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» Family life

Category ArchiveFamily life

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 & 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.

Books & Family life & Movies 19 Dec 2014 09:49 am

Anti Claus

I guess I’m playing Santa this year.

Some people say this whenever they hand out gifts, but I mean it literally. My mom has invested in a suit and beard and wants me to play the jolly old elf for my 2-year-old niece. That’s the upper age limit of anybody who will be fooled by my imitation, to be sure.

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been preparing for the role all year. Over the past 12 months, I’ve packed on about 20 pounds. While I have a way to go before I’m truly in Santa’s weight class, I still should require fewer pillows to create Claus’ trademark plumpness.

In terms of Santa’s characterization, I’d like to say I’m from the Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. Those two gentlemen get into character and stay in character — past tense in the case of Brando, who died in 2004 — whether the cameras are rolling or not.

If I followed their lead between now and Christmas Eve, I’d be Santa full time, booming out a baritone “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to students on exam day, yelling encouragement to Rudolph when accelerating my Neon down the street and giving out candy canes to stray passers-by.

However, with only one suit, I’m afraid I might start to smell a little ripe before Christmas, like a fruitcake gone horribly bad. And playing Santa without a suit is like playing Tiny Tim without the crutch or Little Ralphie without a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with the compass in the stock. It can’t be done.

Instead, I’m steeping myself in the classics in hopes that the characterizations will rub off. Last weekend, I watched Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause,” a movie about a down-on-his-luck schlep who magically transforms into Santa after his marriage goes sour and he loses custody of his kid. A real upbeat holiday film, that.

Then there is “Miracle on 34th Street,” about a department store Santa who thinks he is the real thing. He ends up in court, trying to prove he’s not insane. Another heartwarming hit.

Maybe I’d have better luck sticking to Santa stories in print. L. Frank Baum, the creator of “The Wizard of Oz,” wrote a novel called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” but I’ve never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Imagine Santa as delineated by J.R.R. Tolkien after a night of heavy drinking and you’ll get the general drift.

Then there’s Dr. Seuss’ classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” about another crazed character who gets his Santa fix by dressing up as Anti Claus and stealing an entire town’s Christmas. Yeah, sure, he gives it all back and the Whos even invite him to carve the roast beast, but I’m sure that on Dec. 26 they arrest him for multiple B&E’s and throw the book at him. Because they’re white and he’s green, he probably gets choked out for “resisting arrest” or spends the rest of his life as Charles Manson’s cell mate.

Hey, what is it with all these Santa stories and delusional, tragic characters? Is my mother trying to tell me something?

Maybe I should stick with Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s probably the most quoted poem in the English language, which doesn’t say too much for America’s taste in verse. But at least the Santa it presents is of the non-postmodernist, non-ironic, Victorian variety: He’s really St. Nick, and nobody carts him off to the asylum halfway through or threatens legal action when he slips down their chimneys and eats their cookies.

He’s also mostly silent, other than a few shouts to his reindeer. In many ways, this is good news. I don’t have to disguise my voice, learn any lines or, worst of all, offer any extemporaneous comments, like railing against crass consumerism (which Santa represents) or criticizing the military-industrial complex. When I go off script is when I get myself in trouble. Santa as the strong and silent type. That’s the ticket.

As long as I don’t get him confused with Brando and start screaming, “Hey, STELLA!,” halfway through handing out presents, I think I’ll get through this without permanently scarring any children.

Here’s hoping.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Dec. 18, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 11 Dec 2014 01:23 pm

Too late for a crisis

My wife says it’s too late for me to have a midlife crisis.

The median life expectancy for men in the U.S. is 77.4. This means I was scheduled to go haywire in 2006. It didn’t happen.

I have officially missed my opportunity to buy a late-model sports car, drop out of life to write poetry while living in a glass tank in Central Park, or run off to France with a can-can dancer named Trixie Middlebeaver. Or at least to do these things with a plausible excuse.

I don’t know what I was doing in 2006 that would have been more important. Probably teaching, writing, reading, and fretting over bills — the same activities that occupy most of my time today.

My wife also tells me that the term “midlife crisis” is out of date, like the milk in the refrigerator that I’m still drinking because I’m too cheap to throw it out. After all, stomachaches aren’t forever, which sounds like the title of a great James Bond movie, subtitled “007 and the Case of Lactose Intolerance.”

