If George Orwell had written “1984″ in the age of social media, it might look a lot like Dave Eggers’s “The Circle.”
Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece imagines a world where the government strips away citizens’ most basic rights, including the right to privacy. Life in Oceania is presided over by Big Brother and the Party, who rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth and punish the innocent along with the guilty in the Ministry of Love. Opinions that run counter to the official party line are labeled “thoughtcrime,” the worst sin committed against the government.
Orwell used his fertile and far-ranging imagination to good effect in “1984,” satirizing the tendency of power-mad bureaucrats to seize and hold office by any means necessary, including the modification of language. Newspeak, the language of the English Socialist Party in the novel, is a diabolical marvel, its creation predating such euphemisms as “economically distressed” to describe the poor, “downsizing” for firing, and “collateral damage” for civilian deaths in military operations.
Yet not even Orwell could imagine a society where citizens would give up their rights to privacy as we do so freely and regularly in the 21st century. That’s where Eggers and “The Circle” come in.
In this novel, the Circle is a Google-like monstrosity of a search-engine company that begins to make its presence felt in other aspects of society. Its California campus is a model of efficiency and modernity, with employees urged to stay after work to participate in “optional” enrichment activities, all of which are shared via social networking with the great unwashed beyond its walls.
The book’s protagonist is Mae Holland, a modern stand-in for Winston Smith of “1984″ fame. Unlike Winston, who hates his job in the Ministry of Truth, Mae is overjoyed to work at the Circle, where her job is to provide mostly prescripted answers to customer questions in exchange for positive feedback on satisfaction surveys. Her rise through the Circle is meteoric, especially after she agrees to become “transparent,” allowing every waking hour of her life to be streamed instantaneously on the Internet.
Meanwhile, the Circle continues to better life for all of mankind by consolidating information and increasing surveillance. A program called TruYou requires proof of identify before posting online, eliminating trolls. Elected officials go transparent, curbing backdoor deals and lobbyist influence. Electronic bracelets record and transfer medical information in real time. A system is introduced to compel democratic participation, outsourcing voter registration to the Circle and locking up people’s keyboards until they cast ballots.
“Everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know everything,” a senior Circle official informs Mae, who becomes a willing acolyte.
This brusque dismissal of privacy may jar readers over a certain age, but will be all too familiar to those who live significant percentages of their lives in the digital domain. Anytime it appears Eggers exaggerates this aspect of the Circle’s influence, one need only ponder the direction of modern society.
We live in a world where people post pictures of their Thanksgiving dinner plates, blurt their most intimate business loudly into cellphones while in line, watch instant video of shoppers bludgeoning one another in Walmart, and Google the names of our children’s boyfriends or girlfriends.
Mae’s blurry-eyed attempts to increase her Circle rank by online participation will strike a chord with anybody who checks a cellphone in the middle of the night. We fret over the number of friends we’ve amassed or lost on Facebook and feel insignificant when co-workers have more Twitter followers. We ponder what it “means” when a friend ignores our email and happily give up personal information to spurious software designers who track our locations and buying habits and then sell this information to third parties who use it to clutter our inboxes with spam.
We are, in short, faced with the same quandaries as Mae, and we often reach the same conclusion: that small invasions of our private lives are more than balanced by the benefits of technology.
If “The Circle” has a flaw, it’s that Eggers doesn’t have characters argue passionately enough for the value of life offline or, at the very least, for moderation. The few characters who do attempt to live off the grid come to bad ends, just as those who rebel against the government are squashed by it in “1984.”
But in the latter, it’s still obvious that Orwell is taking a stand against totalitarianism. In “The Circle,” this stand is less obvious. Indeed, given our love of and reliance on various online tools, Eggers might have underestimated the persuasiveness of the Circle’s argument. I know any number of people who would embrace the sort of dystopia he envisions in the book, finding loss of individualism a small price to pay for “improving” the world, even when it costs a few lives.
Truth be told, the first thing I wanted to do when I finished the book was tweet about it. The Circle may be closing faster than we know.
cschillig at Twitter
Originally published Dec. 5, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Ah, the day after Thanksgiving, when Americans exchange leftover turkey and gratitude for shoulder pads and helmets.
