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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
Jnauary 15, 2006

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


Fluxx, Kagome, 24, Academic Music, Christianity

I'll admit that I didn't have high expectations when I saw the little packet of cards called "Family Fluxx." Nothing like the huge stacks of cards in games like Uno and Skipbo.

The name alone made me laugh.

Admittedly, not everybody remembers that "flux" was once a common medical word for diarrhea. ("Diarrhea" won out, I'm sure, because it's so much harder to spell, and therefore stayed out of the reach of the hoi polloi for much longer.) But the first thought that came to my mind was ... never mind. Those of us who read a lot of history are sometimes amused by obscure things.

Anyway, I came home from my workout the other day (I don't look like I work out, but underneath all this padding is a really buff body), and there was my family, playing this card game. And they were having a great time.

The idea is that the game starts with two rules: On every turn, you draw one card and you play one card. All the other rules can be changed by playing rule-change cards.

The rule-changes are immediate. So if you play a card that changes the rule so that you draw three cards each turn, you draw two more cards so that you will have drawn three on that turn. Or if you play a card that lets you play two cards in a turn, you can play another card right away, to bring your total to two.

Among the cards you can play are "keepers." These cards represent things like a dog, a stick, a house, a playground, rain, a cat, a mouse, cheese, ice cream, a gift, a tree. You can lay them down in front of you and keep them -- until somebody steals one, or trades one with you, or plays the rule card that doesn't allow you to have more than four keepers.

There are cards that change the goal of the game. For instance, if you play the goal card "Fetch," the goal now becomes to have the dog and stick keeper cards laid down in front of you.

If you play the Fetch card before you have laid down the dog and the stick, you run the risk of someone putting another goal card on top of yours, cancelling it. Or someone might steal your dog card and then lay down the stick themselves.

In other words, the strategies are complicated and constantly shifting.

Sometimes the game lasts only a couple of minutes; sometimes it takes half an hour. It's fun the whole time. The only danger is that because games are so fast-moving and take so little time, you'll keeps saying, "Let's start another one." Not so good on school nights, as we discovered.

*

I was walking through the juice section of the grocery store the other day and saw a whole new brand of juices, called Kagome: Live True.

That slogan -- "live true" -- how is "live" pronounced? To rhyme with "dive"? That couldn't be right. Once you make a vegetable or fruit into juice, can you still call it alive? So it must be the verb "live," which rhymes with "give." In which case, they're sort of ordering me around. And implying that their juice is more honest than other juices.

Oh yeah? It was a challenge. I bought a couple of bottles.

It's like a Japanese version of V-8 -- mixtures of various vegetables and/or fruits. But not like anything Americans have ever tasted before. (Unless, of course, you've lived in Japan and had stuff like this there.)

And I can promise you, it is not what you expect even from reading the list of ingredients.

For one thing, the names seem to be taken from haikus, or the names of geishas. Orange Carrot Blossom. Autumn Reds. Purple Roots & Fruits. Sweet Summer Tomato Juice. True Vegetable Garden. Carrot Ginger Zest.

The concept is that they add no sugar. They use "natural flavors like lime, lemon, and ginger to balance" the taste.

From their website, I gather that they also think that "nature's color wheel" is the bee's knees. I couldn't care less. I'm the guy who thinks orange juice blended with Diet Coke is delicious, remember? And that is the color of what tracks into your garage on your tires when you pull in during a rainstorm. So what do I know from colors?

I tried the tomato juice first. I like tomato juice. I like it with lime. This did not taste like any tomato-with-lime I've ever had before.

I tasted it twice. Three times. I finished the glass. I finished the bottle. It's really really good.

Ditto with True Vegetable Garden. I'm going back for more.

*

Kiefer Sutherland's masterwork is playing Jack Bauer in 24 on Fox.

The good news is that the new season has just started, with four hours spread over last Sunday and Monday nights.

The bad news is that if you're just finding this out by reading my column, you've already missed them. And they were great.

And what kills me is I can't tell you a single thing about it, because maybe you have a friend who DVRed or TiVoed or videotaped it for you, or maybe you're going to see it when the DVDs come out, or maybe Fox will rebroadcast all four hours so you can catch up.

Even if you missed the opener, they'll keep you up to speed -- their summaries do a great job at the beginning of each episode. They don't tell you everything that went before, but they tell you enough to understand what's going to happen this hour.

This show is smart. It has some of the best writing on television.

It's fearless. It tackles everything that comes up, and kills anybody it feels like, and puts its heroes (and villains) in impossible moral decisions.

It's wonderfully performed. The cast doesn't look like your standard Hollywood casting call, they look like people who actually work at bureaucracies, even law enforcement ones; but they are wonderful actors who make every scene effective.

