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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 3, 2008

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

Liberty Station, Travel Baby

I'm not quite sure what a "vacation" is. We meant to have one this year -- a couple of weeks in San Diego.

We came for ComiCon, which is the greatest festival of popular art in the world. Our manga- and anime-aficionado fourteen-year-old was in heaven for three days.

I would have enjoyed ComiCon, but instead I ended up with such a round of meetings that it became three days of work -- though it was, admittedly, enjoyable and important work.

The following week I taught my annual Uncle Orson's Writing Class and Literary Boot Camp, which is the hardest I work all year. But that's what is paying for the whole "vacation" so I can't very well complain about it.

And even these last few days, which were supposed to be pure vacation -- a reunion of my wife's family -- I am writing my brains out to meet a whole bunch of deadlines, and so I'm missing almost all of the fun stuff.

So I said to my wife: "Wife," says I, "I'm the only one in the family who isn't getting a vacation. Do you not pity me?"

And my wife says to me: "Husband," says she, "you get about 300 days of vacation a year. It's not my fault you spend it sitting up in your attic office playing computer games while pretending that you're working. So no, I do not pity you."

Still, I have loved being here in San Diego for these past weeks. Instead of staying in a downtown hotel, as I've done before, we stayed in a brand-new Homewood Suites (a Hilton brand). The hotel is fine -- nice rooms, helpful people -- but what makes this place special is location, location, location.

First, the climate of San Diego is as close to perfect as you can get. Even though we're in the southwest corner of the continental United States, because we're close to the ocean (and right on an inlet of the sea) the temperatures in late July and early August have mostly been in the low 70s, only occasionally nearing 80, and every night we get lows in the mid-60s.

Today the natives are complaining because the humidity reached 75 percent. We're just surprised that they even know the word humidity, since most of the time they don't need it.

Second, San Diego manages to avoid most of the smog and clotted traffic of Los Angeles -- life here is more pleasant, more leisurely. There aren't as many good restaurants as in LA -- but there are some very good restaurants. The downtown is walkable (or you can ride bicycle rickshaws) with plenty of nightlife. All the main attractions are much closer together than in LA. It's flat-out easier to have a good time here as a family.

Third, our hotel happens to be located on the grounds of the old US Naval Training Center. This is the base where both my father and my father-in-law went through Navy boot camp during World War II. Now, the old buildings are going through a remarkable transformation.

Signs all over the area proclaim that Liberty Station won the prize in 2007 for the best civilian transformation of a former military base. As my wife and I have taken walks throughout the old base, we've found neighborhoods of beautifully designed townhouse condominiums and apartment buildings, spacious parks and playgrounds, hotels and dining spots, grocery stores and other shops, an arts center, the old base chapel (which still holds weddings), and people everywhere.

The stores are full of shoppers at peak time; the parks are sometimes wonderfully empty, so you can rump on vast open lawns; and at other times are crowded with soccer, running children, and chatting parents. We have walked along the marina or up the residential streets into the old Point Loma neighborhood, where high hills provide vistas of the bay on one side, the ocean on the other.

While many of the buildings are brand new, others are the original military buildings, cleverly converted into civilian use. In particular, a Von's grocery store uses two buildings, with a courtyard between them. Von's is ordinary a second-tier grocery chain, with Ralph's (owned by Kroeger) just a little better, and Gelsons and Bristol Farms miles ahead.

But in this location, Von's is as gorgeous a grocery store as you could hope for. The produce section in particular is amazing, but the whole store is a pleasure to visit and shop in.

In Greensboro, we have several attempts at the same sort of thing; it has also been tried in Reston Town Center in northern Virginia. But nobody has integrated residential and commercial as beautifully and conveniently as I see it here. In our hotel we are ten minutes' walk from Von's and Trader Joe's -- the condos are all even closer. Even larger shopping areas are also within walking distance -- and there are sidewalks and stoplights with walk/don't walk signs the whole way.

If, like me, you worked at home, you could live for days or weeks at a time in this neighborhood and never have to start your car.

And since the neighborhood is also aesthetically pleasing in both architecture and landscaping, you could take pleasure and pride in being part of it.

The development at North Elm and Pisgah Church means to do the same thing -- and it looks just as well designed. Unfortunately, the city has allowed Pisgah Church and North Elm to become bank after bank after bank, with parking lots spacing them widely apart. There's no crosswalk or sidewalk to let you walk from Harris-Teeter to the shopping center farther north on Elm.

