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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 3, 2008

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


Fish, Wordsmyth, Chipotle, Politicus, and the Music of Life

If, despite the drought, Lake Higgins has enough new rainfall in it that it can be reopened for recreational use and be restocked with fish, then please, O benevolentesque and omnipotentical Greensboro City Council, may we have your consent to replenish the water in our backyard pond, so that our fish may live?

Or is it only those who wish to kill fish for sport who may indulge in piscine pleasures, O wise and magninimical city government?

We who love fish only to watch them swim, and to feed and protect them, why must we be prevented from indulging our seemingly harmless desires, while the fishslayers are so amply provided for?

Did fish cause the drought, so that in punishment they may exist only to be lured, hooked, and slain? Nay, they did not.

Can you not relent, O ye altrucaustic droughtmasters of the Triad, in your years-long systematic decisions (which have left the citizens of Greensboro underprovided with water), so that our koi can have their death sentence commuted and go on delighting us in their finny, funny, gillified ways?

*

Speaking of short-sighted stupidity, I visited the website Wordsmyth in order to look up inappropriate "synonyms" to create absurd portmanteau words for the above lament, and found that I had to register in order to use their service.

Since it cost me nothing, I was happy to do it.

But the form they had me fill out ended with a survey. It asked how long I had been using Wordsmyth. Well, let's see -- you can't use it without registering, and I'm registering, so I think that the obvious answer is: Zero days!

And then their registration form asks, "How comfortable would you feel about recommending Wordsmyth to your friends?"

Once again: I'm registering. Can't use it without registering. Therefore I have never used it. It would be reckless of me to recommend it to my friends. Thus the only possible answer to their question is: "Very uncomfortable."

(With my luck, someone will write in to inform me that you don't have to register in order to use Wordsmyth. To which my answer is: To someone newly arrived at the site, it looks as if you have to register. And any new user who reaches that conclusion and registers upon first arrival will be in the situation I was in. So even if some who register have actually used the site, there will still be many in my situation. It's a stupid survey which will yield them no useful results.)

By the way, now that I've actually used Wordsmyth, I would recommend it to my friends. It does an excellent job of joining dictionary and thesaurus functions together.

Unfortunately, there's no way to get back to that survey and change my answer. Bummer, huh?

Naw. I don't really care, either. There's so much bad web design around that you hardly notice the little idiocies anymore.

*

It's not that I like chocolate. It's not that I need chocolate. It's not that I'm addicted to chocolate. It's simply this: wherever there is chocolate, some of it is going to end up on my face, my clothes, and inside my body.

Chocolate just happens.

So my task is not so much to find chocolate as to make sure that the chocolate that happens is a pleasant experience.

Thus the residents of the Greater Greensboro area (i.e., Greensboro) will be thrilled to know that we have an amazing new original chocolate shop in our city that is worth visiting.

Especially before Valentine's Day, because, as any fool knows, Valentine's day does not actually happen except in the presence of chocolate.

The shop I'm speaking of is Loco for Coco at 1420-D Westover Terrace. It's a couple of doors down from Chipotle, which has a sign that's easier to see from the street.

Since that is one of the worst-designed stretches of road in the city, and it's often impossible to get into the turn lane because it's full of northbound cars waiting for the light at Green Valley, you may have to pass the store and do a U-turn to get back to it.

It's worth it.

Because I feel so deeply my heavy responsibility in writing this column, I did not just sample one or two of the offerings at Loco for Coco Chocolates. No, I made the sacrifice and tried every gorgeous chocolate that did not contain liquor or coffee flavors. (I've never acquired a taste for those.)

Here's the result: I even liked their peanut butter candy, and I don't like peanut butter and chocolate together. Ever. Till now.

Cashew caramel turtles to die for. Jewel-like truffles and amazingly rich non-pareils.

Folks, it's not just that Greensboro now has a chocolate store to sort of fill in till we actually get a See's or Godiva or something. This is a chocolate store that would be worth visiting if it was in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York.

Their standards are amazingly high. The look is as perfectionist as Godiva chocolates; the taste is worthy of comparison with anybody else's.

So if you live in the Greater Greensboro Area (i.e., within a two-hour drive) it might be worth it to go pick out or pick up an assortment for the One You Love. And if you can never remember whether she prefers dark chocolate or milk, then just get an assortment and you can help deal with any she leaves behind.

But if you live close enough to make a date of it with your chocolate-loving loved one, then don't miss the chance to sit down at one of their little tables to have a cup of their European sipping chocolate.

