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Books & Family life & Movies 19 Dec 2014 09:49 am

Anti Claus

I guess I’m playing Santa this year.

Some people say this whenever they hand out gifts, but I mean it literally. My mom has invested in a suit and beard and wants me to play the jolly old elf for my 2-year-old niece. That’s the upper age limit of anybody who will be fooled by my imitation, to be sure.

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been preparing for the role all year. Over the past 12 months, I’ve packed on about 20 pounds. While I have a way to go before I’m truly in Santa’s weight class, I still should require fewer pillows to create Claus’ trademark plumpness.

In terms of Santa’s characterization, I’d like to say I’m from the Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. Those two gentlemen get into character and stay in character — past tense in the case of Brando, who died in 2004 — whether the cameras are rolling or not.

If I followed their lead between now and Christmas Eve, I’d be Santa full time, booming out a baritone “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to students on exam day, yelling encouragement to Rudolph when accelerating my Neon down the street and giving out candy canes to stray passers-by.

However, with only one suit, I’m afraid I might start to smell a little ripe before Christmas, like a fruitcake gone horribly bad. And playing Santa without a suit is like playing Tiny Tim without the crutch or Little Ralphie without a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with the compass in the stock. It can’t be done.

Instead, I’m steeping myself in the classics in hopes that the characterizations will rub off. Last weekend, I watched Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause,” a movie about a down-on-his-luck schlep who magically transforms into Santa after his marriage goes sour and he loses custody of his kid. A real upbeat holiday film, that.

Then there is “Miracle on 34th Street,” about a department store Santa who thinks he is the real thing. He ends up in court, trying to prove he’s not insane. Another heartwarming hit.

Maybe I’d have better luck sticking to Santa stories in print. L. Frank Baum, the creator of “The Wizard of Oz,” wrote a novel called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” but I’ve never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Imagine Santa as delineated by J.R.R. Tolkien after a night of heavy drinking and you’ll get the general drift.

Then there’s Dr. Seuss’ classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” about another crazed character who gets his Santa fix by dressing up as Anti Claus and stealing an entire town’s Christmas. Yeah, sure, he gives it all back and the Whos even invite him to carve the roast beast, but I’m sure that on Dec. 26 they arrest him for multiple B&E’s and throw the book at him. Because they’re white and he’s green, he probably gets choked out for “resisting arrest” or spends the rest of his life as Charles Manson’s cell mate.

Hey, what is it with all these Santa stories and delusional, tragic characters? Is my mother trying to tell me something?

Maybe I should stick with Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s probably the most quoted poem in the English language, which doesn’t say too much for America’s taste in verse. But at least the Santa it presents is of the non-postmodernist, non-ironic, Victorian variety: He’s really St. Nick, and nobody carts him off to the asylum halfway through or threatens legal action when he slips down their chimneys and eats their cookies.

He’s also mostly silent, other than a few shouts to his reindeer. In many ways, this is good news. I don’t have to disguise my voice, learn any lines or, worst of all, offer any extemporaneous comments, like railing against crass consumerism (which Santa represents) or criticizing the military-industrial complex. When I go off script is when I get myself in trouble. Santa as the strong and silent type. That’s the ticket.

As long as I don’t get him confused with Brando and start screaming, “Hey, STELLA!,” halfway through handing out presents, I think I’ll get through this without permanently scarring any children.

Here’s hoping.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Dec. 18, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 11 Dec 2014 01:23 pm

Too late for a crisis

My wife says it’s too late for me to have a midlife crisis.

The median life expectancy for men in the U.S. is 77.4. This means I was scheduled to go haywire in 2006. It didn’t happen.

I have officially missed my opportunity to buy a late-model sports car, drop out of life to write poetry while living in a glass tank in Central Park, or run off to France with a can-can dancer named Trixie Middlebeaver. Or at least to do these things with a plausible excuse.

