Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 28, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Drought, Dan In Real Life
This past week we had a good, solid, five-inch rain. It could be the beginning of
the end of the drought -- or merely a delay of a few weeks before our water
supplies are bone dry.
Unlike the true believers in global warming, weather forecasters know there is
no such thing as certainty. The "La Niña" weather pattern might persist for
another year, or it might give way to the opposite "El Niño" patter -- which has
been known to turn California into one big mudslide, convert Salt Lake City
streets to rivers, and saturate our region like a bathtub sponge.
We do know that our city council, through sheer stupid negligence, did not act
with diligence to bring the water from the Randleman dam online. Politicians
have short memories -- they apparently forgot how close we came to
evacuating Greensboro during the last drought.
Lack of response to obvious problems is precisely the kind of thing that should
make the people of a city so angry they throw everybody out of office. New
elected officials then throw out the hired professionals who failed to push for
the prudent actions.
Regardless of what you think about the Police Department scandal, Mitch
Johnson was running our city during all these years when nothing was done to
bring us an adequate water supply. Only in government could a manager
perform so badly and keep his job.
But, like the city officials in New Orleans and the state officials in Louisiana
during Katrina, whose very bad choices led to much loss of life, our local
officials will say, "We can't prevent an act of nature" -- that is, unless they can
find a way to blame President Bush in order to cover up their own malfeasance.
And a significant portion of the electorate is always dumb enough to go on
voting for the same set of clowns -- or new clowns, like Zack Matheny, who are
in the pockets of the same movers and shakers who chose the last set.
It's enough to make you turn on the taps full blast just to hasten the
evacuation of the city.
But no, no, no. This is our city, not theirs, despite the way they act. And
whatever caused (or failed to prevent) our current dire situation, it's our
responsibility, every one of us, to do what we can to alleviate the problem and
postpone the day when the last drop of water flows into Greensboro's water
We have mandatory rules: Let's all obey them.
But inside our houses, where the neighbors can't see, we can do more than
You already know the standard ideas: Wrap a brick in plastic and put it in the
toilet tank so there's less water with each flush. Remember, though, that this
is only useful if (a) there's room for such a brick and (b) you have one of the
old-fashioned toilets that uses too much water. If your house was built or your
toilet installed in the past decade or so, chances are your tanks are already as
conservative of water as they can reasonably be.
As for the advice to only flush solid wastes and leave urine in the toilet to stew,
I have to draw the line. One of the things civilized people do is dispose of their
bodily waste instead of leaving it around the house. (If you're easily nauseated,
skip the next few sentences.) Besides, there's such a thing as splashback, and
if you have a toilet bowl already full of urine, it's going to splash back on the
next person to use the john. That's simply disgusting, and I won't do it.
If you want to save water by not flushing urine, then amend the city ordinances
the prevent public urination to allow discreet backyard peeing. Most men and
boys, in warm enough weather, would be fine with going outside to water trees
and bushes, thus saving a flush and nitrogenating the soil at the same time.
I can't see how the latter is any more disgusting than the former, and it least it
gets the urine out of the house.
There are other things most people habitually do that waste far more water
than a few extra flushes. For instance, when you get a glass of water from the
tap, do you habitually let it run for a while first? Many of us develop that habit
in order to get to the really cold water instead of the stuff already in the pipes
in the house, which is at room temperature.
Well, if your fridge has an ice maker, plunk a few cubes into the glass, put it
under the tap, and fill it with the very first water to flow.
Train your kids to run the tap slow enough that you don't lose a lot of water to
And if you can afford to (it's not as expensive as you think), you might want to
get a bottled-water dispenser and sign up for a delivery service. You can still
get the huge water bottles, but for those who can't lift them, they have smaller
sizes, too. Then you can get hot or cold water at the touch of a button and
none of the water comes from Greensboro's system. (Nor does it take water
from any other drought-stricken area.)
When you're brushing your teeth, do you have the habit of turning on the
water to wet the brush and then leaving it on the entire time you're brushing?
I certainly do -- I've been having to force myself each time to dampen the
toothbrush with a short burst and then leave the tap off until I've finished
brushing and it's time to rinse.
Another water waster is built into every house we build -- and the larger the
house, the worse the problem.
Almost all houses have central water heaters. The farther each shower,
bathtub, or sink is from that central heater, the longer it takes before you get
All the water you run before the hot water gets there is wasted.