This four-hour season opener amounts to about 170 minutes -- ten minutes less than three hours. A solid, long feature.

And if it had played on the movie screens, we would have sat there, riveted. It's a better movie than any thriller I saw last year.

And it's on TV.

Lucky!

*

I got a very nice letter from a local composer recently. He included a copy of his 2004 CD. He didn't lie to me -- he admitted that he only "occasionally" reads my column. He wanted me to know that there is "more to the music scene in Greensboro besides Indie-Rock and Rap."

Since I didn't know there was Indie-Rock and Rap in Greensboro, it was all news to me. I mean, how would I know? Wherever it is that these things are being performed, I don't go there.

But I listed to his cd. It is, for lack of a better word, "academic music."

That is, it's music composed by someone who thinks that melody and harmony were tossed out of music about three revolutions ago. Which means that, for most people, it is absolutely, completely unlistenable. Undistinguishable from random noise.

Which is fine. A lot of people feel that way about rap. A lot of people really hate my favorite country songs. That's the way things go -- you make your art for whatever audience is prepared to receive it, and if most people aren't in it, them's the breaks.

Only here's the thing that gripes me. I actually know enough about academic music to know that this guy is actually pretty talented.

Doesn't mean that I want to push this cd into the player in my car and listen to it -- too many moments contain the subliminal message "You can end this now if you drive into a bridge abutment."

But he is talented, he learns what he's taught and goes farther, and he's got the drive to make something and try to expand the audience for it.

The tragedy is that in order to improve himself as a musician, he studied from, and took way too seriously, the people who teach "atonality" as if it were the last stage in the long history of music.

Well, if it is, then music has committed suicide.

But it isn't. It's really just part of the rejection of the audience that has pervaded the academic arts for two generations now. It's a snob thing. What pride can you take in recognizing the genius in "Appalachian Spring" or "Adagio for Strings" or "Rite of Spring" or the piano work of Erik Satie? Everybody knows these things are brilliant.

But once upon a time, these composers (Copland, Barber, Stravinsky) were controversial. People actually threw fruit at the first performance of "Rite of Spring." (Which means, of course, that they brought fruit to the concert. Do you bring fruit? Those silly French!)

So if you're going to be a "great" composer, you have to make sure to write music that the common people will reject at first, and then later discover and embrace. Right?

The trouble is, this is putting the cart before the horse. It isn't rejection by the common people that makes you great. It's writing great music. Having the common people get upset is just a publicity boost. It comes after you've created something important and wonderful.

Besides, academic composers have been writing an awful lot of atonal stuff for generations now. The audience has already learned: If it's "new" and/or by Philip Glass, they're going to be bored witless, if they aren't actively driven from the concert hall by a pounding headache.

In fact, academic composers have long since gotten into the habit of throwing fruit at the audience. But why should the audience keep coming? It's not like Gallagher -- he splashes messy stuff on people, but at least he provides funny patter and a tarp.

I know several composers who have gone to graduate school at major music schools, and I know the pressure they're under to reject tonality and be "experimental." But folks, the experiments are now fifty to seventy years old. They're about as revolutionary as the Communist Party was in the USSR in 1988.

The music establishment is atonality. And when you go through music school and come out writing stuff that ordinary people truly hate, you aren't being creative or innovative anymore. You're being obedient. Conformist. Traditional.

And because you believed the people who told you that this stuff was (a) experimental and (b) music, you've cheated yourself out of the chance of creating something that is truly great.

Because great music creates a community of people who hold it in their memory and treasure it. That how it becomes "great."

Now, I'm sure that this Greensboro composer has all kinds of reasons why his music is not at all "academic music" and I'm completely wrong. But I listened to his whole cd. I knew what I was hearing as I heard it. I recognized his talent. And I grieved for how he actually paid tuition to learn how to throw auditory bricks at his audience, when what first inspired him was actual music.

So I'll go back to jazz vocals and Brazilian "MPB" and country songs and tonal classical music and classic rock and folk and all the other stuff I listen to -- stuff that was created with the idea of communicating with and pleasing an audience.

Meanwhile, you'll notice that I haven't named this composer. Why? Because despite the nice things I said about his work within the genre, this is a negative review. Why should I hold up his name to opprobrium? His friends all know exactly whom I'm talking about, and they will regard my review as proof that his work must be terrific, because I didn't like it. After all, the goal is to irritate an audience and make them regret coming to the performance -- unless they're part of the chosen few.

So his friends, being the chosen few, will feel vindicated by this review. It will make them, and the composer, very happy.

Not only that, but there are music professors at all the schools in town who are now sharpening their pencils to write letters to the Rhino, either (a) deploring my ignorance or (b) denying that there is such a thing as "academic music" and if there is, it isn't atonal, and if it is, then I'm ignorant (see "a").

