Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 6, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Babies, a Bakery, and Things Fall Apart
Years ago, we were visiting in Rotterdam, a great port city of the Netherlands, to attend a
convention. The local museum had the most astonishing exhibit that was designed to show the
full range of human life. Shoes were nailed up and down one wall; there were machines and
clothing and all sorts of artifacts on display, inviting us to think about all the things that human
And there were human beings. Living people were serving as volunteers, sitting or standing or
lying naked inside well-ventilated acrylic boxes, moving only now and then. As visitors to the
museum, my wife and I found ourselves examining them as artifacts -- the veins on the hands,
the faces, the shape of the bodies. These were not models, not perfect bodies by any means, but
because they were on display in this fashion, they were fascinating and even beautiful.
There was one old man whose ribs and abdomen had been deformed by a serious injury
-- perhaps a war wound, but just as possibly an industrial accident or a car crash. His face bore
a look of infinite patience, and he spoke quietly in answer to some question asked, in Dutch, by a
visitor. All of these display people were free to speak, but most visitors asked them nothing, said
nothing to them; the acrylic barrier invited silence and contemplation.
I remembered that experience as I watched the simple and beautiful documentary film Babies
(playing in one of the tiny art theaters at the Carousel). The French filmmakers visited four
families on the verge of childbirth, in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and America, and filmed the
life of the four babies from birth (though birth itself is not shown) to the point where they can
walk and talk.
The families became familiar with the camera, apparently, for only rarely did any of them --
even the babies -- look at the lens. Instead, they seemed to be carrying on their normal lives.
All the families were reasonably prosperous by local standards, though by no means wealthy.
We saw no instances of hunger or suffering.
In the American and Japanese families, the father of the baby was occasionally on screen; in the
Namibian and Mongolian families, almost never. This may reflect the reality of their lives --
fathers in the rural households played only the slightest of roles in the lives of infants.
There were no subtitles. We understood the words of the Americans because we speak English.
The Mongolian, Japanese, and Namibian language remained untranslated.
The point was for audiences around the world to see infancy as if it were taking place inside an
acrylic box, without commentary or explanation. And the result was often strange, sometimes
funny, and always beautiful.
Was there a message beyond that? I think so. The filmmakers could have chosen a "normal"
American family -- but they opted for a couple from San Francisco who seemed to be taking on
the baby as a political project. They read books about child-rearing; they were almost
obsessively attentive to and yet oddly detached from their child. It is unlikely that the
filmmakers did not know how unusual this American family was, compared to the way most
I suspect they chose as they did because a normal American family would seem quite ordinary to
most of the people who would see this film. Instead, most American viewers will find the San
Francisco culture almost as odd as the Namibian, while it's the Japanese couple who stand for
Every passage of the film was fascinating. I felt as if I had learned a book's worth of
information about the cultures we were shown: how they dress their children, how the women
form communities, how siblings relate to each other, the sometimes surprising levels of
technology, the different foods, the relationship to animals and nature as a whole, what
constitutes a toy.
But the biggest surprise was how similar they also were, and how, in the end, all the children,
regardless of how much they were ignored, how fastidiously they were cared for, or how much
the adults tried to teach them, ended up learning to crawl and stand and walk and speak on their
own schedule. One could imagine that parenting mattered not at all, at least as far as acquiring
these basic skills was concerned.
At the same time, I did not find myself wishing we had raised our own children more like any of
the families we were shown.
There are some potentially disturbing images that make me suspect that parents will want to be
careful about the ages of children they bring to this movie. I think most ten-year-olds and older
children would be able to take what they see in stride, but you should be aware that among the
Namibian women, breasts are always bare and the Mongolian mother squirts breast milk in her
baby's face in order to wash his skin.
Baby penises, where present, are not concealed, and there is one sequence with the little
Mongolian boy where males in the audience cringe in sympathetic pain -- a sort of "don't try
this at home" moment.
