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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 26, 2018

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

Incredibles, Straws, Pinette, Reacher

When the original Incredibles movie came out in 2004, I liked it. The premise was: What if you had a whole superhero family? What would their family life be like?

The movie was a hit, in large part, I think, because Brad Bird, who wrote and directed it, has a nearly unique ability to invest real human depth in animated characters. Bird put in his years writing and animating for much less talented directors, but once he became the primary creative force, his animated films soared.

The Iron Giant back in 1999 signaled what was in store; The Incredibles, five years later, brought it to reality in a film that was very successful, financially.

Well-made animated films are expensive, so they really do need to make money. But as Disney proved long ago, animated films, as long as they appeal to children and their parents, can keep making money for, well, ever. So it's no mere coincidence that Brad Bird was on the senior creative team of Up and Toy Story 3, two of the finest animated filmes ever made.

Bird also directed Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol back in 2011, wrote Tomorrowland, and had a senior creative role on Brave, Monsters University, and Inside Out.

So he's been busy, and not just with animated films. That may have something to do with why, instead of immediately coming out with Incredibles 2, it took fourteen years before the sequel came to theaters.

Apparently he and others at Disney and Pixar felt the gap as being ludicrously long, so that Incredibles 2 begins with a kind of apology.

Here's the funny thing: Until that apology, I didn't know it had been fourteen years.

And yet the long gap did make a difference. I had long since forgotten every scrap of the storyline of The Incredibles. I didn't remember any of the characters or anything they did. And, more to the point, I no longer cared.

So I made no effort to rush out and see Incredibles 2 the moment it came to town.

My mistake. Because moments into Incredibles 2 I remembered just how good the first movie was. I didn't remember the storyline -- still don't -- but the characters felt real and I cared about them, even though the whole superhero thing is so very old and overworked.

The storyline of this movie matters, but that's not why you'll go see it.

First, if you have young kids, you've already seen the movie.

Second, I urge you to go see Incredibles 2 even without children in tow because it contains one of the best and funniest animated fight scenes ever created: A battle royal between a raccoon and a superbaby who is just learning what his powers are.

The action is always clear, we care about the characters, and the animation is superb. Whatever could have gone wrong with this movie didn't.

Will it replace or join Toy Story 3 or Up in our collective heart? No. It's still a superhero movie, which makes it too hard to give it the weight and pathos of those two landmarks of animation.

But it's very good -- better than most live action movies so far this year. Don't wait, as I did, for a visit from the grandchildren. Just go.

*

Isn't it weird that suddenly straws have become cultural villains? But I've got to tell you, it's the fault of strawmakers themselves. They've been at war with humans for decades now, and so if it takes straws becoming an ecological bugbear to get some changes made, I'm all for it.

What's wrong with straws?

It all began with children (and teenagers, and college students) tearing one end off the paper wrappers and then blowing into the end of the straw, sending the paper wrapper shooting like a crossbow quarrel across the McDonald's dining room.

At the end of the evening in a fast food joint, you could find straw wrappers covering the floor the way actual straw did in medieval dining halls.

The problem wasn't the cleanup -- it didn't add that much to the restaurants' overhead.

No, the problem was the cost of straws. Kids would grab far more straws than they needed in order to drink their soda pop, and then blow into them, making them impossible for anybody else to use.

So the strawmakers fought back. First, they offered dispensers for unwrapped straws. You push on the rocker bar at the bottom and out comes a single straw, unwrapped but also not handled or used by anybody else.

But a lot of people preferred factory-wrapped straws, and so strawmakers created very tightly wrapped straws. Tear off the end of the paper and blow -- and absolutely nothing happened. The wrapper wouldn't fly off, because it was gripping the straw too tightly.

If they had stopped there, I'd be fine. But they didn't.

Instead, they replaced the paper wrapping with clear plastic wrappers.

But they provided no practical way for the consumer to get the wrapper off the straw.

