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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 21, 2008

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


Christmas, Plays, Bailouts

Something extraordinary happened to me today. Somebody actually asked me for my opinion.

You have to understand how rare this is. Because I have so many chances to sound off about -- well, about everything -- it's not as if there's an opinion shortage anywhere near me.

I don't look at strangers and think, "Wow, I bet those people need my opinion. Look at them. Clearly they don't have any opinions of their own. Or at least not as good as the opinions I happen to have with me. And since I have more than I actually need, I think I'll share."

Though, come to think of it, that generous attitude would be in keeping with Christmas.

When someone asked me today, "When are you going to write about the bailouts?" it's possible that they were being generous and giving a gift to me. Maybe they were thinking, "Look at that poor man. He's got so many unexpressed opinions he's bloating! I'll ask him for one, and relieve the pressure."

Anyway, later on in this column I'm going to provide the hushed and waiting world with a mini-WorldWatch. In the meantime, though, this is a review column, and here are some reviews of ... basically, Christmas 2008.

*

Best new trend: Saying "Merry Christmas" again.

For the first forty years of my life, saying "merry Christmas" was as natural a greeting as "Hi there." Well, at least after Thanksgiving. In October or January it marked you as eccentric; in May, certifiable.

But during the 90s and the first few zips (zip-one, zip-two, etc.), the words "merry" and "Christmas" became rarer and rarer -- replaced by the generically inoffensive "happy holidays."

Now that you can say in February. Or June (looking forward to Flag Day and Independence Day).

I suppose the idea is that what if you accidentally said "merry Christmas" to a Jew or a Muslim or a (shudder) atheist. Heaven forbid you should commit such a heinous offense.

Only ... what possible offense could any sane person take, regardless of their own beliefs? The name of the holiday is Christmas. Everybody gets that day off work because it's Christmas. That's the day you're hoping is a merry one for them. Who can object to experiencing merriment on Christmas?

My Jewish friends all know what country they live in, and they divide themselves into Christmas-card-sending Jews, holiday-greetings-sending Jews, and please-don't-send-me-a-card-I-don't-like-them Jews.

But they are unfailingly polite about it, and they tend to be forgiving of Christians who smile and say "merry Christmas" because, as a Jewish friend once said to me, it's so much better than having the Christians mutter "Christ-killer" under their breath as they pass.

We Americans don't even pronounce the name of Christ -- it long since became "kris." Nor do we specify how other people should obtain their merriment.

It's not as if we say, "As you think about the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, and all those slaughtered babies that were left behind for Herod's soldiers to kill after Jesus and his folks got away, and even though these events almost certainly have nothing to do with the 25th of December, have a merry day."

Or maybe, "As you drink yourself to oblivion in a dark saloon with atheists and unfaithful husbands who got kicked out of the house because of what happened at the office Christmas party, loathing everyone around you who believes in either God or Santa Claus, try to be merry."

I mean, what does anybody think "merry Christmas" means, except that most Americans give each other gifts on Christmas, and the reason we're greeting each other is because we are on our way to, are in the process of, or are on our way back from buying gifts, while surrounded by decorations?

Christmas drives the whole American retail economy. When we wish each other "merry Christmas," we're saying, "Hey, I'm spending whatever money I can on presents and cards and treats for people I love or like or do business with, and I hope you can get all your stuff done before Christmas morning, and may your kids be happy and maybe even grateful, so that it feels like it was all worth it!"

Of course, now someone will probably be offended that I assume that other people have kids. But in this case, I knew the person had kids because they were hanging from her skirt whining, "Can't we go home?" and "Santa's beard was phony!"

Anyway. This year, I've noticed a lot more people saying "merry Christmas" than in the past few years. It's not that they've grown insensitive to the tender feelings of unbelievers. I think they finally realized, "What about my feelings?"

I think after hearing about that stupid, selfish, hostile anti-Christian sign near the nativity scene in Washington state, a lot of people are feeling just a little defiant.

