Commentary & Family life & Media 06 Feb 2014 08:56 pm

New way to say ‘I love you’


All language is metaphorical, and the language of love is no exception.

Red and pink, especially in February, make most of us think of love. Those two colors dominate Valentine’s Day cards, candy boxes and other items designed to separate us from our money. But why?

Red is the color of the heart, I suppose, and the heart is the organ most closely associated with love. Well, it’s the organ most closely associated with love that can be named in a family newspaper, anyway.

But red is also the color of blood, and blood isn’t all that romantic unless you have a vampire fetish. Which is far more common than you might think, if the Internet is to believed. (And who doesn’t believe the Internet?)

But, Chris, you say, red is also the color of roses, and what is more romantic — or expensive — than a dozen of those crimson beauties, their petals open like an inviting pair of ruby lips?

This brings me to my point. Well, to one of my points, anyway. What is so inherently romantic about a rose? Who was it who decided that this particular flower was joined so intimately with our belief in love?

Scottish poet Robert Burns — “Bobby” to his friends — famously wrote, “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June,” but the rose/love connection goes back much farther than the 18th century. It stretches all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who equated the flower with the goddess of love.

But roses have thorns, and thorns cut and scratch and poke. Roses also die. Now, depending on your significant other, maybe your love cuts and scratches and pokes, too. And if your relationships aren’t all that stable (or if they cut and scratch and poke too much), some of them likely die. Not literally, of course, unless you’re a graduate of the Hannibal Lecter School of Lovemaking.

Still, a beautiful, sharp object with a limited shelf life doesn’t sound all that romantic to me, so I’m introducing a new metaphor for love.

From now on, my love is like a mossy rock.

Think about it. A rock is strong and stable. Rocks are found in all climates and cultures; so, like love, they’re universal.

Moss is a living thing, far more hardy than a rose, so it better represents a stable relationship. It is green, representing life. Moss also grows on a rock, the way two partners grow on one another. After all, the nail biting or nose picking that seems so weird in the early days of a relationship becomes rather endearing in later years.

So this year, I’m bypassing the expensive roses and candies and cards to give my wife a gift straight from the heart — a new metaphor for love created especially for her. That’s right, she’s getting a mossy rock.

If you want to beat my time and give a similar gift, borrowing my explanation the way Christian stole the words of Cyrano de Bergerac to woo the beautiful Roxane, go ahead. You’d be smart to do it this year, though. By next Valentine’s Day, I expect the cost of rocks and moss to triple because of the demand. I’m nothing if not a believer in capitalism.

However, in these early days of the rose/rock transition, don’t be surprised if your special someone is less than thrilled to receive a stone in lieu of flowers. It took millennia for the rose to win its place in our hearts, so I expect it might take, oh, two or three years for my more-fitting metaphor to replace it.

In the meantime, though, expect that your love might take your gift of a rock for granite … er, granted.

Ouch. Love hurts.

cschillig on Twitter

Commentary & Media & Television 30 Jan 2014 11:39 pm

Stop the world — it’s football


Based on the media explosion last Thursday, I knew one of two things had happened: either the world ended or the Browns hired a new head coach.

Thankfully for the world — and for ratings of Cleveland-area TV stations — it was the latter. The only reason I checked the newsbreak at all was to see if Browns management had decided to hire my wife.

A few days before, she’d thrown her hat into the ring by announcing she could probably be as effective a head coach for the franchise as anybody else. I don’t know if that’s technically true, but it feels right.

This is the point at which I have to admit how woefully ignorant I am of all aspects of football. I don’t know how many players belong on the field, the names of positions beyond quarterback, or any rules for scoring.

About all I comprehend is that it’s a game where people behave counter to their instincts. In the real world, when big, burly men descend upon you with an intent to tackle, hurt and maim, you sprint the other way. In football, you run toward the danger.

I played football once at recess when I was around 10. Somebody threw me the ball, yelled “Run!” and I did — in the opposite direction. I was never asked to play again.

