Commentary 13 Jun 2013 03:17 pm
Dear National Security Agency data sifter:
I’m sorry you were assigned my phone to monitor. I recognize that I never call anybody interesting, certainly nobody who could be perceived as a security threat. You would, I am sure, prefer to be bird dogging a Saudi prince or some surly, domestic terrorist, but you must be too low on the pecking order for such important folks. Maybe if you work really hard and do a good job spying on honest American citizens, you will be promoted to hard-core criminal types soon.
Anyway, Joe — you don’t mind if I call you Joe, do you? — you probably spend most of your time in a darkened, windowless room, waiting for government supercomputers to red flag any suspicious phone activity. You’ll be waiting a long time for anything like that to happen with my phone. Mostly, I call my wife and daughter, sometimes just to say hello, but sometimes to ask if I can bring home anything important. Not things like acetone, fertilizer and hydrogen peroxide, which can be used to make explosives, but things like milk, eggs and bread, which can be used to make French toast.
(I hope it’s OK to eat French toast. I know there was a time when we didn’t like the French, so we started calling French fries freedom fries, but eating “freedom toast” just sounds too weird. If I should stop eating French toast, please send me a message via a wiretap on my phone. Thanks.)
Confession: One time I did call the Aryan Brotherhood, but that was only to ask if they had Prince Albert in a can. Sorry, I live in a small town, and it gets boring on weekends.
Oh, and I call the library occasionally to see if books I requested have arrived, but I don’t do that so much anymore because the nice librarians generally send me email or text-message notifications. I read only wholesome American literature and never anything that’s been banned or suppressed.
Maybe if I selected some spicier materials, like “Lolita” or “Tropic of Cancer,” you would be able to read along with me while you’re hacking into my tablet or home computer. That would help the time pass faster there in Maryland, wouldn’t it?
Many times, I must admit, I read the old-fashioned way, by holding a book in front of my face and moving my eyes back and forth across the pages, which I turn by hand. This makes it much more difficult to keep tabs on me (always out of concern for my own well-being, right?), but I’m sure you have a satellite somewhere that you can direct toward my house to ensure I’ve not been absorbing seditious materials.
Boy, this NSA/phone records scandal has certainly been blown out of proportion, hasn’t it? I’m surprised at how many Republicans — the same ones who were gaga for Dubbaya back in the day — are gleefully spinning this surveillance into an attack on the current president, when it really dates back to the Bush-era Patriot Act, passed in those scary days after 9/11 when we came to the consensus that almost anything that could be done should be done to stop future attacks.
And who’s to say this surveillance hasn’t been successful? We’re told it’s foiled terrorist plots already, although we can’t know which ones because — surprise! — that’s classified information.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?, eh, Joe?
Regardless, I’ll bet this scandal is fairly short in duration and that you and your NSA co-workers will soon sink back into anonymity. After all, most Americans have believed for years that the government is spying on them, and many believe that constitutional protections can be circumvented by people with power, money or both. Where’s the controversy?
So you won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, which is a great comfort to me and my family, even if it means that you — or whoever replaces you as you climb the ladder of success at Fort Meade — will continue to be bored by my phone calls to local pizza shops and dog groomers.
And in case I don’t get to talk to you before, Joe, have a happy Fourth of July. Be sure to get out of that dark room, watch some fireworks and celebrate the many opportunities we enjoy in this, the land of the free.
Originally published June 13, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Commentary 06 Jun 2013 01:09 pm
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis suggested that atheists could get to heaven on the basis of good deeds alone.
For many people, it was an indication that the Catholic Church was changing its stance and becoming more open and accepting. They were wrong.
The Vatican quickly issued a statement that contradicted the supposedly infallible pope. A spokesman noted that people who are ignorant of the gospels and the church could, indeed, pass through the eye of a needle and enter the kingdom of heaven, like the camel of proverb. Apparently, it’s not their fault if the church’s PR department didn’t find them.
But people with an awareness of the Catholic Church “cannot be saved [if they] refuse to enter her or remain in her,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, as quoted by United Press International.
