Monthly ArchiveJuly 2012



Commentary & Movies 26 Jul 2012 12:45 pm

New thoughts in a theater

Fewer than 24 hours after the tragic death of 12 people at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colo., the northeast Ohio theater where I watched the movie was still sold out, but the audience was subdued, reflective, cautious.

I almost stayed home out of respect for those who had died and — I’ll be honest — out of fear. I wasn’t so much worried about a repeat in violence, but rather that the very act of going to the movies would be changed irrevocably, the playful anticipation when the house lights dim forevermore replaced with a feeling of dread.

And the atmosphere was changed. Police officers patrolled the front lobby. Extra employees were on hand inside the theater. Before the movie began, people carried on whispered conversations, retreated into their phones, or just sat quietly. Nobody joked. Few smiled. The movie elicited only tiny ripples of applause, not the thunderous ovation one might have expected from the concluding chapter of one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises.

I found myself considering the height of the seats in front of me, wondering how everybody in the row could possibly take shelter behind them. At one point early in the film, a tall, thin man stood and made his way toward the exit. Was I the only person to find sinister intent in an innocent popcorn or restroom run?

These are thoughts I never had in a theater before. The “me” who just a week earlier sat in the same seat and watched another film without marking the location of the exits and pondering the mental well-being of the people around me seemed hopelessly naive.

It’s the same way people felt when flying or entering a public building for the first time after 9/11. Today, it’s impossible to envision a time when luggage and tickets were all that were needed to board a plane — an era before scanners, pat-downs and 3-ounce or smaller bottles in carry-on bags.

Diminished freedom is the price we all pay each time somebody does the unthinkable, like opening fire in a crowded theater. We hold meetings and conduct earnest conversations, draft new guidelines and hope it will keep us safe — or safer — until the next time.

Bodies were still in that auditorium-turned-abattoir in Aurora when at least one theater chain banned masks (AMC), at least one politician turned up the rhetoric about gun control (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg), and at least one reporter asked if the shooter was emulating the villain Bane from the film (NBC’s Matt Lauer).

Other theater chains likely will follow AMC’s lead and tighten guidelines about what can and cannot be worn and brought into a movie theater, if they haven’t already done so. Some may even end midnight showings altogether, but I hope not. Millions of people enjoy the innocent fun of seeing a movie “first,” and the vast majority are decent, law-abiding people.

Nothing in the shooter’s background prevented him from buying guns; over the last few months, he amassed quite a collection. Certainly, the nation would benefit from serious debate over the ease with which people can procure assault rifles, but to use this tragedy to keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens would be unfair. (And nobody is more anti-gun than yours truly.)

Finally, it’s hard to say what serves as a trigger for a diseased mind. It’s easy to look at, for instance, the Columbine High School massacre — just 13 miles from Aurora — and pronounce that the two young killers were hopelessly enthralled by violent video games. Yet cause-and-effect is notoriously difficult to establish, as evidenced by the thousands of people who play similar games with no ill effects.

“Batman” — the movies and the comic books — is about the need for good people to stand up against injustice. If the Aurora shooter was fixated instead on the villains in the series, he missed the point entirely, about that and a great many other things.

Society likes the assurance of pat answers, because it gives us something to fix. Tighter security at movies. No costumes. Tougher gun laws. More socially responsible entertainment.

But the ugly truth is that sometimes bad people do bad things with no advance warning, despite our best efforts at prevention and detection. If we close one avenue, they will only find another, and the best we can do is stick together and refuse to let them cow us into submission.

That’s why I went to the movies Friday night, and why I’ll keep going back. To do otherwise lets the bad guys win.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 26, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 19 Jul 2012 11:56 am

The tipping point

I blame it on seeing “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at an impressionable age.

The scene where two parking garage attendants sail Bueller’s cherry red Ferrari GT California up and over railroad tracks, punctuated by the “Star Wars” theme thundering in the background, left an indelible mark. I have never trusted parking attendants since, and I am especially irritable at the thought of tipping them.

Tipping, in general, is a custom I don’t understand. I understand that gratuities in a restaurant bridge the gap between what the business pays a server and a living wage. I don’t blame the server, nor do I necessarily blame the restaurant, but I do blame the restaurant industry as a whole for a system that entices customers with low-priced specials and then shakes them down on the check.

But I have options when it comes to eating. I can choose to dine at a fast-food restaurant where tipping is not expected, or I can elect to stay home and prepare my own food. Nobody holds a T-bone to my head and forces me into a restaurant.

I could also choose not to leave a tip, but that way is fraught with peril, including the prospect of wearing a glass of water on my next visit or eating, unbeknownst to me, a thin thread of saliva garnishing the butter on my baked potato. So I always tip.

However, I don’t have many choices when it comes to parking, especially at hotels in big cities, where the only feasible option is often the hotel’s own facility, monitored by bow tie-wearing employees who hover around the entrance like fashionably dressed hobos, sucking cigarettes and waiting for the next easy mark.

