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» 2011 » September

Monthly ArchiveSeptember 2011

Commentary 29 Sep 2011 12:56 pm

Joys of planking

Here is this week’s column from The Alliance Review:

My daughter couldn’t print a college paper a few weeks ago because, in her words, “somebody planked the printer.”

I’m accustomed to not understanding the younger generation, mostly because we disagree about various subjects — like the value of hard work, how Alice Cooper has the greatest voice in rock ‘n roll and that I’m never wrong — but not because I don’t understand their terminology. Yet here was “planking,” with its images of bulk purchases at the lumber yard or the part of the ship pirates make you walk off when sending you to Davy Jones’ locker, which is presumably near Micky Dolenz’s locker, but only if you’re monkeying around, hey hey.

As it turns out, “planking,” in the sense my daughter used it, refers to a fad where people lie face-down on various objects with their arms rigidly at their sides and then have their pictures taken. Do an Internet search and you will find hundreds of examples — people planking on beaches and fields, near national monuments, and on chimney tops, beer kegs and one another.

Articles about the phenomenon date to at least 2009, with one claiming that the practice originated in 1994, which will eventually be disputed by some nattily attired scholar when he announces that, indeed, the practice is ancient, as proven by fossil evidence of Australopithecus lying face down in a cave somewhere. (With a brain 35-percent smaller than modern man, at least Australopithecus has an excuse for boorish behavior.)

Critics say planking is dangerous. An Australian man died earlier this year when he slipped off a balcony while planking, which led officials to voice safety concerns about the practice. Apparently, nobody questioned the safety of balconies.

Some say planking is racist and has ties to the slave trade, when Africans were stacked plank-like in the holds of ships, a connection most hardcore plankers strenuously deny.

Students in the Philippines held mass planking demonstrations last week to protest budget cuts at state colleges and universities, just as one beleaguered politician proposed a law to ban the practice. (The law would ban planking, not cutting school budgets.)

Nobody was protesting anything at my daughter’s school, but the planker’s weight apparently pancaked a printer she hoped to use, as documented by a photo the anonymous culprit placed near the flattened machine.

I’m always up for a good fad. I had a mullet before “business in the front, party in the back” became a punchline. I puzzled my way through a Rubik’s cube by using a screwdriver to pop the tiles off the popular toy and reassemble it with the colors in the right place. If I were a little older, I undoubtedly would have flagpole-sat and hula-hooped, too. (The rumor that I once wore a poodle skirt is greatly exaggerated.)

So when I heard about the planked printer, I decided to try my hand — or stomach — at planking. Maybe I should have protested something. I could have planked our satellite dish to call attention to horrible customer service, but that would require a dangerous trip out a second-story window, and how do you balance on a satellite dish, anyway?

I could have planked the Ohio Statehouse steps in opposition to S.B. 5, but that would mean a trip to Columbus, and I needed an instant scratch for my planking itch. Closer to home, I could have planked a certain big-box retailer for various practices hostile to women workers, but I had a feeling that shoppers of both genders would walk right over me to get to bargains in aisle five.

Finally, I took the path of least resistance and planked between two lawn chairs on my parents’ back porch. The moment was captured for posterity by several family members. Readers who scanned the QR code in my Sept. 15 column were treated (or maybe subjected) to a photo of the planking with my face safely hidden but my bald head prominently displayed.

I can’t say it was fun or rewarding. Mostly, it just felt stupid. Maybe that’s the difference between ages 18 and 43, a gulf wider than Australopithecus to Homo sapiens.

I hope the planker at my daughter’s school felt equally stupid when the printer crumbled beneath him. Better yet, I hope he ended up with indelible ink stains on his stomach, a permanent reminder of 2011 — not the Summer of Love, but the Summer of Plank.

Books & Commentary 22 Sep 2011 11:12 pm

Celebrate freedom with a banned book

This week’s column:

I spent last week reacquainting myself with Holden Caulfield.

Caulfield’s not always the best company. He swears a lot, sometimes shouts during conversations and asks pointed and embarrassing questions about sex. Still, he’s much more interesting than many of the “phonies” (as he calls them) at the various prep schools from which he’s been expelled.