In other words, a person like me, who has turned away from Catholicism and, indeed, all religion, will still roast in perpetual flames, while those who have accepted the gospels and Christ will enjoy the fruits of heaven.
But if I believe all this eternal-life-after-death stuff is bunk anyway, then why do I care what the pope, the cardinals, the bishops or anybody else believes? The truth is, I don’t, not really.
But the pope’s statement was a concession that many roads exist to reach a common destination, which is helpful to many people who have left one faith to join another, but who still are wracked with guilt because of earlier indoctrination. It is also a comfort to the faithful who worry over the souls of atheists in their families. (Hi, Mom.)
Additionally, the pope’s words made me hopeful that we’d moved one tiny step closer to the day when all people could live without the divisiveness of religion, helping one another without the presence of some invisible being who holds out the promise of eternal reward or punishment.
We’re not quite there, but we are advancing. Last August, “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” showed that the number of Americans who identified themselves as religious had dropped from 73 to 60 percent since 2005, while the number of Americans who say they are atheists increased from 1 to 5 percent.
Slow progress, but progress nonetheless.
Whenever I write about religion (much less frequently than my critics believe), I receive a lot of mail. Sometimes readers say they will pray for me, sometimes that they will never read my column again, and sometimes that they will do both simultaneously.
Less often, readers agree with me, but when I ask if they’d be willing to have their comments published as letters to the editor, they almost always decline. Too controversial, they say. They have to work and live in this town, they say.
Such is the power of organized religion. I write for a newspaper that devotes two pages a week to positive portrayals of organized faith (and with two columnists whose work I enjoy), yet many cry foul when I look at religion critically two or three times a year.
For the record, I have nothing against people of faith in general or Catholics in particular. Some of the best people I know are both. I no longer share or understand their beliefs or reasoning, much as they don’t share or understand mine, but that makes dinner parties more interesting, you know?
And I really like Pope Francis. He appears to be a man of compassion, a true shepherd for his flock, more concerned with a message of universal love than with the preservation of the church’s hierarchy and rather arbitrary rules.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his handlers, who took his New Testament message of acceptance and covered it with a heaping helping of Old Testament judgment.
His way stood at least a chance of reaching the disenfranchised. Theirs, not so much.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published June 6, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
We had bad news from our veterinarian last month.
Crossing his arms and rubbing his chin, he did his best Marcus Welby as he groped for a way to deliver the message sensitively.
He nodded toward our 2-year-old golden retriever. Cooper, he said, his voice assuming the gravity of Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments,” was “tending toward the point of obesity.”
“It’s OK, Doc,” I replied. “We can take it. Just tell us he’s fat.”
He said Cooper wasn’t fat — not yet — but could stand to lose 15 to 20 pounds.
When 15 to 20 pounds represents between 13 to 18 percent of an animal’s weight, that’s fat, at least to my layperson’s way of thinking. Maybe not morbidly obese, but definitely in the I’m-no-longer-a-supermodel category.
The vet rattled off a litany of health problems that can plague fat (excuse me, tending-toward-the-point-of-obesity) dogs: joint pain, hip dysplasia, heart problems and diabetes.
(Diabetes, by the way, must be pronounced the way Wilford Brimley does in those commercials for free testing supplies: die-uh-BEAT-us.)
My wife, always the loving mother, rationalized faster than a chocoholic at a Weight Watchers meeting. “He’s just big-boned,” she said. Yeah, and denial is just a river in Egypt.
“And he likes his treats,” she continued, referring to the economy-sized box of dog bones that we refill every week or two. “When he’s a good boy, he gets a bone.”
My wife’s definition of “good boy” was synonymous with “breathing boy.” Whatever the dog did, he got a bone — go outside, bark at cats, look at her adorably, jump on furniture after we told him to get down. He received a bone when she left for work in the morning (to quell separation anxiety, she said) and another when she came home (to celebrate a joyous reunion).
In retrospect, his weight gain should have been obvious. Just a week before, we’d ordered a custom-made harness when his no longer fit. “Custom-made” reminds me of the pair of Levi’s with a size 76 waist that hung in a downtown clothing store for so many years.
