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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 29, 2012

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


Christmas Music, LED Lights, Disney World

Operatic singer Katherine Jenkins is a work in progress.

Most opera singers are truly awful at pop songs. Kiri Te Kanawa, perhaps the best soprano who ever lived (at least during the era of high fidelity recording), sounds downright silly singing Broadway songs. When opera singers turn to pop or rock, they're pretty hopeless.

It's like that horrible-great moment in the first episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, when the disc jockey is forced to play the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "You're Having Our Baby" (which, by the way, they never really recorded, just in case you were wondering).

Katherine Jenkins was as awful as any of them when she sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on her first holiday album, My Christmas. Over-pronouncing all the words, which totally works for "In Paradisum" or "Un Bel Di," sounds grotesque with a song that is meant to be conversational.

The operatic voice doesn't even work for "Be Still My Soul," which, as a hymn, is about the message, not showing off vocal production.

But in this year's holiday album, This Is Christmas, Jenkins does a first-rate "Santa Baby," complete with the whispery faux-sexy tone. Her "Christmas Song" is warm and real.

Perhaps she realized, somewhere between those albums, that singing pop songs is like learning to sing in a different language. Just as you learn German or Italian pronunciation to sing songs in those languages, you have to learn pop or conversational pronunciation to sing pop songs or hymns.

But it's more than pronunciation. Pop singers handle notes differently, gliding onto and off of them in a very different way from opera or art songs. It's not that you're less precise; you just have to be precise about different effects.

Katherine Jenkins has acquired a whole new language and set of skills. This gives her a range of possibilities that I have only heard in Barbra Streisand, when her Classical Barbra album showed her range back in the 1970s.

These new skills also show up on Jenkins's Sacred Arias album, where she is completely convincing on "Down in the River to Pray" and the pop "Hallelujah," yet still brings off the classic "Misa Criolla: Kyrie" and "Pie Jesu."

*

I tried out a few other Christmas albums. Christmas with Scotty McCreery has him singing with the same easy likeability that worked so well for him on American Idol. But it leaves a kind of emptiness on a Christmas album, where the nostalgia of the season begs for a deeper kind of sincerity.

That intensity is present in Lady Antebellum's On This Winter's Night. I'm not usually a great Lady Antebellum fan, but this album is warm and lovely, even dreamy sometimes, especially on "The First Noel," which has country roots almost as deep as those on Emmylou Harris's luminous Light of the Stable (if you don't have that album, you don't understand Christmas music). And the new song (or new to me, anyway) "On This Winter's Night" is worth the price of the album. Best new holiday album of the year, in my opinion.

I hate Rod Stewart's singing. I switch away from stations the moment he comes on. I would rather listen to two pieces of styrofoam being rubbed together than listen to anything by Rod Stewart from his pop heyday.

But his album Merry Christmas, Baby has him making the same transition Leon Russell made a decade ago, singing pop standards in a surprisingly non-obnoxious way. I actually liked his "Winter Wonderland" and I could hear his "When You Wish Upon a Star" over and over.

I pronounce this album listenable. Maybe even good. Which I never thought I would say about anything Rod Stewart sang.

The indie pop duo She & Him really does include Zooey Deschanel. So when you think you recognize her face on the album cover, you're not crazy. And as long as you enjoy the simple, understated style of indie-pop, you're likely to enjoy what she and partner M. Ward offer.

Their Christmas album, A Very She & Him Christmas, is relaxed and warm. Deschanel ain't gonna sing no opera, but the songs have a good feeling and I couldn't help but like every track.

Christina Perri's A Very Merry Perri Christmas has the feel of smooth, cool jazz, with a personal tone as if she were singing the songs for a few good friends in her living room. I liked this one a lot.

*

A few years ago, when I realized the government was going to ban incandescent bulbs, I tried out fluorescents and LEDs to see how they worked.

At that time, LEDs were so dim as to be nearly useless. Yes, they were cool to the touch and used little electricity, but they were expensive and did not throw much light at all and they were often so huge that they did not fit well into fixtures with a limited space.

On the other hand, when you break an LED, you don't have to call a hazmat team to dispose of the residue, the way you nearly have to do when you break a fluorescent bulb and release poisonous mercury vapor into your house.

In the years since then, there have been a few changes. First, both LED and fluorescent bulbs have been engineered so that they now fit within the form factor of standard incandescent bulbs. You won't have to replace most of your fixtures.