You can do a few things, though. When you turn on water in the shower or
tub, turn it to straight hot at first, so at least you aren't wasting water from the
cold pipe while waiting for the heated water in the hot pipe to get through. As
soon as the water starts turning hot, then you can add in the right amount of
cold to get the temperature you want.
Then get in the shower immediately. I know this sounds obvious, but many
people aren't careful about it; they get the water started and walk away to do
something else, and then return to a steamed-up bathroom that has wasted
gallons of water while nobody showered at all.
If you can stand to turn the water off while you soap up your body, and then
turn it back on when you're ready to rinse, that saves more water. But it also
runs the risk of having the water come out too cold or too hot when you start it
up again, so the second best choice is simply to soap quickly. Luxuriate in
your La-Z-Boy, not in the shower.
But now we come to a mandatory regulation that really gets my goat. We are
forbidden to fill or replenish the water in ornamental ponds and swimming
I agree with this regulation with one major exception: If you have fish in your
Arguably, a pond that is the habitat of fish you paid for and have been feeding
for months or years is not ornamental. But when we called up the city, we were
told by a very nice but firm lady that the law is the law, and if our koi die, they
I doubt anyone would stand for it if the city tried to make it illegal to provide
water for dogs or cats or hamster or birds. But fish? They can flap out their
little lives in the last shallow puddles in their former pond.
Now, it's possible that the lady we talked to didn't know what she was talking
about, and that "ornamental ponds" is meant to exclude ponds that are the
habitat of pet fish. If that's so, then let's hear that explicitly stated by someone
in city government so that we fish-owners know that we aren't breaking the law
to keep our fish alive.
But if they don't make such an exception -- for people who already had fish in
their pond before the regulations were put in place -- there is no chance I will
vote to allow any fishkillers to remain in office. We have lost a couple of fish to
raccoons and water birds, but none of them is elected to office or drawing a
salary from the city.
Meanwhile, at our house we will be replenishing our fish pond, but not with
any water taken from Greensboro sources or from any drought-stricken area.
We'll be topping off our fishes' home from the big water bottles we get by truck
from our drinking water supplier. So if you see our full pond, don't assume
we're breaking the law. We're not. We're importing water to keep our fish alive.
(And for those diehard environmentalists who deplore the fuel wasted in
shipping and delivering that packaged water, I happen to have a nice enema
attachment for my hot water bottle and I will gladly introduce into your body
the liquid refreshment of your choice using that extremely energy-efficient
Last of all: It's pretty arrogant of human beings to think we actually run this
planet, don't you think? There have been droughts and floods, heat waves and
cold snaps, tornados and hurricanes and blizzards ever since our planet got an
atmosphere. We can behave stupidly and not take the cycles and vicissitudes
of weather into account when we build or farm -- but what we can't do is even
out the weather so it is safe and predictable.
And even if we could control weather so that temperatures were just where we
wanted them and water fell only when and where we thought best, you can bet
environmentalists would fight tooth and nail to keep the weather natural. And
I'd be right with them -- because even when it's grossly inconvenient or even
dangerous, humans will do best in the long run if we adapt ourselves to coexist
with natural systems that allow the vast variety of life to thrive in every nook
The very irregularity of weather is part of what drives nature -- the small
fluctuations and the huge cycles of weather. And we're idiots to think we can
ever control that. At least not until we make some reasonable progress toward
understanding what makes it work in the first place.
The immediate causes and processes of El Niño and La Niña are still
completely unknown, and even if we could mess with them, we'd be stupid to
Dan in Real Life won't get anybody an Oscar, but I can tell you this right now:
You won't see a better comedy this year.
Oh, there are comedies that will make some people laugh more -- but most of
those get their laughs by some degree of abuse or abasement of other people.
Dan in Real Life doesn't abase anybody. It doesn't abuse anybody. All the
characters are good people trying to do what they think is right or needful.
Steve Carell plays the title character, a guy who writes a newspaper column
about marriage, family, and child-rearing. His wife died four years before, but
he's still not over it; meanwhile, he's trying to cope with three daughters. The
oldest is furious at him because he won't let her drive as much as she wants.
And the next oldest is furious at him because he refuses to let her be in a
"romantic" -- i.e., sexual -- relationship in her early teens.
He packs them into the car and takes them to the annual family gathering in a
big rustic house near the coast. Since two of his kids aren't speaking to him,
he takes off early the next morning to buy the paper, only to meet a wonderful
woman, Marie (Juliette Binoche) in the used-book store. He finds he can open
up to her, bare his soul; and she seems to like him, a lot -- but tells him she's
in a relationship she just started and ...
