Category ArchiveMedia



Commentary & Media 20 Mar 2014 11:07 pm

Funny business with the president

About three and a half minutes into an interview with Zach Galifianakis, President Obama tips his hand and mentions “healthcare-dot-gov.”

“Here we go,” sighs Galifianakis. “Let’s get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?”

It’s not the way an interviewer should address the president, but this is no normal interview. Instead, it’s an example of something we see far too little of in politics and the media these days: humor.

The latest episode of Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns,” posted last week, features a spirited give-and-take between the comedian/actor and the leader of the free world. Its humor depends on how much the viewer likes Galifianakis and/or Obama.

I can take him or leave him. Galifianakis, that is. Apparently, a lot of people feel the same way about Obama, judging from his dismal 41 percent approval rating.

The interview is funny. The duo does indeed sit between the two titular ferns, verbally fencing over vital national issues, such as Obama’s basketball skills and whether he will build his presidential library in Hawaii or in what Galifianakis calls his “home country of Kenya.” (This last exchange likely had “birthers” foaming at the mouth — “At last, somebody asks the hard questions!”)

It also gives Obama a chance to sell the Affordable Care Act to those healthy young Americans on whose shoulders his law will prosper or wither. Some critics might see this as an indication of desperation — really, the president had to go on an Internet talk show, the digital equivalent of a community-access cable program, to plug his federal health care law?

But there’s a method in Obama’s madness. By Sunday, the segment had been viewed 17 million times, and a direct link to healthcare.gov lurks right below the clip on the Funny or Die website. That’s a lot of eyeballs for a six-and-a-half-minute interview. If even a few of those viewers, many of whom might never sit still for a more serious presidential interview on “60 Minutes,” click over to the government site to learn more before the March 31 deadline, maybe it was worth sparring over diabetic shoes.

In a kinda-sorta-related pop-culture occurrence, comedians Keegan-Michael Lee and Jordan Peele, better known as Key & Peele, scored the front cover of this week’s Time magazine. The annual “Ideas Issue” finds the two men waxing almost eloquent on the topic of humor and the importance of making fun of everything.

“When a humorist makes the conscious decision to exclude a group from derision, isn’t he or she implying that the members of that group are not capable of self-reflection?” they write. “… A group that’s excluded never gets the opportunity to join in the greater human conversation.”

I’d like to think that includes U.S. presidents, who are roasted regularly on SNL and other late-night programs but who seldom have the chance to poke fun at themselves. Some people think such shenanigans demean the office of the president, but in a world where George Dubaya wore a codpiece on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 2003 or gave the German chancellor a creepy back massage in 2006, we doubt that a little ribbing about drones with Galifianakis will do any damage.

If the executive office — and the nation — survived 12 years with two Bushes, it certainly can withstand six minutes amid two ferns.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published March 21, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Media 20 Feb 2014 11:39 pm

Bronze badgering

Bode Miller’s impressive bronze showing Sunday in the men’s super-G was overshadowed by the interview with him afterward.

The race was a historic one for the 36-year-old skier, who became the oldest Alpine medalist in the history of the Olympics. But NBC’s Christin Cooper didn’t focus on that in her interview with Miller. Instead, she wanted to know how his run was impacted by the loss of his brother, Chelone (Chelly), who died in 2013.

Following up on Miller’s first answer, that the race was emotional, Cooper pushed with subsequent questions, each one causing the skier to lose more composure. Finally, with NBC’s cameras in a close-up on his face, he had the emotional breakdown that the reporter and presumably the network were looking for — bent down, overcome with tears. Cooper even put her hand on Miller’s shoulder to demonstrate her compassion.

It was shameless exploitation of the moment, designed to create must-see TV.

It’s hard to blame Cooper for the entirety of the interview, as she may have had a producer in her earpiece, pushing her to proceed. She is also not an experienced reporter, but a former skier and Olympic medalist herself.

When assigning blame, remember this: Most audience members did not watch the competition live, but instead saw it during prime time Sunday. NBC executives had most of the day to determine how to edit and present the interview. They led into the men’s super-G with a story about Miller and his wife that emphasized Chelone’s death and the emotional impact it had on the family. They also put a microphone on Miller’s wife during the competition.

Clearly, NBC was not just covering a story, but partially creating and entirely packaging it. Similar to what is done with reality TV, all elements were designed to create maximum emotional impact on the audience.