You’ll need both if you’re venturing onto the retail gridiron, looking for the perfect gift for that special somebody on your list or, more likely, just scooping up whatever garbage big-box retailers are pushing this season.
Such is the mania for Black Friday shopping that many readers have likely been in the game already. If you’re one of those, you’re either relaxing during halftime — and perhaps plotting your second half strategy with the help of sales flyers in this very newspaper — or sidelined by injury. (A toe crushed by a cart wielded by an overzealous septuagenarian is the most common reason to find yourself on the shopping DL list.)
With the hope that it’s not too late, here are a few Left of Center tips to keep you safe and productive during the coming three-week orgy of American capitalism.
1. Always shop with a buddy. A wingman is the most necessary accoutrement to a successful foray into the retail jungle. This person should have some experience in hand-to-hand combat to repel hordes of angry mothers after you’ve grabbed the last Tickle Me Elmo and are making a run for the register.
Experience with nunchakus and throwing stars are also a plus, allowing the wingman to hurl your credit card with ninja accuracy straight for the scanner, the magnetic strip slitting your competitors’ throats as you skate across their blood toward the successful completion of your transaction.
2. Think small. Not in terms of your shopping list or budget — which should be as large as possible to help stimulate the economy and put more Americans back to work, hallelujah! — but in terms of your vehicle. A smaller car will allow you to wedge into spaces where larger vehicles cannot, like those diagonal lines on either side of handicapped parking spaces. Or, if you drive a Smart Car, into a bicycle rack.
Of course, small cars make it difficult to drag home too much loot, but since everybody wants iPads and iPhones this year anyway, ample trunk space hardly matters. Plus, some misguided soul will probably steal all your bags as you leave the store anyway.
3. Choose your weapons carefully. A shopping cart is your greatest ally, allowing you to mow through masses of zombie shoppers just like characters on “The Walking Dead.” But a squeaky, wobbly wheel will slow you down just enough to miss the blue-light special on tacky costume jewelry in Aisle 4 or get beaten to the punch on cheap, large-screen TVs imported from Mexico that will save you $50 but cost thousands of Americans their jobs.
You may also wish to arm yourself with smaller shopping baskets, which can be strapped to both feet using the twistie ties off bread bags or the belts off sweepers, allowing you to glide across icy parking lots like a latter-day Wayne Gretzky and shave precious seconds off your commute from Walmart to Target.
4. Come armed with air fresheners and earbuds. Both will be necessary when waiting in line with your fellow shoppers.
True story: Last year I stood in line behind a gentleman whose body had a difficult time assimilating all the turkey he had eaten the day before. Periodically, he would announce, “Better look out, I’m blowin ‘em out!” At first, I thought he was referencing a really good buy, but once the pungent aroma of stale turkey farts wafted my way, I knew it wasn’t bargains he was talking about.
The earbuds won’t do anything to quell the smell, but they will keep you isolated from other shoppers and their litany of aches, pains and funny-but-not-really stories about kids and significant others.
5. Wait until Cyber Monday and buy it all online. I like to support local businesses as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, clicking a few buttons, typing in your credit card number and waiting for somebody to deliver the goodies to your porch is a whole lot better for the environment and your mental health.
Plus, it’ll give you more time at home to spend with family, where the only fowl … er, foul odors will come not from strangers, but from people you know and love.
Then again, maybe there’s something to be said for Black Friday shopping after all.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Nov. 29, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Commentary 15 Nov 2013 12:40 am
Hi. My name is Chris and I’m a punaholic.
Yes, I may need a 12-step program of some sort for excessive wordplay, a habit I’ve always had, but one that’s becoming more pronounced as I age.
Did you hear about the beaten-up pancake? It was battered.
So sad about the butter that was made to feel insignificant. He was margarinalized.
I blame social media. When puns popped into my head in the old days, they had to exit via my mouth, which meant friends, family and students suffered, but nobody else.
Now, however, I can blast 140-character bits of verbal shrapnel all over Twitter, where they bounce instantly to my Facebook account, entertaining and annoying a potentially worldwide audience.
