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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 26, 2005

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


Herbie, Already, Alot, Alright, Peck, and Ring Bear

I have a confession to make. Even though I was seventeen years old in 1968, when Dean Jones and Michele Lee first showed us how romantic it is run races in a sentient Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie, I never saw The Love Bug.

I never saw any of the sequels. I never saw any of the TV movies.

But I was pretty consistent: I never watched Knight Rider, either.

I think that after watching one episode of My Mother the Car in 1965, I decided that I had seen all the sentient cars I needed to see in my lifetime.

The promos for Herbie: Fully Loaded failed to give me any good reason to change my mind. In fact, it made me kind of sad to see Michael Keaton reduced to playing the dad in a throwaway Disney comedy. And Matt Dillon as the cartoon bad guy, getting squirted in the face with oil and smacked in the head with the trunk lid of a VW ... ha ha ha ha ha.

So when, on opening day, I walked into a completely empty theater (except, of course, for us), I couldn't help but think that all the other people -- the ones who had stayed away -- agreed with my assessment of this movie. There was no chance it was worth watching.

Well, as you know, there are only two directions this review can go from here. Either I can say, we were all correct, and spend a few more paragraphs rubbing the movie's nose in my disapproval.

Or I can say this:

I enjoyed every minute of it.

There was no attempt at subtlety, of course. The car was obviously alive from the start -- in fact, the movie recapped Herbie's entire career and spent quite a bit of time showing Herbie fighting off an evil junkyard owner who wanted him crushed.

But it was amusing enough. And then Lindsay Lohan (pre-anorexia, so she's merely slender instead of skeletal) came into the picture, never quite choosing to rescue Herbie from destruction. Rather she had Herbie thrust upon her.

There are no plot surprises. What makes the movie work is the clever mechanical and CGI work with Herbie -- with genuine comic timing -- and the utter charm of the actors.

Matt Dillon manages to keep the villain -- an arrogant NASCAR driver who quickly develops a vendetta against Herbie -- believable, never mugging, always acting. I credit the director with keeping all the actors in line that way -- the humor was obvious but not at the expense of keeping the humans human.

Lindsay Lohan was as pleasant as ever, and Michael Keaton is solid in the role of the father who doesn't want his daughter risking her life as a race driver. In fact, Keaton -- who has been known to do a little mugging and overacting in his time -- kept even the emotional bits well under control, never becoming maudlin. Think of Harry Dean Stanton's oh-so-sappy performance as the dad in Pretty in Pink -- Michael Keaton is the opposite.

But the charm contest was won, hands down, by Justin Long. Cursed with a more-than-passing resemblance to Keanu Reeves (which is clinched by the hair), Long has actually played pretty good (but small) parts in such movies as Dodgeball and Galaxy Quest. Here's the first chance I've had to see him in a major part, and he's terrific: low-key, sweet, and unfailingly real.

Somehow, despite the fundamental silliness of the story from beginning to end, the director managed to keep it all in proportion so that I enjoyed it all. And here's the acid test: The eleven-year-old in our group was delighted from beginning to end.

Except for once, when Herbie "makes a face" behind Matt Dillon. The CG effect was so sudden and so hugely grotesque that it was actually scary -- it might well bother really little kids, and even our eleven-year-old remembered it as a bad moment.

But all was definitely healed by the end, when she laughed long and loud at the final, clinching joke. I thought right then: That is my review -- that long, delighted laughter from a child.

Nobody thought they were making a great movie with Herbie: Fully Loaded. They were only trying to make an entertaining movie that children would love and adults would enjoy. They succeeded completely.

*

It's been many generations since the two parts of already stopped having anything to do with the meaning of the word. When we want to ask people if they're completely prepared, we don't say "Are you already?" If we did, they'd say, "Are we already what?"

Instead we say, "Are you all ready?" We even pronounce (or at least stress) "all ready" and "already" differently. The two terms coexist.

But because English has "already," people have taken to spelling two other phrases as single words: "a lot" becomes "a lot" and "all right" becomes "alright."

"Alot" is actually quite appropriate and probably overdue. When we say "We're looking for a lot where we can build a house," we say the words very differently from the way we say "Mister, you're in alot of trouble."