The Bond franchise illustrates that one way to avoid a midlife crisis is to have yourself replaced by a younger version every 10 years or so. Connery begets Moore begets Dalton begets Brosnan begets Craig — each one discovering the Fountain of Youth among the roulette tables and cocktails.

Confession: I have seen only one or two Bond movies, and I can’t remember which ones or even the broadest elements of their plots. All I know is that every four or five movies, the character gets to hit the reset button. Neat trick, that.

If I were having myself replaced, I’d pick a nondescript 20-something with no history of backaches and with a killer six-pack of abs. I figure that would allow about a decade for the new me to get all flabby and lose his hair, two things that happened to Schillig Version 1.0 in about the same time. Then I’d call up the relief from a deep, deep bench of replacement me’s.

But since I’m not having myself replaced anytime soon, I have to continue living in a world where “midlife crisis” has been replaced by “midlife transition,” which implies that going bonkers in your 40s doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Call it a kinder and gentler crisis, one that “involves transitioning into a new career that more effectively represents one’s personality and life goals.”


I miss the old midlife crises transitions, which sounded a lot more fun than switching to a job ladling soup in a shelter or growing rutabagas on a commune. Just my luck that all the fun would be leached out of the process at the same time I became eligible. I blame the Republicans.

Of course, I am thinking of buying an acoustic guitar to channel my inner Dylan. In retrospect, this sounds suspiciously like a midlife crisis of the old-school variety, especially if it is accompanied by a weekend in New York City to strum in Central Park.

I am also somewhat heartened to learn that the world’s oldest man died at age 116. This means that his midlife crisis could have happened when he was 58 and been right on time.

If I aspire to his longevity, I have 12 more years to learn how to play a passable “Blowin’ in the Wind” before abandoning my family and job and heading east.

In other words, there’s hope.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Dec. 11, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 08 Nov 2014 06:12 pm

Surviving our childhoods

It always goes something like this:

When we were kids, we drank dirty creek water until our stomachs hurt, played outside until the street lights came on, drank unhomogenized milk and ate candy bars and cereal loaded with sugar and calories.

We jumped off wooden swings set atop concrete and gravel. We played backyard football without helmets, plowed into one another on heavy sleds with metal runners, slept in houses loaded with asbestos and rode in cars with parents who were chain-smokers.

We didn’t have cellphones to help us find our way when we were lost and calculators to do our math homework and adults who arranged our play dates. We touched each other with dirty hands, rolled in mud, and went to the doctor only when we spiked a fever — if then.

And somehow we survived.

Whenever a screed like this shows up on social media, it attracts many like-minded responses, ringing attaboys from folks who feel that surviving childhood is a badge of pride that confers additional honors into adulthood. Several points are implicit in both the original and the follow-ups: 1. Tough childhoods create tougher, “better” adults; 2. Medicine and technology have hurt more than they’ve helped; and 3. It’s okay to lose a few kids, as long as they belong to somebody else.

Maybe the popularity of such posts is based on long-standing beliefs in American exceptionalism or a reactionary desire to return to supposedly simpler times. By this reckoning, today’s kids have it easy, and they are growing up to be milksops as a result.

At the heart of such reasoning is a germ of truth: Adversity in small doses does build resilience, and today’s helicopter parents may be doing their children more harm than good by inserting themselves into every facet of their children’s lives. Sometimes, it’s OK to be disappointed, get bruised, or find yourself on the outside looking in.

But these paeans to our long-lost youth discount the fact that too many kids in the past did not survive childhood. They were killed or crippled by horrible diseases, spirited away from communities that failed to recognize the dangers of mental illness and psychoses, or irrevocably scarred by bullying.

Some of the victims who were lucky enough to survive grew into well-adjusted adults, but too many others grew into people compromised by factors outside of their control. Ask them about their idyllic childhoods and the “grit” it engendered and see what response you get.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 90.2 percent of U.S. children aged 1 year survived to age 15 in 1900-1902, compared with 99.7 percent in 2007. To me, that’s a result of everything from medical advances (including strong vaccination programs) and safer toys to better parenting techniques, policing efforts and nutritional knowledge. You know, everything that those “when I was a kid” rants poke fun at.

Whatever advances keep kids safer and increase their odds of surviving — physically and mentally healthy — into adulthood are fine with me. If one consequence of such improved chances is a slightly wimpier kid — well, I can accept that. A living kid has all the time in the world to toughen up; a dead kid doesn’t.

