Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 21, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Christmas, Plays, Bailouts
Something extraordinary happened to me today. Somebody actually asked me
for my opinion.
You have to understand how rare this is. Because I have so many chances to
sound off about -- well, about everything -- it's not as if there's an opinion
shortage anywhere near me.
I don't look at strangers and think, "Wow, I bet those people need my opinion.
Look at them. Clearly they don't have any opinions of their own. Or at least
not as good as the opinions I happen to have with me. And since I have more
than I actually need, I think I'll share."
Though, come to think of it, that generous attitude would be in keeping with
When someone asked me today, "When are you going to write about the
bailouts?" it's possible that they were being generous and giving a gift to me.
Maybe they were thinking, "Look at that poor man. He's got so many
unexpressed opinions he's bloating! I'll ask him for one, and relieve the
Anyway, later on in this column I'm going to provide the hushed and waiting
world with a mini-WorldWatch. In the meantime, though, this is a review
column, and here are some reviews of ... basically, Christmas 2008.
Best new trend: Saying "Merry Christmas" again.
For the first forty years of my life, saying "merry Christmas" was as natural a
greeting as "Hi there." Well, at least after Thanksgiving. In October or January
it marked you as eccentric; in May, certifiable.
But during the 90s and the first few zips (zip-one, zip-two, etc.), the words
"merry" and "Christmas" became rarer and rarer -- replaced by the generically
inoffensive "happy holidays."
Now that you can say in February. Or June (looking forward to Flag Day and
I suppose the idea is that what if you accidentally said "merry Christmas" to a
Jew or a Muslim or a (shudder) atheist. Heaven forbid you should commit
such a heinous offense.
Only ... what possible offense could any sane person take, regardless of their
own beliefs? The name of the holiday is Christmas. Everybody gets that day off
work because it's Christmas. That's the day you're hoping is a merry one for
them. Who can object to experiencing merriment on Christmas?
My Jewish friends all know what country they live in, and they divide
themselves into Christmas-card-sending Jews, holiday-greetings-sending Jews,
and please-don't-send-me-a-card-I-don't-like-them Jews.
But they are unfailingly polite about it, and they tend to be forgiving of
Christians who smile and say "merry Christmas" because, as a Jewish friend
once said to me, it's so much better than having the Christians mutter "Christ-killer" under their breath as they pass.
We Americans don't even pronounce the name of Christ -- it long since became
"kris." Nor do we specify how other people should obtain their merriment.
It's not as if we say, "As you think about the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, and all
those slaughtered babies that were left behind for Herod's soldiers to kill after
Jesus and his folks got away, and even though these events almost certainly
have nothing to do with the 25th of December, have a merry day."
Or maybe, "As you drink yourself to oblivion in a dark saloon with atheists and
unfaithful husbands who got kicked out of the house because of what
happened at the office Christmas party, loathing everyone around you who
believes in either God or Santa Claus, try to be merry."
I mean, what does anybody think "merry Christmas" means, except that most
Americans give each other gifts on Christmas, and the reason we're greeting
each other is because we are on our way to, are in the process of, or are on our
way back from buying gifts, while surrounded by decorations?
Christmas drives the whole American retail economy. When we wish each
other "merry Christmas," we're saying, "Hey, I'm spending whatever money I
can on presents and cards and treats for people I love or like or do business
with, and I hope you can get all your stuff done before Christmas morning, and
may your kids be happy and maybe even grateful, so that it feels like it was all
Of course, now someone will probably be offended that I assume that other
people have kids. But in this case, I knew the person had kids because they
were hanging from her skirt whining, "Can't we go home?" and "Santa's beard
Anyway. This year, I've noticed a lot more people saying "merry Christmas"
than in the past few years. It's not that they've grown insensitive to the tender
feelings of unbelievers. I think they finally realized, "What about my feelings?"
