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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 7, 2006

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


TV, Lubar, Romeo, Magnatunes, and Sportsmanship

I bet you thought I was going to review Mission Impossible 3.

But what's the point? A billion people saw it (OK, fewer than that) the weekend it opened. And I didn't -- I'm writing a screenplay and a novel and directing a play and I didn't have a moment to go to the movies.

There are movies worth sacrificing in order to see them. But does anybody seriously expect MI3 to be one of them? It'll be wonderfully entertaining. And then, a year later -- or a month later -- you won't even remember the plot.

But even when I'm up to my ears in writing projects, I still read. And there are TV shows that my family and I simply refuse to miss. I mean, 24 and Prison Break and Smallville and Lost are heading for their season finales.

You think I'd miss those to watch MI3? Think again.

Admittedly, 24 and Prison Break do seem to consist of the results of brainstorming sessions in which the writers sit around and ask each other, "What else could go wrong?"

And when Michael took that gun in his hands in Lost and ... well, all I can say is that they're going to have to work very hard to make me understand that choice and care about that character again.

In fact, Lost worries me. These writers seem to be forgetting that it's not what you don't know, but what you do know that creates suspense. What you don't know only creates confusion and frustration. We need serious answers.

What we don't need is soap-opera-style character-flipping, changing good guys to bad and back again whenever the writers feel like it. So get a grip, O Ye Writers of Lost. Remember that we are trusting you to make the time and emotion we have invested in these characters worth our while.

As for Smallville, my guess is that the entity that sometimes takes control of Lionel is Jor-El, Clark's real father.

And in Prison Break, did anybody seriously think the fat guy could ever go across that wire? Get real.

*

We've been watching our way through the BBC television productions based on novels by Charles Dickens, and I'm sad to report that Hard Times is a loser, despite fine performances by some excellent actors (including two of my favorites, Alan Bates and Richard E. Grant).

Directed by Peter Barnes, it should have been good. But because it was compressed into a single episode of less than two hours, it simply did not have room to breathe. It's as if they filmed certain key scenes and then cut them out in order to fit into the allotted hourage.

But let's face it -- Hard Times is far from being Dickens's best story. This is as close as Dickens came to writing pure political and philosophical propaganda, and the characters have that I'm-here-just-to-make-a-point stink about them. It may well be that this is as good an adaptation as can be made of this particular book.

Too bad, because it marks the first time I'd ever seen actress Beatie Edney, who is marvelous but has never broken through to being a leading actress in film. Just another proof that talent and beauty can't make up for ill luck, and a performer's career often depends on which roles they happen to get.

*

I was in Chicago last week speaking to an interest group at the International Readers Association convention. I shared a panel with a wonderful group of YA writers -- which was odd, because I'm not one. But because one of my novels has been popular among younger readers as well as adults, I seem to get grouped in that category.

Which is fine with me. Some of the best storytelling going on in America right now is in the YA (Young Adult) category. And when I share a panel with writers whose work I have not read, I make it a point to sample their work.

I am happy to report that not only is David Lubar a delightful speaker, he is also a superb fiction writer. I'm going to read everything he's published (in fact, I'm trying to get him to give me short stories publish in my online magazine, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show at oscIGMS.com), but I couldn't wait to tell you about the first two books I read.

Wizards of the Game is a funny, sharp-witted tale of a junior-high kid who is devoted to the fantasy-role-playing game he takes part in during free period at school. And when he is asked to help plan a fund-raiser at the school, he suggests a game convention.

Things are going well, till a local religious group decides that their role-playing game is satanic and succeeds in getting the convention canceled -- and the free-period games banned.

But this is not an anti-religious book. Quite the contrary -- it is quite even-handed and treats faith with respect.

It is also not a diatribe against bigotry. Lubar is too good a writer for that -- he keeps the issues subservient to the characters (unlike Dickens in Hard Times).

Best of all, he has a bunch of real wizards in the story, who are as hilarious a bunch as I've ever seen in fiction.

But Lubar is at his best in the powerful novel Hidden Talents. Like Louis Sachar's classic Holes, this story is set among a group of high-school-age "discipline problems." It's not a prison, but as a boarding school of last resort, it might as well be.

Our hero, Martin, is at this school because he can't seem to stop himself from saying exactly the wrong thing to teachers and other authority figures -- and that knack for giving offense continues to plague him at this school. Hard to make and keep a friend, when your "wit" always goes for the jugular.

There are other kids, too, whose problems seem inscrutable. Like the pyromaniac who denies he starts fires even though he always has cigarette lighters and things keep burning up around him. Or the kid called "Lucky" who claims he only found the things that he obviously stole.

Then it finally dawns on Martin that some of these kids are telling the truth. The kid who always goes into weird spasms at odd moments is actually reacting to things that haven't happened yet -- he triumphs at dodgeball because he knows where the ball is going just before it's thrown.

