Monthly ArchiveAugust 2011



Commentary 25 Aug 2011 07:03 pm

Road to happiness paved with pheromones

This week’s column:

No problem is so big — including the debt-ceiling debacle, the high cost of college textbooks and the existence of the Justin Bieber singing toothbrush — that it can’t be solved with pheromones.I learned about pheromones because my sister has a new puppy that suffers from anxiety when left by itself. It barks and barks and barks until it’s hoarse, which would seem to be the solution to the problem right there, but that’s not enough for my sister. Her answer is dog-appeasing pheromones, or DAPs.

For those of you who snoozed through science class, a pheromone is “a secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, since I slept through science, too, and copied this definition directly from Wikipedia, but I think it’s saying that all living things leak certain chemicals that make other living things do what they want, like how vampires are able to mesmerize victims with their eyes or how Michele Bachmann is able to charm the pants off her followers (figuratively speaking, of course) in inverse proportion to the ridiculous things she says.

Maybe vampires aren’t such a good example because they’re not really alive. Come to think of it, maybe Bachmann is also a member of the undead, so let’s forget them and forge ahead.

Dog-appeasing pheromones are odorless, weightless, colorless and invisible. They cost $13 for a 30-day supply, which does not include an extra $22 for a diffuser that allows them to be released in the vicinity of the dog, producing a calming effect.

Think about it — $35 to start and then $13 a month thereafter to continue medicating your dog with something you can’t see, touch, taste or smell. Hmmm.

I can imagine workers at the pheromone factory, sitting around playing cards and watching Internet porn when a big bell overhead signals that another angel has gotten its wings and another sucker has placed an order. Zeke, the head pheromone filler, grabs a plastic Glade air-freshener refill, rubs it under his armpits and shoves it into a box for shipping. Then it’s back to Texas Hold ‘Em and Kim Kardashian.

Hey, owners of anxious, barking dogs: I have a solution to your problem, too. It’s called a leprechaun, a tiny bearded man dressed in green with a pleasing Irish brogue who sings lilting lullabies to your pooch. “B’gosh and Begorrah, this wee dog’s a mite upset,” he might say. “Let me sing fer you a little tune me grandmum sang to me over me bowl of Lucky Charms, eh laddie?”

Of course, my dog-whispering leprechaun comes out only after you’ve gone to bed or left the house, so you’ll never see or hear him, but don’t worry, he’s there.

Best of all, it only costs $10 a month to keep Blarney singing, with no need to buy a diffuser. That means you save $22 upfront, and $3 each month. With this $58 annual windfall, you can afford the Santa Claus cookie-eater, who comes to the house after you’ve gone to sleep on Christmas Eve and gobbles up any sweet treats that your children have left out for the jolly old elf, provided you mail a copy of your house key and address along with your credit card payment.

If all this sounds like I’m highly skeptical of DAPs, give yourself a Kewpie doll.

But, Chris, you say (and I know you’re out there because I can hear you breathing), a lot of things can’t be seen or heard or tasted, but they are still very powerful, such as love, friendship and the warm feeling in the pits of our stomachs from watching football players pound the snot out of each other right after church service on Sundays.

Good point. So maybe pheromones can work, after all. (My sister says they’ve been marginally effective. I guess the dog is only half hoarse now.)

Wouldn’t it be something if we could introduce HAPs — human-appeasing pheromones — into the ventilation system of Congress, making those geriatric adolescents reach across the aisle and embrace the spirit of cooperation instead of rank partisanship? Or pump pheromones into classrooms so that Johnny could sit still long enough to read something longer a text message? Or fan them throughout the nation’s Walmarts to convince shoppers to never, ever go out in public in pajama pants?

Yes, the world would be a wonderful place, indeed. But since I’m a cynical kind of guy, I don’t subscribe to the DAP or HAP school of behavior modification.

Instead, I adhere to the Ralph Kramden school of doggy discipline: “Hey, enough with the barking already! One of these days, pup — to the moon!”