If it were otherwise, Cooper would have interviewed the gold-medal winner, Kjetil Jansrud. But perhaps his story was not as compelling as Miller’s. It’s not so hard to imagine NBC executives cursing him for having the gall to win, thus robbing them of another avenue to wring more pathos from Miller’s saga.

Following the storm of criticism after the interview, Miller defended Cooper, basically saying that the reporter was just doing her job. It was a nice touch, and certainly more consideration than NBC gave him. Nobody would have blamed Miller for stopping the initial interview three questions earlier than he did, let alone for not coming to the defense of his tormentor.

Reporters sometimes have to ask tough questions. That’s required and expected. When these questions lead to spontaneous expressions of emotion, the moments are real and revelatory. Even when reporters stick microphones in the faces of people who have just suffered indescribable tragedies and ask that most insipid of questions — “How do you feel?” — the faux pas is somewhat excusable because, really, it’s the only question that can be asked.

But reporters can’t force such moments, and Cooper certainly had many other questions worth asking a six-time medal winner. When she kept prodding and prodding, and NBC’s cameras kept moving closer and closer, like vultures circling their prey, the real agenda was revealed.

This wasn’t reporting, it was ratings.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun

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If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life & Media 06 Feb 2014 08:56 pm

New way to say ‘I love you’

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All language is metaphorical, and the language of love is no exception.

Red and pink, especially in February, make most of us think of love. Those two colors dominate Valentine’s Day cards, candy boxes and other items designed to separate us from our money. But why?

Red is the color of the heart, I suppose, and the heart is the organ most closely associated with love. Well, it’s the organ most closely associated with love that can be named in a family newspaper, anyway.

But red is also the color of blood, and blood isn’t all that romantic unless you have a vampire fetish. Which is far more common than you might think, if the Internet is to believed. (And who doesn’t believe the Internet?)

But, Chris, you say, red is also the color of roses, and what is more romantic — or expensive — than a dozen of those crimson beauties, their petals open like an inviting pair of ruby lips?

This brings me to my point. Well, to one of my points, anyway. What is so inherently romantic about a rose? Who was it who decided that this particular flower was joined so intimately with our belief in love?

Scottish poet Robert Burns — “Bobby” to his friends — famously wrote, “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June,” but the rose/love connection goes back much farther than the 18th century. It stretches all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who equated the flower with the goddess of love.

But roses have thorns, and thorns cut and scratch and poke. Roses also die. Now, depending on your significant other, maybe your love cuts and scratches and pokes, too. And if your relationships aren’t all that stable (or if they cut and scratch and poke too much), some of them likely die. Not literally, of course, unless you’re a graduate of the Hannibal Lecter School of Lovemaking.

Still, a beautiful, sharp object with a limited shelf life doesn’t sound all that romantic to me, so I’m introducing a new metaphor for love.

From now on, my love is like a mossy rock.

Think about it. A rock is strong and stable. Rocks are found in all climates and cultures; so, like love, they’re universal.

Moss is a living thing, far more hardy than a rose, so it better represents a stable relationship. It is green, representing life. Moss also grows on a rock, the way two partners grow on one another. After all, the nail biting or nose picking that seems so weird in the early days of a relationship becomes rather endearing in later years.

So this year, I’m bypassing the expensive roses and candies and cards to give my wife a gift straight from the heart — a new metaphor for love created especially for her. That’s right, she’s getting a mossy rock.

If you want to beat my time and give a similar gift, borrowing my explanation the way Christian stole the words of Cyrano de Bergerac to woo the beautiful Roxane, go ahead. You’d be smart to do it this year, though. By next Valentine’s Day, I expect the cost of rocks and moss to triple because of the demand. I’m nothing if not a believer in capitalism.

However, in these early days of the rose/rock transition, don’t be surprised if your special someone is less than thrilled to receive a stone in lieu of flowers. It took millennia for the rose to win its place in our hearts, so I expect it might take, oh, two or three years for my more-fitting metaphor to replace it.

In the meantime, though, expect that your love might take your gift of a rock for granite … er, granted.

Ouch. Love hurts.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & Media & Television 30 Jan 2014 11:39 pm

Stop the world — it’s football

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Based on the media explosion last Thursday, I knew one of two things had happened: either the world ended or the Browns hired a new head coach.

Thankfully for the world — and for ratings of Cleveland-area TV stations — it was the latter. The only reason I checked the newsbreak at all was to see if Browns management had decided to hire my wife.