Unfortunately, they have not yet found a mercury-free way to create fluorescent bulbs. That danger remains -- and for me, that's a real killer when it comes to replacing incandescent bulbs. Light bulbs that can't just be thrown out with the trash, but have to be taken to a separate hazmat disposal site, don't really sound convenient.

In fact, the gasoline for the trip to throw away the mercury-laden fluorescent bulbs probably uses up just as much energy as you saved by using fluorescents instead of incandescents.

The great news, though, is that there are new LED bulbs that are every bit as bright as incandescents, contain no mercury, use a small fraction of the power, generate little heat, and fit into almost exactly the same space as the old incandescents.

The model that I found that reliably makes this transition is the Philips dimmable. A 17-watt "ambientLED" generates the same light as a 75-watt bulb.

I first tested the bulbs outside, where a walkway "streetlamp" fixture uses three 75-watt bulbs. One had burned out. I replaced it with the Philips LED bulb and it was exactly as bright as the remaining incandescents. When on, they were indistinguishable.

Since then another incandescent has burned out, and I've replaced it with another LED. The advertising promises that these bulbs will last 22.5 years. I'm not sure how they can know that, since this design is only a couple of years old. But my present life expectancy, having already had a stroke, suggests that I'll not live to change those bulbs.

In our bathroom fixture, where six 60-watt globe lights used to cast the light to allow such delicate light-hungry processes as shaving, moustache and beard trimming, makeup application and removal, and hair adjustment, we found that six of these Philips bulbs were much brighter and yet cast no more glare.

The previous 360 watts are now costing 102 watts for markedly more light.

The bulbs look weird. There's a grey plastic shaft rising to three taxicab yellow plastic compartments separated by more grey plastic. It looks so weird that the packaging has to say "white light when lit."

Actually, the light is still yellow in the sense that sunlight is yellow -- but it's so bright that it is effectively white. Dazzling when you look at it directly. But it's comfortable to read by and you can do close work by these lights without any additional fatigue.

However, these bulbs are expensive. If they really last 22.5 years, then they're really cheap, considering how many incandescents you would have to buy to cover the same number of years. But you have to pay the price for these LED bulbs now, all at once.

On Amazon, the list price for the 17-watt (75-watt replacement) is $42.75. Yeah, that's not cheap. But when you buy the 12.5-watt (60-watt replacement), which is bound to be more commonly useful, the list price is "only" $39.99, and the actual selling price is $21.99.

When you consider that you can get a pack of 24 Sylvania 60-watt incandescent bulbs at Lowe's for $8.32, even $21.99 is a lot of money.

I doubt you're going to want to replace every bulb in your house this week.

But remember that the moment you put in the LED bulbs, they start saving electricity. So look around your house and take note of which lights people are always forgetting to turn off even when nobody's there. Maybe those are the fixtures where you'll first replace incandescents with LEDs, because that's where the power bill savings will feel the difference most clearly.

How do you know if you're getting an LED bulb that will do the job? For 75-watt equivalent, you want 1100 lumens. You also want an A19 or medium base to fit in the standard lightbulb socket.

*

Ultra-bright LEDs may work in light fixtures now, but don't believe any claims about LED heaters. Wanting to have some outdoor heat on my patio, I bought an outdoor "heater" that barely warms your hand when you hold it two inches away. Three feet away, and it has no effect at all.

Maybe in a small closet, it could heat the space in half an hour or so. But outdoors, it's useless. Stick with propane or firepits for outdoor heating.

*

I first went to Disney World in 1977. Epcot Center barely existed then. It was basically Disneyland with humidity. Unmarried, no kids, in Orlando on a business trip, I was there alone. I waited for the Mad Hatter's Teacup ride while "It's a Small World" blasted over and over again through that region of the park. I asked the Teacup ride attendant why he hadn't killed himself yet. He said, "Eventually you tune it out." It took me three days before I could get any other music into my head.

So I emerged as less than a fan of Disney theme parks, as you might imagine. And it didn't get much better when I went back with my kids. Two batches of them over the years, three trips, two to Florida, one to Anaheim. My main experience was lines, lines, lines, boring rides, lines, lines, lines, merchandising, and then lines.

Now, there might have been thrilling rides, but I'm an acrophobe and I detest the sensation of falling. So I don't go on "thrilling" rides. But I thought, what with all the "magic" and "imagineering," the non-plummeting rides would at least be interesting. Not so.