And when he gets home from the bookstore, he discovers that his swingin'
single younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook) has brought the girl of his dreams to
the family gathering: the self-same Marie.
The rest of the movie is about Dan trying to control his own passion for his
brother's girlfriend. And he succeeds -- absolutely nothing romantic happens
between them, though the effort leaves him bruised, soaked, or bloody-nosed
It could have been your standard Jim Carrey or Steve Martin slapstick-a-thon,
and Steve Carell can certainly hold his own at clowning with either of them.
But this is not a clown movie. This is more in the spirit of Parenthood: funny
but also painfully true and loving and beautiful and wise.
Steve Carell is something special. We knew he was brilliant from the first time
we saw him speak gobbledy-gook as the "bad" newscaster in Bruce Almighty.
Carell is the best deadpan comedian in many years, maintaining his
longsuffering composure while the world collapses around him.
But he's also, bless his heart, an actor. Even more than Steve Martin, he can
be funny and strong and real all at once. In fact, the only comparison is to
Tom Hanks; though Carell hasn't as much sheer likeability as Hanks, he has a
greater natural dignity, and it all balances out.
Little kids aren't going to understand this movie. But teenagers are. It's about
parenting and adolescence, yes, but it's mostly about love and family and
loyalty. It deals with the deep quandary: How can you find personal happiness
in the midst of meeting the needs of other people who depend on you? And the
answer is the true one: That's the only situation in which personal happiness
can possibly exist.
I loved this movie. I loved the people in the movie. I loved the actors who
played the people in the movie. I loved the writers (director Peter Hedges and
writer Brad Epstein) who told them what to say and do.
This movie instantly moved into my permanent all-time top twenty films. After
I see it again, I may move it into the top ten.
Best moment: When Marie deliberately gives Dan a burnt pancake, he does
exactly the right thing with it. If you wanted a symbol for how you make a
marriage work, despite conflicts and differences, that moment is it.
Don't miss this movie. You need it in your memory. You need it in your heart.
In my ongoing effort to try things so you don't have to, I ordered some items
from the catalog of Allen Brothers: The Great Steakhouse Steaks.
Now, we're not steak eaters. Once a month or so, my wife makes a perfect pot
roast. Now and then I make a meat loaf, mostly so I can have it cold on
sandwiches with butter and salt. But by and large we lead beef-free lives.
But that's OK -- the Allen Brothers catalog has more than just beef. There are
poultry and side dishes and, to hear the catalog tell it, everything they do is the
best you've ever had.
So I ordered their turkey chili, beef shepherd's pie, chicken pot pie, and
seafood chowder pot pie.
Just so you get an idea of how good they think their pies are, the frozen
seafood chowder pies come two for $99.95. A pair of the chicken pot pies is
$54.95, as are four packages of turkey chili, and the shepherd's pies are two
Yeah, that's what I think, too -- at those prices this stuff better be brilliant.
It was all edible. No complete failures. But the seafood chowder came close to
being bad: The shrimp simply did not survive the freezing and heating process,
and the flavor was merely adequate. The chicken pot pie was better, but in
both cases the crust was nothing to write home about. My wife routinely puts
far better crusts on every pie she makes.
The turkey chili was very good. I will be glad to eat it again whenever it's
served to me. But I have no interest in buying it again at nearly $14 a pound.
The only one of these dishes that approached being worth the cost was the beef
shepherd's pie. Topped with whipped potatoes, what's inside is the closest I've
come to finding the equivalent of the parmentier that used to be served in
Greensboro's one-time best restaurant, the much-missed Rendezvous. This is
one that I might be tempted to pay for again, even at thirty bucks a pie.
But overall, I have to say that in a town like Greensboro, where between Fresh
Market, Earth Fare, and Harris-Teeter you can get the best of every kind of
ingredient, and there are so many fine restaurants that we can't go to all of the
best of them half as often as we'd like, why in the world would you need to
order anything from this catalog?
Only if (a) you cannot boil water without burning it, so cooking good food
yourself is out of the question or (b) you live in culinary wasteland and cannot
get to a decent store or restaurant (i.e., Lexington or Buena Vista, Virginia) or ©
you have more money than brains is it worth ordering not-that-brilliant food
from such an expensive catalog.