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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 8, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Fred, St. Cloud, Movie Snacks, Death by Meeting

I'm not sure what motivated two members of the original Dixie Chicks to form the band Court Yard Hounds, whose self-titled album was just released.

On the one hand, one might suppose that they wanted to distance themselves from the obnoxious, fan-alienating remarks by the other member of Dixie Chicks during the Bush presidency. Then again, who remembers or cares? (Well, I guess I remembered. And, come to think of it, I guess I cared.)

On the other hand, it might be that, seeing the success of Taylor Swift's genre-bending version of pop-country (or whatever we're calling it), they wanted to move away from traditional country sounds and become something new. Or at least become like somebody else who actually was new.

Unfortunately, the album consists of forgettable songs.

Well, not really forgettable. They're actually almost unhearable. The songs are playing, there's sound, it's not unpleasant, but the more you try to concentrate on them the more they music and words just float away, like a dream you're trying to remember as it disappears from your memory in the morning.

It's not that the album is bad. It just has no particular reason to exist. Which is a shame, because "Court Yard Hounds" was such a great group name, and now it's been used up.

I have no objection to bending the boundaries of country (or any other genre). In fact, my favorite female country singer right now, Carrie Rodriguez, tears up the genre walls with songs that are almost brutally real, and a voice that reaches inside your thorax to poke at your organs. But this is like the opposite of Carrie Rodriguez. Where Rodriguez sets aside some of the cliches of country music to become more real, the Court Yard Hounds set aside the cliches in order to bring in another set of cliches from another genre.

Evaporated music, that's what it is.

*

Fresh Market had a nice endcap display of bottled water labeled, simply, "Fred." The smaller bottles are shaped like flasks. Now, this is a dumb move if you need to be able to put the bottles in car cupholders. We've had fits with Fiji water over the years for that very reason.

But if you get into the spirit of the flask, then you can imagine tucking it into the breast pocket of a suitcoat or sport jacket. It really does fit in the breast pocket of a shirt. So the design might actually be more convenient, depending on how adaptable you are.

Still, it comes down to flavor. And you can't actually do effective taste-tests on water when it's ice-cold from the fridge. That's because even mediocre water tastes fine when you freeze your tongue.

Nor is it fair to taste it when it's been outside in the temperatures we've been having lately -- eighties and nineties. Warmish water isn't as refreshing as cool, and as St. Paul said, you want to spew it out of your mouth.

You have to taste it at room temperature -- if the room is kept below 70 degrees.

So here's the word on Fred. It's not obnoxious, like the French still waters. (Evian makes me want to have a glass of ginger ale, just to clear my palate, and Volvic is scarcely better.) Nor is it startlingly brilliant, the way Fiji was when it was first sold in America (now it has become merely ordinary).

It's simply good enough.

For me, though, the real pleasure is still Hint Water. It's the perfect soft drink -- purified water with just an overtone of fruit flavoring added. No sugar, no electrolytes or vitamins or minerals. Just a touch of flavor. It's delicious cold, at room temperature, or even a little warm. And it has been keeping me alive when I get dehydrated from exercising or doing yardwork in this weather.

And, unlike most bottled waters, you really can tell Hint from all the others in blind taste tests!

*

I already reviewed the book The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud; now the movie is out, and it's definitely worth seeing. I really, really liked the book, and the film adaptation is better than I feared, though not quite perfect.

I was surprised, though, that on the Friday night of its opening weekend it was so sparsely attended. With Zac Efron in the lead, you'd think it would draw a larger audience. On the other hand, I've seen very little publicity about it. Quite possibly nobody knew how to sell it.

They had the same problem in adapting the book into a film. The book was both intriguing and moving; so is the movie, but less so, because of the choices they made.

And yet I can't argue with them about most of the changes. In the book, Charlie is 15, much closer in age to his little brother Sammy, when they both die in a car wreck. (Charlie is miraculously revived after getting a glimpse of the afterlife with Sammy.) But most of the movie takes place five years later, when Charlie is 20. The age difference between 15 and 20 is not great enough to justify casting someone else as "young Charlie," and yet it would be hard to make Efron convincingly 15 years old. Far simpler to make him 18 at the start.

The trouble is that at age 18, with Sammy still about eleven, the age difference is too great for us to really feel the closeness between them. Yet they couldn't make Sammy any older or we lose a lot of the pathos.

Another choice: In the book, we eventually see Sammy's spirit come to fruition -- no longer a little boy. It makes us feel how important it is that he moved on, no longer trapped in the graveyard holding pattern that had occupied the brothers' lives for five years. But in the movie, perhaps to avoid confusion, they leave him young, so we get no visual sense that he has really moved on. It's almost the opposite of what the ending was supposed to do.

I'm sure it was budgetary considerations that made them decide not to show us the extremely vivid scene in the storm, where Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew, looking like Molly Ringwald's daughter) loses control of her would-be round-the-world sailboat yet handles herself with remarkable control. Such a scene would have been incredibly expensive; but it also was important to make us buy both her apparent survival and her near-death experience.

As is so often the case, the book told the story very well, and all the things that are missing are, well, missed.

But these are almost quibbles. They have only a slight dampening effect on what is otherwise a good small movie. I think the only real problem is the pretty-boy picture of Zac Efron that is the main image on the poster. They actually have a story here, yet you'd never guess that from the advertising.

No, we didn't come away from it as moved as by Toy Story 3, or as provoked into conversation as by Inception, or even as vividly entertained as by Salt. But we felt good. We felt as if we had our money's worth.

