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» 2012 » May

Monthly ArchiveMay 2012

Commentary 31 May 2012 10:41 am

Doing what humorists do

By Chris schillig The Review Published: May 31, 2012 3:00AM

So I’m late for work one day last week, but I need popcorn for my students.

Teachers understand what lay people don’t: The promise of popcorn to a hungry class cannot be broken lightly. In the ledger of “Crimes Against One’s Pupils,” forgetting popcorn or cupcakes or individually wrapped licorice sticks or snack-sized Kit Kat bars earns an indelible black mark. It will be carved on your tombstone: Loving husband, good father, forgetter of fruit punch.

Not many places sell pre-popped corn at 6 a.m., but a few do. I’m power-walking across the main concourse of one such establishment, past lottery tickets, cosmetics and a wall of sugary cereal, when I pass her coming in the opposite direction.

She wobbles along, Weeble-like, staring listlessly into space. If this grocery store were a roadmap, she would be on a Sunday drive in her Edsel, sputtering along a dirt road; I’d be screaming by in a Ferrari, foot on the accelerator, speedometer edging into the red zone that makes highway patrol officers drool with anticipation.

In her cart are two gallons of milk and about a dozen other items. I can’t tell what they all are because I’m moving so fast. I nod my head in greeting. If she responds, it’s lost in my metaphorical rearview mirror.

I take a moment to speculate, uncharitably. With her glazed look and lazy gait, she must be headed home to a sagging couch, Jerry Springer and Judge Judy while chewing, bovine-like, on chips and gummy worms.

I find my popcorn, pivot and trek back toward the checkout. That’s when I see her a second time, about 20 yards ahead, ponderously pushing her cart toward the only available register.

I feel like the character in Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream” — my mouth elongates, my eyes widen, my hands cradle my cheeks and I want to voice to the slo-mo scream of every cartoon character ever drawn, slobber shooting from my lips. Noooooooooooooooooo.

I could upgrade my power-walk to a full-on sprint and slide in front of her. I could run up the back of her sizable calves, do a forward flip over her cart and land, ninja-like, on the conveyer belt. I could tackle her to the ground and pull the hood of her college sweatshirt over her head, obscuring my identity as I toss $2.50 at the cashier and lope toward the parking lot.

Instead, I stand there — outwardly patient, inwardly a bundle of misfiring neurons, adding another anxiety-spell to the inevitable ulcer.

Except none of these things really happened.

Oh, there was a grocery store and popcorn and a lady with two gallons of milk and a single register. I mused on it for a second or two before stepping into the self-checkout lane. No big deal.

But where’s the interest, the poetry, in that? The art is in the storytelling — dramatization, exaggeration, visuals that distract you, if only momentarily, from screaming kids or demanding bosses or the eternal debate of “Do I watch ‘The Voice’ or “American Idol’?”

That’s why I don’t get why National Public Radio and its “This American Life” program have any beef with humorist David Sedaris and his work. He does what humorists do (and I’m no David Sedaris, believe me): Magnify and add to the kernel of a true story. (Don’t you like how I brought this back to popcorn? This attention to detail is the hallmark of my time on the top of this page.)

According to the Washington Post, NPR is considering a label at the start of Sedaris’ pieces to alert listeners that what they are about to hear contains a blend of fact and fiction.

Seriously, how unfunny is that? Have we reached a point where we can no longer discern intent by paying attention to a writer’s or speaker’s tone, when we can no longer understand that comedy bends the truth to get laughs?

I guess so.

So here’s my pledge to you: When I write about serious topics, I won’t make up anything. Ever. I might make mistakes, but they’ll be honest ones.

When I write about humorous topics, I’ll stretch and bend truth like old ladies at a taffee-pulling contest, but I won’t make up anything. Except when I do.

And if you can’t tell the difference between my serious and humorous topics, then I’m really doing something wrong.

If this ever happens, just pretend you’ve imagined my whole column and go buy some popcorn. It makes everything better.

Originally published on May 31, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 24 May 2012 10:05 am

Finger food

I wouldn’t read this while eating. Just sayin’.


Why is Ryan Hart of Jackson, Mich., smiling in a recent photo in The Christian Science Monitor?

Maybe because he’d recently eaten part of a finger in a sandwich at a fast-food restaurant.

According to published reports, Hart’s mother had taken the 14-year-old and his brother to the drive-thru of a well-known restaurant chain. I’m not naming it, but chances are good you know which one already; it’s been all over the news. A few minutes later, Hart spit out a 1-inch-long section of finger. (He must have ordered the knuckle sandwich.)