Either that, or tie a Justin Bieber singing toothbrush to the dog’s collar. It’s guaranteed to make him roll over and play dead.

Commentary & education 18 Aug 2011 03:30 pm

This I believe …

Here is my Aug. 18 column, first published — as always! — in The Alliance Review:

At the close of each school year, I ask my Advanced Placement English seniors to write an essay modeled on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series. We share the essays on our final exam day, an experience I — and hopefully they — find more rewarding than yet another pencil-and-paper test. Because I never ask students to do something I’m unwilling to do, I write and share, too.

This summer, one of my former students (Hi, Sam!) sent me a message saying that he thought of my essay during a trying time. He didn’t know it, but his words reached me on a bad day and made it better. Our exchange became the impetus for my sharing the essay today. (Well, that and the fact that I’m just back from vacation and this is an easy way to meet a deadline.)

This may be schmaltzy, and people who know me well may wonder if I really feel this way. I do.

I believe in the power of right now, today.

Somewhere out there is a sunrise to watch, a mountain to scale, a pretty girl to kiss — even on a wet Monday morning or a meeting-filled Wednesday afternoon.

Our 24/7 society has become so focused on “what’s next” that we forget about what’s now. In my generation, a really bad band called Loverboy sang “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend,” and damned if we didn’t believe them. We’ve become so concerned about hanging on until Friday that we neglect the importance of Tuesday, so intoxicated by the thought of sleeping in on Sunday that we overlook the joy of waking up before dawn on Thursday.

For 50 weeks out of the year, we strategize for the other two. We breathlessly anticipate maturation and graduation, only to reminisce with nostalgia a few years later about the carefree days of high school. We fantasize over meeting Mister or Miss Right, getting married, having 2.5 perfect kids, a suitably fat bank account, and a nice house in the suburbs, only to look back wistfully on the freedom of our college days when we had barely two dimes to rub together. We drag ourselves to work, dreaming of the day we can retire, only to bemoan the fact that we are retired, wishing we had something worthwhile to do.

A colleague hammered this point home a few years ago when he told me that he liked to live “in the moment” with each class he taught, to be fully there for students, responding to their questions and enjoying their interactions. It made me realize what I wasn’t doing, that in the back of my mind a little voice counted down the minutes until I could announce tomorrow’s homework assignment and reminded me of papers I had to grade. Since then, I’ve tried to change and become more attuned to life in the moment — not always successfully, but I’m working on it.

I’m not sure, but it’s possible that our future-oriented obsession is a byproduct of marketing techniques. We are, after all, the most advertising-saturated society in the history of the world, having been exposed to an average of 40,000 sales pitches a year since childhood. And each of those messages is essentially the same: Your life will be better when you own that tricycle, bicycle, first car, or sports car; when you see that new film, read that new book, or download that new album; when you lose 20 pounds or gain 20 pounds or hide 20 pounds. People who are content and oriented in the present don’t buy; people who are discontented and oriented in the past or the future, do.

I believe that we need to reclaim the primacy of today. I believe that Mondays are inherently as good as Fridays, that three days before graduation is just as exciting as graduation day itself, that we can find something about each day and each moment — from the smile of a friend to the feeling of satisfaction we get when helping others — to make each day special.

Take time each day to enjoy where you are and to do something small but memorable. Blow the seeds off a dandelion. Take a friend to lunch. Play fetch with a dog. Re-read a favorite poem, or better yet, read a new one. We have only a limited number of “todays.” I believe it’s best to make each one count.

Books 15 Aug 2011 09:10 pm

‘Relentless’ly … bad

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My wife and I listened to Dean Koontz’s Relentless as we drove to and from Myrtle Beach last week. It wasn’t very good. Koontz has some winners on his resume (most notably, to me, the Odd Thomas series), but he seems to have lost his mojo. This book starts with a unique premise — an author who is tormented by a literary critic — and then jumps the rails and never recovers.

