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Commentary & Media 05 Mar 2015 03:04 pm

The slur heard ’round the world

One of the latest tempests in a teapot from the Internet is Kristi Capel’s use of the word “jigaboo” last week.

In case you haven’t seen the clip, Cleveland WJW Channel 8 morning anchor Capel went off script on Feb. 23 to comment about singer Lady Gaga’s performance on the Oscars the night before. Fishing for a way to describe the loud music that accompanied Gaga’s performance of “The Sound of Music,” Capel came up with “jigaboo,” as in, “It’s really hard to hear (Lady Gaga’s) voice with all the jigaboo music.” She then repeated the word.

“Jigaboo,” of course, is an offensive term for a black person. Capel’s utterance of it set off a powder keg of commentary online, and it wasn’t long before the term was trending on Twitter. Among many calls for her termination, some commentators took the opportunity to implicate all Fox commentators as racist, which is, of course, ridiculous.

Capel apologized both on air and on Twitter (she was also suspended for three days), but her mea culpa signaled another round of controversy. “I apologize if I offended you, I had no idea it was a word or what it meant. Thank you for watching,” she tweeted.

The firestorm now centered on whether a TV news anchor would use a word that she couldn’t define; and, if so, what it said about her professionalism and judgment. It appeared ludicrous that an adult woman could not be aware of the word and its implications. Where had she grown up?

I was among those people who thought there was no way Capel could have reached adulthood without coming into contact with the word’s negative connotation. But then I read an OpEd piece on by Jason Johnson, a political science professor at Hiram College, who argued that as a boy he had used the word “goomba” in front of his father to describe mushroom-shaped video game characters in “Super Mario Brothers.”

To Johnson’s father, the word “goomba” was a derogatory term for Italian-Americans. While Johnson doesn’t say if his father explicitly schooled him about its meaning, he writes that “I knew better than to use the word ‘goomba’ again, and I was only 8 years old.” Somehow, Johnson then equates this with Capel’s ignorance about “jigaboo” as an adult, concluding: “If I could figure out how to play Super Mario Brothers without using racial slurs at 8 years old, there’s no reason a grown woman with a journalism degree can’t find a way to talk about Lady Gaga without sounding racist.”

At the risk of sounding ignorant, let me say that as a 46-year-old man, I had no idea that “goomba” was derogatory toward any one group. I have always used the word as a substitute for a large, hulking, not-too-bright person, the kind of heavy who might show up in an old Warner Bros. gangster movie. I can’t swear to it, but I’ve probably even used the word in that context a few times throughout my life.

But if I were to abide by the “rules” of journalism as dictated by any number of Internet wags, I should never use a word unless I know its definition. This sent me to Merriam-Webster, and its entry on goombah (spelled there with an “h”): “1: a close friend or associate — used especially among Italian-American men; 2: a member of a secret chiefly Italian-American crime organization: mafioso; broadly: gangster; and 3: a macho Italian-American man.”

Nowhere do I see a note that the term is offensive to Italian-Americans (although the gangster implication is none too flattering). On the contrary, the first definition is downright positive. It’s only in less authoritative realms — Wikipedia and other sites — that “goombah” is listed as an insult. Obviously, any negative connotations weren’t so widely known that they kept game designers from hanging the word on “Super Mario Brothers” characters.

Of course, no positive entry accompanies “jigaboo” in Merriam-Webster’s, or any other dictionary. The term is unconscionable, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that even a college-educated person might never have come into contact with it. Or even if she had, not in a prohibitive context.

The only difference between Johnson’s story and Capel’s is that his vocabulary misfire happened when he was young, in the privacy of his home, with only his father to witness it. Capel’s happened when she was an adult, on the air, in full view of a public that too often punishes weakness or ignorance the way residents of old Salem punished witches.

Let he — or she — who has never used a word without full knowledge of all its meanings and implications cast the first stone.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on March 5, 2015.

Commentary 28 Feb 2015 02:46 pm

The massage is the message


Super-creeper Joe Biden was at it again last week, massaging the shoulders of the new defense secretary’s wife.

When the clip aired on “The Tonight Show,” I thought it was a parody of some sort, a digital manipulation that made it appear that the vice president was rubbing Stephanie Carter’s shoulders and whispering into her ear at the same time that Ash Carter was delivering his acceptance speech.