Yeah, I know, defiance isn't exactly the Christmas spirit. But it is the American spirit. ("Don't tread on me!") If people are going to put up signs attacking Christians for daring to publicly express the icons of Christmas, then you might as well give up trying not to give offense, and go back to wishing people a merry Christmas and letting them sort themselves into the cheery and the disgruntled.

So ... merry Christmas! And God bless us every one! (I know. With that last one, actually saying "God," I know I went too far. Sorry.)

*

Worst New Christmas Feature: Sticky Wrapping Paper.

I'm still trying to figure out what terrible problem Hallmark was trying to solve. Was it getting too easy to wrap gifts? Too easy to get the gift wrap off the packages and thrown away?

Anyway, I didn't look closely at the tubes of gift wrap, I just chose the designs I liked. It was only when I actually started using the paper to wrap gifts that I had an unpleasant surprise.

And no, I don't mean the normal unpleasant surprise of finding that there isn't enough ribbon on the spool to wrap a single large present (and I don't mean as large as a car, I mean as large as a DVD player). How can we even call that a surprise anymore?

No, I mean the nasty surprise of finding that you can't get the paper to unspool from the roll. You have to use your fingernail to pry up the corner of the paper, and then as you start to pull, it keeps tearing at the stress point, so that when you finally get the whole sheet unwinding, the end of it is ragged.

Not that it's sticky like adhesive tape -- but it's a little stickier than Post-It notes.

With regular unsticky paper, it's easy to roll out the wrap and set the present on top of it. But not with the sticky paper. It still wants to roll back up, like any other paper -- but when it does, it sticks to itself and has to be carefully unrolled again.

Even when you've got all four corners weighted down, you have to be very careful about where you place the item you're wrapping. And then be very careful about bringing the paper up the sides to meet on top.

With regular paper, you can pull it into place and then pull to tighten it. But with this stuff, the stickiness causes so much friction that if you pull to tighten it against the package, you're likely to tear the paper. So you have to hold the paper out away from the box and then bring it up into place in one smooth motion.

It can be done, but it's a bother, and the slightest mistake leaves a bubble or crease.

Then, when your victim recipient unwraps the present, she can't just tear the paper open -- because the paper is now inseparably bonded to the box. There's no flurry of paper getting tossed aside. It's more like peeling a label to get that stuff off.

And when you try to throw it away, make sure you wad it up with the gluey side in, because otherwise it will stick to the sides of the garbage bag.

Imagine playing basketball with a ball that sticks to the floor every time you bounce it. That's what working with this paper is like.

Here's my guess: Everybody who bought any of this stuff hates it. And by two Christmases from now -- or maybe, with any luck, next Christmas -- it will be gone for good.

But there'll probably still be fragments of this year's sticky paper clinging to me and various household surfaces.

*

Uncle Orson's Favorite New Christmas Album

If I tell you the name of my favorite new Christmas album is A Very Rosie Christmas, what's your first thought? An album by Roseanne Barr, or an album by Rosie O'Donnell?

A joke or a nightmare -- take your pick.

It happens, though, that A Very Rosie Christmas was record by quirky folk-singer Rosie Thomas, and I'm guessing most of you haven't heard of her.

(If you have heard of her, don't write to me about it. Tell your friends until everybody's heard of her.)

The album isn't perfect -- the last two tracks will only bring pleasure to people who are actually related to Rosie Thomas, or drunk.

The only officially new but also good song on the album is the second cut: "Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?" It's a cheery, mildly insane song that reminded me of Jane Siberry's "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog." I find myself singing along on the "Yoo-hoo!" and "We do!" choruses.

All the rest of the album, though, consists of down-tempo, reimagined interpretations of old standards. Thomas keeps the rhythms of the original, but replaces the melody with something of her own devising. It makes me hear the songs afresh. Even find new meanings in them.

Nowhere is this clearer than when she sings a melancholy, reflective version of the Chipmunks' first hit, "Christmas Don't Be Late." What was, sung by the Chipmunks, an ode to greed becomes something surprisingly tender, especially when she adds a couple of new verses that I assume she wrote for this album.