I don’t know what I was doing in 2006 that would have been more important. Probably teaching, writing, reading, and fretting over bills — the same activities that occupy most of my time today.

My wife also tells me that the term “midlife crisis” is out of date, like the milk in the refrigerator that I’m still drinking because I’m too cheap to throw it out. After all, stomachaches aren’t forever, which sounds like the title of a great James Bond movie, subtitled “007 and the Case of Lactose Intolerance.”

The Bond franchise illustrates that one way to avoid a midlife crisis is to have yourself replaced by a younger version every 10 years or so. Connery begets Moore begets Dalton begets Brosnan begets Craig — each one discovering the Fountain of Youth among the roulette tables and cocktails.

Confession: I have seen only one or two Bond movies, and I can’t remember which ones or even the broadest elements of their plots. All I know is that every four or five movies, the character gets to hit the reset button. Neat trick, that.

If I were having myself replaced, I’d pick a nondescript 20-something with no history of backaches and with a killer six-pack of abs. I figure that would allow about a decade for the new me to get all flabby and lose his hair, two things that happened to Schillig Version 1.0 in about the same time. Then I’d call up the relief from a deep, deep bench of replacement me’s.

But since I’m not having myself replaced anytime soon, I have to continue living in a world where “midlife crisis” has been replaced by “midlife transition,” which implies that going bonkers in your 40s doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Call it a kinder and gentler crisis, one that “involves transitioning into a new career that more effectively represents one’s personality and life goals.”


I miss the old midlife crises transitions, which sounded a lot more fun than switching to a job ladling soup in a shelter or growing rutabagas on a commune. Just my luck that all the fun would be leached out of the process at the same time I became eligible. I blame the Republicans.

Of course, I am thinking of buying an acoustic guitar to channel my inner Dylan. In retrospect, this sounds suspiciously like a midlife crisis of the old-school variety, especially if it is accompanied by a weekend in New York City to strum in Central Park.

I am also somewhat heartened to learn that the world’s oldest man died at age 116. This means that his midlife crisis could have happened when he was 58 and been right on time.

If I aspire to his longevity, I have 12 more years to learn how to play a passable “Blowin’ in the Wind” before abandoning my family and job and heading east.

In other words, there’s hope.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Dec. 11, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Media & Movies & Television 04 Dec 2014 10:09 pm

Et tu, Cosby?

A friend asked on Facebook recently if it’s still OK to enjoy Bill Cosby’s albums.

It’s a fair question. While no charges have been filed against the comedian, the accusations by a steadily growing number of women are hard to put aside when watching or listening to his work.

One of Cosby’s bits, “Spanish Fly,” from 1969, is eerily prescient in light of the current scandal. In the routine, from the album “It’s True! It’s True!,” the future Jell-O pitchman and all-American paternal icon relates his experiences trying to secure doses of the legendary aphrodisiac. After all, every neighborhood has its Crazy Mary, a woman who will do just about anything once her drink has been spiked.

Cosby imagines seeing five girls standing alone at a party. “Boy, if I had a whole jug of Spanish fly I’d light that corner up over there,” he muses to shrieks of laughter from his live audience.

What was a fairly innocuous routine by 1960s standards, albeit one reflecting society’s callous disregard for and objectification of women, takes on a more sinister meaning in 2014, when some 15 women have basically accused Cosby of doing exactly what he joked about decades earlier.

Some venues have canceled Cosby’s live shows, NBC and Netflix have dropped deals with him, and the chances that he’ll ever spell “J-E-L-L-O” for money again is about as likely as Republicans embracing President Obama’s immigration reforms.

I pondered this relationship between an artist’s personal life and work a few weeks back while watching “Chinatown” (1974), almost universally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. Its director, Roman Polanski, fled overseas after he was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Since then, he has continued to helm highly acclaimed films and won an Oscar for best director, without ever paying his debt to society. Can audiences still appreciate his movies?