But no, it was real, as was the moment when the defense secretary reached behind him to touch his wife’s shoulder, as if claiming her for his own, causing Biden to quickly step to the side and put his hands behind his back. He looked like nothing so much as a bad kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

I’d like to think Biden isn’t a pervert. Perhaps he is just a very demonstrative person, what we used to call “touchy feely” in an age before that term became an insult.

I feel for Mrs. Carter: I’m always uncomfortable when anybody decides to violate my personal space for much more than a handshake. Yet something about me inspires shoulder rubbers, because I’ve had more than my fair share of people who want to knead me like a pile of dough. It makes me flinch every time it happens, and I don’t really know what to say. “Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape,” comes to mind, but that only works if you’re Charlton Heston. Plus, it’s really hard to know what to say next. “Lousy weather we’ve been having” doesn’t really cut it.

Personal space is so important that there is a field of study devoted to it — proxemics. Basically, four levels of personal space have been defined: public distance (12 to 25 feet), often used in speaking scenarios; social distance (4 to 12 feet), for acquaintances; personal distance (1.5 to 4 feet), for close friends and family members; and intimate distance (6 to 18 inches), reserved for people with whom we are very comfortable.

Proxemics varies among different cultures, so what feels normal or comfortable here in the U.S. might be a social gaffe in another country. That said, Biden goes from social distance to intimate distance with Stephanie Carter in less than two seconds, and appears to be only a heartbeat away from slipping his tongue into her ear. I don’t know any culture where that’s acceptable.

The vice president’s intrusion is so egregious that I wouldn’t have blamed Carter for going into physical-defense mode — stomping down on his foot with her heel and elbowing him in the groin. Fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your sense of humor — a cooler head prevailed.

Still, I wonder what Biden was saying to her? Something about her husband, or some non sequitur? A few options suggest themselves: “Hey, baby, I’ve got the fever for the flavor of a Pringles.”

“Say hello to my little friend.”

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

Regardless, Biden put the new defense secretary on notice. I bet when Ash accepted the position, he never realized that the person who would need the most defending was his own wife.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Feb. 26, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & technology 28 Feb 2015 02:41 pm

Apple at the wheel

Word on the street is that Apple is considering designing its own car.

The vehicle has been dubbed Applemobile by the media, which report on the car as though it already exists and not as if it is merely a rumor as unsubstantiated as the burial site of Jimmy Hoffa.

I love Apple products, from the MacBook Pro I use at home to the MacBook Air I use at work, and every iteration of the iPad in between. In my opinion, the single most life-changing piece of technology, outside of the lightbulb, is the iPhone.


The Applemobile fails to excite me. For one thing, it’s rumored to be self-driving, which means that future passengers can behave even more disgracefully than they do now. Imagine a driverless car filled with pajama pant-wearing zombie housewives on their way to the mall to buy the latest installment of mommy-porn “Fifty Shades of Grey” while watching the movie version of same projected on the sun visors of their Applemobile.

Or maybe I’m confusing this with the Googlemobile.

Either way, I fear Apple will sell its car the way it sells its phones. This means that the same people who line up for days outside every Apple store when a new phone is released will also queue up for the release of the car. These flagpole sitters and tent-city refugees will hog all the cool colors, leaving nothing but a three-month backlog on basic tombstone black for those of us who have to work for a living.

And what if Apple initially releases nothing but the chassis, with everything else priced individually in the App Store? Uh, I guess I need to install the ignition, engine, and tire apps before driving this puppy home, huh?

Given Apple’s hesitance to play well with others, the car probably won’t be compatible with existing roads, in the same way that Apple products throw up error messages whenever anything Flash-enabled comes along.

Thus far, there appears to be no truth to the vicious rumor that the Applemobile bends when passengers sit in it.

Will the cars vibrate every time owners get a text message? Do the windshield wipers double as selfie sticks? Will my Apple ID also serve as my keyless ignition? If the car is lost or stolen, can I use “Find My iCar” on another vehicle to set off an alarm and lock down the glove compartment and trunk?