One of Holden’s more riveting stories is about the night after he leaves Pencey Prep. Kicking around New York City instead of going home to face his parents, he decides to hire a prostitute. The girl’s name is Sunny, even though her disposition is anything but. By the time she arrives at his hotel room, Holden — a virgin — has changed his mind, but gives her the agreed upon $5 anyway. (In 1951, $5 went a long way.) The episode ends with Sunny’s pimp beating Holden to a pulp.

Holden and I met again in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel of adolescent angst by J.D. Salinger that is sometimes said to be on every serial killer’s bookshelf. I doubt that’s true, but I also don’t doubt that many serial killers have read the book, if only because so many teens see the novel as a rite of passage, and serial killers were teens once too.

Salinger’s novel has been praised and reviled, analyzed and dismissed, and sometimes even pulled from library shelves and school curriculums. According to the American Library Association, the book is the second most banned and challenged classic, behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Teachers have been fired for teaching “Catcher,” protesters have called it “anti-white,” and charges such as “obscene,” “vulgar” and “unacceptable” have been leveled against it.

Beginning Saturday and running through Oct. 1, the ALA is celebrating Banned Books Week to call attention to our right, as citizens in a free society, to make our own decisions about “The Catcher in the Rye” and hundreds of other books that have offended someone, somewhere.

It’s a week to celebrate titles such as “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s story about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin into a loving home; “Crank,” a novel in poetic form about teenage drug addiction; and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which is often singled out for racist language by readers who can’t discern the theme of equality at the novel’s core.

I’ve never understood why some people feel compelled to have books removed from libraries and schools. Parents certainly have the right to monitor what their children read, and they have a right to refuse their children access to any book they find unacceptable. What they don’t have the right to do is make such decisions unilaterally for an entire community and force their objections on other people’s children.

As an English teacher, I initiate this conversation with many of my classes. Most students agree that other people’s parents shouldn’t tell them what to read; we often part company, however, when it comes to their own parents telling them what they can read. I felt the same way when I was their age, and I was fortunate never to have adults who second-guessed my book choices. I, in turn, never objected to any of my daughter’s reading material. Other parents feel differently, and I respect that.

I also believe that you can never judge a book until you’ve read it, one of the reasons why I assign “The Catcher in the Rye” to my juniors, so that they can join in the debate. Some relate to Holden’s angst; some find him unbearably whiny. I never direct opinions either way, and their culminating assignment is to judge the book’s literary worth and legacy — to decide, in other words, if it’s worthy. What they decide is secondary to how they express themselves.

With apologies to Mark Twain, who said that a classic is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” my own definition is that a classic is a book with something to offend everybody.

I’m not sure if Twain’s definition or mine is right when it comes to “The Catcher in the Rye,” but personally, I always look forward to sitting and talking with Holden. If he were real, he’d take great pleasure in knowing that he still inspires controversy 52 years after first railing against “phonies,” talking loudly and holding up a mirror by which we can judge ourselves. That’s what literature does, and what most of the titles on the Banned Books list do better than most.

Commentary 17 Sep 2011 11:43 am

Scan ‘em if you got ‘em


If you stared in rapt attention at the odd, pock-marked looking design above and wondered what it is, this column will provide answers.

If you’ve already scanned it with your smartphone and gotten to the punchline, then you know it’s a quick-response, or QR, code.

QR codes allow more efficient access to websites than the “old” method, which is to type the address into a browser. That way, which takes about 10 seconds if you type slowly and 5.2 seconds if you type quickly, is soooo last half-hour.

The new-and-improved way is take pictures of QR codes using software available for free or a nominal price on your phone and allow the pixel pixies to magically load more information, special offers or money-saving coupons.

Yeah, QR codes are, more often than not, just another way to sell us stuff.

If you are a little put off by that, I don’t blame you. The first few times I saw QR codes lurking mysteriously on magazine pages, I imagined they were some secret message from an alien race, a group of superior spacefarers who sprinkled pieces of their genetic code or answers to today’s burning issues — the secret to world peace, the origin of life in the universe and whether the light in the refrigerator really stays on when you close the door — in our terrestrial media.

When I learned otherwise, I felt a little like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” waiting for weeks for his Little Orphan Annie secret decoder to arrive by mail and then tying up the family’s sole bathroom while feverishly decoding the secret message, only to learn that the top-secret communique from Annie to her legion of listeners is, “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.”