What about the kleptomaniac who had diarrhea in the bedding department? He had to take a sheet.
A horse’s favorite Shakespeare line: “I say thee nay.”
Sometimes, my puns are politically driven — the GOP had an Obamascare this Halloween — or topically motivated — rumor has it that Lou Reed’s last album is a collection of traditional Chinese songs called “Take a Wok on the Wild Side.”
But most of the time they’re just riffs on words or expressions that get bounced around in daily conversation, like the fainting man was floored by the news or Why does the mail carrier always wash her clothes a second time? Because the Postman Always Wrings Twice. Like other addictions, mine gets worse around the holidays. Maybe it’s the stress of hanging out with relatives, eating pie and avoiding creepy Uncle Charlie with his weird theories about how “What Does the Fox Say?” is a sign of the impending apocalypse. (He may be right, by the way.)
While some people take up alcohol at the thought of sitting next to Aunt Eva and her clattering dentures at Thanksgiving, I am driven to punning.
What superhero’s secret identity is a professional athlete? Batman.
Why do felines make good Xerox salespeople? They’re natural copycats.
I don’t know where to go for help. Maybe Dr. Phil could stage a TV intervention and whisk me off to a scenic ranch out west, where I can spend my days milking cows — udderly ridiculous — and talking through my problems with a therapist who will administer electric-shock therapy whenever I say something like, Did you hear about the French pig who could only say Oui, oui?
On further reflection, however, maybe I don’t need help. Maybe I’m happy just the way I am, spewing out whatever goofy drivel pops into my head and damn (or dam, if I’m a beaver) the consequences.
But then I think of my family and the shame that my chronic language abuse has brought upon them. My wife’s been forced to take in laundry (she’s dyeing inside) to make ends meet, while I wile away my hours asking about hearty carpet (it’s rugged) and broken windows (they’re a pane), and I know I need to stop.
But maybe I don’t need professional help. Using good old American sticktoitness, maybe I can beat this thing on my own, like an alcoholic who keeps Kool-Aid in the fridge just in case he gets thirsty. Every time I think of punning, I’ll listen to an Italian opera or smash my head inside an unabridged dictionary instead.
But operas make me think of faithful fans of the fat lady’s singing (diva-otional) and dictionaries only remind me of the gambler who plays horses in A to Z order (alphaBETical), and I realize that I just can’t do it alone.
I’m so low that I can’t go it solo.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Nov. 14, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
In every regard, “Ender’s Game,” which was number one at the box office last week, looks like a movie I would enjoy.
It’s based on a novel I admire, in a genre I like, with an actor, Harrison Ford, whose pop-culture credentials (Han Solo and Indiana Jones) are impeccable. Yet I doubt I will ever see it.
“Ender’s Game” tells the story about a future Earth, imperiled by a warlike, alien species. The government selects children to train for an anticipated attack by the enemy. One of humanity’s best and brightest is young Ender Wiggins, a gifted strategist who plays a key role in the coming battle. The book has smart things to say about giftedness in children and the atrocities of war.
When I first read the novel about 20 years ago, I liked it well enough to seek out a collection of Orson Scott Card’s short fiction, which includes the stories “Lost Boys,” with a great surprise ending, and “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory,” one of the most disturbing pieces I’ve ever read. (That’s a compliment.)
But since that time, equally disturbing information about Card has come to light. He is a homophobe in the worst sense of the word, one who loudly and proudly promotes an agenda rooted in a deeply conservative Mormonism.
Salon.com, which has made a hobby of sorts writing about the author, notes some of his more egregious comments, including a belief that homosexuality is rooted in childhood molestation, that sodomy laws should remain on the books to punish gays for their crimes, and that it would be morally defensible for the public to rise up and overthrow a government that redefines marriage in any way other than between a man and a woman.
“Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down,” Card wrote in 2008.
It’s been somewhat amusing to watch the studio, director and actors put space between their work on the film and Card’s conservative views. They talk about how great the book is, and how a work shouldn’t be judged by a writer’s political statements.
Card himself has somewhat modified his stance, especially after the tide of public and political opinion turned against him; in July, he asked marriage-equality supporters to show him tolerance and not to boycott the film.
