat from Salt Lake City and the state's only openly gay legislator, said Utah has taken a step toward change. "Oh, if the country could be like this," he said, according to the Deseret News: "This bill is a model -- not just of legislation, but more importantly of how to bridge the cultural rift tearing America apart."

And a quote from the Salt Lake City Deseret News: "If Utah can get this balance between religious liberty and gay rights right, I really think it will be the pivot moment for the country," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a University of Illinois law professor who helped draft the bill.

She described the legislation as "détente." "We have to find a way to live together. We just can't endlessly be litigating against each other. We can't endlessly be in culture wars," Wilson said. "If you want to know why Utah got it right, it's because they actually called a truce in the culture war."

No matter how you feel about HB2, we all know that it will be struck down by the courts, and what they impose instead will show the federal judiciary's normal contempt for freedom of religion.

Wouldn't it be a cool thing if the Republicans in the legislature looked closely at the Utah law, and then passed a similar compromise law, repealing HB2?

Sure, it would look like the Republicans were kowtowing to the bullies of the Left. But these days, that's what happens anyway, whether we like it or not. So why not adopt a model law that is known to work well enough to meet the most crucial needs of both sides?

Eventually, the Dictatorship of the Inquisition will end, just as rabid anti-Communism was finally brought to heel with the censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Eventually, Constitutional change will once again come only by the Amendment process instead of the whim of an insanely arrogant intellectual elite.

But in the meantime, why not sidestep all the punishments we're being threatened with by voluntarily changing our own law instead of waiting for the courts to do it for us?

North Carolina's churches can take the curse off compromise legislation by openly calling for a revision in the law, following the Utah model. If the churches take the lead, the Republicans in the legislature will not have to fear the next primary election.

*

Last week, sick as a dog, doped up with Claritin and Tylenol, and weary to the bone, I got on a plane and flew to Utah, where our youngest was graduating from Brigham Young University. There are some family events you only miss if you're dead. And even then, you're probably required to haunt the event.

While I was parking the car, my wife was inside the Marriott Center, the basketball arena where both of the big graduation ceremonies would be held. She read the program and then tried to text me that our youngest had made the list of students graduating Cum Laude, which means "with honors."

However, this is a phrase that her phone's auto-correct was unfamiliar with. So it got "translated" into: "Cumulative Lauderdale."

This was such a brilliant accident. Imagine if you got honors upon graduation for your achievements during all four of the Spring Breaks of your college career! A high Cumulative Lauderdale score might mean something -- to a certain kind of employer, for a certain kind of job.

And if, in your senior year, you had an outstanding Cumulative Lauderdale, maybe the college could give you a scholarship -- playership? -- to help defray the cost of your final Spring Break blowout.

*

Parking for BYU's graduation ceremonies was appallingly inadequate. They're in the midst of converting to an all-pedestrian campus, like Notre Dame's, but when you're graduating 5900 students over the same two-day period, knowing that each student may bring multiple carfuls of relatives and friends, it's not enough to have a couple of guys directing traffic around the closest parking lots and drop-off points.

But the real kicker is how hostile the local businesses seem to be. The thousands who converge on Provo, Utah, for BYU's big events spend a lot of money that Provo would otherwise not receive. But the local landlords, filled with the milk of human kindness, not to mention Christian charity, seem to compete with each other at putting up the meanest no parking signs.

And when they threaten to tow your car if you park in the nearly-empty lot, they aren't kidding. I stopped at a CVS pharmacy right in the shadow of campus, and made some purchases. Then asked a store employee how serious the don't-park-here-for-BYU-events attitude was.

After all, there were dozens and dozens of parking places -- I estimated more than a hundred -- and there was zero chance that CVS customers were going to use even half of them.

"It's the landlord," I was told. "He's out here with tow trucks, hooking up cars and towing them off."

"I'd be glad to pay fifty bucks for three hours' use of one parking stall," I said.

"He'd rather make you pay to get your car back from the towing company."

What a missed opportunity. We here in Greensboro are long used to making whatever money we can at the edges of big events. How many people have rented rooms or houses to Furniture Market visitors? How many people happily charge whatever the traffic will bear to let people park in their yards for overflow events?