I think after hearing about that stupid, selfish, hostile anti-Christian sign near
the nativity scene in Washington state, a lot of people are feeling just a little
Yeah, I know, defiance isn't exactly the Christmas spirit. But it is the American
spirit. ("Don't tread on me!") If people are going to put up signs attacking
Christians for daring to publicly express the icons of Christmas, then you
might as well give up trying not to give offense, and go back to wishing people a
merry Christmas and letting them sort themselves into the cheery and the
So ... merry Christmas! And God bless us every one! (I know. With that last
one, actually saying "God," I know I went too far. Sorry.)
Worst New Christmas Feature: Sticky Wrapping Paper.
I'm still trying to figure out what terrible problem Hallmark was trying to solve.
Was it getting too easy to wrap gifts? Too easy to get the gift wrap off the
packages and thrown away?
Anyway, I didn't look closely at the tubes of gift wrap, I just chose the designs I
liked. It was only when I actually started using the paper to wrap gifts that I
had an unpleasant surprise.
And no, I don't mean the normal unpleasant surprise of finding that there isn't
enough ribbon on the spool to wrap a single large present (and I don't mean as
large as a car, I mean as large as a DVD player). How can we even call that a
No, I mean the nasty surprise of finding that you can't get the paper to unspool
from the roll. You have to use your fingernail to pry up the corner of the paper,
and then as you start to pull, it keeps tearing at the stress point, so that when
you finally get the whole sheet unwinding, the end of it is ragged.
Not that it's sticky like adhesive tape -- but it's a little stickier than Post-It
With regular unsticky paper, it's easy to roll out the wrap and set the present
on top of it. But not with the sticky paper. It still wants to roll back up, like
any other paper -- but when it does, it sticks to itself and has to be carefully
Even when you've got all four corners weighted down, you have to be very
careful about where you place the item you're wrapping. And then be very
careful about bringing the paper up the sides to meet on top.
With regular paper, you can pull it into place and then pull to tighten it. But
with this stuff, the stickiness causes so much friction that if you pull to tighten
it against the package, you're likely to tear the paper. So you have to hold the
paper out away from the box and then bring it up into place in one smooth
It can be done, but it's a bother, and the slightest mistake leaves a bubble or
Then, when your victim recipient unwraps the present, she can't just tear the
paper open -- because the paper is now inseparably bonded to the box.
There's no flurry of paper getting tossed aside. It's more like peeling a label to
get that stuff off.
And when you try to throw it away, make sure you wad it up with the gluey
side in, because otherwise it will stick to the sides of the garbage bag.
Imagine playing basketball with a ball that sticks to the floor every time you
bounce it. That's what working with this paper is like.
Here's my guess: Everybody who bought any of this stuff hates it. And by two
Christmases from now -- or maybe, with any luck, next Christmas -- it will be
gone for good.
But there'll probably still be fragments of this year's sticky paper clinging to me
and various household surfaces.
Uncle Orson's Favorite New Christmas Album
If I tell you the name of my favorite new Christmas album is A Very Rosie
Christmas, what's your first thought? An album by Roseanne Barr, or an
album by Rosie O'Donnell?
A joke or a nightmare -- take your pick.
It happens, though, that A Very Rosie Christmas was record by quirky folk-singer Rosie Thomas, and I'm guessing most of you haven't heard of her.
(If you have heard of her, don't write to me about it. Tell your friends until
everybody's heard of her.)
The album isn't perfect -- the last two tracks will only bring pleasure to people
who are actually related to Rosie Thomas, or drunk.
The only officially new but also good song on the album is the second cut: "Why
Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?" It's a cheery, mildly insane song that
reminded me of Jane Siberry's "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog." I find
myself singing along on the "Yoo-hoo!" and "We do!" choruses.
All the rest of the album, though, consists of down-tempo, reimagined
interpretations of old standards. Thomas keeps the rhythms of the original,
but replaces the melody with something of her own devising. It makes me hear
the songs afresh. Even find new meanings in them.
Nowhere is this clearer than when she sings a melancholy, reflective version of
the Chipmunks' first hit, "Christmas Don't Be Late." What was, sung by the
Chipmunks, an ode to greed becomes something surprisingly tender, especially
when she adds a couple of new verses that I assume she wrote for this album.
