Commentary 08 May 2014 10:05 pm

The book thief

Would you confront a thief if you knew he had your smartphone?

An increasing number of people are, according to the New York Times. A woman in California recently tracked down her stolen device using the Find My iPhone app on her computer. It took her to a house in West Covina where she knocked on the door and demanded her property. The thief handed it over.

For the record, police say that playing amateur Inspector iGadget or Android Rambo is a stupid idea. You never know who or what could be waiting on the other side of a door, something you need to weigh against the value of a phone with data that is probably backed up in the cloud or on a laptop computer, anyway.

So I repeat: Would you confront a thief if you knew he had your smartphone?

I know my answer. N-O. At this point, your newspaper should get all wavy and blurry because we are going into a flashback, just like they do in all those old movies.


The year is 1982, and a friend and I are convinced that a senior boy — hell, he’s a man, with a lush, shag carpet of chest hair sprouting from beneath his shirt and a beard thicker than anything I can grow in my 40s — has stolen something from my friend. The something is a copy of “Lord Foul’s Bane,” a paperback fantasy by Stephen R. Donaldson that isn’t exactly worth the risk of having my tookus handed to me by a neanderthal.

For whatever reason, I decide to saunter over to his table at the library and confront him. I don’t know what I expect will happen. Maybe that he will break down under my steely gaze and grueling interrogation techniques and return the item, along with a blubbering promise to never, ever do anything like that again.

What really happens is far less dramatic. I stammer out something about how the book he’s reading looks an awful lot like the one that has just gone missing from my friend’s locker and that I wonder if it could maybe, excuse me for asking, be the same one. I should mention that he has the book open when I approach him and that he is on page one, much like somebody would be if they had just, you know, stolen the book out of a locker.

He raises his head about one-tenth of an inch, squints with his already beady eyes, and says: “No.”

And that’s all. No “sorry, but it’s mine,” no receipt of purchase pulled from the depths of his denim jacket (hey, it was 1982), no “have a nice day.” He doesn’t even stand up and overtly threaten me, demonstrating his hulking superiority over my 115-pound-dripping-wet physique. He just raises his head and pins me with his gaze, as if to say, “Go on, make my day” or “You have to ask yourself: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” or “E.T. phone home.” OK, maybe not that last one, but definitely the first two.

I slither back to the other side of the library on my belly and tell my friend it’s all a mistake. And I’m not kidding — Bambi confronting Godzilla is always a mistake.


The newsprint is coming back into focus now as we leave Teen Schillig in the 1982 library, in a world without smartphones that can be stolen and then tracked down by young college women who can somehow command their return better than he ever could. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip.

What we learn in school is often far different than what our parents and teachers hope. What I learned that day is to keep track of my stuff and to report to the police whenever anything is stolen. And if that doesn’t work, steal it back.

See, with the benefit of 33 years’ hindsight, what I should have done was point to the window behind the troglodyte and scream, “Look, a pterodactyl!” Then, when he turned to bludgeon it to death with his bare hands, I should have grabbed “Lord Foul’s Bane” and ran like the wind, Forrest.

I would recommend the same for anybody whose smartphone is stolen. Either that, or offer to trade the thief for a copy of “Lord Foul’s Bane.” I know where you can get one, cheap.

Commentary 02 May 2014 07:38 pm

Space in our brain

Last December, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about how much space politics should occupy in the mind of a good citizen.

Brooks’s answer is about a tenth. If your job isn’t intimately involved with the government or you’re not a political columnist, Brooks concluded, you’d be better off filling most of your brain with “philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture, and fun,” a balance he wishes was reflected on talk-show television, as well.

One of the columnist’s metaphors is a picnic. If the country were a picnic, he opines, the government would be in charge of background details: providing a park, keeping it clean and managing ways for people to get to it. But guests at a picnic don’t often comment on those things unless they’re lacking, such as unmown grass or out-of-order restrooms. Otherwise picnickers return home with memories of guests, games of frisbee, conversation and food.

I found myself in agreement with Brooks at the time. Despite the name of this column, Left of Center (which was always designed more to describe my goofy worldview than my politics) and a few areas where I am unrepentantly liberal (such as abortion rights, pay equity and education), I probably skew moderate in most respects.