What disturbed me most, though, was not human anatomy. It was the flies. Having been raised
to try to keep insects away from myself, food, and babies, the fact that the Namibians are almost
continually being walked on by flies and only rarely bother to brush them away made my skin
crawl, as I imagined flies doing the same to me.
In this remarkably thin summer of movies (so far, anyway), Babies stands out as one of the very
best. Even if you ordinarily would happily stand in line for hours not to have to watch a
documentary, I urge you to make an exception and give yourself the experience of watching this
Even if it's just to watch the miracle of a cat so patient that (1) it can be dragged across the floor
by a string, and (2) it allows a Mongolian baby to claw at its eyes without complaining.
A new bakery has opened up in Greensboro: Ollie's, located conveniently next door to Loco for
Coco and just down from Chipotle Grill in the shopping center at 1420 Westover Terrace.
I say that it's convenient to have it next to Loco for Coco because the same sweet tooth that
takes me to one will bring me back to the other as well. Ollie's has a good selection of what
menues today tend to refer to as "artisanal breads," but I've learned that I prefer the great breads
at Great Harvest to any of the bakery breads that offer thicker crusts and a rustic appearance.
So what's going to bring me back to Ollie's again and again are the sweets. We came home with
three amazing tarts. They had small individual lemon tarts ringed with raspberries, and offered
slices of strawberry and mixed-berry tarts with a plain cream base. I found them all to be similar
in quality to pastries I've bought at Gelson's in southern California -- which is about as high as
praise of a bakery can get.
The chocolate eclairs are the real thing, and my wife assures me that the chocolate brownie was
lethally good. (It looked too rich for me, and so I passed it by.)
I will be going back, of course -- and I'll probably try the foccaccia, the brioche bread, and
other staple breads as well as the desserts, because Ollie's is a first-rate bakery, and I don't want
to miss anything. From breakfast time to picking up supper components on the way home from
work, Ollie's opens at 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on weekends, and closes at 6:00
p.m. every day but Friday, when they close at 6:30.
A Nigerian friend has long urged me to read Chinua Achebe's powerful novel Things Fall
Apart, but I kept putting it off because I expected it to be both literary and anti-Western, both of
which I regard as drawbacks when choosing something to read.
But after our sixteen-year-old reported that it was the best book she had ever been required to
read in school, I took the audiobook out of my trunk, where I had been carrying it around for
more than a year, and started listening to the CDs.
Peter Francis James does a very good job of performing the book, but I think it could have been
read by a robot and I would have enjoyed it. Most of the book is the story of Okonkwo, a man
whose ambition is to be one of the foremost leaders of his village in the Ibo region of Nigeria
just at the time the English were first bringing Christianity and colonial government to that land.
Achebe does not seem to have a political agenda at all. He does not prettify the village life -- it
can be cruel, and seen through western eyes the women and children seem to be lacking in rights
and good treatment that we regard as rudimentary.
Yet Achebe immerses us so fully in the daily life -- superstitious, ritualistic, yet exuberant and
largely happy -- that by the time white men arrive surprisingly late in the book, I found myself
talking back to them. "Go away," I said. "They're doing fine without you."
Yet, in some ways, they were not. The Nigerian custom of killing twins, for instance, was an
abomination, and the Christian rejection of that practice seems (in this book, at least) to be one
of the reasons that some Nigerians embraced the new religion. Achebe makes no effort to
defend such practices, and Okonkwo commits a murder that left me breathless with shock and
Because of Achebe's dispassion, the book rises to the level of tragedy. We know that the
English takeover of Nigeria will be both a disaster and a blessing to these people, as it turns the
entire social order inside out. One thing we understand almost from the start, though, is that
whatever others might do, Okonkwo cannot submit quietly to the destruction of the life he has
built for himself.