I’ve probably watched fewer than a dozen games of professional football in my life, and those only when I am sandwiched between well-meaning relatives on musty basement sofas who assume, as many people do, that everybody born with a Y chromosome must automatically love the sport.

Even the Super Bowl I watch with only one eye, and not because I lost the other one in a horrifying childhood Three Stooges imitation, either. I basically don’t care, halftime wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding. Is watching the Super Bowl for the commercials the same as reading Playboy for the articles?

These days, my indifference toward the sport is augmented by the squeamish knowledge of how repeated head trauma affects many players later in life. Where are the millions of screaming fans when a former player struggles to remember his grandchildren’s names, is led to the bathroom by a devoted spouse, or dies decades too early? Even passionate football fans may feel a little like Romans, cheering while Christians are fed to lions.

Incidentally, I don’t begrudge anybody a hobby or a passion. I have enough of them myself. But I don’t automatically assume that others share it. I’ve never forced somebody to read a Batman comic book and then rolled my eyes and questioned their sanity when they didn’t like it. But something similar to that happens whenever I admit I don’t follow football.

That said, I have no idea who the former Browns coach was or who the new coach is. I saw some soundbites of the newbie saying all the usual things: So glad to be part of this tradition … building on what’s come before … looking forward to the season … yadda yadda yadda.

He sounds like a nice guy. I imagine he’s slightly more qualified than my wife, at least on paper. Still, she has some innovative ideas, like modifying the uniforms to orange, brown and pink; using the eeny, meeny, miny, moe method to decide who plays what position; and changing Super Bowl rings for each team member (the woman aims high) to Pandora charms.

I don’t know, frankly, if the new guy can measure up to such out-of-the-box thinking. The good news is that she’ll have another chance next year, when odds are that management will lower the axe again and a new round of interviews will begin.

Maybe by then, fans will be ready for players in fuschia helmets. If that happens, we’ll know the world really has ended.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 30, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Television 24 Jan 2014 09:36 am

Forgotten figures of pop


Did you know there was once a fourth Rice Krispies elf?

His name was Pow! (exclamation point mandatory) and he joined Snap! Crackle! and Pop! for two television commercials in the 1950s. In a recent article for, a Kellogg’s spokesman explains to writer K. Annabelle Smith that Pow! was never intended to be an ongoing character, but rather a guest-elf of sorts.

This minor deity in the animated pitchmen pantheon got me thinking about other erased or marginal characters in long-running concerns, whether they were TV shows or comic books or commercials.

Does anybody remember:

Castor Oyl — brother to Olive, the string-beaned girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. When most of us think of Popeye, we imagine the classic cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s. But Popeye made his first appearance in the “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929, after the strip had been in existence for 10 years with Castor as the main character.

These days, Castor is a pop-culture relic, although he did have a role in the “Popeye” movie starring Robin Williams and, more recently, appeared in new Popeye comic book adventures. Yet I doubt most people could identify him today. (Visit my blog, for a visual.)

John Doggett and Monica Reyes — These two characters replaced FBI special agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on seasons eight and nine of “The X-Files,” also known as “X-Files: The Seasons Nobody Talks About.” Played by Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish, respectively, Doggett and Reyes faded into obscurity when Duchovny and Anderson returned for the series’ swan song and two successful films. Patrick’s biggest claim to cinematic fame remains his portrayal of the T-1000 Terminator that bedeviled Ah-nold in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

Mycroft Holmes — the older, smarter, fatter and lazier brother of Sherlock Holmes. Writer Arthur Conan Doyle used or mentioned him only a handful of times in four novels and 56 short stories about the famous detective. He is said to exert great influence over decisions of state, but otherwise just sits around the Diogenes Club, smoking and eating. There are worse ways to live, I suppose.

Chuck Cunningham — Ritchie’s older brother on “Happy Days.” At some point in the second season, he was written out of the series, never to return, and the Cunninghams went from having three kids to only two. His disappearance has even inspired a term, “Chuck Cunningham Syndrome,” used for any characters unceremoniously erased from continuity.