For me, a federal government that governs least generally governs best. I’d rather see state and local officials effect changes than our friends in Washington, who often can’t see the forest for the trees. And like Brooks, I’d much rather fill my brain with literature, art and movies than with what he calls the “slow trudge” of government.

But as time passes, I’m finding it harder to reconcile Brooks’ conclusion about how much space in my brain to allot to government with the stark realities. Earlier this month, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to limit the amount of money that big donors funnel into elections, dubbing these sacks of money that armored trucks deliver to the doors of super-PACS a form of protected free speech.

Similarly, and perhaps not coincidentally, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Today, the 85 richest people in the world own about as much as the poorest half of the world’s population of 3.5 billion, according to OxFam.

It’s a situation that doesn’t much trouble Microsoft guru and philanthropist Bill Gates — and why should it? In a recent interview with Jeremy Paxman of BBC Newsnight, Gates denies that the gap is growing, citing lower child mortality rates and increased world literacy. Apparently, as long as people can live and read, it doesn’t matter if they have nothing to live for and nothing to read.

Closer to home, Republicans in Ohio have worked zealously to curtail access to voting by eliminating evening and Sunday hours at the polls, closing down the so-called “Golden Week” when people could both register and vote early on the same day, and making it illegal for anybody except Secretary of State Jon Husted to mail unsolicited provisional ballots. These changes hurt the poor, making it less likely their voices will be heard.

Meanwhile, the cost of escaping poverty through education has skyrocketed. According to the Pew Research Center, a college undergraduate degree increased in price by 33 percent from 2002 to 2012, even as student debt during that same period jumped from $56.5 billion to $117.9 billion.

And then we have the pervasive movement inside government to railroad public education, shuffling students and public dollars into private charter schools that do little more than fatten the coffers of wealthy entrepreneurs and companies like Pearson, which sells both tests and test-prep products. Every boost in difficulty for the former means more need for the latter; the company wins twice.

(And to be fair, much of this renewed emphasis on testing is because of President Obama’s horrific Race to the Top program, which is nothing more than No Child Left Behind — on crack. I may like Obama, but he has screwed up royally on education.)

Unlimited campaign contributions, growing inequality between rich and poor, unfair voting laws, and educational monkey business — nope, nothing to see here, folks, says David Brooks and any number of politicians on either side of the aisle, too many of whom have as their a primary goal the continuance of privilege for themselves and their big-money contributors.

It would be nice if politics could take up only 10 percent of our brain, but that’s a luxury — like a living wage, apparently — that most of us can no longer afford. After all, when somebody tells you not to worry and just keep enjoying the picnic, that’s when you really want to be on the lookout for ants.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published May 1, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 24 Apr 2014 09:18 pm

Now that’s a sharp hunger pain


A message to all husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends: Feed your significant other — or else.

The “or else,” in the case of a study performed recently at The Ohio State University, is your significant other stabbing pins into a voodoo doll that looks like you. Or he or she subjecting a video-game avatar of you to excruciatingly loud and annoying sounds, like nails on a chalkboard.

In a study performed by psychologist Brad Bushman at OSU, volunteers were more likely to stab voodoo dolls or torture video lookalikes of their partners when they were hungry. In a story on National Public Radio, Bushman blames these violent tendencies on low blood sugar.

We needed a study for this?

Anybody who lives with anybody else should be well aware that provoking a hungry partner is like poking a bear. And not Yogi Bear, Winnie the Pooh or Smokey the Bear, either.

(Yogi isn’t threatening because he wears a hat and tie, and Pooh has no hands, which limits the damage he can inflict. Smokey, however, always looked vaguely threatening, like he might whack you over the head with a shovel if he caught you playing with matches in the woods. But when he talks, he sounds like somebody’s grandpa, so that makes it all right.)

No, when I say “bear,” I imagine something really big and nasty, like the one that eats the goofy researcher in the movie “Grizzly Man” or the one that chases the little girl in Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.”

My wife can tell horror stories of my rotten attitude when I’m hungry. Stay out of my way if I don’t get breakfast. If I skip lunch, I’m generally OK, but if dinner is postponed by more than an hour or two, I’ll Hulk out.