By the way, “stolen” has an entirely new meaning with the Applemobile. Since so much of our lives are now stored “in the Cloud,” thieves may bypass stealing the physical car in favor of just hacking into it. Celebrities who drive Applemobiles, beware: Those naked photos of yourselves that you’ve had taken just to have naked photos of yourselves are in even more jeopardy.

None of which addresses the cost to society of one more Apple-related intrusion into our lives. Doubtless we must learn to expect the same level of possessiveness and fetishism over an Apple car that we see demonstrated for the iPhone. Managers will grow accustomed to employees sneaking peaks at the cars every minute or two “just to check the time” and slipping away from their cubicles just to fondle it in their hands. Those couples in restaurants who spend the entire meal with their chins sewn to their chests while they stare at their phones and slam their thumbs against the glass screens will now be able to do the same thing in their Applemobiles.

Him: Are u warm enough?

Her: No. Can u turn up the heat?

Him: Yes.

Her: Thanks.

Him: Whatcha doin?

Her: Texting u. Watcha doin?

Him: Texting u. Wanna go 2 the movies?

Her: Can’t we just watch one in the car?

The death of formal conversations aside, the number one reason why I wouldn’t want an Applemobile is this: No sooner could you afford to buy one then Apple would release a newer model — the Applemobile 6-Plus, with all the bells and whistles that you really want.

Apple is Pavlov, and we are the dogs. Salivate on cue, iLassie.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Feb. 19, 2015, in The Alliance Review

Commentary & Music 13 Feb 2015 01:16 pm

Eight great discs


Since reading a Wall Street Journal article a few months back about the BBC’s long-running “Desert Island Discs,” I’ve pondered the eight albums I would take with me to a solitary isle.

According to the November piece by Terry Teachout, the premise of the show is that a new guest each week selects an octet of records. Part of the charm, apparently, is that many guests opine about their lack of musical sophistication, which is often in direct disproportion to their accomplishments in the arts. (The BBC’s website contains a complete list of guests and their choices.)

Not that I’ve had any accomplishments in the arts since a triumphant flutophone performance in the fourth grade (”Stunning!” raved The New York Times; “Eh, it was OK,” opined my mom), but here is my list of “Desert Island Discs.”

“1,” The Beatles — I know that I lose a lot of street cred by starting with a greatest hits album, especially for what is arguably rock’s greatest band. But I’ve always been merely a casual fan of the Fab Four, and this album has just about everything I need, from the raucous “Paperback Writer” to the sublime “Yesterday.”

“August and Everything After,” The Counting Crows (1994) — Mellow, jangly and deep, this album offered up a couple of big hits (”Mr. Jones” and “Rain King”). I’m interested in the more obscure cuts, however, like “Anna Begins” and “A Murder of One.” The musicianship is confident and unpretentious throughout, and lead singer Adam Duritz’s vocals capture both joy and disappointment effectively. Nothing else the band has done has ever topped this, its debut.

“Blood on the Tracks,” Bob Dylan (1975) — Confession: I could have filled this entire list with Dylan albums, but I decided to limit myself to one album per artist. It was a hard call between this and “Highway 61 Revisited,” but I gave “Blood on the Tracks” the nod because of a long, lonely drive I made between Kent and Alliance on a snowy evening about five years ago, with only this disc for company. Every song is a standout, but I especially like “If You See Her, Say Hello” and “Shelter from the Storm.”

“Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis (1959) — Jazz fans will roll their eyes at the obviousness of this selection, the one album that even non-jazz fans call by name. I like the laid-back tone of the songs and the quiet way Davis and company sneak up on each composition. This one gets played often in the small hours when I stare up at the ceiling, pondering past, present and future.

“Physical Graffiti,” Led Zeppelin (1975) — As with Dylan, I could have slotted all my choices with Zeppelin albums. But which to choose? The pounding urgency of Zeppelin II, the classic-rock stylings of Zeppelin IV (with the number-one FM hit of all time, “Stairway to Heaven”), or the more experimental “Houses of the Holy”? Ultimately, I went with “Physical Graffiti” because it’s a double-album, giving me twice as much Led for my head, and because of the one-two punch of “In My Time of Dying” and “Kashmir.” Rock on, dudes.

