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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 7, 2015

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


Adaline, Red Queen, Community Garden

Studios invariably promote films using the biggest star as the draw. That's why Harrison Ford's name is so prominent in the promotion of The Age of Adaline. This is not really a cheat -- his role is very important. It just doesn't show up until very near the end.

When Harrison Ford finally appears in The Age of Adaline, he does a wonderful job of bringing the storyline to a fitting conclusion.

Along the way, it's the other actors who carry a surprisingly compelling story. First, Blake Lively, in the title role, spends the early portion of the movie essentially alone, playing the role of a 29-year-old woman who, because of a freak accident, stops aging. She has to deal with the grief and loneliness of watching everybody she loves age past her and die, and finally withdraws from life almost entirely.

She works as an archivist in a library, keeping her eyes always on the past; her one close friend is blind, and so has no idea that Adaline still looks 29 years old. Her daughter (played by Ellen Burstyn) has aged so much that she looks like Adaline's grandmother, and she's considering moving into a retirement community.

But then she's spotted by Ellis Jones, played by the versatile Michiel Huisman. We fans of Game of Thrones know him well as the enigmatic Daario Naharis; but we come to see a very different kind of man in Age of Adaline. He's so persistent and charming in his pursuit of Adaline that he wins his way past her protective barriers.

The conceit of a woman who doesn't age is given a veneer of believability by invoking "future science"; it therefore doesn't seem like magic. And the movie gives us a strong experience of what such a life would be like. Wisely, the writers (J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz) did not make us go through the intense experience of all the human deaths she must have witnessed. Instead, they bring home her grief and loss through the aging dog that is her closest companion.

When Harrison Ford appears, it's as an old man who once befriended her and even meant to marry her, when she ditched him back in the 1960s. It was because of her love for and cruelty to him that she withdrew from any kind of romantic entanglement. So it is beyond awkward to run into him now.

The writers are gentle with Ford's character and especially with his wife (Kathy Baker), the woman he ended up marrying and spending his life with. Baker makes the most of her few scenes, for she sees at once that her husband's heart had once belonged to someone else; there is a lovely scene in which Ford affirms his love for the woman who has shared his life, rather than the one who remained a memory and a dream.

In fact, this film is kind to all its characters -- there are no villains in it. Instead, these actors-turned-writers have created a whole slew of characters that must have been a delight to play.

Sentimental? Well, what else could it be, given its theme? But even though the storyline seems to promise tragedy, it leaves us with a sense of hope and fulfilment.

My wife and I went to see The Age of Adaline specifically because it was not a comic book movie. Far from the Madding Crowd would have been our first choice, but it wasn't playing in Greensboro yet. Still, we wanted to see something aimed at grownups, and we won the night, I think.

The Age of Adaline was an experience that we didn't want to let go of; it made us want to follow up with all the actors, because they made us care. It's a movie that we're going to watch again. We may even go back while it's still in the theater. It's that good.

*

I first ran across "The Sparkling Alternative" juice drinks at a little health food store in Lexington, Virginia, called Cool Spring Organics (a great little store, by the way, in a town where the best grocery store has lately been WalMart).

"The Sparkling Alternative" is, alas, such a generic, nondescript name that when you try to google it, you end up looking at Martinelli's - which might be fine, but it's not this product.

Because, I have to say, when the bottle tells you it contains Sparkling Apple, it absolutely tastes like good apple juice ... and it's sparkling. Sparkling Apple Cinnamon? Amazing. Delicious. Not over-flavored, so it never cloys. It has staying power.

But ... where do you find this little regional soft drink that's bottled in Linden, VA (a town just about as obscure as Lindon UT). Well, what do you expect? Amazon.com, that's where.

You know, Amazon is trying hard to be the universal department store, and they're doing quite well at it. I just wish they didn't have to engage in industry-destroying monopolistic practices in the book trade while they're at it.

And, in fact, they don't have to. They just want to.

Meanwhile, though, I just realized -- Google took me to Amazon, but Amazon only had a notice saying that Sparkling Alternative drinks are not yet available, would I like to sign up to be notified when they are.

I signed up. Beyond that, I don't know what else to tell you. Depending on where you live, it might be worth the drive to Cool Spring Organics, since it's right off the exit from I-64 onto Virginia Highway 11 -- the first exit after I-64 splits from I-81 heading west. Then you turn left over I-64 and turn right at the light on Greenhouse Rd., and then almost immediately into the Cool Spring parking lot.

Or you can wait for Amazon.

Or you can take my word for it that somewhere there exists the best sparkling apple juice I've ever had ... made by a company too lazy or inexperienced to put up their own website so people can at least find out more about where to buy the stuff.

The bottling company is called Alpenglow, and apparently they've had a sparkling cider since 1979. It's the sparkling juices that are new. I learned this from the SVB Food and Beverage Co. website at http://www.svbfoods.com/#!beverages/c1kvi . But you can't buy it from them, either.

