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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 30, 2005

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


Elektra, Scrabble, Word Freak, Linksys

Tuesday night I got a chance to see a dress rehearsal of Page High School's production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly.

You may have seen the writeup and pictures in Tuesday's N&R. The play is based on the true story of Terezin, a school near Prague where 15,000 Jewish children were interned while waiting for deportation and execution. Only 100 of those children survived the holocaust.

Raja Englanderova is a real person; this is her story. Several members of the cast of this show were able to talk to her by telephone in Prague, where she lives and practices pediatric medicine.

It makes the story all the more poignant to realize that the character we see on stage really did go on to devote her life to caring for children, as the teachers at Terezin spent the last years and days of their lives caring for her and her fellow students.

In this era when liars claim that the holocaust never happened and the anti-Jewish propaganda being pumped out of the Middle East and Europe is even more outrageous than Hitler's pre-war vilifications, I have to say I was deeply moved to see this cast of high school students wearing the star of David (as Jews under Nazi rule were forced to do) and telling one of the true stories from the inside out.

Not only that, but the director, Michael Parrish, followed a race-neutral casting policy, so that white and black kids alike were able to perform in leading and supporting roles. There was no silliness about not being able to put black kids in white roles. Instead, a cast of human kids got to play the roles of people caught up in the vilest crime of the twentieth century.

What's discouraging is to see that the world is racing headlong down the highway to more such atrocities ... and, in all likelihood, against the same set of victims.

But let's set politics aside. The play has weaknesses -- primarily the script, which struggles to capture a large story inside a very brief framework.

The biggest weakness, though, is the space in which these young actors have to perform.

The auditorium at Page was designed for school assemblies. For speeches and shouting before the entire student body.

For plays, it's a nightmare. The acoustics are horrible. The air system is loud. The walls reverberate so that even loud voices can't be well understood.

Clearly, this was a high school auditorium designed to do several jobs, all badly.

The result is that the kids have to shout every line, wiping out any chance for subtlety in performance.

These young actors could have done so much better in a hundred-seat arena theatre. In such a setting, the script, with its choral recitations, its dancing, its intimate theatricality, would have worked far better; the actors could have given far more nuanced performances.

The good news is that between the director, the staff, the crew, and a splendid bunch of performers, they overcame these obstacles and delivered a play that moved me.

Especially effective are Amanda Horney as Raja and Chris Patterson as Honza, as they acted out a hopeful love story in the midst of despair. And I was also very impressed by the performances of Dax Hill as the rabbi, April Meadows as Raja's mother, and Emma Reaves as Raja's most important teacher, Irena.

But the whole cast does a good job, and I'm glad they're going to perform this again in national competition. You can see it 3-5 February at 7:00 p.m. at Page High School Auditorium. Sit close to the stage.

*

I didn't like Daredevil much, and in the weeks and months since seeing it, I've liked it less and less.

So when I realized the Jennifer Garner movie Elektra was a sequel (though admittedly an unafflecked one), I was not optimistic.

Still, last Wednesday there was nothing playing in the town I was in that I wanted to see and that I hadn't already seen. We went to the movies anyway and I found myself watching a movie about a mystically-trained assassin who meets someone she doesn't want to kill.

It's a standard chopsocky fantasy, but I have to admit, Jennifer Garner does it convincingly. She almost made me not laugh out loud at the absurd costume. Almost. (Why would anybody wear an outfit like that for any purpose other than prostitution?)

Garner is surrounded by a good cast. Goran Visnijic is one of the few reasons E.R. is more than a soap opera these days, and he brings his grip-on-reality skills to anchor this movie, too.

Terence Stamp lends dignity to the part of Elektra's mentor, "Stick," and Will Yun Lee as the archenemy, Kirigi, is chilling and brilliant. (I'd love to see him in a good movie where he played the hero or the main love interest. His talent and charisma are barely being used by Hollywood. Let's pair him with Scarlett Johansson and see if he can make her have a facial expression.)

I also liked Colin Cunningham as Elektra's agent, McCabe, though unfortunately his character was thrown away for no reason by the writers.

The action is clear; the cinematography is moody, yet moves us along; and the dialogue is surprisingly good for such a shallow, ridiculous, shopworn story.

And that's the problem. I was entertained every moment because the performances and filmmaking were so good.

But I never for an instant cared about anybody.

