Category ArchiveCommentary

Comic books & Commentary 24 Jul 2014 07:54 pm

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in comics


Marvel Comics beat the news-cycle rush of the San Diego Comic Con International by announcing two major character changes last week: Thor will be a woman and Captain America will be black.

The news didn’t quite trump the last week’s other big comic-related news, the death of an adult Archie Andrews, but it came close.

Thor, whose godlike powers in the Marvel Universe are contained within the hammer Mjolnir, will apparently lose his worthiness to lift the mystical weapon. Then, it will be a woman — possibly his sister, if the scuttle I hear at my local comic shop, where gossip flows more freely than at a hair salon, is correct — who will inherit the mantle.

Steve Rogers, the current Captain America, who has been sojourning on another plane of existence where he has aged faster than normal, is now too old to continue an active superhero lifestyle. (I feel his pain.) The role of Captain America will pass to Samuel Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, Cap’s longtime partner and friend, who is African-American.

The announcements were enough to shatter the psyches of misogynistic and racist fanboys, respectively, if Internet feedback is any indication. The easiest way to gauge America’s progress or lack of progress in the rights of women and minorities is to check what people will say anonymously online.

I think the character changes are positive ones, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they lend themselves to good stories. When dealing with characters who have been in existence for decades — and, yes, I know that the mythological Thor has been around for centuries, but we’re talking about the Marvel version here — it’s sometimes difficult to find ways to keep readers excited. Both a female Thor and a black Captain America have stirred up interest, and that’s seldom bad.

Secondly, the changes reflect sensitivity to a racial diversity that didn’t exist in the 1940s, when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Captain America, or in the 1960s, when the Marvel Universe was born. In both eras, movie and comic characters were predominantly WASP males. Stan Lee, the writer of most of Marvel’s books in the ’60s, broke racial barriers by introducing the Black Panther in the pages of “The Fantastic Four,” but it was years before the character had his own book.

If the Marvel pantheon were being assembled today, Lee and primary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would have introduced a much more diverse cast. The Invisible Girl would have been the Invisible Woman and would have been much more visual. The Avengers would have better reflected the colors and creeds of America.

And now they do. However.

The rubber-band nature of serial comics means that, eventually, characters snap back into place. In other words, Marvel will likely restore the status quo at some point in the future: the original Thor will again be worthy to hold the hammer and Steve Rogers will find a way to reverse his aging and resume the role of Captain America. I have no insider information, just decades of experience as a comics reader who recognizes that change is not the goal of continuing characters. Rather, the illusion of change is.

If that’s what is happening here, then many readers who for the first time are seeing themselves reflected in their favorite heroes are in for a disappointment. They may even feel betrayed.

Marvel’s twin goals appear to be to get new mileage out of old concepts and diversify its line. I hope the company can find a way to do both. If it plans to leave a female Thor and a black Captain America in place indefinitely, good. I hope The Powers That Be also allow creators the opportunity to create strong original characters, ones that need not piggyback on past concepts but that can stand on their own as worthy heroes and heroines of different colors, beliefs and nationalities.

But if the plan is to eventually remake Thor as a man and Captain America as a caucasian, the company is opening itself up to the wrong kind of headlines.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 24, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Music 17 Jul 2014 11:27 pm

She sang what?

For years, I thought Rickie Lee Jones was singing, “Chuck Easy, Love.”

It turns out that the singer-songwriter’s 1979 hit was actually a reference to something I would have had no way of knowing back when I was eleven. Heck, it’s something I didn’t know until this year, when I googled it.

“Chuck” is one of those words with a wide range of meanings. As a kid, I knew it primarily as the second half of “woodchuck,” as in, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.” I also knew it in the sense of “throw,” as in, “Chuck that ball to third base and tag the runner out.”

But “chuck” also had a more bodily — you might even say scatalogical — context, being part of the word “upchuck,” which means “to vomit.” News of somebody upchucking his lunch comes with a strong visual component, whether we want it to or not.