Spouses are the opposite of gremlins. You can and should feed them after midnight — and any other times, too. Not doing so turns them evil.

The scary part of Bushman’s research is that he involved voodoo dolls in the mix. According to the NPR story, he sent every volunteer out of his lab with directions on how to measure their blood sugar, a miniature voodoo doll and 51 pins.

Why 51 and not 50? Is that extra pin the one with which volunteers delivered the coup de grâce to effigies of their poor, long-suffering partners? Is there a cosmic significance to 51?

Apparently, Bushman has never seen episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits” where some little fetish doll is always lying in wait for its unsuspecting victim. Sometimes, the prey is the person being stabbed, and sometimes it’s the person doing the stabbing. You never know which one until you hear Rod Serling’s booming baritone deliver a life lesson that applies only to people who attempt to murder their partners with straight pins and Barbie-doll knockoffs.

They say — they being the first 100 people in the phone book — that voodoo dolls are only as effective as a person’s belief in them. So if you believe a spouse can kill by gouging a miniature stuffed version of you, then you might behave in a way that’s reckless enough to cause your own demise, like walking in front of a steamroller or playing hopscotch over downed electrical wires.

So now this egghead is handing out little voodoo people to spouses and giving them 51 pins — 51! — to go a-stabbing. Is he insane? Promoting a belief in hoodoo or voodoo or doodoo?

All I know is that every time I get an annoying stitch in my side or in my leg from here on out, I’m going to check under my wife’s side of the bed for a mini-me all porcupined with needles.

I don’t expect to find a voodoo doll, of course. But just in case, I’ll be plying her with lavish steak dinners to keep the grumblings in her stomach at bay. No sense tempting fate, after all.

Thanks, OSU, for another wonderful application of science in my daily life. Maybe it’s time I started poking my Brutus mascot with a fork to see if I can influence a Michigan win.

Originally published April 24, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 17 Apr 2014 05:54 pm

Size-10 missile of protest

Hillary Clinton has become the latest politician to duck a flying shoe.

She follows in the … uh, footsteps of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and a few others in recent years who have displayed fancy footwork to dodge footwear hurled in anger. Clinton’s run-in occurred at a meeting of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Vegas last week when a woman took (bad) aim and fired an orange and black athletic shoe at the former secretary of state.

I have to admit, I don’t know why anybody would want to throw a shoe. I get that it’s considered an insult in some cultures, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to leave the scene of the crime with only one shoe, and likely in the back of a police cruiser, to boot. (Oh, the shoe jokes are easy today, boys and girls.)

I can’t speak for anybody other than myself, but I’ve never — not even when the boss won’t give me a raise or the wife demands I mow the yard — had a burning urge to chuck a shoe in anybody’s direction.

For one thing, I keep my laces tied so tightly that I’d first have to untie them, which would defuse much of my anger, or at the very least redirect it toward the double-knot at my ankles.

Secondly, I still remove my shoes like a 7-year-old, which means that I hop up and down on one leg while extracting the shoe from the opposite foot. I imagine I’d be such a spectacle, bobbing and weaving around a press conference, that security could easily apprehend me before I threw my first pitch. (Clinton’s attacker got around this by keeping an extra shoe in her purse. Not quite sure how she got it past security.)

Thirdly, my feet stink. If I threw a shoe in anybody’s direction, collateral damage would do more harm than the Size 10 projectile ever would. I would probably be charged not only with attempted assault, but with chemical warfare. The headlines alone — “Man Uses Shoe, Mustard Gas To Protest Fracking” and “Shoe-Assailant Rendered Unconscious By His Own Weapon” — would be mortifying.

And finally, shoes are expensive. Maybe Clinton’s would-be assailant found her shoe on sale or picked it up at Goodwill, but I would think protesters could find something less pricey with which to make a stand. Maybe Nerf footballs, those little green army soldiers, or birdies from a badminton set?