It didn't help that in casting the 13-year-old girl, Abby, they chose somebody whose sole acting skill is acting bratty. That's fine for the bratty bits, but when Abby supposedly transforms Elektra's life, it is impossible to believe.

But it didn't matter that we didn't believe. Because all the character stuff was just decoration on the chopsocky cake.

Chopsocky these days is like the old Keystone Kops -- on opium. If you like watching elaborate faked-up stunts with a lot of pretentious metaphysics, good for you. But don't be fooled into thinking you're watching a story where the characters matter.

*

I like playing Scrabble. It's partly a test of vocabulary, but it's partly a chess-like contest of positioning on a board.

It's also a game of anagramming -- finding words in jumbles of letters.

There's skill involved, but also chance: which letter tiles you randomly draw.

And it's only fun when you play with someone whose vocabulary and Scrabble skills are fairly evening matched with yours.

If the pairing isn't close, then either you start out knowing you're going to lose, which is discouraging, or you feel guilty because the other person doesn't stand a chance, which feels even worse.

I work with words for a living. So for years I've only played Scrabble with a friend who is also a writer.

And we've "improved" the game.

We knew that the serious players memorized all the word lists -- the two-letter words, the three-letter words, the six-letter words that can be turned into seven-letter words by a single letter.

That sounded like way more work than any game was worth.

Besides, we hated the dictionary aspects of the game -- deciding whether to contest somebody's word and then living or dying by whether the word was in the dictionary.

After all, the reason words get put in the dictionary is because writers like me use them in print.

I make up new words in almost every book I write. The English language is marvelous that way -- so many building blocks, so many tools. Suffixes like -hood, -ness, -ity, -cy, -tion, all serving similar (but not identical) functions.

You want a word that's like "abnormality" but with a different shade of meaning? How about "abnormalcy"? And if I said "abnormalness" or even "abnormalhood," would you have any trouble understanding what I was doing with the language?

Here's a fictional dialogue:

"That stew last night was a lethal weapon, soldier."

"I did the best I could, sir. I didn't ask to be a cook sir. And it all got eaten, sir."

"Well, it all got uneaten by morning, soldier. This company has uneaten your stew all over the barracks. Who's going to clean that up?"

"Excuse me, sir. I think I need to go uneat."

What if "uneaten" and "uneat" in the dialogue were replaced by "miseaten" or "diseaten" or "exeaten"?

In my book, I get to decide. Not some lexicographer.

If a writer's or speaker's coinage catches on, the word ends up in the dictionary. Especially when the word serves a real need.

We had words for robot, android, and cyborg long before any of them existed.

So I'm afraid I don't like playing a game where you can't use your whole vocabulary -- only the subset that lexicographers chose ten years ago based on writings of ten years before that. The language is changing and dictionaries are always behind the curve.

A lot of us have stopped capitalizing internet or hyphenating email or separating cellphone into two separate words. These usages are correct, and style guides that don't agree are simply not keeping up with the language.

At the same time, when writers play Scrabble, it's too easy to make up words -- in other words, to cheat.

So our rule is, we have to be able to find it in a dictionary -- or we both have to agree that the word is legitimate. Even if we might have made it up on the spot, if the meaning is instantly clear and the word sounds like it should exist we allow it.

If we don't agree, then there's no penalty. You take the letters back and put down a different word.

We even opened the books. You can look up words in advance to check them. Why not? It levels the playing field a little.

We made other changes, too. We wrap around -- we can place a word so it runs right off the edge of the board and continues on the other side.

In other words, we're not playing Scrabble at all. We just use the Scrabble equipment and the rules we like.

We have a great time, with score sheets going back to 1979.

However, there are in this world Scrabble players who don't change any of the rules. Instead, they submit completely to the game, learning, not the English language as it's spoken, but the subset of words that can be made out of the Scrabble tiles and found in the official dictionary.

They spend months, years, decades of their lives memorizing word lists and practicing anagramming. Scrabble is their life.

I think what they do isn't a game and wouldn't be fun.

They would think what I play is desecration of Scrabble and would despise it -- if they even bothered to notice it.

I never thought that I'd love a book about those fanatical Scrabble players.

But I do. Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, is wonderful.

Fatsis, a journalist, entered the world of official Scrabble competitions initially as an observer, but gradually he became as obsessed as any of the other players.

Eventually, he found himself going to tournaments just to try to get his Scrabble rating up. Could he rise to the level that would let him play in the Expert category at the tournaments? Or could he sweep the Intermediate category and come home with the prize?