That CVS store -- and the businesses across the street and farther up the block -- have prime parking real estate, much closer than some of the parking places near the BYU Stadium. They could make a lot of money by charging obscene amounts for parking -- which people would pay.

After all, gouging on close parking places is not "unfair" at all. If you don't mind a long walk, you're free to pay less (or nothing) to park, and hike to the event. But if you're an old coot like me, that long walk will leave me wiped out. It's worth the money to get a legal parking place that saves me a mile of walking.

Some people, though, get more pleasure from saying no than they would ever get from making money. They love the feeling of power, as drivers go off in search of another parking place.

It's a sad kind of power -- the power to make somebody else's life harder, when you could have made their life easier and made some money. But we all know people like that. Petty tyrants. And all we need to do to make them happy is look disappointed. And if we get mad, it makes them downright ecstatic.

What I don't understand is BYU itself. They know perfectly well that they're flooding Provo with visitors at every big event. They also have the clout to induce landlords to adhere to BYU's rules about housing.

Why not use some of that clout to enroll property owners in one huge parking co-op, making deals with them to open up a reasonable number of parking places at whatever price they think they can get?

But neither capitalism nor advance planning play any role in parking at BYU events. So old coots like me better plan on having somebody else drop us off near the door, and pick us up afterward.

*

BYU does repent of some bad ideas. When the Marriott Center was new, they installed plastic chairs that were harder than the worst chairs at McDonald's. They were build like buckets, and if you weren't skinny as a snake, your hips and backside would mold to fit them.

If they hadn't been fastened to the floor, I'm sure a lot of people would have found themselves walking around for days afterward with plastic Marriott Center chairs attached to their backsides. Surgical removal would have been required in many cases.

So what I dreaded most about my daughter's graduation was the thought of sitting in those chairs again. But the rulers of BYU apparently noticed that people were asking for some nice water-boarding instead of having to sit in those chairs.

What I encountered were padded seats that were just about the size of economy-class seats in airplanes. I could just barely fit myself into the space -- and then removed myself with little trouble. The seat was so comfortable that I suffered no pain from the experience.

I bet that making the change to comfortable-ish chairs reduced the total number of seats in the arena. But I'll bet that it didn't cause a drop in attendance. A lot of those seats go to alumni, whose bottoms have widened since their student days. They're much more likely to pay to watch games or events if they know they aren't going to be in agony the whole time.

*

Now that public television stations and programs are allowed to have high-class advertisements, at the beginning of every Masterpiece Theatre and Masterpiece Mystery, they've lately been running a commercial for Viking River Cruises.

Since rivers were the great highways of ancient and medieval Europe, they are dotted with castles, port cities, picturesque villages, and lots of trees.

Viking River Cruises are advertised with aerial shots of the gorgeous scenery and architecture. But that is exactly the view that you will never see from the surface of the river. You don't get grand vistas from the water's surface, because wherever water is boatable, it's at the lowest point in the landscape.

I'm reminded of my first visit to Greensboro in February 1983. Because the leaves were off the trees, I could see the city from I-40. But my guide warned me: In summer, with leaves on the trees, the city would be invisible.

Think of driving along I-40 or, worse yet, I-95, surrounded by walls of trees on both sides, and few towns because it's a freeway.

Now, when I first moved east from the desert states of Utah, Arizona, California, and eastern Washington where I had grown up, trees were all beautiful because, for me, they were a sign of life that had been missing from my upbringing, and most humans have a tree hunger, a need for living shade.

After a while, though, I realized that the constant trees cut off any views or vistas there might be. Is there scenery along North Carolina freeways?

No. Not unless you're in the mountains and you pull onto a turnout and contemplate a Grant Wood vista of rolling hills called "mountains."

I've spent hundreds of hours of my life crossing deserts by car, usually as a passenger. I've driven east-west across Nevada, north-south through Arizona and Utah, the long way across Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas.

Montana. Wyoming. The Texas Panhandle.

