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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 13, 2017

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


Goldfinches, Life Story, Caller ID, Syria, Easter

The goldfinches are blooming in our yard again.

All winter, before I went up to teach at Southern Virginia each week, I'd fill the appropriate bird and squirrel feeders in our yard with sunflower chips, nyjer seeds, peanuts, and suet cakes. By the time I got home a few days later, the sunflower and nyjer dispensers would be nearly empty.

That's because the feeders in our front and back yards have been major resources for several of the local winter feeding flocks -- though, oddly enough, only the crows seem to know about both our feeding stations. Other than them, the frontyard flocks seem not to know about the backyard feeders, and vice versa.

(OK, I know that was ambiguous. Did "vice versa" mean that the backyard feeders didn't know about the frontyard flocks? Of course not. Feeders are inanimate. They don't know anything. "Vice versa" meant that the backyard flocks didn't know about the frontyard feeders. Even though they're all capable of flying over or around the house.)

As the bird-feeding experts at Wild Birds Unlimited told me years ago, one of the most crucial times for feeding birds is spring, because birds aren't pandas -- they don't eat shoots and leaves. The insect-eaters might start foraging for themselves as soon as the bugs come out in the spring -- though I've noticed the bluebirds still take dried mealworms throughout the year -- but the seed-eaters can't do anything until plants start producing seeds.

Well, last week, something was apparently producing a whole bunch of seeds, because I came home from Virginia and it looked as if the feeders, front yard and back, hadn't been touched.

Closer examination showed that the woodpeckers (and some of our more persistent crows, who can't cling but still manage to stay on the suet feeders for the split second it takes to grab a mouthful of beef fat and peanuts) were still using up the suet at the normal rate.

But the feeding flocks of (mostly) finches had not bothered to partake of my largesse all week.

Not knowing what seeds they were eating -- maples are spewing out their helicoptering seeds, but I've never seen the finches go for them -- I wondered if I had done something to offend them. Or if the evil feral cats in our neighborhood had driven them all away. Or simply killed them. (What possible cat trap would not just as readily trap a possum or raccoon?)

To my relief, this past Monday morning our sunflower and nyjer feeders were covered with finches. They were back!

And, to my delight, the males were no longer the drab brown with bits of dull yellow that they were during the winter. Summer plumage is back!

It seems early to me, for the finches to be in bright yellow bloom. But then, spring began in mid-January this year, and the two sub-freezing cold snaps we had since then did not do all that much damage, so maybe on the goldfinch calendar, this is going to be a two-clutch summer, and they needed to get their gold on early.

Fine with me. Finches are the best blossoms in our yard, because they flutter and dart and do some acrobatics and near-collisions just to amuse their human observers. Or impress some drab-but-finicky finch females. (Finicky finch females. Easy to say. Not even a tongue twister.)

Welcome home, finches! Nest nearby, please. Teach your babies where our feeders are. You're part of our garden, whenever you're willing to come play.

*

Cori Shepherd Stern, a screenwriter and documentary film producer with an Oscar nomination already on her resume, wrote a very personal blog about her beloved brother Danny, a man with an intense record of public service.

I found out about it because she begins her brother's life story with a reference to my own novel, Speaker for the Dead, in which the main character's job is to give a no-holds-barred, truthful account of a life, the good and the bad. Stern set out to do exactly that for her brother.

For the first while, I kept thinking: How is this a Speaking? All she's saying is good stuff!

That's because up to that point, good stuff was pretty much all there was to say. Then Danny went to the Middle East with a defense contractor in order to get his family some leeway, financially. The money arrived. But so did other stuff.

It's easy to look at the professional beggars who systematically swap corners at various intersections in Greensboro and think: You wouldn't be homeless if you hadn't given in to drugs and alcohol. Other people have stopped using them. Why haven't you?

And that's not an inaccurate or even uncompassionate response. Greensboro has plenty of resources for people down on their luck, as long as they're willing and able to stay clean and sober.

Not only that, but I tell my fiction writing students not to submit stories to our workshops that are about people with addictions. Why? Because, I tell them, fiction is only interesting when it's about volitional human beings -- people who can make choices. Addicts, by definition, have surrendered their volition to only one cause: the next bottle, the next fix, or the next dose.