That's because they also made the straws way less sturdy. It used to be that you could push the plastic straw up through the end of the wrapper. But not anymore.

I sit there at P.F. Chang, for instance, wanting to use a straw in my lemonade or water, but when I try to push the straw out the end of the wrapper, the weak straw simply folds.

Eventually, by finding a delicate balance between upward pressure on the straw and downward pressure on the wrapper, you can get them apart. But it takes far more thought and concentration and effort than you really ought to have to expend while waiting for Dynamite Shrimp and Chang's Spicy Chicken.

It's getting so I'm going to have to ask the restaurant to provide scissors along with those impenetrable straw wrappers.

What was wrong with the cling-tight paper wrappers? You can tear those. But you can't -- or at least I can't -- tear any part of the plastic wrappers.

Now it comes to our attention that, like plastic grocery bags, plastic soda straws often find their way into water, where small animals can easily get that plastic cylinder up a nostril or down a throat, where it can't be chewed, digested, or, due to the creature's lack of an opposable thumb, pulled out.

With Sargasso Seas of floating plastic debris -- milk cartons, grocery bags, soda straws -- clogging vast areas of the major oceans, something has to be done.

The obvious thing to do is to send out incinerator ships that can scoop up vast amounts of plastic waste and then burn it to release the carbon it contains back into the air that it came from.

Every bit of carbon in all the plastics and fossil fuels of the world used to be atmospheric carbon. And when it is released as carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, it's primary effect is to fertilize plant life all over the world.

But because some extremely faulty computer models said that atmospheric CO2 was a greenhouse gas (a trivial one, compared to methane and number-one water vapor), we can't get rid of our oceanic plastic waste in the simplest way.

Another alternative is to stop making such a plastic mess. In California, you have to pay for every shopping bag you use, so people have an incentive to use fewer. In most beach towns, plastic grocery bags are forbidden. And now there's a movement to ban plastic straws.

It's a no-brainer. I grew up on paper straws. Every milk carton I got as a kid in school at a paper straw with it, and I lived.

But we're not used to them anymore. After decades of using only plastic straws, we're not used to the lip-feel of paper straws.

Remember those horrible wooden paddles they used to include with tiny one-serving cups of ice cream? Many people weren't bothered, but I was hypersensitive to them. The feel of that wooden spoon on my tongue and lips was as abrasive as nails on a chalkboard or styrofoam squeaking.

The only way to eat ice cream with those spoons was to smear both surfaces of the wooden spoon with ice cream so that the spoon's surface would be smoothly insulated from your lips and tongue.

Well, paper soda straws have a tiny bit of that same abrasiveness. Not so much that I can't use them, but there's just a tiny shudder-factor when I first put one in my mouth.

Another drawback is that if you leave your drink sitting for a while with the paper straw in it, the straw starts proving that it's biodegradable; indeed, some of them are downright water soluble, so you can find yourself trying to drink from what looks like a straw, but under the water is a wad of mush.

But come on. Those of us who like cold drinks don't leave them sitting long enough -- it takes hours -- for the straw to start to dissolve.

Amazon carries a lot of different paper straws -- lots of colors, lengths, diameters, patterns -- that you can buy in bulk for parties or for people in your house to use every day. And even if they somehow found their way to the ocean, they would dissolve -- at least to the degree that oceanic beasts could chew them up or blow them out of their nostrils.

(I know, fish don't have nostrils. But sea turtles, otters, seals, and the Loch Ness Monster all have nostrils. And they all have throats which can be cut to ribbons by plastic straws.)

We long ago bought an old-fashioned straw dispenser -- the kind where you pull up on the lid, and the straws inside are pushed up for you to pick one and pull it out. One of our children had to have straws for every drink and every meal, so this was the most convenient way to keep them available to her.

So if you commit to paper straws -- all of them sold unwrapped -- it might be worth spending fifteen or twenty bucks for a straw dispenser. And if you really want to go to town, you can get the old fast-food style one-at-a-time dispenser with a push bar for under $90.