Uncle O’Grimacey — In the world of McDonald’s advertising, O’Grimacey is the uncle of Grimace, the purple, milkshake-loving companion of Ronald. Unlike his nephew, O’Grimacey is green, befitting his role as head huckster for Shamrock Shakes. He last appeared in the mid-1980s and has presumably retired to a small cottage in Ireland.

An Internet search for “McDonald’s characters” will reveal dozens of oddities, such as the Griddler, Iam Hungry and CosMc, an alien who spoke in surfer lingo. I believe all the McDonald’s characters, with the exception of the head clown, have been quietly phased out, relics of a more innocent time when it was acceptable to use cartoon characters to coax children to eat fattening, processed foods.

Word has it the McDonaldland gang rode off into the sunset on the back of Joe Camel, guided by the Budweiser frogs.

Let’s hope they all say hello to Pop!, Chuck, Castor and all the other retirees in the Forgotten Hallows Retirement Center out in Obscuria, Oregon.

Send any other obscure

pop-culture characters to or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Jan. 23, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 17 Jan 2014 01:12 am

Empathy among the rich

Today’s word, class, is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand the needs and feelings of other people, to “get” where they’re “coming from,” even when we don’t necessarily share their situation or background.

In 1959, writer John Howard Griffin, who was white, posed as a person of color and traveled through the racially segregated south. His experiences formed the basis for a book, “Black Like Me.” The experiment built empathy.

In the late ’90s, columnist and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich attempted to live off money earned in a series of minimum-wage jobs as, among other things, a waitress and sales clerk. Her failure is obvious in the title of her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” Empathy-building, again.

This idea of empathy has been rattling around in my mind since I heard a snippet on National Public Radio recently: that more than half the members of Congress are, for the first time, worth more than $1 million.

The median net worth of Congress — in other words, with as many lawmakers above this figure as below — is $1,008,767, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

I contrast this with a statistic from last September, when the New York Times reported that a typical American family — family, mind you — “in the middle of the income distribution” had a net worth of $66,000.

Of course, when we look at the extremes of impoverished families, the disparities between what can only be described as lavish Congressional lifestyles and the experiences of millions of Americans are even greater. It’s not a gap, it’s a chasm. Meaning it’s fair to ask: Where is the empathy?

Can lawmakers who saw an 11.6 percent increase in their median net worth from 2011 to 2012 sympathize with the plight of a young widow who must shuffle children from after-school programs to relatives in order to work two jobs just to pay the rent? Do they understand the monumental debt a 20-year-old incurs to attend a state college? Have they ever lived paycheck to paycheck, as too many Americans do, and tossed a coin to decide whether to pay the utilities or put gas in the car?

The short answer is yes, some of them can. One need not experience a situation directly to empathize with it.

Lawmakers do not have to live on the street to understand homelessness, nor must they work minimum-wage jobs to see how hard it is to make ends meet. Although if any did, they might find their priorities radically shifting.

I’m not disputing that some members of Congress come from hardscrabble pasts and may have paid their way through school by waiting tables or taken public transportation once upon a time. But with the exception of a few whose bad investments give them a negative net worth, Congress as a whole is beyond the stage in life where members are worried about their next meal or where they’re going to sleep tonight.

(I doubt those few members in a financial pickle are poor the way the average American defines “poverty.” As a comedian once pointed out, there’s O.J. Simpson poor and then there’s M.C. Hammer poor. A few Congress members may be the former, but they’re definitely not the latter.)

What the Congressional factoid underscores is something Americans have known for a long time: We are a nation governed by elected officials who are economically well off, a privileged elitism that binds Democrats and Republicans more closely than their differences divide them. Getting elected and re-elected takes money, and who is better at raising money and knowing people who know how to raise money than people who already have money?

Regardless of how lawmakers wound up as members of the elite 1 percent club, one thing is for certain: They certainly have done little in office to justify their taxpayer-funded paychecks. The 113th Congress, after all, is widely mocked as the least effective in the nation’s history, having passed a paltry 65 laws. Gridlock can account for much of that inactivity (the flesh was willing, but the spirit was weak — to invert the adage), but not all of it. These are people who just don’t play well with others.