I’m not boycotting “Ender’s Game” or asking anybody else to do that either. Film is a collaborative medium, where hundreds of talented people in front of and behind the cameras labor to create a finished product. To tar all those folks with Card’s intolerant brush is foolish.
Nor am I naive enough to believe that my $9 (or whatever a ticket goes for these days) is going to make or break Card, who is not receiving a share in the box office gross, or anybody else associated with the movie.
No, I’m not going to the movie because I know that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience, that in the back of my mind I would be thinking of Card’s comments and how venomous I find them to be.
People sometimes ask why a straight male is so passionate about the issue of gay rights, sometimes insinuating that maybe I’m not so straight.
My answer is simple and a little corny: I believe people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means all people, regardless of race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) and sexual orientation.
Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our era, I’m convinced. Decades from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ask us where we were and what we believed during these tempestuous times. I’m comfortable with the answer I’ll provide.
But I also believe we have the right to speak our minds, out loud and on paper, and I defend Card’s right to do exactly that. He has the courage of his convictions.
When a person is an entertainer, it can be a liability to share opinions. Readers sometimes say that my humorous writing is not so humorous now that they know my leftist politics.
I understand that, because it would be challenging for me to read or re-read another Orson Scott Card book knowing his beliefs as I do now. More than any other art form, a novel is like climbing inside the head of the author and spending an extended amount of time in his company.
I don’t want to be in Card’s company anymore, and likely will never be able to square his brilliantly imagined fiction with his intolerance. Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published in The Alliance Review on Nov. 7, 2013
Halloween is one holiday where my traditions aren’t firmly established.
For previous Beggars’ Nights, I’ve decorated the house with pumpkins and with abandon, but not this year. The spirits are willing, but the flesh is weak. Or lazy, to be more exact.
Nor will I be hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the front yard, waiting to scare the bejesus out of passing princesses or cowboys. The last time I seriously contemplated this was the same year I herniated a disc in my neck, putting a literal crimp in my plans.
Since then, I’ve erred on the side of caution and left the scares to younger folks, like a family in the neighborhood who erected a mock graveyard, complete with a seated figure of Death that gave me a good jolt one dark morning when I saw it from the corner of my eye.
On Halloweens past, I’ve run marathons of classic Universal Studios horror movies (”Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and their ilk). Sadly, the monsters have to stay in cold storage this season, brought low by my poor time management.
The best I’ve done this year is a collection of “scary snippets,” excerpts from classic fright films that I show to my Advanced Placement class. They then analyze, in writing, the elements that make each clip effective. (Yeah, I know, an English teacher can drain fun from an assignment quicker than a vampire drains blood.)
Most years, my wife and I hand out candy on Halloween. But sometimes, like this year, our schedules won’t permit it.
When that’s happened in the past, I’ve put a bowl of candy on the front porch under the watchful gaze of a life-sized Creature from the Black Lagoon cardboard cutout, along with a sign that reads, “Honor System: Take One Piece.”
Like Montresor, the mad narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” I know enough about human nature to realize that a handful of hungry ghouls gets the biggest portion of the Schillig loot.
Montresor needs an empty house to commit murder, so he orders his servants not to leave the premises while he’s gone on business. It is an edict sufficient, he knows, “to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as (his) back was turned.”
My motives haven’t been as sinister, but the results are likely similar: People doing the exact opposite of what they’re asked.
This year, though, my wife is absconding with the candy for a kids’ party elsewhere, so the Creature will stay in the attic and no porch light will blaze. I guess I’ve become the Halloween grinch.
One tradition, however, is immutable: my annual reading of “The Hallo-Wiener” by Dav — no “e” — Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series.
The story of Oscar, a wiener dog whose mom dresses him as a frankfurter for Halloween, eliciting howls of laughter from his canine pals, was a perpetual hit with my daughter when she was younger, so much so that we kept reading it together long after we’d both memorized all the words and long after most dads stop reading to their kids.
A few years ago, I recorded myself narrating it and mailed a CD and a copy of the book to her at college. Now that she’s in grad school and just as busy as her old man — cue “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin — we often enjoy the book asynchronously. This is a fancy word thrown around online education circles that means “not at the same time.”