My wife knows the drill because I repeat it every time we travel. We pull to the curb and the penguins start to flock. I whisper to my wife, “Don’t let them help us with the luggage. I can get it myself. Remember, no luggage.”

By then the attendants have opened the doors and pasted on their best come-on smiles. But soon they notice I’ve turned off the car and put the key safely in my pocket, and the smiles falter just a bit. One of THOSE, they’re thinking.

I inquire about available public parking, even though I already know the answer, found on Page 57 of “Parking Attendant Careers for Dummies”: “Tell the mark that the nearest public parking is at least eight blocks away, that it charges exorbitant prices and is only open from 9 to 5 daily with no in-and-out privileges. Say that the public parking lot floods three times a week and that cars are routinely washed away. Mention that last month alone, 37 cars there were broken into, glove boxes pillaged, and gas tanks filled with sugar.”

Truthfully, most of my tipping angst with hotel valets comes from a lack of knowledge. I don’t know if I’m supposed to tip when the valet drives off in the car or when I ask him to retrieve it for me. I don’t know how much is appropriate. And I especially don’t know why I should be obligated to reach for my wallet when my arm is already being twisted.

Miss Manners, that usually reliable arbiter of taste and refinement, is no help. She says to tip a buck for valet restaurant parking but that no tip is necessary at a commercial parking garage “if you were planning to have body work done on your car anyway,” which I guess is a joke, but who can really tell?

Because of all this pressure, any interaction between a valet and me is tense. In my mind, the cityscape with its honking cars and hissing bus brakes melts away, and I’m standing in the middle of an Old West town, all tumbleweeds and swinging saloon doors, squinting into the sun on a cloudless day. I’m wrapped in a serape. The valet is dressed the same. Somewhere, somebody plays the theme to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” as my hand hovers over my holster, which contains not a gun but a wallet. If I draw, I lose.

My opponent and I lock eyes. In his steely gaze I see society’s expectations — tip! tip! tip! In mine, he sees the mantra of the tightwad — no! no! no! My hand shakes, I falter. I look away, my embarrassment and shame almost getting the better of me, but then my true nature, the part of me that hates having this service thrust upon me, unwanted, unasked for, asserts itself.

I sigh and hand over my keys to my vintage 2002 Dodge Neon — it’s so choice as Ferris might say — but I insist on taking my own luggage. It’s a matter of pride, mostly, but also a way for me to feel less like a bum when I stiff him.

Because a valet can coerce his way into my car, but he will never pry open my wallet.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published July 19, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 12 Jul 2012 08:51 am

Fifty shades of embarrassment

A woman talked dirty to me the other night.

I woke out of a dead sleep and heard it: A sensuous female voice, saying things a true lady would never say, and saying them loudly. Passionately, even.

Then I realized that my wife had fallen asleep while listening to a book and that one of her earbuds had slipped out and landed on my pillow. The voice wasn’t talking to me, it was narrating a novel, one that sounded like a cross between “Deep Throat” (not the Watergate Deep Throat but the other one) and the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally.”

The book is “Fifty Shades Darker,” the sequel to best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, that’s about … that. By “that” I mean that, the indoor sport where most Americans earn a letter, the practice responsible for our very lives, the one used to sell us everything from soft drinks to sports cars, but the act we have trouble talking about with our kids and that we like to leave on the backburner of national dialogue unless it involves celebrities behaving badly.

It’s what Shakespeare calls the beast with two backs, and what “The Newlywed Game” calls making whoopie. Procreation.

Sex.

I’ve not read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I probably won’t, even though my spouse was so scarred by the first installment that she could hardly wait to start the second. I imagine if she’s sufficiently traumatized there, the only cure will be book three, “Fifty Leagues Under the Smutty Sea” or whatever it’s called.

I’m not staying away because I fear being scandalized. I’m a high school teacher, for heaven’s sake. After years of absorbing pieces of teenage gossip in the hallways, it takes the moral equivalent of an atomic bomb to shake my foundations.

No, I’m not reading because, based on what my wife tells me, the portion I heard summarizes the entire series so far, and I have better things to do than read the same scene over and over. There’s grass to watch grow, belly button lint to collect and too many other books to read.

I’m also not reading because I likely would spend the entire time pouting that somebody other than me capitalized on such a simple concept. James began her literary career as Snowqueens Icedragon, writing “Twilight” fan fiction online. At some point, she changed her lusty hero and heroine from vampires to regular, albeit kinky, folks and started marketing to the masses.

Now the author is like a McDonald’s sign: billions and billions served. What are the royalties on 18 bazillion copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” anyway? Her annual income probably dwarfs that of some smaller European nations.

But ultimately I won’t be reading because I’d hate for anybody to see me with the books. This country’s Puritanical streak, which condones violence (an unnatural act) while suppressing sex (a natural act), is alive and well, and I’m as affected as anybody.

While the U.S. gives lip service to negative effects of violence, we aren’t that upset by it. Violent video games, movies and television are a fact of life. Stick a parental advisory label on it and we’re good to go.

Sexual content is another matter, however. Most of us have sex.