But if nothing I’ve said here discourages you from lobbing one or more shoes toward an elected official to protest the plight of the red-cockaded woodpecker or the outsourcing of American jobs (which is kind of ironic when you think of all those little Asian kids sewing themselves blind to make our footwear), here are a few tips:

1. When possible, throw only shoes secured with Velcro. This will make your point stick.

2. If you must throw laced shoes, tie both of them together and twirl over your head like a bola before letting loose. It also helps to scream something unintelligible in a foreign language to make yourself sound more like a ninja, even though bolas are Spanish and ninjas aren’t.

3. Have a spare pair of shoes to help you make a quick getaway or to serve as a plausible cover story if security can’t find you right away. Remember, the person with just one shoe is automatically suspect.

4. Try to be clever. Throw Crocs at politicians speaking at a slow-cooker convention. Throw stilettos during keynote speeches of the American Kennel Club or the American Medical Association. (”Heel!” or “Heal!” — get it?)

5. If protesting some liberal policy that violates your religious or capitalistic principles but brings equality to countless thousands of people (like same-sex marriage or a living wage), be sure to spell out “God have mercy on your S-O-U-L” so as to avoid confusion with the bottom of the object you are about to throw. Mixed messages are bad.

6. And, for the love of all that’s good in the world, use Odor Eaters. Unless you’re protesting poor working conditions at the Odor Eaters plant, in which case, throw baking soda, scream “Powder to the people!” and have a good attorney on speed dial.

Chris Schillig, who can be reached at or @cschillig on Twitter, doesn’t really advocate throwing shoes at anybody, least of all politicians. This disclaimer absolves him of any liability should readers do something stupid. Not that they would. But just in case.

Originally published April 17, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Movies 11 Apr 2014 08:38 pm

Shake it like a Paramount picture

I saw the new Captain America movie last weekend.

It’s big and loud and everything you’d want in a summer popcorn movie subtitled “The Winter Soldier” that comes out after winter and more than two months before summer. It’s subtle and thoughtful in places, but you’re always just a few minutes away from an explosion, if that sort of thing is important to you.

Twenty years ago, “Captain America” would have been the kind of movie that Marvel Comics fans could only dream of. Back then, DC had successful Superman and Batman franchises to crow about, but the best that Marvel fans could do was remember the ’70s “Incredible Hulk” TV show where Lou Ferrigno’s green body paint dripped whenever it came into contact with water and some old Spider-Man cartoons that used the same animation over and over.

So I feel like a curmudgeon for mentioning even one little flaw in the new Captain America film, especially because it’s a shortcoming in many other films as well: shaky-camera syndrome.

If you’ve been to the movies at any time since “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, you’ve likely come into contact with shaky-cam. Cinephiles know the technique as “subjective camera,” meant to replicate queasy, stomach-churning motion, all the better to invest a movie or sequence with a sense of reality.

“Blair Witch” uses it to good effect, although the media was filled with stories about people who claimed to become violently ill from watching jiggling footage of kids running around in the woods. Other memorable shaky-cam productions include “Cloverfield” (about a giant monster) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (a modern-day spy flick with Matt Damon).

The latter is what made me question shaky-cam. When a filmmaker uses the technique in something like “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield,” where one or more characters carry handheld cameras and the audience is supposed to be watching “found” footage, it works, albeit nauseatingly. It’s similar to the epistolary technique in literature, where an entire book is made up of one character’s letters or journal entries; or to the stream-of-consciousness technique in some modernist novels that purport to get deep inside a character’s head, usually at the expense of plot.

But when shaky-cam started to invade big-budget movies, I cried foul. Why wouldn’t audiences want to see clearly the meticulous action sequences and stunts in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or the expensive sets and costuming in the first “Hunger Games” film?

Instead of pulling me deeper into movies, shaky-cam now takes me right out. And the more that follow-the-bouncing-frame is overused — in sci-fi and horror and westerns and all over TV, especially in action and adventure shows — the more egregious it becomes.

Used (very) sparingly, shaky-cam still can be effective, but it’s seldom used sparingly. Instead, fans are subjected to entire sequences and sometimes whole films that look as though the camera operator had been attacked by a swarm of killer bees when the director yelled “Action!” and was intent on killing each and every one by swatting them with his lens.

In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” I had hoped to spot some Cleveland backgrounds here and there. Forget that. I was too busy figuring out who was hitting whom in one-second microclips and avoiding motion sickness.