“A crummy commercial?” scoffs the sadder, wiser young man.

Indeed, Ralphie, indeed.

Think of QR codes as a high-tech secret decoder, a shiny bauble to make us not mind the continual, insidious encroachment of marketing into our lives.

As more of us use our phones to cruise the Internet, QR codes are poised to come into their own. It’s cumbersome to fit our fat fingers on those tiny letters or screens, and so much easier to wave our magic phone wands over a funny design. Heck, the first few times you do it, it’s fun; like being invited to join a secret club with mysterious handshakes and passwords for members only.

But after a few swipes of the phone, you come to realize that QR codes take you to the same old places, just like those funny handshakes and secret words get you into a club where the same old lushes dance around with the same old lampshades on their heads.

QR codes are becoming faddish and kitschy, popping up on coffee mugs and T-shirts, matchbooks and notepads. I’m tempted to have mine made into a quilt or a bumper sticker so that other people can see it and gaze in loving, rapturous wonder at its magnificence and scan it with their phones, only to find …

Well, what will you find if you scan the Left of Center QR code?

Not anything to buy (at least not yet), but rather some hints about future columns and an odd picture of me taking part in a different silly fad.

You may not leave feeling that you’ve been subjected to another “crummy commercial,” but you may feel ripped off, just the same.

If so, welcome to the world of QR codes.

Commentary 11 Sep 2011 04:12 pm

The QR code brought you here, didn’t it?


To read more postings from Chris Schillig’s Left of Cyber Center blog, click here.

Commentary 10 Sep 2011 09:43 pm

Plastic pain

Better late than never, here is my Alliance Review column from Sept. 8.

Buying a baguette on my way home from work a few weeks ago saved me from financial ruin.

OK, maybe not financial ruin, but at least a very big headache. As I was swiping my debit card at a grocery store in Alliance, some unscrupulous felon was using my number for the third time that day at a restaurant in Virginia. He or she had already made purchases at Walmart and Target and was apparently ready to celebrate with a big meal.

However, my credit union’s fraud company, noticing the purchase of a bakery product (and a stale one at that) and a meal with the same credit card number at approximately the same time, 400 miles apart, deactivated my card. I got the baguette, but the thief didn’t get away with the meal.

I have become one of an estimated 9 million Americans who have their identities stolen every year. In my case, I may have been victimized by “skimming,” when a criminal uses a special device to steal credit card numbers at the point of purchase. Earlier in August, I had swiped my card at a gas station in Virginia, so maybe the thief or thieves accessed it there.

Or I may have been victimized in a low-tech manner, perhaps by an unscrupulous waiter or waitress who took down my card number when I paid for a meal. Or somebody could have Dumpster-dived to retrieve my personal information from the trash.

To be honest, I wasn’t as vigilant as I should have been about protecting my personal information. Notice the past tense in that last sentence.

A visit to the identity theft section of the Federal Trade Commission provides more goosebumps than a horror movie. Call it Paranormal Identity. Criminals can access information at so many junctures that you might be tempted to live off the grid and use cash only, until you realize they can pick your pockets the old-fashioned way, as well.

Once thieves have made inroads into your identity, they can do all sorts of nefarious things — run up huge bills through online purchases, take out loans in your name, have driver’s licenses issued with their photos but your name, or give your personal information to police at the scene of an arrest.

Of course, those things probably won’t happen, but they could.

In this case, my card was deactivated because the credit union didn’t have my new phone number. I never thought to contact them when I canceled my land line a few years ago. When the fraud prevention bureau couldn’t contact me by phone to ask if I was really shopping in Virginia, it shut down my card and mailed a letter informing me of suspicious activity on my account.

Last week, I had to sign some forms and file a police report with an officer who said there wasn’t much that could be done from Alliance to solve a crime in Virginia. I knew that, but the credit union needs the report on file to restore my lost money.

This hasn’t happened yet, but I’m optimistic that it will, which eliminates a considerable part of the sting of being hacked. (Update: The money HAS been returned to my account. Hooray!)

Still, I have a sense of being violated. A colleague says it’s like being raped, a comparison I’m not prepared to make, but it is creepy to realize that some people’s idea of making a living is to steal other people’s livelihoods. Anybody who reads the newspaper regularly knows this, but it doesn’t really come home to roost until it happens to you.

