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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 27, 2006

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


Fried Worms, back to school, Shadow Party, Alpha Oops

When the movie How to Eat Fried Worms debuted this weekend, it didn't gross enough even to make the top ten. And that's a shame.

As flicks for school-age kids go, this one is terrific. It packs emotional punch without being sappy. It's also genuinely funny. Most of the acting is actually good -- a shocker in a movie that gives 95 percent of the screen time to child actors.

I think what might be keeping people out of the theaters is the concept of eating fried worms.

And don't make any mistake: There is an enormous amount of worm-eating in this movie. Plus lots of worms that aren't eaten, but you think about what it would be like to eat them.

Here's the funny thing: My 12-year-old and I agree that the single most nauseating thing in the movie is a kid in the back seat of a car with a burrito smeared all over his face.

The premise is that Billy (Luke Benward) is a new kid in a school where his grade is ruled by a bully named Joe (Adam Hicks). Billy's only friend is Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg, the best actor in the movie), who hit puberty before the boys and therefore towers over them.

Without any provocation from Billy, Joe and his "team" fill Billy's thermos with worms. Billy makes the mistake of throwing one of the worms at Joe, hitting him in the face, and then claiming that he eats worms all the time.

The result is an inescapable challenge: to eat ten worms by seven p.m. Saturday, cooked in whatever way Joe chooses, without throwing any of them up. This seems an impossible challenge, since Billy is prone to motion sickness and pukes all the time.

Hey, it may sound gross, but give this movie credit: It's not your standard "mean teens" movie.

The gross stuff is there to delight kids and make them say "Eeeeeewww." There's plenty of humor to amuse adults. But in the midst of all this there is a smart and satisfying story about how you go about breaking up a bully-dominated gang and ending a social war.

Benward, Hicks, and Eisenberg are young, but they have the acting chops an the personal charisma to drive this movie. Writer-director Bob Dolman (wrote Willow and Far and Away, and wrote and directed The Banger Sisters) did a wonderful job of adapting Thomas Rockwell's YA novel. (There was a TV movie of the book twenty years ago, too, but I never saw it.)

I would have enjoyed this movie without a kid with me. But I'm glad she was at my side -- because, unlike me, she has a weak stomach and is highly suggestible. If this movie was going to make anybody chuck the bunny, it would have been her. And it didn't. So it probably won't nauseate you either.

Give it a shot. I think it's worth it.

*

For those of you who appreciated my recent warning about the problem of sequestering water in plastic bottles in landfills, you need to look at an even more serious problem. Go to http://www.dhmo.org (notice that its a dot-org, not a dot-com) and find out about the Dihydrogen Monoxide menace and what steps you can take to avoid it.

*

Back to school.

Nightmare time.

When I was a kid, I loved school. Because I was good at it, and so were my teachers. We learned stuff. We learned it better than kids do today. And I never had homework.

Well, almost never. But the philosophy was not to pile on homework so that parents will be reassured that school is doing a good job. Except for special projects, homework consisted of work that you did not get done in school. And I usually got it done in school. Voila! I had free time.

You know -- the time in which you get to be a kid.

The time that is being stolen from our children -- especially our smartest kids -- by homework that either forces them to go over and over material they've already mastered, or that plunges them into material that was so badly taught they haven't a clue what the homework is about.

What happened to the old-fashioned idea of doing the teaching in class?

Yeah, I know, the teachers are beleaguered and the last thing they need is another parent carping about stuff. The thing is, kids are doing far more homework at each grade level than I ever did -- and yet they're learning far, far less. Why?

Part of the problem is textbooks. Part of the problem is that teachers are so fenced around by idiocy from the district that they can hardly keep their minds on teaching. Part of the problem is "helicopter parents," who hover until their child screws up, and then come in to attack the teacher -- how can a teacher help a student whose parent invariably screams that their nasty little child can do no wrong?

All kinds of problems. A lot of good teachers simply can't teach as well as they know how. But at least we know that at the district level, we have the best bureaucrats tax money can buy.

One thing there is no shortage of in middle school, at least, is obsessive micromanagement. There is, however, a dearth of competent micromanagement.