As they are quick to warn you, this is not "hot chocolate." For one thing it's only warm, not hot. For another, it's way thicker than hot chocolate, and way richer.

They have two sizes, and when you look at them you'll probably think, as I did, that the small is about the size of a kitchen drinking cup, and the large is the size of a small anywhere else.

But they know what they're doing. My wife and I each got small cups, and we learned quickly that yes indeed, all you do with this is sip it because if you gulped it, it might just kill you from a chocolate overdose.

If you do sip it, however, it lasts. It fills you. It satisfies you. It fills you with love. Of chocolate. Of each other. Of the world. It is, quite possibly, how God meant chocolate to be used when he created it.

I'm not sure -- there's no scripture on it -- but it's possible.

Anyway, the small cup was plenty for us at that time. It is a dessert serving all by itself.

Of course, that didn't stop me from downing dark chocolate non-pareils and cashew turtles all the way home.

As for those poor souls who live too far from Greensboro to visit Loco for Coco Chocolate, you can at least sign on to http://locoforcocochocolate.com and see a picture of the chocolates and the shop and the owners, amie and Betsy Gauthier.

You can also sign up to be notified by email when, in a few weeks, they open up their online shop and you can order it from anywhere.

*

You can't help but be charmed by a fast-food Mexican restaurant whose slogan is "2 things, thousands of ways."

The "2 things" at Chipotle are tacos and burritos, and I don't know if anyone will actually get either of them "thousands of ways," because it's far more likely you'll hit on a combination you like and keep coming back to get it.

The service line looked suspiciously like the arrangement at sad little pseudo-Mexican places, so with my normal effrontery I asked outright, "Are these real tortillas or are they inedible rubber, like the tortillas at Qdoba?"

They laughed and assured me their tortillas were real. And guess what? They are. Still, when a burrito is stuffed that full, there's no way to eat it without getting a lot of it on your hands or your lap -- whether you use plastic silverware or just pick it up and bite in.

So next time, we're going to skip the tortilla entirely and have it as a "burrito bowl." Because the ingredients really are good.

How good? My wife, who rarely eats beef, thought theirs looked so good she ordered it on her burrito ... and liked it. I had the carnitas -- they were perfect.

And so, I might add, was the guacamole.

This is the acid test of Mexican restaurants. Either they have fresh-made guacamole or they don't.

In Greensboro, we have Wholly Guacamole, which does an excellent job -- for me, anyway. I love their everything-on-it "wholly guacamole," but my wife doesn't care for it because of too much cilantro and onion (too much for her; just right for me).

So for her, the guacamole at Chipotle -- which they make fresh twice a day -- soared immediately to the top of her list of "good guacamoles within easy driving distance that we didn't make ourselves." I have to admit, the balance of flavors is just about perfect, and the freshness is superb.

Our daughter, meanwhile, had the tacos, which are served on three soft flour or four crispy corn tortillas. It sounds like a lot, but it's actually a lighter meal than the burrito, which suited her fine.

Ever since Baja Fresh closed down last year, we've mourned the lack of excellent Mexican fast food. Chipotle does not replace the variety of food we could get at Baja Fresh, but it does match the quality, and since it's located on the other side of the very same building where Doc Green's wonderful salad restaurant took the place of Baja Fresh, we feel like the universe heard our woe and took care of us.

The location we ate at: 1420 Westover Terrace at Westover Gallery. There's another location at 5402 Sapp Rd., on the north side of Wendover shortly after it crosses I-40, but we've never eaten there.

*

Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes That Run Our Government is a sadly funny book. Funny because author Dana Milbank is a good writer. Sad because any collection of stupidity, venality, and incompetence among our elected and appointed officials is going to be depressing to read about.

Milbank tries to be even-handed, but he can't help who he is: Republican misdeeds are most commonly met with a sense of outrage, while Democratic misdeeds tend to be treated with avuncular tongue-clucking.

You know -- the way Dick Tuck's malicious campaign "pranks" on Richard Nixon were merely amusing to the press, while pranks committed by Nixon's campaign on other people, while virtually identical, were treated as "dirty tricks" and led to convictions and prison time.

Thus Milbank inadvertently reveals himself to be part of the problem, for of course the media are as much a part of our political system as the politicians and bureaucrats; the sad thing is that Milbank, like most of the media, remains blind to his own unevenhandedness.

