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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 12, 2017

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


Snow, Games, Trees, Every Brilliant Thing

Best thing this past weekend: Watching a nearly four-year-old and nearly two-year-old, who normally live in southern California, frolic in an eight-inch layer of fresh snow on the ground.

Dumbest thing this past weekend: Watching grownups panic and buy far more milk and bread and eggs than they need because they know a snowstorm is coming. Of course you should make sure you have enough supplies to get through a few days when roads are hard to drive on and many stores are closed.

But be reasonable. Is your egg consumption really going to triple just because there's snow on the ground?

Instead of panic-hoarding, why not spend some of that pre-snow time reading up about How to Drive in Snow and Why You Should Not Try to Drive Any Car on Ice.

And here's another thought: Since traffic signals often go out during heavy storms, as snow and ice bring down power poles, refresh your knowledge of the law concerning non-functioning traffic lights. Hint: They are supposed to be treated as four-way stops.

And if there's one thing that nobody in North Carolina seems to understand, it's the law of right-of-way at four-way stops. The first arriver has the right-of-way, even if he's making a turn. Then the right-of-way moves around the intersection in clockwise order -- that is, after the guy to your right goes, it's your turn.

It is not your turn and the turn of the guy directly across from you. His turn comes later. You have the right to turn left when it's your right-of-way, and if he's violating that rule and coming straight at you, he has stolen your right to make your turn.

The most dangerous misunderstanding about dead traffic lights comes when a traffic light regulates access to a main road from smaller side streets. One of the worst places in town is Lawndale, from the Science Center to the Day School. Several important and heavily trafficked roads cross or abut Lawndale, and those traffic lights have gone out more than once during snowstorms.

Ignorant drivers often drive way too fast on Lawndale, so they can't possibly stop at the dark traffic lights as the law requires. Please remember that when a traffic light isn't working, you must stop every time, whether you can see any side-street traffic or not, and whether you are on the "main road" or not. Cars on the wider road do not get the right of way at a four-way stop.

Though, of course, the idiot driving much too fast to obey the law and come to a stop on a snowy road -- he has the right-of-way every time. Not the legal right-of-way, mind you. Just the I-don't-want-my-car-wrecked right-of-way.

And, speaking of four-way stops and other right-of-way situations, whether it's snowy or not: You do not have the right, with a wave of your hand, to revise the law. If you have the right-of-way, use it. Don't give me a little wave to proceed when the right-of-way is not mine. Because if there's an accident, I'll be the one cited. Waving doesn't change the law.

Giving up your right-of-way isn't nice or polite. It's illegal and stupid. Especially if there are cars behind you, with drivers who count on you taking your right-of-way when it comes up, so they can move forward. Your offer of courtesy to me is rude to me and to the people behind you. I'm not going to accept your offer. I'm going to wait my turn.

So get over your niceness and obey the law. (He said with an insincere smile.)

*

I never heard of it when it was a "hit Broadway show." I never heard of Jonny Donahoe, whose one-man show it is. And when I happened to skim past it on HBO, I thought at first that it was stand-up comedy.

Every Brilliant Thing is listed as a documentary, and when you look it up online, it's covered with notices about how to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line.

Those are very good services, noble causes. I am very strongly in favor of people staying alive as long as they reasonably can. Every time a person I know, or whose family I know, commits suicide, I'm reminded yet again that suicide is a very effective way to make other people suffer.

But those who suffer most are the ones who love you most -- invariably, the ones you least want to hurt, if you're a decent person at all. The people you might want to hurt will barely be bothered by your death.

Many people suffer from periodic bouts of depression. Sometimes what we call depression is merely human sadness, and there are times when you should be sad, because sad things have happened.

There are also times when you should feel bad, because, hey, you did something that hurt somebody else. But not one of these means you should sentence yourself to death. You don't have the authority to execute anybody, no matter how you feel, and no matter what they've done -- even if your victim is yourself.

