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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 8, 2008

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


Bad Map, Singer-Dancer, Big Bang

Even when you've lived in the same city for twenty-five years, sometimes you still need a map.

There's an obscure street that you need to find; you want to determine the shortest route between two points; you need to give directions to a visitor and "turn left where that hot-tub place used to be" is just not going to cut it.

I had a friend who needed a map to get around Greensboro and I tried a couple of them. Since he was going to be on a motor scooter, I figured he needed one of those plasticized maps that keep their shape and don't dissolve in rain or sweat.

The first one I found for him, however, turned out to be useless. It should have called itself "map of places in Greensboro where you don't need to go." Neither the place he's living nor the most common place he needed to go were on the map!

Then, in Target, I saw the 2005 edition of the "EasyFinder" map of Greensboro by Rand McNally. It had everything -- it was plastic, it included all the parts of the city we needed it to include, and even though it didn't have the new freeway interchange near the airport, it had all the other recent changes.

Then, when we got it home, I looked it over a bit more carefully than I had in the store.

I'm about to say some obvious things, if you live in Greensboro. Bear with me.

Elm Street is one of the main north-south streets in our fair city. The east-west numbering system is centered on Elm.

Now, Elm has been badly treated by city planners -- at the south end, when Eugene Street jogs east and merges with Elm, Elm simply disappears and the Eugene Street name goes on south -- even though it merely continues the Elm Street line.

And in the north, even though Elm was extended past Pisgah Church Road, it veers west and the name disappears at the interchange with Lake Jeanette and Bass Chapel roads.

Still, as long as it lasts, Elm Street is the "main drag" of Greensboro, four lanes most of the way -- it's one of the major streets of this part of the city.

Plus, I live a few blocks away and use it all the time, and when I give directions to people who are coming to visit us, those directions almost always involve getting on Elm Street from Cone or Pisgah Church.

What if that visitor happened to pick up the Rand McNally EasyFinder map of Greensboro? It would be the sensible thing to do, wouldn't you think? Rand McNally is the leading American map company, isn't it? Of course that's the map you'd get.

Would that visitor be able to follow my directions based on Elm Street?

'Fraid not.

For some reason, in the Rand McNally map, Elm Street -- a four-lane -- is drawn with a very thin grey line, so that it looks like an ordinary side street and is very hard to follow. Yanceyville and Church, which are two-lane roads north of Pisgah Church Road, are still drawn with a double red line. But Elm? It's almost invisible.

And here's the really hilarious thing. It's also not called Elm.

That's right. Downtown, in tiny jammed-in letters, it is called "N. Elm," but the next time the name occurs, just south of Cone Blvd., it's called "Fountain Manor Dr."

Fountain Manor? Where did that come from?

It happens that Fountain Manor Drive is a twisty little road that meets Elm just across from Kimberly Drive, and after corkscrewing around a pond turns into Shannon Drive and joins onto Golden Gate.

Somehow, though, in faraway Rand McNally Land, somebody messed up the computer program and put the Fountain Manor label on both the real Fountain Manor and Elm Street. The Fountain Manor label appears again on Elm just north of Pisgah Church.

So if you were looking on the map along Cone or Pisgah Church for the place where Elm Street crosses them, you would never find it.

Someone needs to tell Rand McNally about proofreading.

And before you call in to the beep or write a snotty letter pointing out that there are plenty of typographical errors in this newspaper and, most particularly, in my column, I will explain the difference:

This paper is published under a tight deadline. My column is proofread by several people, and lots of typos are caught and fixed. But there isn't time for truly meticulous proofing, and some errors creep through. I was a professional proofreader at a university press for a while and even though we double-proofed everything, we knew that perfection was nearly impossible.

For instance, when you catch a mistake and fix it, your brain's "noticing" function shuts down for about the next three lines of text. So if there's another mistake immediately after the one you fixed, you almost certainly will miss it.

