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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 8, 2007

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


Games, YouTube, Fading Songwriter, Axis of Comedy

In the perpetual search for fun family games that don't involve drawing pictures or knowing answers to questions, we recently tried out three that are worth playing.

The most fun -- and the one that allows the most players (at least four, and up to eight) -- is Snorta! The Wild Game of Moos, Meows and More! [from Out of the Box: otb-games.com].

The fun begins with the game pieces: cartoony three-dimensional barnyard animals (if your barnyard includes a snake and a frog). You also get eight little plastic barns. If toy barns can be charming, these are. (Three-year-olds will probably steal them to play with, if they can.)

Each player randomly draws one of the animals and puts it in his barn. The players go around the circle, making the noise of their own barnyard animal, with all the other players making the noise of the same creature. ("Arf," "Woof," and "Bow-wow" are considered synonyms. Snakes say "Ssssss.")

A deck of cards depicting the animals is dealt out evenly, and the players hold their stacks in their hand. On their turn, each player flips the top card from his hand onto a stack on the table in front of him. If one player's table card matches the top card on another player's table stack, both must immediately try to make the sound of the other player's hidden animal.

This is particularly confusing because:

(1) the matched cards depict an animal that has nothing to do with either hidden animal;

(2) I'm getting so old I can't remember the names of the people I'm playing with, let alone the sound some stupid animal supposedly says; and

(3) nobody is willing to accept the idea that I made the sound of an animal speaking a foreign language.

(Can you prove that a cow has never said "ribbet"? What if it says "ribbet" with a bovine accent?)

The best thing about this game is that younger players, with the most unused synapses available for recording completely worthless information like which animal is whose, can win over adults who would totally smear them all over the game board if they were playing Trivial Pursuit.

Sneeze is another card-matching game, this time with players matching their allergies with whatever the wind brings them [www.cambridgegames.com].

Where Snorta! announces it is for players age eight and up, Sneeze claims to be fine for age six and up.

In the real world, I suggest you reverse that. Snorta! would be quite easy for a six-year-old, but Sneeze had much more complicated directions. In fact, we had to read through the instructions twice and play for a few turns before everybody finally understood what in the world was going on.

Once you get into the game, it begins to be fun. Cards representing dust, smog, pollen, cats, and dogs randomly become your combination of allergies. When your combination of allergies is turned over and the wind is blowing toward you, you sneeze.

With each sneeze, you get a new allergy to add to your misery; in addition, you get "And Now" cards, which allow you to play mean tricks on other players, or change the wind direction, or make yourself immune to sneezes for a while, or other variations. This is the only aspect of the game that is not random.

Amusing concepts can get people to buy games, but it's gameplay that decides whether they enjoy playing them. Sneeze passes the test. The tension comes from watching the upwind allergens come closer and closer to matching your combination of allergies. It's like when you feel a sneeze coming on. Which, as long as it's just cards, is fun.

Ringgz is an abstract strategy game for two to four players (ages 8 to adult), in which you lay down colored rings or solid circles, attempting to control more spaces on the board than anyone else.

What makes it tricky is that you control a space by having more of your color of rings than anyone else. Up to four rings can occupy the same space, so if you have two rings of your color on a space and no other color has more than one ring, you win it in the tally at the end of the game.

The big fat solid "base" pieces count for no points at all. But because you can only place your color rings on a space adjacent to one that has at least one ring of your color, you can use those bases to block someone else out of an area.

And even when another player already has three rings of his color on a space, it can still be valuable to put in one of yours, not because you have a chance of controlling the space, but because it lets you put rings on the adjacent spaces.

It takes forethought and tired old men can find themselves utterly outclassed by their clever, witty, cheating wives.

If you have a large group (up to eight), or one that includes youngish children, I'd pick Snorta!, because it can move very quickly and there's a lot of talking and laughing (including the barnyard sound of humans whining and whimpering).

For a medium-sized group (two to six) and a quieter game that doesn't require a lot of mental gymnastics, it's Sneeze.

And for a small group (two to four) that is willing to do some intense abstract thinking in a completely skill-driven game, you can get a lot of satisfaction -- or frustration -- out of playing Ringgz.

*

YouTube seems like such a good idea. But it can be evil.

For instance: A young teenager, by definition fragile and easily hurt, has a spontaneous moment at a party, bursting into a quick and deliberately silly dance move to punctuate a funny comment.

But some jerk at the party captures the silly dance on a camera phone and uploads it to YouTube, where people put comments that range from insensitive to vicious, criticizing her as if she were a voluntary contestant on a television dance show.

I realize that in our day, while "privacy" allow the killing of viable babies up to the moment of birth, there are no privacy rights for people who don't want or deserve to have their innocent social behaviors held up to ridicule.

But there should be, and shame on us that there is no such law.

It's bad enough for anyone to steal someone else's behavior among friends, however ridiculous it might be, and expose it to hostile strangers. When the person being tormented in this way is a child, then the image-thief deserves the scorn of all decent people.