The protagonist, Cullen “Cubby” Greenwich, has his novel savaged by Shearman Waxx, a notoriously fickle critic who, to add insult to injury, gets so many plot points wrong in his review that Cubby doubts Waxx even read the book. Turns out Waxx is a psychopath, and after an odd incident where Cubby’s son almost urinates on the critic’s shoes in the bathroom of a local restaurant (I kid you not), Waxx makes the whole thing personal.

The biggest problem is that Koontz slips into farce territory fairly early in the story, and he can’t get out. Creating unique, compelling characters is one thing. Having the characters be so eccentric and bizarre that readers have difficulty relating them to real-life people is another. This book features a survivalist who looks (and, on the audio version we listened to, sounds) like Santa Claus, a demented hunchback, a heavily accented German-dominatrix type, a super-savvy dog, and a six-year-old boy genius whose inventions are cobbled together from video-game consoles and top-secret government parts that his grandfather procures. Any one of these would be enough to signal a break from reality (and in a thriller like this, you want to bend and stretch reality, but never break it); all of them together had my wife and I shaking our heads in disbelief.

I had the same problem with the third volume in Koontz’s Frankenstein series. The first two books were pulpy and fun; the third one played up the humor, introduced a dwarf (if memory serves) and jettisoned any character development in favor of short-short chapters and strings of one-liners.

Relentless is more of the same. To be fair, there are some plot twists and turns I didn’t see coming, but they are so unbelievable that this is hardly a compliment. I still believe Koontz can produce a first-rate thriller, but my faith was sorely tested by this one.

Commentary & Family life 11 Aug 2011 12:30 pm

Joining the manly painting brigade

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

In the name of domestic tranquility, many household tasks at Casa Schillig are left to professionals.

This includes anything that involves measuring, pasting or power tools. My definition of power tools is generous enough to encompass hammers and screwdrivers, so I consequently do very little that qualifies as “handy.” Sure, I’ll slap together “some assembly required” lawn chairs, but my work is so shoddy I don’t trust anybody except my mother-in-law to sit in them.

A few years into the marriage, my wife and I decided it would be better to hire out these jobs than endure the petty arguing that comes from doing them together. I would rather work a second (and even a third) job to pay a professional than subject myself to spousal browbeating for seven hours on a Saturday or accidentally glue shut my mouth — or hers — with wallpaper paste.

Still, every year I pick one task that I can accomplish on my own, just so I can feel manly and join in water-cooler conversations with burly co-workers who routinely knock out walls, thread electrical wire through ceilings, and bench press the foundations of their homes with a cold brew in one hand and the TV remote in the other. (Said bench pressing being accomplished with their teeth, apparently.)

This year’s project was painting the basement floor.

Actually, it was last year’s project too, but I successfully avoided it with no ill effects to my masculinity. My excuse was provided by one of those Hungry-Jack-dinner-eating contractor types who waterproofed our basement in 2009. He told me not to paint the floor until the newly poured concrete had cured, which conjured up images of Ernest Angley slapping some unfortunate upside the head and intoning, “You are healed!” but apparently is something else entirely since Mr. Angley never appeared in my basement. He recommended waiting six months to paint. (The contractor, not the Rev. Angley.)

In my mind, six months really meant a year, which I somehow stretched to almost two years, letting cobwebs build up in the corners while I pretended not to notice.

But last week I could procrastinate no longer, so I broke out the power washer (the only power tool I feel qualified to operate, since it’s really nothing more than a squirt gun made legitimate through a power cord and frequent on-box warnings) and made a big mess in the name of eliminating those cobwebs. Then I bought some paint, rollers and brushes and got to work.

They say the hardest part of painting is the preparation (“they” being the first 100 people in the phonebook), but I bet they’re not referring to mental preparation. Regardless, I wasted a lot of time pacing the basement, sighing and bemoaning my fate. One day, I even ran off to the movies, so I suppose it’s poetic justice or karma that I saw the pretty-rotten “Cowboys and Aliens.” It wouldn’t have been fair to see something good.