Then there is Phil Spector, famed music producer responsible for a bevy of Top 40 hits and a distinctive Wall of Sound style that reverberated across pop music. Yet he’s also serving a sentence in California State Prison for the second-degree murder of his wife. Does this mean that we can never again enjoy “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes or “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers?

Polanski and Spector are different from Cosby in that they work behind the scenes. Putting out of mind the director, producer or writer of a piece is easier than forgetting its star. This is what makes it harder for some people to watch, say, Mel Gibson, whose anti-semitic vitriol — horrendous as it is — is less egregious than rape or murder but nonetheless has poisoned his career. With an effort of will, I can forget Gibson’s rants while I watch him in “Braveheart” or “Signs,” but only after an initial jolt of remembrance.

Still, this isn’t quite the same as Cosby. Gibson plays characters who obviously aren’t him, speaking lines written by others. Cosby, even when he is playing Dr. Cliff Huxtable, is really playing an extension of himself — or of his stand-up persona. In a situation where the artist truly is his work, it can be harder to reconcile this friendly, outgoing guy with the kind of person who could repeatedly — and allegedly, remember — take advantage of his reputation and position to rape women.

Absent any definitive proof that would stand up in court, fans will always have to deal with doubt when it comes to Cosby. Laughing through such uncertainty is a personal decision, neither right or wrong.

One thing’s for sure, however: The “Spanish Fly” piece isn’t funny any longer. We might question why it ever was.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Dec. 4, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 26 Nov 2014 05:13 pm

Long night in Ferguson

There were enough bad decisions to go around in Ferguson, Missouri, this week.

First, there was the grand jury’s decision not to press charges against Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot teen Michael Brown to death in August. St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who grandstanded in front of the cameras for quite some time before delivering the jury’s verdict, stressed that only jurors had seen all the evidence in the case, a statement made in an attempt to establish them as informed experts when compared to the throngs of observers who waited to applaud or criticize the decision.

Point taken, Mr. McCulloch.

A verdict to indict Wilson would not have rendered him guilty. It would merely have indicated there was enough evidence to bring criminal charges against him. Maybe not for murder, but possibly for manslaughter, which seems reasonable given that he fired six shots at an unarmed suspect.

The second round of bad decisions came after McCulloch’s announcement, when protests devolved into looting and rioting in parts of the city. Businesses and cars burned, windows were smashed, and dozens of people were arrested.

You don’t protest injustice in the community by destroying the community. That’s a case of “I’ll show you, I’ll hurt me.”

After all, Wilson isn’t out of trouble yet. An internal investigation by the Ferguson Police Department is still pending, even though it doesn’t take a Mensa member to guess nothing will come of that. And the federal government still has an ongoing investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting, although legal experts interviewed by CNN believe that it, too, will quickly lose steam.

Chances are good that Wilson will never again serve as a police officer, certainly not in Ferguson. While he could fight to keep his job with the backing of the union, smart money is on some sort of buyout, which would of course fuel controversy that he has been financially rewarded for the shooting.

The situation is tragic — and telling — on many levels. It is a stark reminder that a divide still exists, despite the assertion by some that we are living in a post-racial America. Predictably, pundits trotted out an exhaustive list of white people who had been killed by black people with nary a peep of public protest or media coverage, as if this is supposed to prove something.

What it proves is that all violent deaths are horrific. But if these lists are supposed to show that whites are somehow systematically victimized by blacks, or that white-on-black crime is somehow blown out of proportion, they do not.

Whites have not been subjected to centuries of codified and systematic discrimination and abuse. They have not been lynched en masse. They have not found themselves arrested disproportionately for crimes that are overlooked in other races. Black people have.

So when a white police officer shoots a black teen, there is a subtext that is missing when the races are reversed. We may not like that, and we may wish it were otherwise, but that’s the way it is.

Police officers have a difficult and often thankless job. If I were Wilson, with access to all his training, I’d like to think I would have handled the situation differently, but the truth is that I don’t know.