Of course, you will certainly find, as we did when we first got a water cooler for our home, that dispensing machines are irresistible for children. Expect to use up rather more paper straws than you want to until the kids learn to get only one straw at a time.

You got them to stop coloring in non-coloring books and to stop cutting their own hair, didn't you? You can teach them this.

But there's one thing that plastic straws learned how to do that paper straws still aren't very good at -- though some of them try.

A straight straw is fine for tall people who tower over their glass or cup, so they either lift the cup or bend over to drink through the straw.

But if you're short, and the straw sticks up higher than your mouth when the glass is sitting on the table, what do you do?

Well, with the right kind of straw, you just bend it. The trouble is, with most paper straws, bending can cut off the fluid just like a kink in the garden hose.

That's when you start looking at stainless steel or plastic reusable straws.

Now, technically all straws are reusable. But unless you wash them, they get gunky and grungy so, no thanks.

However, stainless steel drinking straws -- many available with built-in bends -- might be a solution. The washable -- yes, dishwasher safe -- straws come with a cleaning brush, so you can immerse them in soapy water and then pass the brush through a couple of times. If you want them sterilized, you can also run them through a dishwashing cycle.

And if that sounds like too much work, get paper straws and forget the hassle! But when you consider that even though plastic cups exist, you probably also use -- and then wash and reuse -- drinking glasses, I'm not sure that reusable straws add all that much to the workload.

Besides, you can feel so righteous and superior to those fish-and-sea-mammal-murdering plastic-straw users when you drink from a heavy duty stainless steel or silicone straw. That's an intangible that it's hard to put a price on.

And when you're drinking a really thick milkshake through one of the larger-diameter straws, stainless steel doesn't collapse from suction the way weak plastic straws can.

Some of them even come with convenient little bags that you can drop into your adult-sized purse or pocket and carry with you into the restaurant or movie theater, so you don't add to the straw pollution problem. Then you bring the used straws home with you, wash them -- and also toss the carry bag into the laundry.

I'm going to be doing that at P.F. Chang, at least, because their straws are too hard to get into. And maybe I'll do that at Cook-Out Drive-in, too, because unless they've changed them recently, their straws just can't cope with the thickness of the milkshakes they sell.

I don't want their milkshakes to be thinner. I'll just bring a straw that can deal with that delicious thickness!

By the way, if your reusable straw is made of plastic, do not fear. As long as you actually take it home with you and wash it, then it poses no danger to wildlife. If they wear out, then put them in your tie-top garbage bag at home and don't bring the garbage with you to the beach.

And just so you don't have to feel weird about bringing your own straw to McDonald's or Burger King, why not order your reusable bent stainless steel drinking straws from Steelus Drinkware? You can order them with your names engraved on them -- whatever you can fit into two inches along the length of the straw. Then you'll be too cool to stand. https://steelysdrinkware.com/product/reusable-stainless-steel-drinking-straws-case-quantities-laser-engrave-imprint/

Of course, these are intended for bulk purchases. So you would need to order 500 at a time. This may be more than you want. You have to be pretty serious about your drinking straws to go this route.

Then again, maybe this can be your (or your company's) Christmas gift to all your friends (or customers) -- a couple of bent stainless steel straws for each family member, with "from" and your name engraved on them. If it saves you having to write a chatty Christmas letter just one year, it might be worth it.

*

I spend a lot of time listening to LaughUSA and other comedy channels on Sirius XM while I'm out driving. Standup sets are composed of many individual jokes and gags, so when you park, switch off the car, and go into the store or the house, you aren't interrupting a book or even a three-minute song.

It happens that one of my favorite comedians is one that I never saw on television: John Pinette. I had no mental image of him -- one of the few drawbacks of radio -- but his comedy made it clear that he was pretty fat. He pokes fun at himself and the audience goes crazy -- not because he's fat, but because he's really funny about being Hungry All The Time.