This is how much I love my family: When the idea came up to spend this Thanksgiving at Disney World, bringing along the grandchildren, of whom two are sentient, one is 18 months old, and one is five months from birth (in the still-gestating direction), it was really all about giving the Disney experience to the six-year-old and the five-year-old, with a bonus of nostalgia for the adults who weren't actively taking care of six, five, and 1.5.

I'm not a complete waste of a grandparent. I carried age 1.5 through the Atlanta airport, keeping her asleep the whole way. I carried age 5 from the Wednesday night restaurant back to the hotel. Now and then I held something for somebody, and I paid the restaurant tabs.

But at no time did I enter the Magic Kingdom or Epcot. My wife is the Good Grandparent; she helped out with both. That's why everybody likes her.

I stayed in my room during those times. I was working. Doing email interviews, writing essays, completing a short story. Job stuff.

I would have scrubbed the toilets rather than go to any activity where a Disney Person would tell a whole group of people what to do, and I, as one of the group, would have to do it.

I don't do obedience or group activities well. I did as a child. I did as a young adult. But I'm now officially an old coot, I don't have to be obedient anymore, and so I don't enter situations where the need to conform would lead me to caustic remarks and subversive behavior. That was my main contribution to the event.

Here's the shock: As long as I never entered the places where they have rides and other organized group activities, I had a great time.

That's because Disney World has become an interesting place, and not just in a detached What-Snotty-Things-Can-I-Say-About-American-Culture kind of way. (Though that is a very ripe category for conversation.)

First, when you stay at one of the on-campus Disney resorts, they really are pretty good as resorts. We stayed at the Beach Club, mostly because it was within easy walking distance of Epcot and of the Boardwalk -- and of the two restaurants where we were going to have our big family meals.

The Beach Club is designed to feel like a New England lakeside hotel, and with late-November mid-Florida weather, the effect was a nearly-perfect imitation of New England summer.

There was plenty of good food in many different restaurants of varying levels of informality; the meal plan made sense and was easy to use; the workout center and other spa facilities were good; the pool was great; the beds were comfortable. It was possible to forget I was at Disney World at all.

And when I wanted to remember I was at Disney World, there it was. It was easy to ride the frequent and not overcrowded buses from one area to another. At Downtown Disney, which is open to people who live nearby without paying an admission fee, it is possible to find some interesting stores and events and restaurants that don't slap you with mouse ears all the time. The same is true at several of the hotels.

The other times I went to Disney World, Epcot was still under construction; now, when you make the circuit of the lake, there are reasonably entertaining representations of several countries.

Admittedly, it seemed that the main souvenir of every country was a bear, which seemed unlikely to me; apparently this is the Year of the Bear in Disney World. But the Italy section had a genuinely interesting shop, the French restaurant was very good, the Scandinavian pastries were excellent; the circuit of the lake was worth the hour I gave it.

It helped that my expectations were very low, so it was easy to pleasantly surprise me. And it saved me a lot of time that, as a Mormon, I was undistracted and undelayed by the alcohol-centered main attractions in every country.

I liked the fact that all the employees in each country area were citizens of that land, genuine in every way except they were polite to Americans.

Whenever you do buy something, there is always the option to have them ship it home for you. The first of those items have now arrived, and they were expertly packed so they arrived in one piece.

The Disney-labeled articles are never first-rate, but they are never third-rate, either. Over the years, Disney has constantly wavered between two attitudes:

1. "It has the Disney label, so it will sell the same no matter what's inside."

2. "The only way to maintain the value of the Disney brand is to make sure it is never placed on anything that isn't excellent."

These mutually contradictory principles generally average out to something way better than carnival-shoddy and way worse than trying-for-the-best. So when you buy "dark chocolate non-pareils" with a Disney label, they are in fact dark and contain chocolate, but they are also so sweet you want to spit them out.

Disney chocolate chip cookies contain fine ingredients and are very thick. But they are also, by the end of the day, hard as a brick and unrewarding when you do manage to break them into mouthfuls.

In short, wherever the Disney label intruded, I learned not to bother. But where non-Disney goods were on offer -- at the Lego store, the restaurants and country-specific shops selling genuine country-specific goods -- the quality shot way up.

The four best things about Disney World, for me:

1. Les Chefs de France. It's not the best French restaurant in America -- there are a couple in California that top it -- but it certainly holds its own. The service was superb, and the kitchen was very comfortable dealing with some unusual food allergies. They can cook a perfect piece of beef, which very few restaurants in America can handle, and the lobster bisque is worth mortgaging, if not a child, then a beloved pet.

