Category ArchiveCommentary

Commentary & travel 14 Aug 2014 07:09 am

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Somewhere in the middle of a 10-day vacation overseas, my wife casually mentioned that we had a $50,000 life-insurance policy on the trip.

“You know,” she said, “in case one of us has to ship the other’s remains home.”

This was hardly what I needed to reassure me about the consistent aches I was having in my feet and lower back since leaving U.S. soil. My primary memory of London and Paris is that they are one unending stairwell. Indeed, there are more steps in these two metropolises than in any other place in the world. I don’t need to Google that or call a research librarian. I feel it throughout my body. Call it a Tailbone of Two Cities.

There are steps on the subway. Steps to and from hotel rooms. Steps into and out of major and minor monuments and museums. Steps on and off buses. Steps with a 60-degree pitch to the basements of all those charming little French bistros that charge you 60 euros for the privilege of using their bathrooms, even when all you have in your pocket are a few stray American quarters or some leftover pounds from England.

According to the Association for the Proliferation of Abnormal, Interminable, Never-ending Stairs (AssPAIN, for short), Great Britain and France have approximately 3,275 separate and unique stairs for every tourist with the temerity to set foot in either country.

In Paris, for instance, there are approximately 1,655 steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower, although the French show some mercy and allow visitors to climb a little less than half of those before forcing them aboard elevators for the rest of the ascent. This decision must have been reached in a moment of uncharacteristic charity, because it’s not the rule elsewhere.

At the Arc de Triomphe, for example, visitors are faced with 284 steps up and 284 steps down. They say the view from the top is stunning, but most visitors I saw were too busy hyperventilating into brown-paper bags to enjoy it. Personally, I was so winded at the top that I considered jumping. Not because I’m suicidal, mind you, but because the fall would have been somewhat preferable to another 20 minutes in a stairwell.

I’m convinced that both the English and the French periodically install escalators to toy with tourists. They entice you into some big marble slab of a monument with the promise of an easy ride up, only to betray you midway with an “Out of Order” sign and an arrow pointing to approximately 865 stairs. All that’s needed to complete the scene is a snide Frenchman in a beret, twisting one end of his black, pencil-thin moustache and chortling somewhere off to the side.

If it’s true what they say about every flight of stairs adding a second to your life, I figure I’ve added about 3,000 seconds to mine over the last week and a half. That’s a whole 50 minutes, time I can use to climb more stairs and thus, if I play my cards right, live forever.

That makes any future life-insurance policies just a big waste of money.

But if what I suspect is true, stairs don’t actually make you live longer. Instead, like other rotten activities — root canals, vasectomies and mandatory overtime — stairs merely make you feel that life is interminable, especially when you’re climbing them.

Stairway to Heaven? No thank you. I’ll take the lift.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Aug. 14 in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary 12 Aug 2014 08:37 am

Everyone’s a critic, spouses included


Writers’ wives can be a curse or a blessing.

In the case of Robert Louis Stevenson, it was the former. The famed author of “Treasure Island” once woke from a nightmare with such a vivid idea that he rushed to put pen to paper, churning out a first draft in three days. When his wife, Fanny, read the manuscript, she was so appalled that she burned it.

Undaunted, Stevenson took three more days to write “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” all over again. History is silent on whether he showed it to his wife for a second time. One would hope he stored it in a locked, fireproof safe instead. The book went on to be a huge success for Stevenson, rescuing him and Fanny from bankruptcy.

But some writers’ wives can be a blessing, as evidenced by Stephen King’s spouse, Tabitha, who is Fanny Stevenson’s good twin in many respects. A writer herself, Tabitha likely knows the despair that sets in when a concept isn’t working.

So maybe she wasn’t surprised to find three pages of a new story by her husband in the trash can of the trailer where they lived during their salad days. At the time, King was teaching high school by day and writing by night. Tabitha retrieved and read the pages, liking what she saw enough to encourage her husband to expand his abandoned story into a full-length book.

After two weeks of writing on a typewriter that belonged to his wife, King submitted the manuscript of “Carrie,” which would become his first published novel. It went on to sell 4 million copies in paperback. King didn’t have to teach any longer.

Fanny, meet Tabitha. Tabitha, Fanny.

I’m not a patch on the behind of either Stevenson or King, but I do peck away at writing occasionally, mostly this column. By extension, my wife is closer to a Tabitha than a Fanny. She has never burned my manuscripts, which would be hard to do since I use a computer and store my work in the cloud. It’s hard to burn a cloud.

