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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 22, 2007

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


Beach, books, and games

After spending our vacation in Avon, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, we have learned a few things that might be worth passing on to others who might find themselves there.

This trip we actually saw some of the egrets and pelicans that the Outer Banks are famous for; in addition, we spent a few days accompanied almost all the time by terns, whose dramatic dives into the water made the seagulls look lazy. The sandpipers were shy -- we didn't see any till our last day.

The last time we were in Avon, we rode out Hurricane Alex. We were happy to see how well the area has recovered from the damage.

But there's still some sad news. Austin Landing, one of the best restaurants in the OBX, has closed its doors -- to be replaced by another "Dirty Dick's." As if the world needed another.

The story we hear is that the owners of Austin Landing took a cold hard look at effort expended and revenues received, and realized they made far more money from their t-shirt business than they did from running a terrific restaurant.

They should have checked with me first. I would have pointed out that I they kept their restaurant open, they would make me happy, and of course they would have changed their minds.

The result is that as far as I know, there is really not a first-rate restaurant south of Nag's Head. That makes for a lot of driving for those of us who stay at that end of the OBX.

Another sad discovery was that Penguin Isle, once one of the better restaurants on the OBX, has gone seriously downhill. The service is still fine, the decor excellent -- even the menu is unchanged.

But somehow, the kitchen has lost track of how to make good food. A shrimp cocktail with flavorless, mold-spotted shrimp and a semi-frozen sauce was obviously not made fresh that day. A salad that is missing three of the listed ingredients has not been carefully prepared.

Others were also disappointed with their entrees; only the person who had plain pasta with cheese and the people who shared the sashimi tuna appetizer were satisfied. That's a poor showing indeed. This restaurant is no longer on our list.

But Windmill Point, virtually next door to Penguin Isle (there's only a Dairy Queen in between), has kept its quality up -- it was the antidote for us.

Ocean Boulevard is a step higher than that. It's a crowded room, but the food is excellent and the menu inventive.

But the supreme restaurant on the Outer Banks remains, as it has been for years, Blue Point in Duck. This is a restaurant that would be a delicious find in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or Manhattan -- to have a restaurant this good on the Outer Banks is astonishing.

Delights included: Corn bread lightly toasted to make the outside crisp. Quinoa and fresh corn as an amazing side dish. Wonderful dessert standards like key lime pie, cheesecake, creme brulee, all done exactly right. But it's the inventive combinations in the appetizers and entrees that make it a wonderful place to eat.

Unfortunately, everybody else knows about it, too, so you'll want to get your reservation early -- perhaps before you even arrive at your vacation house.

One of the problems with a beach vacation is that it's so easy to fall out of your exercise routine. Yes, you can walk along the beach and swim in the surf, but these activities rarely become sustained aerobic exercise.

And while many people do run and walk along the roads, this is a perilous activity, since not everyone driving cars along the road is (a) sane and (b) sober.

So my wife and I were happy to discover, on our first morning there, that Avon now boasts an excellent little gym at Spa Koru. It's a full-service spa as well, offering various mud packs, massages, and even acupuncture, but what interested us was their fine array of well-maintained aerobic and weight-lifting equipment.

My wife was able to put in her time on the elliptical machines and the crunch ball, while I worked the treadmill and the weights. And because we were inside an air-conditioned building, we did not have to fight the heat, humidity, and biting insects to do it.

So we got our exercise indoors, and then were able to spend our beach time relaxing -- and covered with bug spray.

All that good exercise almost made up for my having eaten forty-three pounds of chocolate-covered peanuts, cashews, and sunflower seeds from Try My Nuts (also in Avon).

Harris-Teeter has come to the OBX, with a new store in Kitty Hawk. That's too far from where we were staying to be convenient (ice cream does not make it that far even inside an air-conditioned car), but because they're there, the other grocery stores, which ranged from tatty to repulsive, have been forced to upgrade in order to compete.

The result is that the Food Lion in Avon offers a far greater range -- and higher quality -- of items than we can recall seeing in Greensboro's stores.

For those south of Manteo, though, the best news is a new little market called The Village Grocery in Avon. They're small and attached to a gas station, but the concept is not far removed from what Fresh Market offers -- first rate organic foods and fresh produce. I even found the banana vanilla Wallaby brand yogurt that has been rudely stripped out of Greensboro by Earth Fare's corporate management.

*

Speaking of Earth Fare, before we left for the beach we stocked up on juices to take with us. Of course I brought several bottles of Bionaturae brand Organic Sicilian Lemon Nectar, but on impulse I also bought a couple of bottles of their Organic Apple Nectar, too.

I don't like apple juice very much, so I was officially buying it for the rest of the family. But I had a sneaky little hope that their apple nectar would be as different from regular apple juice as their lemon nectar is from lemonade.