When I finally popped the top off the first paint can, I was surprised by how quickly the job went. I strategized successfully, relocating the cats’ litter box and food bowls to the top of the stairs (painting upsets delicate feline ecosystems), moving everything else to the center of the basement and painting the corners. The next day, I moved everything back, minus the litter box, before painting the center of the room.

The hardest part — well, after working up the gumption to start, that is — was painting my way up the steps, which involved a backward spider crawl that would be the envy of any professional contortionist. At one point, I forgot that I had already painted the hand rail and used it to steady myself after all the blood rushing to my head (which at many points was lower than the rest of my body) made me dizzy. This gave me a battleship-gray palm but saved me from a potentially life-ending tumble.

I’d like to believe I didn’t kill too many brain cells by breathing in paint fumes for the last few days, and that the job really does look decent. Not professionally decent, mind you, but decent by my own inept standards, which means there isn’t too much paint on the walls and ceiling and that the places I missed are covered up by strategically placed boxes of Christmas decorations.

And even if it’s not, it’s just a basement. The only reason my wife allows me to tinker down there is that nobody except the cats will ever see it anyway, and they’re so grateful to have their litter box back in its rightful place that they won’t complain about the results.

Books & Comic books 05 Aug 2011 11:14 am

The Life and Times of Savior 28

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Superhero stories have become a genre all their own, with a set of standard ingredients that are easily recognized. Strong-jawed hero. Heightened mental or physical prowess. Colorful costume. Secret identity. Youthful sidekick. Villains bent on world domination.

It’s how these elements are mixed and the approach taken by the creators that determine if the final product is just one more standard morality play or something unique. J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Cavallaro have opted for the latter with “The Life and Times of Savior 28.”

In the introduction to the trade paperback, Dean Haspiel notes that a version of this story has been floating around for 25 years, originally pitched by DeMatteis for Marvel’s Captain America. In the intervening years, it morphed into the present tale. While the story’s Captain America roots are still evident, it’s clear that the writer incorporated chunks of Superman’s mythology here, as well.

Boiled down to its essence, this is the story of what would happen if a hero — in this case, Savior 28 (so named because 27 earlier attempts to give man super powers failed) — decided to stop thinking with his fists and embraced peace. The answer, of course, is that the government would have to kill him.

DeMatteis gives narration duties to Savior 28’s former sidekick, the Daring Disciple, so we see Savior 28’s mission from the Disciple’s cynical, jaded perspective. It’s a story told in flashback, beginning with Savior 28’s assassination and then taking us through various phases of his 100-plus years of life. (Immortality is one of the side effects of Savior’s super powers.)

It’s not exactly a fun story, but it is a good one. Savior 28 is greeted with approbation when he’s whaling on bad guys and promoting a culture of thoughtless violence, and with scorn and derision when he opts to stop fighting and start talking. The Savior doesn’t understand how his well-intentioned meetings with world leaders — including heads of countries that the U.S. does not agree with ideologically — could be perceived as a threat, and he is genuinely baffled when other costumed heroes (including Blackrat, a wicked send-up of Batman) bring him down.

When DeMatteis focuses on Savior 28 and Daring Disciple, he’s on sure ground. The book meanders a bit when other costumed heroes come to the forefront. The concept works better, I think, in a world where the only super-powered wild card is Savior 28; the introduction of a whole group of send-ups for the Avengers or the Justice League lessens his impact slightly.

At first, I thought Cavallaro was an unusual choice of artist. He draws with a highly stylized line that is intentionally informed by the seminal work of Jack “King” Kirby. My initial thought was that this book needed a more realistic style to complement its serious nature. But I soon changed my mind when I saw how cleanly Cavallaro told the story and how expressively he illustrated it. The Kirby homage is wholly warranted for a character inspired by Jack’s work on Captain America, and as the story begins to veer in directions that Kirby never traveled, the presence of his style feels intentionally incongruous, and I mean that as a compliment.