A few days before, she’d thrown her hat into the ring by announcing she could probably be as effective a head coach for the franchise as anybody else. I don’t know if that’s technically true, but it feels right.

This is the point at which I have to admit how woefully ignorant I am of all aspects of football. I don’t know how many players belong on the field, the names of positions beyond quarterback, or any rules for scoring.

About all I comprehend is that it’s a game where people behave counter to their instincts. In the real world, when big, burly men descend upon you with an intent to tackle, hurt and maim, you sprint the other way. In football, you run toward the danger.

I played football once at recess when I was around 10. Somebody threw me the ball, yelled “Run!” and I did — in the opposite direction. I was never asked to play again.

I’ve probably watched fewer than a dozen games of professional football in my life, and those only when I am sandwiched between well-meaning relatives on musty basement sofas who assume, as many people do, that everybody born with a Y chromosome must automatically love the sport.

Even the Super Bowl I watch with only one eye, and not because I lost the other one in a horrifying childhood Three Stooges imitation, either. I basically don’t care, halftime wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding. Is watching the Super Bowl for the commercials the same as reading Playboy for the articles?

These days, my indifference toward the sport is augmented by the squeamish knowledge of how repeated head trauma affects many players later in life. Where are the millions of screaming fans when a former player struggles to remember his grandchildren’s names, is led to the bathroom by a devoted spouse, or dies decades too early? Even passionate football fans may feel a little like Romans, cheering while Christians are fed to lions.

Incidentally, I don’t begrudge anybody a hobby or a passion. I have enough of them myself. But I don’t automatically assume that others share it. I’ve never forced somebody to read a Batman comic book and then rolled my eyes and questioned their sanity when they didn’t like it. But something similar to that happens whenever I admit I don’t follow football.

That said, I have no idea who the former Browns coach was or who the new coach is. I saw some soundbites of the newbie saying all the usual things: So glad to be part of this tradition … building on what’s come before … looking forward to the season … yadda yadda yadda.

He sounds like a nice guy. I imagine he’s slightly more qualified than my wife, at least on paper. Still, she has some innovative ideas, like modifying the uniforms to orange, brown and pink; using the eeny, meeny, miny, moe method to decide who plays what position; and changing Super Bowl rings for each team member (the woman aims high) to Pandora charms.

I don’t know, frankly, if the new guy can measure up to such out-of-the-box thinking. The good news is that she’ll have another chance next year, when odds are that management will lower the axe again and a new round of interviews will begin.

Maybe by then, fans will be ready for players in fuschia helmets. If that happens, we’ll know the world really has ended.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 30, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop

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Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for Smithsonian.com, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, http://blogs.dixcdn.com/leftofcybercenter/ for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to

chris.schillig@yahoo.com or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.


Commentary & Media & Television 28 Dec 2013 12:36 am

Quacking duck

It’s slightly out of date after today’s reinstatement of Phil Robertson, but here’s my column for the week.

So, a big, furry guy from “Duck Dynasty” made some controversial comments and got himself suspended from his TV show, and now people are taking sides.

Yawn.

I have never seen an episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Until about a month ago, I had no idea it was even a live-action TV show. When people talked about it, I assumed they were referring to a Disney cartoon with Uncle Scrooge, Donald and his three nephews.

My consciousness was raised (or lowered) one day when I was walking through Walmart and saw the bearded Ducks, all of whom look like refugees from a Grateful Dead concert, staring out at me from a rack of T-shirts.

Further enlightenment came when one of my adult students showed me a copy of the “Duck Dynasty” Christmas CD. I haven’t heard it, but I imagine it’s on par with the offerings of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both of whom traded on their success in a television franchise of an earlier decade to record albums that range from pedestrian to horrific.

All of which means that I wasn’t really too impacted one way or another when Phil Robertson (I had to look up his name), the leader of the Duck flock, expressed his disapproval of homosexuality and his belief that blacks were happy in the Jim Crow south. Nor was I too surprised when A&E, the network that airs the show, suspended him indefinitely. Now his family is saying the show can’t go on without him, which means that a program I’ve never watched, starring people that I don’t care one whit about, may end.

I repeat: Yawn.

Some people are saying that Robertson’s freedom of speech has been impinged, which is, of course, hogwash. He wasn’t censored by the government. Nobody told him he couldn’t speak his mind. His network merely chose not to associate itself with his opinions and severed the relationship, either temporarily or permanently. Freedom of speech does not equate with freedom from consequences.