So even though the album cover looks silly and the last two tracks really are
silly -- like watching a stranger's untalented children clown around, interesting
for about two seconds -- this became my favorite new Christmas album to
listen to again and again.
The only other album that came close was Mary's Lullaby: Christmas Songs for
Bedtime, in which every track is a wonderful lowkey downtempo performance
that can be quite moving.
This surprised me because when I reviewed Christmas albums a while ago, I
thought my favorite would end up being Mary Chapin Carpenter's. But no -- it
was Mary's Lullaby and A Very Rosie Christmas that I listen to over and over.
A new Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors ice cream store in the shopping center at
Elm Street and Pisgah Church.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there is now a Baskin-Robbins within walking distance of my house.
On the other hand, what's the point of getting exercise if you're going to get ice
cream halfway through the walk?
On the other hand, it's now only a five-minute round trip to pick up first-rate
ice cream for company.
The real question, of course, is what this will do to the old 31 Flavors on
Battleground across the parking lot from Anton's?
(I almost gave true Greensboro directions: "The old 31 Flavors near where the
Janus used to be." I used to tease Greensboro natives for giving directions that
way, using no-longer-existent landmarks, but now after living here for 26 years
I'm doing it myself.)
Will having two 31 Flavors stores, both in the eastern part of town, divide the
market for first-rate ice cream parlors?
I remember that once there were three Baskin-Robbinses, a Haagen-Dasz, a
Blue Ridge Ice Cream store (like Coldstone, before Coldstone came here), and
the Gutman family's wonderful old Swenson's, which was the only full-fledged
ice cream parlor in town. Not to mention several other shops whose names I've
forgotten but I can still point to where they used to be.
Now there are several Coldstones and two 31 Flavors stores and I wonder what
happened. Have most people forgotten how to value good ice cream?
I hope that what happens is that the new 31 Flavors brings in new customers
who didn't want to drive so darn far for great ice cream, while leaving plenty of
customers for the older store on Battleground.
But with my luck (and yes, when it comes to ice cream, it's all about me), both
stores will try to divide a shrinking market and go out of business and then I'll
be stuck eating organic ice cream sandwiches and fudge bars from Earth Fare.
Which, come to think of it, ain't so bad.
What's the point of reviewing a play that already closed? It's like saying,
Nanner nanner, I saw it and you didn't.
For instance, I heard from several people that Greensboro Day School's
production of Les Miserables was brilliant. But it came and went during a time
when I simply couldn't go see it. My loss. And nanner-nanner on me.
But I did get a chance to see the Weaver Academy production of See How They
Run. This mistaken-identity many-doors farce was first produced in England
during World War II, so the "menace" was an escaped German POW. For the
American production in the early fifties, the escapee became a Russian spy.
It hardly matters. The whole point is that nobody quite knows what's going on,
but the audience most definitely chooses up sides. The Weaver production,
directed by Diane Rogers, was a delight -- starting with the set, which was the
most elaborate and effective one I've ever seen on the Weaver stage.
Most of the cast did a delightful job, but I have to single out Chappell Hartsell's
hilarious performance as the busybody who has a thing for the vicar of the
parish and Samantha Matson as Ida, the delightfully earthy maid. Zac Messick
as the much-put-upon vicar, Katie Swofford as his wife, and above all
Nathaniel Swofford as the handsome leading man who somehow loses his
military uniform -- all had many very funny moments.
What's my point? To make you feel bad for missing it?
No -- the encourage you to take the opportunity to see high school theatre
It's not as slick as Broadway and off-Broadway -- but I have to say, I've seen
absolutely wretched New York and London productions, along with some good
ones, and what I saw at Weaver Academy was way better than a lot of
The high school plays have several advantages: They're cheap. The actors are
eager to please -- they aren't just going through the motions for the two
(I once saw Bernadette Peters phone in a performance in the title role of Annie
Get Your Gun and I was downright resentful. I had certainly been charged as
much as if she were actually paying attention; I found myself wishing she'd
sprain her ankle and we could see the understudy finish the part, since the
understudy would at least be alert.)