Lucky really does just find stuff. The firebug really doesn't know that he's starting fires with his mind.

And Martin himself ... well, let's just say that he belongs with the group.

But the story is not just about finding out you have special abilities. It's about getting control of yourself and changing -- as well as doing what it takes to change the system. Yes, the book is funny at times, but it's also exciting and moving, and by the end, completely satisfying.

Hidden Talents is becoming -- and deserves to be -- a classic of YA literature. Don't wait for some kid to show it to you. Read it yourself -- it's one of the best, no matter what age you are.

And now I'll read one of Lubar's story collections: In the Land of the Lawn Weenies. The title alone deserves some kind of prize.

*

After years of directing musicals and comedies with our little "Summit Players" theatre company, I decided we were ready for Shakespeare. We had young actors with the talent, skill, and commitment to tackle the leading roles in Romeo and Juliet. And it was about time we did something that didn't favor only the performers who could sing.

I started, though, by revising the script.

Yes, I know, it takes a lot of arrogance to rewrite Shakespeare. I plead guilty.

But Shakespeare was a man of the theatre. He wrote his plays to be entertaining to a living audience of regular folks, not for scholars. And Romeo and Juliet, far from being tragic from beginning to end, is actually meant to be hilarious for about the first half of the story.

How funny can it be, though, when it depends on puns using words that have long since dropped out of the English language, or slang that no longer is understood by anybody?

My main task, then, was to clarify the script and make the funny bits funny again. And since we perform on the stage in the cultural hall of the local LDS Church, I also had to make the jokes noticeably cleaner than Shakespeare's often-bawdy humor.

The result is a script that still consists mostly of Shakespeare's original dialogue, spoken in regular American accents that are probably as close to the speech of Shakespeare's time as any British accent these days.

It's clear. It's funny. It's exciting. It will break your heart. And despite (or because of!) their youth, these actors give performances that range from very good to superb. (Of course, we have quite a few middle-aged folks playing the adult roles -- and they, too, do wonderful work.)

Talk about commitment -- many of them gave up their proms or declined to participate in certain end-of-the-school-year sports or other activities in order to take part in this show. They also work hard to learn the skills that allow them to bring Shakespeare's wonderful characters to life on the stage.

The result is that I'm seeing rehearsals in which the actors blow me away with the depth and power of their performances. It will only get better by opening night.

For those who've seen our plays before, you know we put on tight, sharp, fast-moving shows; what we haven't had much chance to show up before now is that our actors are capable of intense emotion and romance.

Plus there's lots of thrilling sword-fighting, choreographed by Dale Girard of the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem -- a remarkable teacher as well as athlete and artist.

The play will run Thursday through Saturday of next week, May 18-20. The performances start at 7:00 p.m. Come to the LDS meetinghouse across the street from Claxton Elementary (3719 Pinetop Rd. off Westridge). As always, it's free of charge.

(But please don't bring children under 8, and especially don't bring babies. You can take them to see plays when they're older; don't spoil the performance for everyone else by bringing young children to live theatre when they're simply not ready. We don't use microphones, and the actors shouldn't have to compete with little children to be heard.)

*

In the process of preparing for the Capulets' party scene in our production of Romeo and Juliet, we needed to have recordings of 16th-century dance music performed with original instruments.

Which led us to Magnatunes.com.

Magnatunes is an online music distributor that specializes in new, obscure, or niche-market musicians. They have music from every genre -- including spoken-word podcasts.

Of course, you've never heard of most of the people whose music they sell. Which is why they allow you to sample the music, song by song and album by album, in order to decide what you want to download. You know what you're getting before you get it.

So you decide what to buy. You can order it as a CD, which is sent to you by mail, or you can download it at once.

Here's the thing: You pay what you want to, within reason. At least $5, but the average buyer pays $8, and if you're especially grateful for the music or wish to "tip" the musician, you can go a lot higher than that. Visa, MasterCard, or Paypal are the only methods of payment, but that allows most people to pay easily.

If you opt to receive the music over the internet, you have your choice of downloading it in long .WAV files (the native format of CDs) or as compressed .MP3 files. Either way, it can take a while to download the files. But they install easily into your computer's music system.

Not only that, you can share what you downloaded with two others for no extra cost -- you send them notification of the password for the download, and they can access it for free.

I found wonderful albums by Briddes Roune (13th century English songs), The Dufay Collective (medieval dance music), and Edward Martin (a superb lutenist). I easily chose the music we wanted our actors to dance to at the Capulets' party -- but I also listen to this music for the sheer pleasure of it.

Naturally, what I like won't appeal to everyone -- but from electronica to opera to rock, from jazz to metal to world to new age, you can find a bit of everything at this excellent website.