Maybe movie tickets these days should come with complimentary Dramamine. Either that or directions on how to empty your popcorn on the floor and use the empty tub as a barf bag.

And with Spider-Man, the X-Men, Godzilla and many others waiting in the wings, we might need fewer reminders to silence our cellphones and more signs that say, “Fasten your seat belts.” It’s going to be a long, turbulent summer.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 10, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 03 Apr 2014 05:44 pm

Waiting is as American as apple pie

If this week were a baseball game, we could call it Obamacare: Extra Innings.

Anybody who works with the public knew that officials would have to extend the March 31 deadline to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. This has nothing to do with politics, mismanagement, sluggish websites or other controversies stemming from the troubled law. It has everything to do with human nature.

Put simply: We are a species of procrastinators.

Procrastination is why flash mobs descend on libraries and post offices on April 15 for income tax forms, even though they’ve had three and a half months to complete their returns. These aren’t people who are racing to mail their taxes, perhaps holding out on a payment to Uncle Sam until the last minute. No, these are poor souls who are only now starting the process, which includes gathering W-2s, bank statements, and all other documentation ahead of a long, sleepless night of crunching numbers and downing Excedrin and Jim Beam in equal quantities.

As a teacher, I know all about procrastination. No matter how long the lead time on an assignment, a good percentage of students will wait too long to start it, with many getting underway the night before or even the morning it’s due.

It doesn’t matter if homework has a three-month or three-hour lead time. Regardless, the majority of students will wait until the proverbial 11th hour to begin. Then when the deadline is compounded — as it inevitably is — by printer and Internet glitches, illness, or an overwhelming desire to watch every televised moment of March Madness, it’s time to break out the litany of lies.

Pinkeye, car troubles, golfball-sized hail, runaway pets, unexpected weddings and surprise tickets to see a Guns N’ Roses concert are all excuses that have been floated by procrastinating students, often with trembling voices and the glimmer of impending tears in their eyes.

I had an adult student several years ago who I would swear lost the same great-grandmother three times during one semester. It was the most amazing thing: She always succumbed the night before a major paper was due — once to cancer, once to a heart attack, and once to a bizarre four-wheeling accident.

OK, I made up that last demise while I was daydreaming during the student’s lengthy description of yet another slobbery, bedside farewell straight out of “Brian’s Song.” If I taught a fiction class, I would have failed him for the preponderance of cliches alone. Since I teach a class in nonfiction composition, however, I gave him one more day and one more chance. I’m pretty sure he was still writing the paper — which, it almost goes without saying, was horrible — as I walked through the door and greeted him at the start of the next class, five days later.

Such is the power of procrastination.

So, yes, many Americans are going to wait as long as humanly possible to visit and sign up. A click of a button gets them an extension with no excuse needed, so the Obama administration won’t have to hear 6 million variations on the dog-ate-my-homework story, one of the few smart moves they’ve made during this troubled rollout.

For those who really procrastinate, an extension of the extension exists, but only if they phone a federally sponsored call center and select from a narrow list of excuses. On the approved list are new baby, divorce, loss of job with health insurance and technical glitches. The Washington Post says that these excuses are approved through “self-attestation,” which means that the government assumes all callers are telling the truth. That’s a big assumption, but why not?

After all, it’s the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, and Uninsured American Procrastinators are down by three. Let’s hope the guy with the continually dying and miraculously reviving great-grandmother isn’t up to bat.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 3, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 27 Mar 2014 09:05 pm

Scoring points for sitting

Chances are good you will see somebody else’s name in this space within the next six years.

That’s because I’ll be dead before then, according to my horrible score on a sitting-and-standing test in the April issue of Reader’s Digest.

Granted, most Reader’s Digest readers will likely be dead in the next six years. The magazine’s demographics don’t exactly skew young.

But I’m talking about a specific article, “Can You Pass the Longevity Test?” by Becky Lane, reprinted from Discover magazine in November. The test involves going from a standing position to an Indian-style sitting position on the floor and then back again.

Not that the magazine ever uses the expression “Indian-style.” Part of the fun of reading the piece — maybe the only fun — is observing the verbal gymnastics the writer uses to not say “Indian style.” If it weren’t for the pictures, I’d never know exactly what I was supposed to do.

