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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 29, 2017

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


Cross-Country, Hotel Scams, Duvets, Improv Musical

As my wife's father's ninetieth birthday began to evolve into a family reunion -- which would take place in Utah, where he and my mother-in-law have lived almost their entire lives, and in Orem continuously since 1963 -- my wife and I began to talk about how we'd like to travel there.

Flying has become so miserable over the past few years that we both felt that we could take the extra time to travel by car. I'm not sure that with the cost of hotels and meals along the way, it saved us any money over going by air. And trains take such a doglegged, switchbacked route to get anywhere in the west that we couldn't seriously consider that.

Once we decided that I would teach a writing workshop in Utah the week before the reunion, that locked us in -- we traveled with several boxes of student handouts that would not have been convenient to take with us by air.

I know it's trivial, but one of my favorite things is that I could hang up my suit through the whole trip instead of jamming it into a suitcase and then probably having to get it cleaned and pressed when we arrived, as I've had to do when flying.

But there are other complications. It's summer, and I have a raft of prescription medications that I need to keep at room temperature or lower. You don't leave those in a hot car while you have a leisurely lunch, and you also can't take them with you while hiking around historic sites in the blazing sun. So our forays outside the car were relatively brief, unless we could find an air-conditioned place to stash my meds.

As the trip evolved, historic sites became one of the best parts of the plan. My wife's father, James B. Allen, is a noted historian of the American West and of Mormon history in particular. So my wife grew up in a family that stopped at every historical marker they encountered on the way. Then they'd take a "pointing picture" -- everybody in the family pointing at the historical marker -- and move on.

Minus the pointing pictures, we were going to travel in the same style. In particular, we would leave the freeway and go on some "blue highways" (if you haven't read Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon, give yourself the pleasure as soon as you can) in order to visit major Mormon historical sites at Nauvoo, Illinois, and Winter Quarters, Nebraska.

Now, we've been to those sites before, but there have been a lot of changes over the decades, and we wanted to catch up. Nauvoo, the site where Joseph Smith built his last temple before he was murdered in 1844, was given a huge boost when the LDS Church built a beautiful new temple on the same site, and many buildings from the early 1840s, when 15,000 or so Mormons lived there, have been restored.

My wife, an assiduous walker (she has walked every hiking trail in Guilford County in the past couple of years), was unfazed by the amount of walking it took to get from place to place in Nauvoo, and I took it on bravely as an attempt to jumpstart a serious program of daily exercise.

I actually did pretty well at the walking (Fitbit congratulated me on my achievement), but I had forgotten that it was summer all day. I went hatless, and the ever-sparser hair on my head interfered very little with the sun's burning rays. Owie.

Winter Quarters was once a tent-and-hut city of thousands of Mormon refugees fleeing from mobs in Illinois. It was there, just across the river from Council Bluffs, that the ousted Mormons gathered to prepare for the perilous journey across the plains to the desert country near the Great Salt Lake.

All that remains of that city now is a cemetery and a visitors center, but for me it was a more emotional experience than Nauvoo had been. Most of the people fleeing west were families with children, and at Winter Quarters and all along the trail, families lost children to disease and had to bury them in graves that they knew they could never return to and visit.

This struck me hard because I know something of what that must have felt like, especially because they had lovely homes in Nauvoo, which as American citizens they should have been able to stay in while practicing their religion. From a place of safety they had been forced, by fear and hatred and mob rule, to plunge out into the dry wilderness of the Great American Desert, and it was that arduous journey, which began with a crossing of the Mississippi River in the depths of winter, which killed their little ones.

I stood at the graves of their children as I stand by the graves of my own dear children from time to time, and I fear that the tears I shed for those stolen lives and for the families that buried them were partly for myself and those people missing from my life.