According to the chain, an employee severed her finger in the meat slicer and stumbled off for medical treatment without informing her co-workers, who continued serving food until they found out what happened. Once they learned of her accident, they shut down production and cleaned and sanitized the equipment.

I don’t know about young master Hart, but at the age of 14 I would have loved to find a finger in my food. Mostly because I had spent many of my formative years as a food gross-out artist whose shenanigans wowed the primary-school set at Washington Elementary.

My favorite act involved squares of Jell-O, which I would purposely drop on the floor and then eat, to the dismay of my ardent admirers (both of them). Sometimes, when the performance bug had really bitten me, I would lick the fuzzballs and lint off the gelatin first, as a warm-up to the big act.

Another cherished performance from my illustrious past was storing all my half-eaten lunches in my locker from fall until early spring, when my second-grade teacher, likely alerted by the odor of mouldering sandwiches (”I love the smell of bologna in the morning”), made me clean out dozens upon dozens of brown bags while the rest of the class looked on in horror and — dare I say it? — grudging admiration.

These are just some of the reasons why I didn’t have a date until I was 18, and even then only with a very religious girl who considered dinner and a movie with me as atonement for some sin or another. (We shook hands when it was over, if that’s any indication of how successful I was in the Casanova role.)

But my nauseating proclivities with food aren’t the only reason why I would have been excited to find a finger in my sandwich at age 14. Another is that, even at this tender age, I knew the meaning of easy money. Let’s face it, nothing says “big fat settlement” like an ironclad case of finger food.

Mama Hart has already been in contact with a lawyer, according to the news agencies, which is probably the understatement of the year. Likely, ambulance chasers are lined up outside her door like hopefuls on “America’s Got Talent,” each one promising a bigger payout if she’ll only sign on the dotted line.

Granted, masticating through part of a finger is a hard way to make a living, but if you do it right, you only have to do it once. If the kid gets a few million for pain, suffering and emotional trauma — not to mention the health hazards of blood as a condiment — he won’t have to worry about paying for college, his first Ferrari, his home in the Hamptons, or even the minor annoyance of, you know, working for a living. That’s worth a tetanus shot and some antibiotics any day.

He should have that damn finger stuffed and mounted on his mantel, with an inscription underneath that says, “I owe it all to you, un-fickle finger of fate.”

Getting your order served hot and fast in the drive-thru is nice. Using it as a stepping stone out of the 99 percent and into the 1?

Now that’s what I call “good mood food.”

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on May 24, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 17 May 2012 05:35 pm

Past-due presidential support

Regarding President Obama’s recent support of gay marriage, a first for a sitting president: It’s about time.

His critics, however, say it’s less about time and more about timing. Obama’s declaration that same-sex couples deserve the right to marry comes as his opponent, Mitt Romney, finds himself mired in a bullying scandal from his prep-school days when he and some fellow thugs hunted, held down and cut the hair of a gay student. Discerning citizens might call Romney’s unprovoked assault a hate crime, but his supporters just wink, elbow one another and invoke the age-old mantra of schoolyard oppression, “Boys will be boys.” The president’s overdue announcement makes him look positively progressive next to this Neanderthal.

Obama’s “evolution” also comes at a convenient time to distract voters from substantive issues of the economy, which after three years of his shepherding is still ugly. If the employment rate were a hospital patient, it would be on life support, its pulse described as thready, and doctors would be telling nurses to round up the family for a tearful bedside farewell. But Obama’s same-sex marriage announcement guaranteed that press coverage this week and last focused less on the moribund economy and more on the kinda-sorta-but-not-really hot-button issue (as far as November is concerned) of gay marriage, one that won’t necessarily gain or lose the president very many votes.

So, yes, Obama’s pronouncement could be chalked up to political expediency. But you know what? Call me naïve or Pollyannaish or a bleeding heart liberal or whatever, but I prefer to take his supposed flip-flop at face value: He’s a good man who’s been unsure of where he stands until recently and now has decided unequivocally that gays deserve the same marriage rights afforded heterosexual couples.

And hooray for him for saying it.

For the last few weeks, my freshman classes have been reading Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s almost impossible not to draw comparisons between the novel’s theme of universal rights for all people and the uphill battle fought by gays and lesbians for equality under the law.