All these meanings made “Chuck Easy, Love” a mystery. Was Jones telling her lover to gnaw on a piece of wood? To toss her a football? Maybe she was holding back her lover’s hair while he or she bent over the porcelain throne, sick from eating too many perogies at the annual church festival. “Chuck easy, love” might be helpful advice to avoid projectile vomiting, in that case. (Hey, it was the ’70s, after all, and “The Exorcist” and its pea-green soup were all the rage.)

Ultimately, I reconciled the cryptic lyrics in my childhood mind by interpreting it as a girl telling a guy to take the relationship slowly. Just chuck easy, love. Sure, it made no sense, but when you’re eleven, nothing adults say makes much sense.

Later in life, when I had time to ponder the title — which was every time I couldn’t turn the dial fast enough to escape the song — I realized it couldn’t possibly be “Chuck Easy, Love.”

Possibly it was “Chucky’s In Love,” which conjured images of the homicidal little doll from the movie “Child’s Play” falling for one of his victims. There might’ve even been a movie called “Bride of Chucky,” but I’m too lazy to check. Plus, since NSA agents are monitoring all my Internet searches, I don’t want them to connect me with any VDTOs — ventriloquist dummy terrorist organizations — that might be lurking along the dark edges of the world, intent on blowing up sock-puppet theaters and ruining the pristine reputation of Howdy Doody.

But I was wrong about “Chucky” in the title too. According to that font of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, “Chuck E.’s in Love” is the official song title. It originated with a friend of Jones’s named — ta da! — Chuck E. Weiss, who moved away from Los Angeles to take up with a woman in Colorado. (This is long before marijuana was legal in the Mile High State, so it must have been true love that motivated him.) When Jones learned the news from her boyfriend, songwriter Tom Waits, he told her that “Chuck E.’s in love.” And so was born one of the most inane songs of all time.

Technically, my bungled lyric is a mondegreen, a misheard word or words in speech or song. Hence, “very close veins” is a mondegreen for “varicose veins,” and “old timer’s disease” is a mondegreen for “Alzheimer’s disease.”

One of the best-known music mondegreens is from the rock classic “Purple Haze,” when many people hear Jimi Hendrix sing, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

So one of the great lyrical mysteries of the last thirty-odd years — “great lyrical mystery” being defined as something that puzzled me and only me — has been solved, albeit in a very humdrum way.

The romantic in me, however, will always hear Rickie Lee offering that sage bit of doggerel that, in a better, purer world, would have become the true motto of the twentieth century. It’s still good advice today: Chuck easy, love.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 17, 2014.

Commentary 11 Jul 2014 08:38 am

Handmaids and Hobby Lobby

When I heard the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, I was reading a novel about a future society where religious fundamentalists seize control of the government. The irony didn’t escape me.

First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells of a dystopian regime where women are second-class citizens. Wives of powerful men must allow their husbands to keep mistresses, called handmaids, whose role is to provide heirs in a world made virtually sterile by nuclear weapons.

The church/government is so involved in procreation that each mistress, who may not dress lasciviously or wear makeup, must lie on top of the wife while the husband attempts to impregnate her, all in the name of ensuring that sex is about procreation and not recreation.

The novel is satirical, but maybe not as satirical as it was before the June 30 SCOTUS decision.

Yes, I know that the high court’s ruling applies only to “closely held” businesses; that Hobby Lobby is not against all forms of contraception, but just a handful that they consider abortifacients; and that the justices gave the government an opportunity to create the same sort of buffer that it currently uses for religious-oriented, non-profit organizations — a Form 700 that allows third-party insurers to provide contraceptives directly, without involving the business.

So it’s not exactly the end of the world. But.

When the Supreme Court returns to session in October, one of the significant cases it must decide is the fate of Form 700. About 50 nonprofits believe that the buffer doesn’t buffer enough, that they are still morally complicit in a system of contraception that they don’t believe in or endorse.

Some legal experts think tweaking the language of Form 700 might be enough to pacify these objections. Others see any change to the wording of Form 700 as another obfuscation by the great devil, Obamacare, forcing them to turn a blind eye to something they consider evil. (Contraception, not Obamacare, although it makes you wonder.)