But the tears were also partly for my country, which seems to have learned little over the century-and-a-half since my ancestors were driven out of Missouri and Illinois. There are still too many Americans who claim to be Christian but have forgotten what Jesus said:

"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

"Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

"And the King shall answer and say unto them, . . . Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matt. 25:35-40)

If there is anything that should define what it means to be Christian, surely it is those verses; Jesus depicts this as the virtue that determines who will "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

So when you look at what America did, or allowed to happen, to my Mormon ancestors, and when you think of the racist immigrations laws in the early 20th century, and the Jim Crow era of segregation and mistreatment of native-born blacks, and the shipfuls of Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler who were turned away, and the slobbering mob that wants to build a wall and send away a generation of immigrants who have worked as hard as any to build up their adopted homeland and prosper within it . . .

When you look at how we have treated the hungry, the prisoner, and the stranger, it should waken a keen sense of the irony that so many of those who vocally demand the expulsion of the stranger are the very people who insist that America is a "Christian nation."

Maybe it is, when you look at where most church-goers go to church. But by the standard of Matthew chapter 25, only small numbers of Americans have qualified, and rarely enough at any one time for us to say the whole nation is, in a practical sense, Christian.

Those were my thoughts, and the source of some of my mourning, there in that cemetery in Nebraska.

But then we got back in our car and journeyed on. We discovered that you can't take a trip the way my wife's family used to -- not if you use the freeways. Because the freeways have no historical markers, so you only get an inkling of them when some local government has managed to get it listed on a freeway sign.

We allotted ourselves six driving days, because we expected to stop often. We did, of course, because we're in our sixties -- it isn't the size of the gas tank that determines the number of stops. But by spelling each other off behind the wheel, and playing various trivia games, and simply by conversing with each other, we made even the long dry stretches of Nebraska and the entire state of Wyoming a pleasure to drive through.

Until you've made that drive -- in both directions -- it's hard to understand what America actually is. Those who have lived among the tall trees of the Carolinas can be shocked as the trees shrink the farther west you go. In Illinois and Iowa, the stands of trees are about half the height of ordinary roadside growth in the Carolinas; from Wyoming onward, whatever trees you see look like the withered old aunts and uncles of the real trees that grow effortlessly and naturally here.

And mid-June was a wonderful time to pass through the corn belt, where fields of maize and soy and, occasionally, evil glutenous wheat cover the rolling hills with lush, deep green. From the middle of Nebraska on, however, you move out of the area heavily rained on by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, and the greens become fainter, yellower, greyer.

My eyes quickly became weary of that grey-green terrain that I had grown up with out west. Sagebrush makes tedious scenery, though the craggy mountains, the mesas, the buttes and the canyons of the American west have their own kind of beauty.

For those who grew up in the West, where mountains are steep, sharp-edged, with exposed rock everywhere, the Appalachian Mountains can come as a shock or a disappointment. You call these mountains? Out west they wouldn't be big enough to qualify for Mountain kindergarten.

But I think I'm a natural easterner. I have come to love the Appalachians with their layers of greenery, and even though I admire the drama of the Wasatch Range that looms over Salt Lake City and, even more dramatically, over Orem and Provo, Utah, I am instantly hungry for the well-watered, tall and green trees and mountains of the East.

I didn't know how starved for flora I was while growing up in the West until I first visited the eastern states on a magazine assignment in my early twenties. Once I had seen what America looked like where God finished creating it (by adding water) I was never really at home again in the West. I got here as soon as I could, and here I'll stay.

Meanwhile, though, nothing can replace the experience of watching the miles unfold. Thanks to speed limits in the 70s and 80s, the miles do roll by more quickly, but you still see every mile of them.

Now and then we reminisced about making cross-country trips with our children at various ages. Things we didn't miss: The vomit-all-over-the-carseat that marked the first day of most such trips. The complaints of children who were very, very tired of sitting belted into one position for hours on end. The search for places where our finicky children could find something they -- and we -- could stand to eat.

But mostly we missed them. The conversations with children who still thought of their parents as sources of true and interesting information. (They still think of their mother that way.) Those hours talking softly with the only child awake during a long passage, in which conversation could free-associate into unexpected paths.