And boy, was I right. The apple nectar is so good, so rich, so naturally sweet that I drank it all myself, barely giving anybody else a chance to taste it.

*

We brought along a lot of different books for beach reading; a few of the books were good enough to become read-aloud favorites.

For instance, the Walter the F**rting Dog series is only effective when read aloud. Reading it to yourself, it can be boring; reading it aloud to a group that includes thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds leads to people rolling on the floor laughing.

We had hopes for the books Sand in My Bra and More Sand in My Bra. These books consist of travel writing by female comedians. Unfortunately, the only writer in the books worth reading aloud was Ellen Degeneres. Nobody else was able to translate their shtick into print -- but Degeneres was so good we decided the books were worth the price just to have her bits.

The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill is not just a quote book. It almost has to be a collection of anecdotes, because many of his witty sayings depend on the context to be intelligible, let alone amusing.

It also includes comments that other people made about him.

It was a good read-aloud book, but it left me hungry for two reasons: It does not include his stirring words that changed a nation, and I am resentful because if there's anything America needs right now, it's a statesman with the intelligence and speaking ability of Winston Churchill, and we don't have anybody who's even close.

Here we have a President who has made almost all the right decisions in our war against Fascist Islam, and yet is incompetent to make his case with anything approaching eloquence. The Brits, in World War II, had a Prime Minister who made some horrible mistakes that cost many lives -- but he had the eloquence to inspire and unite his nation, so that they stayed together even through the hard times.

The result is that the Brits hung on till their existential war was won; lacking a Winston Churchill, we seem to be preparing to dishonor ourselves and lose our war, with our politicians racing to achieve defeat as quickly as possible, lest victory overtake them before they can do it.

So reading Churchill's words, however amusing they are, can be dispiriting.

We also spent one late evening going through Richard Lederer's Literary Trivia, which amounts to a series of really fun quizzes about writers and books.

I mean it. They really were fun. Because even if you don't know the answer, it's fun to find it out. I sat there for an hour with my wife and son, reading them quizzes, and we had a great time.

Of course, it helps if you grew up playing Authors.

Even if you didn't, though, isn't it kind of fun to have someone name the middle names of three-name authors, and try to guess who they are? For instance: Conan, Fenimore, May, Makepeace, Taylor, Wadsworth, Waldo, Wollstonecraft. At least some of them should immediately ring a bell: Arthur Conan Doyle, James Fenimore Cooper, Louisa May Alcott ... but you know the rest.

Or authors known by their initials. You can do this:

H.G., A.A., E.B., E.E., D.H., C.S.

Give up? How about Wells, Milne, White, Cummings, Lawrence, and Lewis.

Then there are the titles you figure out from partial initials: The P of T, by Pat Conroy; The S L of W M, by James Thurber.

We had a great time. Or at least it was great at the beach between midnight and one a.m.

*

If you have a pre-reader or early reader in your house, you don't want to be without the cardboard books by Olivier Dunrea: Gossie, Gossie and Gertie, Ollie, and Ollie the Stomper.

The gently colored drawings are a delight -- so much personality in simple art.

But the surprise is that Dunrea has achieved the extremely difficult goal of telling a well-structured story with so few words and pictures. In Gossie, a young duck delights in her red boots, wearing them everywhere -- until one day they are missing. She finally rediscovers them on the feet of someone who delights in them just as much -- and the two of them go off together, each with one red boot.

Then, in Gossie and Gertie, we see Gossie as a domineering friend, insisting that Gertie "follow me" through the day. But at some point Gertie stops following and does her own thing.

And quite gradually Gossie starts to follow Gertie. The lesson is clear without being spelled out: Friends take turns leading and following.

Then there's Ollie, a duck who is still inside the egg. "I won't come out," he insists -- until Gertie and Gossie order him not to come out. Whereupon, he does.

In Ollie the Stomper, we see how the youngest rule. The older friends are doing what they want; Ollie stomps after them. He demands boots; they share. It's simply the way the youngest children rule their families: Their needs shape everything.

Children who are old enough to understand language and story, and perhaps even try to pick out a word or two, will find these books a delight.

And, since children that age rule, it will be wise for parents to have these books. Because ... children that age make you read their favorite books over and over. Might as well make sure those books are ones you can enjoy!

*

I saw this big red book in the bookstore -- Gonn and Hal Iggulden's The Dangerous book for Boys.

How could you possibly find a better title for a boy's book than that?

But it's only slightly true. The real danger is that the boy's parents and sisters will grab the book and enjoy it, too.

There are articles on everything, with pictures and tongue-in-cheek comments that are a delight to adults and kids. There are extraordinary stories about real-world heroes. Coin tricks. Science experiments. Famous battles. How to juggle.