Jonny Donahoe, a plump, energetic, charming Brit, grew up with a bipolar mother, who vacillated between bursts of ecstatic energy and deep, soul-destroying depression. Even in his youth, Donahoe was aware that his mother lived on the brink of suicide, and one of his efforts to inspire her not to kill herself was a massive list.

It didn't start out massive. His modest goal was to come up with a couple of hundred things that made life worth living -- a list of "every brilliant thing." Soon it became a list of a thousand brilliant things, and then hundreds of thousands.

By any measure, it became his life's work. Because he, too, suffered from depression, and this list was as much talking to himself as it was talking to his mother.

During the show Every Brilliant Thing, we hear maybe fifty entries from the list. They range from perfectly ordinary things which become brilliant when you hear them mentioned in this context. Others truly are extraordinary, though it's easy for us to forget about them.

The list itself would be enough to make this potentially depressing show an exercise in optimism. But the list is merely the maguffin, and you do not have to be or know a person who wrestles with suicidal impulses in order to be glad you watched Every Brilliant Thing.

Because, ultimately, this show is not just about suicide. On another level, it's a really funny and inspiring example of live theatre at its best. Because in telling his story, Donahoe involves the audience. To many people in this tiny arena house, he has given entries in the list -- with numbers either high or low. They wait for their number to be called out, and then in a clear voice they read that particular "brilliant thing."

But this is only the beginning, because Donahoe is telling stories, and when he needs to stage a scene, he does -- with audience members as actors. Now, it's possible that these are ringers, but I don't think so. I've seen few actors who could fake the natural responses of these people. After the show, we hear snatches of conversation between these audience members, making it clear that no, they had not been coached, except whatever coaching Donahoe himself gives on stage right in front of us.

Besides, I saw my own nine-year-old daughter take part in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an absolutely wonderful musical comedy. My daughter played one of the contestants. She was told to ask the normal questions with whatever word she was given, including, "Can you use it in a sentence?"

With amazing stage presence and comic timing, my daughter dealt with the fact that the word she was given was "cow." When she asked, "Can you use it in a sentence?" the exasperated official (an actor in the show) used this sentence: "Spell 'cow.'" Very, very funny. But if our daughter had not had perfect poise and stage presence, it wouldn't have been as funny. If she had cracked up, it would have broken the gag.

So I believe that people who arrived at a show in order to watch can sometimes be quite wonderful improvisational performers, and that's what happens in this theatrically brilliant play. When Donahoe tells the story of how he fell in love with a woman at the library, he calls on a mousy-looking but pleasant young woman on the front row to play the part.

Then he moves her date to another, faraway seat, and plunks himself down beside her. He tells her what to say, but then when she says it as part of a dialogue with Donahoe, her simple, honest delivery of the lines is quite effective.

Another time, Donahoe talks about a teacher who was a particular mentor of his -- the kind of teacher who is close and caring enough to show up at Donahoe's wedding. Amazingly, Donahoe calls on a man in the audience to deliver, in character as that mentor, a wedding toast to him and his bride.

And the man comes through, delivering a moving and affecting toast that is put together out of elements of the stories Donahoe has just told us. Surely this man was coached and rehearsed, wasn't he? Yet I think not. I think he was simply the kind of guy who knows how to give an impromptu speech.

Now, it's not an accident that these people were in those seats. After all, my daughter was pulled out of line at Putnam County Spelling Bee and interviewed before they decided which lines she would say. And it's quite possible that the most prominent of the audience-member performers were interviewed by staff members before being placed where they were.

What matters is that we get the sense of these people as average folks who came to a play and then became part of acting out another person's life, playing people that he loved. And as a result of the things Donahoe asks them to do, and the lovely way they do it, we are moved.