If the high court sides with the four dozen or so faith-based charities and organizations knocking at its legal door, that leaves the government with the option to fund all birth control itself, something that Justice Samuel Alito, who sided with the majority, suggested. But that’s a dicey proposition that would probably never get off the ground, given a GOP that is hellbent on destroying every aspect of the Affordable Care Act and not overly sympathetic to women’s rights, anyway.

Moreover, one estimate by constitutional law scholar Marci Hamilton of Yeshiva University, quoted in an Associated Press article last week, is that more than 80 percent of U.S. corporations are closely held. The recent SCOTUS decision makes it all too possible that discrimination against women could become much more widespread if some of these companies jump on the Hobby Lobby bandwagon.

Oddly enough, many religious fundamentalists — and even some moderates — believe we live in a society where (ital.) they (end ital.) are being discriminated against. Just imagine, goes their argument, a world where family-owned businesses are forced to close their doors rather than violate their consciences and serve same-sex couples or pay for medically prescribed pharmaceuticals that they oppose for their female employees?

If you wind the clock back 50 years, you find some of the same arguments used to justify denying service to people of color and to employing women in the first place. Give both groups a few freedoms and they get uppity, after all.

Of course, what should concern any proponent of the Hobby Lobby decision is not the ruling itself (unless you’re a woman who works at Hobby Lobby), but the precedent it sets for others companies, big and small, to thrust their religious beliefs into medical examination rooms and bedrooms. If you were worried about Big Brother Government in the bedroom, imagine your prudish boss leering at you, instead.

Still, it’s far short of the kind of religious totalitarianism practiced in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” at least today. Tomorrow, who knows?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 10, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 03 Jul 2014 10:22 am

Missing children


Dusk on a residential street. Lightning bugs pulse first here, then there. A lawn mower whirrs far in the distance as somebody races darkness, hoping to find not too many missed lines the next morning. Otherwise, quiet. Too quiet.

Where are all the kids?

It’s something I ask my wife more and more frequently on our evening walks. There are no kids. No kids catching lightning bugs. No kids playing hopscotch. No kids riding bicycles up and down driveways or wrestling in yards or turning cartwheels or.

Or anything.

I feel more and more like a character in a Ray Bradbury story, strolling down some woebegone street in a slice of small-town America that has been scooped up in its entirety and replanted on Mars. Everything perfectly replicated — houses, garages, shrubs, roads and stoplights.

Everything but kids.

I know this city has children. I see buses filled with them on weekday afternoons during the school year. I see their photos in the paper and on friends’ Facebook pages. I see them in malls and restaurants.

I just don’t see them outside. Not at dusk, not anytime.

When I mention this to other people, I always get the same answer. “Oh, when I was a kid, Mom pushed me out the door in the morning and only let me back in for lunch and dinner and when the streetlights came on. We didn’t sit in front of the TV all day or play video games or text on phones like kids these days.”

This is the answer no matter the age of the respondent, including people who were just kids themselves a few years ago, when older people said the same thing about their generation.

In my own youth, my sister and I played outside a lot, but I’m not fooling myself — I was never an outdoorsy-type. The big difference between summer and winter was that I could read a book on the porch in the summer instead of on the couch in the winter.

Still, we went outside. We set up Slip N’ Slides and got sunburned and played basketball and blew bubbles and built makeshift ramps for our bikes and just ran around.

Maybe parents don’t think it’s safe for kids to do that nowadays. Too many stories about too many creeps. Maybe in a lot of single-parent or two-income homes, kids have to come in early, even in the summer, and go to bed to get up before dawn the next day to be carted off to child care. Maybe spontaneous play really has been replaced by more scripted scenarios — organized sports, playdates at the movies or crawling through plastic, yellow tubes that spill out into boxes of rubber balls at fast-food franchises.

Or maybe kids really are content to stay indoors, even on beautiful early summer evenings, when dusk hangs in the air like a gauze curtain, and watch TV and play video games.

One house on our walking route, however, is like an oasis to my soul. There, kids are doing all the things that I expect to see kids do on a beautiful summer night. They’re skipping, yelling, playing catch, and doodling with chalk. They look dirty — the glorious kind of dirty that comes from lots of exercise and from finding worms in the drive after a hard rain, the wonderful kind of dirty that parents have to scrub off in the bathtub once the sun goes down.