But, as Cori Stern's "Speaking" makes clear, while there's not much difference among the stories of addicts and alcoholics while they're using, there can be a great deal of difference in their road to addiction -- and, in the happy cases, back again.

I found this story both heartbreaking and encouraging, though the first outweighs the second. Embedded in the story of Danny, you see, is the story of another brother who got caught in the web of addiction much earlier, yet made his way out again.

For me, as a fiction writer, the fundamental question is always this: Who are we? How do we know what we would do under circumstances that other people have faced, but we never have?

Looking at my own semi-compulsive behavior with food and with other activities, like that happy period when I was so obsessive about running that after a day of driving home from the beach, I could not go to bed without running a couple of miles, and so had a one a.m. run, thinking the whole time: What if this wasn't just running that I had to do? What if it were a physically addictive substance?

In other words, if I had ever tried drugs or alcohol, how easy would it be for me to walk away? How easily could I have slid into some level of addiction? It's one advantage of growing up Mormon -- I never saw people drinking socially; I never saw people drunk; having fun and partying were never associated with alcohol. I had no examples of the vice-centered social rituals.

I couldn't sneak a taste of beer, wine, or spirits at home or at the homes of relatives; there was no second-hand smoke in the air; I grew up completely free of all the most popular addictions -- including coffee and tea -- because I had neither the desire, the example, nor the opportunity.

I was so decidedly uncool in my youth (and, I must add, now as well) that the people who were sharing or dealing drugs in high school and college never even offered me any, because they didn't want me in their group. And as an adult, the couple of times I was actually offered marijuana at a social gathering, the people offering it were so repulsive to me, personally, that I didn't want to be one of them.

Nevertheless, I'm quite capable of imagining how different my life might have been had I been even slightly cooler, had I associated with people who were using or drinking or smoking. It doesn't require any kind of moral strength to resist temptations that never come. I suppose I can feel pretty good about the fact that I never went in search of such things, but ... there was nothing about the behavior of people who were "cool" that made me wish to emulate them in any way.

So I don't read Cori Stern's account of her brother Danny with even the slightest tinge of superiority. This was a good man, one who stood up for his principles even at great cost to himself. But being a hero at one time in your life doesn't confer any kind of immunity to future downturns and disasters.

Not-succumbing to one temptation doesn't add even an iota of strength when a very different kind of temptation comes along. The old saying was, "There but for the grace of God go I," but that implies that somehow God has selected which people will face temptations they can't resist, and which will not. I don't think it works that way. I think God has put us into a world with all kinds of sweet temptations that can easily turn rancid, and then we're expected to use our wisdom.

God's promise isn't immunity. It's redemption.

And even that redemption is not an irresistible gift: We have to reach for it. Reading about Cori Stern's brother Danny leaves me hoping that he will reach out. It leaves me hoping, as well, that I will reach out for that same redemption from the foolishness and wrong choices in my own life. Because we who are fortunate enough not to have gotten dragged into addiction usually have our own repeated wrong choices that harm ourselves or others, or both.

Those wrong choices, left unchecked, can also cost us everything we care about.

Here's Danny's story, as told by a sister who loves him deeply:

https://medium.com/@GirlSeeksWorld/speaking-of-my-brother-463b9fd5b80d

*

Just got a call on my cell. Before I could answer, I saw this message where the caller's name or number ought to be: potential fraud.

I thought, What a nice system. Verizon still put the call through, because fraudsters might be calling family members or business associates or the neighbor taking care of their cat, so it would be wrong to block their calls completely.

It would also be bad business. They pay for phone service, and phone companies need to make a profit.

But Verizon still warned me that unless I have a friend in the phone fraud business (I don't), I should probably ignore this call.

Then I got to thinking: What shows up on other people's screens when I call?

With people who already have my contact info in their phones, my calls will be tagged with whatever name they used for me in their contacts list. Probably some form of my name or, in the case of my children, maybe "Dad" or "Old Man" or "Genetic Contributor" or something.

My i.d. on my wife's phone might say, "Him Again."

