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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 28, 2010

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


Ad as Poem, Airport Fondling, Sleepless Boy

It isn't often that an advertisement qualifies as poetry, but a public service announcement from England promoting seat belt use contains one of the best uses of theatrical metaphor that I have ever seen.

This ad may change the way you view seat belt use forever, by giving it an emotional context that I believe could have been conveyed in no other, and no better, way.

I will say nothing more about this, but merely provide you with the link

*

Now you need an online antidote -- a funny, cynical send-up of inspirational speeches in movies. It consists of phrases from at least forty different movies, with well-known actors in the midst of their "greatest" moments. (Created by Matt Belinkie.)

*

So I was in the Los Angeles airport, getting ready to come home. As usual, I had made sure that I was carrying nothing on my person that could trip the metal detector. My shoes (sandals, actually) were correctly on a tray, as was my laptop. My carry-on bags contained nothing illegitimate, though I did have my Kindle and my Nano in one of them.

It was my lucky day, because apparently there's a new policy at LAX -- or perhaps nationwide -- to stop and pat down (not just wand, but physically fondle) anyone who is wearing loose clothing.

Now, as a fat guy (I earned the belly, I can call it whatever I want), I consider it an aesthetic donation to the people around me not to tuck in my shirt unless I'm wearing a suit coat. Nobody needs to see my belly clearly outlined by my clothing; I'd rather look as if I shop for clothes at a tent store than have people know exactly the extent of the oddities of my physique.

I made this decision because of how much I did not enjoy seeing other people of my own physical type wearing body-hugging t-shirts or polo shirts. Also, because of the quirks of body geometry, overweight people have a very hard time keeping shirts tucked in. By not tucking in my shirt in the first place, I spare myself having to re-tuck it over and over.

Because I'm fat and try to dress appropriately, I am now to be punished by having airport security guards, as a matter of policy, touch my body all over.

Maybe other people don't mind this, but I mind it very, very much. From childhood on, it's been almost a phobia with me -- if you want to be my enemy for life, all you need to do is touch me without invitation.

This has been made worse, not better, by the habit of some criminally stupid people who think that they have a right to grab onto or pat some protruding part of a fat person's body while crowing, "Putting on a little spare tire there, huh?" or some other such offensive and unnecessary inanity.

Such people are so imperceptive that I'm sure they don't notice that from that point on, I never speak to them or even admit their existence. Nor do they know how much self-discipline I have to exercise to keep from carrying out an instant death penalty for their offense.

But now, there is simply no precaution I can take to avoid one of two repulsive choices when traveling by air: I either have to accept the body-shame of wearing tight-fitting clothing in public, or I have to accept the nauseating humiliation of letting a stranger touch my body while I hold my arms out and spread my legs in front of a line of people who have nothing else to look at.

I am not a criminal. I have complied with all the laws and regulations. I should not have to be subjected to such loathsome alternatives in order to use public transportation.

It might be different (a) if I actually fit some kind of profile of a terrorist or (b) patting people down offered a reasonable chance of finding a terrorist weapon that would not be caught by a metal detector or body scanner. But (a) I do not fit any likely terrorist profile, being grey-haired, of European appearance, with an American accent, and (b) a pat-down such as I received would not have detected nonmetal explosives sewn into one's underwear.

Enough. There is no excuse except mindless political correctness to continue this level of harassment and abuse of citizens of a free country. Though the guard who was molesting me piously said, "There is no way to tell by looking who a terrorist might be," there is, in fact, a perfectly reliable set of indicators of who really doesn't need to be patted down.

For instance, non-Middle-eastern-looking middle-aged-or-older fat people wearing loose clothing should not have to be abused in a way that young thin people wearing tight clothing would not.

Might loyal American citizens of Middle-eastern appearance resent being given "special" treatment at airport security gates? Maybe. But the solution is not to abuse everybody. We're at war. If you resemble potential enemies, you get special scrutiny. If you don't like it, then get all the other people who look like you to band together to detect and report on all the crazies among you who approve of blowing up airplanes or killing Americans by other methods, until the danger is eliminated.

It is insane to abuse ordinary harmless citizens in these ways, while tiptoeing around trying not to offend members of high-risk minority groups.

Why is it all right to offend me, and deeply, because I'm a white male and therefore in no officially blessed minority group (though white males, too, are a minority of the population), while officialdom is so stupidly careful not to offend members of other groups, even the ones which really do harbor or at least include those who mean America harm?