Digression: I get that “Indian” has fallen out of favor and that “Native American” is the preferred descriptor. I also understand that caricatured drawings of Native Americans, such as Cleveland’s much-criticized Chief Wahoo, are culturally insensitive and long overdue for retirement.

Still, I can’t imagine that “Indian style” is offensive, as it does not denigrate Native Americans but merely describes a sitting position, which is similarly non-offensive.

But what do I know? I’m going to be dead in six years, anyway.

End of digression.

So I spent about 15 minutes trying to go from standing to sitting position. The sitting part wasn’t too hard, although I went down on the floor so hard that I made the coffee table in the living room jiggle and probably broke my gluteus maximus. (I know I did some damage because now it has a crack.)

At this point, the dog became interested, came over and sat on me. I think he was offended that I had used the term “Indian style” to explain the exercise to my wife and was attempting to kill me. Don’t worry, buddy, I’ll be dead before 2020 and then you’ll have the floor to yourself.

Still, I managed this part of the exercise without losing even one of my allotted five points.

Next came standing up. The article says to add five more points to your sit-down score before attempting.

I rocked to the left and the right, my arms flailing like a squid. (Did I mention that you’re not supposed to use your arms for support? Well, you’re not.) Finally, I mustered the courage to push off with both crossed feet, which sent me pinwheeling backward, out of the living room and into the dining room, like a high-flying kite that suddenly experiences a strong downward shift in wind.

I caught myself with my left hand, but not before I thumped my already cracked gluteus and my head on the hardwood floor, feeling a lot like Wile E. Coyote after he’s just been painfully foiled in another fruitless Road Runner pursuit.

My wife, meanwhile, was laughing so hard that she almost aspirated on an animal cracker. Kids, don’t try this at home.

The end result is that I could stand only by using one hand on the floor and the other on my knee while pushing off with one leg. Each of these offenses equaled a one-point deduction, bringing my final score to seven. Anything less than an eight means I’m twice as likely to die in the next six years as those who scored better. It’s like the kid who’s one point off the qualifying ACT score to be admitted to his favorite college, but with a casket instead of a sheepskin for the prize.

All of which makes me wonder: Who sits around, Indian-style or otherwise, and makes up these goofy tests? Who is the first person who saw somebody sitting cross-legged on the floor and said, “Hey, I wonder how that correlates with life expectancy, and I wonder if somebody will give me a big, juicy grant to study it?”

I’m going to initiate a test of my own. I hypothesize that people who ignore goofy magazine tests that require them to flail about in their living rooms, be sat on by dogs, sustain concussions and give their wives the Heimlich maneuver will live longer than people who are dumb enough to take such tests.

Anybody want to give me a million dollars or two to find out?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published March 27, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media 20 Mar 2014 11:07 pm

Funny business with the president

About three and a half minutes into an interview with Zach Galifianakis, President Obama tips his hand and mentions “healthcare-dot-gov.”

“Here we go,” sighs Galifianakis. “Let’s get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?”

It’s not the way an interviewer should address the president, but this is no normal interview. Instead, it’s an example of something we see far too little of in politics and the media these days: humor.

The latest episode of Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns,” posted last week, features a spirited give-and-take between the comedian/actor and the leader of the free world. Its humor depends on how much the viewer likes Galifianakis and/or Obama.

I can take him or leave him. Galifianakis, that is. Apparently, a lot of people feel the same way about Obama, judging from his dismal 41 percent approval rating.

The interview is funny. The duo does indeed sit between the two titular ferns, verbally fencing over vital national issues, such as Obama’s basketball skills and whether he will build his presidential library in Hawaii or in what Galifianakis calls his “home country of Kenya.” (This last exchange likely had “birthers” foaming at the mouth — “At last, somebody asks the hard questions!”)

It also gives Obama a chance to sell the Affordable Care Act to those healthy young Americans on whose shoulders his law will prosper or wither. Some critics might see this as an indication of desperation — really, the president had to go on an Internet talk show, the digital equivalent of a community-access cable program, to plug his federal health care law?

