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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 1, 2007

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


School Experts, Poitier, Prions, and Guacamole

It was one of those rare times when it almost seemed like our state legislature here in North Carolina had some brains.

As school districts all over the state -- including ours here in Guilford County -- were beginning the school year earlier and earlier, creeping up to mid-August and threatening to intrude even further into the summer, a coalition of parents and the tourist industry got our legislature to pass a law forbidding any school district to begin classes before 25 August.

There were exceptions for individual schools that were on a year-round schedule and a few other special circumstances.

But by and large, families were guaranteed that there was a limit to how much of their lives together the local school system could steal.

Now, however, there are districts petitioning the legislature to allow "district exceptions" -- to revise the law so entire districts could "meet local needs" and intrude back into those summer days.

There are no local "needs" for this. Just district administrations that deeply resent having any limit placed on their power to take children away from their families so that child-rearing can be botched by professionals instead of letting those amateur parents make their own mistakes.

When you consider the demands of school districts for more and more of our children's time, let us please remember this:

There is no such thing as an "educational expert."

There are people who have snookered us into paying them a lot of money because they claim to be experts on education, but it's all a game. They collect degrees by taking classes from people who don't know how to teach and don't recognize good teaching when they see it. Then they come to the school districts and get ridiculously high salaries for thinking up ways to keep teachers from doing their jobs.

When you look at the actual "research" and "science" they claim as their authority, you quickly recognize that what you're seeing is not science at all. They launch into drastic, expensive changes and programs long before there's any meaningful data suggesting that they will make enough difference in the right direction to be worth the cost.

We have layers of these "experts" in every school district in the state. They are the highest paid district employees, so I suppose it's appropriate that they do the most harm.

Do you know what I find, as a college teacher? That the best writers, the best thinkers, the most broadly educated among my students are the ones who were home-schooled.

Think about that. And then think about this: Most of those home-schooled kids get their schooling in a few hours a day. By noon, most of them are done. Then they have time to live together with their families. To read or play on their own. To have a childhood.

Meanwhile, the educational establishment makes ironclad, unbreakable rules about how many days and hours our children must be put under the control of the "experts," who march them through the halls in lines, refuse to let them use the toilet without being punished for it, and inflict group punishments like "silent lunch" for the crime of sitting near other kids who were daring to talk to each other. (I'm describing one of the "better" middle schools in our district.)

And as if that weren't enough, they're maneuvering to take away our summer again.

Just remember, folks, as our schools get worse and worse: All the useless or harmful changes that have turned American schools into a joke are the direct result of the policies of the "experts." Meanwhile, the experts are full of explanations about why all the problems are the fault of the parents.

Yet the parents who take their kids home to teach them do a better job without the help of the experts.

The more I hear about the stupid, intrusive, dictatorial treatment of children in the schools, the more I wish I could take our youngest out of school and bring her home. Unfortunately, school is where they keep the other kids, so our daughter insists on staying in school so she can be with her friends.

Of course, she's assigned where she has to sit in class and even at lunch, where there used to be some kind of freedom; and even if she is assigned to sit near a friend, she's likely to be forbidden to speak. So I'm not sure how much time she's actually getting with her friends. But apparently it's worth it to her.

If only we had a school board that would actually represent parents and keep the "experts" in check. But, unfortunately, about fifteen minutes after they're elected, the school board members are completely snookered by the experts with all their studies and statistics, and we aren't electing school board members with enough expertise to recognize the shoddy methodology behind most of these studies, to see through the smoke and mirrors; they don't answer these experts with the laughter they usually deserve.

And so there are school districts demanding the right to steal even more days out of our children's precious hours with their families and by themselves.

Here's my question: Given the lousy job the experts are doing with our children right now, why in the world would we give them more days to prove their incompetence at education?

*

It's been seven years since Sidney Poitier's book The Measure of a Man was first released, but it's been at the point of sale in bookstores lately as if it were a brand-new book. Why? It's the Oprah effect, of course!

Ironically, I've had a copy of the book sitting on my shelves for all those years, waiting for me to read it. But recently I was looking for a book on cd to help me stay awake while driving and there was Measure of a Man near the cash register.

So I didn't just read the book -- Sidney Poitier read it to me himself.

He does a marvelous job, except for one tiny quirk. He has a way of fading out at the end of sentences -- especially if they're important. This is great in movies, where you can read his lips. But it's horrible in a car. Twice, I stopped the car and turned the engine off in order to try to hear a particular phrase, and failed. It just wasn't there on the cd to be heard.

Not really his fault. The director and producer of audio productions are responsible for making sure that the reading is audible. Even if the reader is a legendary star like Sidney Poitier, he still has to depend on other people to point out to him when his words are simply inaudible. But apparently they did not feel themselves able to ask him to correct the error. Too bad.

Despite that occasional annoyance, though, the book is a powerful experience. The book is a combination of memoir and philosophy-of-life. Poitier doesn't pretend that what he's learned in his long life is particularly profound -- he offers it in the hope that it's useful. So don't expect Hegel or Kant. Do expect a good man telling us, as best he can, how he makes sense of life.

I say "a good man," but certainly not a flawless one. Usually on purpose, but sometimes inadvertently, he reveals mistakes he's made. The most painful section was the one where he talked about his divorce and what it cost him in his relationship with his children. What he doesn't address is why in the world he put himself in a position where he could, as he says, "fall in love with somebody else." And even if he did fall in love with another woman, why in the world did he do anything about it?