The result is that the one little village is an island, instead of being connected to surrounding retail and residential areas like Liberty Station is. Banks are necessary -- but standalone bank buildings with no surrounding retail and wide separation from neighboring properties are deadly, especially when you have several in a row.

Convenient walking towns only grow where government lets them grow and developers choose to create them. As long as we keep letting developers create island developments from which you can't get anywhere at all without a car, and as long as cities don't use their zoning power to force street frontage development and build the sidewalks to connect them, we will continue to have cities where you simply can't do anything without constantly driving and parking, driving and parking.

I can just hear the normal bone-headed response: "If you like San Diego so much, why don't you live there?" Well, first, I will never live in a state where the government has declared war on marriage. Second, if I ever did leave Greensboro, I might very well choose San Diego as a place to live.

But my real answer is this: When I travel to other cities, I look at the way people live. I take pleasure in beauty and study ugliness; I try to learn from both.

When I find something beautiful or clever or wise in another place, why shouldn't I come home to Greensboro and suggest that we learn from what other people have achieved?

Greensboro doesn't have a downtown because our city government allowed it to die. You have to own a car to do anything in Greensboro because our government allows big box stores to stand in splendid isolation in huge parking lots, without sidewalks connecting them, and without allowing any residential development within walking distance.

Incredibly enough, it is regarded as an experiment in Greensboro to put stores within easy walking distance of residential neighborhoods. This despite the fact that back when Greensboro had a living downtown (instead of a downtown on life support as we have now), residential and commercial were thoroughly mixed.

In effect, suburban living patterns -- lawn, driveway, house, with retail kept too far away to be reached on foot -- have become the law, and to attempt to create a pedestrian-friendly environment in Greensboro is regarded as daring and exceptional.

If we learn nothing else from high gas prices, can't we learn this: The air is cleaner, our bodies are healthier, and our wallets are fuller if we mix retail, residential, and leisure areas so thoroughly that people can do their ordinary shopping and recreation without having to start up an internal combustion engine bigger than a lawnmower.

Is San Diego utopia? Hardly. And I still love all the good things about living in Greensboro. I just wish we could elect city and county governments with a reasonable amount of foresight, who can take our government away from the mindless bureaucrats and let us recreate the best kind of urban living within our boundaries.

The free market might actually do that job for us -- if government would get out of the way. But our dumb, dumb zoning laws are designed to keep different land uses as far apart as possible, which amounts to an unfunded subsidy for automobile and gasoline companies.

Cities are something we create together. We try to build houses and maintain yards that give pleasure to passersby; homes that are welcoming, buildings that show our pride in the community we live in.

Liberty Station in San Diego seems to me, as a visitor, to be a wonderful place to live. I think we could take the best ideas from Liberty Station and incorporate them into the planning -- and laws -- of Greensboro, so we could combine them with the best features of our town.


One of the nice things about staying a few weeks in the same hotel is that you can go to the store and buy good stuff to use instead of the not-so-good stuff the hotel supplies for free.

For instance, most hotels provide lousy soap and toilet paper. We go to the store and buy good soap and good toilet paper.

But, depending on what the maids are told to do, this can lead to maddening experiences. I've stayed in hotels where every morning the maids give you new bath and hand soap bars -- whether you ever opened the soap from the day before or not.

Even when I'm using hotel soap, this is almost never necessary. I can keep using the same little bar of soap just fine. And when I'm obviously not using the hotel soap at all, why do they have to keep giving me more?

The maid for our rooms at Homewood Suites leaves our soap alone, but she apparently has been told to throw away any toilet paper roll with less than two inches of paper left on it and replace it with a roll of the hotel's truly lousy toilet paper.

So, in effect, the maid was coming in and stealing our excellent Cottonelle Ultra toilet paper, replacing it with a crummy imitation.

The solution, at long last, was a Post-It note over the toilet paper roll, insisting that the maid leave our toilet paper alone.

Can't hotels train their housekeeping staff to respect the choices of the customer? If I have clearly opted for my own brands of soap and toilet paper, can't they just let me do what I want?

In fairness, the same maid got our message that we want her to leave extra towels every day and has done so without fail.