DeMatteis covers a lot of ground here — our celebrity-obsessed culture, the 24/7 news cycle, the addictive nature of violence and its pervasiveness in modern society — but he never once succumbs to the temptation to sermonize. “The Life and Times of Savior 28″ is an entertaining deconstruction of the superhero genre. Captain America and Marvel’s loss is independent publisher IDW’s gain with this winner of a book. Grade: A.

Commentary & Movies 05 Aug 2011 10:26 am

The ape that fell to earth

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With “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in theaters starting today, I had hoped to post two old articles I had written about the Planet of the Apes phenomenon. Both were originally published in The Alliance Review in July 2001, just before Tim Burton’s remake of POTA hit theaters.

One was about Apes merchandising; the other, co-written with Steve Wiandt, chronicled our day-long viewing of all five original POTA movies in a row. (Real fans can name them in order without reference material: POTA, Beneath the POTA, Escape from the POTA, Conquest of the POTA and Battle for the POTA.)

Unfortunately, all I have are the original newspaper pages for both articles, which means I would need to retype everything before posting here, and I don’t have the energy or time today. Maybe I’ll get to it before “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray in a few months.

In the interim, you’ll have to make due with this reheated Left of Center column, first published on Sept. 25, 2008. It’s not entirely about “Planet of the Apes,” but it kinda/sorta has a connection.

By the way, I’m looking forward to the new movie. Planet of the Apes had a profound impact during my formative years and was my first real exposure to sci-fi. I loved the movies then, and I love them today. I hope the new film lives up to everything I’ve seen and read about it, and that it ushers in a new, high-quality Apes franchise.

***

The windstorm that blew through northeast Ohio on Sept. 14 brought a traveler home: A Planet of the Apes action figure that had been hanging for years from a power line in our front yard finally tumbled to earth.

Neighborhood kids had launched the parachute-wearing ape when they were in elementary school, throwing it into the air repeatedly until they tangled its cords in the wire. It had been there ever since, surviving rain, snow and ice until the mother of all windstorms blew it back to terra firma.

I braved the gusts to rescue the action figure — do not call it a doll! — from between two parked cars. While this is hardly a heroic act of self-sacrifice, it’s more than most might do for a hunk of plastic. I justify the action by noting that, while the plastic primate is an “it” throughout this column, it long ago became a “he” in my mind.

When sitting on the front porch, I would often look up to check on the ape. It was a symbol of sorts for the every man (or should I say “every ape”), who hangs on despite trials and tribulations, still swinging no matter what. It provided a sense of security. It was one of life’s constants.

When I dragged trashcans to the road or got in the car to go to work, the chimp swayed lightly in the breeze. While cursing over a broken lawnmower, I was aware of its presence high above. When I wrote at the computer, I could see it out the upstairs window. Milton had his angelic muse, I had my sculpted-plastic ape; maybe that’s why he wrote “Paradise Lost” and I write about men who send text messages while standing at urinals.

The ape’s fall became a minor neighborhood event, at least on one side of the street in our little block of South Arch Avenue. We were fortunate the storm knocked out power for only 15 minutes, giving us enough time to ponder trivialities like plummeting action figures. People living a few blocks away were without power for days and probably want to wring my neck for making a big deal over a stupid toy.

I took the prodigal simian next door and presented him to the mother of one of the kids who sent him on his journey. She noted that her son was leaving for college later in the week, and that the ape falling from on high was like a sign. Very Zen-like, almost a scene from the old “Kung Fu” TV series — “When you can snatch these pebbles from my hand, young grasshopper, it is time for you to go.”

