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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 4, 2007

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

Teacher Man, Chocolate Milk, Idol, Salvino

Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes was a monster bestseller a decade ago. The story of his Irish mother's struggle to raise a family in America and Ireland, without much help from her husband, was painful and beautiful. His writing had a lyrical flow that begged to be spoken aloud with an Irish lilt, and word-of-mouth carried it into women's book groups in vast numbers, where eager readers laughed and wept.

But was the success of the book because McCourt was such a good writer, or because his mother had such a moving, unforgettable life?

I think it's safe to say that while the story was powerful enough, McCourt could tell any story and make it a pleasure to read.

A friend of mine, who shares my delight in good audiobooks, recommended Frank McCourt's third book (after 'Tis), Teacher Man. McCourt came to America in his late teens (he was also born here, but if you read Angela's Ashes, you know that) and worked the docks of New York before graduating from NYU and becoming a high school teacher.

With brief interruptions, teaching high school is what he did for his entire working life; he did not write his first book until after he retired. He began teaching in the 1950s -- the era of Blackboard Jungle -- and he started in some of the toughest classrooms in America at that time. Somehow, as a new teacher, he survived.

Well, not "somehow" -- he tells us exactly how. For instance, on his first day of his first class, he walks into the room at exactly the moment that one student throws his lunch at another. It's a major discipline problem, the class is in an uproar, McCourt has no experience and no credibility -- what does he do?

If he yells at the kids, he becomes the enemy -- or they don't even notice him, which would be a likely enough outcome.

Instead, he bends over, picks up the lunch bag, and takes out the bologna sandwich inside.

This ain't your Wonder Bread and mayonnaise and Oscar Mayer boloney sandwich, though. This is a sandwich made by an Italian mother, with thick slabs of good bread, lettuce and tomato, and real bologna.

So McCourt eats it. He stands in the front of the class and devours the sandwich that had been used as a projectile weapon by its intended recipient, and you can believe that by the end he has the rapt attention of the class. Laughing, yes, but also stunned by the audaciousness of it.

Unfortunately, the principal happens to be passing at that exact moment and looks through the window of the door. He opens the door and calls McCourt out into the hall.

We expect our teachers to eat their lunches at noon, says the principal. And not in front of the class. It sets a bad example. Besides, it's only nine in the morning. Lunch isn't for hours yet. I'll chalk this up to your inexperience, and it won't go into your record. But please don't do this again.

McCourt doesn't tell him that it wasn't his own lunch, it was a student's -- somehow he knows that this would not improve the situation.

When he returns to the classroom, the students are eager to hear whathappened with the principal. "He told me not to eat my lunch in front of the class."

The student whose sandwich he ate thought it was as funny as the rest of the class. McCourt told him his mother made a great bologna sandwich. And a teaching career was launched.

It's hard to critique a memoir without, in effect, criticizing the life of the author. But let's just say that I could have done without some of the information we got about McCourt's sex life. I didn't really want to know that when he took a voyage back to Ireland to attend Dublin's Trinity College, he spent the first three nights on the Queen Elizabeth shacking up with a woman in her first class cabin. I don't actually care that his marriage was already on the rocks -- it's something to be ashamed of, and he writes about it as if it were a perfectly ordinary thing to do.

But even when I didn't like what was happening, there was no getting around how readable the story was.

It isn't McCourt's life, per se, that makes the book so fascinating. It's the teaching. He cared about his students -- he thought about them, how to reach them, how to connect with them. Sometimes -- no, often -- teaching can feel like a futile effort; and it's exhausting, five classes a day, 170 students, week after week, month after month.

(People who sneer at how easy teachers have it, getting those months off in the summer, have never faced a semi-hostile audience whom they must entertain for an hour with a minimal script. They need the R&R just to gear themselves up for the next year's round of classes. Instead, they usually have to get summer jobs -- or take summer classes.)