We’re surrounded by it in advertising and marketing. But the act itself is still frowned upon and considered dirty, more so for women than for men.

This split-personality is alive and well in politics, too. Consider those brave, conservative men in elected office who support the continuation of the military-industrial complex and then vote to restrict women’s reproductive rights. How else but by a double-standard do you explain Michigan lawmakers, who last month barred Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking during debate over an anti-abortion bill after she had the temerity to use a medically approved term for part of her own anatomy?

By comparison, maybe it’s not so bad that I don’t want to be seen with a silly book. It’s a hang-up that runs deep in my family, apparently.

To wit: Last week, the movie my parents, my wife and I wanted to see was sold out. After my father and I dropped the women off at the door and parked the car, they conspired to buy tickets for “Magic Mike,” a racy comedy about male strippers that leaves little to the imagination.

After the final credits rolled, Mom was alarmed that I had already posted my thoughts on Twitter. “Maybe you could not mention that I was with you?” she asked, sounding a lot like a person who might enjoy listening to “Fifty Shades of Grey” anonymously through headphones in the dead of night.

Don’t worry, Mom. Your secret’s safe with me.

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 12, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & technology 05 Jul 2012 07:49 am

iii];)’

Any student who has suffered through my class knows my policy on exclamation points: You get only two a year, so use them wisely.

Actually, the quantity and duration change every time I tell it, and savvy students — the ones who aren’t sleeping or glancing surreptitiously at cellphones every few minutes — sometimes call me out. “Didn’t you say last week that we get two exclamation points each quarter, Mr. S?” (Almost nobody can pronounce Schillig without making it sound like Austrian currency, so Mr. S is acceptable shorthand. Maybe I should change my name to Euro.)

Yes, it’s true I inform some students that they can use three exclamation points a year, some four. In a moment of unexpected largesse, I once offered up five, which is unbridled craziness.

The exact number doesn’t matter as much as the expectation that budding writers think of the exclamation point as an endangered species (something to be cherished) or a rich dessert (something to be enjoyed only occasionally). To throw in one more metaphor, if periods are common nails of the punctuation toolbox, then exclamation points are drywall screws — expensive, more difficult to use, and appropriate for only certain types of sentences and situations.

If a piece of information is so earthshaking that it will rattle the souls of all who read it, an exclamation point is warranted. “Martians Invade!” or “World Ends!” are such headlines. “Mary’s dating Tom again!” is not, in most cases — unless you’re Mary or Tom.

Short of impending, immediate violence — “I’ll kill you!” — most exclamation points are unnecessary. If you’ve written a piece well, the emotion is conveyed without the need for special punctuation, and readers are better served by deciding for themselves how much emotion a given statement deserves.

I also make it clear to students that no matter how many exclamation points I allow them, under no circumstances should the marks be used simultaneously. Even “World Ends!” doesn’t merit two exclamation points, because what do you do you write the next day? “World Returns!!”?

For the record, I must also acknowledge my own hypocrisy. While I am a card-carrying member of the Anti-Exclamation League, I am simultaneously and contradictorily a member of the slippery Emoticons Embracers Ltd. (EEL), which supports the use of smiley faces and sad faces created with punctuation. So recipients of my electronic messages are often besieged with :) or :( — but never :-) or :-( because I find noses to be a waste of perfectly good hyphens.

Now, granted, I never use emoticons in serious writing, where I want words alone to represent me. But email and texting are different: They’re kissing cousins to verbal communication, where audiences often derive meaning from a speaker’s facial expressions or hand gestures. Minus these, the well-placed smiley face does yeoman’s work. A reader may be offended by “You’re crazy,” but never by “You’re crazy :),” which excuses a multitude of linguistic sins.

In other words, I’m not going to risk an angry spouse by typing “What a stupid idea” in a text message when I can instead put, “What a stupid idea :)” and provide myself with an automatic JK defense, which is admissible in most courts.

(I’ve never had a chance to use it in writing, but I’m fascinated by the emoticon for Slash, the ex-guitar player of Guns N’ Roses, which looks like this: iiii];) and represents the guitarist’s signature hat and cigarette, but only if you cock your head like the RCA dog can you see it.)

Further examples of hypocrisy can be found in my hatred of all instant-message abbreviations, including LOL, B4N, IMHO, NSFW, YOLO and the above-mentioned JK.* None of these aids communication; they are shortcuts for lazy writers, an argument that could also be made for emoticons. Hence, the hypocrisy.

So to summarize my writing advice in reverse order: don’t use abbreviations, emoticons are OK unless you’re writing the Great American Novel or a formal paper, and go easy on the exclamation points, to the tune of about two a year (unless I’ve told you more at another time).

Otherwise, you will incur the wrath of an English teacher!!! Or at least one’s righteous indignation. Well, this one’s, anyway. :)

chris.schillig@yahoo.com

@cschillig on Twitter

*For the Internet illiterate, these are laugh out loud, ‘bye for now, in my honest opinion, not safe for work (an off-color joke, for example), you only live once and just kidding.

Originally published July 5, 2012, in The Alliance Review.