One option is body cameras for all police officers, for the protection of both suspects and police. It’s an option endorsed by the Brown family, and one that might have provided more definitive evidence than the conflicting testimony of eyewitnesses on Aug. 9.

Blaming the police in this case is the easy choice, but it’s the wrong choice. They are, in many ways, merely a microcosm of an America still stratified by issues of race. If officers stop, search, arrest, and shoot blacks disproportionately, they are only reflecting the inequities of the larger society in which they exist.

This Thanksgiving, if your children can walk the streets with a reasonable chance of coming home alive, give thanks. And wish fervently for the day when all parents can feel the same.

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published Nov. 26, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary 13 Nov 2014 01:01 pm

Batman: blue or red?


Just before the midterm elections, Entertainment Weekly released a list of television shows that skewed strongly Democrat or Republican.

As the article noted, few surprises are to be found. Dems favor liberal snark, putting “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Community” among their favorites. Staunch GOP members, on the other hand, are drawn to HGTV, “Duck Dynasty” and various crime dramas.

The results had me thinking about a topic that is occasional fodder for conversation among the only real party affiliation I lay claim to: comic book geeks. The subject is the political leanings of various superheroes and other comic book characters.

For example, it’s a fairly safe bet that Superman, as originally envisioned by Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is a Democrat. Some of his earliest adventures show him crusading against wife-beaters and breaking down the governor’s door to secure a pardon for an innocent man in the electric chair. Both of those activities sound spot-on Democrat to me.

Batman, however, is clearly a card-carrying member of the GOP.

First of all, he’s an uber-rich dude who hides his identity and is convinced he knows better than the rest of us what the little people need. Secondly, he is willing to trample individual freedoms with little compunction. Waterboarding? Check. Warrantless phone tapping? No problem.

The only aspect of the character that doesn’t radiate Republican is the fact that he refuses to use guns. But in some of his earliest appearances in the late ’30s and ’40s he can be seen blasting away at bad guys — excuse me, alleged bad guys — with various firearms, so it’s safe to say he’s a clandestine NRA member, making him quintessentially Republican.

Superman always seems like the kind of hero who would fly an unmarried young woman to the Planned Parenthood clinic and let her make her own decision. Batman, however, would climb up on his Bat-soapbox and lecture her about responsibility, after he beat her boyfriend senseless.

If nothing else, you know that Superman and Batman are political opposites because they tend to fight every time they cross paths. After a good mutual drubbing, they decide to try to work together, at least until tomorrow. Sounds a lot like the federal government.

Also in the Democratic camp are Spider-Man, a newspaper photographer trying to make enough money to pay the rent in between all that web-slinging; Mickey Mouse, who stands up to bullies who pick on smaller folks; and Wonder Woman, if only because the Republicans would prefer to see her barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, a woman’s natural domain.

The pickings are a little slimmer on the GOP side. Of course, we have Iron Man, a war profiteer who tries to assuage the guilt he feels over making billions on the backs of innocent people by flying around in a red-and-yellow garbage can; Scrooge McDuck, who swims through his money like a porpoise through water yet begrudges his nephew Donald even a few dollars to buy toys and food for the less fortunate; and various super-spy types like Nick Fury and the Black Widow.

The game gets even more raucous if you start thinking about comic strip and animated characters. The Peanuts gang are likely all Democrats, except for Lucy, who’s red through and through. Garfield doesn’t work but expects to be taken care of, so I’d guess many people would mark him blue.

An interesting mix is the gang from Scooby-Doo. Driving around in a beat-up old van fairly screams Democrat, but I’d guess at least some of these teen sleuths — Fred and Daphne come to mind — are Republican. Scooby himself strikes me as apolitical.

As for Shaggy, that distressed green shirt, loping walk, and hipster slang put him firmly in the Democratic oeuvre. But word has it he’s not even voting these days.