But in the surrounding yards, nothing. Silence. The flickering of TV screens through picture windows, and uncaptured lightning bugs holding sway over all.

Where are all the kids?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 3, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 26 Jun 2014 01:21 pm

Broke with Bill and Hillary


Oh, to be broke like the Clintons.

Hillary opened her mouth and inserted not only her foot, but the entire Payless Shoe chain when she commented recently that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House.

A comedian — I forget his name — once noted the difference between being broke like M.C. Hammer or broke like O.J. Simpson. To be broke like Hammer meant honest-to-goodness destitution, as the once-ubiquitous rapper lavishly overspent and truly ran out of money. But to be broke like O.J. meant sipping Perrier and snacking on hors d’oeuvres while searching for your wife’s killer on the finest golf courses in America.

The Clintons were definitely broke like O.J., although Hillary and Bill may have felt more kinship with Hammer. In Hillary’s mind, they quite likely fled the White House with nothing but the clothes on their back — but her dress unstained! — and a few dozen Secret Service men.

Imagine them sitting down with little Chelsea and asking her to be brave, explaining that Daddy had to go on the lecture circuit to put food on the table, pinching pennies while he made millions for speechifying, plus his $150,000-plus annual presidential pension and Mommy’s soon-to-be Senate salary of $145,000 a year. (Bill earned $9.2 million for speaking in 2001.)

I hate speaking in public, but for that kind of dough, I could be any speaker that you wanted me to be. For $9.2 million, I’d recite the Gettysburg Address in a diaper while riding upside down on a horse and shooting a cigarette from out of the clenched teeth of my only child. And afterward, I’d sign autographs on cocktail napkins, car windshields, stray cats and breasts until everybody left happy.

And remember, it’s not the first time Hillary has exaggerated. Back in 2008, she characterized herself as being under sniper fire on a 1996 trip to Bosnia, a situation that was demonstrably untrue. For that gaffe, The Washington Post awarded her four Pinocchios, named after the puppet with a penchant for growing his nose every time he told a lie.

Of course, while the first lady was visiting Bosnia, another little Pinocchio’s anatomy was growing back in the Oval Office, but that stretcher had nothing to do with unrest in Europe.

Speaking of Monica Lewinsky, if the Clintons had really been broke back in ‘01, think of the money they could have made from an exhibition boxing match between the world’s most famous intern and Hillary. The pay-per-view rights alone would have netted them more than any crummy speech, and it would have the extra advantage of keeping Bill off the road, where he could be tempted to stray in hotel hot tubs.

To be fair, the Clintons really were in debt when they exited the White House, but despite the amount — somewhere between $2.28 million and $10.6 million — it wasn’t the kind of debt that the majority of Americans know. When adjusted for their earning potential, it was more akin to a temporary faux pas, like overspending on the credit card for Christmas and having to trim back on expenses for a month or two. Equating their circumstances with the sort of grinding existence that far too many Americans endure is disingenuous and dangerously out of touch.

All that said, I’d still vote for Hillary for president, if only because she’s no more disconnected from the common person than any politician in D.C. No matter how well-intentioned, they tend to fall prey to special interest groups and big money, feathering their beds with lavish speaking fees once their time in office is through.

Maybe presidents ought to be prohibited from accepting ridiculous sums to speak post-White House. If a big piece of the profit is taken away, perhaps we’d end up with a better cut of chief executive all around.

And if one or two of them ended up on the dole as a result … well, that would make for better-selling memoirs, wouldn’t it?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published June 26, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 20 Jun 2014 07:02 pm

No-go vote for green

Quietly — one might be tempted to say “cravenly” — Gov. Kasich signed a bill Friday night to put a two-year hold on renewable energy and energy-efficiency requirements in Ohio.

The hotly contested SB 310 gives a pass to companies responsible for spewing pollutants into the air and sends a vote of no confidence to the state’s budding — and job-creating — green industry. Not coincidentally, the legislation is supported by the Americans for Prosperity, which in turn is backed by right-leaning billionaires David and Charles Koch. This is, after all, an election year for Kasich.