In “Mockingbird,” blacks are the mistreated minority, unable to get a fair shake and considered less respectable than even the trashiest whites in Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb. In one scene, 8-year-old Scout recognizes the hypocrisy of her third-grade teacher, incensed by Hitler’s mistreatment of the Jews but simultaneously of the opinion that blacks in Maycomb are “gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us,” with the “us” meaning white people.

Miscegenation was at the heart of many Americans’ distrust and fear of blacks, and a similar anxiety seems to motivate our feelings toward gays and lesbians today. Once you get past the biblical injunctions — and remember that for generations the Bible and religion were used to justify slavery, the most egregious denial of universal rights and respect — a baseline fear is that allowing gays to marry will somehow “legitimize” homosexuality, which could creep into our own neighborhoods like weeds into an unwatched garden.

But just as in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where children see injustice more clearly than their elders, it is the younger generation that will put to right our foolishness. The vast majority of my students demonstrate an acceptance of same-sex relationships that would likely scandalize the good voters of North Carolina, who struck such a decisive blow against equality last week by enshrining a prohibition against gay marriage in that state’s constitution. It is our children who will one day strike down all such laws and guarantee that, just as we no longer judge people by skin color, we no longer deny them rights (and rites) of marriage based on gender preference.

When that day comes, those of us privileged enough to witness it will look back in wonder at how bitter the fight has been to reach such an obvious and foregone conclusion, and we will be collectively ashamed of how long it took for common sense to trump bigotry, fear and hatred.

No matter if President Obama’s declaration is political stunt or deeply held conviction, if it hastens that day, then it’s more than welcome.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 17, 2012, in The Alliance Review

Commentary 10 May 2012 08:46 pm

New ways to celebrate motherhood

Moms must have a better public-relations firm than dads.

How else can you explain the gallons of additional ink spilled each May to exult the maternal, compared to the rather tepid encomiums for dear old Dad one month later?

Moms get all the jewelry, mushy prose, burnt-toast breakfasts in bed, beautiful bouquets that almost single-handedly keep the floral business afloat for another 12 months, and finger-painted hearts from budding Picassos that look like they were completed during his surrealist phase.

Dads get, what? Ties and barbecue aprons.

It’s not that I begrudge moms their moment in the spotlight, but you must admit, it’s one loooong moment, accompanied by a few extra encores and curtain calls. Coupled with their stranglehold on the mass media — when’s the last time a mom was the killer on “Dateline NBC” or “48 Hours Mystery”? Never, that’s when. It’s always Dad, Dad, Dad — moms have the market cornered on the whole familial love thing.

Which is why I’m suggesting some gift options to help level the parental playing field. Giving Mom something from the Schillig collection this Sunday will make a definite statement. The exact nature of this statement is best left to the individual, but let’s just say that it won’t be the sort of tapioca sentimentality engendered by your run-of-the-mill rose corsage or cliched $4.99 breakfast special from Denny’s. To wit:

Pic Nic Pants. Leave it to the Italians, the folks who brought us Gelato and homicidal mobsters, to design a pair of pants that doubles as a picnic table. These jeans come with an extra flap of fabric between the legs so that when Mom sits cross-legged, a stretchable table is created, perfect for a paper plate of chicken, macaroni salad and corn on the cob. A drink holder clips to either leg, as well, perfect for left- or right-handed mothers.

Plush-toy uterus. Web-based retail reporters at Racked ( say that this stuffed version of the womb is a hit with moms who double as OB/GYNs, but I bet any woman would like a smiley-faced uterus to cuddle up with on a cold winter’s night or to dangle from their rearview mirror like a talisman to ward off bad luck. If you think a uterus is tacky, the company that makes these, I Heart Guts, also offers a stuffed heart (”I Got the Beat”) and a stuffed kidney (”When Urine Love”).

Hot Mamma Make-Up Kit. This little wonder comes with gold eyelashes and a stick-on facial tattoo in the shape of a dollar sign. After a long day of changing diapers and slaving over a hot, homemade meal, Mom can indulge her inner wild child and let her freak flag fly. Kits are available at, which also suggests the Hillary Clinton nutcracker for the mom who has (almost) everything.

Pizza and “Psycho.” Forget the long lines at restaurants. Grab a $5 Little Caesar’s pizza (splurge for the Crazy Bread, too, if you’re feeling generous) and cue up Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie about a boy and his (stuffed) matriarch. Families can bond over such sentiments as “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” “A son is a poor substitute for a lover,” and “She might have fooled me, but she didn’t fool my mother.” Oh, and of course, “Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!”