Doesn't this fall within the category of what Jesus intended when he said, "It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (Luke 17:2)?

What makes me sick about this kind of cruelty (which has happened over and over again, including cases in Greensboro) is that while a child suffers, YouTube makes money from advertising displayed along with the offensive video.

And yet YouTube claims to have no responsibility for the consequences of the activities from which they profit.

I don't think so. I think the law needs to be revised, and immediately, so that YouTube bears not just civil but criminal responsibility for any video that displays the image of underage persons doing anything at all, without the consent of the children and their parents -- even if the child pictured is the one who uploaded the video. (Children cannot be expected to understand the consequences of self-exposure.)

YouTube can use some of their advertising revenue to screen all videos and make sure that no child can come to harm from depiction on their site.

This is far more important to a decent society than protecting huge corporations from illegal downloading of music to which they own the copyright. But guess who gets the full force of the law behind their cause?

*

Mary Chapin Carpenter is one of the great singer-songwriters. Almost by accident, she was classified as a "country singer," but her music is actually eclectic and personal -- she sounds like nobody else, and nobody else sounds like her.

I think she was classified as "country" only because in the 1990s, it was the only branch of music that was open to melodic songs whose words had to be listened to, and which evoked deep and positive emotions. (Remember that what was "happenin'" then was rap, hip-hop, and anti-melodic alternative rock.)

Her songs were (and are) brilliant as poetry and music. Drawing on many musical traditions, her music is at once surprising and memorable. And her words provide her audience with the poetry that the academic-literary establishment has deprived us of for generations.

Full of powerful imagery and perfect phrasing, many of her songs tell the story of human life in a way reminiscent (to me, at least) of Auden and Frost. And yet she can sometimes be as clever a lyricist as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, or Lorenz Hart.

All her albums have great songs:

Stones in the Road has "Shut Up and Kiss Me" and "The End of My Pirate Days" and "Outside Looking In" and "John Doe No. 24."

Shooting Straight in the Dark has "Halley Came to Jackson," "What You Didn't Say," and "The More things Change" (one of her countriest songs).

Time* Sex* Love* has the impossibly perfect "Someone Else's Prayer," as well as "Simple Life," "Late for Your Life," and "King of Love."

Between Here and Gone has "Goodnight America" and "Between Here and Gone."

And then there's Come On Come On, one of the greatest albums of all time, period. With good humor she sings "I Feel Lucky" and "I Take My Chances"; with more bite, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her."

But Come On Come On overwhelms me every time I listen to it, with songs that stab me to the heart and yet set me to dreaming, like "Come On, Come On," "I Am a Town," "Passionate Kisses," "Not Too Much to Ask."

She deserves her place in the pantheon that includes Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Beth Nielson Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, and Carole King.

And now here comes her new album, The Calling. It would be disappointing if she hadn't changed over time -- I'm not one of those fans who wants the same music over and over again.

And that's part of the problem. With song after song, I kept thinking, hasn't she done this before? And better? There were moments where either the words or the music flashed with the brilliance of albums as recent as Time* Sex* Love* -- rarely both at once, though. Perhaps "Your Life Story" comes closest to being worthy of her.

My problem isn't that she and I aren't on the same page, politically or philosophically (sometimes we are, sometimes we're not). She's been writing songs that serve as social commentary right along.

But she's always written before as a keen observer and critic, not as a partisan. Her tone has been sad rather than angry; and she has never allowed her songs to be polemic rather than poetic.

Until now. "On with the Song" is an attack piece against people who believe we need to fight the current war, with a vicious stanza attacking President Bush (with language that would have been just as appropriate against, say, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War).

It also attacks people from evangelical religions and oh, just about everybody she doesn't agree with. A self-satisfied, smug, shallow, uncompassionate, hate-filled song preaching against people she has judged to be self-satisfied, smug, shallow, and uncompassionate.

Explicitly, it's a song condemning people for daring to condemn the Dixie Chicks. And it contains the fatuous lyric referring to that trio: "This is for the ones that I see above me / Three little stars in a great big sky / Light for the world and hope for the weary / They try."

I don't know about you, but think of such worshipful words applied to any pop performers, I would gag. "Light for the world and hope for the weary" are words stolen from the New Testament, but they might fairly apply to people like Gandhi and Mother Teresa and maybe Winston Churchill during the war years, or even, perhaps, Anwar Sadat or Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King.

But ... the Dixie Chicks?

The Mary Chapin Carpenter of her earlier albums would have seen the irony in this, and sniped at herself. For instance, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" celebrates a woman who gets fed up with serving her boring husband "with not one raise in pay" and leaves him, but ends with her "in the typing pool at minimum wage," suggesting that maybe leaving her husband wasn't a completely smart idea.

Now, though, there's no trace of irony in her self-righteousness: She demonstrates exactly the level of ignorance and hate that she attacks.

It happens that I share her view of about half the targets of her nastiness, so I'm not complaining because my ox is being gored. What I object to is that it's a lousy song.