Hour after hour you drive. The air is bone dry, so you can see forever. Off in the distance, mountains. Close at hand, one kind of bleakness or another. Sagebrush. Tumbleweeds. Scruffy grass. Cactus forests.

The scenery never changes. The distant mountain never grows closer, while the scenery to either side changes so little that your mind goes numb. Then, suddenly, the distant mountain looms and now, after two hours of racing toward it, you're finally there. You cross over the shoulder of the mountain, and on the other side you find: another nondescript mountain in the distance, across an infinite desert exactly like the one you just crossed.

Driving on forest-walled freeways is worse, because there's less to look at. There are no distant objects that never seem to grow closer. The monotony of green trees soon becomes just as bad as the monotony of red sand or sagebrush or wheat fields. It never changes.

Now, don't misunderstand. As a desert boy, I think of the tree-filled East of our country as "the land that God finished creating." I love it here, and when I visit Utah, Arizona, California, or Nevada, it takes about an hour for me to become so tree-hungry I want to cry.

But back in Greensboro with the trees in full leaf, I get sky-hungry. Where are the magnificent stacks of clouds and sunbursts all along the horizon that are so common in California and Arizona and Utah?

I still prefer US 29 for trips to DC; if I never ride on I-95 to and through Richmond again, I'll be happy. Because US 29 takes me through horse country, with places where trees make way for pastureland, and there are frequent beautiful views. Including views of the sky.

So when I imagine a river cruise, I have to figure that most of the way, the Danube and the Rhine are much like driving on I-95 or I-40 -- mostly trees on both sides. Nothing like the stunning vistas in the aerial shots used for the commercials.

But maybe not. The great rivers were the highways, not the freeways of olden days. If your town could front on the water, it would, and there were no distancing effects like freeway interchanges. It was all local traffic. Pastureland would sometimes run right to the water. There would be more variety of scenery than driving along an American freeway.

But grand vistas? Only if you get off the boat and somehow climb to a high vantage point. Most of the time you'd have to trust your memory of the commercials to know what gorgeous scenery you were being floated through.

It still sounds fun to me. Except the part about being trapped on a boat with strangers. I would never have survived the Mayflower voyage -- if I hadn't jumped overboard, somebody would have pushed me long before we got there.

Look, Europe is gorgeous, and the rivers are at the heart of much of the gorgeousness. The Loire Valley has many great estates with landscaping down to the riverbank; the Danube and Rhine have so much history they probably have to scrape memories off the hulls of the boats like barnacles.

But using aerial shots to promote a river cruise definitely needs some truth-in-advertising scrutiny, in my opinion.

*

There's an ice cream place right on Center Street in Provo, Utah, called "Roll with It," and my wife, after hearing my youngest and me talk about the place, is eager to try it when she and I go to Provo for our daughter's college graduation this week.

The concept is Thailand-style ice cream rolls. Apparently, street vendors in Thailand push carts that keep round pizza-pan-sized "burners" at very low temperatures. Way below freezing.

They pour flavored custard onto the "griddle" and then scrape it as it freezes, rather like scraping the sides and bottom of a pan in which you're scrambling eggs. Like scrambled eggs, the custard comes away in thin sheets, which automatically form rolls and tubes.

These are gently set into cups, and the results are a very good frozen custard. Because you watched it getting frozen, you know it's freshly made; it wasn't sitting in a big tub in a freezer for months or years. It takes a little longer to make than simply scooping ice cream out of a tub -- but no longer than, say, Cold Stone.

It shares its space with Good Thyme Eatery, which is a new spin on cafeteria-style dining; for a fixed price, you can choose your protein, one hot side, and three cold sides. It's way too much for one person to eat, but that also means that if you don't care for one of the sides after all, you won't starve.

The idea of Good Thyme Eatery is great; in the execution, it has some serious problems. For one thing, when you enter the line and have to decide whether you're doing soup, hot protein, or a sandwich as your main dish, there is zero information about what those options actually are. "Protein" is so vague, after all.

Instead, they invite you to walk ahead in the line, see what they're serving, and come back. They won't just tell you. The helpers at the first counter apparently don't even know what's being served farther along.