So what seems to be arguably his biggest mistake -- the point where he put his own preference before his commitments to his first wife and their children together -- he treats as a given, something that simply couldn't be helped.

But Poitier isn't particularly interested in how readers might judge him. He spends plenty of time judging himself. No, more accurately, I should say he spends his time observing himself and reporting on what he sees.

The story of how he and a friend were caught in a riptide on a Mexican beach and nearly died; his account of how he was a bit too effective in his effort to get out of the military; the time he went to pick up his cleaning at the plant late at night in segregation-era florida; above all, his account of life as a child in the Bahamas -- these are gripping, powerful stories that meant much to him and speak strongly to his readers as well.

There are also tips for actors -- though not as many as I think most actors would want. He's a Method actor by intention, but as with most American actors who embrace the Method, he chose it in preference to the skills of British-style acting at a point where he had not mastered the skills. Naturally, the Method feels better to the actor than unmastered skills; too many American actors simply discard the whole idea of learning how to act for no better reason than that they weren't very good at it.

The fact is that when you watch Poitier act, he does have the skills, however and whenever he might have acquired them; but he also has the Method. The result is a potent combination of calculation and inner fire.

And then there is that voice.

Isn't it a shame that after he opened so many doors for black actors, he suddenly was rejected because he was too much of an "Uncle Tom," playing "noble black men" that white audiences could accept.

Apparently it never occurred to anyone back in the era when he was discarded that he played these noble characters by his own free choice: He did not think it was worth his while to portray someone whose life and struggle was not worth admiring.

It never seemed to cross his critics' mind that he played noble characters, not because the white establishment made him do it, but because he made them reshape the characters until each was the kind of man he wanted to play.

In other words, he was treated as if he had been powerless, a tool, when in fact he had been powerful. I guess nobody bothered to ask him. It breaks my heart to think of all the great performances we missed, just because he didn't fit some politically correct model of the kind of role black men were allowed to play. I guess it was The Color Purple that showed how black men had to be in American Film, instead of To Sir, With Love or In the Heat of the Night.

Come to think of it, we could use a lot more noble heroes in our movies even now, regardless of race.

*

The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, by D.T. Max is a heartbreaking and depressing book. The author himself suffers from an incurable degenerative disease, but found himself in awe of the Italian family who suffer from a hereditary prion disease that strikes in middle age, making it impossible for them to sleep and then driving them downward into madness before they finally, mercifully die.

Along the way, Max tells us the whole story of prion diseases -- the Mad Cow epidemic in Britain and the way bad luck, national pride, ambition, and sheer stupidity led to far more deaths than were needed. Then he points out how America learned almost nothing from the British experience and allowed shoddy, dangerous practices to continue, until we are at the point where we might, without realizing it, be suffering from meat-borne prion diseases here in the United States as well.

But his book is not a jeremiad. Rather it is an account of how strange, even perverse human behavior has led to the outbreaks of prion diseases -- and accompanied the effort to understand and cure them.

In an era when we heedlessly alter the genetics of many of our prime food sources -- and, soon enough, our own genes as well -- it is good to be reminded of how the very breeding practices that transformed the British wool and dairy industries (breeding "in and in") brought with them completely unforeseen and deadly results.

Scientists far too easily embrace their authority, insisting that they be believed by the ignorant masses, when they have not first done their own due diligence to make sure they even know what they're talking about.

Today we have scientists insisting, on their authority alone, that we uncritically accept a political program for eliminating a "global warming" whose cause is far from certain; they have exactly as much arrogance as the scientists who assured the British public that their beef was "safe."

If there's any lesson to be learned from The Family That Couldn't Sleep, it's how useful and, indeed, necessary it is for scientists to be humble about what they do and do not know. And how essential it is for those with doubts to speak their doubts boldly.

I listened to this book on cd, and once again was afflicted with having to listen to the perpetually annoying voice of Grover Gardner, named by AudioFile as one of the "Best Voices of the Century."

This may be true, unless you have to listen to his affected, detached voice, reading everything as if he were far more interested in listening to his own golden tones than in making sense of what he's supposedly trying to communicate.

It's not that I don't want him to get any more work -- I just want him to read as if he actually understood the words he's saying. And if, along the way, he can figure out how to talk like a regular person, that would help, too.

*

The best guacamole is made fresh at home: Ripe avocados, mashed with a fork, with chopped tomato and onions, the juice of a lime, a dash of salt, and cumin, garlic, and pepper to taste.

You finish mixing it, then set it out on the table and dip in with chips or vegetables, or eat it with beans and rice.

But sometimes the only avocados in the store are so overripe they feel like a water balloon, or so unripe they might be made of brick. Yet your menu for the party depends on having guacamole.

Here's what you do: Go to Earth Fare and pick up several packages of Calavo Guacamole. In each box there are two eight-ounce plastic pouches of guacamole. And it's the real thing: all natural, no preservatives, with chunks of fresh green-and-pale avocados so it doesn't feel pureed.

There are several different kinds -- plain and pico de gallo are our favorites. Is it as good as the guacamole we make ourselves? I'm not sure. The homemade fresh guacamole is room temperature; the Calavo is taken out of the refrigerator so it's chilled.

Maybe by the time the Calavo guac gets to room temperature, it tastes exactly like homemade. But I don't know. It's never lasted long enough to find out. It may be our second choice, but it's a good second choice.


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