The cynic in me wonders if this whole incident isn’t playing out in a predetermined way to benefit both A&E and Robertson. After all, you couldn’t buy the publicity both sides received over the last week or so. Given the manipulative formula of reality TV, where episodes are edited to magnify conflict and create heroes and villains, is it such a stretch to ponder how much of this “controversy” is scripted?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robertson apologizes, not for his comments (which appeal to a conservative demographic and are, therefore, valuable) but for the strident and blunt way he presented them; and then if A&E reinstates him, along with some tepid mea culpa of its own. When the show returns, even more viewers will tune in to see what Robertson says next. If it’s a ploy, it’s a brilliant one.

(I’m writing this on Saturday, so if all this comes to pass before my column sees print, I’m quitting my day job and going to work for the Psychic Hotline.)

Really, though, why do so many Americans care so much what celebrities think? Just because somebody’s job involves having a camera pointed at them for a significant amount of time each week doesn’t make his opinions more informed and important than the nation’s working class stiffs.

What Robertson has to say about gays, blacks and religion is merely one person’s opinion. He’s entitled to it, of course, just as others are entitled to share their views. It’s a free country, after all.

Now when Donald Duck or Scrooge McDuck speak up about gay rights or racial equality, I’ll pay more attention. That’s the only duck dynasty that interests me.

Originally published Dec. 26, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Television 05 Dec 2013 10:06 pm

Will the Circle be unbroken?

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If George Orwell had written “1984″ in the age of social media, it might look a lot like Dave Eggers’s “The Circle.”

Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece imagines a world where the government strips away citizens’ most basic rights, including the right to privacy. Life in Oceania is presided over by Big Brother and the Party, who rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth and punish the innocent along with the guilty in the Ministry of Love. Opinions that run counter to the official party line are labeled “thoughtcrime,” the worst sin committed against the government.

Orwell used his fertile and far-ranging imagination to good effect in “1984,” satirizing the tendency of power-mad bureaucrats to seize and hold office by any means necessary, including the modification of language. Newspeak, the language of the English Socialist Party in the novel, is a diabolical marvel, its creation predating such euphemisms as “economically distressed” to describe the poor, “downsizing” for firing, and “collateral damage” for civilian deaths in military operations.

Yet not even Orwell could imagine a society where citizens would give up their rights to privacy as we do so freely and regularly in the 21st century. That’s where Eggers and “The Circle” come in.

In this novel, the Circle is a Google-like monstrosity of a search-engine company that begins to make its presence felt in other aspects of society. Its California campus is a model of efficiency and modernity, with employees urged to stay after work to participate in “optional” enrichment activities, all of which are shared via social networking with the great unwashed beyond its walls.

The book’s protagonist is Mae Holland, a modern stand-in for Winston Smith of “1984″ fame. Unlike Winston, who hates his job in the Ministry of Truth, Mae is overjoyed to work at the Circle, where her job is to provide mostly prescripted answers to customer questions in exchange for positive feedback on satisfaction surveys. Her rise through the Circle is meteoric, especially after she agrees to become “transparent,” allowing every waking hour of her life to be streamed instantaneously on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Circle continues to better life for all of mankind by consolidating information and increasing surveillance. A program called TruYou requires proof of identify before posting online, eliminating trolls. Elected officials go transparent, curbing backdoor deals and lobbyist influence. Electronic bracelets record and transfer medical information in real time. A system is introduced to compel democratic participation, outsourcing voter registration to the Circle and locking up people’s keyboards until they cast ballots.

“Everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know everything,” a senior Circle official informs Mae, who becomes a willing acolyte.

This brusque dismissal of privacy may jar readers over a certain age, but will be all too familiar to those who live significant percentages of their lives in the digital domain. Anytime it appears Eggers exaggerates this aspect of the Circle’s influence, one need only ponder the direction of modern society.

We live in a world where people post pictures of their Thanksgiving dinner plates, blurt their most intimate business loudly into cellphones while in line, watch instant video of shoppers bludgeoning one another in Walmart, and Google the names of our children’s boyfriends or girlfriends.

Mae’s blurry-eyed attempts to increase her Circle rank by online participation will strike a chord with anybody who checks a cellphone in the middle of the night. We fret over the number of friends we’ve amassed or lost on Facebook and feel insignificant when co-workers have more Twitter followers. We ponder what it “means” when a friend ignores our email and happily give up personal information to spurious software designers who track our locations and buying habits and then sell this information to third parties who use it to clutter our inboxes with spam.

