Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 11, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Carpenters, Lost DVDs, VisualEyes, low-calorie drinks
I'm sitting here listening to every Carpenters song ever recorded, and I'm so
filled with melancholy and nostalgia that it's almost too much to stand.
Maybe it's because this music was part of my late teens and early twenties, so
I'm nostalgic for the young, foolish, optimistic kid I used to be.
But I don't think it's just the age I was when I first heard these songs. I
remember that "Superstar" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Good-bye to
Love" gave me that same mood the first time I heard them.
Perhaps Karen Carpenter's gorgeous alto voice expressed some of the yearning
and sadness that led to her death by the slow suicide of anorexia.
Or maybe Richard Carpenter's arrangements tapped directly into the place in
memory where we store our lost loves and broken dreams.
Those tight harmonies where Karen's voice blended with itself over and over
made her the sweetest choir ever in pop music.
The Carpenters were mocked by rockers and folkies alike for being so sappy
and sentimental. And "Close to You" is still a parody of itself. But there's room
for all the musics of our lives.
Karen Carpenter owns a place in American popular music. Hers was one of the
great voices, right up there, in my opinion, with Barbara Streisand, Ella
Fitzgerald, Doris Day, and Patsy Cline.
She and her brother made music that has, for me at least, outlasted most of
the work of the "cooler" musicians who looked down on them.
Can a DVD player be haunted?
I ask this half-seriously. We've had the same weird thing happen with two
different DVD players, made by different companies, placed in different rooms,
connected to different TVs, and affecting dozens of different discs from different
Once, and exactly once, per disc, subtitles will appear on the screen. Nobody
asked for them. We didn't want them. But there they are. A couple of lines of
dialogue, and then they go away and don't come again. Till we insert another
Is somebody trying to tell us we're playing the TV too loud? Maybe as we get
older, we're going deaf and bothering the neighbors with how high we keep the
Or maybe it's a secret government program for testing literacy.
It's not a big deal. Not even annoying, really, now that we've made a family
joke out of it. But is it only us? Or does everybody get these random messages
In my ongoing search for low-calorie drinks -- not because I'm dieting, but
because when I'm busy overeating, I don't want to drink the surplus calories --
I've found a few excellent new entries.
Clear Splash makes a group of gently carbonated fruit-flavored no-calorie
drinks that I can drink with a meal without feeling bloated, the way more
heavily-carbonated drinks do. They complement a meal instead of taking over.
Fruit Refreshers lemonade is delicious and not too sweet. With no calories,
you can drink it like water.
I gave Aquafina's fruit-flavored waters a try -- after all, I reviewed Dasani's
lemon water favorably and I can't favor Coke's products without also sampling
Pepsi's, can I?
Well, yes, I can. I'm not Consumer Reports, after all. I'm just a guy who tells
you when I find good stuff. I try to be fair, but I have no obligation to be
So I sampled Aquafina's citrus-flavored water because the Amoco station in
Buena Vista doesn't have Dasani's flavored waters. And guess what? Pepsi
gets it wrong. The flavor is almost as strong as in soda pop. It no longer seems
like a water.
But I'll give Pepsi full credit for getting it exactly right with Sierra Mist. I grew
up on 7-Up (we used to be given it like medicine when we were sick, and we
still liked it), and because Coca-Cola's Sprite is obnoxiously sweet, I always
used 7-Up in combination drinks.
But Sierra Mist has displaced all the others. Both diet and regular are good by
themselves, good on tap at fast-food restaurants, and great when mixed with
fruit juices and blended smoothies.
Leaving the no-calorie category behind, I have to recommend Jones Naturals
"Limes with Orange" drink. The taste is mostly orange/tangerine, but when
you are drinking it, it's the lime you smell. Delicious -- and with all the
authentic calories intact.
I'm so glad that TV producers have discovered that the best thing they can do
to support an ongoing TV series is to get the previous year's episodes out on
That's how many of us first noticed Smallville and Alias, and the only reason
that the movie Serenity was funded by a studio was because the DVDs of the
broken-off series Firefly were a huge word-of-mouth hit among the many people
who never heard of the series when it was actually being broadcast.
It's especially valuable to have those DVDs of the first season of Lost.
Because, more than any other series in the history of television, this one is
building a single coherent story. So as the new season begins, it's good to be
able to have a refresher on the way things started.
So some friends have joined us in watching the entire series, six episodes a
night for four nights, prior to the opening of the new season.
Believe me, it really is as good as we thought it was, watching it unfold, week
after week, last year. The writing is superb, the scenes are surprising, the
characters interesting, the actors brilliantly cast and absolutely believable and
likeable in their roles. Even the cinematography is gorgeous.
If you haven't been watching Lost, start with the second season, but get the
DVDs and catch up as you go. You don't have to do a marathon like the one
we've done -- though it is surprising how movie-like the experience is, when
you see the episodes in rapid sequence without commercials.
There are drawbacks. For instance, in Episode 5, "Moth," when Charlie crawls
through the tunnel, it's obvious that it's not rubble from a cave-in, it's exactly
as realistic as the inside of the Tunnel of Love at an amusement park.
The first time I saw that episode, I didn't notice how fake the cave looked
because I was concentrating on the story. Second time, you notice
surrounding details a little more.
But they weren't exactly going to push actors through real rubble. Still ... they
could have tried a little harder, couldn't they?
Maybe not. They're paying so many actors' salaries, maybe they can't afford to
spent more than a hundred bucks on any episode's sets. And when you add in
the expense of living in Hawaii while they're filming, it's a wonder they can fill
an hour every week.
Oh, wait. They don't. They only fill forty-four minutes per episode.