Finally, I realized that this guy was so good I wanted to find out where it might be possible to attend a live performance.

Turns out that there's nowhere I can see him now, because he died on 5 April 2014 at age 50.

There's a price you pay for carrying that much weight -- and for yo-yo dieting, which puts even more strain on your heart.

But one of the benefits of modern life is that many great performances are locked into recordings in various media. You can catch some of Pinette's routines on YouTube -- just search for John Pinette.

You can also buy his DVDs on Amazon (or, probably, anywhere). And CDs or MP3 downloads allow you to listen.

I'm not going to try to convey his brilliance here because you need to hear his voice when he responds to a situation with, "I say, nay nay."

*

The Hallmark Channel has been running some of last year's holiday films in a "Christmas in July" sequence that allowed me to check on which films held up particularly well.

For instance, Christmas Under Wraps (2014), with Candace Cameron Bure as a doctor who takes a temporary job in a clinic in a small Alaska town, is simply a good romantic movie. Yes, it tags up on all the romance-movie bases, but the actors (including David O'Donnell as a very convincing love interest, Robert Pine, and Brian Doyle-Murray, who played the groundhog-whispering mayor in Groundhog Day, and young standouts like Kendra Mylnechuk and James Garsford) make the movie work very well.

However, it's extremely dangerous for me to start watching Christmas movies in the summer. My credit cards start twitching. Got to watch myself.

*

Then there are theatrical movies that I never noticed when they first came out, and only discovered when they moved into rotation on movie channels. For instance, Glory Road (2006) is the dramatized true story of Don Haskins (Josh Lucas), who became the head basketball coach at Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso -- UTEP).

Now, I gained my main impression of UTEP athletics from a football game they played against BYU back in 1980, when I was a true fan of Jim McMahon as BYU's quarterback.

The score ended up being BYU 83, UTEP 7. Yes, BYU did put in their second- and third-string players near the end of the game, but they couldn't help but score again and again.

So yeah, my impression of UTEP has been that of a hapless, nearly helpless team -- though I realize that just as that was BYU's most lopsided win ever, it was surely UTEP's most lopsided loss. (One commentator famously said, "This game was not as close as the score might indicate.)

But Don Haskins came in as head basketball coach in 1965 with a desperate need for more strong players. So he went recruiting among college-eligible black players, at a time when nobody put many black players on the basketball floor.

The movie isn't just about race -- it's about turning a bunch of kids from different backgrounds into a team. The whole team takes a lot of guff from opponents -- and from hometown bigots wherever they go. But gradually the white players on the team come to understand just what their black teammates have to put up with, not just while playing basketball, but while being Americans in 1965 and 1966.

We watch the team fight their way into and through the NCAA matchups until they're face to face with the top-ranked University of Kentucky. Everybody expects Kentucky to win -- especially the Kentucky coach (played powerfully by Jon Voight).

Haskins, fed up with the nonsense about how black players weren't really up to playing with the "intelligence" of white players and other such calumnies -- and yes, I remember people saying things like that on national television -- decided, with the support of his white players, to use only black players in that championship game.

It wasn't just his starting lineup -- the white players knew they were on the bench no matter what happened, and they understood the significance of the move.

Naturally, they wouldn't have made this movie if the Texas Western team hadn't won. Haskins went on to be a hall-of-fame coach, and while some of his players played in the NBA, that's not the measure of their success. They graduated from college. They headed into lives full of contributions to society. And they also forced the whole game of basketball to realize that black players lacked nothing and could carry a team to victory.

Hard to believe, in this era when white basketball players seem to be in a minority most of the time, that there was a time when it took a lot of daring to rely on black players in what had been a white-bread game.

I think it's worth pointing out what a fine actor Josh Lucas is. I first noticed him as Jake Perry, the soon-to-be ex-husband of Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama (2002) His performance was so winning and so real that the movie should have made Lucas a star, yet somehow it didn't.

