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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 6, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Babies, a Bakery, and Things Fall Apart

Years ago, we were visiting in Rotterdam, a great port city of the Netherlands, to attend a convention. The local museum had the most astonishing exhibit that was designed to show the full range of human life. Shoes were nailed up and down one wall; there were machines and clothing and all sorts of artifacts on display, inviting us to think about all the things that human beings do.

And there were human beings. Living people were serving as volunteers, sitting or standing or lying naked inside well-ventilated acrylic boxes, moving only now and then. As visitors to the museum, my wife and I found ourselves examining them as artifacts -- the veins on the hands, the faces, the shape of the bodies. These were not models, not perfect bodies by any means, but because they were on display in this fashion, they were fascinating and even beautiful.

There was one old man whose ribs and abdomen had been deformed by a serious injury -- perhaps a war wound, but just as possibly an industrial accident or a car crash. His face bore a look of infinite patience, and he spoke quietly in answer to some question asked, in Dutch, by a visitor. All of these display people were free to speak, but most visitors asked them nothing, said nothing to them; the acrylic barrier invited silence and contemplation.

I remembered that experience as I watched the simple and beautiful documentary film Babies (playing in one of the tiny art theaters at the Carousel). The French filmmakers visited four families on the verge of childbirth, in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and America, and filmed the life of the four babies from birth (though birth itself is not shown) to the point where they can walk and talk.

The families became familiar with the camera, apparently, for only rarely did any of them -- even the babies -- look at the lens. Instead, they seemed to be carrying on their normal lives. All the families were reasonably prosperous by local standards, though by no means wealthy. We saw no instances of hunger or suffering.

In the American and Japanese families, the father of the baby was occasionally on screen; in the Namibian and Mongolian families, almost never. This may reflect the reality of their lives -- fathers in the rural households played only the slightest of roles in the lives of infants.

There were no subtitles. We understood the words of the Americans because we speak English. The Mongolian, Japanese, and Namibian language remained untranslated.

The point was for audiences around the world to see infancy as if it were taking place inside an acrylic box, without commentary or explanation. And the result was often strange, sometimes funny, and always beautiful.

Was there a message beyond that? I think so. The filmmakers could have chosen a "normal" American family -- but they opted for a couple from San Francisco who seemed to be taking on the baby as a political project. They read books about child-rearing; they were almost obsessively attentive to and yet oddly detached from their child. It is unlikely that the filmmakers did not know how unusual this American family was, compared to the way most Americans live.

I suspect they chose as they did because a normal American family would seem quite ordinary to most of the people who would see this film. Instead, most American viewers will find the San Francisco culture almost as odd as the Namibian, while it's the Japanese couple who stand for "normality."

Every passage of the film was fascinating. I felt as if I had learned a book's worth of information about the cultures we were shown: how they dress their children, how the women form communities, how siblings relate to each other, the sometimes surprising levels of technology, the different foods, the relationship to animals and nature as a whole, what constitutes a toy.

But the biggest surprise was how similar they also were, and how, in the end, all the children, regardless of how much they were ignored, how fastidiously they were cared for, or how much the adults tried to teach them, ended up learning to crawl and stand and walk and speak on their own schedule. One could imagine that parenting mattered not at all, at least as far as acquiring these basic skills was concerned.

At the same time, I did not find myself wishing we had raised our own children more like any of the families we were shown.

There are some potentially disturbing images that make me suspect that parents will want to be careful about the ages of children they bring to this movie. I think most ten-year-olds and older children would be able to take what they see in stride, but you should be aware that among the Namibian women, breasts are always bare and the Mongolian mother squirts breast milk in her baby's face in order to wash his skin.

Baby penises, where present, are not concealed, and there is one sequence with the little Mongolian boy where males in the audience cringe in sympathetic pain -- a sort of "don't try this at home" moment.

What disturbed me most, though, was not human anatomy. It was the flies. Having been raised to try to keep insects away from myself, food, and babies, the fact that the Namibians are almost continually being walked on by flies and only rarely bother to brush them away made my skin crawl, as I imagined flies doing the same to me.

In this remarkably thin summer of movies (so far, anyway), Babies stands out as one of the very best. Even if you ordinarily would happily stand in line for hours not to have to watch a documentary, I urge you to make an exception and give yourself the experience of watching this film.

Even if it's just to watch the miracle of a cat so patient that (1) it can be dragged across the floor by a string, and (2) it allows a Mongolian baby to claw at its eyes without complaining.