But there’s a method in Obama’s madness. By Sunday, the segment had been viewed 17 million times, and a direct link to lurks right below the clip on the Funny or Die website. That’s a lot of eyeballs for a six-and-a-half-minute interview. If even a few of those viewers, many of whom might never sit still for a more serious presidential interview on “60 Minutes,” click over to the government site to learn more before the March 31 deadline, maybe it was worth sparring over diabetic shoes.

In a kinda-sorta-related pop-culture occurrence, comedians Keegan-Michael Lee and Jordan Peele, better known as Key & Peele, scored the front cover of this week’s Time magazine. The annual “Ideas Issue” finds the two men waxing almost eloquent on the topic of humor and the importance of making fun of everything.

“When a humorist makes the conscious decision to exclude a group from derision, isn’t he or she implying that the members of that group are not capable of self-reflection?” they write. “… A group that’s excluded never gets the opportunity to join in the greater human conversation.”

I’d like to think that includes U.S. presidents, who are roasted regularly on SNL and other late-night programs but who seldom have the chance to poke fun at themselves. Some people think such shenanigans demean the office of the president, but in a world where George Dubaya wore a codpiece on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 2003 or gave the German chancellor a creepy back massage in 2006, we doubt that a little ribbing about drones with Galifianakis will do any damage.

If the executive office — and the nation — survived 12 years with two Bushes, it certainly can withstand six minutes amid two ferns.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published March 21, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 13 Mar 2014 10:38 am

Memories of home remedies


Sometimes I’m amazed that I survived my childhood.

I didn’t grow up in the golden age of home remedies, but just slightly thereafter, perhaps in the slow sunset of that era. It was long before this current age, certainly, when running to the doctor for every hangnail and cough is the default setting for most parents. I bet I survived any number of horrible diseases — diphtheria, whooping cough and dengue fever among them — without anybody making formal diagnoses. This is probably true for anybody over the age of 35.

Back in the dark ages when Jimmy Carter was president and Elvis had morphed from a pelvis-rattling rebel into a fat, sad man in a sequined jumper, parents didn’t have access to WebMD, 24-hour hotlines and fancy phone apps to pinpoint a child’s illness the way smart bombs hone in on Middle Eastern targets today. Instead, they had to work with the tools at hand.

For my mother, these tools consisted of McNess Mentholated Ointment, an old sock and sticks of butter. Any sore throat or respiratory problem could be cured with a combination of these elements, and often with all three.

I don’t know if you can still buy McNess. My guess is that the government banned it around the same time as DDT, but Mom squirreled away a lifetime supply in the basement, next to the strychnine-laced rat traps. McNess came in circular, red-and-gold tins, one of which could last for approximately seven years, no matter how often it was used. The ointment was a thick, viscous yellow, like phlegm in an old man’s handkerchief.

As kids, my sister and I would go to ridiculous lengths to disguise a sore throat. I can remember practically turning blue at the dinner table to avoid coughing, for fear that the dry hack would be occasion for Mom to break open a tin of torture the way a boxer opens a can of whoopass on his weaker rival.

Sometimes, I’d pretend to whisper to hide impending laryngitis, or practice flexing my throat muscles to tamp down the urge to sneeze, or quickly dart my tongue up into my nostrils to wipe away the telltale drainage, lest sickness be discerned there.

Despite my best efforts, though, illness was always found out, in which case came the trifecta of terror. First, Mom would rub McNess all over my chest and throat, massaging it in with broad, firm strokes. Next, she would wrap an old sock around my neck, secured with a safety pin, the better to seal the salve, which announced itself through a pungent odor that sent the dog scurrying from the vicinity.

Then it was off to bed, even if it were 7 p.m., with the door closed, copious covers piled atop me and a vaporizer — Mom’s only concession to 20th century medicine — running at full blast. If I survived until morning, that meant school.

But school could only be faced with the help of the third item on the list, the aforementioned butter stick, melted into liquid on the stove and fed one spoonful at a time to the complaining victim. The objective, she said, was to coat the throat — a piece of rhyming doggerel that she no doubt learned from a voodoo medicine man who practiced near her childhood farm in Maximo — and prevent future coughing.