He's just as good in Glory Road, and I urge you to look for it -- stream it if you must -- and give yourself the pleasure of watching Josh Lucas play a coach in such a way that you can actually believe he might be able to inspire and teach players and help them come together as a team.

*

Lee Child started publishing the Jack Reacher series in 1997. I never even heard of the books till the excellent Tom Cruise movie based on the book One Shot in 2012. I've been playing catchup ever since.

I began reading the books by listening to the fine audio presentations, with Dick Hill doing a superb job of narrating the books. But I soon grew impatient as my commute to and from Buena Vista, Virginia, ended with the semester. I just wasn't driving or exercising enough to get through the stories as quickly as I wanted to.

So I have tested the limits of the battery in my Kindle Oasis by staying up for too many hours, night after night, reading "just one more chapter" until I finish each book at five or six or seven in the morning.

The character of Jack Reacher is not a person I would particularly like in person -- I could not live his unconnected life. I'm a homebody at heart, and the idea of living without roots would make me miserable.

But as author Lee Child develops story after story, I'm almost as intrigued by the author's art as by the choices and actions of Jack Reacher.

Child may use the same character as the star of book after book -- but he hasn't written the same book twice. Ever.

Each Jack Reacher book takes us into a different kind of novel. Sometimes it's a police procedural -- and Reacher, with his Army MP training is able to pitch in with local murder investigations. But then sometimes the story is a flat-out thriller with international intrigues. Child does an excellent job of working with high-level government storylines as well as very private and personal human stories in smalltown America.

The politics, insofar as it shows up at all, seems to be libertarian -- which means sometimes it feels liberal, sometimes conservative, and sometimes downright vigilante. But we don't know whether this is Child's political stance or just the life choices of the character Child is creating.

What intrigues me is watching Child become a better and better writer as the series progresses. That's why there's only one way to read these books, in my opinion: In the order of publication.

The books skip around a bit in time, so that we learn more and more about Reacher's upbringing and his family as the series goes on, even though his last living relative dies in the first book.

Some of the stories center around people who were important to him at various times in his life; sometimes all the other characters are complete strangers to him. Reacher has no computer-wizard sidekick who does all the real investigating, though sometimes he can talk people in the military bureaucracy into providing him more information than he should probably get.

Mostly, though, what we see is that Child gets a surer and surer hand in character development. His stories have also matured, at least in the sense that he has learned how to avoid relying on coincidence, and his plots never seem outlined or programmed. Characters never do things because the plot requires them to -- they always have powerful motivations so that we believe what they choose to do.

Among the most recent Jack Reacher books I've read are:

The Hard Way. Somehow Child makes it perfectly plausible for Reacher to find himself in England, trying to protect people who, without him, have no chance against the owner of a private paramilitary force.

Bad Luck and Trouble. Since Reacher is so hard to contact -- he has no address and no phone, period -- when a friend from Army days needs to call on him to help, the only way she can think of to send him a message is to make a deposit anonymously in his account, so when he checks his balance he'll see a number that immediately signals him that he needs to call her.

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't have the kind of mathematical mind that Reacher has -- I don't care about primes or pi. But it's way cool that Reacher does. And when he realizes that somebody has been murdering some of his old team from his best years in the Army -- by dropping them, alive, from several thousand feet above the southern California desert -- it becomes a personal matter.

Nothing to Lose. Reacher gets dropped off in the town of Hope, Colorado -- and then makes his way west to the "twin" town of Despair. When he arrives, they not only won't serve him in the local diner, but also they run him out of town.

You just don't do that with Jack Reacher. Tell him he can't go somewhere, and you can't get rid of him. Also, this novel made me tired -- physically -- out of pure sympathy. Reacher walks a lot of miles in the course of a few days.