The money is low; the game has enough randomness that even great players will sometimes lose to players without their ability.

But through it all, they form an interesting community.

Or at least Stefan Fatsis makes it seem that way. His story becomes a kind of quest, not just for him, but for the intense people that he meets and comes to care about; we come to care about them too.

Nothing in this book made me want to play in official competition. It made me more certain that my way of playing is far better -- because it's still fun.

Instead of being a test of memorization, the open-book Scrabble game becomes a contest of clever placement of tiles on the board. That's the game I enjoy. Because if there's one thing that I learned from reading Word Freak, it's that I hope never, never, never to become that obsessive about anything.

*

We networked the computers in our house so long ago that we used TV cables strung through the attic and under the floorboards to do it. What a pain!

Not a pain for me. It was a pain for the guy who crawled under the house and through the attic and strung it all together.

It was also a pain for the guy who then had to get all our computers to talk to each other using the primitive networking capabilities of Windows for Workgroups.

It was the same guy. I owe him big time.

Because we're not just a family, we're a small business. And once you've had your computers networked so you can trade files and back up onto each other's hard drives and shared access to the nets through a cable modem (Road Runner really is as good as the hype from Time-Warner suggests), there's no going back.

We finally replaced the tv-cable wiring with the much faster six-line phone-style cable. But even that was a long time ago.

Now you can connect your computers without using cables at all.

It's faster. It's easier. And if one of your computers is zapped, no current is carried over the network cables to zap the others. Because there are no cables.

But it's not quite as easy as you might think.

First, it can be complicated if you're trying to connect them using different wireless equipment. They say they are all compliant with certain protocols, but either it isn't true or the process is so complicated that ordinary humans can't do it.

So the simplest thing is: Don't jury-rig it with built-in wireless equipment on different computers. Just go get LinkSys for each computer and, after a fairly easy installation, you're up and running with a reliable wireless network.

I say the installation is "fairly easy" compared to the usual. The technophiles who design this stuff can't conceive of how little we regular people know, so they never explain anything deeply enough that it can possibly make sense to us.

The nice thing about LinkSys's wireless networking system is that if you just make a stab at it, you're likely to succeed.

The second problem, though, is tougher. Wireless networks are not secure. For instance, I'm writing this in Virginia, at a friend's house. I used LinkSys on my laptop to hook up to their network. But when I started it up, LinkSys offered to connect me to any one of five wireless networks in the neighborhood.

Two of them were LinkSys networks. One of them was my friends' network, and the other one wasn't, and I had no way to tell because both of them had kept the default name.

Change the network name when you install it. That way you won't find a well-meaning neighbor accidentally signing on to your network.

Run firewall protection on every computer to protect against malicious intruders.

Then get a cable modem, hook up to the net, and every computer in your house or small business is (relatively) safely tied to each other and to the outside world.

Oh, wait. I forgot a step.

You have to get Windows to recognize the network and let you share files and ...

And that means spending hours of your life figuring out how to get Windows to do anything useful.

But that's not LinkSys's fault. Or Road Runner's. It's Bill Gates's fault, and we already hate him anyway, don't we?

I think we should all get a rebate from Microsoft -- or, preferably, Bill Gates personally -- for every hour of our lives that is wasted because his company can't come up with intuitive software -- or clear and sensible instructions to do obvious and uncomplicated tasks.

That's why I still need to keep my highly-skilled computer guy around. So he can help me when Windows suddenly takes my computer hostage as it did just a few days ago, demanding that I log in every time I boot up my computer.

I'm the only person who uses this computer, ever, and suddenly I have to sign in?

It's just good old Bill Gates, engaging in his normal e-terrorism.

I mean, why are we so worried about hackers and identity thieves, when we already have Bill Gates breaking into our computers all the time and forcing us to do everything his way?

(And don't tell me that Apple is better. Apple is worse about controlling the work habits of people who buy their products. You only think Apple is better because you are content to be somebody's indentured servant, and thus you don't even try to have control over your own computer.)

*

The nets just won't let go of some things.

The drug Phenylpropanolamine was taken out of all the products that used to contain it.

So if you get an urgent warning in an email, with a list of products not to use because they contain Phenylpropanolamine, you can ignore it. They no longer contain it. Check the packaging. It will say so.

Why can't emails die when they're no longer true?

Of course, if you still have medicines on your shelves that are older than most junior high school kids, those might still have the bad stuff in them.


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