But strangers -- what do they see? "Old Coot" would be fairly kind, compared to "Guy Who Won't Stop Talking" or "Don't Answer If You Don't Have Half an Hour to Spare."

In my more depressive moments, I can imagine caller i.d. saying, "Idiot, Blithering." "Bore, Crashing." "Know-it-all." Or "Likely to Tell You All About the Book He's Reading."

Or, in the not-too-distant future: "Global Warming Denier" (which isn't true; global temperatures have been mostly rising since 1850, as part of a natural cycle). Or "Politically Incorrect Leper -- Career Damage Possible."

Why am I so pessimistic? Maybe my caller i.d. says "Always Knows More Than Half the Answers on Jeopardy." Or "Decent Ticket-to-Ride Player." Or "Feeds Birds, Squirrels, and Chipmunks." Or "Wrote a Memorable Novel Once." Or "Reviews Everything, One Week at a Time."

More likely: "Lost 27 Pounds, Still Needs to Lose 100 More. Do Not Feed." Or "Still Thinks He's Six-foot-two." (My recent doctor's appointment confirms that old age has shrunk me to six feet and half an inch.)

On the nicer side: "Shares High-Quality Chocolates: Just Hint."

What should your caller i.d. say?

*

As Microsoft discontinues support for Windows Vista, thereby killing it, one publication's headline called Vista "the unloved Windows version."

This implies that someone, somewhere, loved any Windows version.

OK, each version of Windows, once we had learned how to work around its numerous flaws and contradictions, became loved compared to the even more incompetent, grandiose, dictatorial, computer-trashing next version of Windows.

That's not so much "love" as it is clinging to a sinking lifeboat -- because we can see that the next lifeboat has already sunk.

Like pre-faded jeans, they always sold us pre-broken Windows.

Nobody should wonder why Android has now officially passed Windows as the world's most-used operating system. True, Android is almost entirely on phones and tablets, so it doesn't have to enable really heavyweight software. But when Microsoft tried a telephone operating system, it was a botch that almost everyone hated.

Android, and its mommy, Google, have shown that a too-big company can get some things mostly right, by taking advice and inviting code from outsiders, while not overreaching and not trying to micromanage everybody's individual machine.

Here's how "lovable" Windows 10 is. I can't install Microsoft Word on either of my Windows 10 machines, even though I have bought the software at full price, twice. My workaround? I make everybody send me files .rtf or .pdf format.

None of the built-in features of Windows 10 work as any sane person would expect them to work. When you choose options, they don't stay chosen. Or you'll see options, but when you try to click or unclick them, they don't respond. It's like Microsoft is taunting us: We know it would be nice for you to have a choice about this, but ... nanner nanner.

We already made your choice, because we know what you want better than you do.

Windows 10 on Microsoft's own Surface Pro 4 has a "dancing cursor" feature, in which whatever you're doing, the cursor suddenly chases off to the top corner of the screen. It can get so bad you can't keep the cursor down in the lower left long enough to get to the "Shut Down" command.

Because, of course, shutting down your computer in Windows 10 requires you to right-click on the Windows logo in the lower left, select the Shut Down Or Sign Out menu choice, and then select Shut Down from the next menu.

Have you seen the new Microsoft Toilet? The flushing lever isn't behind you, it's on a touchpad to the left. The only drawback is that for security purposes, you have to enter a PIN each time you want to flush.

Though when you think about it, if somebody has broken into your house to use your toilet, wouldn't you rather that it be easy for them to flush? Is there some horrible scam called "phlushing" that they're trying to protect us from?

And then every three months you have to opt out of Phlüber, the toilet-sharing community, to keep people from banging on your door with an alimentary or urinary emergency.

*

In 2013, Obama drew a line and dared Syria's dictator, Assad, to cross it.

He crossed it.

Nothing happened.

Until now. Trump finally enforced Obama's line.

Was it a good thing? It depends. We had the cruise missiles, and presumably we had accurate intelligence about where to aim them. Bombs of any kind are notoriously unable to stop or even slow down industrial programs -- but at least with cruise missiles you don't sustain any casualties. So ... cruise missiles were a prudent yet flamboyant move.