But I'm not ignorant. I'm right. And in their heart of hearts, they know that the great disappointment of their lives is that they have never had and will never have the kind of acclaim, the kind of response from a living audience that Beethoven or Chopin or even a musician's musician like Satie had.

And yet they refuse to make the connection between the nonsense they were taught in college and their inability to write anything that ordinary people can actually care about. They remain true believers, and continue to take pride in the utter lack of impact their compositions have on the world outside the walls of academia.

*

Aren't you tired of hearing people blame Christianity for everything that's wrong with the world?

Or maybe you have been sheltered from the vile things that are being said about Christianity. All you have to do is not read newspapers or magazines or scholarly books or journals, and stay away from classes in the no-subject-matter departments of secular universities and private conversations among Leftists who think of themselves as intellectuals.

But those of us who do partake of those vices are quite aware that Christianity is widely regarded as the source of all evil, both in the past and today.

I won't bother detailing all the charges against Christianity. I will only point out a fascinating and valuable history book called The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, by Rodney Stark.

The nice thing about that title is that by naming "capitalism" and "success" as good things, it automatically selects as its audience people who already reject most of the groups that attack Christianity. Stark is essentially preaching to the choir -- but that's kind of a shame.

Because while he definitely has an agenda, he plays straight with his sources. That is, the history he recounts actually happened.

There was nothing that happened in Europe that led to its dominance over the entire world that could not have happened in, say, China or India or the Islamic world. And yet it didn't happen in any of those places. It happened in precisely the places where, not just Christianity, but western Christianity held sway for nearly two thousand years.

He starts with helpful reminders that the so-called "dark ages" weren't dark. In fact, they -- and the following "middle ages" -- were the very time when some of the most important innovations in history took place, with often-anonymous inventors in obscure places in Christendom.

And even those that were imported from elsewhere were exploited and perfected in Europe, so that gunpowder, invented in China, became the instrument of world domination only when it got to Europe; and paper and moveable type were combined to lead to general public literacy only in Europe.

Stark is not always able to see weak spots in his own arguments. I wish he hadn't kept saying the obviously false statement that Asian languages "have no word for freedom." This is just silly. What, they leave blanks when translating Western books that use that word? And when you consider that freedom has many meanings anyway, it is laughable that none of those meanings would be expressible in the languages spoken by most people in the world. Even if he was right, it would prove nothing. It's the kind of thing that weakens a whole book.

And it's unfortunate that in order to demonstrate the superior power of "reasoning" in medieval religious discourse, he chooses as his example an obvious case of, not reason, but rationalization, as reasoning is used to justify a pre-formed conclusion (i.e., "proving" that despite the plain language of the gospels, Mary could not have had any children besides Jesus, because she had to remain "pure" throughout her life).

In other words, Stark is himself not particularly well-qualified to demonstrate the supposedly high standards of Western rationalism.

But then again, maybe he is. Maybe the point is that despite all the self-serving rationalizations and weird, unjustified beliefs that pervaded medieval Christendom (just like all other societies in all other times, including ours), Europe still emerged from the Middle Ages uniquely qualified to assume -- or take -- leadership over the whole world.

And the historical facts he points out are illuminating. This is a valuable book, if only because we need reminding sometimes that everything that makes our lives so comfortable and free today, compared to every other place and period in history, came as the result of the wisdom and foolishness and greatness and horrible mistakes of our cultural ancestors.

When hideous crimes are laid against Christianity, it's worth remembering that hideous crimes happened in the history of every region and during most periods of history. But only in the Christian West did they lead to conscience-driven public policies which, gradually and after bitter struggles (cf.: the U.S. Civil War; the British war against the slave trade), led to a world that is better for almost everyone at every level of society than anything that was known before.

So don't imagine you're reading a masterpiece -- but do read the book. If nothing else, it will prepare you to argue when some "intellectual" starts spouting the ignorant version of history that says that "everything evil in the world was caused by religion." The cheap answer, of course, is that in the 20th century, well over a hundred million people were slaughtered in the name of anti-Christian, anti-religious "philosophies" like Marxism and Nazism. But the better answer is to point out that Christianity comes out pretty well in any honest measure by any truly educated person.

Unfortunately, most of the "intellectuals" who make this argument are so woefully undereducated that they won't have a clue what you're talking about. That's what happens when you jettison the teaching of history from the public schools and turn large portions of the universities over to people who hate the very culture they were supposedly hired to transmit to the next generation.

We have created two generations now that are so ignorant of history that they can be lied to with impunity.

This book will help undo some of that ignorance. If you grew up with "social studies" instead of "history," you need this book.


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