He tried to be fair; I'm sure he thinks he was fair. It's like Jay Leno during the 1992 campaign. He spent the whole time balancing his jokes -- each anti-Republican joke matched by a joke on the Democrats.

Only all the jokes on the Republicans were about how bad the economy was and what a liar Bush (the elder) was, while the jokes on the Democrats were about what a rascal Clinton was and how Democrats couldn't seem to win presidential elections.

In other words, Leno's "ribbing" of Republicans was hostile and denigratory, while his "attacks" on Democrats were actually pleas for people to not take Clinton's character issues seriously and to lend them a hand and elect a Democrat for a change.

Well, that's how Homo Politicus works, too, though not quite so egregiously. Milbank really does try.

In the end, though, the book does not tell you anything significant about American politics. We actually have an astonishingly honest group of lawmakers, compared to so many other countries, where corruption is so common it's almost completely open (though still denied).

So amusing as Homo Politicus is, and as valuable as it can be in cataloguing every major government scandal (and many a minor one, too) in my lifetime, it's as distorted as such books are bound to be. Plunge in and enjoy it -- but don't lose perspective.

*

I have to listen to music while I write. Silence becomes distracting; I listen for distant sounds and respond to them. But the right music can set a mood, bring a story to life.

When I was writing Lost Boys, the music included Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. I had never heard it when it was new, but hearing it over and over again made me nickname characters from the songs ("Fish Lady," "Junk Man") and fill the story with the haunting desperate wistfulness of that gorgeous album.

Later, writing Enchantment, it was Bruce Cockburn's album Charity of Night that haunted me and brought a depth of mood to the writing of what may be my best novel (though of course I hope to write better ones before I die).

The novel I'm working on right now, however, is not one that allows me to have words with the music I'm listening to. So I went through my MP3 library and chose album after album of classical and film music.

Hearing the epic music of the soundtracks of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies and Nino Rota's and James Horner's and James Newton Howard's inspired film music helps set the mood for scenes of pain and courage and heroism and desperate loss.

But over and over I find that it is the piano music of Erik Satie and Keith Jarrett that sets the tone of this book.

Perhaps that seems an odd combination to some of you -- Satie, the minimalist, inventive and playful, his pieces often somewhere between a child's finger exercise and a love song; and Jarrett's The Koln Concert, brooding, incantatory, flowing and ebbing like waves and tides, while he occasionally moans over the keyboard, somewhere between ecstasy and despair.

Then again, to most of you I suspect those two names mean absolutely nothing. Both musicians are minority tastes, I've found.

I found them many years ago, and I remember my first encounter with each. Satie I met through the Columbia Record Club. I was a mostly-broke college student surviving on my income as an editor at BYU Press.

The description of Satie in the Columbia Record Club catalogue sounded intriguing. Having heard not a note of his music, I impulsively ordered an expensive multi-record set of his complete piano music.

Now, I'm not a pianist. But I have played the piano most of my life, and my favorite thing to do is simply brood over the keys, wandering about finding strange melodies and inapposite chords which, by repeating them, I can turn into music that pleases me, though I suspect it would please no one else.

When I stacked up the Satie records on my record changer and listened to them for the first time, lying there in the living room of the little house I shared with my cousin Mark, I felt like I was hearing for the first time the music I had long searched for myself in my meanderings on the keyboard. This is what I would create if I had talent!

Then the bill came. I couldn't afford that record set. But I paid for it and didn't regret it.

It's also appropriate that it was while I lived with Mark Park when I found Satie. It was Mark who introduced me to Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and, over the years, countless other composers and performers, modern and ancient.

But the first thing I remember him teaching me was when we were teenagers, and as a young pianist he was learning Barber's "Excursion #1." The jabbing, repetitive left hand astonished me in the way it invoked the hustle of city traffic without trying to imitate the traffic sounds. When I visit Manhattan, Barber's "Excursion #1," as played by Mark, is often the soundtrack running through my mind as I walk along the streets in a New York hurry.

That Satie collection was the first record set that I bought for myself that Mark also enjoyed. So I not only loved the music for itself, I was also ridiculously proud of having found it.

It wasn't very long after that I was in a record store with my best friend and constant companion at the time, Michael Allen. (He stopped being my best friend when I married his sister and she became my best friend. Can't have two. That's what "best" means.)

We were actually looking at the way-cool cover of Springsteen's Born to Run album (whose music I don't think is as powerful and evocative and fresh and original as The Wild, the Innocent.... In fact, I think it's one of his weakest albums).