“Smash,” The Offspring (1994) — Punk rock purists will sneer that this album made the cut over something by the Clash or the Sex Pistols, but for pure listenability, nothing tops it. Fourteen songs in under 47 minutes means the album eschews guitar solos for the most part, offering instead some heavy hooks that bore into you like earworms. Plus, it has “Self Esteem,” one of the greatest punk/grunge/rock songs ever.

“Welcome to My Nightmare,” Alice Cooper (1975) — Perhaps my favorite album of all time by perhaps my favorite artist of all time, “Welcome to My Nightmare” is a phantasmagoric mixture of rock and roll, vaudeville, and horror, all in equal measure. From Vincent Price’s creepy narration on “Devil’s Food” (years before he did the same for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) to the creepy necrophilic double entendres of “Cold Ethyl,” this one just gets into my player and won’t come out.

“Who Made Who,” AC/DC (1986) — Kinda/sorta the soundtrack album to a wretched movie called “Maximum Overdrive” (directed by novelist Stephen King), “Who Made Who” offers the catchy title track and two instrumentals as new offerings. Otherwise, it’s a greatest-hits collection of sorts from earlier efforts by the Australian hard rockers. Having “Hells Bells,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” and “Shake Your Foundations” in one place was just what I needed my senior year in high school. Heck, it’s just what I need right now.

Honorable mentions: “Eat a Peach” by the Allman Brothers and one of the zillion greatest hits collections from the Rolling Stones (if not “Exile on Main Street”).

Good Readers, what are your “Desert Island Discs”?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Feb. 12, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media 06 Feb 2015 09:16 am

A close shave

And the Triumph in Marketing Award goes to Dollar Shave Club, which has somehow convinced thousands of men that buying razors in the store is too inconvenient.

I’ve heard the advertisements on the radio and scrolled through the cheeky (pun intended) website. But neither convinces me that going into the local Walgreens for a pack of razors is such an imposition on my time that having an organization mail fresh blades to my door is like manna from heaven.

“It’s all about the cost of the razors,” chirped a Twitter follower when I posted about the silliness of the club on social media earlier this week. “I haven’t done it, but if I were to shave every day, I would.”

Yet my extensive research, which consists of five minutes on the Dollar Shave website while stuffing my face with a bagel, indicates that even less-hirsute men can join. The club will ship razors every other month in that case, although these half-pint members risk going on the “sissy shavers” marketing list.

(No offense intended to baby-faced men. The Roman empire fell in less time than it takes me to grow a beard.)

I could have spared all the research and saved the newspaper a bundle in expenses (the cost of all those bagels adds up), as my last paragraph was confirmed by a Facebook follower, who also informed me that not only are the blades inexpensive, but high quality.

“Additionally, the cream-formed shaving lotion is the best shave cream I have ever used,” he wrote. “I swear, you could shave a tree’s bark down to smooth as marble. Plus, you get a little cartoon flyer.”

A marble shave and cartoons? Hmmm.

I must admit that I have an intense hatred of all things shaving-related. Since I shave both my head and face, I spend an inordinate amount of time with sharp objects, in direct violation of psychiatric warnings. No matter how sharp the blade and how foamy the gel (enough to make me look like the bastard offspring of both Frosty and Santa), I always end up as bloody as an ex-Gitmo inmate.

When people can’t tell if you’ve just shaved or survived a hunting trip with Dick Cheney, you know your skill with a razor is suspect.

It seems to me that if an organization really wanted to create a service that men would subscribe to, a better choice might be the Feminine Hygiene Products Club for Men. How many men have been put into that awkward situation, compounded by the difficulty in locating the box that is just the right size, shape, and product count?

Every man’s nightmare is to be given a shopping list that includes bread, milk, yogurt, aspirin and THAT PRODUCT. On my few forays into the Aisle That Shall Not Be Named, I learned to affect a certain nonchalance, as if I’m using it merely as a shortcut between the bakery and deli. My head never moves, but my peripheral vision is darting, scanning, looking for the 32-count box with the pearls. Brand name or store brand? Mini, regular or maxi? Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, it’s worse than choosing from the 103 varieties of spaghetti sauce because at least there you can stop to read the labels.

Inevitably, at the end of the aisle, once you’ve done a very poor job of hiding THAT PRODUCT beneath a half-gallon of ice cream and a box of Oreos, you’ll run into your boss, the lunkhead from the gym who can bench-press a small elephant, or your mother-in-law, all of whom are going to stare directly in the cart and then into your eyes before guffawing loudly.