Later that week, I learned that my young neighbor, Seth Miller, took the action figure along with him to Ohio State University, a memento from his childhood in Alliance. Is it too much to hope that it might soon be hanging from a wire outside a dorm room in Columbus, inspiring an Alliance expatriate to write solid term papers and study hard for midterms and finals?

And wouldn’t it be cool if, one week before his college graduation, the action figure fell to earth again?

Impossible, you say. Not to me. Fate, young grasshopper, is nothing to monkey around with.

Commentary 04 Aug 2011 07:52 am

Art need not justify its existence

My Aug. 4 column from The (Alliance) Review:

A story last month about the Stark County’s SmARTS program annoys me.

I’m not annoyed with the program itself, which funds arts projects throughout many area schools. Nor am I bothered that, according to the article, 2,800 donors ponied up $1.56 million to make SmARTS a reality. I’m not even annoyed — at least not much — that these are private donations, which leaves federal, state and local education dollars for more important things, such as testing our kids into a collective coma.

No, what gets my goat is when ArtsinStark Board Vice Chair Mark Wright says that the organization’s collection of data is “proving that teaching arts alongside academics supercharges learning.”

I don’t think anybody will dispute that students who are involved in the arts — be it music, painting, sculpture, written expression, dance, acting or whatever — tend to do better in school. And I don’t blame ArtsinStark personnel for taking the time to gather these statistics to defend the initiative’s existence.

But I do blame our accountability culture for making it necessary to justify any program or activity that doesn’t deliver a straight-line path to a career as an accountant, attorney, actuary or any other socially acceptable (re: financially remunerative) occupation.

Art exists to provide beauty, to provoke response, to fill the corners of an increasingly bottom-line-oriented world with a reminder that the ultimate goal of humanity is more than just paying the bills on time, voting a straight GOP ticket and vacationing two weeks out of 52.

Marvel at the great cathedrals of history (or to look at the cathedrals themselves, for those fortunate enough to do so) — Chartres in France or Toledo in Spain — and recognize the heights to which the faithful will aspire to honor their beliefs. Stare in rapt attention at the figure work of Michelangelo from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Listen to the powerful majesty of Beethoven, the understated chord work of a mature Clapton, or the arrhythmic percussion of an anonymous West African drummer. Hear the language swirl in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” or watch as words are knitted into a patchwork of despair in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

None of these things will necessarily earn you more money (and some may actively cost you), but they will provide depth to a world of pop culture stretched so thin that you can see the abyss on the other side.

You can never truly quantify the benefits accrued from finger painting — thank goodness. Nor can you put a price tag on the feeling of satisfaction that comes when you type “The End” on your first short story, any more than you can assign an SAT score to children after their first xylophone performance.

Yet our results-based culture desperately wants to make such determinations, and organizations that are fighting desperately to keep the arts alive in some capacity in our schools, such as ArtsinStark, dutifully make the connections. Yet it is a slippery slope. Once we assign a practical value to the arts, we have perhaps changed fundamentally what they are and what they are intended to do.

I see this change reflected in the teaching profession when language arts standards move away from novels and plays and toward nonfiction and technical writing. Make no mistake, some of our best contemporary writers work in creative non-fiction, but that’s not why the focus is shifting there. No, the target is moving because nonfiction is seen as more practical than “all that made-up stuff,” more in line with what students encounter in college and beyond.

Novels are only what we read on the beach and while waiting on the dentist, apparently. Such an attitude dismisses a belief that some of the most profound truths in life are found between the covers of a work of “fiction.”

Somebody a lot smarter than I once said that making a living is much different than living. If we come home at the end of every day to nothing more rewarding than a can of beer and the evening news, what kind of a life is that? But if we come home to an appreciation of literature — great and not-so-great — of dance, music and architecture, we are never bored.

Or as the late, great Joseph Campbell once told interviewer Bill Moyers, “When you get to be older, and the concerns of the day have all been attended to, and you turn to the inner life — well, if you don’t know what that is, you’ll be sorry.”

If the arts must have a practical value, let it be that.