Finally, there is Donahoe himself. His meta-performance is as good as his performance -- all kinds of asides and responses that seem ad-libbed, though after doing this show for months, I'm pretty sure every impromptu remark from Donahoe himself has been said before. It doesn't matter. His performance is so generous and forthright, and the stories are so personal, that I didn't want to be suspicious.

It couldn't be on his list, of course, but on my own list of brilliant things, I have to add the HBO documentary Every Brilliant Thing. Since HBO runs everything multiple times, I imagine it will be on several more times in the coming days. Do look it up and watch it.

It isn't long. And while there are heartbreaking moments, there are many joyful ones, many moments of love and kindness, and of course it's funny all the way through.

It will cost you little, if you already get HBO -- just an hour of time. And what you get in return is a full heart -- along with a memorable, original experience of live theatre. Even if you think a "message documentary" about suicide is not for you (and I certainly would have put myself in that category), give this one a chance.

Don't watch it as someone dealing with your own or someone else's impulses toward self-destruction. Watch it the way you would watch a Louis C.K. or Chris Rock or Amy Schumer stand-up special. For the sheer entertainment value. Every Brilliant Thing delivers on that promise.

*

I feel kind of ungrateful, because several people gave us games for Christmas that we haven't played yet. But as my wife and I were driving to Southern Virginia University for my first day of classes last Thursday, we stopped at the Barnes & Noble at Tanglewood Mall.

We actually got off Highway 220 for another reason entirely. Last December I spent a night at a new Hilton Garden Inn at South Peak. Basically, South Peak is a cliff beside the highway that previously existed only to show off the wonderful growth patterns of kudzu. But through the use of retaining walls, a steep and winding road was created up the face of that bluff, and perched on a ledge partway up is a Texas Roadhouse, and a little farther up is a Hilton Garden Inn.

My GPS had been completely confused about how to get there, sending me every which way until I finally found the half-hidden sign near the entry to a Wendy's. So I had to show my wife how hard it was to find the place, and how stunning the views were once you got there.

Then, when we came down the hill, we were pointed at Barnes & Noble. I mean, we had built in an extra hour for the trip, hadn't we? The restrooms at Barnes & Noble are usually clean, their hot chocolate is pretty good, and you can wander around and look at books.

Books and other stuff that B&N sells, and the pertinent thing last Thursday was a display of games for grownups. The two that looked most promising got played on Friday night at our house, and they're both winners -- depending on what you think is fun.

The one we tried first, **it Happens, belongs in the same category as Cards Against Humanity -- half the fun is reading cards that say things you normally would never let come out of your mouth. Some people would hate this game.

Let's say this: If you can't bring yourself to say aloud the actual name of the game, you shouldn't play it, because it won't be fun for you.

Here's how the game plays. The game's designers took a Family Feud-style poll of a bunch of "experts," offering them a whole slew of awful things that might happen to a person, and asking them to rate just how awful they were.

Combining their comments using some mathematical formula (plus a lot of thought about gameplay), the designers assigned each awful event a number between 0 and 100, with 100 being most awful.

For instance, "Parents Read Your Diary" gets a misery index of 37, while "Total Amnesia" gets a Misery Index of 97. "Addicted to Heroin" comes in at 97.5, but even worse is "You Go Blind" at 99.5. These make "Shark Attack! You Lose One Arm and One Leg" at 96.5 look relatively pleasant.

"A Spider Crawls Into Your Ear" is a moderate 44; "Your Parents Separate" rates 81.5, thus denying the old myth that "the children will be better off if we end this sad joke of a marriage."

From what I hear about gout from those who've actually had it, "Gout" is probably underrated at 48.5. The misery index of "Trapped on Elevator Overnight With Mariah Carey's 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' Playing in a Continuous Loop" is probably overrated at 37.5, especially when you consider that "**it the Bed" is rated only 9.5. I'll take overnight in an elevator with Mariah Carey's song before that other.

And with "Nonconsensual Bear Sex," I'm not sure whether they're rating the bear's misery index or mine. Presumably mine.