Take the lists they mailed to us before the start of school, specifying supplies that our children must have. Leading the list was the Texas Instruments 34II calculator. It had to be that model. Naturally, this datum had not been communicated to the local office-supply stores, so they were out. We have ordered it online.

But the real question is, why that model? Is this the only calculator in the world that has all the functions that the students will be required to use? Why not just tell us what functions the calculator should have, and let us buy what we prefer?

Apparently the school district mentality that all decisions must be made in a central location is now to apply to parents. Central planning worked so well for the Soviet Union all those years. And central planning did a splendid job of making sure those new schools they've been building would be competently engineered. By all means lets extend central planning to what parents are allowed to buy their children for school. Because each home with school-age children is just another unit of the school district, under their complete authority, right?

But that was just the first annoyance on the list. What I loved was the fact that the list we were mailed was far from identical with the lists we were given when we showed up for the open house a couple of days before the start of school.

Suddenly we discovered that the "blue, black, and red ink pens" we had been ordered to buy -- and had bought -- were no longer needed, because now what we needed were those crappy little erasable-ink pens -- you know, the smeary ones that don't really erase completely.

The #2 pencils they asked for in the mailed list -- which we had already bought -- suddenly became mechanical pencils. Why? So that kids wouldn't constantly be getting up to use the pencil sharpener. (Heaven forbid children should actually be permitted to walk about the classroom.)

At the open house we learned about items not on the list, like 3x5 cards and a dictionary-thesaurus. (We ended up getting a separate dictionary and thesaurus -- I hope our child won't be booted out of school for unauthorized purchasing.)

And why is it that we had to buy a separate 1.5-inch binder for every subject? While it's true that our child doesn't have to bring them home -- which is good, since the four of them completely fill her backpack-- she does have to clog up her tiny locker with this stuff. Plus, of course, the two classes that each required her to buy a 3- or 5-subject spiral notebook. Considering that each of those classes was a single subject, why did we have to buy separate multi-subject notebooks?

When I was in school, I was allowed to make my own decisions about how many notebooks I wanted. During my three-ring binder phase, I used subject dividers and carried a single notebook. Later, I used multi-subject spiral notebooks that I chose myself, and organized them as I chose.

I bought my own pens -- the brand I wanted, or my parents could afford -- and when I needed to make corrections, I did the civilized thing and neatly drew a line through words I was deleting. I didn't have to smear things up with erasable ink that makes every paper look ugly, whether you make mistakes or not.

In short, I -- and my parents -- were able to make our own choices, and you know what? I got a superb education, I got along well with my teachers, I never lacked for the supplies I needed, and my parents weren't treated like untrusted employees of the school district.

The crowning blow, however, was the teacher who insisted that his students had to have Pentel click erasers. Why? Because mechanical pencils always run out of eraser before they run out of lead. Isn't that nice of him? We couldn't provide our child with a standard handheld eraser. No, we had to get this brand. He said we could get at Office Depot. He was wrong -- they were out.

So we ordered it online. Thus a $4.49 item cost us $13.31, after tax and the "small order handling fee."

All to do a job that is better done by a small handheld rubber eraser you can buy for less than a buck.

Ironically, this requirement came from the same teacher who, during the open house, did not meet parents inside his room, but instead came out into the hall, thereby creating a huge clot in the traffic flow as parents had to stand around waiting for a chance to find out which inconvenient nonsensical piece of erasing machinery they had to buy to please him.

I'm sure every single one of these contradictory, expensive, and/or flat-out inferior decisions that were made on our behalf were well meant. But this is America, and in America we generally tell people what our purpose is and give them the freedom to decide how to accomplish it. At least now and then.

So are our schools becoming robot factories? Do they really think they have the right to force parents to become robots, too?

I look at my friends who home-school with increasing envy. Their kids learn far more, spending less of their day on schoolwork. And they don't have to go wait in a gym if they get to school early, where they are forced to stand near the edges and not cross the line to get out onto the courts.