This year, though, maybe I’ll surprise her by phone, and we can enjoy Oscar’s travails simultaneously, through the magic of Ma Bell. Or Ma iPhone.
Because any book that features lines like “Farewell, my little Vienna sausage!” and “Help! We’re being attacked by a giant frankfurter!” is too good to be left on the shelf.
Happy Halloween. May all your frights be pleasant ones.
Commentary 25 Oct 2013 11:03 pm
Lots of folks consider the end of the Congressional stalemate the biggest news story of last week, but I know better.
The really important news was the announcement that a British geneticist has matched alleged “Abominable Snowman” DNA to a polar-bear species that lived 40,000 years ago. Bryan Sykes of Oxford University is advancing a theory that modern Yeti sightings in the Himalayas may actually be unknown polar- and brown-bear hybrids.
This is where, if I had something worthwhile to add to Yeti/Bigfoot/Sasquatch lore, I’d say, “I don’t know what it was I saw in the mountains that day back in 1987, but it sure as heck wasn’t a polar bear.”
Except that’s never happened. I’ve never been to the Himalayas. Heck, I’ve barely been outside. I’m one of the lazy tourists that Edward Abbey wrote about in “Desert Solitaire” who experiences the outdoors from the air-conditioned comfort of a car. Any large, shaggy beasts would have to be visible from the road or the lodge, or they’d escape my notice.
Maybe that’s because, as a child, I was traumatized by two books about Bigfoot. I still have “The Mysterious Monsters” by Robert and Frances Guenette, its orangish-yellow cover showing a drawing of a large hominid silhouetted in the light of a full moon. “Proof!” the cover intones. “There are giant creatures living at the edge of our civilization. Astounding new evidence and facts!”
Lost to time, however, is “Sasquatch” by John Napier.
Its cover had been thoroughly gummed by my baby sister, depositing her own DNA into the argument. “STARTLING EVIDENCE OF ANOTHER FORM OF LIFE ON EARTH NOW” it offered, along with the promise of eight pages of “revealing” photographs. (My memory isn’t that good, but Google’s is.)
The mind of a third-grader being extremely gullible, I accepted Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Yeti as fact, ignoring how most of the cited “experts” were good old boys whose cryptozoological encounters were accompanied by liberal applications of alcohol. The books made it seem like all these creatures were part of a big, extended family, lurking in woods, lakes and snow-capped mountain ranges around the world, getting together once a year — maybe on Christmas or Hanukkah — to swap fruitcakes and stories.
Frighteningly, the swingset in our backyard was located about 50 yards away from an immense woods. In retrospect, it was no more than a few dozen trees that abutted against the neighbors’ properties, but at the time, it felt vast. Whenever I went out to play, I kept an eye on that woods, lest some hairy creature lumber out, searching for little boys for a between-meal snack.
The best offense being a good defense (or something like that), I practiced swinging as high as I could and then jumping off in the direction of the house, figuring those few seconds of air time would provide the advantage I needed to outrun a Bigfoot if he chose to attack.
At night, I lay in bed, my copy of “The Mysterious Monsters” opened to the pertinent section (”Exhibit A: The Long History of Bigfoot in America,” pages 51-62), listening for the creatures’ distinctive cries, wondering if they were smart enough to stand on one another’s shoulders and peek through my bedroom window. Or maybe they were in cahoots with the vampires and werewolves I was convinced lurked out there, too.
Growing older, I relegated Bigfoot and his ilk to the Urban — or, in this case, Rural — Myth file, thinking about it only when I went into the woods (seldom) or played on a swingset (also rare).
But I’m still curious about the creatures and will click on any link that promises new evidence, even though it’s all the same half-baked, rum-soaked conjectures dressed up for a new year.
Sykes’ theory sounds more plausible, however. If it does turn out that something really has been terrorizing Himalayan climbers all these years, that would cool. But if it ends up being just a bear, even one as significant as a previously unknown breed, that would be too bad.