Just thinking about these things is both funny and horrifying. Each player starts with three randomly chosen cards in front of them, with whatever numbers they have. Then each player in turn reads out a new random card, without saying what the misery index is, and each player in turn must show where, on his own array of misery cards, this new one would fall.

If the player guesses right, he gets to add the card. If not, the next player gets a try.

The gameplay is particularly fun because it isn't about one player judging which of the other players' choices are "best." The numbers are there, even if you think they're sometimes wrong.

The second game is Bring Your Own Book, and this one is pretty much G-rated, if the players want it to be. If you're old, you remember the days when the Dictionary Game was played with a real dictionary -- one player would randomly choose an obscure word in the dictionary, and the other players would write down possible definitions, while the choosing player writes down the real definition.

Then everybody casts votes for the definition they think is real, and points are awarded. It was a party game that required nothing but a good dictionary and a clever group of players. And, of course, paper and writing implements.

Bring Your Own Book harks back to those halcyon days, because every player chooses a book, either from their own shelves or the house where they're playing.

Then the players take turns drawing and reading out a category card. Each card has two options, so the reader has options. For instance, categories might be "A line in a ransom note," "The most emotional moment in an opera," "A one-liner from an action movie," or "A quote someone would use as an e-mail signature."

Then all the other players search through their own book for an actual sentence, phrase, or word that fits the category -- or spectacularly does not fit -- and all in turn read their answer aloud.

The card-reader then chooses the "best" one and that player is awarded the card. The next player then draws a card, chooses the category, and everybody searches for another sentence, phrase, or word.

Each time a player is awarded his or her second card, everybody passes their book to the left. This means you aren't stuck with the same book through the whole game.

Every kind of book will work, as long as it contains words in a language that the players all speak. The first time we played, we had a cookbook, a couple of YA novels, a serious history book, and an issue of The New Yorker magazine. They all worked splendidly.

Yes, this is the kind of game where one player arbitrarily chooses the "best" in each round, but it doesn't matter, because all the entries are winners every time, as long as other people either laugh at or praise your offering.

Besides, it's fun to search through these books. By the end of the game, I felt as if I had read the novel Dumplin', by Julie Murphy -- and based on that "reading," I'd give it a thumbs-up review.

If you get all serious about winning, I don't want to play this game with you, because you'd spoil it with all your pouting and arguing.

*

I read The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben (audiobook narrated by Mike Grady) with misgivings. I think the religion of fanatical environmentalism has done great harm -- and means to do far more harm if their sentimental fake science becomes the basis of anti-Western legislation.

We often refer to the fanatical anti-human environmentalists as "tree-huggers," and if you want the quintessential tree-hugging book, the description of The Hidden Life of Trees sounds as if it will fit the bill exactly.

So ... why did I read a book that I expect to detest?

First, I don't limit my reading to books I think I'll agree with. Quite the opposite. I don't think you can call yourself an educated person if you only read things that will reinforce your current opinions.

But the most important reason I read this is that when I delved deeper into the description of the book, it became clear that this was based, not on sentimental human-hating bigotry (like everything claiming that "global warming" will end the world), but rather on real science and on the experience of the author as the forester in charge of tending to a real forest in Germany.

Sure enough, the science rings true, and as far as I can verify it, author Wohlleben is correct about everything. In addition, while he is definitely an environmentalist, and he believes in human-caused global warming, the only part of that which matters is that temperatures have warmed since the 1850s -- which is a simple, demonstrable truth, regardless of your politics.

In fact, Wohlleben is the first environmentalist writer I've seen in years who remembers that ice ages are far more destructive of natural life than global warming. Human civilization could not happen until global warming ended the last ice age.

Since we're in a relatively brief interval of warm temperatures between bouts of glaciation, we should probably be looking for ways to increase global warming in order to forestall the next glacial period. (But since that wouldn't destroy Western economies, it's unattractive to the puritans of the environmental movement.)