Childhood today is much different than childhoods of the past, and I’m happy for it. Tweaking and improving is uniquely American, and such changes should extend to the formative years of our youngest citizens. Let’s hope that they all have a chance to grow up and grouse about the good old days of 2014, when life was a lot more hazardous than it is in whatever year they have children.

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & Family life & Writing 04 Oct 2014 03:41 pm

Strap yourselves in

I had the opportunity to speak to a writers’ group over the summer, and I hope I didn’t scare them away from the craft.

They were a wonderful audience, although hard-up for guest speakers if they had to invite me. My goal was simple: not to send any of them screaming into the street, breaking pencils and smashing keyboards and vowing never to write again.

They thought writing is great fun, an outlet for pent-up creativity. Most of the time, I feel that way too. But when ideas won’t come, writers without regular deadlines can step away for a day or so, no harm no foul.

Writers on deadline don’t have this luxury. Even when ideas aren’t there and words won’t come, fingers must keep pushing keys or pencils pressing paper. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of muscle memory, typing the same words over and over until something new squeezes out.

Somebody asked about writer’s block. I said I don’t believe in it. I subscribe to the William Zinsser theory. In his must-read book, “On Writing Well,” Zinsser treats writer’s block like a myth. Plumbers don’t suffer from plumber’s block, carpenters don’t have carpenter’s block. They just do the job.

I told the group that when I can’t come up with the words but know that a column is due, I mentally strap myself into a chair in front of a computer and tell myself that I won’t stand up again until I’ve completed a draft.

I’ve never had to literally strap myself into a chair, but the day may come. For now, I tell myself that I can get up and get a drink, eat a snack or use the bathroom only after I’ve written an allotted number of words. If that happens in 20 minutes, great. If it happens in three hours, not so great.

Is this fun? No. Is it productive? Most of the time. Good for my bladder? Assuredly not.

Procrastination in writing is like procrastination in most things, I suppose. When most of us face an unpleasant task, we find other things that must be done first. Need to make that tough call and eat crow over something you’ve said? Suddenly, Fibber McGee’s closet beckons, or the attic must be cleaned, or the sink screams for scouring.

I go through a whole series of maneuvers before I reach the writing “strap-in” point, which I call writing crow instead of eating it. Usually, I do tasks I hate even more, but ones that require little concentration. If I’m mowing or sweeping or, heaven forbid, waxing the car, I’m avoiding a particularly rough topic.

I used to fool myself when I did these things, saying that they really needed to be done. Now I’m honest: I’m ducking out on writing, I’ll say, but only until 10 a.m. Or noon. Or whatever time I select.

When I do start to write, though, I don’t get up until I’m done. Usually, the morning is my best time. But I’ll sit there all day long if I have to, trying not to fiddle too much on Facebook or Twitter and often failing. I’m only human.

One weird writing tick I possess is a reluctance to move on to a new sentence until the one before it is as good as it can be. This often means that when I’m done with a column, I’m really done, because I’ve pored over it dozens of times, one sentence at a time, until I reach the end. My first finished draft is often simultaneously my 31st draft.

While I tell my students that there is no wrong way to write, except not to do it, I also tell them that my method is one of the worst. It’s easy to work for hours and have only two or three paragraphs to show for your efforts. Two or three perfect paragraphs, but far from a finished piece.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t go back later — a day or two, at least — and revise. Revision is, for me, the part of writing that is true joy. I especially like to peel away excess words and rewrite sentences when the piece I’m revising is so old that I can barely remember writing it. That’s when I’m most honest, when I can effect the most changes. Sadly, I seldom sit on a piece that long.

So why am I telling you this today? Because I’ve been sitting here for hours already, and I really have to use the bathroom. And now I can.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Oct. 2, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Family life 25 Sep 2014 06:59 pm

One cool cat

Frank Zappa came home with us after a wedding reception 16 years ago.

That’s not exactly true. He actually came to our house a few days after the reception, transported in a cage. Frank, a lovable orange tabby cat who thought he was a dog, belonged to one of my wife’s friends. Her new husband was allergic to cats, so Frank and his brother, (Pink) Floyd, came to stay with us.

