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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 02, 2002

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


Emperors, Treasure, and the Tempur-Pedic Mattress

Mattresses are expensive, but the wrong mattress can make you so miserable that it's worth paying for exactly the right bed, if you possibly can.

When you're in your teens or twenties, you can sleep on bricks and wake up feeling good. But I'm old now, and when I'm on the wrong mattress all night, I'm in pain all the next day.

That's why we had to give up waterbeds five years ago. Comfy and easy to fall asleep on, but the next day I had a sore back or sore neck way too often -- plus it was hard to roll out of bed. More like heaving myself out.

We found a very nice mattress with a padded top that did the job well enough for five years. But on a recent trip, suffering from miserable hotel pillows, my wife decided to try a Tempur-Pedic pillow.

She loved it. Best sleep she'd had in a long time.

So the next day, we ordered a Tempur-Pedic mattress.

It cost significantly more than regular mattresses, but it's worth the difference, at least for us. The mattress looks like it's made of foam rubber, but when you lie on it it's hard to believe the combination of firmness and softness. You get complete support -- no backaches -- and yet it yields under you so that you don't end up tossing and turning to relieve pressure points.

We've been sleeping on this mattress now for two months, and the only weird thing is that we can't use Tempur-Pedic pillows on the Tempur-Pedic mattress. We both get shoulder aches (we're side-liers) when we use the T-P pillow on the T-P bed -- even though we love the pillows when we use them on regular mattresses.

The problem seems to be that the T-P pillow is so low (and I'm using their thick one) and the mattress so firm that my shoulder has to twist under me in a weird way just so my neck doesn't slope down like a rollercoaster.

My compromise is that I use a regular pillow on top of the T-P pillow, and the result is no pain at all. I lose some of the comfort of the T-P pillow, but I still get the firm support from it.

When you see the price tag, you may recoil in horror. But think about it. Most people spend a lot more time in bed than they do in their car, yet they'll shop for bargain mattresses that torment them all night, while straining their finances to get more car than they need or can afford.

If you're happy with your present bed, great! But if you're uncomfortable enough that you really want to try something new, I can tell you that the Tempur-Pedic worked for me. And since they have quite a nice return policy, you won't get stuck if you return the mattress in time.

*

The Emperor's Club looked like it was going to be a warmed-over Dead Poet's Society, but since I like Kevin Kline way more than Robin Williams, I decided to trust him and give his movie a try.

The first part of the movie was quite disappointing. It was as if somebody had seen Good-bye, Mr. Chips and To Sir, With Love and but didn't understand how to get the same emotional effect.

The movie races through the story, doing predictable troubled-child-meets-sensitive-but-firm-teacher stuff in such a pro forma way that I suspected it was going to be a maudlin disaster -- like Mr. Holland's Opus.

Especially irritating was the fact that the movie opened with the Noble Teacher arriving for some kind of ceremony in his honor -- and his host turns out to be the grown-up version of the very kid who causes all the problems in the long, long flashback. So we already know the kid is going to turn out to love the guy. What a dumb way to start!

Only that's not at all how the movie turns out. I still think the opening was a mistake, because it made it look like a very bad movie for such a long time. But suffice it to say that the reason the movie rushes through the attempt to reform the troubled kid at the beginning is because that's not what the movie is about.

If anything, this movie is the opposite of To Sir, With Love. It's about what a teacher can't do. And by the end, it isn't the Troubled-Kid-Turned-Senatorial-Candidate who occupies the moral center of the film; nor is it the teacher. Instead it's the adult version of the priggish kid who kept warning his friends that they were breaking the rules and they were just going to get in trouble.

In other words, a good kid is probably going to grow into a good adult, and it isn't the teacher who made him that way.

Which is not to say that this movie says that teachers are worthless or ineffective. Quite the contrary. But it does say, quite emphatically, what the troubled boy's father says to the teacher. "You aren't going to mold my son. I'm going to mold my son."

So ... have patience with the opening. Have trust. It's a fascinating and, yes, moving film, and it's full of surprises that I haven't even hinted at here.

*

Treasure Planet is wonderful fun, whether you have a kid to take you to see it or not. The human relationships in this animated film definitely take place in a post-Iron Giant world -- in other words, there is some actual reality in the characters.

Adapting Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island to a sci-fi setting was an inspired idea. Yes, there's some pretty silly science in it -- sailing ships in space? Interstellar whales? -- but they do show that they know which rules they're breaking.

Above all, they kept the strength of the story. While making Long John Silver's moral ambivalence much more obvious than it is in the book (this is a cartoon, remember), it's still just as complicated as ever.

The obligatory "cute sidekick" from the Disney formula-book is a delight and actually serves a purpose in the film, while making Billy Bones into a semi-deranged robot worked perfectly. More like this, Mr. Eisner, please.

*

Remember Kenneth Starr? Depending on your politics, he was either: (a) The evil monster who kept persecuting poor Bill and Hillary, or (b) The hardworking prosecutor who struggled to get to the truth behind the smokescreens and obstructions and lies the Clintons threw at him.