Questions about the world, like "Why does a day have twenty-four hours?" and "Why is the sky blue?" How to build a treehouse. The five knots every boy should know. (I knew only four of them. So sue me.)

I loved the list of Essential Gear for boys. And if you doubt it's a dangerous book, note what it says under "Magnifying Glass": "For general interest. Can also be used to start a fire."

And even more dangerous: "Handkerchief. There are many uses for a piece of cloth, from preventing smoke inhalation or helping with a nosebleed to offering one to a girl when she cries. Big ones can even be made into slings. They're worth having."

Don't you just love the assumptions that (1) when a girl cries, there'll be a boy nearby and (2) if that boy has a brain, he'll have a clean handkerchief and won't think it's sissy to offer it to her. Now that's dangerous.

The book is definitely a product of Great Britain, despite a few attempts to Americanize this edition. But that's OK. The Brits have always been more bold about letting boys be boys -- which is why Scouting started there.

And only the Brits would include a longish section of quotes from Shakespeare. I'll confess that I was surprised to learn which plays certain famous quotes came from.

Then there's the section on playing poker -- including how to calculate odds for betting.

Look, this book is simply fun. It was a read-aloud book for us -- a family with no young boys to be seen. But I am quite confident that for actual boys it will be even better. Just plain fun to read, all at once or in bits and pieces.

*

I have friends who won't play quiz games or trivia games, and the reason is simple enough: When you don't win, people think you're dumb.

Isn't it funny that when you don't win at sports, and quit playing, you're called a 'bad sport" -- but when you don't win at intellectual pursuits, and quit, it's the winners who are blamed for making you feel bad!

But that's our culture. Everybody's expected to play at sports, even when they have no talent for it; but at intellectual activities, the talented people really ought to keep their abilities to themselves.

And yet ... trivia games proliferate!

Here's a trivia game that goes a long way toward evening things up: Smart A**, whose motto is: "Even if you're a dumb a** you can win!"

The playing board and game box are covered with pictures of donkeys, but let's face it. Part of the fun is having permission to say a forbidden word over and over again in front of your family.

The idea is that each question is for the whole group. A card contains a series of clues leading to the same answer. As the clues get clearer and broader, it becomes harder and harder not to know the answer. But there were several that could not be guessed until the very last clue -- the one that tells you what letter the answer starts with.

No matter how a game is designed, however, it cannot erase the difference in experience between adults and youngsters. Any reasonably educated adult will race past any children in the game. So Smart A** is more suitable for homogeneous groups. I can see it as a fun slumber party game, for instance, or a game for adults, so that life experiences is more evenly matched.

But even with the disparities between old coots like me and younger players, it was still fun!

Word games don't depend on specific factual knowledge, but they do depend on vocabulary. Thus a word-centered professional like me has an advantage going into a game like Wordigo. But it was less of an advantage than you might think -- because I did not win every game.

Wordigo resemble Scrabble in having letter tiles and a gameboards consisting of squares. However, Wordigo's game boards consist of four different patterns of short and long crossing words. Instead of being able to put down any word your tiles can form, you have to fit them into the crossword-puzzle-like patterns.

This means that there's a strong element of spatial strategy in this game. It's not enough to come up with a word -- you have to come up with a word that ends or begins with a letter that will let you put down a crossing word. If you put a Q at the beginning of a word to get a lot of points, it'll do you no good when the next word has to end with Q. Not a lot of words like that in English!

Another twist is that vowels give no points. Instead, they contain multipliers with arrows pointing in certain directions. Whatever adjacent letter the arrow points to is scored by multiplying its value by the number on the vowel tile.

This means that the same word, depending on which way the vowel-arrows point, can be worth two points or twenty!

That's why the ability to pull words out of your vocabulary is only part of the game. The rest is strategy, trying not to put yourself in a box while still maximizing your score.

This one is a hit with us. It takes far less time than Scrabble to play a round or two. You can play it with four people, or three, or two, or even one! Yes, it's actually a very good word-based solitaire game!

And even though you play with the same four game boards, believe me, they'll play differently every time!

*

Here's a book that isn't out yet, but soon will be: Barbara Oakley, Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend.

Oakley cuts to the chase: Evil isn't limited to people like Hitler or Stalin or Mao. There are plenty of evil people who never got famous, but ruined the lives of everyone around them because of their utter inability to act for the good of anyone else.

This story is not only good science writing, it's also achingly personal, as Oakley recounts the story of her selfish sister and relates it to what science is revealing about the way our brains work and how genes influence even our ability to tell right from wrong.

Evil people aren't insane, Oakley says. They are genetically crippled -- but in ways that make them dangerous and hurtful to the people who love them and serve them the most. It's not often that a book about science can also break your heart -- Oakley's achievement is astonishing.


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