I suppose that as the public schools have lost the ability to discipline kids in any meaningful way, they impose discipline in the few areas left to them. Precisely the areas, I might add, that make even hard-working, obedient students feel oppressed.

I know everybody's doing the best they can. I'm not really angry. I'm just frustrated by meaningless, time-wasting, money-wasting regulations -- especially from people who aren't accomplishing their core assignments. I'm also irritated by people who assume authority over adult citizens who are perfectly capable of making our own decisions -- especially when those decisions are nearly irrelevant to the actual teaching of the subject matter.

And just so you know, I wrote this column despite the heartfelt protests of my child. I hereby affirm that none of the opinions expressed here are hers. She absolutely loves all her teachers, agrees with all their recommendations, and approves of all the regulations at her school, so please do not hold her responsible for the wild-eyed, horrible things her father is saying. Except about the homework.

*

Recently I did a favor for somebody, and they wanted to do something nice in return. So I got home to find that my household was buzzing with delight at a gift basket from Edible Arrangements.

What was it? Fruits and fruit pieces on long toothpicks, stuck into a head of lettuce. Every part of it except the basket itself is edible. With melon wedges, strawberries, pineapples cut out to flower shapes, and grapes, it looked gorgeous.

And all the fruit was ripe and delicious -- first-rate quality all the way through. (Except that the head of lettuce was full of toothpick holes. But it would still have done the job on a hamburger.)

I believe in consumable gifts, and this is one of the best -- you get the visual delight, the delicious taste, a surprising quantity (we had to divide it among three households to get all the fruit eaten while it was still good!), and then it was gone, leaving only a good memory.

I had to check out the website so I could give the same gift to others from time to time. At http://www.ediblearrangements.com, you'll find accurate pictures of the arrangements, prices based on size, and the best store locator I've ever seen -- no long searches, you just look for the state you want, and with the state selected, the selection of stores is ready to pop right up. (They don't have them in Wyoming, Vermont, Arkansas, or the Dakotas, for instance, but you find out instantly because those states aren't on the list.) You can schedule deliveries right along with your online order.

This won't replace flowers as an appropriate gift, but it's an excellent alternative. Small flower arrangements are likely to be cheaper, but when you get up into the midrange of floral displays, Edible Arrangements are competitive.

*

There is no question that David Horowitz and Richard Poe, the authors of The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party, are foes of the people they write about. This book is couched as a warning.

But if you admire Hillary Clinton and subscribe to the whole Progressive agenda, then you could enjoy this book in the spirit of triumphalism -- look how clever our team was!

You may hate Horowitz's politics, but he's not a loon. His sources are real enough and he quotes and cites carefully. This is not like Hillary's wild-eyed accusation of the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Soros is spending his money very carefully to ensure that his agenda is the agenda of the Democratic Party, and he makes sure he gets the maximum bang for the buck.

So for me, a Democrat of the vanishing William Fulbright, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Joseph Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party, this book was excruciating.

It shows exactly how the wacko Left took over what was once the great American party.

There are a lot of political books out right now. Most of them range from silly to destructive. This is one of the real ones -- worth reading no matter which side you're on.

*

Need to buy a gift for a kid or grandkid in the just-learning-the-alphabet stage? Then I have the book for you -- a clever anti-alphabet book that will be a delight for the child who's sick of reciting the ABCs -- and for the parent who has had to endlessly read "A is for Aardvark eating Ants."

Alpha Oops: The Day Z Went First, by Alethea Kontis, with illustrations by Bob Kolar, is a hoot. It begins with "A is for app --" -- whereupon Z pipes up with a resounding "Stop!" Z, Y, X, and W insist on beginning the list.

Then out of nowhere comes P. When challenged, P says, "Oh, come on. Even if we go backwards, some of us are still stuck in the middle." "P is right," says N.

But some of the letters don't like any of the changes -- they want to stay where they've always been.

At the end of the confusion, when we finally get to A, there's been enough time to get a long list of A words.

As a paean to unpredictability, this book is a charmer. You don't want to use it to learn the alphabet, or your child's future as a file clerk will severely limited. But along with other alphabet books, it will come as a relief.


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