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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 9, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Contest, Obama, Courses, Much Ado

Last week I reviewed Cindy Woodsmall's Sisters of the Quilt trilogy: When the Heart Cries, When the Morning Comes, and When the Soul Mends. Apparently my review captured the attention of the publisher, and they sent us five copies of the trilogy to give away to our readers.

So I'm inviting you to enter a contest, with a copy of the books for the five winning entries. But, in the spirit of Amish romance, you have to work for it. Go online to our Quilt Trilogy contest entry form at http://www.hatrack.com/romance , and tell us in 25 words or less what a good romance novel should be like.

Obviously, you can't tell us everything, so let us know what you think is most important to make a romance worth reading. The deadline is this coming Tuesday. Soon we'll have a compendium of the winning entries plus as many of the others as possible, which we'll post online, with a few highlights in the print edition of the Rhino.

*

If you're reading this on the Thursday that the Rhino hits the newsstands, remember that Handel's Messiah is being performed tonight by the Greensboro Oratorio Society at War Memorial Auditorium at the Coliseum!

*

Some of the best entertainment this holiday season has been watching President Obama writhe under the necessity of compromising with the loathsome Republicans.

Here is how a successful president deals with unavoidable compromises:

1. He praises the new law as a great thing. Sure, it doesn't do all that he might have hoped, but it does some important, excellent things, and all Americans should be glad.

2. He honors his opponents for having worked so hard to achieve a good law. This helps encourage the opposition to compromise again and again, so that the President can get some of his own program through an otherwise hostile Congress.

3. He lays out the things that he still hopes to accomplish later, presenting them in a positive way.

4. If anyone in his own party rebels, he deals with them in back rooms, making sure they understand that if they don't vote for the compromise, they are embarrassing him in public, and he will not forget their disloyalty.

Naturally, President Obama has done the exact opposite of this. But who is surprised?

This is the suicidal way Democrats have been behaving since they forced George H.W. Bush to break his "no new taxes" pledge in an important compromise -- and then ridiculed him openly for having accepted their deal instead of praising him for doing the "right thing."

Thus Democrats made it clear that they were not interested in compromising with Republicans, only in manipulating and destroying them.

Back when President Obama had the upper hand -- huge majorities in both houses of Congress -- he gave lip service to the idea of listening to Republicans, and then smashed them in the face with a vinegar pie, over and over again.

In American politics, negotiating with Democrats is like negotiating with North Korea or the Palestinians -- they'll take whatever concessions you give them, but they'll abuse you more than ever and make you sorry you ever sat down with them.

What sticks in President Obama's craw is the fact that this time -- for the first time in his presidency -- he actually had to let the Republicans have something they wanted.

If the Republicans had been vengeful, they would have made him pay now for his treatment of them over Health Care Reform and other issues in the past. Instead, following the wise leadership of Speaker-to-be John Boehner, they dealt fairly -- even generously -- with President Obama.

So of course the President spent a couple of press conferences abusing them. Perhaps he got confused and thought the Republicans were willing to deal with him because he still had some kind of political capital left.

Perhaps the President thought he was mollifying the extreme Left of his party (i.e., most of them) by throwing a tantrum about how much he hated having to give in to the Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts (i.e., not raising taxes in a recession).

Instead, he was showing his fellow Democrats that he is weak, practically guaranteeing that he will be challenged from the Left in the presidential campaign.

But maybe that's his master plan. If some lackwit who is even farther to the left than Obama runs against him in the primaries, it may allow Obama to appear to be less of a leftwing loon himself. If the Republicans nominate a rightwing nut case, which is always a possibility, it practically guarantees Obama's reelection ... as a moderate.

Could he possibly be that clever?

*

With the new TSA body-probing policy at many airports, making the gauntlet of security screenings even more repulsive, the idea of spending serious money to invest in great improvements in our rail travel seems more and more attractive.

It's not that trains can't be sabotaged by terrorists. It's that if trains are blown up at the front and pile up at the back, there are still usually a lot of survivors, because the train is already on the ground. When California Republicans (of the nutcase caucus) mock the idea of California investing in highspeed rail, they're missing the point.

All we want is to get from one place to another in reasonable speed and comfort. The TSA is making the air travel experience slower and way less comfortable. Now is the time for trains that actually go where you need them to go, on a convenient schedule.

The funniest take on the new screening policy? Check out the fake TSA advertisement from Saturday Night Live.

*

I know this is an embarrassing thing to admit, but I love attending a good class. I'm not one of those who went to college for the social life. In fact, even in high school what kept me going were the good teachers and the information they had for me, not the dances, not the sports, not school spirit, not even the fact that that's where they kept all the girls during the daytime.

Since my college days, I've continued my self-education with many thousands of books on every subject, trying to plug the holes in my education. But books are not classes. There's something about the way a good teacher presents information that makes it so much more intelligible and fascinating.