Just as "any more" and "anymore" coexist as a phrase dealing with quantity and an adverb dealing with time ("I don't want any more soup" and "I don't want soup anymore"), we should recognize that "alot" is now a single word used as an intensifier, sometimes meaning "often" and sometimes meaning "much" or "many."

Some people object because the same phonemes form the word "allot," meaning "to apportion." But it's doubtful anyone will ever confuse the meanings of the two words, even if we spelled them the same.

Alright irritates me more, because most of the time we use it and sense it as two separate words, "all" and "right." Only when it's a filler word, the equivalent of "well" or "ahem" or "um," is it a single word. As in: "Alright, where were we?"

And maybe it has become a single word when it means "agreed":

Alright?

Alright already!

Language marches on. Who am I to try to stem the tide? I hereby vow to stop regarding as complete illiterates the unfortunates who write "alot" and "alright" in my presence.

As long as we're being magnanimous, why not join me in spelling through as "thru," though as "tho," and although as "altho"?

I have no program to get rid of all our lovely English "ughs" -- tho Greensboro, nee Greensborough, has done without the "ugh" for many years without ill effect -- but tho, altho, and thru are small words that don't deserve to take up so much space on the page.

Next year: because and 'cause will become becuz and cuz. You saw it here first.

*

(Note to the humor-proof: Don't waste time writing in to "defend" English against my subversion. You only prove your ignorance of either orthography or irony.)

*

Richard Peck's Invitations to the World is a combination memoir, commentary on education, and writing class.

Peck knows something about writing, having won the Newbery Award Medal for A Year Down Yonder, Newbery Honor for A Long Way from Chicago, and the Edgar Award for Are You in the House Alone? He also wrote the popular Blossom series.

He's a terrific writer -- but he taught junior high for years before he started writing professionally, and he continually returns to the schools to keep in touch with his target audience. So he knows something about contemporary American education -- and he can afford to speak up about what he's seen without fear of losing his job.

Maybe the best way to let you know what his book is like is to share some of my favorite quotes:

Peck on Writing

"A novel is gossip trying to pass as art."

"Fiction must provide something that real life withholds." The odd thing is that even though Peck makes this statement, he feels free to despise literatures like science fiction and fantasy, which allow students to experience strange and unfamiliar worlds -- a useful preparation to adapt to the everchanging future -- and to read about extravagant villains and noble heroes, giving them the tools to recognize evil and virtue, and disposing them to value the latter.

"How much harder it is to write a novel than to teach one, how much easier to criticize than create."

"Real life is too overwritten for fiction." Reality is able to do extravagantly improbably things, because nobody can doubt that it things could happen the way they really do. Fiction has no witnesses; novelists can't invoke evidence to persuade the reader to believe.

Peck on Schools

"We were told that children must be motivated to learn, and if they aren't motivated, it's the teacher's fault. That was a lie, and a big one. It reckoned without the hard fact that the basis of all real learning is fear."

Of course Peck doesn't mean that we ought to go back to letting teachers beat students. Far more potent than fear of the hickory stick is fear of looking stupid in front of peers, or fear of being left behind, or fear of never getting a good job, or fear of being viewed with contempt by members of the opposite sex, or fear of not earning the approval of an admired adult.

These days, though, schools allow students to pressure each other not to achieve, remove the possibility of anyone looking dumb whether they learn or not, and so strip teachers of any community respect that fewer and fewer students particularly wish for their teachers' approval.

Equally overindulgent parents have, of course, conspired in this process. Too many students know that no matter what they do wrong, their parents will take their side and bully the schools into backing down. It doesn't take much bullying, either. The administration is almost always willing to hang the teacher out to dry, when a parent refuses to let their child take responsibility.

"The schools then could no more compensate for unfit parents, squalor, permissive rearing, and all the other grim truths in children's private live than they can today. Schools clung to the function that they could perform, teaching the two basics: literacy and delayed gratification."

If we define "literacy" as the ability and inclination to decode marks on a page in order to find out the information contained there, I think Peck's summary is fair. Once students learn how and why to read words and numbers, the other job of school is social, but not in the way we normally figure.