Poor Cooper, it seems, has joined the ranks of the 36.7 million dogs in this country — a fur-bristling 52.5 percent — who are overweight, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. (And just the existence of such an organization might say all that needs to be said about America.)
APOP believes the causes of pet obesity are the same as the causes of human obesity: More calories coming in than going out. We eat too much junk (or maybe too much, period) and don’t exercise enough. Our animals do the same.
But fixing a dog’s obesity is much easier than fixing a person’s, especially since a dog doesn’t have opposable thumbs to open a cookie jar, can’t make a late night run to Taco Bell for Fourth Meal and can’t break the padlock off a refrigerator door.
It’s a simple prescription: If your dog’s fat, stop feeding him so much and take him around the block a few times a day.
In the weeks since we learned Cooper was “tending toward the point of obesity,” we’ve virtually eliminated treats (my wife still has to give him a bone when she leaves for work — it’s practically a tradition). We’ve also cut out the little ice cream cones from Dairy Queen, pizza crusts and any other “people” food.
Now that the weather’s nicer, we’re walking him farther than just the stop sign on the corner, going instead to the park and putting some miles on those pork-chop legs. He comes home exhausted, but guess what? He’s losing weight faster than Obama’s losing credibility.
Maybe Cooper’s not quite ready for an American Kennel Club photo shoot, but at least he’s stopped waddling and jiggling like a Walmart shopper in pajama pants.
“It’s been rough,” he says over the fence to the neighbor dog, a rail-thin Great Dane. “But at least I’m not a statistic anymore. Did you know that 62.7 percent of golden retrievers surveyed were overweight? It’s an epidemic.”
Like most empty nesters, my wife and I expend far too much time and energy creating a rich fantasy world where our dog watches TV, checks email, makes phone calls and talks like a baby.
Pathetic, isn’t it?
Almost as sad as a world where a dog’s weight has to be spoken of in euphemisms, for fear we’ll offend.
“Tending toward the point of obesity,” indeed.
@cschillig on Twitter
Commentary 23 May 2013 07:00 am
Stark County commissioners did a favor to convicted felons last week by voting to “ban the box.”
The box, in this case, is the one on county job applications asking applicants to check mark if they have been convicted of a felony. Under the new guidelines, the question now will wait until after a prospective employee has been interviewed.
The change allows applicants to explain criminal records in person, which gives them a better chance of overcoming what, for many employers, is a deal-breaker. Once applicants have sold themselves and their skills, the reasoning goes, interviewers will be more likely to look at the “total package” and not only the conviction.
The change puts Stark County government in line with many states and counties. As of April, the list of entities that had decided to “ban the box” includes public employers in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit and the entire states of California, Colorado, New Mexico and Minnesota, according to the National Employment Law Project.
These policy changes don’t eliminate background checks. Instead, they move the discussion about felonies to the back burner until after applications have been sorted and interviews scheduled. Employers will still see all red flags before hiring.
A job applicant would be foolish to wait until the final background check to disclose problems with the law. Few things would reflect as badly on an interviewee as being the only one aware of that particular elephant in the room.
There was a time, not too many years ago, when I was opposed to changing these policies. If they did the crime, let them do the time, including any consequences that come later.
That was before I began moonlighting at a community college.
The final writing assignment I give each semester is a problem-and-solution paper, and a topic that is chosen more than most others is how difficult it is for felons to get jobs. It is only at this point in the term, after I’ve gotten to know students individually, that they reveal their spotty legal histories.
We’re talking about stupid crimes by people in their late teens or early 20s. It’s the usual litany of getting in with the wrong crowd, being in the wrong place at the wrong time or not knowing the legal ramifications of a particular action. One in four American adults has a criminal record that shows up on a background check, after all.
Some of my students have been recently released from prison; others did their time years before. Others without legal blemishes of their own are affected by felons in their lives — husbands, wives, parents or children — who struggle to make ends meet.
If you believe it is easy to spot the felons in my classes, I can assure you it isn’t. They look and act like you or me.
My students talk about checking that box on job applications, affixing a statement that explains the convictions and knowing that they are never going to get an interview.
One tearfully told the class about living with a man who sold drugs; when he was arrested, so was she. Ten years later, the stigma lingers.