The good part about a second (or third, or fourth) viewing is that you get to
appreciate the actors' subtlety. Watching Josh Holloway as Sawyer in the sixth
episode, "Confidence Man," is wonderful.
I already knew all the revelations about his character, and the answers to the
questions people are urgently asking him. So I could see how subtly he
wended his way through a complex character. His character was lying all the
time; but the actor never lied. The truth of the character was there. Holloway
ain't just a cut body and a manly face.
Seeing Lost all in a row, you realize how much this is the story of just a dozen
or so leading characters. Every now and then we see a mass of other people,
but whenever anything goes wrong, everyone runs and summons one of the
stars. It's the stars who notice everything, discover everything, decide
everything, and go on every expedition.
This is only natural -- these are the ones who are getting the big salaries, and
they're the ones we tune in to see. Besides, all the actors need to be visible in
every episode, and the easiest way to accomplish that is to use one of the leads
for every task that comes up.
And maybe that's true to life. Don't you find that in most groups, most of the
people are perfectly happy to hang back and let others make the tough choices
and do the dangerous or unpleasant jobs?
But they're always there when you serve refreshments.
Whenever we do see people in teeny-weeny cameo-size roles, I always figure
they're the mother or father of somebody associated with the show, or maybe
production assistants who happened to be there just when they needed to add
someone to a shot.
For all I know, everybody on the set always dresses in clothing appropriate to
the show, so they can fill in whenever a body is needed.
And somewhere in this world, there's an actor whose claim to fame is that he
provided the mangled legs of a guy that Dr. Jack worked on in the first episode,
whose upper body was never seen.
For my birthday I was given the game VisualEyes (Buffalo Games, Inc.). We
tried it out the other day and it's terrific. No wonder it won Game of the Year a
The idea is to play Boggle without letters. You have a bunch of big dice in a
box. Each die has different pictures on all six faces. Depending on which
pictures are face up, you combine pairs of them to make phrases.
There are obvious ones like a picture of a baseball cap and a carton making the
phrase "hat box." It feels good when you can find more subtle ones, like
combining a wooden post with a bridge (that has arrows representing "over"
and "under") forming the word "overboard."
Everybody plays all the time. It's a game that demands intense concentration,
but not tremendous speed.
Of course, the more you get used to the icons, the more you'll recognize words
you've formed before, giving you an unfair advantage over first-time players.
You just have to try to play fair; for instance, handicap yourself by thinking of
new words or phrases that you haven't used before.
And younger players are at a disadvantage -- they just don't know as many
phrases and compound words yet.
But it's still fun, and gets more fun the more you play.
Last Friday we were lucky enough to attend the opening concert of this season
of "Music for a Great Space."
This concert series began fourteen years ago, when a magnificent organ was
installed in the sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church on Holden Road
in Greensboro. This music-loving congregation wanted to share the new
instrument with the whole community, and began inviting guest organists to
Over the years, the concept broadened to include other kinds of performances,
though the organ remains an important part of the season.
This year has yet another ambitious series of concerts, bringing classical
guitarist Paul Galbraith, the hot new Amelia Piano Trio, and highlighting
several performers with strong Triad connections, like baritone Philip Lima and
the Spiritual Renaissance Singers of Greensboro.
We'll be attending every one that takes place when we're in town.
But the concert that kicked off this season was quite different from anything
else on the docket. Wally West and his "Little Big Band" have a Greensboro
connection -- West's wife (and the girl singer for the band) is Cathy West, who
also serves as the coordinator for music and the arts of Christ Methodist.
So this band was definitely playing for the home crowd. The sanctuary was
packed, and the response to the banter made it clear that most of the audience
already knew the Wests very well -- and liked them.
They probably would have gotten a warm response from that crowd even if they
weren't all that good.
But I didn't know them. That made the banter seem kind of long now and then
-- I really don't appreciate a performer telling the audience over and over how
much he's enjoying himself, because we came to enjoy ourselves, which only
happens when he stops talking and plays.
And mostly that's what they did: Play and sing. I know big band music, and
these performers were the real thing. West himself has recorded and toured
with many top acts as a saxophonist, and every other instrumentalist is a
superb professional performer. Who knew there was anybody this good right
here in town?
Most contemporary jazz is so influenced by be-bop that it leaves me cold.
Melody has long since been abandoned, and to an old horn player like me most
of the performances sound like a bunch of guys showing off their hot licks
during the tuning-up before the real concert -- only the real concert never
With West's "Little Big Band," though, melody is still firmly in place. It's the
kind of music that swung when Louis and Bing were remaking the pop music
landscape and Ella was singing with Duke.
The only drawback was that in a church sanctuary, it didn't feel right to get up
and dance. Which just about killed me. But ... I stayed in my seat and
appreciated the tradeoff. You may not be able to dance, but the acoustics in
the sanctuary were fantastic. Like singing in a really big shower, only without
any echo or muddiness.
When they call it a "great space," they aren't kidding. It made me want to bring
in the church choir I sing with, just so we can sing in a room designed for
Folks, it's too late for you to go to the first concert of the season, but it's not too
late to hear what live music is supposed to sound like. The concerts aren't free
-- though ticket prices don't come close to covering the real cost of bringing
performers of this caliber to Greensboro. They do have interesting ticket plans,
too -- like the "master ticket"that lets you bring along a couple of kids under
17 for free.
Even though all the performances are either at Christ Methodist or Temple
Emmanuel, the tickets can be purchased in advance at the Carolina Theatre
Box Office at 310 S. Greene Street. Or you can order them online at
www.carolinatheatre.org. (If you show up without a ticket, you can buy one at
the door, but with check or cash only.)
And if you ever get a chance to hear Wally West's Little Big Band, don't pass it