OK, let's forget politics and all the bad science that pervades our current public conversation. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate -- Discoveries from a Secret World is a powerful book that reveals many recent findings by real scientists about how trees really do raise their own offspring, respond to outside threats, and communicate warnings and other messages to each other.

The most important conclusion of this book is that trees need forests. Only in isolation can a tree grow up to show its full magnificence -- its "true shape." When we look at books telling us how to identify trees, they always show that isolated tree -- but in most cases, a tree growing up without close neighbors will have a drastically shortened life and is far more vulnerable to predators and other destructive forces.

Trees in a forest shelter each other from high winds. Some disasters can collapse huge swaths of forest -- like the Tunguska meteor impact or Hurricane Hugo. But forests don't evolve to deal with such non-routine events. Invasive insects, woodpeckers, and browsing deer are completely predictable, and any tree species that can't deal with them would have died out years ago -- or can only thrive in environments where such challenges don't come up.

Still, I was amazed to learn that trees that should have died years ago -- or actually did die -- are kept alive by nutrients passed along through the roots of neighboring trees.

Wohlleben tends a forest in Germany where beech trees predominate, and one reason beeches prevail in northern European forests is that they look out for each other. The luckiest beechnuts are the ones that germinate and grow into trees in the deep shade under their mothertree.

Wait ... aren't such saplings deprived of light? Don't they do better when they grow in clearings, where they get plenty of sunlight?

Exactly. Because Wohlleben and others have discovered that saplings that get lots of sun grow much faster than is good for them. The saplings in the shade of their full-grown mothertree grow very, very slowly in that deprived environment. As a result, their wood is tougher and more resilient.

Isolated trees that grew rapidly in bright sunlight are likely to be killed by storms that the slow-growing, sheltered trees would barely notice, because the trunks and branches of the isolated trees are more brittle.

How do those low-sunlight saplings manage to survive?

First, they grow leaves with different properties. The mothertree will have a crown of robust leaves that take only the sunlight they need and shed the rest. But the leaves of the shaded saplings are much more light-sensitive, so they can make much more of the three percent of sunlight that reaches the forest floor.

More important is the fact that the mothertree actually feeds her babies by passing sugars and other nutrients from her extensive root system into theirs. So these young beeches grow very slowly and sturdily until something topples the mothertree -- or another nearby tree -- and brings them a few years of bright sunlight.

Then they grow vigorously in order to gain maximum height before other neighboring trees plug that gap in the forest canopy.

But the nurturing care that the mothertree gives her offspring that grow up quite literally in her shadow is not a one-way street. One of the most astonishing stories in Hidden Life of Trees is the account of the circle of moss-covered "stones" that Wohlleben found in the forest one day.

It turned out they weren't stones at all. They were hard as rock, they were covered with moss, but they had bark. And, to his astonishment, inside the bark, these "stones" had green, living tissue. They were the remnants of a living tree, and they were still alive.

The reason that they were in a perfect circle on the ground is that hundreds of years ago, they were the stump of a fallen tree. The neighboring trees -- quite possibly the fallen tree's own offspring -- continued passing nutrients to the leafless stump in order to keep it alive.

In all likelihood, the stump used these nutrients to send up shoots and suckers, but it was a lost cause. It could never again reach a competitive position in the forest canopy. And, eventually, parasites ate away most of the stump and its roots until all that remained were a few rock-hard remnants of the outside edge of the stump.

Yet the neighboring trees were still responding to the genetic signals coming from these stumplets, which told them that here was a tree that was in great distress. So they continued supplying nutrients, keeping these fragments alive, even though they would never grow into a tree again.

When animals behave this way, we assign intelligent purpose to their behavior -- even though a strict evolutionist would say, "They behave this way because any members of this species who did not would be at a competitive disadvantage, and they long since died out."