The problem is not so much the two-year holding pattern that the new legislation creates for utility companies to generate more power from renewable resources. The more insidious concern is the bill’s creation of a committee to make recommendations on future energy-related legislation.

Prior to Kasich’s on-the-q.t. signing, Ohio was required to generate 12.5 percent of its energy from renewable resources and to reduce overall energy use by 22 percent by 2025. Those goals resume in 2017 — unless they are supplanted by new legislation. SB 310’s committee creation virtually guarantees such new laws.

Kasich’s decision to delay Ohio’s greening is somewhat surprising. He has been tough on requirements regarding hydraulic fracturing, perhaps recognizing it as an inherently risky business despite the economic boom it has precipitated statewide.

Just two months ago, the Environmental Defense Fund praised Kasich for working with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to develop policies to plug “fugitive emissions” from oil and gas well sites. So environmentalists were optimistic that he might veto SB 310 even though it would buck big utilities, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers.

Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, Ohio must still gird itself for compliance with new federal initiatives announced earlier this month to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Similar to criticism of green initiatives at the state level, these federal guidelines have been bashed by skeptics who say that nothing the U.S. does to protect the environment will be of any use unless other countries climb aboard.

The concern is that a nation like China, which is modelling itself on observation of decades of U.S. dominance through coal-burning energy models, will be loath to curtail its own growth by the same means. So the U.S. will place itself at a competitive disadvantage by adopting more stringent anti-pollution measures while other countries blithely generate dirty energy, and the earth loses anyway.

The problem with this perspective is that it is so shortsighted, putting the concerns of today ahead of the problems of tomorrow. Whatever missteps may have been made in chronicling climate change and its threats, surely nobody believes it is in the best long-term interest of people in any country to breathe dirty air and slowly boil beneath clouds of smog.

If the U.S. took a principled stand here — not one that put us behind the proverbial financial eight-ball but rather one that allows for systematic reductions, like the Ohio plan and the larger, more ambitious federal plan while still allowing for economic growth — would it not stand to reason that other countries would step up and attempt to quell their own pollutants?

We all expect that when we flip a switch, lights will come on, but few of us think about how that happens and what long-term effects energy creation has. If our leaders poured more money into renewable sources and energy efficiency, along with smart grids and other efforts to maximize the energy that — for now — must be generated via coal, we’d be much better off long-term.

Unfortunately for us, the only term Gov. Kasich is worried about is the one he wants voters to elect him to in November. How else to explain his willingness to cave to big utilities and out-of-state lobbyists at the expense of Ohio’s air quality?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published June 19, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 13 Jun 2014 01:20 pm

Finger on the trigger (warning)

“Trigger warnings” are the latest topic to trigger strong responses, pro and con, on college campuses.

A story in the May 18 New York Times, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm” by Jennifer Medina, reports on attempts by some factions to add disclaimers to syllabi about the content of certain books that might trigger strong responses in some students.

For example, a student at Rutgers suggested that “The Great Gatsby” should be prefaced by a warning that it contains “misogynistic violence.” A draft guide posted on a campus website at Oberlin College noted that “all forms of violence are traumatic” and cautioned professors to be cognizant of a variety of -isms — including racism, sexism and classism — in literature that could potentially traumatize students.

While I applaud any attempts to be sympathetic to the vast life experiences represented by students in every classroom, any attempts to label books by content is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

Conflict is the bedrock of all fiction. Somebody wants something that somebody else has, whether that something is tangible, like material riches, or intangible, like a sense of self-worth. Two characters should seldom be in the same room together and agree with one another; instead, they should most often be in opposition, implicitly or explicitly.

This focus on conflict means that protagonists often face overwhelming odds, many of which are traumatic. It’s the way almost all popular fiction works, and it’s the way most literary fiction works, as well.

To seek out potential “triggers” on the average lit-class syllabus, then, would mean to put a warning in place about every single book. And even then, college professors and students might not agree on what content in each book merits disclaimers.