Also, in the process of fixing a mistake it's easy to introduce a new error; and since you just finished the proofreading, your new mistake won't get caught.

But in newspapers, it's part of the life. Errors get through. You try to do better in the next edition; you move on.

It rarely matters, because typographical errors are not a life-and-death matter in a newspaper. If readers run into a mistake, they can almost always figure out how it was supposed to be. Understanding is still achieved.

Maps are different. People follow them. They either make it to their destination or not, based on the accuracy and legibility of the map.

So when you take the main north-south street of a city and draw it with a very fine line like a minor residential side street, and then give it the wrong name for most of its length, it can cause real problems for travelers who are relying on it.

If you pick up this paper -- paying nothing for it -- and find a couple of typos, it's not going to make you late or keep you from arriving anywhere.

But if you pay eight bucks for the Rand McNally EasyFinder map of Greensboro, North Carolina, you will not find Elm Street -- unless you already know where it's supposed to be.

*

Julianne Hough has done what few have ever managed to do: excelled, simultaneously, in two professions.

We've watched her win back-to-back championships on Dancing with the Stars, taking both Apolo Anton Ohno and Helio Castroneves to the top -- this despite being the youngest professional on the show. (This year she tried her best with the appalling Adam Carolla, but nobody said she could work miracles!)

On May 20th of this year, she debuted her first album as a country singer -- and immediately hit number one on the country chart (and number three on the overall Billboard list).

What? Ballroom dancing and country singing? On what planet are those two related?

Plus she's pretty. And nice. Don't you just hate that?

Here's the thing -- she deserves it. This isn't just a celebrity stunt -- "Look, Marge, that purty dancer girl has an album here in WalMart, let's buy it!" -- it's a real honest-to-goodness country album.

Maybe not one of the great ones, but close. I compare it to Lacy J. Dalton's unforgettable Survivor album, and while Hough's voice doesn't sound like someone who's seen it all, she still sings some hard-hitting tunes convincingly.

She has an agenda. Despite her youth, she's been down the road, made some mistakes, and the songs here reflect that. She didn't write any of them, but she chose them well to get her message across: "Don't make these dumb mistakes!"

Still, it's not a negative album. It's full of hope. And as a singer, she's got the chops.

Usually when a person who has succeeded in one area crosses over and records an album, it's a stinker. One thinks of Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy -- and shudders. Or the weird experience of hearing Leonard Nimoy sing "Proud Mary." (Let's just say that Tina Turner and Creedence Clearwater did not feel threatened).

But Julianne Hough's album is the real thing. The songwriters are very glad she introduced their tune on her album -- she does them proud.

And the kid can dance, too.

*

Sad news for Carly Simon fans. Her new album, This Kind of Love, has great songs on it -- that's not the sad part. She's still a songwriter of real talent.

But she's aging, and her voice -- never one of the great diva instruments to begin with -- isn't up to the job anymore. She reaches for notes that aren't there; she tries to sustain notes and wavers. She sounds, in short, like an old lady -- which is weird because she's really not that old.

Dolly Parton is going through the same thing -- it's a bit painful to listen to her, too, sometimes. Singers have to recognize that, like athletes, they're depending on a physical instrument that eventually wears out and can't do it anymore.

Simon and Parton are both talented songwriters -- both have written and continue to write great songs. But for someone else's voice now, please. Let us remember your singing from the days when you were great.

*

Good news for Donny Osmond fans: His new album, From Donny ... with Love shows that his voice is sweeter than ever. Of course, he's younger than Parton and Simon -- and, because the world is so unfair, men's voices usually last a bit longer than women's.

This is mostly an album of covers -- "Twelfth of Never," "This Guy's in Love with You," "You Are So Beautiful," "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "When I Fall in Love." With eighteen songs on the CD, you can't say he didn't work hard.