Another told about receiving a call for an interview, only to have the representative call back the next day to say they’d have to reschedule.
“They never did, and I know why,” he said, “because that’s the way they always do. They saw the box.”
Even with new guidelines in place, public employers in Stark County can still keep reformed felons out of certain positions if that’s what they elect to do. And when two people have similar skill sets and job compatibilities, it makes sense to go with the one whose record is clean.
But maybe in those instances when a felon is clearly the best fit for a position, the new philosophy will embolden county human-resource people to take a chance. I hope so. That sounds like that would be in keeping with the spirit of the policy change.
Because when people put themselves into a box, it’s only fair to give them a fighting chance once they’ve climbed their way out.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on May 23, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
A ferocious dinosaur lays siege to a roller coaster on Coney Island. The fearsome kraken rises from the sea to claim its latest victim. A hapless sailor and his crew battle sword-wielding skeletons.
These movie moments captivated me as a child. Each time a Ray Harryhausen monster took center stage, I would move the rabbit-ear antenna on the old TV in the basement to improve the picture. Even through a haze of static and commercial interruptions, the illusion held sway. I believed.
Harryhausen, the special-effects maestro who died earlier this month at the age of 92, breathed life into all of the above and many more, a pantheon of monsters hatched from mythology and his own fervid imagination.
Without a doubt, Harryhausen’s special effects were the best part of many films with which he was involved. “Jason and the Argonauts,” for example, is a largely tepid affair, a paint-by-numbers, sword-and-sandal epic about the legendary titular explorer’s attempts to find the Golden Fleece and become king of Thessaly. The acting is wooden and the plot virtually nonexistent.
But every 20 minutes or so, the movie blazes to life when a Harryhausen creation saunters into frame: Talos, the bronze giant, voted the second greatest movie monster of all time (behind King Kong); the Hydra, fierce creature with the head of seven snakes; and, of course, a battalion of skeletons, bones clicking and clacking as they attack Jason and his men.
Harryhausen’s effects are cinematic magic at its finest. Using miniature models, he would shoot one frame of film, stop the camera, move the model infinitesimally, and then shoot the next frame, laboriously building the illusion of movement.
Considering that one second of film contains 24 frames, it would take days to yield only a few seconds of usable film, painstaking labor that would be combined later with live-action footage using reverse projection and other techniques. Working within constraints of time and money (there was never enough of either), the man created marvels.
Harryhausen’s biggest influence was the aforementioned “King Kong,” a movie that both he and fantasy author Ray Bradbury (who died last year) saw at impressionable ages. In the book “Kong Unbound,” Harryhausen dubbed it “the greatest fantasy film ever made.” He later would learn its secrets at the feet of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien, the man who animated “Kong.” Harryhausen worked with O’Brien on the original “Mighty Joe Young,” another movie about a large ape whisked away to civilization.
Harryhausen went on to create special effects for many Hollywood productions, including “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “It Came from Beneath the Sea,” “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which climaxes with the monster stomping Coney Island, was based on a story by Bradbury and pays homage to the two men’s love of giant monsters.
Harryhausen’s last hurrah was 1981’s “Clash of the Titans,” another romp through mythology. By then, the heyday of stop-motion animation had passed, replaced by a variation called “go motion” that relied on a computer to move the scale models.
“Go motion” itself would have a short shelf life, supplanted by full computer animation 10 years later in “Jurassic Park.” Today, stop-motion, when it is used at all, is done to invoke nostalgia.
Yet there is still much to recommend the earlier method. The herky-jerky look of stop-motion — with puppets manipulated by hand, inflating and deflating bladders hidden inside to simulate breathing — infuses a sense of personality in the finished effect that is sometimes lacking in more seamless computer animation.
Just as King Kong reflects the scrappy nature of O’Brien, the many creatures animated by Harryhausen reflect what I imagine to be his ferocious desire to overwhelm the audience, to make them gasp or smile or shriek.
And, above all, to make them believe.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published May 16, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
This is Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’m doing exactly that — remembering educators who enlightened and inspired me.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the late Melva Jean Watson, second-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, who read aloud from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Studies prove the benefits of reading to children, and I benefited both from the content of those books and the time spent listening to a capable reader weave words into a literary web.