*

There are several books in print right now with the title Red Queen, but I want to tell you about the one by Victoria Aveyard (read on audio by Amanda Dolan).

Before I tell you about the story, though, a few general comments. First, it's a Young Adult (YA) fantasy novel. Nowadays that usually signals some kind of dystopian version of Earth. So I'm happy to tell you that while not all things are going well in this imaginary kingdom, this is not a Hunger Games ripoff.

Instead, it's a traditional fantasy novel, with some clean YA style romance in it. In fact, these days if you want old-fashioned romance, you usually end up looking among the best of the YA novels ... because the regular Romance genre is now a branch of pornography.

Not kidding -- in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly, the genre is now called Romance/Erotica. These are no longer "bodice-rippers." The bodice comes apart like kleenex these days.

But in YA, the heroine can even be betrothed to one son of the king and queen, and in love with the other, and the most that happens is a couple of kisses, and that's fine. It allows the story to be about something more than sex -- and this one was worth reading.

However, I must warn you: It's written in present tense.

My writing students know my full hatred of present-tense narrative in English, where the past tense is our means of speaking truthfully. Present-tense is for jokes and anecdotes, and reading a whole novel, let alone a trilogy, in that awkward tense is often painful.

But I also tell my students that if the story is good enough, it can overcome many mistakes, even big bad ones, in the manner of telling. That is certainly the case this time. While the book would have been much better in past tense, and would have lost nothing at all with the change, poor author Victoria Aveyard is probably a victim of some college creative writing program, where they sustain each other in the delusion that present tense is the cool way to write. They're wrong, but then, they're wrong about almost everything else they teach, and we can hardly hold their graduates responsible for believing what Actual Professors told them.

So now let me give you a glimpse of the storyline. Mare Barrow lives in a land where the human race has divided into two groups: normal people with red blood, and the silver-blooded elite who have various kinds of magical power.

Because of their "superiority," the Silvers have an iron grip on political power. But as they fight a century-old war, they conscript Reds to be their cannon-fodder soldiers. When you turn 18, if you don't have a paying job, you get conscripted.

And in the sagging economy, few Reds can find a job. Mare's little sister is good with some fancy needlework -- her safety is assured -- but Mare herself only has the skill of picking pockets and shoplifting. Hard to parlay that into a job that will help her stay out of the army.

Then things start going wrong for her family, and Mare is rescued by a kind stranger who arranges for her to get a menial job in the royal palace. Only this kind stranger turns out to be the son of the king, wandering about among the common people in order to get some idea of their lives. And Mare reaches the palace just in time for the ritual of choosing brides for the royal heirs.

That's when an accident -- no, a disaster -- causes Mare to publicly manifest a magical gift that is more powerful than all but a handful of Silvers'. She's as shocked as anybody -- literally, since the power involves electricity.

The royal family immediately take control of the situation by putting out the story that she was an orphaned Silver (not true; she's still as Red as ever, something that will be revealed if she is ever wounded in public), and then betrothing her to the younger son of the royal family.

Meanwhile, she has also come to know some of the leaders of the Scarlet Guard, a revolutionary group trying to break the Silvers' monopoly on power. That's where Mare's sympathies lie. But sympathy doesn't matter when you live in a court where everybody betrays everybody, and there are people who can see into your mind ... or immobilize you with a thought.

I didn't expect to enjoy this novel as much as I did: I found myself looking for excuses to run errands or exercise just so I could keep listening to the book. It's a very good narration, for those who like to have a professional read books to them; but I think it will be just as good for those who read the little black specks on the page.

*

I've always had great respect for the people who Make Things Happen.

Of course it matters greatly what things they make happen. Hitler made World War II and the near-extermination of Europe's Jews happen -- and I think most of us regard that as horrible. We wish he hadn't bothered.

But a lot of Good Things happen in the world, too, and in almost every case, they don't just come like rain in springtime. Somebody has to make them happen.

They have to think of the Good Thing, and then figure out how to do it, and then overcome the obstacles.

Recently, a niece of mine, attending (with her husband) a university far away in the west, came upon one of those ideas for a Good Thing ... and she made it happen.

In fact, she functioned as a volunteer Community Organizer. But she didn't have to attack anybody or defame anybody or have demonstrations or provoke riots or, really, do anything except come up with an excellent plan and assume that she was working with people of good sense and good will. She turned out to be right.

So instead of reporting about it (I'm not a reporter) I asked her to write about it (she is an excellent writer), and I'm running her letter as a guest columnist right here:

Community Garden

by Janae Card Stubbs

Being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder wasn't a surprise to me--in fact it was more of a relief. There was finally a reason behind my viciously unreasonable fears, ideas, and thoughts; this diagnosis brought me a long-lost sense of safety within my own mind.