Maybe they were all too busy watching their investments and banking their money to attend to the job at hand. Based on this end-of-year financial check-up, it’s a strategy that paid off — for them.

cschillig on Twitter

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

Family life & technology 09 Jan 2014 08:10 pm

Paging the computer doctor

My in-laws had a tech-heavy Christmas, which spells D-O-O-M for me in the new year.

My mother-in-law got a laptop, my father-in-law got an iPhone, and I got a migraine. A standard policy in the family is the one who bought it services it, but like Obamacare, implementation of the policy has been somewhat suspect.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m on the hook for every installation, software and hardware question, like the Geek Squad minus the black-and-white Volkswagen bug.

Now anybody who knows me will testify that I am a sad excuse for tech support. I like my little toys, but I’m also very happy to let others work out the kinks and then show me how to use them.

Any tech savvy I have comes from Googling every question, no matter how inane. “How do you take a photo of your desktop?” Google it. “What’s the best way to merge two email accounts?” Google it. “I dropped my phone in the toilet. What do I do now?” Google it. If the Web is the world’s instruction manual, Google is the index, and I thumb through it often.

But back to my in-laws. To make their new laptop worthwhile, they needed wireless Internet, and that calls for a router.

Despite the fact that I’ve been leasing the same router from my cable company since George W. was in office and have therefore paid more than $1,000 for a device that costs $40 at the corner Radio Shack (something my wife never fails to remind me each time she opens the cable bill), I was assigned to buy the hardware.

This was surprisingly easy, as was the installation. (I might do it at my own home in the next decade or two.) I plugged the router into my in-laws’ modem and voila! instant wireless service.

Just as I was thinking this whole task would take less than five minutes and that I would soon be lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling and thinking deep thoughts, I hit a significant snag with my mother-in-law. Our conversation went like this:

Me: What’s the password to your new laptop?

Mo-in-Law: I don’t know. Is it the same as my email password?

Me: I don’t know. What’s your email password?

Mo-in-Law: I don’t know. It comes up automatically when I log onto my old computer.

Me: Did you write it down anywhere?

Mo-in-Law: Hold on.

She produces a notebook filled with approximately 3,000 words and numbers, some underlined and others circled.

Me: Great. Which one?

Mo-in-Law: I don’t know. Try this one.

Me: (typing) Doesn’t work.

Mo-in-Law: Then try that one.

Reread previous two sentences approximately 3,000 times.

Me: None of these work.

Mo-in-Law: Oh, then try this.

She launches into a recitation of numbers and letters involving her birthday, mother’s maiden name, cups of flour in her favorite cake recipe and approximate hectares of land owned by British royalty. I type each into the box on her computer screen. Meanwhile, in the real world, more than 200 animals go extinct, 6.73 million passengers ride the Moscow Metro and Hershey’s makes another 60 million Kisses. No success.

Ultimately, I resort to Google, giving away my ancient Chinese secret for tech gurudom right in front of her.

The answer is ugly: Restore the entire system, which wipes out all files the user has amassed over the life of the machine.

In my mother-in-law’s case, this is approximately two hours’ worth of Facebook postings of teddy bears and kittens. Not exactly a Shakespearean tragedy, but the reboot takes over an hour, during which time I am not lying on the couch, staring at the ceiling and thinking deep thoughts.

From here on, all passwords are stored in a secret location on my phone, accessible at any hour of day or night whenever The Call comes.

It is then I realize a key difference between the Geek Squad and me: Geek Squad support has a finite lifespan, but my contract is indefinite, entered into with “I do” and terminating only when “death do us part.”

I ask Google for advice. The top response: “Marry an orphan.”

Thanks for nothing, Google.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 9, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 03 Jan 2014 07:46 pm

Resolutions, meat and virtue

At the dawn of 2014, some thoughts about resolutions.