I also wanted the sheet music to the love theme from Zeffirelli's 1968 film of Romeo and Juliet.

At Musicnotes.com I found a wonderfully convenient way to get sheet music from a catalog far larger than any music store could hope to keep in inventory. And best of all, before you print it out, you can change the key. So if you're searching for a version of a song that exactly fits a particular singer's vocal range, you can adjust the pitch up and down before the printout.

Just be sure you look at the key signature and determine whether you have an accompanist (on piano or guitar) who can actually play in that key. (Usually a half-step one way or the other makes the accompaniment playable.)

Unfortunately, the only version of the song that I could find in sheet-music form was "A Time for Us," which has embarrassingly bad lyrics. I wanted the more authentic and lovely lyrics that begin "What is a youth? Impetuous fire. What is a maid? Ice and desire."

Nor is the authentic version available for purchase and download from any music sites. I had to break down and order the actual movie soundtrack CD from Amazon.com. It feels so primitive to have to wait for something to come by mail.

*

I was in Plano, Texas, to speak to tenth-graders -- mostly because one of them was my niece. Several nice things came out of the experience.

For one thing, they were very well-mannered and creative.

For another thing, Plano has divided their high schools into "high school," consisting of 9th and 10th grades, and "senior high school," consisting of 11th and 12th grades. So freshmen and sophomores aren't having to compete for hall space and attention with the bigger, older kids. High school has to be better for them than in the standard four-year setting.

But epicure (i.e., "glutton") that I am, I must say the highlight was one of the items in the gift basket they gave me: "hot and spicy" peanuts from AustiNuts (http://www.austinuts.com).

It's easy to make things spicy-hot. What sets these nuts apart is (a) they're very fresh and crisp and (b) the spices actually taste good.

AustiNuts specializes in all things Texan, offering crates and gift baskets. Now, no offense to Texans, but I couldn't care less about things because they're Texan; but I care very much about things that taste good.

Which is why I ordered the Texas Heat "Survival Kit" -- Cayenne Cashews, Hot & Spicy Peanuts, and South of the Border Mix. They also offer intriguing items like Mesquite Barbecue Pecans, Pistachio kernels (which means you don't have to peel them), and chocolate blackberries.

Just in case you didn't have enough to eat.

By the way, they seem to make their profit partly from the shipping charges. So you have to swallow hard when you watch all that money get added to the already-high price. Worth it? Now and then, yes.

*

For you videogame players, here's the worst-case scenario: You're playing Call of Duty 2, with automatic game-saving at various checkpoints.

So you're on top of a silo with a sniper rifle, with German soldiers charging your position from all sides. And the game does its automatic save just as a mortar shell is poised immediately over your head.

This means that you have two choices: Continue to play the game from there, dying the moment you start with no chance to escape - or start over from the beginning, redoing all the work you've already done to get to this point.

Fortunately, my gamer friend who found himself in this situation realized that if he turned off the XBox 360 without doing an actual "quit game," then the game would come back at the previous last-saved-game.

Games that use automatic checkpoint saves can be quite frustrating. The designers have to guess where the player will want to save the game. The obvious place is right after the very hardest bits -- and that's what Call of Duty 2 does. However, players also want an automatic save right before the hardest bits -- so they don't have to constantly replay the long lead-ins to those moments where they're most likely to die.

To have the saves come only after the hard bits, and not right before, definitely makes the game last longer -- but it lasts longer with you cursing the designer as you repeat all those lead-ins.

Fortunately, in Call of Duty 2, one of your "allied" soldiers has been given the name of the lead designer on the game. When you need to vent your rage, you can always shoot him.

But my game-playing friend assures me that even with these frustrations, this is the best World War II shooter ever. I guess if the game is good enough, a few inconveniences can be forgiven.

Meanwhile, I can't stop enjoying the picture of a gameplayer staring at the screen in despair, knowing that the game is saved with a mortar shell about to explode right over his head.

*

A friend just sent me a story from the New York Times about an organ recital in Halberstadt, Germany, where a group of musicians are performing a composition by John Cage called "As Slow As Possible."

They are performing it so slowly that it will finish up six centuries from now.

The organ is being constructed as the piece is performed -- they add a pipe or two for whatever note might be needed next week.

And you thought City Council meetings were slow.

It occurs to me that the fan and hum of machinery in my house might, in fact, be a very long, slow musical performance. I think I'll invite some guests over to hear the composition called "House Noises." Bring pajamas.

*

When I was a kid, the ideals of sportsmanship were very clear. The rules weren't an obstacle you tried to get around, they were the bounds that all the players freely accepted. Therefore, if you had any honor you would immediately admit to errors -- like stepping out of bounds, or improper ball handling, or committing a foul. In fact, we were told stories of athletes who, if the referees did not see, would report their own errors.