The trouble is that he still, after all these years, is just a bit too reliant on pop-vocal tricks. He's at his best when he's singing with only a little decoration, just letting the words and the melody do the work; that's when it feels like he's singing from the heart.

But it's still a pleasure to hear him sing. And it's nice to see someone who grew up in the public eye whose life hasn't gone down the toilet. Somehow being a child star is supposed to excuse miserable behavior for the rest of your life -- but nobody told Donny Osmond that, so he's actually lived his life as a mensch. I don't know anybody who knows Donny Osmond who doesn't like him and think he really is as nice -- as good -- a human being as he seems to be.

Kind of like David Archuleta, another Mormon kid with a pop voice. Hey, Archuleta, you could do worse than follow Donny Osmond's life path.

*

A friend of ours practically threatened us with bodily harm (or at least public scorn) if we didn't watch The Big Bang Theory. "Funniest show on television," he said. "Maybe ever," he said.

We honestly had never even heard of it. And the premise wasn't promising: Four nerdy guys are roommates, living across the hall from a full-fledged babe (Kaley Cuoco) who also happens to be really nice ... but also really easy, as long as you're not a nerd.

The show is as relentlessly about sex as that other Chuck Lorre production, Two and a Half Men.  We loved that show for the first couple of seasons, but eventually Lorre seemed to run out of funny and just went for dirty every time.

So far that hasn't happened with Big Bang Theory. But what really works for me is how dead-on accurate this show is.

See, I know these guys. They come to the sci-fi conventions where I speak. And some aspects of their life are me and my friends. OK, they don't sing and dance in public the way my friends and I did -- they're intellectual geeks, not theatre geeks. But the complete disconnect between their world and the "normal" one, the mixture of disdain and envy with which they view normality, and their unwillingness or inability to conform to the often-shallow standards of popular anything -- it's at once sad and admirable, funny and sweet.

Within their strange (to the girl across the hall) world, though, they have all the normal range of human feeling. Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, The "normal" one -- the one who aspires to sleep with Penny-across-the-hall -- provides us with the kind of embarrassed-for-him perspective that we get with Jon Cryer in Men.

But the heart of the series is uberbrain Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons. Most of the time when actors play someone really smart, they blow it completely. Why? Because they're not smart enough to play smart. It's like the old joke: "I think, 'What would a smart person do,' and then I do that." It just doesn't work.

So my guess is that Jim Parsons really is very, very smart. Or at least he's spent years closely observing people who are. Because he nails the part. The arrogance, the obliviousness to other people's feelings, the bombastic-yet-fragile ego, the assumption that the world should order itself to please him -- I know this guy. I even like this guy -- because once you know what to expect from him, he doesn't depart from it.

The weak spots in the show are the ever-randy weenie, Howard (Simon Helberg), and the Indian guy who can't talk when a woman is present, Rajnesh (Kunal Nayyar). These are throwaway characters that Lorre himself treats with contempt when he writes the scripts.

Admittedly, Howard is sometimes funny (in large part because Helberg is such an eager, endearing performer).

But neither Lorre as writer nor Nayyar as actor have the faintest idea of what to do with Rajnesh. A character who can't talk when a woman is present -- that's funny, like, once: in the room when you're pitching the series, and never on the screen. He's a placeholder, and what can an actor do with that? The answer is -- nothing, because the writer does nothing with him. My prediction? New roommate needed!

And here's the roommate they need: A constantly open slot with people who move in, don't work out, and move out.

One of these transient roommates should be Sheldon's or Simon's little brother who happens to be a shy studmuffin that Penny absolutely falls for. But he never realizes it and moves out again after about a half dozen inspired episodes.

But Lorre doesn't check with me for advice about how to "fix" a hit show. Nobody does, in fact, so it's not as if he gets any particular points for completely ignoring my ideas. Yet I continue to offer them, because hope springs eternal.

Terrific, funny show, though often in bad enough taste that some viewers will be offended. Including, sometimes, me -- but not so offended I don't keep watching.


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