It's like what happened to Carole King as she declined from her prime. Instead of writing clever, oblique lyrics that approached poetry, Carpenter's messages in this album are all completely "on the nose," with most things spelled out so that we can't miss the point.

Not that on-the-nose songs can't be good. And certainly there's still some cleverness in her choice of words.

But in song after song, I see, not the perfect phrase or apt image or spot-on rhyme that used to make her songs a delight, but rather an explicit statement or tired phrase that evokes, not the human condition, but cultural cliches and other people's songs.

Take "Why Shouldn't We," which once again has an amazingly fatuous lyric: "God is all around / Buddha's at the gate / Allah hears your prayers / It's not too late." (Anybody who thinks that believing in Allah and Buddha and the Christian God is the same thing clearly understands none of these three religions -- or believes they don't matter.) Yet the music makes for a good anthem, and the chorus "why shouldn't we" rings.

She's still Mary Chapin Carpenter, even if she is getting curmudgeonly. Because there's "Closer and Closer Apart" and "Here I Am," which are worthy of any of her albums.

Doesn't everyone deserve the occasional off day? (Or year?) Who am I to make a big deal out of this? As she says in "Here I Am": "It's so easy just to rip and to tear."

For I melt once again when she sings, "Today I called you / For the very first time in a million years / You would never know if I told you so / About these million tears / Life doesn't wave as it's speeding by / Better grab on fast and hold on tight / And don't ever forget to fight this good fight / And here I am."

I guess this rant is all about my regret when I watch a great talent fading. It's not inevitable: Janis Ian, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Bruce Springsteen have been around longer than Carpenter, and they are still doing excellent, poetic work; in Ian's case, arguably the best of her career.

But that's not what usually happens. Like William Wordsworth, they shine for a while, and then they run out of whatever it was that made their work so good. It trickles away, almost unnoticeably. Until you suddenly realize that it's gone. I hope I'm wrong about Carpenter.

I'd like more great songs from her. But no matter what she does now, she created Come On Come On; mistakes and fading talent don't erase past genius.

Oops. I promised myself not to use the "g" word.

*

Last week's Medium, the episode in which Joe Dubois is held hostage by a co-worker he asked for a ride to work -- I swear, it could have been a feature film, the story was so clever, the emotions so real, the acting so good.

Besides the series regulars, Adam Goldberg was absolutely perfect in his role as a horrifyingly real and even sympathetic bad guy. And Larry Miller seemed typecast as the obnoxious boss -- until we saw just how much acting the story actually demanded of him. And guess what? He was up to it.

Just keeping you informed, you who aren't watching this series yet.

*

It was inevitable that after the success of the Opera Babes, somebody would try to cash in with an imitation. Sasha & Shawna look as cheap as Paris Hilton on the cover of their Sirens album, making it plain that what's being sold here is sex, not music. The music inside is as plastic as the picture on the outside. Stick to the Opera Babes.

I had never heard Patti Austin before her Avant Gershwin album, and I won't be buying another. The jazz interpretations leave the great songs they're named after far behind; I don't mind a narcissistic performance if the talent matches the ego, but it doesn't.

It's hard to expect much of an album that touts "The Sound of Starbucks" on the cover (is this really a plus for an album?), but Low Stars was a pleasant surprise. I only bought it because of the cover blurb from Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, who spoke of "four of my favorite singer-songwriters together in one band."

I bought, I listened, and you know what? It was well worth the price. A keeper. Austin and Sasha & Shawna are already gone from my hard drive; Low Stars will stay.

*

We bought the DVD of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (http://www.axisofevilcomedy.com) because it was recommended by a trusted friend -- and because one of the comedians is the son of longtime friends of ours.

It's no surprise that the audience for the taped show contains a lot of Americans of middle-eastern extraction. The surprise is that the comedy was genuinely funny to my wife and me (mostly Scottish, Irish, and English ancestry, with a few Scandinavians to blond up our kids).

There's plenty of satire (and even a little bitterness) about American life from the perspective of people who look Arab or Iranian. Of course they jab at President Bush and Homeland Security -- if anybody has a right, they do. (It's not the job of comedians to be fair and point out that President Bush worked very hard after 9/11 to keep Americans from blaming all Arab and Iranian immigrants.)

I was glad to be part of the audience for this DVD -- I laughed a lot, including at the jokes that were clearly aimed at my own demographic.

With one little exception: We Mormons never laugh at jokes that ridicule our missionaries. Especially when the jokes are mean-spirited and demeaning. (Note to Aron Kader: It's funny to make fun of a group you belong to, because they know you're just kidding; it's ugly to make fun of people who thought you were one of them, when you were really just pretending so you could mock them later.)

There are some unnecessary f-words in one of the performances, but apart from that, I think this show is not only hilarious, it's also a good reminder that there are a lot of Americans who came here from places like Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, and other places where children might be named Ahmed or Jehad.


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