Unless they contain the implicit promise-threat of "regime change."

I'm all for taking out Assad -- in fact, back in 2003 I was advocating that Syria, a far worse international terrorist state and regional threat than Iraq, be our target for striking a real blow against terrorism.

Saddam was a vile dictator, but he had done, not nothing, but relatively little to sponsor terror, compared to Syria.

If we had brought down Syria in 2003, Israel would have been far safer for the past fourteen years. Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations would have been harder for Iran to resupply.

And Saddam's Iraq would still have fallen, because Saddam could not have stayed out of a U.S.-Syria war, and his army would have been destroyed in transit, probably on Syrian territory.

Different history, but ... I told you so.

Nobody checked with me -- an unrelenting habit with every administration, regardless of party. This shortsightedness continues even now, to my astonishment.

The danger right now is visible on everybody's calendar. The 9/11 attacks came less than nine months after George W. Bush took office as President. Though he and Congress were working together to restore America's military after eight years of Clintonian hostility to spending anything on defense, we could not, in September 2001, mount any kind of offensive anywhere in the world.

It takes time to prepare for a military venture of any kind. When it's on foreign soil, it takes far longer, because along with weapons and ammunition, you have to increase your number of people -- and take the time to train them. And then there's all the food, medical supplies, supply vehicles, and forces to defend those supply lines. This is a mammoth, expensive job.

It took many months to accomplish it, back in the Bush administration.

Trump has inherited a military situation even worse than what Bush inherited. We had the ability to fire cruise missiles, but that's about it.

Bush took no major actions until we had built up our readiness for years after 9/11. Can Trump stand to wait that long? He'd better. Russia and Iran have promised that they will respond to any further anti-Syrian actions by the U.S.

Mildest response: Continuing to do exactly what they're already doing, only louder.

But what if they really do step up their game? Iran's retaliation would almost certainly consist of an attack, nuclear or otherwise, on Israel. Russia's retaliation would almost certainly consist of invasion and annexation of the Baltic States and/or Ukraine and Moldova, restoring European Russia to something close to its imperial boundaries.

In other words, they would not retaliate against us or engage us on the ground in Syria. They would instead instigate actions which, if we were to respond, would require us to fight a three-front war, in Syria, Israel, and eastern Europe.

We couldn't do it. Our military is superbly trained and mostly adequately led, but you can't wage war if you can't get to the battlefield with enough weapons, ammunition, and trained personnel to stand against the enemy.

Now imagine that Russia and Iran are "responding" to further regime-change efforts by us in Syria. As the U.S. bogs down in fruitless whining -- or, wait, it's not Obama now, so it would be "empty boasting" -- do you think China wouldn't decide that now would be a lovely time to take over Taiwan and execute the entire government plus every old-time Chinese Nationalist they can locate?

And North Korea would probably seize on this golden opportunity of American over-extension to invade South Korea -- or nuke Japan.

Since the international media already vilifies Trump, they would blame all these disasters, not on the perpetrators (terror states, Russia, China, and North Korea are treated like the weather: The things they do just happen) but on the United States.

And they would not be wholly wrong. We do not have the means to take any action anywhere in the world beyond the level of ship-launched cruise missiles. We are weak.

So even though it's contrary to Trump's nature, we need to have a lot less loud talking until we are once again holding a big stick. Or, to be honest, about five big sticks.

The U.S. is a big dude with a lot of martial skills, who's gotten himself caught in a dark alley facing six thugs with pistols, truncheons, and body armor. In a movie, Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel would take them all out with a few moves. We would see them dodging bullets Matrix-style.

But in the real world, the U.S. military doesn't have Matrix-style skills. We don't have a stunt army to step in and take the bullets while the real army waits.

We have what we have, and right now it's nowhere near enough. While Trump concentrates on building a wall that nobody needs (our bad economy isn't drawing that much illegal immigration, and hasn't since 2008), somebody needs to restore our ability to conduct major campaigns in four or five places at the same time.

Then we have to decide which ones are worth fighting.

Syria's criminal attack on its own citizens was worth some cruise missiles. But maybe we can tread softly until we can back up our threats with power.