WineRack Bra. A company called the Beerbelly sells this miracle of modern lingerie, a brassiere that “doubles” as a secret hiding place for all of mother’s liquid little helpers. Unfortunately, the item is already sold out (which makes me wonder how many women are already sipping from their secret cups, so to speak), so chances are slim that Mom can use it this year to medicate herself before the recital of yet another schmaltzy poem from some budding, baby Wordsworth.

When I read this list to my wife, she said she’d much rather have a charm for her Pandora bracelet this Sunday, an option much more expensive than anything here.

Good thing she’s not my mother, or I’d be out a bundle.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 10, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & Movies 03 May 2012 07:04 am

Declaration of principles

Near the end of “Citizen Kane,” Joseph Cotton’s character, reporter Jedediah Leland, wakes from a drunken stupor to finish a negative review of the opera “Thaïs.”

He has little hope of seeing it published. After all, he is panning the performance of Susan Alexander, wife of Charles Foster Kane, the paper’s owner and publisher.

Realizing that the review is no longer in his newsroom typewriter, he turns to Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s right-hand man, and asks what has become of the notice. “Mr. Kane is finishing it,” Bernstein said, at which point the camera cuts to Kane, masterfully played by Orson Welles, hunched over a typewriter, pounding out the words.

“I suppose he’s fixing it up,” Leland says. “I knew I’d never get that through.”

Bernstein moves to Leland’s side. “Mr. Kane is finishing your piece the way you started it. He’s writing a roast like you wanted it to be. I guess that’ll show you.”

It’s a quiet moment in a movie populated by bombastic ones, yet it’s the scene I most remember from the movie that indelibly imprinted on my consciousness what a newspaper is supposed to be and do. Kane’s actions here — putting the finishing touches on a negative review of his own wife, a woman he has forced into the public spotlight against her will — is complex and tough and contrary and, somehow, the quintessential selfless act of a person who has dedicated his private and professional life to a cause bigger than himself.

Earlier in the film, Kane — a fictionalized version of real-life newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst — drafts a Declaration of Principles. It reads, “I will provide the people of this city with a daily paper that will tell all the news honestly. I will also provide them with a fighting and tireless champion of their rights as citizens and human beings.”

I’ve been thinking about “Citizen Kane” recently, wondering if the lessons it teaches are still germane in the 21st century. The movie, after all, is the product of a time when many of the nation’s smallest papers were more influential than the largest today, when ink spilled in one direction could change the course of public opinion in ways contemporary publishers only dream of. For many Americans in the 1940s, newspapers weren’t just the primary source of information, they were practically the only source, with radio and movie newsreels a distant second and third, respectively.

Today, we are infinitely better informed from a plethora of media at our fingertips (literally, in the case of smartphones), all of them vying for a small piece of the pie that once belonged exclusively to men like William Randolph Hearst, powerful gods striding across pulp and ink kingdoms, deciding the fates of politicians and policies as they determined which stories to run and which to spike.

Because contemporary newspapers must thrive in a more competitive environment, one would think they would take more risks, probe more deeply and stir more debate, simply as a survival mechanism. Yet the opposite is true: They have become more conservative, more hands-off, less willing to risk offending anybody for fear of losing what they have.

On the one hand, I commiserate. Nothing makes us more cautious than fear of loss. Newspapers are not exempt.

On the other hand, a still-viable lesson of “Citizen Kane” is that one person or institution with a vision and the determination to see it through to its conclusion — good or bad — can make a difference. Newspapers are not exempt.

The overwhelming majority of newspapers, including this one, still exist to tell all the news honestly. Many, however, have abandoned the second part of Kane’s Declaration of Principles, if they ever practiced it at all. They are not “a fighting and tireless champion of people’s rights as citizens and human beings,” especially when such championing forces them to step out from behind an objective facade that is really just a mask for cowardice.

Kane himself never quite lives up to the promises in his Declaration of Principles, and he’s a fictional character in a fictional movie. What chance, then, do any of the rest of us have, muddling about our daily affairs without benefit of screenwriters, directors and cinematographers to cast us in the best, most heroic light?

But life isn’t only about succeeding, it’s about the effort. It’s about pounding out that negative review, late at night, long after everybody else who cares has given up and gone home, staying true to a singular vision because it’s the truth, even when it is contrary to your own opinion.

Maybe especially when it’s contrary to your own.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on May 3, 2012.