What had kept me from reading this book for so long was the sense that it was a book that must
be read dutifully. I was quite wrong. It is to be read with the same attitude that I had while I
watched the documentary Babies: fascination, accompanied variously by admiration, revulsion,
fear, and love.
Where Alexander McCall Smith's charming novels about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
give a strong sense of modern life in Botswana, it is Achebe's Things Fall Apart that gives us
significant understanding of the African life that European colonialism put an end to.
Knowing that the English were the most benign of the colonialist powers (compared, for
instance, to the atrocities of the Belgians in the Congo) does not change the fact that they came
to judge and then destroy a culture they did not understand. It happened that the imperialists
were Christian, and so it is Christianity that is the primary replacement offered for the native
culture; but the religion of Communism or contemporary political correctness would not have
been even slightly more tolerant of the village beliefs and practices.
What I loved best, however, was not the confrontation between cultures at the end. This book
achieves greatness because of all that goes before: our immersion in another way of life.
For those of you who care about fictional storytelling -- whether in books, movies, audio
recordings, or television -- I recommend highly "The Pleasures of Imagination," a brilliant
essay by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale. He tackles a question that until now I
thought only I had addressed seriously: The role of fictional storytelling in human cultures. His
proposals have the ring of truth to me.
You can read his essay here.
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Thursday, June 10 -- Ballpoint Day
On this day in 1943, Hungarian Laszlo Biro patented the ballpoint pen, which he had been
working on since the 1930s. He was living in Argentina, where he had gone to escape the Nazis.
In many languages, the word for ballpoint pen is "biro."
This would have been Saul Bellow's 95th birthday. Winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for
literature, Canadian-born Bellow was, in the view of many, the best of the post-war generation
that included Norman Mailer, John Updike, Gore Vidal, James Michener, John Hersey, and
many others whose writings had a powerful influence on world literature. My favorite Bellow
novel is Humboldt's Gift, but he is also known for Seize the Day, Herzog, The Adventures of
Augie March, Mr. Sammler's Planet, and Henderson the Rain King.
Friday, June 11 -- Corn on the Cob Day
French undersea explorer, writer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau was born 100 years ago
today. He invented the Aqua-Lung, which allowed him and his colleagues to produce more than
80 documentary films about undersea life, two of which won Oscars. He was also awarded the
French Legion of Honor for his work in the Resistance in World War II. John Denver's hit song
Calypso paid tribute to Cousteau's ship.
Saturday, June 12 -- Russian Independence Day
On this day in 1991, Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically-elected leader in the
thousand-year history of the Russian nation. It will be interesting to see what date historians
pick for the end of the democracy experiment in Russia -- it's already over, in the mind of
current would-be dictator Putin.
It's a lovely bit of symmetry that exactly four years before Yeltsin's election, President Reagan
delivered his landmark "Tear Down This Wall" speech at the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin
Wall. Reagan's said these words (written by speechwriter Peter Robinson): "General Secretary
Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if
you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" As always, the diplomats in the State Department had sought
to make the speech more diplomatic, but Reagan refused. The wall was opened in 1989. It
appears that today we have the opposite President -- one who never challenges our enemies to
behave better, but instead tactlessly criticizes and endangers our friends.
Anne Frank was born on this day in 1929, in Frankfurt, Germany. Her family moved to
Amsterdam to escape the Nazis, but the sudden German conquest of the Netherlands put them
within the reach of that generation of Jew-murderers. She began her famous diary in 1942, and
died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945.
Today, the world is once again standing by and doing nothing while another generation of Jew-murderers prepares to nuke Tel Aviv and kill millions more Jews, while our appeasement-loving
President criticizes Israel for defending itself against the Jew-murdering terrorist organizations
Hamas and Hezbollah. Obama talked about "change" to get himself elected, but in office he has
adopted Neville Chamberlain's foreign policy without alteration.
By doing nothing to stop Iran from carrying out its stated intention of using nukes against Israel,
President Obama is saying, "I don't care how many Anne Franks die."