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not really a cat person, which is what people always say right before they tell you how many cats they have. At the height of our feline folly, Casa Schillig was home to five, which puts us not quite in the league of those wackadoodles you see on the evening news, the ones whose homes are raided by county officials who cart out animals in crates, covered by a reporter who drew the short straw and gets to interview the neighbors, who explain that even though the area for nine miles around smells like an ammonia factory, Mrs. Perriwinkle is still such a nice lady.

But we were close.

We farmed out Nala about the time she decided my open duffel bag was a litter box. D.C. went shortly after a regrettable incident where he hacked up a hair ball into our satellite receiver, shorting it out and creating a high-decibel screeching as the unit committed harakiri. Floyd hung around for a long time, but old age and general decrepitude finally had its way.

Frank, however, was eternal. He was the Greeting Cat, always brushing up against company, always begging at the dinner table in hopes that a stray piece of chicken — or stuffing, or steak, or bread, or … — would come his way. It often did.

Each morning before dawn, Frank would prowl at the foot of the bed, meowing loudly for his morning meal, which consisted of a pouch of Friskies (any flavor, he wasn’t particular) and a bowl of hard pellets. If you didn’t meet his culinary requirements immediately, the meowing would — and sometimes did — continue for hours. Once, I outlasted him until sunrise, but I gained nothing except 120 minutes of staring at the ceiling, listening to him tromp back and forth like a soldier whose superiors had denied his request for leave.

Even in his dotage, Frank kept up the morning breakfast call, although he more often voiced his wake-up alarm from the living room downstairs. The lack of proximity merely meant he had to pump up the volume, which he did.

Frank was our tough guy. He didn’t like to be picked up, but he loved to come to you on his own terms and snuggle on the couch. He spent his days traveling from chair to bed to chair again, following sunbeams as the moved from room to room. He was also good at dispensing justice to the two remaining cats, Oliver and Beckham, meting it out with one paw that descended like thunder from above.

A few months ago, Frank abruptly stopped grooming himself. He started to look like some kind of feline porcupine, hair sticking up at odd angles as if he suffered a terminal case of bed-head. He had a funny odor as a result, and I dubbed him “Bill the Cat” in honor of Berkeley Breathed’s cartoon feline, a disgusting ball of fur that let out with the occasional “Ack!” in the comic strip “Bloom County.”

Still, Frank would join us for dinner. Just last week, he plowed through most of a pork chop, which my wife fed him by hand, one piece at a time. We started wondering if he would make it to legal adulthood, 21, and what kind of drink he would order at his party.

But it wasn’t to be. A visit to the vet last Friday revealed that a swelling in Frank’s face was not an abscessed tooth, as I’d hoped, but rather a tumor, as my wife, ever the realist, feared. The vet found another in his abdomen.

Old age comes to us all, if we’re fortunate, and when we look back on our lives, memories of chicken, pork chops, and sunny afternoons spent in solitude or in the company of people who love us isn’t such a terrible legacy.

So now the two remaining cats get Frank’s share of Friskies each morning, and there is nobody to drop the hammer on either of them when they step out of line. I’m still not a cat person, not really, but Frank, who thought he was a dog, wasn’t your average cat. I miss him.

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & Family life 05 Jun 2014 11:34 am

Romance is much more social today

Our daughter texted my wife and me last week to say she wasn’t single anymore.

I immediately fist-pumped and did a bad imitation of Michael Jackson moonwalking across our dining room (the visual you’re getting is just as awful as the reality, I assure you), thinking she had eloped and saved me the cost of a big wedding. To say nothing of the annoyance of having to ward off dozens of women who would have found me irresistible in a tuxedo.

But it turns out that all she meant was that she was dating somebody. Oh.

My wife says that’s accurate, that people who date exclusively aren’t really single anymore. I call the BS card on that.

When you fill out any sort of documentation that asks about marital status, you usually have two options — single or married. “In a committed relationship” isn’t a choice, because nobody cares.

Or maybe lots of people do, but I’m not one of them. Evidence for this is Facebook, which gives a ridiculous number of options to describe a user’s romantic status. In addition to married or single, you can select (and I’m not making this up) engaged, in a relationship, in a civil union, in a domestic partnership, in an open relationship, it’s complicated, separated, divorced or widowed.


Apparently, deciding when and if to change a Facebook status is a really big deal. A Facebook friend who clicked “in a relationship” over the weekend received an abundance of congratulatory messages, including one that said, “It’s about time” and another that said something to the effect of “glad you finally grew a pair.” That last was from his mother. Ouch.