A teacher almost always learns more from his students than students learn from him.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I had students write about and discuss New Year’s resolutions. Amid good comments about the dubious wisdom of waiting for a new year to make significant life changes and the symbolic boost one receives from a fresh flip of the calendar came a truly terrific suggestion.

Lori, a freshman, said she doesn’t make resolutions. Instead, she keeps a decorated box of affirmations. Every day or so, she writes down her successes, compliments she has received and nice things that people have done for her. Then, at the end of the year — or whenever she needs a boost — she opens the box and reads the comments.

What a cool idea. I can’t see myself decorating a box for the purpose, but I can — and will — create a computer file where I will duplicate Lori’s idea. That way, on those occasions when I feel that I’m not making any headway or “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul” (to quote Herman Melville), I can open it and see comments that prove otherwise.


Last year, I announced in this space that I was becoming a vegetarian. I kept my resolution for an entire year, but barring an 11th-hour change of heart, I will have returned to meat by way of a juicy pork roast at 12:01 a.m. on New Year’s Day.

My decision to eschew — as opposed to “chew” — meat was largely environmental. In November 2012, I wrote, “According to the EPA, a single dairy cow drops 120 pounds of wet manure daily, which equals the waste produced by 20-40 people. When managed properly, animal manure can produce electricity and ethanol, but when it’s not, it pollutes our water supply.”

I’m still concerned about how society’s reliance on meat affects the environment (to say nothing of conditions under which many animals are raised), so my return to omnivorism will be limited to only a few times a week, as opposed to every meal.

Several factors drove my decision. First, my wife, who started this lifestyle change with me, abandoned it in August, lured away by the siren call of sirloin burgers at Carnation Days in the Park. Since then, our meals have been somewhat schizophrenic — expensive, challenging to prepare and time-consuming.

Secondly, I became a “junk-food” vegetarian, relying too much on prepackaged products and bread — lots and lots of bread. As a consequence, I gained 15 pounds, which affects my running and my general health.

So it’s back to judiciously selected cuts of meat and a more regular exercise regime. A tip of the old skillet to those lifetime vegetarians for a diet that I cannot currently continue.


Finally, I’m taking inspiration this holiday from Ben Franklin and his plan to arrive at perfection.

In his autobiography, the so-called “wisest American” explained his method for moral improvement. First, he identified 13 virtues — temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility. Next, he determined to focus each week on a different virtue, marking in a notebook the times he had failed to, say, “Eat not to Dulness” and “Drink not to Elevation” (his definition of “temperance”).

The following week he would move on to “silence,” and the week after to “order,” so that he “could go thro’ a Course compleat in Thirteen Weeks, and four Courses in a Year,” and thereby improve himself immensely.

While I admire Ben’s industry (number 6 on his list), I don’t have his resolution (number 4). Instead, I’m going to focus on silence. According to Franklin, it requires one to “speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.” Whenever I successfully bite my tongue, I can make a note in my affirmation file.

Of course, I exempt myself from this silence every Thursday, so come back next week when I endeavor to keep my foot out of mouth but still make some sort of point, usually about somebody or something that annoys me.

Happy New Year’s.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Jan. 2, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Media & Television 28 Dec 2013 12:36 am

Quacking duck

It’s slightly out of date after today’s reinstatement of Phil Robertson, but here’s my column for the week.

So, a big, furry guy from “Duck Dynasty” made some controversial comments and got himself suspended from his TV show, and now people are taking sides.


I have never seen an episode of “Duck Dynasty.” Until about a month ago, I had no idea it was even a live-action TV show. When people talked about it, I assumed they were referring to a Disney cartoon with Uncle Scrooge, Donald and his three nephews.

My consciousness was raised (or lowered) one day when I was walking through Walmart and saw the bearded Ducks, all of whom look like refugees from a Grateful Dead concert, staring out at me from a rack of T-shirts.

Further enlightenment came when one of my adult students showed me a copy of the “Duck Dynasty” Christmas CD. I haven’t heard it, but I imagine it’s on par with the offerings of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both of whom traded on their success in a television franchise of an earlier decade to record albums that range from pedestrian to horrific.