Take “A Tale of Two Cities.” Since public decapitation is still practiced in Saudi Arabia, any Saudi students in the class may need to know that Dickens’ novel hinges on use of the guillotine and could therefore potentially trigger post-traumatic stress.

Or “The Scarlet Letter,” where Puritans in colonial Boston ostracize the heroine because she has a child out of wedlock. Any women in the room who have been through a similar situation (and any men who have fathered children that they’ve not owned up to) could feel uncomfortable as a result.

“The Bluest Eye” may be unpleasant to victims of incest, “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Things They Carried” to war veterans, and “The Sound and the Fury” to anybody with a family member who is mentally challenged. Do all merit trigger warnings?

The issue extends beyond literature. An associate professor at Middlebury College in Vermont was taken to task by students for showing photos of people with anorexia in a sociology class, according to the Huffington Post.

While some students and readers see trigger warnings as a helpful way to flag objectionable content, I find them problematic. It’s one thing to have individual professors who informally make students cognizant of potentially controversial content; it’s quite another to codify the practice in policy handbooks and across departments.

Who determines what is potentially objectionable? What happens if a significant majority of students “opt out” of a particular assignment? What if instructors decide it is easier to avoid a book like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and discussions about racism in the classroom, thereby robbing students of the opportunity to tackle controversial topics?

It’s a much shorter step than many realize from compassionate but misguided attempts at shielding students from trauma to anthology publishers marketing separate versions of textbooks to avoid certain themes and topics altogether. (It’s happened for years with science texts and the theory of evolution.)

In a society that is politically correct to a fault and a collegiate system where competition to attract and keep students is fierce, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine some institutions of higher learning quietly deciding to skip potentially controversial topics and books to create a more pleasant learning environment. Students can get through with their assumptions unchallenged and their worldview unrattled. You know, the kind of tapioca thought-process that a college education is supposed to cure.

Originally published June 12, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

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 & education 29 May 2014 07:54 am

Right of interpretation

Every year, my Advanced Placement Language students write and share “This I Believe” essays, modeled on the long-running National Public Radio series, as their final exam. This is my contribution to the cause.


I believe in the right of people to interpret certain phenomena however they best see fit.

For example, I was driving last weekend, thinking about a comedian who recently said that folksinger Bob Dylan was overrated. The gist of the comedian’s argument was that Dylan can’t sing or play the guitar and harmonica very well, and that he writes lyrics that are inscrutable.

As I pondered this opinion, I was reminded of the song by the Counting Crows, “Mr. Jones,” with lyrics that run, “I want to be Bob Dylan/ Mr. Jones wishes he was someone just a little more funky/ When everybody loves you, son, that’s just about as funky as you can be.”

A few seconds later, that very song came on the radio. It made me arch an eyebrow, I confess.

One can interpret this phenomenon a variety of ways. Some people might see it as a little tip of the hat from the Big Man Upstairs, God’s way of sending a sign that Dylan is either A-OK or really is overrated. Or maybe God guided the radio programmer’s hand at that instant to make the song jibe with my thoughts.

Or maybe God guided my thoughts to Dylan at that moment to make me arch my eyebrow as I did, creating a minor miracle to convince a nonbeliever.

A second interpretation is that the confluence of Dylan-related thoughts and Dylan-related song is a mere coincidence, one of many that occur throughout a normal day. According to this line of reasoning, hearing “Mr. Jones” on the radio a moment after I thought of it has more to do with the format of the station (it plays only ’90s alternative and grunge, and “Mr. Jones” is an example of the former) than divine intervention.

A third interpretation is to shrug one’s shoulders, say “Who cares?” and just enjoy the damn song.

The beauty of being creatures of consciousness is that we can choose any of these options, and many other explanations besides, to fit our own belief system — and not just about Bob Dylan.

The second interpretation above is my own, but I recognize that many people would choose what’s behind door number one. And that’s cool.

Personally, I have a hard time buying the concept that we should be thankful to a higher power when He/She/It cures cancer or lets three out of five people survive a tornado without also being angry that He/She/It gave us the cancer or caused the tornado. It’s easier not to believe.