Sunday, June 13 -- Nausea Day
The first roller coaster opened on this day in 1884 at Coney island, in Brooklyn, NY. It was
patented by LaMarcus Thompson as the "Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway," but to those of
us with any sense, it's all a scam to get suckers to pay good money for the privilege of losing
their lunch in the company of screaming strangers.
Monday, June 14 -- Flag Day
On this day in 1777 the Continental Congress adopted the stars-and-stripes design for the United
States flag. Thanks to occasional bold leadership and the courage and honor and sacrifice of
millions of American soldiers, the American flag has come to symbolize hope, freedom,
liberation, and prosperity to most of the oppressed peoples of the world. The only other flag that
competes for honor with the Stars and Stripes is the British Union Jack, the banner that flew
over the ships that broke the back of Napoleon's dictatorship and that enforced the British
abolition of the transoceanic slave trade. Such achievements atone for many a British mistake in
history, just as American intervention in two world wars and in many countries threatened by or
under the rule of dictators outweighs the mistakes made by our occasional honorless or timid
This was also the day in 1954 that President Eisenhower chose to sign the legislation adding the
words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance as a further repudiation of atheistic
Communism during the era when nation after nation was falling under the ruthless totalitarian
rule of the disciples of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
Family History Day is today, we're told by some
(http://www.holidaysforeveryday.com/caljun09.shtml), but the New England Historical and
Genealogical Society and Ancestry.com have designated February 20th for that honor. In
Sacramento, California, Family History Day is October 9th. Furthermore, since 2004 the
Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving Day to be National Family History Day -- but what
the Surgeon General has in mind is family health history.
But family history is always a good idea. Why not take a few minutes every 14th of June to write
down or record your memories and other facts about your family's life -- parents, spouse,
siblings, children, and other relatives -- and then make sure there are copies available for your
children, grandchildren, or other family members. Knowing your own family is the beginning of
Tuesday, June 15 -- Magna Carta Day
On this day in 1215, King John of England was compelled by rebellious barons to set his royal
seal on the first charter of English liberties. At the time, Magna Carta ("Great Charter") did not
apply to ordinary subjects of the King, but the principle of setting limits on the power of the
English monarch became the precedent that eventually led to parliamentary government and
turned the monarch into a figurehead rather than a ruler.
Native American Citizenship Day marks the date in 1924 when Congress passed legislation
declaring Native Americans to be citizens of the United States. Previously, Native Americans
were regarded as citizens of foreign nations, with which the United States made treaties and
fought wars. By declaring Native Americans to be American citizens, the government in effect
abolished their separate-nation status, erasing the entities which held rights under our treaties
with them. Not that we'd kept many of those treaties anyway.
Wednesday, June 16 -- Honor the Abolitionists Day
As he began his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln stood before the Illinois
Republican State Convention in Springfield and declared, "A house divide against itself cannot
stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not
expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to
be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."
This was an open challenge to the slave states, and from that moment on Abraham Lincoln stood
for the abolition of slavery in the minds of all those who thought they had the right to own other
people. "Abolitionist" was a nasty epithet at that time in the minds of many, because the pro-slavery propagandists of the Democratic Party of the era had smeared them the way Democrats
smear the Tea Party movement today, depicting them as crazy and dangerous.
Even today, Abolitionists get smeared -- as in Spielberg's loathsome lying movie Amistad. But
let's do remember that the abolition of slavery was a worthy goal, while its continuation was a
national shame, and our country did not deserve to be called "one nation under God" until the
abolitionists prevailed and slavery was expunged from our national life.
It is a remarkable thing that groups like the Abolitionists and the anti-Communists of the 1950s
continue to be subjected to negative propaganda, even though slavery and Communism were and
are horrible evils which any decent person should actively oppose. When I read or hear negative
statements about either group, I always want to issue the challenge: So you think the good guys
were pro-slavery or pro-Communist?