All of which means that I wasn’t really too impacted one way or another when Phil Robertson (I had to look up his name), the leader of the Duck flock, expressed his disapproval of homosexuality and his belief that blacks were happy in the Jim Crow south. Nor was I too surprised when A&E, the network that airs the show, suspended him indefinitely. Now his family is saying the show can’t go on without him, which means that a program I’ve never watched, starring people that I don’t care one whit about, may end.

I repeat: Yawn.

Some people are saying that Robertson’s freedom of speech has been impinged, which is, of course, hogwash. He wasn’t censored by the government. Nobody told him he couldn’t speak his mind. His network merely chose not to associate itself with his opinions and severed the relationship, either temporarily or permanently. Freedom of speech does not equate with freedom from consequences.

The cynic in me wonders if this whole incident isn’t playing out in a predetermined way to benefit both A&E and Robertson. After all, you couldn’t buy the publicity both sides received over the last week or so. Given the manipulative formula of reality TV, where episodes are edited to magnify conflict and create heroes and villains, is it such a stretch to ponder how much of this “controversy” is scripted?

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robertson apologizes, not for his comments (which appeal to a conservative demographic and are, therefore, valuable) but for the strident and blunt way he presented them; and then if A&E reinstates him, along with some tepid mea culpa of its own. When the show returns, even more viewers will tune in to see what Robertson says next. If it’s a ploy, it’s a brilliant one.

(I’m writing this on Saturday, so if all this comes to pass before my column sees print, I’m quitting my day job and going to work for the Psychic Hotline.)

Really, though, why do so many Americans care so much what celebrities think? Just because somebody’s job involves having a camera pointed at them for a significant amount of time each week doesn’t make his opinions more informed and important than the nation’s working class stiffs.

What Robertson has to say about gays, blacks and religion is merely one person’s opinion. He’s entitled to it, of course, just as others are entitled to share their views. It’s a free country, after all.

Now when Donald Duck or Scrooge McDuck speak up about gay rights or racial equality, I’ll pay more attention. That’s the only duck dynasty that interests me.

Originally published Dec. 26, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Family life 19 Dec 2013 09:35 pm

No offense from any holiday greeting

Friends who know I am not religious will sometimes ask if I’m offended by the term “Merry Christmas.”

That’s ridiculous. It’s not ridiculous that they ask, mind you, but that anybody would take offense to an expression — any expression — that wishes happiness to another.

This War Against Christmas that certain segments of the media (Fox News, I’m talking to you) accuse liberals of waging is really just a political version of the TV weather scam.

You know what I’m talking about: Television executives have realized that talking up the weather is great for ratings, which means that every flurry and icy patch merits its own scrolling alert along the bottom of our screens, accompanied by an announcement to stay tuned for school closings.

In the old days, when we determined weather by sticking our heads out the window and looking up, we didn’t need constant warnings to be cautious and that road conditions could change at any time. We just figured it out.

The same thing with “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.” Somewhere, some broadcasters and politicians recognized that talking about taking Christ out of Christmas — and secular society’s decision to wish “Season’s Greetings” to honor the diversity of beliefs among constituents — was good for ratings, and that people would stay tuned for long, circuitous arguments and/or rants about the topic. Some of us will even vote for particular candidates if they espouse a strong enough view of America as a Christian nation around the holidays, despite whatever shenanigans they are up to the rest of the year.

But in the old days, we could hear “Merry Christmas,” “Season’s Greetings,” “Happy Holidays,” “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” and recognize it was merely a speaker’s way of sharing his or her own joy, not a personal attack. We didn’t need any conservatives or liberals to translate for us, and we didn’t need to bristle and announce ourselves as Christians or Jews or atheists or space aliens or whatever. We just smiled and said, “Thanks, same to you.”

There, isn’t that easy?

On a related note, people sometimes ask me why I bother to celebrate Christmas at all, as I am not a believer in the “reason for the season.” This is also a fair question.