If I was lucky, I’d be given a few Smith Brothers cough drops to carry in my pocket to class, in case the all-night McNess treatment, respiratory-choking sock and butter didn’t do the trick. The goal was always to keep me healthy enough to face another day of elementary drudgery.

Smith Brothers, you may note, is not even considered medicine today. Instead, it is shelved with the candy. In other words, my entire war against pneumonia, strep throat, raging sinus infections and any number of other medical woes was fought with a variation of motor oil, a tube sock, a dairy product and some sugar-laced placebos.

Amazingly, I lived. More amazingly, I tried some of these remedies on my own child. But the first time I melted a stick of butter in the microwave and tried to feed it to my daughter, my wife threatened to call Child Protective Services.

Instead, we went to the doctor.

I suppose that was for the best. My childhood toughened me considerably, but it’s an entirely different century and millennium these days. Although part of me wishes I could enter “sore throat” and “hacking cough” into Google and see the words “McNess” and “white sock” pop up as treatments.

For one thing, it would be a heck of a lot cheaper.

Chris Schillig, who can be reached by email at and on Twitter at cschillig, actually had a very good

childhood, as long as he stayed healthy.

Originally published March 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & education 06 Mar 2014 05:46 pm

How politicians should talk about teachers*

Always use the word “disgruntled” or “bitter.”

Never talk about a teacher smiling, unless he or she has received an award, in which case you should note that the educator is exceptional and not typical of the profession.

Remind constituents that most teachers bolt for their cars at the end of the day. Don’t talk about the ones who show up long before sunrise or stay well after the final bell has rung.

Be sure to mention that teachers have three months off. Never say that they spend that time taking classes to make themselves better teachers and working a second — or third — job to make up the difference between their salaries and those of other professions requiring similar training.

It’s also best not to mention that the average teacher’s grading and lesson planning during the school year cancels out most of those three “vacation” months. Nobody wants to hear about that anyway.

In your speeches, be sure to talk about how most teachers are members of unions, and that unions exist solely to get more money for their members. Avoid any mention of how teachers’ unions fight for smaller class sizes to benefit children and for creative curriculums to combat the steady encroachment of standardized testing.

Similarly, remember that teaching is easy. Who couldn’t stand in front of a room five days a week, read aloud from a book, and hand out worksheets? What teachers in their right minds would spend time crafting a powerful lesson about human rights, or leading a class to discover the beauty of poetry, or working with students after school to master the intricacies of calculus?

Don’t hesitate to mention that technology has made teachers’ lives much easier: Calculating grades can be done with the push of a button. But the time teachers spend educating kids on how to use technology responsibly, or tracking down cyber bullies, or consoling students whose boyfriends or girlfriends have just broken up with them by text message … well, that just goes with the job.

Remember that teachers don’t work on snow days but instead hang around the house in their pajamas, playing on Facebook and watching movies at taxpayers’ expense. They certainly don’t spend any of that time reconfiguring lessons to ensure that learning targets are still met. Teachers might also be responsible for spreading water on roads in the middle of the night to ensure a day off, so of course it’s fair that they work extra in the summer to make up for any time they’ve missed.

Your list of typical educators should include teachers who spend most of the day in the lounge, eating free food from the cafeteria; teachers who belittle and embarrass students; and teachers who never, ever give a kid a break.

Absent from this list should be teachers who call home to check on students when they don’t show up to school; teachers who spend money out of their own pockets to buy lunch, clothing, and even Christmas and birthday gifts for students; and teachers who counsel and seek extra help for young people who write about cutting, killing or medicating themselves.

If you must reference teachers who have the nerve to say that socioeconomic factors impact student achievement, be sure to follow up with a quote from an expert — defined as somebody who graduated from any school in the last 70 years — who talks about how it’s a poor craftsman who blames the tools and how a superior teacher can, in just 45 minutes a day, overcome all barriers created by social and financial inequalities that have lasted for generations.

And never, ever, give credence to the belief that a student’s academic performance has anything to do with the emphasis his or her parents place on education. Because, remember, students won’t keep you in office. Parents will.

Biting the hand that votes is bad for business.

* This column owes its genesis and structure to Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2005 essay,”How to Write About Africa.” Google it.

@cschillig on Twitter

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