So where is the Dollar Avoid-a-Close-Shave Club for such socially awkward situations? For that, most men wouldn’t care if they paid less. As a matter of fact, I bet most would gratefully fork over a premium.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published  Feb. 5, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Comic books 31 Jan 2015 01:29 am

An American original

Depending on whom you ask, America is the birthplace of only a small number of original art forms, anywhere from one to five.

Jazz is often at the forefront of a list that also includes the banjo, the mystery novel — and the lowly comic book. Regular readers of this column know I often wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to comics. I credit them with nurturing my love of reading and with keeping my imagination alive during my formative years.

I can say with all earnestness that if not for the Incredible Hulk, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Donald Duck, and dozens of others, I would not have majored in English or become a teacher. Moreover, if not for artists and writers such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Carl Barks and Frank Miller, I would not have been inspired to put my own thoughts on paper.

Like any art form, comics have grown and changed. Some of the earliest comic books were merely collections of newspaper comic strips. Later, when the concept had proven its profitability, companies began to commission original material. Decades later, publishers began to collect individual comic books into more permanent form — paperbacks and hardbacks. From this innovation came the modern graphic novel, a mixture of words and pictures designed to tell a longer story.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical work with various artists stretched the boundaries of what comics could do. Pekar recognized that many Americans still viewed comics as essentially kids’ stuff, a judgment that was somewhat justified by the industry’s fixation with superheroes.

“Comics are as good an art form as any other,” Pekar told me. “You can use any word in the dictionary … you’ve got the same choices as Shakespeare.”

Perhaps a similar sentiment ran through Tom Batiuk’s head as he decided to steer his “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip in a more serious direction in 1999. By giving one of the characters cancer, he was announcing that comic strips, like comic books, need not be restricted to gag-a-day formats and juvenile subjects. This was even more apparent when the same character’s cancer returned with a vengeance in 2007.

That story line has been collected in “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe,” this year’s One Book One Community collection in Alliance. As my teaching colleagues Ron Hill and Jim Christine noted in a presentation at Rodman Public Library last week as part of the OBOC programming, “Lisa’s Story” is not technically a graphic novel, as it was not originally created to be published between two covers. Still, as a collection of strips that work together thematically to tell one long story, it fits the important part of the definition.

As a member of the OBOC committee, I have long hoped that we would one day select a graphic novel or compilation for the community to enjoy. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better representation of the power of words and pictures, each contributing to a story in a medium that is related to, but different from, movies and novels, than “Lisa’s Story.”

The main character’s journey — her reactions to her diagnosis, her relationship with her husband, her battles with insurance companies and her advocacy on behalf of additional research — is as poignant, and as appropriate, in comics format as it would be anywhere else.

Just as jazz, mystery novels, and even the twangy banjo evolved from their earliest conceptions, so too have comics. I hope readers will keep an open mind as they consider diving into this year’s OBOC selection and not dismiss it out of hand because it uses pictures to help carry its narrative weight.

Pekar was right: Comics creators have all the same choices as the Bard or any other literary luminary. The proof can be found in “Lisa’s Story.”

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Jan. 29, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 23 Jan 2015 10:31 am

Parenthood: No walk in the park

How young is too young to walk to the park?

It’s a question many parents likely are asking now that the “free-range” parenting of a Maryland couple has been called into question. Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were investigated by the Montgomery County Child Protective Services after police picked up their two children, ages 10 and 6, walking home from the park on Dec. 20. The family home is approximately one mile away.

Appearing Monday on the “Today” show, Danielle Meitiv was critical of CPS and denied any wrongdoing. Her point is that, statistically, children are in more danger when riding in cars than they are when walking down the street.

I imagine many parents are pondering the freedoms they grant and deny their children in light of the story. Juxtaposed with this is the frightening news of 9-year-old Jermaine Carver, who was stabbed repeatedly in the neck, shoulder and head on his way to school in Staten Island on Jan. 9. Carver survived with minimal injuries, but the incident, captured on surveillance camera, makes a compelling counterpoint to the Meitiv situation.