McCourt saw how the system worked -- the most ambitious teachers usually worked hard to qualify for administrative positions so they could get out of the classroom.

He never tried for that (though he did make his attempt at a doctorate in Dublin). It was teaching that McCourt wanted to do, and did. But in his book he does not pretend to have always done it well or to have treated every student properly. Sometimes a class got away from him; sometimes he felt like he made no difference. But throughout, he never lost track of the fact that his students were individual people, not just a bunch of feral animals to be tamed and trained.

He ended his career as a teacher of writing and literature at New York's most prestigious public high school, Stuyvesant. He learned that just because kids got into a top high school didn't mean they had no problems -- quite the contrary. Teenagers are teenagers -- they can get just as lost, just as frightened, just as angry whether they're marked as gifted or marked as non-college material.

It isn't all a love-fest -- McCourt has regular run-ins with idiots, both inside and outside the school system. (I took special delight in his encounter with a boorish, arrogant "famous" writer that nobody heard of, who took delight in cutting down anyone who didn't worship him appropriately.)

The book isn't very long. On CD it's about nine hours to listen to. And I heartily recommend that you experience the book that way. McCourt reads it himself -- it was the only choice, really, because only his lush Irish voice can capture the music of the language.

By the end, my main impression was: Lucky the kids who had this man as their teacher. And foolish the administrator or school board member or parent who thinks that teachers are "all alike" or that good teaching can be mandated or incentivized. It's an art, and some people are more gifted at it than others.

There are plenty of scared, minimally skilled teachers who need all the help they can get. But there are also plenty of talented, wise, bold teachers who just need the system to get out of the way and let them teach.


Chocolate milk is my crack cocaine.

When I got home from my two-year mission in Brazil back in 1973, the exercise of walking all over São Paulo while eating with reasonable care had gotten me down to the lowest weight of my adult life -- 176 pounds. And the next summer, when I was directing and producing musicals at an outdoor amphitheatre, I carried one end of a piano up and down a steep ramp every day; I could run up the steep hill from the parking lot to the theatre without running out of breath. I was, for me at least, in great shape.

Except for the chocolate milk. Guess what? A quart of chocolate milk a day can completely offset an energetic lifestyle.

Eventually --many months and dozens of pounds later -- I realized the foolishness of my addiction and swore off chocolate milk. There was no twelve-step program. I just quit cold turkey.

(I did the same thing with cold cereal about eighteen years ago. I still have passionate dreams of eating Kellogg's Crispix. I wake up so hungry. If I'm ever convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death, that's what I'll have for my last meal. Finished off with a quart of chocolate milk.)

Every now and then I have a chocolate milk relapse. But so far, at least, I haven't gone back to my quart-a-day habit.

If I do, though, it will be because of Promised Land All Natural Midnight Chocolate Reduced Fat 2% Milk, with "no artificial hormones" and "more taste, protein, calcium."

It wasn't my fault. I was doing a late-night run for milk on Saturday night, so I could avoid shopping on Sunday, and as I reached for the Horizon organic 2% on the shelf at Harris-Teeter, there above it perched the inordinately attractive glass bottle of Promised Land, looking cold and fresh and impossibly delicious.

My hand went up to the shelf all by itself. I couldn't stop it. Six Marines and the FBI couldn't have stopped it.

Here's how self-controlled I am. I shared it with my wife. And I'm not buying another. I'm not.


On the results shows each Thursday, American Idol has been bringing back past finalists and winners to perform.

Fantasia Barrino sang -- no, she wrung every ounce of power out of -- a song from the new Broadway musical of The Color Purple, and I was reminded of exactly why she, and not Jennifer Hudson, won Idol the year they competed against each other.

Hudson got the part in the movie Dream Girls because she was absolutely right for the part. Fantasia Barrino was not. But Barrino is right for the part she has in Color Purple, and I expect her to be brilliant in it. After several years of not bothering to go to any New York plays, I actually have a reason to go back.