So even though the album cover looks silly and the last two tracks really are silly -- like watching a stranger's untalented children clown around, interesting for about two seconds -- this became my favorite new Christmas album to listen to again and again.

The only other album that came close was Mary's Lullaby: Christmas Songs for Bedtime, in which every track is a wonderful lowkey downtempo performance that can be quite moving.

This surprised me because when I reviewed Christmas albums a while ago, I thought my favorite would end up being Mary Chapin Carpenter's. But no -- it was Mary's Lullaby and A Very Rosie Christmas that I listen to over and over.

*

A new Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors ice cream store in the shopping center at Elm Street and Pisgah Church.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there is now a Baskin-Robbins within walking distance of my house.

On the other hand, what's the point of getting exercise if you're going to get ice cream halfway through the walk?

On the other hand, it's now only a five-minute round trip to pick up first-rate ice cream for company.

The real question, of course, is what this will do to the old 31 Flavors on Battleground across the parking lot from Anton's?

(I almost gave true Greensboro directions: "The old 31 Flavors near where the Janus used to be." I used to tease Greensboro natives for giving directions that way, using no-longer-existent landmarks, but now after living here for 26 years I'm doing it myself.)

Will having two 31 Flavors stores, both in the eastern part of town, divide the market for first-rate ice cream parlors?

I remember that once there were three Baskin-Robbinses, a Haagen-Dasz, a Blue Ridge Ice Cream store (like Coldstone, before Coldstone came here), and the Gutman family's wonderful old Swenson's, which was the only full-fledged ice cream parlor in town. Not to mention several other shops whose names I've forgotten but I can still point to where they used to be.

Now there are several Coldstones and two 31 Flavors stores and I wonder what happened. Have most people forgotten how to value good ice cream?

I hope that what happens is that the new 31 Flavors brings in new customers who didn't want to drive so darn far for great ice cream, while leaving plenty of customers for the older store on Battleground.

But with my luck (and yes, when it comes to ice cream, it's all about me), both stores will try to divide a shrinking market and go out of business and then I'll be stuck eating organic ice cream sandwiches and fudge bars from Earth Fare.

Which, come to think of it, ain't so bad.

*

What's the point of reviewing a play that already closed? It's like saying, Nanner nanner, I saw it and you didn't.

For instance, I heard from several people that Greensboro Day School's production of Les Miserables was brilliant. But it came and went during a time when I simply couldn't go see it. My loss. And nanner-nanner on me.

But I did get a chance to see the Weaver Academy production of See How They Run. This mistaken-identity many-doors farce was first produced in England during World War II, so the "menace" was an escaped German POW. For the American production in the early fifties, the escapee became a Russian spy.

It hardly matters. The whole point is that nobody quite knows what's going on, but the audience most definitely chooses up sides. The Weaver production, directed by Diane Rogers, was a delight -- starting with the set, which was the most elaborate and effective one I've ever seen on the Weaver stage.

Most of the cast did a delightful job, but I have to single out Chappell Hartsell's hilarious performance as the busybody who has a thing for the vicar of the parish and Samantha Matson as Ida, the delightfully earthy maid. Zac Messick as the much-put-upon vicar, Katie Swofford as his wife, and above all Nathaniel Swofford as the handsome leading man who somehow loses his military uniform -- all had many very funny moments.

What's my point? To make you feel bad for missing it?

No -- the encourage you to take the opportunity to see high school theatre productions.

It's not as slick as Broadway and off-Broadway -- but I have to say, I've seen absolutely wretched New York and London productions, along with some good ones, and what I saw at Weaver Academy was way better than a lot of professional plays.

The high school plays have several advantages: They're cheap. The actors are eager to please -- they aren't just going through the motions for the two hundredth time.

(I once saw Bernadette Peters phone in a performance in the title role of Annie Get Your Gun and I was downright resentful. I had certainly been charged as much as if she were actually paying attention; I found myself wishing she'd sprain her ankle and we could see the understudy finish the part, since the understudy would at least be alert.)

