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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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