Reading aloud was a big part of Judy Vien’s classroom circa 1980 at Marlington Middle School. One book in particular cast a potent spell: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” read by Mrs. Vien in her soft Southern accent, so similar to how I imagined Scout, Atticus, Jem and Dill would sound.
I respected her for sharing a book that some find controversial, especially for sixth-grade students, and for not sugarcoating the expletives. Instead, she explained the racial overtones of the times; that mistreating people because of skin color, education or economic attainment is wrong; and that we were mature enough to know that saying certain words was not the same as endorsing them.
A few years later, Andrea Ogline and Nancy Schwan — my freshman and sophomore English teachers, respectively, at Marlington High School — encouraged my love of writing, each in her own way.
Mrs. Ogline, poor thing, waded through page after page of my journal entries, filled with dreary imitations of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and gallons of imaginary blood. Yet she was always enthusiastic in her comments, even when she would have preferred a nice Bronte pastiche to another psychopathic killer inspired by my fetish for horror films.
Mrs. Schwan submitted one of my stories to a regional contest. It didn’t win, but for the first time I thought about making a living with words and saw how revision improved my writing. She took the work so seriously that she once called me at home to address a plot flaw, just like a real editor. I am thankful for that, and how she never assumed that because my character committed suicide, the story was a cry for help. (It wasn’t.)
At Mount Union College, David Ragosin and John Bienz left their marks. The former introduced me to William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” one of a handful of books I regularly return to for inspiration, and he once told me I had the makings of a good college professor. My career didn’t go in that direction, but the words did — and do — mean a lot.
Dr. Bienz had such a quiet and unprepossessing manner that he put students, many of whom were secretly terrified of literature at the collegiate level, at ease. While he delivered effective lectures, he was a master of eliciting responses, both in class and on the printed page. I especially remember his Shakespeare class, where instead of a final paper, we performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for elementary students. I was the fairy Puck, likely because of my long hair and effeminate build. (Both are victims of my forties.)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I flattered the heck out of Dr. Bienz my first few years as a teacher, modeling my delivery on his. These days, I’ve found my own voice, but am still largely influenced by his technique.
Like most people, I am the sum total of the efforts of dozens of professionals, from Ms. Meese, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the Letter People, through Penny Arnold, an Ashland University professor who made me re-examine my grading methods as a practicing educator.
Even teachers whose subjects aren’t of great interest or whose styles are not inspirational make an impression. When they are passionate about their subjects, it leaves a mark. When they are not, that too speaks volumes.
If our lives are books, teachers occupy a large chunk of the acknowledgments, along with the standard tagline that while they provide a wealth of insight and information, we ourselves are responsible for any errors in fact.
“I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of the same name. This is especially true of teachers, whose impact lasts far beyond the final school bell and, indeed, tolls throughout our lives.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published May 9, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
If there were lyrics to “Pomp and Circumstance” for parents of the college graduate set, they might go something like this:
You’re moving your stuff home,
Bringing all that junk back,
Load up that old futon
Get ready to pack.
Or maybe, depending on how the sheepskin was financed, parents could sing:
Your degree cost me thousands
In tuition and fees,
Now you will have no job
With a degree in art history.
No education, of course, is ever wasted, especially when acquiring it involves four years of late-night bull sessions, greasy pizza and liquid calories, at least if what we see in “Animal House” is true. And, of course, Hollywood is always scrupulous in its accurate portrayal of university life, just as it is with police work and domestic issues.
Higher education has been uppermost in my mind recently because my daughter graduated Sunday. I enjoyed the ceremony and her success, yet my back kept twinging. Maybe it was because of three hours spent in bleacher seats, but more likely it was due to all the boxes and furniture I hauled up and down stairs a few days before.
My wife says I have no reason to complain. After all, she took two days off work to help pack and unpack. All I did was show up two afternoons to serve as cart horse for larger items.