Without a little mystery, all we’d have left in the daily news is Congress, and they’re a far less interesting breed of Mysterious Monsters.
cschillig at Twitter
Originally published Oct. 24, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
If your job is to create education acronyms, these are gold rush days.
Ohio alone has 49 pages of abbreviations for various federal, state and local education programs and organizations. They range from APE (Adaptive Physical Education) and CATS (Commodity Allocation and Tracking System) to STARS (System To Achieve Results for Students) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
One of the newest is OTES, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System, which is designed, in the words of the Ohio Department of Education, to “provide educators with a richer and more detailed view of their performance, with a focus on specific strengths and opportunities for improvement.”
After a lot of hocus-pocus that includes observations, conferences and student test scores, OTES spits out one of four rankings for each teacher: Accomplished, Skilled, Developing or Ineffective. “Skilled” was formerly called “Proficient,” but the PTB — Powers That Be (see, I can make acronyms, too) — changed it because they’d already ruined the word through years of mind-numbing proficiency tests for Ohio students.
The consensus of most experts — i.e., people who make a lot more than I do for doing a lot less — is that it will be virtually impossible for any teacher to be ranked Accomplished. Rumor has it that Jesus, Socrates, Anne Sullivan and Maria Montessori would all be no better than Skilled under OTES, and Socrates might only score Developing because he habitually answered a question with another question.
I can only guess at the rationale: to give teachers something to strive for, a shining star at the end of the educational firmament. (Like Little Ralphie’s teacher in “A Christmas Story,” marking an essay A-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus …)
It strikes me as supremely stupid to tell professionals that no matter how hard they work, they will never reach the top rung of the ladder. Imagine how motivation would drop if I told my students at the beginning of the year that, no matter how much they studied and how well they performed, the best grade I would ever give is a B.
Nonetheless, this is the system that I and other teachers around the state will soon operate under, so we’d best get used to it. To gird my loins, I started rating myself using the OTES rubric for various non-educational tasks. Here are the results:
HUSBAND: Chris is fairly conscientious in his duties. He is kind and solicitous 95 percent of the time, but he does occasionally forget anniversaries and birthdays, and he once left his dirty socks on the couch when his mother-in-law came to visit. SKILLED.
FATHER: Works multiple jobs to help defray cost of higher education. Has moved a futon from garage to various dorm rooms and apartments and back again 15X. However, he once told daughter that she “sucked” at soccer. DEVELOPING.
PET OWNER: Dog and cats generally appear clean and well-groomed. Water dishes are filled to within 80 percent of capacity. Nevertheless, dog once peed on neighbor’s grass, resulting in angry tirade from neighbor and threat of legal action. INEFFECTIVE.
HOMEOWNER: Yard is frequently mowed and snow is usually removed from walkways (weather-dependent). However, fence in back yard desperately needs repairing, front shrubs need trimming, and attic windows are peeling. DEVELOPING.
CAR OWNER: Gas tanks are constantly in the bottom percentile for filling. “Check Engine” lights sometimes stay on for weeks, if not months. Back seat of ‘02 Neon covered with dog hair (see pet-owner grade above); windshield not washed since Halloween 2006. INEFFECTIVE.
COLUMNIST: Submits work on time; has not missed deadline in 12 years. Frequently exaggerates in the name of humor, but is seldom actually funny. Angers people on all sides of issues and never apologizes. Still doesn’t know difference between “lie” and “lay.” DEVELOPING.
Overall, this exercise has helped me to better pigeonhole my unique talents. Regardless, I can’t help but consider the OTES rubric as just another example of Stuff Higher-ups Introduce for Teachers.
And we all know the acronym for that.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on Oct. 17, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
One-third to one-half of our society is introverted, says Susan Cain.
Cain, a self-professed introvert, stepped out of her comfort zone last year to deliver a TED Talks speech on the power of solitude. She noted that America today is designed for extroverts. Our offices and schools reward the outspoken “people-person” more than the self-reflective soul.
“Nowadays, our typical classroom has pods of desks — four or five or six or seven kids all facing each other,” Cain says in her speech. “And kids are working on countless group assignments. Even in subjects like math and creative writing, which you think would depend on solo flights of thought, kids are now expected to act as committee members.”