2. Il Mulino New York Trattoria. Chained with a New York original, Il Mulino served us Thanksgiving dinner; most of the menu was their normal excellent selection of Italian foods, but they also included an extraordinary turkey entree that proved the chef's inventiveness and commitment to quality. Again, perfect service.

3. Cirque de Soleil. In Downtown Disney, there is a Cirque de Soleil theatre where I finally saw what everyone's been talking about for so many years. Every time Cirque de Soleil performed a number on So You Think You Can Dance, I loved what they did.

But in a full hour-and-a-half show, I was blown away. First, it really is a circus, with acrobats, clowns, and extraordinary feats of human daring and athleticism. After what the CdeS performers did, Olympic gymnastics look like the beginner class.

Yet the show is also, from beginning to end, dance. Unlike ordinary circuses, there is no down time. No one breaks concentration or character. It is not just a movement from one applause point to another. The movements are fluid, and the story is never interrupted. I was moved as much by the beauty as the daring of the things they did.

I was the only one of our group who thought the designated clowns between acts were tedious and unfunny. But I always think clowns are tedious and unfunny.

However, they also had four clownlike dancers dressed in white, as well as an Igor-like galoot, a red-suited devilish character, and a couple of others who were, in fact, brilliant gymnasts and also clowns who were far funnier than the official clowns, in part because they didn't seem to be so desperate to make us laugh.

Cirque de Soleil was the best hour and a half of my time at Disney World, and one of the best shows I have seen in my life. The man who flew on the red draperies was astonishingly strong and graceful; his choreography was also beautiful and moving. The trampoline gymnasts did amazing things but they also told stories.

The stage design was astonishing. It was hard to believe what they were able to do with the floor, the pits and platforms, the ladders and flies.

After this, I will never miss a chance to see a Cirque de Soleil show.

4. The most important thing that made Disney World a success for our family was: the employees. Or, as they refer to them, "the cast members."

This seems an affectation at first, but in fact all the people you deal with -- clerks, hotel employees, ride supervisors, waiters, bus drivers -- they are all part of the theatrical experience that begins when you get off the plane in Orlando and does not end until you leave the Disney bus at the airport.

It happens that a niece works at Disney World. She was able to guide us to the right place to be at the parade, and helped us use the fast-pass system to best advantage. She never cheated, she merely informed us of what was possible.

But even when she wasn't with our party, everyone treated us kindly and helpfully. I'm sure they are often annoyed with customers -- but, because they are all cast members in a continuous, 24-hour-a-day show, and they never break character, the annoyance does not show.

The result is that you have to work to find anyone or anything to get angry about.

Now, our niece was able to tell us stories -- legendary and directly experienced by her -- of some of the horrible customers they have to deal with. The people who fake injuries or demand special treatment. The people who immediately start screaming that because something wasn't exactly right, "You have completely ruined my child's week!"

But they still treat even those people kindly, though at times, for safety and crowd-control reasons, they have to be firm. ("Leave this spot immediately or when those doors open you and your children will be injured or killed.")

And what about those lines, lines, lines, lines? The imagineers who run Disney World have caught on that this is the single most hated thing about Disney parks.

So they don't just try to hide the length of the line by keeping half of it indoors and out of sight. They have all kinds of entertaining things happening so that while you're in the line, you (and your children!) don't have to be bored.

There's one line, for instance, where the railing swoops up and down -- and children are given large toy bees that run along the railing. When they are brought into a "hive," they buzz and vibrate. The child's bee is his or hers during the entire wait in that line.

So the wait in line is now part of the show. Far from being the worst thing about Disney World, the line time is often as good as anything else.

And there are also legitimate ways to circumvent the line. Fast passes allow you to make an appointment for a particular event; show up on time, and you don't have to wait more than a few minutes.

So those of my family who did go to Epcot and the Magic Kingdom told me that I missed a lot of wonderful things. I believe them.

If you stay in a Disney World resort or hotel, you can get special luggage tags and make arrangements so that Disney employees claim your luggage for you at the airport; you never have to touch your bags until they are delivered to your room. Likewise, when you return to the airport you can have your luggage taken in the same worry-free way.

In fact, it's possible to reach the conclusion that they have thought of everything.

If even an anti-social, disobedient, ride-hating, mouse-ears-loathing grump like me can come home from Disney World feeling like it was worth every penny (and believe me, there were a lot of pennies involved), then I'd have to say that there's many a good a reason why, imperfect as they are, the Disney parks are so successful.


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