Instead, he’s moved to Colorado and is growing legal weed. Hopefully, he’ll sell some to Batman. That dude’s waaaay too uptight.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Nov. 20, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 08 Nov 2014 06:12 pm

Surviving our childhoods

It always goes something like this:

When we were kids, we drank dirty creek water until our stomachs hurt, played outside until the street lights came on, drank unhomogenized milk and ate candy bars and cereal loaded with sugar and calories.

We jumped off wooden swings set atop concrete and gravel. We played backyard football without helmets, plowed into one another on heavy sleds with metal runners, slept in houses loaded with asbestos and rode in cars with parents who were chain-smokers.

We didn’t have cellphones to help us find our way when we were lost and calculators to do our math homework and adults who arranged our play dates. We touched each other with dirty hands, rolled in mud, and went to the doctor only when we spiked a fever — if then.

And somehow we survived.

Whenever a screed like this shows up on social media, it attracts many like-minded responses, ringing attaboys from folks who feel that surviving childhood is a badge of pride that confers additional honors into adulthood. Several points are implicit in both the original and the follow-ups: 1. Tough childhoods create tougher, “better” adults; 2. Medicine and technology have hurt more than they’ve helped; and 3. It’s okay to lose a few kids, as long as they belong to somebody else.

Maybe the popularity of such posts is based on long-standing beliefs in American exceptionalism or a reactionary desire to return to supposedly simpler times. By this reckoning, today’s kids have it easy, and they are growing up to be milksops as a result.

At the heart of such reasoning is a germ of truth: Adversity in small doses does build resilience, and today’s helicopter parents may be doing their children more harm than good by inserting themselves into every facet of their children’s lives. Sometimes, it’s OK to be disappointed, get bruised, or find yourself on the outside looking in.

But these paeans to our long-lost youth discount the fact that too many kids in the past did not survive childhood. They were killed or crippled by horrible diseases, spirited away from communities that failed to recognize the dangers of mental illness and psychoses, or irrevocably scarred by bullying.

Some of the victims who were lucky enough to survive grew into well-adjusted adults, but too many others grew into people compromised by factors outside of their control. Ask them about their idyllic childhoods and the “grit” it engendered and see what response you get.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 90.2 percent of U.S. children aged 1 year survived to age 15 in 1900-1902, compared with 99.7 percent in 2007. To me, that’s a result of everything from medical advances (including strong vaccination programs) and safer toys to better parenting techniques, policing efforts and nutritional knowledge. You know, everything that those “when I was a kid” rants poke fun at.

Whatever advances keep kids safer and increase their odds of surviving — physically and mentally healthy — into adulthood are fine with me. If one consequence of such improved chances is a slightly wimpier kid — well, I can accept that. A living kid has all the time in the world to toughen up; a dead kid doesn’t.

Childhood today is much different than childhoods of the past, and I’m happy for it. Tweaking and improving is uniquely American, and such changes should extend to the formative years of our youngest citizens. Let’s hope that they all have a chance to grow up and grouse about the good old days of 2014, when life was a lot more hazardous than it is in whatever year they have children.

cschillig on Twitter

Books & Commentary & Movies 31 Oct 2014 11:21 pm

Ebola entertainments


It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few more hazmat suits and protective-gear costumes among trick-or-treaters this year, and that’s a positive sign.

Some people find it crass to parley the Ebola virus into Halloween dress-ups, but I’m not one of them. It’s uniquely American to spit in the eye of death, so a little gallows humor in reaction to wall-to-wall Ebola coverage is not only natural, but healthy. Truth be told, your odds of being struck by a bus — or even a comet — are better than your chances of contracting Ebola, which isn’t airborne (not yet, some pundits proclaim) and is barely even in the United States, so the only thing holding Americans back from an orgy of Ebola-themed costuming is that the fear isn’t real enough.

