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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.

Except Hallmark.

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 save?

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 tightly closed.

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 dispensers.


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 funny.

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 blamed.

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 Dorothy Hamill.")

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 especially clear.

Not as annoying as somebody who can't get over how funny he is; but dull is dull.

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 writing books.)

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 musicals do?]).

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 listened to.)

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 Environmental Way.

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 Earth?)

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 up rich.

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 reasons.)

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 get.

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.

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