Or does it? One could argue that part of what made the Carver stabbing so horrifying is its very randomness. After all, the vast majority of kids who walk to and from school each day do so safely. The fact that one child did not underscores Danielle Meitiv’s argument to a Washington Post reporter that “parenting is an exercise in risk management.”

Ten seems like a perfectly reasonable age to walk one mile to the park, provided that the child knows the way, has been taught how to do so responsibly, and lives in an area where such pedestrian sojourns are safe.

Abductions, despite the kid-on-the-milk-carton society in which we live, don’t happen very often. When they do, they often involve a non-custodial parent. This doesn’t make such situations any less harrowing, of course, but it does point out that on any given day, most children aren’t being targeted by nefarious strangers.

Most “free-range” parents define themselves as an alternative to so-called “helicopter” parents. The latter are notorious for smothering their children with attention and micromanaging every stage of their lives from sandbox play dates through college finals.

The helicoptering extremists give “free-range” a negative connotation, as well, when this newer movement is really nothing more than allowing children to slowly gain the independence they need in a conscientious way. It’s how most of the people reading this were raised, before cellphones became ubiquitous and we became accustomed to staying in touch with loved ones 24/7.

As a kid, I was the subject of an experiment in free-range parenting at about the same age as the Meitiv kids. I walked out of a store one day to find my dad’s truck — and my dad — gone. Such things weren’t uncommon with my dad, who was an alcoholic and often displayed erratic behavior. I shrugged my shoulders and walked two miles home. When I got there, my dad congratulated me for having enough common sense to find my way. It was a stupid idea on his part — the difference between allowing a kid to walk home and sneaking away to see if they can do so is patently obvious — but I survived with no emotional scarring.

Yet this is hardly the kind of activity the Meitivs engaged in. One could argue that they didn’t know their children’s precise location at any given moment during the trip to the park, but is that bad parenting? In the era before GPS tracking, weren’t there many times when kids went outside to play in the morning and weren’t seen except at lunchtime and dinnertime? Has the world changed so much that this is no longer acceptable?

Total control is a falsehood, a will o’ the wisp, and potentially more dangerous than any hypothetical stranger lurking in the bushes. The Meitivs recognize this and appear to be methodically preparing their children to be self-reliant.

Nevertheless, they have been forced to sign a paper that says they will no longer allow their children to walk the neighborhood unescorted, and they are subject to future evaluations by CPS workers to determine if they have mended their ways.

The real “stranger danger” here is an overzealous bureaucracy that should have better things to do than harass responsible parents.

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Jan. 22, 2015.

Commentary 17 Jan 2015 02:15 pm

Mockery encouraged

The killing of 12 people inside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, has ignited a passionate international conversation about the rights of free speech.

Unfortunately, many of them are bassackwards, apologetic defenses that boil down to this: Satire is a protected form of self-expression, but not all satire is created equal; nobody should die for the beliefs they express, but not all beliefs should necessarily be expressed.

I disagree.

The line in the sand in this particular case is that Charlie Hebdo regularly publishes cartoons that mock Islam, and that Muslims in recent years have proven to be exceedingly thin-skinned about such portrayals. In the Muslim world, most images of the prophet Muhammad are considered sacrilegious. Therefore, images that mock the prophet (or the Prophet) are automatically beyond the pale.

Politico magazine recently published a piece by Remy M. Maisel that illustrates the thought process of many “defenders” of free speech. After an obligatory opening that says nobody should die for satirical depictions of any political or religious situation, Maisel differentiates between “true” and “pseudo” satire.

True satire, the writer notes, makes a particular point with a goal of improving the civic conversation, while pseudo-satire is “simple mockery.” Examples of true satire, Maisel says, are “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” while pseudo-satire is the realm of “Family Guy” and “South Park.” Apparently, programs like the last two negatively color the public’s view of so-called legitimate satire. Maisel doesn’t go so far as to connect the dots between fear of pseudo-satire and the violence visited on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week, but the insinuation is there.

Charlie Hebdo lands squarely in the pseudo-satire category, based on Maisel’s definitions. Perhaps if the newspaper included a Web link to a Christian website with each cartoon, it could be seen as offering a valid alternative and could move into the light along with other “legitimate” forms of satire.