Meanwhile, we have Obama's legacy of abandoning our allies and friends in other countries to deal with. Obama's main accomplishment as president, besides abolishing health insurance for many Americans and replacing it with catastrophic-only coverage, was to betray every promise the U.S. government made to just about everybody, while sucking up to our rivals and enemies in the most abject, humiliating ways.

I have seen no evidence yet that Trump's mouth is being operated by any wiser thinking that Obama's mouth was. So it's not as if other nations are eager to trust us again.

Here's what gives me reason to hope: Trump, despite believing that he's his own best adviser on everything (this from a man who can't read a book with more than 32 pages, copiously illustrated), actually consulted with the military before carrying out the Syrian strikes.

Maybe, before he threatens to defend Ukraine, the Baltic States, or Israel, he can wait until the military tells him that they have the men and materiele -- as well as workable plans -- to back up his threats.

Because any threat to fragile egos like Putin's, or easily-provoked bullies like Iran, is tantamount to a direct invitation to come on out behind the schoolhouse and fight it out, right now.

Ain't nobody gonna hold our glasses while we fight. That's where Obama left us, and Trump has done nothing to ease that situation ... yet. We're an international joke, and our enemies are treating us accordingly.

Conservatives in Congress: Please stop indulging your insane desire for perfect legislation that crushes any chance of compromise with the Democrats. Pass the legislation that you need in order to get reelected, and then get back to the business of helping America recover from our serious case of military dystrophy.

We need a government, not right-wing sermons about what's wrong with any bill that might actually get a tiny bit of bipartisan support.

If you keep playing Ideological Purity -- a game that's no fun and that nobody wins -- the whole country will reap the whirlwind.

*

Ford has just unveiled a hybrid police sedan, designed for high-speed chases, curb-hopping, and obstacle-running. It can carry prisoners in the back seat, and hardware -- guns, vests, etc. -- in the trunk.

Since it presumably uses way less gas for the same distance, if it really performs, it makes sense for every police department to adopt it.

Meanwhile, though: When do the rest of us get a hybrid big car? I can't even get into any of the existing hybrids and electrics.

Ford is planning a hybrid mini-SUV, and a hybrid version of the F-150 pickup truck. But we won't see those for at least three more years.

If there's anything I've learned in my nearly 66 years of life, it's that even when time passes minute-by-minute with infinitesimal speed, like when I was ten, years still whiz by faster than you can keep track of. Three years to big-car hybrids won't be so terribly long.

*

I love Christmas, Santa Claus and commercialization and all.

That's because what matters about Jesus of Nazareth is not his birth, per se, but his life, his teaching, his sacrifice, his resurrection, and the redemption he offers to all of humankind. The things we commemorate at Eastertime.

Atheists and anti-Christians ridicule our belief in Christ's divine mission, but since they believe many ridiculous and impossible things themselves, I'm not impressed with their power of discernment.

Here's what I know: Jesus Christ lives, he cares about us and our lives, and he's eager to help us qualify to return to dwell with our Father in heaven.

If you don't believe that, we can still be friends. But if we're friends, you can be sure that I wish you believed, because I believe that it's the only path to lasting joy.

Christianity isn't cool anymore, if it ever was. Nor does Christianity have the enforcement option that is now openly used by the Inquisition of Political Correctness. If you follow Jesus Christ -- not with your lips only, but with the daily choices of your life -- it's because you believe his life story and his doctrines. Not as a matter of mere opinion, but as the main business of your life. You can't follow Christ any other way.

As a Christian, you have joined a community marked by its lack of interest in being or seeming cool.

Within the communities of Christ, we have different rules, different ways of trying to follow him; but we share this: We want to be the kind of person to whom he can say, Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

This Easter Sunday, no matter which church you go to in order to celebrate his resurrection and redemption of humankind, or even if you simply stay home and retell or reread the good news of Jesus Christ, you are part of a community of more than two billion souls who take his name upon them.

May we live up to our Christian aspirations in the coming year, showing Christlike love to the poor and downtrodden, while standing up against persecutors and defamers of the faith. Both meekness and courage are called for, depending on circumstances. May we find both in our hearts, when we need to reach for them.


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