Meanwhile, Americans should also be checking out the post-apocrypha landscape in stories and cinema. Here’s my pick of the best disease-driven entertainment for your Halloween pleasure.

“The Stand” (1978) — Some readers may find the scariest part of this novel is its size. A brick at more than 1,100 pages, Stephen King goes all Book of Revelation in the second half as survivors of a worldwide plague must decide to join the forces of good or evil. But the first half is all about Captain Trips, a flu-like disease that wipes out most of the world’s population after woebegone military and health care officials fail to contain it.

“Contagion” (2011) — A great ensemble film by Steven Soderbergh looks at another end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (but I don’t feel fine) scenario involving a pandemic. Unlike King, Soderberg keeps the Devil at bay, but society’s flubs are scary enough. I watched this for the first time with my wife, who was nursing a wicked cold and sneezing constantly. It made the movie all the more unnerving.

“The Hot Zone” (1994) — Richard Preston made a name for himself with this nonfiction account of Ebola and several other deadly viruses. I read it on vacation in a copy that I’d bought secondhand; Preston’s description of how various virulences spread made me no longer want to touch the book or any public doorknobs, toilet seats, or restaurant tables. Creepy.

“I Am Legend” (1954) — Skip the so-so movie with Will Smith from a few years back and go straight to the source, Richard Matheson’s novella of the same name. Granted, the plague that’s being spread is vampirism, which isn’t exactly Ebola, but the results are the same: the crumbling of civilization. If you must see a filmed version, 1964’s “Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price is a winner, while 1971’s “Omega Man” adaptation is a hippie-dippie look at a funky future.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) — Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers” is the basis for this McCarthy-era tale of paranoia. Whom can you trust when aliens that look just like your family and friends come a-knockin’? Answer: Nobody. These aliens are as invisible as Ebola and 10 times as deadly.

“Fever Dream” (1959) — This short story by Ray Bradbury is the quintessential infectious-disease tale. A sick little boy feels that his body is being calcified from the inside out, but the doctor finds nothing wrong except a slight fever. First his legs, then his arms, then his head are subsumed, leaving behind something that only looks human. I often read this aloud to my students on Halloween because it’s so effective and affecting.

I’m sure I’ve left out some good stories about bad viruses, including tons of zombie books, movies and TV shows, so send suggestions via one of the methods below. In the meantime, wash your hands frequently, keep them away from your eyes and nose, stay home if you’re feverish, and happy Halloween.

cschilllig on Twitter

Commentary 23 Oct 2014 07:21 pm

Divine teaching

And it came to pass that Jesus called his disciples to him and began to teach.

He began, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs …”

“Excuse me, Lord,” said Mark. “Should we be writing this down?”

“Which standard or benchmark are you teaching?” asked John. “It’s best practice to provide a standard or a benchmark before beginning a lesson.”

Jesus ignored him and started again. “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be … Wait a minute. Matthew, are you on your cellphone?”

“Sorry, Lord. I had to text my dad. I forgot my fishing nets at home and need him to bring them to me.”

“Excuse me, Jesus,” said Judas. “That’s not what Matthew’s doing. He’s posting on Gracebook again. I can see it from here.”

Jesus sighed. “Judas, it’s not polite to tattle. And Matthew, didn’t I tell you yesterday to stay off Gracebook during class?”

“No, you told me not to play the David and Goliath app. You didn’t say anything about Gracebook.”

“But isn’t it reasonable to assume that I want you to avoid all distractions while I teach?”

“I don’t know, but you didn’t say Gracebook.”

Jesus grinned ruefully. “All apps, Matthew.”

“Yes, Lord.”

“And Matthew? Stop pulling Mary Magdalene’s hair.”

“Yes, Lord.”

“Now, where were we? Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit …”



“Can you go back to the previous Beatitude? I wasn’t done writing it down.”

“Certainly. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be …”

“Uh, Jesus?”

“Yes, Thomas.”

“When’s the test again?”