Once upon a time, going to college involved just a few milk cartons — borrowed from behind your favorite grocery store, despite the stenciled warning “Thou Shalt Not Steal” — filled with books, sweatshirts and jeans, plus a halfway decent stereo system. You’d live in a dorm room about the size of a closet, with all the aesthetic appeal of a stairwell — cinder blocks, a small window that would be the envy of only the Prisoner of Zenda, and a shower shared by dozens of people, at least one of whom had ringworm.
Today, young adults live better in many college dorms than they will in the first few years after college (unless they move back home and wait five to 10 years for the economy to improve), when those initial apartments look more the way dorms did a few decades ago. Colleges and universities now build student housing to resemble Soho studio lofts, and students enthusiastically cart in enough junk to fill the extra space.
And if a student (like my daughter) moves off campus into a situation that offers even more livable space (she and three friends shared a house), plan on those two milk cartons to morph into 50 or 100, enough to turn a misdemeanor into grand larceny.
Bringing my daughter home was akin to moving a Romanian princess back from exile and involved five car loads and one pickup truck, all filled to bursting. We carried boxes of books, lamps, two TVs, a computer, Ramen noodles, a desk, two chairs, a bed, a dresser, bagels, a Keurig, clothes, shoes, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, clothes, shoes, GRE flashcards, curtains, shoes, potato chips, clothes, rice mixes, over-the-counter medications, pots, pans, clothes and shoes.
Oh, and some clothes and shoes. (Imelda Marcos, eat your heart out.)
And as if further proof is needed that nature abhors a vacuum (although I hear it tolerates a Dyson), most of these collected treasures found a home in my newly cleaned garage, which — for two nights only — was capable of containing a car.
Today, the garage looks like the aftermath of a tornado at a flea market and will remain that way until we trek off with all these treasures again for graduate school in a few months.
In the meantime, though, let us raise our glasses to members of the Class of 2013, who face an exciting future secure in the knowledge that they have already contributed to a financial boom in two key growth areas: construction and medicine.
Self-storage rentals and Doan’s pills sales are through the roof.
@cschillig on Twitter
Prevailing wisdom among people who study pre-teen reading habits is that girls will read books about boys, but boys are less likely to read books about girls.
Maybe this is changing because of the success of “The Hunger Games,” with a strong female lead whose exploits in three bestselling books are a hit with not only the YA crowd, but adults as well.
I’ve always been an exception to the boys-not-reading-about-girls rule, myself. One of my earliest literary adventures was “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” with spunky Dorothy traveling down “the road of yellow brick,” encountering eccentric companions and showing off her silver slippers to good effect. (Her route became “the yellow brick road” and her footwear turned ruby only in the MGM movie.) I’ve read the book more than a dozen times, and Judy Garland was one of my first big-screen crushes, even if she was too old to play Dorothy.
Recently, I had a chance to revisit another childhood favorite with a female protagonist: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, newly reprinted in two handsome hardbacks by the Library of America.
These books hold a special place in my heart. When I was a new student at Washington Elementary School in 1976, my second-grade teacher, Melva Jean Watson, read aloud from “Little House on the Prairie” almost every day. Something about the Ingalls family leaving Wisconsin and heading West in a covered wagon struck a chord with me, even if my own migration from Middlebranch to Washington Township in the backseat of a car wasn’t much by comparison.
I am still impressed by the family’s moxy. Laura’s father, referred to mostly as Pa, decides the woods of Wisconsin — immortalized in the first book of the series, “Little House in the Big Woods” — are becoming too crowded. “Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa’s ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun,” writes Wilder, who refers to herself in the third person. “The path that went by the little house had become a road.”
Those all sound like good reasons to stay in Wisconsin, not leave it, but nobody has ever accused me of having an overabundance of pioneer spirit.
In the books, little Laura and her sisters often take a backseat to the story of their parents, and Laura’s main occupation is to observe the ways of pioneer families. Not surprisingly for people who lived for — and by — the harvest, the books are filled with food, much more than I remember from age 8. (Maybe Mrs. Watson omitted some parts.)
The Ingalls’ attic in Wisconsin is a veritable produce stand: “The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables. The red peppers and the onions dangled overhead. The hams and the venison hung in their paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.”