Then the store clerk put on a record that took my breath away. It was a solo piano with a rolling accompaniment. It was obvious after only a few minutes that whoever was playing was making it up as he went along. I couldn't tell what kind of music it was -- I still can't. I just knew it was my kind.

I ran to the counter and demanded to know what album was playing. Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert. I didn't have the money for it. I couldn't buy it. It just about killed me. I had to own this music! I needed it in my life!

I couldn't even stay and listen to the whole thing in the store. We had to get somewhere by a certain time.

I couldn't forget that album -- an expensive two-record set. Within a day I was back, determined to own it. I left bills unpaid in order to buy it. But I had that music.

You might think that this proves me to be covetous. You would be correct. It is one of the many sins that I'm sure will send me to hell one day. But the craving to possess good music and listen to it over and over again is such a part of who I am that I can't even regret it.

I'm so covetous of music that in selecting certain classical and film music, I ended up with more than two thousand tracks in the playlist. I have to have it. I have to find new and different music; I have to find more music that's like my favorites; and I listen to it so much that I recognize thousands and thousands of tracks.

I could have taken the money I spent on CDs and given it to the poor. If I were truly a Christian, I would have. But I spent that money on me me me. On my music.

There are those who will tell you that nothing so materialistic can possibly make a person happy. They would be wrong.

Satie and Jarrett make me happy. They fill my heart with emotion and pleasure and wit and they express inchoate ideas that even a writer can never put down on paper. They shape the way I write; they shape the way I make sense of my life (when I can make sense of it at all); they help me to find what I want to feel about things that have happened.

I played both record sets to death. When CDs came along, I happily bought them again and ripped them to MP3s and when the time is right, when I need the gifts they bring to me, I play them and immerse myself in them.

And at other times -- like now, writing a novel -- I put them in a playlist, randomize it, and then let the music take me by surprise. At this moment, Vladimir Ashkenazy is playing Chopin's Etude iii in E major; before that, Bach's Suite 3 in C Major, the Sarabande; and before that, Les valses (3) distinguees du precieux degoute: Ses jambes, by Satie.

Before that, a movement from Bruckner's Mass no. 1 in D minor, and before that Heringman and King performing "Ysabel, Ysabel, perdiste la tu faxa" and before that, Copland's Symphony No 3, the second movement, and before that the title theme from The Return of the King by Howard Shore.

I'm not sure exactly how this music affects what I write, but I know it does, and that without it I can barely write at all. And when I reread a novel of mine, I can sometimes -- not always, but now and then -- hear again the music I was listening to when I wrote it.

Somehow, for me at least, the music gets encoded into the story.

It happens in real life, too. When I hear old pop songs again I can often remember a scene from my own past during the time when that song was popular. Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," for instance (the downtempo remake from the '70s) -- when I hear it, I'm sitting beside my wife (before she was my wife) tootling along in her little red Volkswagen on a certain stretch of street on the BYU campus (just south of the old McKay building, if you have to know).

But move half a mile farther north, same street, same car, but now passing the Marriott Center and turning left to go along past the stadium, and the song that belongs there is Tony Orlando and Dawn singing "Knock Three Times."

Drive along University Avenue past the stadium parking lot, and there the theme music is Frankie Valli singing "My Eyes Adored You." I can't drive the streets of Provo, where I got my BA, without songs popping up all over the place -- and it's amazing how many of them are tied to being in love with the woman I married.

But it didn't end when the courtship ended. South Bend, Indiana, is full of musical associations for me, too -- even though we were already married with two kids before we got there to study at Notre Dame. This was where we lived when I first fell in love with country music, and there are so many songs from that time that bring back streets and parks and buildings and spots along the river.

And here in Greensboro, turning left from Lindley Road onto Friendly Avenue to pick up our kids from school is forever tied to "Every Breath You Take" by Sting.

Whole albums are tied to certain cities at certain times (and, of course, the cars I drove when I was obsessed with them). Billy Joel's Nylon Curtain is South Bend to me. Sting's Nothing Like the Sun is winding along highway 421 between North Wilkesboro and Boone. Every song on the album puts me there again.

I have no idea why this should be. And maybe music doesn't affect other people this way.

Still, for me at least, music isn't just a pleasure, a transient satisfaction. It's a need, a deep hunger; and when the music is right, it's joy. Love. A foretaste of heaven. A comfort in grief.

Is it too much to think that perhaps God speaks to us sometimes through music?

How, then, could I be so ungrateful as to refuse the message?


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