"Delay of gratification" is a technical term for a psychological skill that is also a measure of maturity. Children raised in the Depression or the rationing of World II learned at an early age that if you want something, you often have to wait or even do without. Once prosperity and plenty returned in the '50s, and chores gradually disappeared, school remained the place where you had to put off pleasure while doing required work.

How in the world will most children raised today learn how to voluntarily put off things they desire in order to accomplish things that matter more?

"The school responded by declaring every student college material, with another unintended effect: The students recognized school as a place where teachers could fail, but they could not." When you regard a child's decision not to go to college as a failure of the system, instead of a valid choice, the measure of a teacher's "success" becomes too high to achieve. Meanwhile, the measure of a child's "success" became so low that children had to work hard to pressure each other not to achieve it.

Children sense a power vacuum, and they quickly realized that as teachers became powerless, they became powerful.

The irony is that kids don't want power, they want respect; and they can only get that by earning it. As schools dumbed down to avoid making any student feel worthless, the schools merely made themselves worthless.

"We provided the gifted program to provide the willing student with some approximation of the regular classroom of thirty years before." This is the simple truth. It would take a new and special program to give high school students the education that was taken for granted when Peck was in seventh grade.

The collapse was only beginning when I went through school, but by the time my kids came along, teachers were already struggling to rescue kids amid the rubble of the system.

"When teachers got sensitive, the students went shopping." Education simply worked better when teachers offered only one way for students to feel good about themselves: genuine achievement. As with any other set of human relationships, when school became undemanding it also became uninteresting.

However much Peck might deplore what our society has done with schools, he knows there are still thousands of earnest teachers -- and millions of students who have to go to school whether it's any good or not. So he offers some help.

At the end of the book, Peck lists ten questions that a classroom teacher might ask her students about any novel. Every one of these questions is infinitely better than the ubiquitous question, "What is the theme of this book," which forces students to read novels as if they were absurdly long essays.

I wish English teachers would use his list instead of the questions they usually use. Then I'd get fewer panicked emails from high school students saying: "I have an assignment due tomorrow. What is the theme of Ender's Game?"

To which the answer is: It's a story. It has characters, events, settings, and hundreds of ideas. But it has no theme.

Ten Questions to Ask about a Novel, by Richard Peck

1. What would this story be like if the main character were of the opposite sex?

2. Why is this story set where it is (not what is the setting)?

3. If you were to film this story, what characters would you eliminate if you couldn't use them all?

4. Would you film this story in black and white or in color?

5. How is the main character different from you?

6. Why would or wouldn't this story make a good TV series?

7. What's one thing in this story that's happened to you?

8. Reread the first paragraph of Chapter 1. What's in it that makes you read on?

9. If you had to design a new cover for this book, what would it look like?

10. What does the title tell you about the book? Does it tell the truth?

Everyone has blind spots, of course, and Peck is no exception. In his diatribe condemning people who would censor books offered to children in schools, Peck is every bit as fanatical and biased-without-evidence as any of the would-be censors. He completely misses the contradiction between some of his politically correct opinions and his promotion of discipline and delay of gratification.

Everybody's a bigot ... only the list of Things All Right-Thinking-People Must Hate differs.

Never mind that. It's an entertaining and often-wise book, and Peck has earned his right to speak and be heard.

*

Even though my youngest is really too old for picture books, I still can't resist them. Recently I picked up The Ring Bear, written by David Michael Slater and illustrated by S.G. Brooks.

In the story, a young boy plays pirates with his mother, wearing eyepatches and going under the noms de guerre "Westley the Wicked" and "Mom the Mean."

Mom's friend Stan doesn't play -- he won't wear the eyepatch. He enjoys watching their imaginative life, but it's something they share between themselves.

Then Stan and Mom decide to get married, and when they ask Westley to be the ring bearer, he misunderstands and thinks of himself as the Ring Bear. As a bear, he can show his anger at Stan's intrusion, and he is fully prepared to devour the ring rather than carry it up to Mom and Stan.

This is a sweet, charming, funny, tender book. The art is warm and witty, the writing understated and, precisely because it isn't maudlin, it brought a tear to my eye.

It's not a "problem" story, to be trotted out when a kid's mother is about to remarry. It's a story any kid could enjoy, treating the remarriage issue as the simple fact of family life that it so commonly is.


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