“I’m not sure there will be a test.”

“Then why am I writing this down?”

“Because it’s important. You need to know this.”

“But how can it be important without a test?”

Peter, who had been sleeping, woke up. “Test? There’s a test?”

Luke looked up from a parody of Noah’s Ark that he’d been reading in Mad magazine. “Will it be multiple choice, true and false, or essay? Please don’t make it essay. I still have nightmares about that Ten Commandments exam. Brrr.”

“No test,” Jesus said with finality. “Now, blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for …”

Just then the classroom door opened and a Pharisee entered. He carried a long scroll that detailed all the paperwork Jesus had yet to file, including pre- and post-assessment data, a demographic breakdown of pupil backgrounds and learning styles, student learning objectives, parent-teacher conference availability and a discipline slip for teaching in sandals.

Jesus looked at the list in dismay, and just as he raised his eyes to heaven to beg that this cup be taken from him, he noticed a journalist from The Jerusalem Times lurking near the window, ready to report on his low test scores and failure to close the achievement gap between Jews and Gentiles. It was all too much.

Jesus wept.

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & technology 10 Oct 2014 06:54 am

Pluto’s redemption

Word on the street — the cosmological street — is that Pluto is on its way back to full planetary status.

Some learned eggheads at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recently held a debate on the topic of “what a planet is.” Apparently they had already answered more burning questions, such as “what to do with a mate who squeezes toothpaste from the center of the tube” and “why some grown men like ‘My Little Pony.’”

These muckety mucks disagreed with the International Space Union, which voted eight years ago that Pluto wasn’t the largest body in its orbit and hence could not be a planet. The best Pluto could hope for, according to the ISU, was dwarf-planet status.

Harvard’s disagreement is couched in a game of semantics. A planet, sez Harvard, is “a culturally defined word that changes over time.” Basically, this means that people can call anything they want a planet as long as they can get other folks to agree with them. This is similar to the way I try to get my wife to call me “sire” in public because she can pretend it means whatever she wants (”jerk,” more than likely) and I can pretend it’s her acknowledgement of my inherent royalty.

Restoring Pluto’s planethood plays into the American myth of redemption. There Pluto was, orbiting the sun like its eight big brothers, lending its name to cartoon dogs and not bothering anybody, when wham! the ISU demotes it. It’s like the dedicated wage slave who gets sacked after 30 years of service so the boss can continue to live in his McMansion and vacation in Kauai.

Nobody asked the public’s opinion. We didn’t get to vote, and it didn’t even take a bunch of Republicans six months of legal maneuvering to change the hours at the polls. All it took was a few people with a whole bunch of letters at the end of their names to burst Pluto’s planetary bubble.

Then, out of nowhere, along comes Harvard in the bottom of the ninth with six yards to go to a first down, three strokes behind on the 18th hole, to make an incredible basket by waving its magic wand, sprinkling its pixie dust and saying, “Thou good and faithful servant, thou mayst be a planet once more.”

Instant redemption.

If Pluto were reinstituted as a planet, schoolkids would no longer need to pause awkwardly at Neptune when reciting the names of all bodies in our solar system, shuffling their feet and sticking fingers into their noses while some octogenarian screams, “What about Pluto, ya whippersnapper? Ya forgot Pluto!”

If Pluto were reinstituted as a planet, the family of Venetia Burney, who at age 11 in 1930 had the honor of suggesting the name for the newly discovered planet, could rest secure that her life’s major accomplishment was not in vain. She didn’t just name some floating rock in space — as she thought when she died in 2009 — but an actual, honest-to-goodness planet.

If Pluto were reinstituted as a planet, when the New Horizons probe passes by there in July, it won’t be sending back Kodaks of some cosmic piece of driftwood, but rather portraits of one of the solar system’s major players, suitable for framing. It’s the difference between taking selfies with your weird Uncle Jack, who collects belly-button lint and likes to touch his nose with his tongue, and having your picture taken with George Clooney or Beyonce.