So we don't even try to get her to stop throwing away the plastic cups we're drinking from in the bathroom (because we don't trust the hotel glasses to be clean). Cups are cheap -- we don't mind using a fresh one every day.

Speaking of hotels cups and glasses, I got a letter from a friend who assured me that in the hotel she's staying at on Hilton Head, the maids' carts include trays of presumably-clean glasses to put in the rooms, and a place for used glass to take them away for washing. And they provide plastic-sealed disposable cups, too.

Kind of like wearing a belt and suspenders. But at least you know you can drink out of something clean.


Since part of our time in San Diego is a family reunion, it's no surprise that we were concerned with making sure there were cribs in the hotel rooms inhabited by families with babies. The hotel has the normal selection of slightly rickety fold-up cribs, but they couldn't promise us that we would definitely have them. It all depended on how many cribs happened to be free at the time the families with babies arrived.

This was frustrating to my wife, who really doesn't like taking "maybe" for an answer.

She went online, googled "baby cribs rent San Diego," and found a wonderful local business called San Diego Travel Baby (Toll free 877-738-7382; www.SanDiegoTravelBaby.com).

Owned and operated by Carmen Jensen, Travel Baby is all about making it safe and convenient to bring babies along on San Diego trips. They have cribs, car seats, high chairs, toys, bouncer seats, mechanical swings, wagons, single strollers, double strollers, carriers, baby backpacks, baby gates, room monitors, air purifiers, and playpens. Pretty much everything but spare parents.

When you rent from them, they bring the equipment and, if it needs setting up, they do it for you. Between uses, they complete sterilize everything so that no germs can pass from one family to the next.

The prices are completely reasonable for the level of service provided. And these people are about as nice as they can be. They really do love babies!

If you're coming to San Diego and bringing along a baby, why take chances with hotel equipment that might be available and might be clean enough and might be of high enough quality for your child?

I love the fact that this is a startup business created by someone who saw a need and created a service to meet it. And because of the internet, you can find it and place your rental order from wherever you live -- though it's a good idea to reserve your equipment a couple of weeks in advance, just to be sure.


If you read this column regularly, you've heard me whining in the past about the miserable mistake that Dial Soap has made with Dial Complete Foaming Hand Wash.

The soap itself is wonderful. You waste far less of it than other liquid hand soaps -- you never see clumps of unlathered soap wash away down the drain. The unscented original rinses away clean -- the scented ones seem to leave more residue. But it's a good product that we keep at every sink in the house.

But a while ago they introduced a new pump cap. I don't know why -- the old one worked great. It's the cap that turns the liquid into foam, and I can't see any improvement between the old cap and the new one.

Quite the opposite -- the new one doesn't glide down smoothly. It snags and won't work unless you use two hands to jockey the spout into position so it can be pushed down to work the pump.

And since you're using two hands to operate the pump, it's hard to keep one of those hands in line to receive the lather. Sometimes it overshoots my hand and I get wasted soap all over the sink. It's a complete pain.

Fortunately, I had overbought the old soap dispenser and we refill those over and over again. Someday they'll give out, and I wondered what I would do. I hoped that somebody would invent a nice foaming-soap dispenser that I could buy instead of Dial's miserable new pump cap.

Well, I didn't quite get my wish. Instead, I was walking along the aisle at Target in San Diego and saw what looked like the oldstyle Dial pump cap. But it wasn't on Dial's foaming hand wash. It was on a Target brand version.

We bought several of them and took them back to the hotel. Sure enough, it really was the wonderful old pump cap that you could dependably operate with one hand, while the other hand stays in place to receive the lather.

Unfortunately, the Target soap simply isn't as good. It's hard to rinse off and leaves a residue. It has a nasty smell. (I know -- "nasty smell" is in the nose of the beholder.)

But it's a better dispenser. So I emptied out the Target soap. Then I poured the liquid soap from one of the lousy new Dial dispensers into the Target bottle and the pump worked fine.

So ... for what it's worth, you can get good dispensers for Dial's foaming hand wash by buying Target's lousy knock-off, throwing away their soap, and pouring in the good stuff.


IRIScan Executive 2 is a slender portable scanner that is powered completely through the USB port of your laptop. It's perfect for taking along on trips. Of course, you don't want to try to use it when your laptop is on battery power. But when you're in a hotel room, with the laptop plugged into the wall, the IRIScan does a great job of scanning individual sheets of paper, including business cards.

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