She just described my classroom. At the beginning of this school year, I broke from tradition and placed desks in groups of four to inspire the kinds of conversations that are all the rage in educational circles and to become more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage.”
For the most part, I’ve been happy with the results, although students are chattier at inopportune times, as is to be expected when they face one another. Just last week, after reading an article about the power of collaboration, I instituted two minutes of “talk time” before each day’s journal writing. That, too, seems to work.
What I hadn’t considered is that my new floor plan and emphasis on collaboration puts introverted students at a disadvantage. Now I must rethink an environment friendly both to those who thrive on interaction and stimulation and those who thrive on solitude.
It’s an odd place for me to be, philosophically. Most of my life, I have considered myself introverted, more comfortable at home among books than out in public, awkwardly holding up my end of a conversation. It’s only in later adult life that I’ve become more of an “ambivert,” at home in both realms.
I credit the change with life experience. For 10 years I worked in outside sales, which forced me from the cocooning comfort of my car and into businesses, where I had to make presentations and be persuasive if I expected to make any money. (An April article in Forbes cites research indicating that ambivert salespeople sell 24 and 32 percent more than introverts and extroverts, respectively, so there you go.)
My teaching career also has helped. While I am always more at home creating lesson plans than delivering them, I find joy from a fresh crop of students each year, knowing I can recycle shopworn puns with impunity for a new audience. (Why is the book blushing? Because it’s been read.)
Of course, writing is perfect ambivert training, as well. I write in seclusion, with only my dog to keep me company, but those private thoughts are published for an audience whose reactions range from indifference to annoyance.
Cain’s point is that we marginalize introversion at society’s peril. The greatest advances and insights in fields as diverse as religion and technology come from people who separate themselves from the herd to have breakthroughs that they then bring back to the rest of us to nurture, develop, implement or — if nothing else — appreciate.
Her talk, which I highly recommend (search “Susan Cain” and “The Power of Introverts” online) is a reminder that we need not always follow demagogues whose powers of persuasion are superior to the value of their ideas. The 20th century “Cult of Personality” (of which the band Living Colour once sang) must give way to a world where both introverts and extroverts can comfortably contribute and be valued.
At the very least, it means those student desks must go back into rows, at least part of the time.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Oct. 10, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
Commentary 03 Oct 2013 03:52 pm
Every so often, I come across a piece of trivial information that nonetheless changes the way I think, maybe forever.
That’s how it was with a recent Mental Floss article by Matt Soniak about the moon. It seems our nearest celestial neighbor is the permanent repository of astronaut poop, courtesy of bagged waste that these stalwart explorers left behind.
Those bags of refuse are still up there, floating high above our heads. Lovers walking beneath a full moon, dogs baying at the moon and singers crooning about a blue moon are all in one way or another paying unintentional homage to emesis bags filled with the doodoo of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard and nine others who walked there during five Apollo missions.
Some scientists, it seems, would like to someday retrieve these bags to study the bacteria within. The sci-fi geek in me can’t help but imagine a horror movie based on this scenario, as decades-old feces is exposed to the air to create indestructible poop zombies, all brown-eyed, of course, bent on worldwide domination. “In space, no one can hear you” — you know.
Others think that studying the bags is a crappy idea and would like to see the poop, along with other artifacts of various manned moon landings, become a World Heritage Site, presumably under federal protection. I can’t imagine anybody having enough time and energy to devote to crusading for such a cause, but maybe that’s the way regular folks viewed visionaries decades ago who were worried about pollution, computer privacy and the wild gyrations of the backside that today are known as twerking.
Speaking of smelly waste, I’ve been following with some interest the back-and-forth attempts of our elected officials to alternately keep the doors of federal government open while delaying/repealing/destroying Obamacare.
It’s a game of political one-upmanship and spin control that would make even flight-simulator-certified astronauts dizzy. While most of us slept beneath a waning crescent moon early Sunday morning, the House was busy passing a spending bill that funded the government but delayed the Affordable Care Act for a year. The Senate rejected it, and just in case, the president vowed to veto it. Like the instructions on a bottle of shampoo – wash, rinse, repeat — the same shenanigans keep occurring, even after the government shut down Tuesday.