*

A new bakery has opened up in Greensboro: Ollie's, located conveniently next door to Loco for Coco and just down from Chipotle Grill in the shopping center at 1420 Westover Terrace.

I say that it's convenient to have it next to Loco for Coco because the same sweet tooth that takes me to one will bring me back to the other as well. Ollie's has a good selection of what menues today tend to refer to as "artisanal breads," but I've learned that I prefer the great breads at Great Harvest to any of the bakery breads that offer thicker crusts and a rustic appearance.

So what's going to bring me back to Ollie's again and again are the sweets. We came home with three amazing tarts. They had small individual lemon tarts ringed with raspberries, and offered slices of strawberry and mixed-berry tarts with a plain cream base. I found them all to be similar in quality to pastries I've bought at Gelson's in southern California -- which is about as high as praise of a bakery can get.

The chocolate eclairs are the real thing, and my wife assures me that the chocolate brownie was lethally good. (It looked too rich for me, and so I passed it by.)

I will be going back, of course -- and I'll probably try the foccaccia, the brioche bread, and other staple breads as well as the desserts, because Ollie's is a first-rate bakery, and I don't want to miss anything. From breakfast time to picking up supper components on the way home from work, Ollie's opens at 7:00 a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on weekends, and closes at 6:00 p.m. every day but Friday, when they close at 6:30.

*

A Nigerian friend has long urged me to read Chinua Achebe's powerful novel Things Fall Apart, but I kept putting it off because I expected it to be both literary and anti-Western, both of which I regard as drawbacks when choosing something to read.

But after our sixteen-year-old reported that it was the best book she had ever been required to read in school, I took the audiobook out of my trunk, where I had been carrying it around for more than a year, and started listening to the CDs.

Peter Francis James does a very good job of performing the book, but I think it could have been read by a robot and I would have enjoyed it. Most of the book is the story of Okonkwo, a man whose ambition is to be one of the foremost leaders of his village in the Ibo region of Nigeria just at the time the English were first bringing Christianity and colonial government to that land.

Achebe does not seem to have a political agenda at all. He does not prettify the village life -- it can be cruel, and seen through western eyes the women and children seem to be lacking in rights and good treatment that we regard as rudimentary.

Yet Achebe immerses us so fully in the daily life -- superstitious, ritualistic, yet exuberant and largely happy -- that by the time white men arrive surprisingly late in the book, I found myself talking back to them. "Go away," I said. "They're doing fine without you."

Yet, in some ways, they were not. The Nigerian custom of killing twins, for instance, was an abomination, and the Christian rejection of that practice seems (in this book, at least) to be one of the reasons that some Nigerians embraced the new religion. Achebe makes no effort to defend such practices, and Okonkwo commits a murder that left me breathless with shock and grief.

Because of Achebe's dispassion, the book rises to the level of tragedy. We know that the English takeover of Nigeria will be both a disaster and a blessing to these people, as it turns the entire social order inside out. One thing we understand almost from the start, though, is that whatever others might do, Okonkwo cannot submit quietly to the destruction of the life he has built for himself.

What had kept me from reading this book for so long was the sense that it was a book that must be read dutifully. I was quite wrong. It is to be read with the same attitude that I had while I watched the documentary Babies: fascination, accompanied variously by admiration, revulsion, fear, and love.

Where Alexander McCall Smith's charming novels about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency give a strong sense of modern life in Botswana, it is Achebe's Things Fall Apart that gives us significant understanding of the African life that European colonialism put an end to.

Knowing that the English were the most benign of the colonialist powers (compared, for instance, to the atrocities of the Belgians in the Congo) does not change the fact that they came to judge and then destroy a culture they did not understand. It happened that the imperialists were Christian, and so it is Christianity that is the primary replacement offered for the native culture; but the religion of Communism or contemporary political correctness would not have been even slightly more tolerant of the village beliefs and practices.

What I loved best, however, was not the confrontation between cultures at the end. This book achieves greatness because of all that goes before: our immersion in another way of life.

*

For those of you who care about fictional storytelling -- whether in books, movies, audio recordings, or television -- I recommend highly "The Pleasures of Imagination," a brilliant essay by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale. He tackles a question that until now I thought only I had addressed seriously: The role of fictional storytelling in human cultures. His proposals have the ring of truth to me.

You can read his essay here.


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