The bottom line is that much of what passes for Christmas these days is not, in point of fact, religious. Even fixing Jesus’ birthday as Dec. 25 has more to do with early Christianity’s attempts to attach itself to a pagan celebration of the sun than to any historical record. Our modern mythology of Santa, Rudolph, elves, talking snowmen and the like demonstrates that religious and non-religious elements of the holiday have made an uneasy peace, mixing and mingling over the years like ingredients in a pot of stew. (The most repulsive example of this cross-pollination are those painted images of Santa kneeling before the manger.)

I wonder how so many people square their bloated consumer Christmas (complete with running over their fellow men with shopping carts to get to a big deal) with recent comments from Pope Francis warning against excessive capitalism. Shopping until we drop doesn’t seem particularly spiritual to me, but what does an old pagan know?

Our reasons to celebrate are multi-faceted then. Some see Christmas as a monument to the birth of a person who came to redeem humanity, some as a gift-grab, others as an excuse to hum “Frosty the Snowman” under their breath, and still others as a season to brighten an otherwise dark and dreary time of year. That last is my “reason for the season,” along with being happy for my friends and family who find a deeper reason. While some may decry my choices as sad and superficial, they suffice for me.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t take offense to Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings or even Happy Festivus (for the rest of us). Anytime somebody reaches beyond themselves to extend sincere wishes, that’s cause for happiness in my book.

So whatever you celebrate, enjoy.

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published Dec. 19, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary 13 Dec 2013 02:46 pm

If you’re happy and they know it …

As if we don’t have enough to worry about, one advisory group would like government officials to start tracking how happy we are.

Last week, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the feds, recommended adding a happiness indicator to surveys about spending, health and housing, according to an Associated Press report. Questions could include how often citizens smile, laugh and hurt, say group members.

I don’t know about you, but I find that trés creepy.

Not that I don’t care about happiness or hope that government officials care about it too. I just don’t like the government sniffing around for more information about my private life. Officials already have my height and weight (courtesy of slightly falsified information on my driver’s license), address, annual income, employers, and — as we all learned last year through the leaking of various NSA domestic surveillance programs — access to my phone records and probably my email and Internet searches.

Now a panel wants them to track how often I smirk on any given day?

According to the NAS, information about inflation and unemployment are not, by themselves, enough to accurately tabulate the monthly misery index, something the government has been tracking for decades.

The misery index hit its all-time high in June 1980, when it was 21.98, and its all-time low in July 1953, when it was 2.97. In October, our general level of miserableness was 8.26, down from last year’s high of 9.68 in February, which was probably when credit card bills came due for all the junk we charged for Christmas.

The NAS panel argues that gauging happiness is more complex than merely adding unemployment and inflation. One panelist quoted in the AP story noted that money isn’t the ultimate arbiter of happiness, even though not having an income or having too-small an income almost always leads to misery.

Researcher Daniel Pink — whose book, “Drive,” is highly recommended — finds a correlation between wages and motivation. Pay workers enough money to live comfortably and they will produce their best work; pay them too little — or, shockingly, too much — and they will be less motivated.

The same seems to hold true for happiness. People below a certain income threshold are almost universally unhappy. When they’re paid well enough that daily survival is no longer a concern and they can build a nest egg, they are at their happiest. When they climb to the highest echelons of income, happiness tends to level out and even decrease. (I’d be willing to experiment with this if anybody wants to double or triple my salary.)

I can see modified happiness or misery quotients misused by unscrupulous politicians and business executives. “See, we’re willing to sacrifice our happiness with these astronomical salaries, McMansions, and trophy wives (or husbands) so that you don’t have to,” they could tell the proletariat. “We keep your wages modest so that you can be at your happiest. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Because we’d hate to risk the joy of all those beaming fast-food workers who demonstrated earlier this month in favor of a living wage, or the thousands of Walmart workers who smile all the way to the welfare line.

For what it’s worth, I trust updates about my happiness and unhappiness to friends and family and not to government officials. If that makes them unhappy, they can report it on their own surveys.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Dec. 12, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Television 05 Dec 2013 10:06 pm

Will the Circle be unbroken?