It's been 43 years since I graduated from high school, and 28 years since my last academic course in graduate school. I keep itching to get back into a classroom where I'm not the teacher.

For years I've been looking at brochures from The Teaching Company's offerings called The Great Courses -- mostly college-level classes in a broad range of topics, offered on DVD or CD or, in some cases, by .mp3 download.

What put me off was not the price alone, but the combination of fairly high cost and the fact that I didn't know -- couldn't know -- the quality of the course offerings unless I paid for a course and then actually attended it. If the courses are good, then they're worth the money -- because it costs way less than the equivalent tuition at a good college.

Well, this Christmas they've been offering some incredible sales on many of the courses that most interested me. I picked out a course called Why Economies Rise and Fall, taught by Peter Rodriguez, who has a nice list of credentials.

I downloaded it and listened to it on my .mp3 player while I exercised, ran errands, waited for appointments, pumped gas, and drove on long trips.

I already understood most of the basic principles of economic theory -- I'd been absorbing bits and pieces from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman.

What I got from Rodriguez was a systematic application of theories to real-world situations. There are great economics stories, like how home-based computer-makers essentially shut out Dell, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard from the Brazilian computer market -- but only because of self-defeating government regulations that the big companies couldn't avoid and the little guys could.

The simple beginnings of China's economic revolution, the conditions that worked so well for the Asian tiger economies, the story of Japan's amazing growth and subsequent depression, why India was so poor for so long and then suddenly began to boom -- these are all fascinating stories.

Like most Americans, I had always conflated democracy with successful capitalism, but Rodriguez forces his students to face the obvious: However desirable democracy might be for other reasons, there is no particular relationship between democracy and economic growth.

Freedom of economic choice is essential for the free market to work its magic, but that doesn't imply any kind of voice for the common people in how they're governed. Capitalism doesn't lead to democracy and democracy doesn't lead to prosperity and growth, in and of itself.

This led me to think of things on my own: for instance, that there's a sort of world moral economy as well as the financial one, where societies offer competing ways of life, and the good systems are rewarded by the intense loyalty of their citizens, their patience in the face of hard times, their willingness to sacrifice, and the bad systems are punished with coups, revolutions, massive emigration, or stubborn resistance.

In a way, the competition among moral systems is what Thomas Sowell has been working on in his massive, brilliant studies of the influence of culture on various measures of success in a society. This is something I brought to Rodriguez's course -- he never mentions Sowell or the idea of a moral economy at all.

But that's how a good course should work. It should make you think your own thoughts and bring in your own ideas. The drawback to a recorded course is that I can't raise my hand and try to spark a discussion with the professor by asking a provocative question. And that's a big drawback.

For that kind of give-and-take you either have to take actual classes or enter some kind of online college system. The trouble then is that you have to build your schedule around the classes and deadlines of the college course; you need to meet the professor and other students in realtime.

You get academic credit for those college courses. But I'm nearly sixty, and colleges have made it clear that they will never, never give a real professorship to a dude whose only qualifications are an M.A. and a 35-year career in writing <shudder> science fiction and fantasy. What do I care about academic credit? I only care about learning. Why should I ever stop?

The Great Courses will never give you a final exam or require you to write a paper. They won't give you academic credit or let you ask questions.

But they bring you some of the best teachers anywhere -- not just knowledgeable, but also personable and clear-spoken. They put a lot of time into their talent searches, and they do an excellent job of making these real lectures instead of just recordings of somebody reading something.

Everybody has holes in their education, things that they wish they had learned when they were younger. So why not use your spare time, even if it comes only in five-minute snatches, to fill in some of those gaps?

How about a gorgeously illustrated course in European art on DVD? Or a recorded course on listening to and understanding great music? Or delve into history, economics, zoology, botany, geology. Maybe you feel, as I did, a practical need to learn about economics, finance, mathematics. Maybe it's public speaking or writing, religion or ... or ... wine tasting that you want to learn about. They've got something for you.

Right now -- but for only a little while longer -- they're selling 180 of their best selling courses for 70% off. Go online at http://www.TheGreatCourses.com . Click on the red-lettered "Special Sale - 70% Off" tag on the upper left.

Whether it's The Art of Critical Decision Making or Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition; whether it's Introduction to the Study of Religion or a two-course set combining The Human Body: how We Fail, How We Heal and Nutrition Made Clear, you'll be delighted with the detailed course descriptions, the credentials of the professors, and, during this sale, the prices.

That set on the human body and nutrition? Normally a combined price of $629.90, but right now only $149.90. Sixty lectures at thirty minutes per lecture.

For instance, I just bought a course on Understanding Linguistics, taught by the brilliant John McWhorter -- already one of my favorite writers. The normal price for the course is $374.95. But I paid $99.95.

These prices are so good that I couldn't resist buying some of them as gifts for people I know well enough to be sure they'll appreciate receiving a course of such high quality.