Of course, a lot depends on the choice of script. If Greensboro Day School, for
instance, hadn't had some fantastic singers, then Les Miz, whose music is both
difficult to sing and vast in quantity, would have been a terrible choice for
them. And a lot of high school plays tend to be melodramas that give student
actors an excuse to take long dramatic pauses before they ham their way
through their lines.
Of course, that's what New York and London actors do with similar scripts --
the problem is the script, not the actors.
See How They Run is a little-known play, but it was a spot-on choice for a high
school cast, especially with a good director.
Remember that the great stars of five or ten years from now are acting in high
school plays somewhere -- why not here? For less than ten bucks a ticket, you
get to see them while they're still learning their craft.
By the way, one of the things that often plagues inexperienced actors in a
comedy is that the audience laughter takes them by surprise. It's a natural
human tendency that when we hear a lot of people laughing, we start to smile
or laugh ourselves, even if we don't get the joke.
Well, that's not a good thing when you're acting on the stage, they're laughing
at your character's antics, and the character is not supposed to be laughing.
When you clamp down and try to force your face not to smile or smirk, it
doesn't work. That's because the tighter you hold your muscles, the less
relaxed your face is and the more likely you are to burst out in audible
The secret is to relax your center line -- most especially your stomach muscles.
You can't laugh or even, really, smile if your stomach is relaxed. You have to
practice this so that your reflexes don't take over and tighten those muscles
against your will.
This is going to be short and sweet.
The first bailout -- hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up American banks
and mortgage holders -- was absolutely essential. The rash of foreclosures on
inappropriate loans was caused by stupid decisions -- most of them well-intentioned but all of them foreseeably disastrous -- but when a bank-run-style panic starts in America, the economy of the whole world depends on quick
and decisive action to restore faith in the credit of the American financial
In effect, the government (temporarily, I hope) nationalized a lot of banks -- but
the government was actually buying something which, because it was bought,
is now much more likely to retain its value. As with the savings-and-loan
bailout of two decades ago, we may actually make a profit from the rescue.
In other words, this wasn't money down the toilet. This was saving our
And when I hear people say that it makes them mad for us to have to bail out
the fat-cat executives who made these stupid decisions, I have a simple
answer: We weren't bailing them out, we were bailing out -- or plugging the
leaks in -- the boat that we're all floating in.
If we hadn't done that bailout, it would have cost us all far more than the
money we fronted, and could have been, economically speaking, the end of the
world as we know it. No exaggeration.
Besides, the execs were not solely to blame. As with the savings-and-loan
debacle, the government changed the rules for reasons that seemed good at the
time, the execs played by those new rules, and the result was disaster.
What we need is for government institutions to be fiscally conservative and not
change, for political reasons, rules that have been proven to work.
The auto company bailout is a completely different situation. Here, the
American car companies are paying for union contracts made years ago --
remember, the car companies deal with a union that had a closed-shop
monopoly on car-making labor for many years.
Those union contracts add a couple of thousand to the cost of every American
car -- or, in other words, when you choose between a Toyota and a Chevy with
the same asking price, the American car is $2,000 crappier than the Japanese
At the same time, the auto companies have bloated up with middle and top
management that is paid to be stupid. Innovation is virtually nonexistent
because there are simply too many layers of approvals from people afraid to
commit to anything new -- the same reason Hollywood turns out so many bad
And the choice isn't between bailing them out or having the American auto
industry disappear and throw everybody out of work. No, the only way the
creditors can be repaid is if the auto companies keep making cars -- but better
ones that cost less to make and are more worth buying.
That means that the bailout that's needed is a chapter 11 bankruptcy and not
a dime from the government until after the courts have given the car
companies relief and then force them to strip down their management and
renegotiate all their union deals, including the pensions.
If you don't believe me, listen to Mitt Romney, the guy who made a few billion
dollars by saving bankrupt companies and making them function again.
The financial bailout saved the world -- and may turn out to make a profit for
us all. A good investment.
Auto company bailout? Bad idea, if it leaves the same management and union
contracts in place. With a government bailout, we're forced to pay them to
make cars we don't want to buy. They should get our money only when they
make better cars and we voluntarily buy them.