Monthly ArchiveApril 2011



Commentary 22 Apr 2011 12:51 pm

Fads fade faster in 2011

Here is this week’s column, as published in The Alliance Review:

By definition, a fad is short term.

Memorable fads of bygone decades include the Hula-Hoop (an insidious plot to undermine the moral fabric of the nation and train innocent, God-fearing children for careers in belly dancing), poodle skirts (I never looked that good in them, myself), and streaking (no comment). Words can be faddish too, hence the easy-come, easy-go use of “bad” to describe something good, or “411″ when asking for information.

Fads also are almost exclusively the province of the young. By the time people my age become aware of them, they are dead or breathing shallowly on life support. I was reminded of this when I used the expression “epic fail” in a class earlier this year. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, I saw the look of horror on the faces of my students, the same expression my friends and I wore when a teacher of ours used the expression “let’s rap” to initiate a discussion. Mentally, we erased “rap” from our vocabularies, just as my young charges hit the delete button on “epic fail,” which had failed epically by virtue of being uttered by a 40-something.

When I was junior high-age, the Rubik’s Cube had young Americans by the collective throat. You simply weren’t happening at Marlington Middle School unless you were carrying one of the multi-colored toys from class to class along with your books, or sometimes in place of your books.

Our teachers, quick to spot an opportunity where learning intersected with fun (and also quick to spot a chance to get out of teaching), organized Rubik’s activity periods for these hands-on geometry lessons. To the untrained eye, this looked a lot like a roomful of 12-year-olds hitting each other over the heads with Rubik’s Cubes, but I’m sure it had educational benefits.

Solving the cube took real skill in spatial understanding, something I did not possess. What I did have access to were kindly relatives who bought me a book with the solution. Unfortunately, this involved twisting and turning the device to a particular color scheme before the solution worked, and all that twisting was just as complicated as figuring it out for myself.

(The only way I ever really “solved” the puzzle was by using a screwdriver to pop the tiles off and snapping them back in the correct pattern. Back then, we called that cheating. Today, with apologies to William Shatner from “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” we would say that I “changed the conditions of the test.”)

Anyway, as soon as our teachers made the Rubik’s Cube part of the school day, its lifespan as a bona fide fad was numbered in weeks, if not days.

The same is true today of an online fad called “Words with Friends.” A student got me hooked on the Scrabble-like game, which is played by cell phone with others who have downloaded the application. Games can last from minutes to weeks, depending on how quickly each player builds on words made in previous turns.

Shortly after I downloaded the game, I was inundated with students who wanted to play (and often beat) the teacher. One Friday night I found myself mired in contests with no fewer than nine students, tossing out words like “avid,” “jilt,” “epic” and “fail” and gathering points for each properly placed tile.

Having matured from the days when I tore apart my Rubik’s Cube to solve it, I strenuously and successfully avoided cheating in “Words with Friends,” even though dozens of sites and applications allow users to type in their letters and receive a list of possible word combinations.

At first, my experiences in “Words with Friends” ran counter to my “adult/fad half-life theory, but it wasn’t long before it conformed. After I took students to task for sending me words during the school day (when they aren’t supposed to use cell phones), interest waned considerably. And by the time a second Friday night of playing commenced — with far fewer takers, I might add — one of the students moped via the game’s text-messaging feature that he couldn’t believe he was spending Friday night playing online with his teacher.

Visions of Rubik’s Cubes danced through my head, and the only response I could think of was “epic fail.”

E-mail chris.schillig@yahoo.com, which also happens to be his Words with Friends player name, in case you want to try your luck.

Commentary 16 Apr 2011 11:28 am

Slouching toward genius

This week’s column from The Alliance Review:

At 6:09 p.m. Sunday, my IQ jumped at least 30 points.

I’ll leave to others to debate exactly what IQ is supposed to measure — is it how smart you are or how smart you could be? What I can say with certainty is that I was in the middle of a bite of pasta when my intelligence infusion occurred.

But I don’t feel like Charlie Gordon, the hero of Daniel Keyes’ classic “Flowers for Algernon,” about a mentally challenged man whose IQ is dramatically boosted by surgery, because unlike Gordon, I’ve been this smart before. Eight years before, to be exact.

You see, my advancement in gray matter occurred at the very moment when my daughter, sitting next to me Sunday at the Olive Garden, left her teen years behind and turned 20. For the past seven years, I’ve been one of the dumbest people alive, barely able to tie my own shoes and chew my morning cereal without drooling, let alone aspire to offer advice to a teenager, at least if her critiques are to be believed.