Thankfully, she has never been appalled by my work and has never censored me, although she once expressed concern, after the fact, that I had written about a fluffle of dust bunnies grazing beneath our couch. (”Fluffle,” by the way, is the correct term for a group of rabbits.) She was embarrassed that people would think she was a poor housekeeper. I told her to tell those people that she was an exceptionally good rabbit herder, instead.

About the worst thing she has ever done in terms of my writing is to tell me to stop fooling around on the Internet and go cut the lawn. Somehow, she has an unerring instinct for when I’ve stopped being productive. I also believe she possesses a silent alarm that tells her when the grass reaches a certain height. This last is only speculation, however. Personally, I have never heard the alarm, but maybe that’s because it’s only audible to people with a uterus.

I do wonder, in the case of Fanny Stevenson, if she ever apologized for burning that first manuscript, or if she claimed that her torching of it led to a better second draft. When one incinerates the evidence, all readers can do is speculate.

Whether I have a novel in me is open to similar speculation, but several factors weigh in my favor. One, I live in a city with a law against open burning. And two, I have a really small lawn.

Plus, if the writing thing doesn’t work out, I can always help my wife raise rabbits under the couch.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Aug. 7, 2014.

Commentary 01 Aug 2014 07:21 pm

This is a weird column, even for me

Proving once again that no news day is so busy that it can’t detour to a compelling story of no significance to the rest of the world, we have the case of the porcelain dolls left on the doorsteps of eight families in California.

If you haven’t heard the story, shame on you for being too enthralled by ephemeral stuff like bloodshed in Gaza, the rape of the natural world via hydraulic fracking, or the oh-so-important attempts to impeach President Obama by the GOP (which now officially stands for Going Over the Precipice).

The GOP of this doll baby story could stand for Getting Overly Protective, because that’s what these families did. After cops combed the mean streets of San Clemente (median income: $87,184) earlier this month, looking for a vile perpetrator who left not only dolls but also allegedly dressed them to resemble children who lived in the homes, they found … a slightly abashed elderly woman who attended church with the girls. According to published reports, she gave the dolls as a gesture of “goodwill” while weeding her collection. Another psycho-killer c’est que ce laid bare.

Apparently, she was also illiterate, because any thoughtful person would know to leave a note along with such a gift. Maybe something that says, “I’m not a creepo. I just want your little girl to have this doll that I spent hours dressing up to look like her. Signed, Somebody Who Lives Close Enough To Know What Your Child Looks Like.”

It also helps if such notes are created using letters torn from the headlines of newspapers, giving your final presentation a polished, uni-bomber chic.

So, Chris, you ask, what’s the takeaway from this tale of pulchritudinous porcelain populating porches? Well, several lessons suggest themselves:

1. Porcelain dolls are really, really creepy. Maybe they’ve been maligned because of various “Twilight Zone” episodes or other scary cinema fare, but the only things more unsettling are ventriloquist dummies, which have actual movable mouths they could use to sing lyrics from the latest Katy Perry song (name of artist added after desperately searching the Internet for a topical reference to help me maintain my street cred as a hip, happening, albeit aging-in-dog-years columnist).

2. Rich people are really, really paranoid. In a lot of neighborhoods, these dolls would have been pawned for food or Redbox rentals long before they ended up in police custody as evidence.

3. News people are really, really prone to editorializing. It’s OK for a columnist to call dolls creepy (the word “Opinion” on the top of the page covers a multitude of sins), but when newscasters delivering so-called “hard” news categorize dolls that way, or call suspects “dirtbags” (which did not happen in this situation, but has happened at other times), it’s probably a sign that they attended the Clint Eastwood School of Journalism. This is “Dirty Harry”-era Clint I’m talking about here, not “talking to empty chair”-era Clint, which is just sad on so many levels.

But the lesson that really suggests itself is that there is no lesson, really — which, paradoxically, is sort of a lesson, isn’t it? Not everything you read or hear or see has to have a raison d’etre, which sounds like a fancy French box of raisins, but actually means “reason to exist,” except that it sounds equal parts snooty and classy, like a French expression should.

Some things just are, and they happen just because. This porcelain doll thing doesn’t mean that old ladies have a slightly greater tendency to be daffy in 2014, although they might. It doesn’t mean that society has grown less tolerant or more suspicious, although it has. It doesn’t even mean that porcelain dolls don’t make great gifts, because they do — if the recipient is a weird old lady who likes creepy porcelain dolls, that is, and not some little kids whose parents are going to dial 911 and scream, “Dolls! Dolls! They’re everywhere, I tell ya!” at the top of their lungs.

Stop looking for lessons all over the place and go read a book or something. Let this be a lesson to you.

And the next time some lady in Orange County wants to give the neighbors a gift, she should take a page from the LeBron handbook and send cupcakes instead.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 31, 2014, in The Review.

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.

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