But it pleases us to anthropomorphize the behavior of other animals. Why not, then, assign the same motives to plants that exhibit similar behavior? Just because trees can't get out and dance around doesn't mean that they can't be given credit for the good effects of their behavior.

Hidden Life of Trees talks at length about the symbiosis between trees and some beneficial fungi -- as well as the struggle to the death between trees and the harmful fungi that would destroy them if given a chance. We learn just how destructive woodpeckers are, as they search for food and carve out homes in the trees.

I loved learning how trees thrive, singly and together, and why some species dominate certain forests and can't gain a foothold in others. When he talks about species transplanted far from their native forests, it's interesting indeed to learn why some of them thrive and others wither away.

And trees do migrate in response to climate change. Trees that thrived south of the Alps during the latest ice age took advantage of global warming (back when it was a good, planet-saving thing) by traveling northward until they turned northern Europe, once an arctic wasteland, into the climax forests through which ancient Basques, Celts, Germans, Norse, and Slavs roamed and built and farmed.

No, of course the individual trees did not migrate. But it is the nature of trees to reproduce both locally and at large. Their seeds fall straight down -- except when they're carried by wind or animals to more remote locations. It took centuries, but the forests moved, even if the individual trees did not.

What's more, trees are often much older than we think. Here in the Greensboro area, all of our local woods are relatively new growth. They all grew up after clear-cutting, with the weaker trunks that this implies. But once a forest is established, everybody grows more slowly and methodically, so that while most of us know what a sunlight-blessed one-, two-, or five-year sapling looks like -- because some maple has insinuated its seed into a neglected corner of the yard -- we can easily find ourselves standing by a two-century tree, thinking that it can't have more than fifty years of growth in it.

Thinning and pruning trees is also a practice of dubious value. Even your ornamental standalone trees are often tortured by pruning, and most trees thrive better in the company -- and shelter, and sustaining strength -- of very close-by neighbors in the forest. In times of stress, they help each other bear a load of snow or ice, and they help each other withstand the blasts of thunderstorms or hurricanes -- though they can't do much to help each other through a tornado.

I'm perfectly content with the fact that the wild mass of trees and undergrowth we found in our tiny back yard when we moved in is now far less natural. We live here now, and when a tree shows signs of weakening, we're going to take it out before it can fall on our house. As long as we humans like to live in houses, by definition we are not going to live in a "forest," because no house is so "natural" that it doesn't cause a serious discontinuity in the surrounding forest.

After listening to Wohlleben explain why "managed" forests, where trees are kept separate for convenience in harvesting, are actually crippled and doomed to die, I understand that farming plants of any size is as unnatural as farming animals. Because we raise them, there are millions more cattle in the world than nature could ever have sustained. Likewise, "managed" forests provide some of the climatic benefits of natural forests -- but by no means all.

Wohlleben understands that humans continue to need lumber; but we and the rest of the planet also need large areas of undisturbed forest. When we interfere with natural patterns, we pay a heavy price.

Natural coastal forests, for instance, create microclimates that allow the wetness and mildness of coastal forests to continue inland for a long, long way. All of western Europe is within three or four hundred miles of the sea -- but North America requires that moisture dependably travel inland far beyond the littoral. Otherwise, there'd hardly be a tree growing in Tennessee.

The whole Amazon rainforest is a self-sustaining enterprise -- there is heavy rainfall even in the rainshadow of the Andes because the rainforest sustains its own water-retention and cloud-making system.

Look, we humans are going to keep needing and harvesting lumber, because it really does grow on trees. But that doesn't mean we can't maintain vast forest reserves in an undisturbed, largely unvisited condition.

For the sheer pleasure of it, do read The Hidden Life of Trees. In a heavily wooded area like Guilford County, we can easily take trees for granted. But after reading this book, you'll have a new appreciation, not just for individual trees of great beauty, but also for those shaggy, spindly trees that crowd each other in the forests that form wherever humans haven't paved or mowed for a few years.


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