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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 29, 2002

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

Daytime Sprinklers and Anonymous Notes

So on Friday night we limp into Greensboro after seven weeks of seeing America. Twenty-two states. Four new tires and four new shocks. A new driver's window assembly. Luggage we had carried into and out of fifteen hotels. Bags of dirty laundry. One box of Cheez-Its that was still unopened because nobody ever got so desperately bored that eating them sounded like a good idea.

There had been a power outage sometime while we were gone, so after unloading the car, I went around and reset the clocks. Then I went to bed.

Next morning I looked at our lawn, expecting the worst. After all, our sprinkler system had been on the fritz all spring, and they finally fixed the problem only a couple of days before the water restrictions took hold.

Our poor lawn was already so brown and thirsty before the restrictions that even though it got one good soaking before we left, I expected it to look like ... well, like the landscape between El Paso and Fort Stockton, Texas.

But it was lush. Green. Beautiful.

Wow, thought I. Greensboro must have been getting a lot more rain than I thought.

It wasn't until we finally started going through two months of mail on Monday morning that we found out the truth.

There was a letter from "a neighbor," you see, informing us that because our sprinklers were on, in spite of the water restrictions, he had reported us to the authorities.

And, sure enough, a little farther into the stack there were two letters from the water enforcement people, one of them warning us, the other giving us a hundred-dollar citation.

Our sprinklers? On? This was impossible, of course. My assistant had shut off the sprinkler system the day before the restrictions went into effect. After all, we're law-abiding citizens -- and we're not stupid.

If everybody else's lawn is going brown because they're obeying the law, there's no point in having your lawn be green. It marks you as a pariah in the neighborhood. We'd have to be brain dead to keep the sprinklers going!

But when my assistant came to work on Monday, he told us that, yes, indeed, someone had left a phone message about a month ago -- again, anonymous -- saying, "Every morning I drive by your house and see your sprinklers going at seven a.m." The caller went on from there, lecturing us about our civic responsibility -- never thinking that maybe the reason he was talking to an answering machine was because nobody was home.

My assistant did not get that phone message until more than a week after it was left on our machine, because ... he had been in Utah that week, with us, helping us run the convention we were putting on at Utah Valley State College.

Of course, as soon as he did get the message, he went out to the sprinkler control and found that it was set exactly as he had left it -- the drip system that watered the expensive plantings was on (because that was still permitted), but the sprinklers were all, most definitely, set to off.

Yet there was no denying that our lawn looked way too good.

Something was wrong. So he shut the whole system down.

Later, when the sprinkler guy got there, his best guess was that there had been a power outage, and when the power came back on, the newly installed computer that controls the sprinkler system reset itself to water daily, even though we had never set it for daily watering.

Who knew that the new system controller would do this? Not us.

And since every living soul who could have done anything about it was either out of state for seven weeks or didn't come to work each day until hours after the sprinklers had shut themselves off, we had no clue we were violating the law.

I can't blame our neighbors for being resentful. I would have been, too.

But I'd like to think that maybe I wouldn't have jumped to the conclusion that the people whose sprinklers were running every day during a water crisis were complete idiots or sociopaths.

Maybe I would have wondered if perhaps they were out of town and didn't know what was happening.

But ... our sprinkler system, our fault. And our fine, by the way, which we will pay without contest.

And for any who might worry that we have significantly worsened the water crisis because our sprinkler system went insane while we were out of town -- one thinks of Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice -- keep in mind that during the whole spring season, when everybody else's sprinkler systems were going like mad, ours was broken and never went on at all.

So, even though our timing was bad, averaged over the past six months we didn't use any more water on our lawn than most others in our neighborhood. Still, just to make sure we didn't take more than our fair share, I'm not bathing again till the crisis is over.

In the meantime, though, we have to live with the shame of having the greenest lawn in the neighborhood.

As to the neighbors who turned us in -- we agree with you. Violators should be reported.

What I don't understand is the anonymous note. The note wasn't sent in advance, to warn us. It was sent after we'd been reported.

If you're not sending the note in advance, to give miscreants a chance to reform, then why send it at all? Just report us and forget about it.

As it stands, your note makes it sound like you actually took pleasure in making sure we knew that a neighbor had reported us.

And because you sent it without signature, we get to look at all our neighbors and wonder -- is this the person who sent the note? Is this the person who thought I was such an idiot I deliberately watered my lawn in broad daylight during a drought?

If we knew who had written the note, we'd have sent you an immediate apology and explanation, and we might even have gotten together with you and laughed about the whole thing.

But because we don't know who you are, and because your note was so filled with spite and judgment, it poisons our feelings toward the whole neighborhood.

Let me just suggest this as a rule of thumb. Anonymity, like darkness, is the cover that people use when they know they're doing something mean. If you're sending a note but you don't want to sign your name, then you shouldn't send the note.

If it really needs to be sent, then rewrite it, soften it, and make it polite and decent enough that you can sign your name.

In fact, you should write the note so kindly that you could hand deliver it.

That's what neighbors do.


Reign of Fire didn't have much of a budget. And it really wasn't your standard sci-fi thriller. No gore. No sudden shocks. Which is fine with me, but ...

It also looked kind of bleak, in a Mad Max post-apocalypse sort of way -- and there was no Mel Gibson, so why bother?

I saw it only because my favorite critic liked it ... and she was right. Not only was it the first time I could stand watching Matthew McConaughey on screen, but it was also one of Christian Bale's finest performances.

The dragons looked great. The director kept the story up front, so you could care about what was going on.

Most important, the script was smarter than anyone expects sci-fi monster movies to be. Fascinating ideas about the dragons' life cycle; fairly plausible subsistence-level society; exposition deftly handled so it never stopped the action; and heroes who might have thought they were larger than life, but weren't.

When a movie works, it's usually because it had a first-rate script. This movie worked.

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