In the adage "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game," the "how you play" part was not referring to athletic ability, but to honor and teamwork.

Does anyone pretend that today, at any level, true sportsmanship is valued? I rather suspect if it ever showed up in pro or college or even high school sports, it would be viewed with horror. "You told the ref you stepped out of bounds?!"

However, sportsmanship and physical health were the primary justifications for including athletics in our educational program. How did we ever let them turn into the nasty, high-pressure, win-at-all-costs, athletes-get-away-with-anything system that we have today?

Yet it is encouraging to discover that here and there, the spirit of sportsmanship still exists. A good friend of mine in Greensboro told me the story of how her frail-bodied, unskilled, but sports-mad son fared with the YMCA's children's sports program -- and I asked her to write it down so I could share the story with you. The rest of this column consists of her words:

Three years ago, when he was seven, out of the blue our son decided he wanted to join a baseball team, even though he had never played before. So we signed him up at the Y, he was assigned to a team, and we started going to the practices.

We chose the Y because of their "athletes first, winning second" philosophy and the fact that they had both competitive leagues for experienced players, and recreational leagues for less experienced players.

It was evident from the start that this was not the team for our son. No instructions were given -- it was just jump in and play. As easy as baseball seems, it's really quite complicated knowing all of the positions -- both infield and outfield -- and what each position needs to do under different circumstances.

Nobody taught him anything -- they just expected him to know and were frustrated when he didn't.

I don't usually let my kids quit when they start something -- I try to encourage them to see it through. But when I saw that these coaches were silently laughing at him behind his back, it was enough for me to pull him from the team. Fortunately, at seven years old, he was either too young or too oblivious to notice.

Last fall, he decided he wanted to play football -- another sport he had never played but was suddenly passionate about. I was very hesitant to sign him up, considering our previous experience with Y sports, but since they had a flag football team (he definitely wasn't ready for tackle football!), I decided to give it another try.

This time, however, I called the guy in charge of assigning teams. I explained to him what had happened the last time and talked to him about what type of athlete our son was -- very inexperienced, very unskilled, rather shy, but with a huge desire to play football.

He told me that he knew just the right coach -- his name was Tracy Cottingham.

If I could have hand-picked him myself, I couldn't have chosen a better coach for our son. He was patient, kind, enthusiastic, encouraging, and, along with his assistant, created a great team. They stressed the value of the individual player and learned to work together to become a team.

It didn't matter if they won or lost, as long as they played their best and had fun. (Actually, they made it to the playoffs and ended up, I believe, in third place.)

As I watched many of the opposing coaches at the games yelling, scolding, etc., I was grateful again that our son had this coach -- clearly the best I saw. It was often quite painful to listen to the other coaches -- I felt so bad for the boys!

So this spring, baseball came around again, and our son wanted to try it again. Since football had been such a positive experience for him, I did the same thing with baseball. I called the gentleman in charge of the baseball teams, told him of the negative experience three years ago and then the positive experience with football.

I also discussed with him, as I did with the football guy, our son's personality, inexperience, etc., and was again told that he knew exactly which coach he would assign for Jonathan. Success again -- two fabulous coaches -- head coach Bryan Endicott and assistant coach Bill Eberle.

Again, these are the coaches I would have chosen if I could have hand-picked them myself. They are incredibly patient, they teach the boys -- really work with them to improve their skills -- and above all make sure they are having a good time, definitely embracing the "athletes first, winning second" motto.

I don't think they've won a game yet, but it doesn't matter -- they're having a great time.

I just got home from practice where I watched the the coaches spend close to ten minutes with our son, working on his batting, telling him the same things over and over to help him get it right, pointing out what he did right and correcting what he was doing wrong, but never, never seeming the slightest bit impatient.

It wasn't just our son -- they spent individual time each child on the team.

After each game, the coaches gather the kids around, talk to them about the game, then select two players who will receive a "game ball" for something special they did during the game. Everyone will eventually get a ball, so it's not necessarily the best player, but someone who did something good that stood out and made a difference in the game.

Our son is so proud of that ball! He looks forward to every single practice and game and will really miss it when the season ends May 20.

All these men have sons on the teams, but I've never seen any favoritism -- in fact, it took me a while to figure out which boys were their sons! They clearly know and love the sports they coach and are willing to give of their time to share it with other kids -- for free. Coaching is all strictly volunteer! (And, in fact, our baseball coaches coach a younger team as well -- so they're doing double duty.)

It's also worth pointing out that the sports directors, at least at our Y, know their coaches well enough, and care enough about the kids, to listen to a parent and know exactly who to assign them to.

And since the coaches are also dads, they'll move up in age with their kids, which is great because as long as our son wants to, he can continue on with the same coaches -- which I know he's planning to do until he ages out sometime in high school.


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