A certain elitism permeates the Politico argument. Apparently, mock news programs that poke fun at current events are somehow superior to animated programs that do the same, especially since “Family Guy” and “South Park” are designed primarily as entertainment. (And “The Colbert Report” wasn’t?)

I’m not a regular viewer of either of Maisel’s examples of pseudo-satire. “South Park,” particularly, with its dark, dingy, nihilistic view of the world, is not in my wheelhouse. Yet I don’t doubt that each program is doing its part, satirically, to poke fun at the established culture and encourage free thinking beyond the parameters of accepted authority. If they’re providing a few laughs and selling some advertising along the way, what of it? The last time I checked, neither Stephen Colbert nor Jon Stewart had taken vows of poverty.

In the old days, print journalism’s goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Newsroom cuts and cowtowing to the remaining slices of advertising and readership pie have effectively ended that, leaving satirists as one of the few remaining levelers of an unequal society.

Organized religions, be they Muslim or Christian, occupy places of power on the world stage. One need not provide a viable alternative or option to either. Mockery is sufficient.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are producing award-winning satire or are raking cartoon muck from the bottom of the inkwell. It doesn’t matter if they are catering to elitists, the rank-and-file, or the great unwashed masses. It doesn’t even matter if what they publish is racist or hurtful. They have a right to publish it. Readers have a right to read it, agree or disagree with it, and either keep buying or decide it’s not for them. They can also take up pens and draw and write their own responses. Distinctions between satire and pseudo-satire, like distinctions between “high” and “low” art, say more about those making the judgments than it does the work itself.

I’m not sure how Maisel reaches the conclusion that pseudo-satire “fosters cynicism, apathy, and intolerance.” But if it does, what of it? I can’t defend apathy, but if Charlie Hebdo makes the world more cynical and intolerant of organized religions’ claims on the minds and hearts of their adherents … well, that’s more than enough reason to justify its existence and mourn the loss of its practitioners.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 15, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 09 Jan 2015 07:35 pm

Leelah’s world

I intended to write a column about Leelah Alcorn and avoid all pronoun references.

The Cincinnati-based teen, who killed herself by jumping in front of a tractor-trailer on Dec. 28, was struggling with social and psychological issues of transgender anxiety. A suicide note set to post automatically on Tumblr read, in part, “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4.”

Biologically, Alcorn was male. Psychologically, however, she was female. My avoidance of singular pronouns would have been a linguistic threading of the needle — the physical reality made “she” and “her” wrong, but Alcorn’s stated preference made “he” and “him” ring hollow, as well. (Some transgendered people prefer the third person “their” in all instances.)

I quickly realized that it was impossible, or at least cumbersome, to write without reference to a person’s sex, providing the very smallest of windows into Leelah’s world, a reality where most of the people she met would not acknowledge her right to self-identify and to live in a way that felt natural to her.

The best way to honor her in death, I’ve discovered, is to embrace the identity she preferred. That means referring to her not as Josh, the name on her birth certificate, but as Leelah, the name she signed on her suicide note. That means referring to her as a woman, despite the accident of her biology.

When she came out to her parents, who are Christian, her mother took her to Christian therapists, all of whom, she says, tried to shame her back into her male persona.

“… I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression,” Leelah wrote. “I only got more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.”

The old adage, of course, is that God doesn’t make mistakes, and I wonder how often Leelah had to endure that line before she decided the pain was no longer worth it. Most of us can’t begin to imagine what it must feel like to be trapped in our own bodies, with thoughts and feelings that don’t match society’s accepted gender expectations.

Leelah’s parents had her heartrending Tumblr message deleted, but not before it went viral and inspired high-profile demonstrations for the rights of transgendered people and pleas for acceptance from a world that may not be quite ready for the challenges that individuals like Leelah present.

Her message, unfortunately, has also inspired threats of violence against her parents. Carla Alcorn, interviewed by CNN recently, expresses the anguish of a parent caught in the crosshairs of a very public debate at a time when she and her family need privacy to mourn their loss.

She said the first time she heard her child referred to as Leelah was in the suicide note.

As a parent, I don’t know what I would have done if my daughter had come to me and said she wanted to live her life as a man, although in some ways in our cockeyed society it’s easier to accept female-to-male transgender than vice versa. With the benefit of hindsight, I like to think I would have done what Carla Alcorn claims she did, which is to express unconditional love.