If George Orwell had written “1984″ in the age of social media, it might look a lot like Dave Eggers’s “The Circle.”

Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece imagines a world where the government strips away citizens’ most basic rights, including the right to privacy. Life in Oceania is presided over by Big Brother and the Party, who rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth and punish the innocent along with the guilty in the Ministry of Love. Opinions that run counter to the official party line are labeled “thoughtcrime,” the worst sin committed against the government.

Orwell used his fertile and far-ranging imagination to good effect in “1984,” satirizing the tendency of power-mad bureaucrats to seize and hold office by any means necessary, including the modification of language. Newspeak, the language of the English Socialist Party in the novel, is a diabolical marvel, its creation predating such euphemisms as “economically distressed” to describe the poor, “downsizing” for firing, and “collateral damage” for civilian deaths in military operations.

Yet not even Orwell could imagine a society where citizens would give up their rights to privacy as we do so freely and regularly in the 21st century. That’s where Eggers and “The Circle” come in.

In this novel, the Circle is a Google-like monstrosity of a search-engine company that begins to make its presence felt in other aspects of society. Its California campus is a model of efficiency and modernity, with employees urged to stay after work to participate in “optional” enrichment activities, all of which are shared via social networking with the great unwashed beyond its walls.

The book’s protagonist is Mae Holland, a modern stand-in for Winston Smith of “1984″ fame. Unlike Winston, who hates his job in the Ministry of Truth, Mae is overjoyed to work at the Circle, where her job is to provide mostly prescripted answers to customer questions in exchange for positive feedback on satisfaction surveys. Her rise through the Circle is meteoric, especially after she agrees to become “transparent,” allowing every waking hour of her life to be streamed instantaneously on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Circle continues to better life for all of mankind by consolidating information and increasing surveillance. A program called TruYou requires proof of identify before posting online, eliminating trolls. Elected officials go transparent, curbing backdoor deals and lobbyist influence. Electronic bracelets record and transfer medical information in real time. A system is introduced to compel democratic participation, outsourcing voter registration to the Circle and locking up people’s keyboards until they cast ballots.

“Everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know everything,” a senior Circle official informs Mae, who becomes a willing acolyte.

This brusque dismissal of privacy may jar readers over a certain age, but will be all too familiar to those who live significant percentages of their lives in the digital domain. Anytime it appears Eggers exaggerates this aspect of the Circle’s influence, one need only ponder the direction of modern society.

We live in a world where people post pictures of their Thanksgiving dinner plates, blurt their most intimate business loudly into cellphones while in line, watch instant video of shoppers bludgeoning one another in Walmart, and Google the names of our children’s boyfriends or girlfriends.

Mae’s blurry-eyed attempts to increase her Circle rank by online participation will strike a chord with anybody who checks a cellphone in the middle of the night. We fret over the number of friends we’ve amassed or lost on Facebook and feel insignificant when co-workers have more Twitter followers. We ponder what it “means” when a friend ignores our email and happily give up personal information to spurious software designers who track our locations and buying habits and then sell this information to third parties who use it to clutter our inboxes with spam.

We are, in short, faced with the same quandaries as Mae, and we often reach the same conclusion: that small invasions of our private lives are more than balanced by the benefits of technology.

If “The Circle” has a flaw, it’s that Eggers doesn’t have characters argue passionately enough for the value of life offline or, at the very least, for moderation. The few characters who do attempt to live off the grid come to bad ends, just as those who rebel against the government are squashed by it in “1984.”

But in the latter, it’s still obvious that Orwell is taking a stand against totalitarianism. In “The Circle,” this stand is less obvious. Indeed, given our love of and reliance on various online tools, Eggers might have underestimated the persuasiveness of the Circle’s argument. I know any number of people who would embrace the sort of dystopia he envisions in the book, finding loss of individualism a small price to pay for “improving” the world, even when it costs a few lives.

Truth be told, the first thing I wanted to do when I finished the book was tweet about it. The Circle may be closing faster than we know.

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published Dec. 5, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

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