Back in my day, asking somebody to be your boyfriend or girlfriend was a semi-private matter, usually accomplished with a piece of folded notebook paper on which you scrawled, “Do you like me? Check Yes or No” and then sent with a go-between who would cross enemy lines to deliver it.

Granted, this was many years ago, when I still wore sweater vests that my mother crocheted for me, sat in the back of the classroom with a copy of Mad magazine stuffed inside my history book, and had more hair than Chewbacca. So maybe times have changed.

Granted, too, that guys who wore crocheted sweater vests, read Mad magazine, and made casual Star Wars references didn’t have much experience with passing notes to members of the opposite sex. More often, guys like me received notes that said, “Do you have cooties? Yes or no” or “Did you know you have a cheese puff stuck in the back of your sweater vest? Yes or no.”

Mating rituals, these were not.

So maybe I can be forgiven for not understanding the intricacies of the modern dating scene, where every box of chocolates or bouquet of roses is cause for a tweet, a text or a status update, and sometimes all three.

Or maybe I simply do not have a heart that’s geared toward romance, which is possible since my reaction to every wedding announcement we receive is not, “Oh, I’m so happy for them,” but rather, “Oh, how much is this going to cost me?”

My wife is excited about meeting my daughter’s new young man and is already counseling me on how to dress and act. I gather that I will not be allowed to wear a crocheted sweater vest and sit in the back of the restaurant with a copy of Mad magazine, even if it is a virtual copy, in an effort to keep up with the times.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on June 5, 2014.

Commentary & Family life 13 Mar 2014 10:38 am

Memories of home remedies


Sometimes I’m amazed that I survived my childhood.

I didn’t grow up in the golden age of home remedies, but just slightly thereafter, perhaps in the slow sunset of that era. It was long before this current age, certainly, when running to the doctor for every hangnail and cough is the default setting for most parents. I bet I survived any number of horrible diseases — diphtheria, whooping cough and dengue fever among them — without anybody making formal diagnoses. This is probably true for anybody over the age of 35.

Back in the dark ages when Jimmy Carter was president and Elvis had morphed from a pelvis-rattling rebel into a fat, sad man in a sequined jumper, parents didn’t have access to WebMD, 24-hour hotlines and fancy phone apps to pinpoint a child’s illness the way smart bombs hone in on Middle Eastern targets today. Instead, they had to work with the tools at hand.

For my mother, these tools consisted of McNess Mentholated Ointment, an old sock and sticks of butter. Any sore throat or respiratory problem could be cured with a combination of these elements, and often with all three.

I don’t know if you can still buy McNess. My guess is that the government banned it around the same time as DDT, but Mom squirreled away a lifetime supply in the basement, next to the strychnine-laced rat traps. McNess came in circular, red-and-gold tins, one of which could last for approximately seven years, no matter how often it was used. The ointment was a thick, viscous yellow, like phlegm in an old man’s handkerchief.

As kids, my sister and I would go to ridiculous lengths to disguise a sore throat. I can remember practically turning blue at the dinner table to avoid coughing, for fear that the dry hack would be occasion for Mom to break open a tin of torture the way a boxer opens a can of whoopass on his weaker rival.

Sometimes, I’d pretend to whisper to hide impending laryngitis, or practice flexing my throat muscles to tamp down the urge to sneeze, or quickly dart my tongue up into my nostrils to wipe away the telltale drainage, lest sickness be discerned there.

Despite my best efforts, though, illness was always found out, in which case came the trifecta of terror. First, Mom would rub McNess all over my chest and throat, massaging it in with broad, firm strokes. Next, she would wrap an old sock around my neck, secured with a safety pin, the better to seal the salve, which announced itself through a pungent odor that sent the dog scurrying from the vicinity.

Then it was off to bed, even if it were 7 p.m., with the door closed, copious covers piled atop me and a vaporizer — Mom’s only concession to 20th century medicine — running at full blast. If I survived until morning, that meant school.

But school could only be faced with the help of the third item on the list, the aforementioned butter stick, melted into liquid on the stove and fed one spoonful at a time to the complaining victim. The objective, she said, was to coat the throat — a piece of rhyming doggerel that she no doubt learned from a voodoo medicine man who practiced near her childhood farm in Maximo — and prevent future coughing.