Instead of six days, the trip took only five -- and one of those was the truncated first day, in which a late departure allowed us to get no farther than Charleston, West Virginia.

Just as many people think there's only one state named Carolina (and it isn't North Carolina they think of), there are also many people who think only one city in America is named Charleston. So when, an hour outside of Charleston, West Virginia, we made a hotel reservation, saying the name of the state repeatedly, we were quite surprised, upon entering the address into our GPS, to find out that our reservation -- non-refundable, at that hour -- had been made in Charleston South Carolina.

Here's the weird thing. Instead of being able to explain the error to the Hilton reservation service, allowing them to correct the mistake their agent made, we learned that the reservation had been made through Priceline.com. And the mistake wasn't even theirs! How was that even possible?

Here's how: When I googled "Hilton Garden Inn Charleston WV," one of the earliest Google choices was "Hilton Garden Inn / Reservation Desk."

Now, I leapt to a conclusion, but I think it wasn't an absurd one. I dialed that number, and at no time did the idiot I was talking to give any implication that he was not from Hilton's nationwide reservation center.

But he wasn't. He was actually from a company called "Reservation Desk" (reservationdesk.com). There's a competitor called ReservationCounter.com, as well. And on my Android phone, they had apparently paid for high placement in search results with a very ambiguous listing that amounted to spoofing (getting people to come to your site when they think they're going somewhere else).

And the guy from Reservation Desk had a thick enough accent that I had to think that either (a) he had come to America so recently that he hadn't yet realized there were two major destinations in the U.S. with the name Charleston, or (b) he wasn't in America and nobody had trained him to listen to the name of the state as well as the city.

Oddly enough, the Reservation Desk guy made our reservation through Priceline, without leaving behind any indication that Reservation Desk, not we, was responsible for the error of reserving us a room in South Carolina. Fortunately, Priceline was way nicer than they needed to be: They changed our reservation to the right city and they didn't charge us anything. In fact, they refunded the nonrefundable credit card deposit on that room in South Carolina.

So my review of Priceline: classy. And my review of Reservation Desk: incompetent, deliberately misleading, and irresponsible. Make sure when you call for a reservation, especially when you're on the road, that you actually have the reservation service that you think you called!

For more about these scammy reservation services, see http://abcnews.go.com/Travel/watch-booking-hotel-rooms-online/story?id=30088600

Despite the deliberate sameness of American motels, there are differences. For instance, there was one motel where the shower was great, but the sink faucet gave out four thin, weak streams of tepid water so that you had to stand there for quite a while to rinse all the soap off your hands.

But here's something that seems to be the same in all motels. Instead of making beds the old fashioned way -- mattress pad, fitted bottom sheet, tucked-in top sheet, seasonal blanket, bedspread -- everybody now makes the bed this way: fitted bottom sheet, tucked-in top sheet, duvet.

That's it. The duvet is the bedspread and the blanket.

And at times you really need the thickness and warmth of the duvet. Even on hot summer nights, the air-conditioning in these motels is powerful and cooooold. And the vent is invariably pointed straight at my side of the bed.

I actually don't like to have heavy blankets over me when I sleep. But the duvet is my only protection against death by exposure in the harsh weather of that air-conditioning vent. The problem is, thermostats make it so the air-conditioning blows only until the room reaches the desired temperature. Then it turns off until the room reaches the preset maximum.

Somewhere between "Little Match Girl" and "Dante's Inferno," I start to perspire. Often I wake up soaked in sweat. Even when the air-conditioning kicks back in, my sheets and pillows are now soggy. What a lovely, comfortable night!

But since everybody's doing it, we're all pretty much stuck with it. Even in our trip to Toronto a couple of weeks ago, we got the duvet. However, because we were in Canada, we also got some really different things. For instance, an all-glass shower -- on both sides.

That's right, the shower entry wall inside the bathroom was all glass, but so was the wall of the shower facing the bedroom. Anyone else in the bedroom could catch a perfect view of all that happened in the shower -- and at the sink and toilet beyond.