The FTC advises consumers to shred financial documents; protect Social Security numbers; avoid giving out personal information by phone, mail or Internet if not certain of the party at the other end of the transaction; and keep personal information secure.

It also recommends regular monitoring of bank statements and credit reports. The last is something I’ve never done — until now — and it’s easily accomplished (for free) at, although I must confess to a twinge of concern when asked to share some of the same sensitive information I was just told to hold close to the vest.

Me, I’d advise buying a baguette every once and a while, too. It may not keep you from being hacked, but at least you’ll have something to munch on while your finances crumble.

Commentary 03 Sep 2011 12:49 pm

Nix these expressions

This week’s column, as published Sept. 1 in The Alliance Review. One transposed line has been corrected.

Writers and speakers are sometimes guilty of falling back on overused words and phrases instead of finding original ways to express themselves.

When a deadline looms, it’s often more convenient to harvest a cliche than to nurture something fresh, and the nonstop news and entertainment culture on TV and the Internet guarantees that certain buzzwords bloom like spring flowers, only to wither and die a few months later. Meanwhile, the public latches on to these expressions and keeps them in the linguistic cupboard past their expiration date.

Lately, I’ve been keeping a list of certain expressions that should be quietly shuffled off to the Shady Meanings Outdated Words Home, a combination retirement community and horse ranch in Arizona. Among them:

  • Baby mama. Etymologists trace this back to Jamaican Creole (”baby mother”) in the ’60s, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that it became an often-negative term to describe an unwed mother. Usually used by the baby’s father when he is no longer intimately involved with the mother, it comes out as, “Oh, I have to be nice to her. She’s my baby mama.” Women are reduced to the role of incubator; I can’t imagine anything less flattering.
  • Perfect storm. We can thank Sebastian Junger’s book (and the subsequent movie) for this term, now used to describe any situation where overwhelming causes lead to a once-in-a-lifetime mess. Everything from the Hurricane Katrina fiasco to the global recession has been attributed to “a perfect storm” of factors. Often, the term precedes an excuse about why a situation wasn’t handled better and has become another piece of empty rhetoric for blame-deflecting politicians.
  • Just sayin’. As in, “Your breath smells like moldy cheese. Just sayin’.” Used in situations where the speaker is being honest or catty, it’s now as devoid of calories as a diet cola, with the same bitter aftertaste. Ugh.
  • True story. This is shorthand for, “I’m going to try to sell you a total fabrication now, and I don’t want you calling me out on it because we both know it’s not real.” True story: I once told a guy who used “true story” with a made-up anecdote that he was full of it, and then I punched him in the face.
  • Priceless. As in, “Hot dogs: $4.59. Buns: $1.99. Propane for grill: $20. Cost of realizing that the person you’re talking to is so creatively bankrupt that he must rip off a credit-card advertisement to make a point about family: Priceless.”
  • Work smarter, not harder. On this Labor Day weekend, American workers should stand up for their rights and demand that employers no longer utter this odious phrase immediately before piling extra assignments on already overworked underlings. It is code for, “We’ve already downsized your department, so you get to do all the work that those laid-off people did but with no extra time, pay or benefits. Now I’m going to play golf.”

I have a theory that many American businesses, large and small, have cut workers and increased profits using the poor economy as a blame-absolving, all-purpose excuse. You know: “I hate to let you go, Sal, but it’s this darn recession.” When growth resumes, it doesn’t resume at a brisk enough clip to satisfy the corporate culture of greed that says we must always, always make more this fiscal year than last, so the laid-off at the bottom remain laid off, while the owners at the top put on their sad faces in public to bemoan the loss and their happy faces in private while counting their profits.

Or at least that’s my theory, a little something to keep me warm this Labor Day.

Similar-but-related terms also deserving of retirement are “multi-tasking” and the aforementioned “downsizing,” which are nothing more than euphemisms for “too busy” and “fired,” respectively.

I’ve eliminated these expressions from my writer’s toolbox, and I hope readers will endeavor to remove them from their vocabularies, as well.

Anybody wanting to share other outdated terms is welcome to send them to the email address below. If I get enough, maybe I can do an encore column and show some other musty expressions to the door.

Just sayin’.