We are, in short, faced with the same quandaries as Mae, and we often reach the same conclusion: that small invasions of our private lives are more than balanced by the benefits of technology.

If “The Circle” has a flaw, it’s that Eggers doesn’t have characters argue passionately enough for the value of life offline or, at the very least, for moderation. The few characters who do attempt to live off the grid come to bad ends, just as those who rebel against the government are squashed by it in “1984.”

But in the latter, it’s still obvious that Orwell is taking a stand against totalitarianism. In “The Circle,” this stand is less obvious. Indeed, given our love of and reliance on various online tools, Eggers might have underestimated the persuasiveness of the Circle’s argument. I know any number of people who would embrace the sort of dystopia he envisions in the book, finding loss of individualism a small price to pay for “improving” the world, even when it costs a few lives.

Truth be told, the first thing I wanted to do when I finished the book was tweet about it. The Circle may be closing faster than we know.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published Dec. 5, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & technology 29 Nov 2013 10:27 am

Paint it black (Friday)

Ah, the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans exchange leftover turkey and gratitude for shoulder pads and helmets.

You’ll need both if you’re venturing onto the retail gridiron, looking for the perfect gift for that special somebody on your list or, more likely, just scooping up whatever garbage big-box retailers are pushing this season.

Such is the mania for Black Friday shopping that many readers have likely been in the game already. If you’re one of those, you’re either relaxing during halftime — and perhaps plotting your second half strategy with the help of sales flyers in this very newspaper — or sidelined by injury. (A toe crushed by a cart wielded by an overzealous septuagenarian is the most common reason to find yourself on the shopping DL list.)

With the hope that it’s not too late, here are a few Left of Center tips to keep you safe and productive during the coming three-week orgy of American capitalism.

1. Always shop with a buddy. A wingman is the most necessary accoutrement to a successful foray into the retail jungle. This person should have some experience in hand-to-hand combat to repel hordes of angry mothers after you’ve grabbed the last Tickle Me Elmo and are making a run for the register.

Experience with nunchakus and throwing stars are also a plus, allowing the wingman to hurl your credit card with ninja accuracy straight for the scanner, the magnetic strip slitting your competitors’ throats as you skate across their blood toward the successful completion of your transaction.

2. Think small. Not in terms of your shopping list or budget — which should be as large as possible to help stimulate the economy and put more Americans back to work, hallelujah! — but in terms of your vehicle. A smaller car will allow you to wedge into spaces where larger vehicles cannot, like those diagonal lines on either side of handicapped parking spaces. Or, if you drive a Smart Car, into a bicycle rack.

Of course, small cars make it difficult to drag home too much loot, but since everybody wants iPads and iPhones this year anyway, ample trunk space hardly matters. Plus, some misguided soul will probably steal all your bags as you leave the store anyway.

3. Choose your weapons carefully. A shopping cart is your greatest ally, allowing you to mow through masses of zombie shoppers just like characters on “The Walking Dead.” But a squeaky, wobbly wheel will slow you down just enough to miss the blue-light special on tacky costume jewelry in Aisle 4 or get beaten to the punch on cheap, large-screen TVs imported from Mexico that will save you $50 but cost thousands of Americans their jobs.

You may also wish to arm yourself with smaller shopping baskets, which can be strapped to both feet using the twistie ties off bread bags or the belts off sweepers, allowing you to glide across icy parking lots like a latter-day Wayne Gretzky and shave precious seconds off your commute from Walmart to Target.

4. Come armed with air fresheners and earbuds. Both will be necessary when waiting in line with your fellow shoppers.

True story: Last year I stood in line behind a gentleman whose body had a difficult time assimilating all the turkey he had eaten the day before. Periodically, he would announce, “Better look out, I’m blowin ‘em out!” At first, I thought he was referencing a really good buy, but once the pungent aroma of stale turkey farts wafted my way, I knew it wasn’t bargains he was talking about.

The earbuds won’t do anything to quell the smell, but they will keep you isolated from other shoppers and their litany of aches, pains and funny-but-not-really stories about kids and significant others.

5. Wait until Cyber Monday and buy it all online. I like to support local businesses as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, clicking a few buttons, typing in your credit card number and waiting for somebody to deliver the goodies to your porch is a whole lot better for the environment and your mental health.