In fact, it's shocking what they didn't know. There was a display of delicious-looking bread on the countertop, and I asked a guy to serve me a piece. "Oh, no, those are for display; they're very dry and hard."

I saw that farther ahead in line, in the sandwich-making area, they had similar bread, which presumably would not be dry and hard. But when I got there, they wouldn't give me any. "You get bread servings back at the beginning, where you can see a display of breads on the countertop."

"Um," I said. (Thereby replacing with a neutral sound the string of expletives that, in my wicked, fallen state, were the first things that came to mind.) I repeated what the guy at that station had told me.

"Well, of course the display bread is hard, but there is plenty of fresh bread under the counter that he's supposed to cut for you."

Apparently, when you point at the display and say, I'd like some of that, it is beyond the ability of the employee to understand that I want bread of the depicted kind, and not necessarily a piece of that exact hard, dry display loaf.

If the food had been excellent, it would have made up for much of the frustration with the incompetent or nonexistent communication. (Would it kill them to put the day's proteins and sandwich choices and soups on a chalkboard right at the beginning?)

But the food was not excellent. Those who think of squash as a food liked the butternut squash soup. Those of us who thought you couldn't wreck braised short ribs were astonished to find that one could be given a serving that contained nothing but fat. Of the sides, I found the cous-cous edible.

Compensating for these failings is the fact that the restaurant next door is Guru, one of the best eating establishments in the state of Utah. I did not starve.

That section of Center Street in Provo now looks like a downtown that has decided to stay alive. Provo went for decades allowing developers to destroy what was once a beautiful pioneer-era city, so that almost nothing is left.

But it's still a college town, and that huge university population (35,000) means that there's demand for quirky shops, unusual restaurant and dessertery concepts, and the kind of variety that encourages people to walk around and look in shop windows.

You know, a downtown instead of a mall.

The LDS Church just finished transforming the burnt-out shell of the historic Provo Tabernacle into a Mormon Temple, with the original building's architecture fully restored. Since Mormon temples are weekday destinations, there'll be plenty of potential customers downtown every day.

They're even putting in apartment buildings, so there are actual residents to frequent these shops. When I lived in Provo as a student, I rarely had a reason to wander around downtown because the downtown in those days was in the process of dying. A few shops and galleries tried to stem the tide, but with the city government doing nothing to forestall the destruction, they were doomed.

Greensboro, too, has suffered from decades of a love-hate relationship between downtown and the city government. As in most places, it takes a long, long time for the "experts" to catch up with their own field and realize that it's possible for government rules to promote downtown life. By the time a government finds this out, downtowns are often too wrecked to recover. But, like Provo, Greensboro still has a decent chance to make a go of downtown life.

Having rents low enough for risky, off-beat restaurant experiments is a vital part of downtown revival. Keeping every scrap of street frontage devoted to small shops and local establishments is another.

*

My family -- including a granddaughter old enough to be a connoisseuse of such things -- recently visited Gigi's Cupcakes at 1310 Westover Terrace.

This strip of eateries and other shops has had its ups and downs -- we first came to know it when the best French Restaurant ever in Greensboro, Le Rendezvous, was located there -- but apparently we're on a serious upswing right now.

I know, the "cupcake thing" is over in New York and Los Angeles. But I'm fine with that, because most of those trendy cupcakes were inedible. I don't mean the quality was bad, I mean you literally could not get your mouth around them in order to take a bite without getting frosting and/or crumbs all over your face, including on your glasses and up your nose.

Well, let me tell you about Gigi's. Among their selection, they have small cupcakes. That's right. Little cupcakes that a fastidious adult can eat without needing someone to hose you down.

Not only that, they do not skimp on quality. The icing, while thicker than I usually prefer, is made with topnotch ingredients so it really is worth eating.

You can order online at gigiscupcakesusa.com/location/greensboro-north-carolina-nc/ , choosing your cupcakes and arranging your time and day of pickup. But if you're not buying for a whole office or party or church group or whatever, and you just want dessert, you can simply drop by unannounced.


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