Of course, I can hear my children and other relatives saying, Oh, great, apparently I'm getting a class for Christmas.

Yeah, well, live with it. I can't make them actually attend the class. But it'll be there, and I'm willing to wager that if they attend one lecture, on DVD or CD, they'll eagerly go on and attend all the rest, and be glad they invested the time when it's over.

Especially for people my age and older, the love of learning hasn't ended even if the practical need to get a degree has. If we ever stop wanting to learn new things, why are we alive? I can't think of a better gift for people who have retired, especially if they already have pretty much everything they actually need. This is a gift that they can love.

*

The drama program at Weaver Center is serious about training their students in all the skills of theatre. And that includes the works of our greatest playwright, Shakespeare -- even though the plays can be difficult because the passage of time has changed both our language and culture.

Tonight and on through the weekend, the Weaver production of Much Ado About Nothing shows these talented students at their best. Lindsey Clinton-Kraack has directed them in a stripped-down, fast-moving version of the story, with cool costumes that suggest a sort of timelessness which suits the play exactly.

Because the language is so hard and the (in my opinion unnecessary) background music sometimes distracts, let me give you the rough outline of the plot. Foremost is the story of Beatrice and Benedick (played delightfully by Emma Milunic and Sam Jones) -- for though theirs is not the main plot, they are the source of most of the delight of the comedy.

Benedick is a laid-back fellow who has no use for the idea of marriage. He's not going to fall in love; he's not going to marry. Beatrice enjoys sparring with him verbally, and they trade gibe for gibe in some of Shakespeare's most delightful war-of-the-sexes quarrels. To everyone else it is obvious that the two of them can't get enough of each other's company, so they contrive to let each of them overhear gossip about how much the other one is secretly in love. The joke works as hoped, and they go from cool unconcern to passionate love in no time.

The other plot is a bit more complicated and darker -- but darkness is at the heart of most comedy. Young Claudio has fallen in love with the lovely Hero (in classical times "Hero" was a female name; I have no idea how it ever became a term for stout-hearted men!). Don Pedro, the Duke of Arragon [sic], carries Claudio's offer of love to Hero and in short order she and Claudio are betrothed.

For pure malice, Don John, Pedro's illegitimate brother, arranges for the Duke and Claudio to be eyewitnesses to Hero's receiving a lover into her room late at night. Actually, it is one of John's henchmen trysting with a serving maid, but he calls her loudly by Hero's name, and in the darkness Pedro and Claudio believe that they have caught Hero being a tramp.

When it's time for the wedding, Claudio accuses Hero and the duke backs up his accusation; after they are gone, those who believe in Hero's innocence pretend that she has died of grief, in order to make Claudio and the duke regret having believed false stories about her.

The truth comes out through the third plotline -- the story of the idiotic constable, Dogberry, who tries to talk like an educated man and gets all the words wrong. Dogberry and his men hear the henchmen talking about their "prank" and bring them to court, where the truth comes out.

Many of the male parts in the play have been changed to women -- Hero's father, Leonato, is transformed into a mother, Leonata. Some male parts, like Dogberry (Leigha Sinnott), remain sort of male but are played by women.

Not all the actors in this production are able to deal with Shakespeare's dialogue equally well, but some of them -- Sam Jones as Benedick, Cara Farlow as Leonata, and a few others -- are so clear and loud that we never miss a word.

Comedy is hard, and Shakespeare's comedy, which depends so much on puns and wit, is even harder. If at times I wished that Dogberry's group did not strain so hard for comic effect, I have to remember that they are actually much better than Michael Keaton and company when he played Dogberry in the Kenneth Branagh-directed movie of Much Ado.

In fact, it's often helpful to compare productions of Shakespeare's plays with the often dreadful movies that have been made of them. I think of Zeffirelli's hit version of Romeo & Juliet, for instance, which completely misunderstands the first two acts and offers us the most self-indulgent, unlikeable Mercutio ever to perform the role. Zeffirelli's Taming of the Shrew takes Richard Burton and Liz Taylor and makes them unwatchably bad; the wooing scene goes on forever without even a speck of amusement.

Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado has the luminous Emma Thompson as Beatrice, but Branagh cast himself as Benedick and the movie suffers greatly for the choice -- he doesn't have the acting chops to make him likeable, and he didn't have a good enough director to help him find both the depth and the shallowness of the character.

Branagh didn't know what to do with Keanu Reeves as Don John, and he allowed Michael Keaton to go off the deep end into utter unintelligibility (and unfunniness) as Dogberry.

So, compared to the movie, the Weaver production is, in many ways, better. Funnier. Warmer. Alive.

The show starts at 7 p.m. on Dec. 9th, 10th, and 11th, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 12th. The price is $6 for students and $8 for adults. Come and see your tax dollars (and our talented kids!) at work -- or, I should say, at play!


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