Most parents, I’ve learned, suffer a similar degeneration in cognitive ability when their kids become teens. Between the ages of 12 and 20, children find the people whom they once revered have become real-life versions of Steve Urkel — plaid pants hiked up to flood levels, thick Elvis Costello-style glasses, and perpetually goofy grins, as if somebody lured once-mature adults to the circus with a promise of free tickets and elephant rides but then locked us in the freak show next to Jo-Jo the Bearded Woman.

Teens can hardly believe that important decisions about their lives are made by people so stupid. When we offer guidelines or marching orders about choice of friends, grades, hemlines, chores, bedtimes, nutrition, or relationships with the opposite sex (especially relationships with the opposite sex), we are looked upon as if we have two heads and have beamed down from the planet Fuddy Duddy, where child-rearing habits were established by scouting ships sent to view daily life in Puritan New England.

Heck, we’re so dumb that by the time our kids reach that apogee of adolescence — the horrible, hated age of 16 — they may privately begin to doubt how we were able to conceive a child at all, let alone rear one.

The good news is that after 16, things usually begin to get better, especially when the little Einsteins realize they will need help to finance the four years of publicly sanctioned debauchery known colloquially as college. Suddenly, Mom and Dad become, if not exactly intelligent, at least smart enough to know how to sign a big check every six months.

And by the time you drop ‘em off at the university doors for that first semester and drive away (reserving the jubilant fist-pumping and waving of the bra out the sunroof until you’re out of view, at least), they might even grudgingly acknowledge that you know a little bit about some things.

Or maybe not. Earlier this year, my daughter bypassed an opportunity to have me proofread an assignment about psychology and the movies (yes, they offer classes like this in college) because, as she told her mother, “Dad really doesn’t know much about that stuff.” This, despite the fact that I teach English and am a die-hard movie buff.

C’est la vie.

Nevertheless, I am basking in the glory of my new-found intelligence, using big words and practicing my elocution. Because if I experience a similar jump in IQ when she is ready for marriage a few years down the road, I just may be eligible for membership in Mensa.

Books & Commentary 09 Apr 2011 11:22 am

Impossible dreams

Here is this week’s column, published April 7, 2011, in The Alliance Review:

“It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

This quote from “Citizen Kane,” one of the great Hollywood indictments of greed, kept echoing through my head as I read “Make the Impossible Possible,” this year’s One Book One Community selection. In its pages, author Bill Strickland reveals how he made a lot of money — or, more properly, how he raised a lot of money — for Manchester Bidwell, his job-training center in Pittsburgh.

Because of Strickland’s efforts, the job-training scene in the Steel City transformed from a bribe-ridden, bare-bones mess to a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art facility that offers training in the culinary arts and horticulture, to name only two disciplines, and houses a jazz hall that hosts many of the marquee names in that musical genre.

Strickland could have followed in the fictional footsteps of Charles Foster Kane thanks to his business acumen, seemingly inexhaustible charm, and moxie sufficient to knock down anything that stands in his way. (In one of the memoir’s most telling anecdotes, a young Strickland finances $50,000 for flying lessons by taking out a loan to buy a $50,000 plane and then leases it to the flight school to cover the cost of the lessons. If that’s not moxie, I don’t know what is.)

Instead of working for his own gain, he uses his considerable talents to improve the lives of inner-city youths who face the same hardships that he endured as a child. Poverty is a neighbor that Strickland knows well; he realizes first-hand how it destroys communities when it moves in. “It diminishes you,” the author writes, “it starves you of hope and vision, it forces you to define yourself in terms of what you cannot do or cannot have and cannot be.”

All he has to counter poverty is his dreams.

When Strickland dreams that this city’s poor could be ennobled by working with clay, he finds a grant to open a pottery studio. When he dreams that his students could be inspired by the beauty of an ornate fountain, he has one built. When he dreams their lives could gain purpose by growing orchids, he finds financial backers to green-light a greenhouse.

Again and again, he dreams ways to “make the impossible possible.”

Strickland is speaking tonight at Mount Union Theatre, and tomorrow at area schools. It’s unlikely that anybody will ask him how much salary he draws from Manchester Bidwell, but however much it is, it’s certainly far less than he could have made in the private sector, using his charm to grease the wheels of mergers and acquisitions with little regard for the people whose lives he may affect.

After all, it’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.

Instead, Strickland keeps the line firmly drawn between ambition (a results-oriented, finite goal that involves success or failure) and passion (a lifelong pursuit of excellence in a chosen endeavor).

There’s no doubt that Strickland stands firmly in the corner of passion. Even when the book overstays its welcome by a few chapters, the author’s conviction shines through and keeps readers turning pages to see how he’ll make good on his next idea.

Manchester Bidwell, and the good work that the center and those inspired by it do for the poor, is his personal Rosebud, and we’re all better for the example set by Citizen Strickland.