If I was lucky, I’d be given a few Smith Brothers cough drops to carry in my pocket to class, in case the all-night McNess treatment, respiratory-choking sock and butter didn’t do the trick. The goal was always to keep me healthy enough to face another day of elementary drudgery.

Smith Brothers, you may note, is not even considered medicine today. Instead, it is shelved with the candy. In other words, my entire war against pneumonia, strep throat, raging sinus infections and any number of other medical woes was fought with a variation of motor oil, a tube sock, a dairy product and some sugar-laced placebos.

Amazingly, I lived. More amazingly, I tried some of these remedies on my own child. But the first time I melted a stick of butter in the microwave and tried to feed it to my daughter, my wife threatened to call Child Protective Services.

Instead, we went to the doctor.

I suppose that was for the best. My childhood toughened me considerably, but it’s an entirely different century and millennium these days. Although part of me wishes I could enter “sore throat” and “hacking cough” into Google and see the words “McNess” and “white sock” pop up as treatments.

For one thing, it would be a heck of a lot cheaper.

Chris Schillig, who can be reached by email at and on Twitter at cschillig, actually had a very good

childhood, as long as he stayed healthy.

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

Commentary & Family life 27 Feb 2014 03:17 pm

Smarter than the average bear

I saw a picture in the newspaper recently of a man wearing a bear suit, dancing with some folks at an area business.

It wasn’t a Yogi Bear or Baloo the Bear or Berenstain Bear suit, either. Just some generic bear with really big bear eyes and head. It was a little grisly, I have to tell you.

As a kid, I hated when people dressed in big, fuzzy costumes. Mickey and Donald might be all cuteness and light when animated, but make them into papier mâché heads here in the real, three-dimensional world and they are trés creepy.

I think my costumed fear factor stems from an episode of the television show “Emergency,” where rescue workers responded to a distress call at an amusement park and found a costumed employee suffering from heat stroke. He was passed out on the sidewalk with his white, clammy head protruding like an albino balloon from inside a furry costume. It might even have been a bear costume.

(Apropos of nothing, I had an “Emergency” lunchbox in grade school. It was one of those weighty metal kinds that you could smash other kids’ faces with on the bus, not the wimpy plastic garbage they mass-produce these days. My mom still has the lunchbox. She keeps Christmas cookie cutters in it and probably has no idea how many blunt force head traumas it inflicted. Ho ho ho.)

Anyway, my suit squeamishness doesn’t mean that I can’t see the possibilities inherent in owning my own bear costume. You might think a grown man would have little use for such a suit, but you’d be wrong.

For one thing, you could wear it when answering the door. Imagine the look on the faces of unsuspecting Jehovah’s Witnesses when they go to hand a pamphlet to a 6-foot-tall Ursus americanus, especially if said bear handed them a pamphlet in return. Maybe one that said, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Then there are the endless possibilities around the neighborhood. I’d mow the lawn in my bear costume, just waiting to see if neighbors would poke their heads out of windows or doors for a better look. Then I could shake my bear tookus in their general direction or do an exit stage left, a la Snagglepuss. Even though he was a mountain lion and not a bear.

I don’t think it violates any ordinances to wash a car or paint a fence while wearing a bear costume, so I expect the police would have little to say. Probably the most they could pin on me would be “inciting panic,” but I bet I could fight that in court. Get myself a good mountain-man attorney, like Grizzly Adams, to plead my case.

Yes, a bear costume would be just the thing to spruce up humdrum daily living. I could show up for work in my bear costume, go out to eat in my bear costume, and even sleep in my bear costume. Some poor thief would be scared straight if he broke into the house and found himself attacked by a bear. All those gun nuts enthusiasts could forget their Castle Doctrines and just invest in animal suits. Save a ton of lives. And because we live in the capitalist capital of the world, if all those other activities get stale, I could always rent myself out to parties and bar mitzvahs as Chris the Dancing Bear, sashaying and prancing around rooms with little shame because a) I’m making money and b) I’m completely disguised.

Of course, too much sashaying and prancing could cause overheating, and that may require a visit from paramedics.

If I’m not careful, my picture could end up on some kid’s lunchbox, smashing the snot out of unwashed ruffians on the schoolbus.

There are worse legacies, I guess.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Feb. 27, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

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