Plus, it’ll give you more time at home to spend with family, where the only fowl … er, foul odors will come not from strangers, but from people you know and love.

Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for Black Friday shopping after all.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Nov. 29, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Movies 22 Aug 2013 06:12 pm

Big and tall, short and small

godzilla1954c

Size matters in pop culture. Or maybe it just matters to me.

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by stories that hinge on size differentials. People who shrink, monsters who dwarf skyscrapers, bugs the size of Cadillacs — give me any or all of the above and the odds that I will like the book, movie, poem, radio drama or synchronized swimming event where they appear, especially if the big things are juxtaposed against smaller ones.

Most kids like monsters, I think, but I always preferred the really tall ones. The Frankenstein monster is more appealing than Dracula because Boris Karloff, who plays the monster, is taller than Bela Lugosi, who plays the vampire. (Plus, Lugosi has that really thick accent and walks like he’s stuck in jelly. “I vaaaant to succck your bluuuud,” he says, inching along at the speed of your average tortoise, while toddlers crawl past and old men in wheelchairs lap him. Not much fear factor there.)

We all root for the underdog, which is why we all cheer for David and his slingshot against Goliath, and why “Rocky” kept spawning sequels until the sight of Sylvester Stallone without his shirt became too grotesque for even the most stalwart of moviegoers.

I just take the term “underdog” more literally than most, wanting to see the conflict reflected in extra inches, feet and yards. After all, who could be more underdog-like than people fighting giants, or characters shrinking to the size of dandelions and trying to avoid a size 10 shoe?

As a last hurrah to the carefree days of summer, when long afternoons afford time to ponder such trifles as the greatest stories about things that are bigger or smaller than normal, here are a few of my favorites:

Jack and the Beanstalk — The story that started it all for me. Little boy, magic beans, giant vegetation, big guys who live in the clouds, even — if memory serves — a singing harp. And you can’t top the suspense of Jack chopping down the beanstalk as the giant descends, screaming “Fee Fie Fo Fum!”

King Kong — Maybe my favorite movie — and movie monster — of all time. Big ape, big dinosaurs, little people running and screaming in terror. What’s not to like?

Godzilla — Everything from King Kong applies, but with the addition of nuclear weapons and radioactive breath. Plus, Godzilla has been better translated into other mediums than Kong. The 1970s Marvel Comics version is still my favorite comic-book series of all time. ‘Nuff said.

The Shrinking Man — Filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” this novel by the late, great Richard Matheson has the main character exposed to a mysterious mist that slowly reduces him in size, until he is living in his daughter’s dollhouse and fighting off a domesticated cat that is, proportionally, the size of a double-decker bus. If you’ve ever fantasized about shrinking to thimble size and dueling spiders in the basement (and who hasn’t?) this is the book/movie for you.

Jurassic Park — Again, you’ve got dinosaurs, plus the theme of humankind’s naïve belief that it can trump the natural order and Jeff Goldblum (in the movie) nattering on about chaos theory while an angry T. rex uses his colleagues as toothpicks. The sequels aren’t worth a tinker’s damn — or a tinker’s dam, depending on which etymological story you believe — but they do have big dinosaurs vs. little people, so they can’t be all bad.

(I really wanted to like Michael Crichton’s “Micro,” by the way, because he’s the author of “Jurassic Park” and it’s about shrinking people to microscopic size, but I couldn’t get into it. Too much pseudoscience, not enough screaming people. It’s no good if people don’t run around and scream.)

I could rattle off a whole slew of pop-culture references that fit the bill. Here are a few: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorgo, Reptilicus, Ant-Man, the Atom, Tarantula! (a movie so exciting that the exclamation point is part of the title), Tom Thumb, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Johnny Socko, Ultraman, munchkins, Yoda, Tom and Jerry, and Fantastic Voyage.

Pacific Rim — the best movie almost nobody saw this summer. Giant creatures crawling from a hole ripped in the space-time continuum in the Pacific Ocean? Check. Global chaos as said monsters attack? Check. Humans piloting giant robots in a last-ditch effort to save the world? Check. One of the coolest sci-fi/fantasy films since the original Star Wars? Check and mate.

So there you have it — incontrovertible evidence that the bigger they are, they harder we fall for them. Or that I do, anyway.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

twitter.com/cschillig

Originally published Aug. 22, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

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