Books & Comic books 06 Apr 2011 06:23 pm

Gotham Central Vol. 4: Corrigan

gotham-central-4

Gotham Central Volume 4: Corrigan is the final collection of this under-appreciated DC series. With the noose drawing tighter on the book sales-wise, you have to admire writer Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s decision not to openly pander to a larger audience by featuring costumed heroes in every issue, but instead opting to stay true to the book’s original vision as a showcase for everyday cops in Gotham City.

Sure, Batman is prominently featured on this collection’s cover, and he plays a role in the first story arc, “Dead Robin,” reprinted here. And even Robin’s co-members of the Teen Titans show up to confirm the fact that the real Robin is alive and well, while the Robins found dead around the city are not the real deal. But the crime itself is investigated and solved by cops who would fit just as comfortably on an episode of _____________ (fill in your favorite police procedural television series here, and offer up a small prayer of thanks to Ed McBain, the father of the genre through his exceptional 87th Precinct novels).

The series’ final arc, “Corrigan,” is as strong as the Robin piece, but is marred somewhat by an ending that cries out for a next installment. Alas, that isn’t to be.

Artwise, Kano and Stefano Gaudiano (and company) turn in exemplary work, capturing every clothing wrinkle and shadowy alleyway with aplomb, making Gotham seem much more real and gritty than it usually is.

Damn, this is a great series. Too bad it never made it to the small screen, and even worse, didn’t get a chance to continue. Still, forty issues is a respectable run, and the four collected volumes are worth reading and re-reading.

Commentary 02 Apr 2011 05:47 pm

All your relationship questions answered

dear-shabby

Here is this week’s column, published March 31 in The Alliance Review:

This week, quiet and unassuming columnist Chris Schillig steps aside and allows Shabigail “Shabby” Van Buren, misogynistic half-brother of Dear Abby, to answer readers’ questions. Those who are easily offended are warned to turn directly to the comics page and read “Garfield,” instead.

Dear Shabby: My wife likes to watch romantic comedies, while I like movies where the main characters shoot, stab, beat, cheat and steal their way through the plot. How can we compromise? — Anxious in Atwater

Dear Anxious: I have a two-word answer: “Black Swan.” Your wife will love your sensitivity when you tell her it’s a movie about ballet, and by the time she realizes it’s as hardcore as the kind of films she usually writes off as grossly inappropriate, you’ll have been treated to all the things you like about movies, including a few intense cat fights, if you know what I mean. It’s a slam-dunk, I promise.

* * *

Dear Shabby: My significant other wants me to wear preppy clothing. I’m a manly man, and I like my flannel and denim exclusively. How can I tell her no without alienating her? — Badly Dressed in Beloit

Dear Badly Dressed: You can’t. Before you take a stand, however, ask yourself if it’s a battle you need to win, and if it’s worth the risk of washing, drying and ironing your own clothes for a few weeks while your live-in maid goes on strike. (For the uninformed in my audience, which would be most men, ironing is an ancient ritual that involves running a hot appliance over clothing to eliminate wrinkles, usually before the clothing is on one’s body.)

If not, go ahead and put on some cutie-pie pants and matching shirt. You can always accidentally-on-purpose spill salsa or motor oil on them to avoid a second wearing. This is called compromise.

* * *

Dear Shabby: My neighbors keep their yard pristine all year ’round. Even the snow stays white on their property long after it turns brown and yellow everywhere else. My yard, by contrast, is a little more … lived in. How can I convince my wife that we’re not the Cleavers and that I have no interest in doing much more than knocking down the weeds when they overgrow the second story? — Unkempt in Kent

Dear Unkempt: Shabby can relate. His own yard is mowed on the stopwatch method: the only thing that matters is beating his time from the week before. If you can afford professional lawn care — even if it means cutting back on the home brewery supplies — have it done and absolve yourself of all that work. Otherwise, you could always turf the neighbor’s yard late at night, making it look even worse than yours, but that risks police involvement, always a no-no. The most cost-effective solution is to buy a pair of noise-canceling headphones to help you ignore the brickbats from your spouse while your yard sprouts any number of rare and exotic weeds this spring and summer.

* * *

Dear Shabby: My wife wants me to babysit the kids while she goes to the grocery store. Should I? — Scandalized in Sebring

Dear Scandalized: First of all, it’s not called “babysitting” when they’re your kids. It’s called “raising.” Even Shabby knows that. Don’t watch the kids. In the long run, it’ll be better for them if they have as little contact with you as possible.

Chris Schillig, who in real life is nothing like the boorish Shabby (except for lawn care), invites people to follow him on Twitter (@cschillig).

E-mail chris.schillig@yahoo.com.