Of course, a lot depends on the choice of script. If Greensboro Day School, for instance, hadn't had some fantastic singers, then Les Miz, whose music is both difficult to sing and vast in quantity, would have been a terrible choice for them. And a lot of high school plays tend to be melodramas that give student actors an excuse to take long dramatic pauses before they ham their way through their lines.

Of course, that's what New York and London actors do with similar scripts -- the problem is the script, not the actors.

See How They Run is a little-known play, but it was a spot-on choice for a high school cast, especially with a good director.

Remember that the great stars of five or ten years from now are acting in high school plays somewhere -- why not here? For less than ten bucks a ticket, you get to see them while they're still learning their craft.

*

By the way, one of the things that often plagues inexperienced actors in a comedy is that the audience laughter takes them by surprise. It's a natural human tendency that when we hear a lot of people laughing, we start to smile or laugh ourselves, even if we don't get the joke.

Well, that's not a good thing when you're acting on the stage, they're laughing at your character's antics, and the character is not supposed to be laughing.

When you clamp down and try to force your face not to smile or smirk, it doesn't work. That's because the tighter you hold your muscles, the less relaxed your face is and the more likely you are to burst out in audible laughter.

The secret is to relax your center line -- most especially your stomach muscles. You can't laugh or even, really, smile if your stomach is relaxed. You have to practice this so that your reflexes don't take over and tighten those muscles against your will.

*

Mini-WorldWatch

This is going to be short and sweet.

The first bailout -- hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up American banks and mortgage holders -- was absolutely essential. The rash of foreclosures on inappropriate loans was caused by stupid decisions -- most of them well-intentioned but all of them foreseeably disastrous -- but when a bank-run-style panic starts in America, the economy of the whole world depends on quick and decisive action to restore faith in the credit of the American financial system.

In effect, the government (temporarily, I hope) nationalized a lot of banks -- but the government was actually buying something which, because it was bought, is now much more likely to retain its value. As with the savings-and-loan bailout of two decades ago, we may actually make a profit from the rescue.

In other words, this wasn't money down the toilet. This was saving our collective bacon.

And when I hear people say that it makes them mad for us to have to bail out the fat-cat executives who made these stupid decisions, I have a simple answer: We weren't bailing them out, we were bailing out -- or plugging the leaks in -- the boat that we're all floating in.

If we hadn't done that bailout, it would have cost us all far more than the money we fronted, and could have been, economically speaking, the end of the world as we know it. No exaggeration.

Besides, the execs were not solely to blame. As with the savings-and-loan debacle, the government changed the rules for reasons that seemed good at the time, the execs played by those new rules, and the result was disaster.

What we need is for government institutions to be fiscally conservative and not change, for political reasons, rules that have been proven to work.

The auto company bailout is a completely different situation. Here, the American car companies are paying for union contracts made years ago -- remember, the car companies deal with a union that had a closed-shop monopoly on car-making labor for many years.

Those union contracts add a couple of thousand to the cost of every American car -- or, in other words, when you choose between a Toyota and a Chevy with the same asking price, the American car is $2,000 crappier than the Japanese car.

At the same time, the auto companies have bloated up with middle and top management that is paid to be stupid. Innovation is virtually nonexistent because there are simply too many layers of approvals from people afraid to commit to anything new -- the same reason Hollywood turns out so many bad sequels.

And the choice isn't between bailing them out or having the American auto industry disappear and throw everybody out of work. No, the only way the creditors can be repaid is if the auto companies keep making cars -- but better ones that cost less to make and are more worth buying.

That means that the bailout that's needed is a chapter 11 bankruptcy and not a dime from the government until after the courts have given the car companies relief and then force them to strip down their management and renegotiate all their union deals, including the pensions.

If you don't believe me, listen to Mitt Romney, the guy who made a few billion dollars by saving bankrupt companies and making them function again.

The financial bailout saved the world -- and may turn out to make a profit for us all. A good investment.

Auto company bailout? Bad idea, if it leaves the same management and union contracts in place. With a government bailout, we're forced to pay them to make cars we don't want to buy. They should get our money only when they make better cars and we voluntarily buy them.


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