If this policy remains in force, then I'm going to try to start a class-action on behalf of large people who wear oversized clothing. Once we declare ourselves a victimized minority, I'm sure we can get something done.

Meanwhile, let's please equip all the airports with the scanners that let the guards see every detail of our naked bodies without our having to take our clothes off or be physically molested. I don't care if some security guard has to see the body shape I try to protect ordinary civilians from having to look at -- the guards are paid to put up with it.

*

I picked up The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To, a young-adult trade paperback novel by DC Pierson, because I rather liked the title. The cover copy and first few paragraphs seemed promising, so I bought it and took it home.

(This is a book, by the way, that I would never have discovered in any online bookstore -- no computer software would have pushed it at me based on my previous purchases.)

Darren Bennett, who narrates the story, is a geeky teenage cartoonist and illustrator of some talent, with a snobbish disdain for people who merely draw existing cartoon characters. Eric Lederer, even more of a high school outcast than Darren, launches their friendship by actually noticing and valuing the best qualities of Darren's work.

In many ways, this novel is much better than Catcher in the Rye, which it comments on and disdains, to my delight. Pierson does a superb job of catching the voice and attitudes of today's most creative high school intellectuals, a much-abused group that gets almost no support or approval from their peers or their teachers.

But it won't get anywhere near the respect, mostly because the story leads to a strongly science-fictional ending. This is ironic, because if it weren't for the foolish and self-serving bias of university English professors against speculative literature, the very things that make the book science fiction could and would be interpreted as metaphors for the way our society responds to the "danger" of genuine creativity that challenges the status quo.

(But then, university English literature departments are the status quo, at their most obnoxious when they pretend to value innovation and creativity, which most of them wouldn't recognize if they got them in a clearly-labeled prescription bottle from the pharmacy.)

Am I saying that Pierson's novel is fine literature?

No, I'm saying it's a terrific book, and teenagers today will get a lot more enjoyment and intellectual stimulation from it than from reading the elitist Catcher in the Rye.

Now, typical of older-skewed teen-oriented fiction today, the rules about bad language and sex have been tossed out the window. I with Pierson had not opted to include all the f-words, because it does limit the number of young people I can give the book to without offending their parents (or the kids themselves -- there are a lot of kids who find the f-word repulsive and offensive).

Also, the book deals candidly with the sexual attitudes and, too frequently, experiences of teenage boys, which many may find offensive. So I can't give this book a full-on recommendation to everybody. If you aren't bothered by this sort of thing, then yes, you'll enjoy this book and might even find it to be a favorite.

But if a hard R-rating repels you, then be ye repelled!

Meanwhile, DC Pierson has a website called Ham-fisted Theatrics. He lists himself as a comedian and writer. He has a degree in screenwriting, but despite that, he still understands what a story is. I hope he's already written a screenplay of this novel and that it will get made, because it is eminently filmable.

Pierson also looks like he's about twelve years old and has a bad attitude. He can't object to this observation, because he's responsible for how he wears his hair and the expression on his face when the picture was taken.

Besides, having once been an enfant terrible myself, unless he's stupid or unlucky he will get older, and if he keeps growing as a writer he will have a career in which, in due time, he will have to display a picture in which he no longer looks twelve. The bad attitude will also become less believable as he makes more and more money.

I hope it happens just that way. Pierson has the talent for it.

*

I started reading Winston Churchill's history of World War II, but I think I'm going to stop without reading all six volumes. Or even finishing the first.

My admiration for Winston Churchill is extravagant. I think he was the greatest human being of the twentieth century. As much as any other man in history can claim, he saved the world.

I also think he's a great writer. His History of the English Speaking Peoples is excellent, and, like Disraeli, he used his fame as a writer to launch a great political career. Of course, it helped that he inherited his father's political connections; but his courage, heroics, and leadership on the battlefield were proven again and again -- his courage was real, not an "image."

You'd think that a history of World War II by the second most important person involved in it (Hitler was the most important, since he caused it, but his memoir is unavailable and would undoubtedly be insane and dishonest if it were) would be extraordinarily valuable.

And maybe it seem so to me, when I finally get back to reading it, if such a day ever comes.