Gone Tomorrow. Reacher uses an Israeli checklist for identifying suicide bombers in advance of detonation as he takes a special interest in a young woman on a New York subway train. She turns out to be the victim of an elaborate system of coercion that has more victims in the offing, and Reacher sets out to save as many of them as he can.

True to Child's storytelling, there are people that Reacher just can't save. It eats him up, but even though he makes a lot of correct assumptions based on his knowledge and experience, those assumptions are often wrong, and he beats himself up afterward for not seeing more clearly from the start.

61 Hours. Weirdly, throughout this book we're told how many hours we have left before, presumably, some event that's coming. However, this event did not have a preset time. We get a countdown, but it's not on a ticking bomb or some terrorist's plot. It's just the author flat out telling us that something big will come in a certain amount of time. And when it comes, it takes the shape it does in part because Reacher himself is present.

We also get one of Child's best villains, a Mexican crime lord named Plato.

Reacher's most important goal during his time in a South Dakota town is to protect an old woman who is targeted for murder because she intends to testify in the trial of a criminal who has never yet been convicted of his many murders and other crimes. But he also finds himself preparing to confront Plato, who has found an inexhaustible source of drugs and is determined to make all the money he can from it -- no matter how many people have to die.

At the end of this novel, we watch Reacher struggle to climb a 280-step stairway to get out of an underground explosion. Then we're told how terrible the explosion was and it's obvious nothing and no one could possibly have survived. The end.

Worth Dying For. Since this is a Jack Reacher novel, we assume Reacher must have escaped from that explosion somehow. We're shown that he suffers a lot of pain from damage done to him -- but it's not the kind of damage you get from being blown up in a fiery blast.

We're nearly at the end of the very good story of this book before we find out anything much about how Reacher managed to survive the end of the previous one!

If Child has any recurring theme in his books, it's this one: Small towns can become horrible tyrannies when a local family or crime boss or official gets far too much power and bullies or terrorizes everybody into going along with him.

In this book, it's a weird family who are making way more money than their little trucking company ought to be making -- but nobody knows how. Meanwhile, though, the Duncans run afoul of Reacher when he finds out that the youngest Duncan, Seth, regularly beats his wife. You just don't do that in front of Reacher.

So oppressive is the Duncan despotism that even a communitarian like me finds himself rooting for Reacher's kind of brutal justice.

The Enemy and The Affair both take place earlier in time than the rest of the series -- while Reacher is still in the army. But I still urge you to read the books in the order of publication, because these flashback novels work best if you already know the kind of person Reacher becomes after leaving the Army.

Yet I read them out of order, not on purpose, but because they happened to come up that way on Audible. So even though I urge reading the Jack Reacher books in the order of copyright, I also can affirm that it truly does not matter much at all what order you read them in. Each one stands alone, and if you don't catch all the references to other books, so what? They are never essential in order to understand what's going on in the book you happen to be reading right now.

I've now read more than half the Jack Reacher books, and I am more, not less, addicted to them. The last time a series affected me like this was when I started reading Robert Parker's Spenser novels in the 1980s. And so far, at least, Child has never committed the kind of damage to his own series that Parker did with the misguided A Catskill Eagle, an attempt to do a thriller.

What Parker shouldn't have attempted, Child brings off all the time, moving back and forth between mystery and procedural and thriller. And even though his books sell better and better, Child has never become self-indulgent, the way J.K. Rowling did in the last couple of Harry Potter novels, where it was clear nobody dared to edit her or even suggest anything. Child has discipline. He tells a good, strong, clear story every time, without meaningless digressions or see-me-write pyrotechnics.

And, speaking as a writer myself, I'm learning from Child with every book. I could never have written the character of Jack Reacher myself, but I've learned much about how to handle the motivation of a character who isn't very chatty -- and how to bring readers to care about complicated characters who will only be important in this book or that.

The Jack Reacher movies have, so far, been very good, and I am untroubled by the way Tom Cruise is absolutely not physically right for the character. But good as those movies are, the books are better. Give Lee Child a chance to make your day.

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Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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