Apparently, however, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as august a body as it may be (even if it met in mid-September), is not the final arbiter of Pluto’s fate. That decision rests with the ISU, which is maybe too busy to deal with the Pluto problem. Instead, I imagine it has its hands full stamping out controversy from another planetary faux pas.

To wit: Why is it that no matter how we pronounce “Uranus,” it always sounds dirty?

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & Family life & Writing 04 Oct 2014 03:41 pm

Strap yourselves in

I had the opportunity to speak to a writers’ group over the summer, and I hope I didn’t scare them away from the craft.

They were a wonderful audience, although hard-up for guest speakers if they had to invite me. My goal was simple: not to send any of them screaming into the street, breaking pencils and smashing keyboards and vowing never to write again.

They thought writing is great fun, an outlet for pent-up creativity. Most of the time, I feel that way too. But when ideas won’t come, writers without regular deadlines can step away for a day or so, no harm no foul.

Writers on deadline don’t have this luxury. Even when ideas aren’t there and words won’t come, fingers must keep pushing keys or pencils pressing paper. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of muscle memory, typing the same words over and over until something new squeezes out.

Somebody asked about writer’s block. I said I don’t believe in it. I subscribe to the William Zinsser theory. In his must-read book, “On Writing Well,” Zinsser treats writer’s block like a myth. Plumbers don’t suffer from plumber’s block, carpenters don’t have carpenter’s block. They just do the job.

I told the group that when I can’t come up with the words but know that a column is due, I mentally strap myself into a chair in front of a computer and tell myself that I won’t stand up again until I’ve completed a draft.

I’ve never had to literally strap myself into a chair, but the day may come. For now, I tell myself that I can get up and get a drink, eat a snack or use the bathroom only after I’ve written an allotted number of words. If that happens in 20 minutes, great. If it happens in three hours, not so great.

Is this fun? No. Is it productive? Most of the time. Good for my bladder? Assuredly not.

Procrastination in writing is like procrastination in most things, I suppose. When most of us face an unpleasant task, we find other things that must be done first. Need to make that tough call and eat crow over something you’ve said? Suddenly, Fibber McGee’s closet beckons, or the attic must be cleaned, or the sink screams for scouring.

I go through a whole series of maneuvers before I reach the writing “strap-in” point, which I call writing crow instead of eating it. Usually, I do tasks I hate even more, but ones that require little concentration. If I’m mowing or sweeping or, heaven forbid, waxing the car, I’m avoiding a particularly rough topic.

I used to fool myself when I did these things, saying that they really needed to be done. Now I’m honest: I’m ducking out on writing, I’ll say, but only until 10 a.m. Or noon. Or whatever time I select.

When I do start to write, though, I don’t get up until I’m done. Usually, the morning is my best time. But I’ll sit there all day long if I have to, trying not to fiddle too much on Facebook or Twitter and often failing. I’m only human.

One weird writing tick I possess is a reluctance to move on to a new sentence until the one before it is as good as it can be. This often means that when I’m done with a column, I’m really done, because I’ve pored over it dozens of times, one sentence at a time, until I reach the end. My first finished draft is often simultaneously my 31st draft.

While I tell my students that there is no wrong way to write, except not to do it, I also tell them that my method is one of the worst. It’s easy to work for hours and have only two or three paragraphs to show for your efforts. Two or three perfect paragraphs, but far from a finished piece.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t go back later — a day or two, at least — and revise. Revision is, for me, the part of writing that is true joy. I especially like to peel away excess words and rewrite sentences when the piece I’m revising is so old that I can barely remember writing it. That’s when I’m most honest, when I can effect the most changes. Sadly, I seldom sit on a piece that long.

So why am I telling you this today? Because I’ve been sitting here for hours already, and I really have to use the bathroom. And now I can.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Oct. 2, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

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