Wiser people than I have studied Obamacare at much more length, and some of their findings give me pause. An extra year to study, rework and tweak probably wouldn’t hurt the Not Ready for Primetime law, but does anybody believe the GOP actually will engage in that process, or will they spend 12 more months doing what they’ve done since Obamacare passed — fighting to repeal it on behalf of their wealthy political patrons?
This endless game of political football being played for the lives of the uninsured is enough to make me wish that all politicians born with a silver spoon in their mouths could take a sabbatical to the moon. Hanging out there among the emesis bags, they’d be with their own kind, after all, and from that vantage point, they’d be doing what they’re most accustomed to doing.
Looking down on all Americans.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Oct. 3, 2013, in The Alliance Review.
I’m always open to new ideas that improve my quality of life and make me look silly in the process.
That is why I’m proud to throw my support behind Bow Tie Thursdays, which — like Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 19) and Eat an Apple Day (Sept. 21) — is exactly what the name implies: a chance to wear bow ties proudly and loudly.
The idea kicked off locally with Andrew Wolfgang, one of my teaching colleagues at Alliance High School. Despite the fact that he teaches math and participates in crazy Ironman competitions where he cycles, swims and runs distances that the human body was not meant to endure (any distance longer than a trip from the couch to the refrigerator and back during commercial breaks is too long), Andrew is a nice guy. So when he started wearing alternative neckwear on Thursdays, I decided to join him.
Except that first week I wasn’t able to find any legitimate bow ties in the fine retail establishments in and around Alliance. Whenever I asked, employees would take me to the Halloween section, where paper bow ties with little ghosts were nestled between 75-pound bags of Dum Dums and life-sized, glow-in-the-dark skeletons.
(”These aren’t the bow ties you’re looking for,” said my id, who looks remarkably like Obi Wan Kenobi. “These aren’t the bow ties I’m looking for,” responded my ego, dressed in a stormtrooper’s uniform.)
So that first week, only Andrew was tying one on — bow tie wise, that is.
I resorted to ordering online from Amazon, a company that now charges me sales tax on most purchases, meaning I can no longer pretend I’m sticking it to the man when I shop there. Regardless, I picked up some bow ties for around $8 each, which is about $7 more than I expected to pay, having been price-conditioned in numerous Halloween aisles.
On the second week of Wolfgang’s experiment, he and I were the only two in bow ties, but word got around. Today, a handful of staff and students has promised to come so attired, and the definition has expanded to include hair bows, giving ladies an opportunity to express themselves. (One staffer has promised bow-tie pasta. Given the sloppy way I eat, I could end up wearing that, too.)
During my exhaustive research for this column, which consisted of Googling “bow ties,” I learned that Canadians actually began this movement in Calgary a few years back. At the aptly named bowtiethursdays.com, founders note that their mission is to wear the geeky-but-lovable ties only on the first Thursday of each month. They also say their goal is to join together for breakfast or lunch in bow ties and drink scotch.
Our local effort will probably eschew the scotch. At least for now.
Bow ties have many advantages:
1. When you’re running up steps, a bow tie doesn’t flip all around like a traditional tie, possibly clouding your field of vision and resulting in a potentially dangerous stumble.
2. When you’re using power equipment or industrial machinery, the chances of your bow tie getting stuck in the gears and pulling you toward some ghastly accident are much smaller than with a traditional tie.
3. Bow ties make you look smart.
Those who remember some of my earlier bandwagoning attempts — Septembeard, which I cultivated last year but did not repeat this year, and vegetarianism, which I’m still practicing, at least until midnight on Jan. 1 — may wonder how long this fad will last.
Suffice it to say that I’ve bought three bow ties online, so I’m good through Oct. 3 at least.
Any readers would like to join in Bow Tie Thursdays are welcome to participate. If you’re so inclined, take a photo of yourself in a bow tie and send it to my email address below. The helpful gnomes at The Review can load all bow tie photos onto our Web page to show off the variety of styles available in the area.
Plus, then I won’t be the only person to look silly.
cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Sept. 26, 2013, in The Alliance Review.