But I recognize that many people have reconciled these conundrums in ways that I have not, and I’m fascinated by this, just as I know that some people are fascinated by the way I think and the way that I have reconciled my non-belief.

None of which, of course, will stop people who interpret phenomenon through a religious lens from praying for me, damning me, or ignoring me; just as I doubt that I will stop believing that these same people are squandering parts of their lives that could be spent more productively elsewhere.

And you know what? It’s a big, wide world out there, and it’s much more interesting with a wide diversity of people and opinions in it. If I’m fortunate to live long enough, maybe some of these opinions will change my mind about what made the Counting Crows blare through my radio that morning. But if not, the conversations will have been worth having, and the exposure to alternate points of view illuminating.

One thing’s for sure, however. Whether songs are divinely programmed or subject to chance, Bob Dylan really is just about as funky as he can be. This I believe.

@cschillig on Twitter

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

Commentary & education 23 May 2014 06:51 am

Rape culture alive and well on campus

Prospective female students have a new question to ask admissions counselors as part of the college decision-making process: How likely am I to be raped on your campus?

This is not an idle inquiry. According to new statistics, women have a one in five chance of being the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault at college. For many campus administrators, it’s a dirty little secret they’d like to keep on the down-low.

Well, no more. Recently, the federal government released a list of 55 colleges and universities with open “sexual violence investigations.” Three Ohio schools made the list as of May 1: Denison, Ohio State and Wittenberg universities.

The culprit here is most often “date rape,” which means that some readers will breathe a sigh of relief and sink back into their chairs, with visions of easy girls with smeared mascara who get exactly what they deserve.

The problem with this view is that it’s just not true. According to the May 26 edition of Time magazine, which features a cover story on rape in higher education, many young ladies who find themselves in danger of rape have been manipulated into these situations by a small percentage of predatory males on campus. And some of these men are repeat offenders — not that they’ve ever been arrested or convicted, of course.

One alarming study found that 6.4 percent of the male population at the University of Massachusetts in 2002 reported committing acts that met the legal definition of rape, according to Time reporter Eliza Gray. But half of those men averaged nearly six assaults each.

I’d imagine that it’s a similar story at all schools, where the majority of guys are not rapists or would-be rapists. It’s a small minority of men on any campus that view themselves as hunters, with females their prey and alcohol and drugs their weapons of choice.

The solution is not to boycott the 55 schools on the list. After all, the problem is systemic. Ironically enough, the answer to higher ed’s war on females is … education.

Parents need to educate their children — male and female — to be wary. Guys need to be taught that no really does mean no, and that finding a drunk or stoned woman, or getting a woman in such a condition to say yes, still means no. An impaired person cannot give consent. It’s rape.

Women need to be reminded that not all guys are good, and that alcohol and drugs lower one’s inhibitions and invite disaster.

And all these Dudley Do-Rights on campus, the ones who would never dream of taking advantage of another person, need to be taught that the innocent bystander role doesn’t cut it anymore. If a woman is in danger of being taken advantage of, step in and get her away from the situation.

Just as importantly, women who have been assaulted need to do an end run around campus security and dial 911 to get in touch with real police officers. Many colleges and universities are all too happy to handle such matters internally because it keeps them out of the public eye and avoids any embarrassing PR.

People who have been assaulted at work or at school have zero loyalty to these institutions and every right and responsibility to file a report with authentic police officers, not rent-a-cop wannabes. (Handling matters in-house is what allowed the Penn State child-sex scandal to continue for so many years, after all.)

Education extends, too, to those troglodytes in society who still believe that women ask to be raped by the way they dress, the things they say or do and the places they go. There’s a term for the type of environment that is created when people think this way –rape culture.

No woman asks to be raped, but plenty of women are.

Our college campuses should be places of learning and growth, not of coercion and violence. If you have a student starting the college-search process this summer, ask about on-campus violent crime. Ask about rape. Don’t stop asking until you get a straight answer.

And if you never get a straight answer, strike that school from your list. When we start to demand not only a quality education, but also on-campus safety, for our tuition dollars, we’ll see how quickly profit becomes a factor for nonprofit institutions.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 22, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

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