And Zac Efron is still a remarkable young actor who is still waiting for his first grown-up role to knock people's socks off.

*

While we were at the Carousel theater, we noticed that they are selling something that I have long wished for -- healthy snacks! I've already reviewed Greensboro's own healthy snack food company, Good Health Natural Foods. Their avocado oil potato chips are simply the best I've ever had.

Well, now -- and for only one dollar -- you can have a small bag of chips in the movie theater. They also have the same company's Humbles Hummus Chips and Veggie Stix -- products I haven't seen at Earth Fare yet. Naturally, I sampled them, and they were as delicious as I expected.

Just think -- you can go to the movies and have something delicious and nondestructive to snack on. For a ridiculously low price.

And if you happen not to have Good Health Natural Foods products in your local store, you can order anything you want from them online -- though, alas, only in case lots.

In case you don't know, that's a lot of potato chips or hummus chips or polenta chips or veggie stix -- but perhaps it's not too many. For instance, "Humbles Baked Hummus Chips Variety Case #2" contains three 3.5-oz. bags each of the olive oil, lemon & feta; roasted red pepper; sesame garlic; and sea salt flavors. Three bags of each? That gets you through three barbecues or TV nights with friends. And it costs $32.95, which amounts to less than three dollars a bag.

You can get to their shopping page at http://www.goodhealthnaturalproducts.com/ghnf_shop/ghnf_shop.html

*

I've recently been reading business books by Patrick Lencioni, and I have been astonished at the man's good sense and writing ability.

Lencioni's shtick is "fables" -- fictional case studies that read like not-bad short stories, complete with believable and interesting characters with believable reactions to the ideas that Lencioni is putting forth.

I've read three of his books so far -- Death by Meeting, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, and The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family. I read each of them in a single sitting -- about two hours, including marginal notations, comments to my wife, and other sidetracking. All three were excellent -- and potentially transformative.

I began with Frantic Family -- its bright yellow cover caught my eye in the Atlanta airport and I had it half-read after the short flight home to Greensboro. The story is of the family of a management consultant who made the mistake of commenting to his wife that their family was not as well-managed as a business.

Naturally, she took it personally, though he didn't mean it that way; yet as they talked, he began to explain the principles he used to help businesses get back on track. They realized that while not all the techniques applied to family life, many of them did.

By the end, the wife is taking these ideas to her friends, and while most of them are polite but not interested in changing their lives (at least at first), one does give it a try. They find out that the techniques work.

Of course, that's fiction. But it rings true, and as I talked about it with my wife, we began to talk through the principles in regard to our own family life. The most intriguing of the Three Questions from the title is, "What makes our family different from all other families?"

The discussion that this question provokes can be fascinating. Most of us go through our family lives without really examining what this small community we've constructed together actually is.

No, I'm not going to bore you with our own responses to the book. But I promise you that if you really go through the steps that Lencioni advocates and teaches so effectively, it can make a difference. Even if you don't think of yourselves as particularly frantic.

Here's Lencioni's genius: He doesn't flood you with "seven" or "ten" or "fifteen" principles. Three seems to be his limit in these three books, and even then, they aren't rules or one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Instead, in each case he offers a method for a family or a company or a manager to discover for himself what will work in his particular situation.

The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (And Their Employees) is probably the best of the books as a story. The CEO of a company retires after a corporate buyout leaves him well-to-do, but -- unable to bear retirement -- he takes on the management of a local just-getting-by restaurant.

It has pretty good food, but mediocre employees -- lots of mistakes, a morose attitude. It's obvious they don't really like their jobs.

But that's the problem a lot of people face -- even when they have their dream job! It's what they worked for and yet they're miserable. Why?

I was impressed with the three things that Lencioni has this manager do in that restaurant. I was mentally applying it to jobs I've had and jobs I've seen, and I realized that Lencioni is right when he says that these principles are obvious and relatively easy -- and hardly anybody does them.

Instead, "managing" usually consists of making the lives of the workers under you even more hellish by requiring them to fill out more reports or attend more empty meetings, when the things that will raise their morale and make them happy, committed employees (cutting back on errors, raising productivity, etc.) are so simple that, really, they're more or less how a decent person should treat everybody.

And yet managers almost never do them.

Here's the coolest thing: You don't have to be a manager to make use of the book. You can apply some of the techniques to your own work, and others you can use to help make everybody around you happier -- at work and at home -- whether you have any authority over them or not.

The third book, Death by Meeting, isn't quite as good a fable -- though it's still very good. The problem is that when you're describing a destructively dull pattern of meetings, it's going to be, well, dull. Lencioni does as much as is possible to make it entertaining, though, and the solutions he offers are smart and sensible.

The problem here is that, unlike the other two books, the ideas in Death by Meeting cannot be implemented without the cooperation of those in charge of a meeting. Believe me, if you start using his techniques to make meetings more effective without the boss signing on first, you will be looking for a job in short order -- or attending mandatory counseling with the corporate shrink.

Yet I've been to so many tedious meetings that desperately needed a dose of Lencioni's common sense!

One thing I appreciate about Lencioni -- especially in Frantic Family -- is that he includes the idea that smart, effective people can also have a committed religious life. No, he doesn't preach at all -- he just takes it for granted that it's not aberrant to be a churchgoer. Since this reflects the lives of most people in the business world, at least around here, it's nice that he doesn't jam it under a bed or into a closet. It's just there ... without being intrusive.

The books are not long, but like good fables, they contain a lot more than the word count would imply. Whether you're a leader or a follower or a self-employed loner (like me!), these are entertaining and useful books.


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