Though Starr was for many years a judge on the same federal court as Robert Bork and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he knows that the Left never forgives, and therefore he will never be nominated to the Supreme Court.

No, not even with a Republican President and a Republican Senate. Nominating Starr would do nothing but revive old hatreds and controversies. The fact that he behaved with extraordinary propriety -- especially compared to previous special prosecutors -- is irrelevant.

The happy result of Starr's immunity to nomination, however, is that he was free to write a book: First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life.

Maybe you think that reading a book about the Supreme Court isn't exactly how you want to spend several hours of your life. But you might be surprised.

First Among Equals is the clearest explanation I've ever seen of how the court works, how the justices arrive at their decisions, who is actually making those decisions, and why some of the things they do seem so utterly incomprehensible to regular folks like us (i.e., people who never went to law school).

Starr deals with the hottest issues the Supreme Court has faced in the past fifty or so years -- abortion, affirmative action, flag burning, prayer in school, and many more.

He pulls no punches -- he does not make one side look brilliant and the other side look dumb. Indeed, what becomes clear is that he likes people on both sides of every issue and understands their reasoning even when he disagrees with it.

By the end, you realize that even though the Supreme Court has taken far too much power to itself, the men and women who are the court are trying to fulfil their office faithfully and do what's right for their country. You may hate some of their decisions, but you won't hate them.

And it's refreshing to hear somebody speak of Clarence Thomas with the respect that he has earned in his lifetime of service and upright behavior.

The only thing missing is a report on the ages of the current justices and the state of their health, so we can get some idea of whether President Bush is going to have a chance to replace some of the judges who do what they think is right, regardless of what the law says, with judges who actually believe legislatures are the ones who should make the laws.

*

So after somebody beeped in to the Rhino and assured us all that Park Place restaurant still existed, it had just changed its name to The Tap Room, my wife and I stopped by.

We had misgivings. After all, "The Tap Room" seems to be trying to get a clientele that doesn't include non-drinking Mormons like us. But I don't care what other people in a restaurant are drinking.

I do, however, care what they're smoking. We opened the door and were stopped in our tracks by the powerful stink of cigarette smoke. The place reeked worse than a scented-candle shop. Five minutes in there and when I got home I'd have had to strip off my clothes in the garage rather than stink up the house.

We turned around and walked away. Park Place is definitely dead, folks, rumors to the contrary notwithstanding. If you're a smoker or don't mind a lot of cigarette smoke, then you might find that The Tap Room is selling items with the same names as items once served at Park Place.

They probably even taste like my old favorites -- except for that extra ashtray flavor that you'll breathe in with every bite.

*

I already miss the late Stephen E. Ambrose. I didn't always agree with his politics, but I always agreed with his history, because he was one of those rare historians who followed the evidence even if it made him change his mind.

His work on World War II was illuminating and powerful -- Band of Brothers was based on his work. And he also produced noteworthy accounts of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the building of the transcontinental railway, and the lives of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

He may not have known he was going to die when he penned his last book, To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, but he could not have written a better valedictory volume than this.

Each essay could easily stand alone, but taken all together, certain themes emerge.

First, you get to know Ambrose as a man, and see how the teachers he studied with and the events of his life shaped his writings. He did not write history in order to have a career, he wrote what fascinated him, and then the career -- and the life -- just happened.

Most of the book, though, follows the same pattern: Here's what he was taught to expect in this or that field of historical study, but here's what the evidence actually showed.

By the end, you realize that while history can never be impartial -- the very choice of what to write about is shaped by the writer's character -- it can be honest, rigorous, and open-minded. Ambrose set a high standard.

He's not alone, either -- there are other excellent historians and biographers working today.

Still, if I had my way, this book would be required reading for every undergraduate thinking of history as a career -- not to turn him away from that path, for I can think of few careers as important as discovering and writing history; but rather to set the standard for integrity ... and to show how much fun a historian can have along the way.

*

Website of the week: "The Dialect Survey" at http://hcs.harvard.edu/~golder/dialect/index.html (or go to Google.com and search for "dialect survey").

After you log in, you're asked to take a survey. It's kind of long -- but fascinating, asking you questions about how you pronounce certain words, or which words you use for certain meanings. When you've finished the survey (or, if you want, you can skip the survey entirely), look at the maps.

They show where in the U.S. each different usage shows up. The clearest dialect differences are between the North and the South, of course, but on certain terms there are some surprising regional variations.

With a lot of the words, you'll be surprised to find out some of the variants even exist. Who would say it that way? Then you look at the map and discover that half the country does!

*

This year, the Oratorio Society's presentation of Handel's Messiah won't be on a Sunday afternoon -- it'll be on Thursday the 12th of December at War Memorial Coliseum. This live performance of the greatest of all oratorios is always wonderful, and I hope you won't miss it this year just because it's on a weeknight!


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