In “Farmer Boy,” which tells the boyhood story of Ingall’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, in New York, mealtime is almost sensuous. “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed …”
All that’s missing is a cigarette afterward.
Nearly every page of the Little House books is filled with industrious people planting, nurturing, harvesting, storing, slaughtering and building for winter. It’s impressive, especially to a reader whose winter preparations involve nothing more than covering the air-conditioning unit with a tarp and buying a new ice scraper for the car.
Wilder’s characters have fun too, going to the occasional dance and inviting extended family to visit at the holidays, but mostly they work.
One of my favorite sequences in the books, however, has nothing to do with harvests or dances. Later in “Farmer Boy,” Almanzo’s teacher drives a group of disruptive students out of his classroom using an ox-whip. Taking the biblical injunction to spare the rod and spoil the child almost literally, the teacher thrashes the students, jerking them off their feet, tearing their clothes and bloodying their bodies.
Maybe it was my imagination, but I always thought Mrs. Watson read that section with even more vim and vigor than the other chapters.
It’s always nice to revisit old friends, and even nicer to find out that they are more companionable than you remember. So it is with the Little House books. While these new editions omit the classic illustrations by Garth Williams, they are hardly missed. Laura Ingalls Wilder still holds me in thrall with stories of pioneer pluck and an almost-vanished lifestyle that appeal to either gender and all ages.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published April 25, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Commentary 18 Apr 2013 05:28 pm
I started running about four years ago to lose weight.
At first I hated it. My lungs burned and my head hurt and every footstep felt like sledge hammers pounding on my calves.
I persisted out of stubbornness. I’d bought a good pair of shoes and I didn’t want to waste them.
A few months later, everything still hurt, but not as often and not as long. I grew to tolerate running and, eventually, to love it. The solitude of the open road spoke to me, giving me a place to sort out my thoughts, to plan my day or just unwind. When solitude grew too, well, solitary, I started running races — 5Ks, 10Ks, even a half-marathon. I was never going to be the fastest runner — not overall, not even in my age group — but that didn’t matter.
Camaraderie was a new experience. Imagine me, shunner of everything athletic, bonding with other athletes, encouraging and being encouraged, crossing the finish line with a feeling of euphoria while family and friends looked on.
Crossing the finish line.
That’s one of the things I pondered after I learned of Monday’s bomb explosions at the Boston Marathon — that the rat bastards responsible had corrupted yet another place that should be associated with victory and joy.
First, terrorists stripped Americans of our sense of security on 9/11. Since then, it’s been one reduction after another. Shooters in schools, in malls, in airports, in churches. Some with guns, some with bombs, one crazy in Texas last week with a knife.
And now the Boston Marathon, probably the Super Bowl of races, one that runners dream of qualifying for, if not competing in. At least three dead, more than 100 injured.
Where are we safe anymore?
The answer, of course, is everywhere and nowhere.
Everywhere because, despite the horror and tragedy, the loss of life and the injuries, most places are perfectly safe, at least from the kind of homicidal cruelty that took place Monday, because the bad guys still are few and far between.
Nowhere because it’s impossible for anybody — police, volunteers, government officials, the courts — to protect us 100 percent of the time. We wouldn’t want to live in a world where they did. A poster by comics legend Frank Miller shows a young woman with her eyes, ears and nose covered by Band-Aids. A pair of hands reaches toward her mouth to place another Band-Aid there. “Just one more and you’ll be safe,” the caption reads.
The post-Boston 2013 world is one we know too well already. Races will now begin with totally appropriate moments of silence for lives lost in Boston, another painful reminder of innocence lost. Runners will cross finish lines and remember images of another finish line, one choked in smoke and raining blood and body parts. They will wear T-shirts and ribbons in colors yet unchosen to mark lives senselessly lost.
Another moment of joy will be tainted by the unfathomable actions of a person or people who consider decency to be just a word and for whom life is cheap.
And yet we soldier on. Americans still fly, despite 9/11. We still send our kids to school, despite Columbine, Texas A&M, Sandy Hook and too many others. We still go to the movies, despite Aurora.