The trouble is that I have already read so many books about World War II and about Churchill himself that I already have a far deeper and truer picture of events than he conveys in the opening chapters. Admittedly, he's really just giving a cursory run-up to the war, along with a bit of perfectly justified gloating about how right he was about everything concerning the danger Hitler posed and the willful stupidity of the British leadership. But the overall impression of the first volume is that it is shallow.

Churchill was a real historian -- but of a different age. He also had political bridges he did not wish to burn, and anything he wrote would have had reverberations in international relations. It is simply not likely from what I've seen so far that he intended to write with the kind of candor that would have made the book valuable.

And, according to David Reynolds, author of a history about Churchill's history (In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War), there were worse obstacles than Churchill's own sense of propriety. In order to get access to government documents to allow him to create an accurate history -- or even, for that matter, to use his own notes and journals assembled when he was actually fighting the war! -- Churchill had to agree to let the government of his successor as Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who had beaten him in the polls at virtually the moment Churchill won the war, have veto power over anything he might want to say!

Under those circumstances, the miracle would have been if he had created a history of World War II that had any value at all. And maybe he did -- but I'm going to find out by reading Reynolds's book first, before investing in the six-volume Churchillian opus.

As I wrote this column, I googled Churchill's history to remind myself how many volumes there were. I was led to a New York Times review of Reynolds's book, which was so interesting (and weirdly convoluted in conception) that I resolved to buy and read it.

I went first to Barnes & Noble online, but to my disgust, typing in the title "In Command of History" did not bring up that book. When I typed David Reynolds's name, the title did come up about six entries down -- so Barnes & Noble had the book.

This tells you just how incompetent the programming at Barnes & Noble's website is: If there is a title in your database which is an exact match with what a customer types into the search field, then that should -- indeed, must -- be the first entry that the search program returns.

So I went to Amazon.com, hoping that there would be a Kindle edition -- I didn't expect that this would be a book I'd need to keep on my shelves at home for other people to refer to. However, I found only an announcement that the electronic edition of the book was not available to customers from America.

So I ordered it from Amazon as a paperback and I'll get it in a couple of days. I just thought you'd want to know how clumsy and awkward book retailing can be in the computer age.

*

I got a letter from my brother-in-law the other day, telling about how he was recently listening to an audio book while running in a marathon. The book was an emotional one, and after a few hours of listening, he got to a place in the story that was making him cry.

At that point, he realized that if he kept listening -- and crying -- the race officials might well decide that he was weeping from fatigue or pain and force him to stop running! He was actually doing fine, physically -- but he had to switch from the book to some recorded music in order to keep himself from looking like a walking injury case.

We've long been familiar with "cellphone schizophrenia," in which people walk around in public talking and gesturing, with their bluetooth earset visible only to people on one side of them.

We've also many times seen people dancing or gesturing or even singing along to music that nobody else can hear.

Well, now there's another phenomenon that arises from responding to a book you're listening to through earphones. With audio players now as tiny as an iPod Shuffle (though I listen to a slightly larger Nano clipped to my clothing), you can easily find yourself laughing or crying as you walk along the street -- or through the supermarket aisle, or at the departure gate in the airport.

It's going to become the new ritual for interpreting people's public behavior: the earphone check.

And even then, you can't be sure. I pause my audiobook when I get to the checkout counter, but I don't take off my earphones -- my ears are the best place to store them, since any other arrangement is likely to tangle them up. So you never know, just looking at me, whether my Nano is on or not.

My wife is irritated by this. I come in from exercise with my earphones on, and most of the time I haven't turned off the book yet -- after all, my run is not likely to end conveniently at a chapter break. At the same time, she is likely to have things she needs to tell me or ask me. Is it rude for her to interrupt me when I'm listening? Or is it rude for me to come into the house with my ears occupied by somebody reading a book to me?

We've negotiated this compromise: Seeing my earphones, she says, "Can we talk?" Whereupon I always pause the recording and say, "Of course." Well, maybe not always. I do remember one time saying, "I'm about two minutes from the end," and she patiently awaited my return from Literature Land. Most of the time, though, I don't mind being interrupted.

And if she sees I'm crying, with earphones, she doesn't ask me if everything's OK. Though she might ask me later what book I was listening to -- because she knows it's a good one.

She knows me well enough that if I come into the house crying because of an injury, I'll be whining for help long before she even has a chance to do an earphone check.


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