But diagnoses aren't what heal people.

I had to take a course of action to begin my own healing. Insurance options narrowed my choices (and healing takes time anyway) so I thought about what had always been calming to me throughout my life.

My first thought was music. Easy! I was already in a community choir. But the crowds of people and large rooms always triggered my more graphic anxieties. The music may have been healing, but the atmosphere simply started the countdown to my next panic attack.

Next I thought of gardening, which was perfect except for one minor detail. Gardens require land and space and something more than my second story cinderblock student housing apartment could offer. Sure, there was ample green space in our building's "backyard" (we called them triads--each consisting of three buildings, angled toward each other to section off the grass and swing set space in a triangular shape). But that green space wasn't mine.

So when the sizable swing set area within every triad was scheduled for removal, I started attending town hall meetings to make sure my voice would be heard. Because I wanted that empty space to become a healing garden.

Many ideas were shared. Most of them were marvelous and costly, and I figured my idea of a garden was a pretty safe suggestion in comparison. All of the ideas were noted, but we had to wait and find out what would be decided.

When the first removal happened in a nearby triad the other residents and I were disappointed to find that it had simply been replaced with more grass. We already had grass. They had just plopped more grass down, despite all of our ideas, and that didn't sit well.

Soon after that letdown I received an email saying that my triad's swing set removal was scheduled in a couple of months. There was more grass on our horizon.

I sent an email, reiterating my request that the space be made into a resident garden.

The answer was no.

I didn't like that answer.

I became a very polite, permanent fixture at the meetings. I made friends with powerful people. At least--they were powerful in the student housing realm. As insiders they knew why my idea had been rejected, and their reasoning made perfect sense to me; there was no plan for implementing the garden and no proof that it was more beneficial than the grass. Besides, there was already one area by the office designated for resident gardening. (Don't worry, the wait list was long enough I might have received a four by four foot garden plot in a few years...and how long was my husband going to be in school?)

But my idea is good, I reasoned, and I am an intelligent, capable human being. And if I learned anything in my own undergraduate degree it was how to do research and then present the information in a palatable way.

And suddenly I knew what I needed to do.

My anxiety and absurd ability to overthink everything became extremely helpful to me. I knew what I would worry about if the land were my own so I found as many possible problems and solutions to those problems as I could. I wanted to think of everything. I researched how to run community gardens and sifted through academic studies about the benefits of gardening.

Feeling devious, I also pulled up the university's mission and value statements for their resident life and housing departments. I figured that the best way to convince the administrators that this garden was a splendid idea would be to show them how perfectly it helped along their own written-in-stone goals and values. (Thank you, persuasive writing class.)

I put out flyers and asked about interest levels because having a hundred residents on my side was encouraging and made me feel powerful. It was a little lifeboat for my second-guessing, anxious self to have the administration aware of how many people supported the idea.

And through all of this, I was so focused on getting my healing garden that I found other anxiety-related things easier to cope with on a day-to-day basis.

I combined the university's mission and value statements with the proven benefits of gardening and it was a pretty impressive fit, especially with quotes from ten different sources lining the paper. Designing a pilot program for a community garden took significantly more time and effort, but made all the difference for me. This project was still personal, as much as I didn't like to admit it. Sure, I was doing it to benefit the lives of residents in the student housing, but they were just peripheral because this garden was my own personal, bloodless crusade.

Finishing the proposal was equal parts exciting and dreadful, knowing that it now had to hold its own against the realities of administration and bureaucracy. But my powerful friends made sure my paper would be seen at their next meeting. Gosh, I'm glad I made those friends.

I waited (almost) patiently, and was eventually informed that my garden plan had been accepted.

Accepted!

Preparing the garden space for a first year was hard work, but I was more than happy to do it. As more residents joined the garden and shared the hard labor the preparations for planting wrapped up quickly. My husband and I sectioned off nine individual plots and a large community plot. There was even a "mud plot" so that the kids could dig and go crazy without causing grief. There were also local businesses donating gift cards so that we could purchase community tools. Plants began to grow. Our lives began to change.

It wasn't long until there were neighbors socializing with one another where before we might as well have been stranded on individual islands. Our kids started playing together, despite age, nationality, and language differences. One participating family was Navajo, and brought tradition and experience and reverence to our garden, along with a brilliant way to protect our crops from birds. Another family was Iraqi and brought seeds and planting techniques with them that we had never even heard of before. Some people had natural green thumbs, and possibly toes, too, while others--ahem, myself--were still learning a lot.

And whenever I needed a break, my garden was right there. Was I cured from my mental illness? Nope. But the friendships I made, the focus I had, and my garden were all very healing to me. Restorative, really. Life could drain me but I knew right where I could go to refill, and that was all I really needed.


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