And now we will still run, despite Boston. We will persist out of stubbornness, running to escape the weight of the world, despite the burning in our lungs and the pain in our hearts.
Because we can’t stop congregating. We can’t close down the world and huddle in our houses, and we can’t teach our kids to do that either. Just one more and you’ll be safe.
We’ve got to lace up and keep running.
But running toward the future or away from the past? Sadly, that answer isn’t as clear.
@cschillig on Twitter
Commentary 11 Apr 2013 05:12 pm
I wasn’t having a good day.
It was late and I was grumpy and the woman in front of me was holding up the line by buying cigarettes, which required the cashier to step away from the register to get them from another aisle. When she came back, the customer said they were wrong — filtered when she wanted non-filtered or a different brand, I don’t know — which sent the cashier on another trip.
I studied the items in the woman’s cart. Brand-name everything — snacks, colas and frozen foods. I looked at the way she was dressed, considered the cigarettes she had asked for and made a wager to myself that she would pay with some type of government assistance.
I was right.
After she peeled off money from a roll of cash to cover the smokes, she produced a blue Ohio Direction Card. Our eyes locked as she handed it to the cashier, and in that split-second I’m convinced she knew that a complete stranger had just taken her measure, had judged her life and found it — and her — wanting. I also knew that it wasn’t the first time it had happened and wouldn’t be the last.
I was ashamed.
Who am I to judge others and how they choose to live or how circumstances force them to live?
I am the unworthy heir to a lifetime of luck, fortunate timing and good advice, augmented by a strong work ethic that I never asked for, but that was granted me nonetheless.
I grew up in a single-parent household where money was tight, but where all my needs were met. I was fortunate to attend college and lucky to have sensible advice to persevere when I wanted to quit. I received equally good advice when I wanted to walk away from a full-time job to follow an uncertain freelance path that could have destroyed my finances.
I am lucky to have chosen a career that remains in demand, to have weathered enough years to build security, to have three employers whose checks keep my daughter’s tuition at bay so that she isn’t buried in student loans.
If any one of a long line of dominoes had fallen a different way, I easily could have found myself in that woman’s position, having her food choices criticized by strangers, forced to endure cold stares when buying cigarettes which maybe aren’t even for her, but for somebody who asked her to pick them up.
I felt ashamed that day because I’d aligned myself, albeit temporarily, with people who believe that the poor must somehow be punished for being poor, that the U.S. must drug-test welfare recipients (a common thread on the Internet) and cut assistance to families whose children don’t make good enough grades (a bizarre piece of legislation under consideration in Tennessee).
Given the economic situation in this country, I imagine many people who never thought they’d find themselves standing in food lines, living in subsidized housing or taking government assistance have found themselves swallowing their pride and accepting help from unlooked-for sources. Could they have made better financial choices? Possibly. But who among us hasn’t made an unwise decision and paid for it later?
We have a cockeyed view of poverty in this country. Those who are poor, we believe, must live like saints. They should dress in hand-me-downs, eat substandard food, and accept any position, no matter hazardous or demeaning, in the name of escaping poverty. They should not have the things “we” have — cars, decent housing, cellphones, cable TV, brand-name food and clothing.
They should live perfectly 100 percent of the time, with never a misstep or a bad habit. But show me the person who lives perfectly, who doesn’t indulge a vice every now and again. Show me a parent who doesn’t try to give a child all the best things, even if it means stretching a budget to the breaking point or beyond. If these are crimes, we are all guilty.
Yet we expect people in poverty to push forward constantly, never pausing to enjoy even the simplest pleasures, constantly working for that farflung day when they will be found worthy to escape into the middle class and some degree of security.
Some exceptional people can and do live like this. Most of us, however, are not exceptional, at least not all the time.
It’s not my place to judge if somebody on government assistance finds solace in the occasional cigarette or snack food. It’s not my place to monitor what they buy. It is my place to be grateful for what I have and for what I’ve been able to do, and to help people who haven’t had similar good fortune.
Next time I’m in line, I’ll look down at my feet, up at the lights or into my hands — anywhere besides at how someone is paying for her order, which is frankly none of my damn business.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published April 11, 2013, in The Alliance Review.