Last week, it was Kellie Pickler who came back to the show to sing. Pickler did not win last year, or even make it to the final round, but her album is the best to emerge from her year. She's twice the country singer Carrie Underwood is -- she never sounds forced, she sings from the heart. She's the real thing.

Which is why it was kind of sad to see her perform. She sang her heart out, and because she chose a very personal, emotional song, her singing wasn't actually up to her best -- you can't sing well while fighting off tears. But that wasn't what made me sad.

It was how plastic she's become. What we loved about her was her sweetness and simplicity. What we saw last Thursday was a plasticized version of Kellie Pickler. Big hair. Too much makeup. And, most tragically, a deeply cut neckline showing off either an amazing pushup bra or a boob job.

A friend of mine, commenting on her appearance, leapt to the conclusion that her "handlers" must have been remaking her this way. I don't know about that. Pickler's a true country girl. She grew up admiring the great country singers. So it wouldn't be surprising if, the moment she got some money, she immediately set about to remake herself into the image of the stars she admired.

It's just too bad if she decided she wanted Dolly Parton's breasts. Parton didn't even want them, after she had them long enough -- they got her noticed, but they also became uncomfortable and burdensome enough that she later got the implants removed. If Pickler had implants, they were a mistake. We love her for herself -- and for her unaffected singing.

Why is it that so many women (and men, for that matter) are pathetically eager to turn themselves into "sex symbols"? There's room for many different kinds of performers in the world of entertainment. To be blunt, any idiot can have the surgery and buy the clothes to make themselves "sexy." But you can't buy sweetness and innocence and genuineness. When you've got them, you should treasure them.

Contrary to the common wisdom, we don't need all our singers to be sex symbols. Please, Kellie, button up your blouse and be what you were when we fell in love with you.

As for this year's crop of Idol contestants, they're beginning to emerge as individuals. There are some drop-dead powerful singers, as well as some true originals who might well be heading for stardom.

As usual, people misunderstand what Simon Cowell is talking about when he comments after each performance. People think he's telling what he wants, when he talks about the clothing and the look of each contestant, as well as their singing. But he's not -- he's talking about the impression that each performer is making, and what's hurting their ability to compete on American Idol.

He might be hurtful with his strained and poisonous analogies, but he's usually right. He was wrong when he thought Taylor Hicks was just a novelty act -- he hadn't reckoned on the fact that behind Hicks's eccentricities, he could sing -- and he was profoundly likeable. But most of the time Cowell is right, and the performers who listen to him have a chance at getting better -- maybe even in time to have a shot at winning the contest.

The first week, the four weakest performers were eliminated. The second week, the very weakest performers stayed, apparently because of cuteness or a sympathetic story rather than their performances. But in no case has anyone yet been eliminated who had a realistic chance of making it to the final four.

And who will those four be? If there's any justice (and sometimes there is!) the final four will be Melinda Doolittle, Lakisha Jones, Blake Lewis, and Chris Sligh. And the winner will be Melinda Doolittle, for the same reason Fantasia Barrino won in her year -- she owns the stage, she knows and understands the music, and she knows exactly how to use her voice to maximum effect to reinvent every song she sings and make it her own.

There are five others whom I really like and hope to keep watching for many weeks: Stephanie Edwards, Sundance Head, Chris Richardson, Sabrina Sloan, and Phil Stacey. Some of them might even have been winners in a different year (Sloan and Edwards are easily better than Carrie Underwood, for instance, in what turned out to be a relatively weak year).

Sanjaya Malakar and Jordin Sparks are sweet kids with a lot of talent, but they really are out of their depth. Maturity makes a difference; someday they'll have it, but this year they aren't in the running for the top spot. Still, they're likeable and pleasant to hear.

And I'll miss Nicholas Pedro. He's a good crooner. I'd buy his album. But unless you have red hair and are cute as a bug, crooning doesn't win Idol.