There was a wooden blind that could block that view -- but it was controlled from the bedroom side. Very odd. A great deal of trust was required.

As I write this column, I'm in Orem, Utah -- in a hotel room with a duvet on the bed, of course. Tomorrow morning I'll start teaching my writing workshop, and in about an hour from now I'll be having dinner with my brother and his wife at one of the rare good restaurants in Utah. (We in Greensboro rarely appreciate how spoiled we are by the way Furniture Market supports far more good restaurants than our local population could never sustain by itself.)

And in a week, all the festivities will be over and we'll embark on the same journey in the other direction. The land will grow less rugged, smoother; the trees will grow taller, and everything will be greener. The humidity will increase (so maybe my hands will stop chapping and my nose will stop bleeding).

And then, in the last leg of our journey, we'll pass through the upside-down-egg-carton country of the Appalachian Mountains, covered with leaves and grasses so green I may cry a little at the relief of being home.

*

When we were in Toronto, we caught a showing of Showstoppers: The Improv Musical. Visiting from England, the wonderful cast puts on a different musical comedy every night -- because it is improvised based on suggestions from the audience.

This means that not only do they make up their dialogue and storyline as they go along, they also drop in songs that they make up on the spur of the moment -- in musical styles suggested by the audience.

Their achievement every night is so amazing that, as their program reports, many people accuse them of "cheating" by having a template of pre-set songs into which they plug new words as needed. But all the subterfuges these skeptics propose are, as the program points out, much harder than simply winging it, as the actors do.

Improv is hard -- it requires great concentration and trust, as well as creativity and skill at comedy. And the whole troupe -- including their extraordinary musicians -- are up to the challenge.

Alas that I'm telling you this just as the Toronto run is coming to a close. Soon Showstoppers will be delighting audiences back in England. But I'm sure this brilliant project will eventually spin off other casts in other countries. Maybe even the United States. I hope so.

*

OK, sometimes I have to review useful products that have names or uses that make some readers uncomfortable. I always have the choice of not reviewing them at all, particularly if I have no personal use for them. But sometimes, having used them, I find them so excellent at what they do that I go ahead and test the boundaries of what our wonderful editorial staff thinks you readers can tolerate.

This last review for today is of just such a product. Half of the population of Guilford County will have little use for the product, because they are women. The other half will include many who need the product but do not know they need it, along with many who don't particularly need the product but fear that they do, and therefore using it will ease their minds and increase their joie de vivre.

You have been warned. Stop reading if you might be offended. Read on at your own risk.

The product I'm reviewing is called FreshBalls. (Usually, I put the names of things that I'm reviewing in boldface, but not this time. That's because I am among that large segment of the population that finds the use of "balls" to refer to the reproductive factories that dangle in men's nether bifurcation to be crude.

(To be fair, I feel the same way about the term "boobs" and I also try to avoid using it. Both terms feel way too chummy about parts that, old-fashioned as I am, I regard as private.)

Nevertheless, when you name a product FreshBalls, it's hard for the casual observer not to understand, immediately and completely, what the product is supposed to do.

Here's how it works. It's a lotion that comes in a tube. You squeeze a dollop of the lotion onto your hand (unless you have someone else willing to apply it) and then rub it over the entire crotchal area that you fear or know might emit odors that displease you or others.

The lotion goes on cold, and then there's a very, very slight suggestion of burning. Fear not -- that passes in a moment.

The lotion then dries as a powder. It is very nearly the exact equivalent of applying a talcum powder, like Johnson's Baby Powder, to your body -- except that, unlike a talcum powder, FreshBalls does not leave a dusting of powder all over your carpet or floor.

FreshBalls works as a great improvement on baby powder. It makes a great complement to DudeShower (reviewed a few weeks ago). It lasts a whole day, though it is invisible within a few minutes of applying it. You can order it from Amazon or directly from the FreshBalls website. Highly recommended.


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