But would I have tried to change my daughter’s mind in ways both obvious and subtle? Probably, at least initially.

Leelah’s story reminds me that, as a teacher, looking out over a sea of faces in my classroom each day, I have only the slightest inkling of the challenges my students face. Educators, parents, clergy and coaches must allow empathy to be our guide, a tool that takes the place of the dictates of personal and public beliefs. Judgment is not an option.

Something as seemingly small and insignificant as a pronoun change hides the weight of society’s expectations and norms behind it. If the world were more accepting, Leelah might still be with us.

Instead, she leaves a legacy to the realities of transgendered youths that is real and palpable. Her death has opened a conduit for difficult conversations. If her suicide spares others the pain she went through, she will not have died in vain, although it is tragic that she chose to die at all.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 8, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life & Food 01 Jan 2015 03:53 pm


Get ready for an avalanche of advertising on a single subject.

No, it’s not another election — at least not yet. Americans weathered that storm in 2014 and get a small reprieve before the next onslaught.

No, the subject I’m referring to is weight loss, a perennial favorite every Jan. 1, when drunk and weepy partygoers slobber over one another and resolve that this is really, truly the year when they’ll be nicer to their spouses, find that new job, and of course, finally drop that extra 20, 40, 100, or whatever pounds.

This year, I’m among them. Oh, not the drunken, slobbery stuff — I’m goofy enough sober, thank you very much. But a few extra pounds have snuck their way onto my waist over the last year, enough so that each time I zip and buckle my pants, they scream for more mercy than the class nerd being snapped by wet gym towels in the locker room.

Which leads me to an important question: When one loses weight, where does it go?

One of the few things I remember from science class when I wasn’t secretly reading an issue of Mad magazine or drawing pictures in the margins of my notebook is that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it can change form.

The energy that creates obesity is easy to determine. It’s the potato chips, King Dons, and Red Robin mushroom burgers with bottomless fries and freckled lemonade that we (I) eat with abandon. Through the magic of mastication and digestion, this junk turns into the energy that powers our body and grows the muffin tops that spill over the spandex exercise pants we wear when sitting on our couches, watching other people exercise on TV.

I always assumed that energy exited through the rear, so to speak, but I was wrong. According to research published in the British Medical Journal and reported on by National Public Radio, we actually exhale lost fat. Two guys with a lot of letters after their names, Ruben Meerman and Andrew Brown, conjured up a scientific formula to prove it. The more carbon dioxide we exhale, the more weight we will lose.

This is slightly less romantic than the fantasy I had created: an alternate Earth — call it Earth Lipid — that serves as whipping boy for all our sins, a planet filled with big, ungainly blobs of fat that are transported there whenever we lose it here on Earth Prime.

(Something like Earth Lipid must also be a belief of many a climate-change denier among Washington’s elite, who perhaps postulate an alternate earth where pollutants from society’s reliance on fossil fuels end up, given politicians’ tendency to continue listening to big-oil concerns over environmentalists.)

The long and short of it is that the more we breathe, the more weight we should hypothetically lose.

This brings me to my newest weight-loss scheme: Hyperventilate Yourself to Good Health. For just four easy installments of $19.99 plus shipping and handling, I’ll mail you … well, probably a sheet of paper that says, “Breathe in, breathe out, really, really fast” and a year’s supply of brown paper lunch bags to stop the process when you’d like to breathe normally again.

Actually, hyperventilation is a serious condition and you wouldn’t want to try to make yourself do it, and even if you did, WebMD says not to use a paper bag to stop the process, which is how all my great money-making ideas get shot down in flames before they even begin.

However, I could safely and in good conscience (since I don’t have one) sell you a secret formula that would send all your excess fat to Earth Lipid. The directions would have a lot of extra gobbledygook to justify the price, but the bottom line would be, “Eat less and exercise more. Repeat daily for the rest of your life. Your fat will be magically transported by ancient elven magic to a fantasy land where it will be used as insulation in fairy princess castles.”

Magical thinking, that’s the ticket for 2015. This new year, may all your exhalations be productive ones.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Dec. 31, 2014 , in The Alliance Review.

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