Oops. The red-hair-and-cute-as-a-bug combo didn't save Leslie Hunt, did it?

When Cowell repeatedly tells Melinda Doolittle that there are people with huge egos and less talent on the stage, but she'll prevail because she can outsing them and she's so sweet, don't be fooled: What Cowell is talking about is appearance. Doolittle has as much ego as anyone. It takes a giant dose of ambition and ego even to get up on that stage, and Doolittle could not perform as she does without a massive determination to make things go her way.

What Cowell is really saying is that Doolittle is a good person who is not so desperate to win that she has lost her ability to connect with other people. She is, in a word, warm. She may not have Taylor Hicks's eccentricities, but she does have his warmth -- and that, I believe, is what brought Hicks to victory over finalists who were at least as talented as he was. Doolittle has it; Doolittle will win.

But I'll also buy Lakisha Jones's album, and Chris Sligh's.


Chef Sal Bruno has been pleasing Greensboro diners for many years, at The Elms, Pasta & Vino, and most recently at Salvino on Spring Garden. The Spring Garden location was about a block away from being a good one -- unfortunately, though, you couldn't see it from Holden Road, and a lot of people never even knew it was there.

I was one of them. My loss.

And now my gain, as Salvino Cucina Italiana is back in business in a small neighborhood location in the Big Lots/Golds shopping center across from Brassfield.

(Not that there aren't still location problems -- when people are backed up at the light, waiting to get out of the main parking lot, you can't turn left to get into the little lot in front of Salvino. Simplest solution: Just go on into the main parking lot, turn around, and then come back down and turn right into the little parking lot.)

My first visit to the new location was as the guest of a friend who has been following Bruno's career for years. Considering that the restaurant has only been open for a few months, I was surprised that my friend already knew every dish on the menu. Until I realized that this is what makes a neighborhood restaurant a success: repeat business. People who come back again and again.

When a restaurant suddenly catches on, it can fill up with people eager to try the newly reviewed, trendy place; but what keeps a restaurant in business, year after year, are the regulars, people who think, "Let's not cook tonight," and then automatically head for their favorite place, where they know the food will be excellent and the dining room feels like an extension of their own home.

Salvino is that kind of place. The service is unpretentious and warm; the prices are not trivial, but definitely worth it. If you have appetizers, expensive entrees, and desserts, then even without wine it can cost you $150 or more for four people. But for two people who only want a one course meal of pasta dishes, you can dine heartily and happily for $35.

The pastas are excellent, by the way, and Bruno has a delicate touch with his sauces. Flavors blend perfectly -- his gorgonzola gnocchi and his lobster ravioli were the real thing. You might want to ask for your salad dressing on the side -- the house balsamic was delicious but there was too much of it.

It's worth staying for dessert, which I usually don't do. (In a world that contains ice cream, why eat heavier desserts at higher prices?) The slice of white cake with layers of chocolate mousse was so delicious -- and light -- that I left the restaurant feeling comfortable and happy.

It's a neighborhood restaurant, but I don't live in that neighborhood. Fortunately, it's also a lovely event restaurant too, so I know I'll be back from time to time. I hope the restaurant soon expands so that there are more tables -- unless you dine early, you almost certainly want to call for a reservation (336-540-8663).


Last week I mentioned that Peter O'Toole was defeated by Sidney Poitier for the Oscar the year of Lawrence of Arabia.

That's what I get for trusting what I find by Googling.

The fact is that Lawrence of Arabia was up for awards in 1962, not 1963; O'Toole was defeated for the Oscar by Gregory Peck's brilliant performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.

My point remains: How do you choose between two Oscar-worthy actors? But in this case, both films are also brilliant and enduring masterpieces.

(And thanks to my friend Adam Spieckerman for calling my attention to the error. What about the rest of you? Do you believe what I say without checking? What do you think this is, Global Warming? The Oscars matter!)

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