Archive for the ‘Character’ Category

Zamperini and Me

Monday, August 4th, 2014

"During the Olympics, I tore Hitler's swastika flag off the Reich Chancellery. I thought, 'Boy, what souvenir!'"

Seriously, shoot me if I ever name-drop –– except this once…

“Zamperini and Me” is simple to explain; the late Louis Zamperini had been my neighbor.

I didn’t know he was my neighbor until we were introduced through a mutual friend, Dena, who’d petered out beneath a big tree while jogging one day. A chainsaw firing up above her head caused her to spaz and discover a then 90-year-old Louis Zamperini, 15 feet up and clinging to branches. He guided the saw through a thick limb and only took notice of her when it fell at her feet. Or so she thought.

“Hello!” he shouted, repositioning himself to see her better.

“Hi!” she answered. “Need any help?”

“Nahh, been doing this since I bought the place, thanks. Besides, young lady, you need to keep running. Your form could improve.”

And there it was: constructive criticism from a famed Olympic athlete, a veteran of the men’s 5000 meter race. Apparently, he’d watched her flail all the way up the hill.

He climbed down to meet an equal of sorts; Dena is a short, hugely stubborn Italian. The two hit it off, and before long were enjoying tea as the sunset’s glow reached Zamperini’s collection of Olympic torches in the living room of his hillside post-and-beam home.

Now, I’m already convinced that Dena’s soul is on loan from WWII infantryman turned B-movie filmmaker, Sam Fuller, but she was really on fire after that. “You’ve got to meet Louis,” I heard again and again. “He’s so great and his story is incredible. You’ll really like him.”

I didn’t know the half of it. (more…)

The Rationale of Racist Jokes

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

It’s not what you say privately that matters; it’s what you say…

Justin THE DUMB WORLD OF JUSTIN BIEBER__Where Excuses Go to DieBieber’s unsuccessful attempt to buy (and presumably squash) 2011 footage of himself using the N-word while telling a joke puts him right back in the Get Character or Become One hot seat.

The rationale of the racist joke always begins and ends with, “I’m not racist.” But there are other excuses widely used as well, like, “My grandfather was born during a time when…” To hell with your grandfather – now what? Every day is a day in which to get a clue.

Bieber and Paula Dean and Donald Sterling were born some 47 and 60 years apart, so to those who point to silliness like the “era” in which certain A-holes were born, I say, “Go sell that excuse someplace else.” Willful ignorance and insensitivity are learned behaviors, not vintage collectibles. Americans are just as aware that the narrow-minded walk among us as they were in 1963, but thankfully there are far more opportunities today to learn the difference between acceptance and tolerance, as well as bad character versus bad taste. (P.S. Only someone with a grapefruit for a brain would think it “bad taste” to get caught sharing racist thoughts or humor; when the perpetrator is old enough to know better, it’s no-less than treacherously immoral.) (more…)

No Excuses Book Review #1

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

The Skies Belong to UsThe Skies Belong to Us: Love & Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

In the end, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, is about character. Though it was published nine months ago, it’s a fun choice for No Excuses Book Review #1.

I’m not old enough to remember the plague of airline hijackings that took place in and around American airspace during the hippie era, but I do remember laughing with my mom through a television rerun of The Out of Towners, a 1970 Jack Lemmon comedy. In it, everything that can go wrong for two hapless New York tourists does, and despite the appearance of a happy ending, the two find themselves on a hijacked plane just before the credits roll. “This plane is going to Havana, Cuba!” announces the hijacker as he brandishes a gun. (Apparently a lot of these folks were aiming for Cuba; they envisioned a revolutionary paradise when, in reality, Castro jailed ’em instead.)

Initially that’s why I picked up this book: Because I am old enough to remember the aftermath of the ’60s and ’70s skyjacking plague.

In The Skies Belong to Us, Brendan Koerner provides readers with a central romantic antihero narrative on which his exhaustive research hangs. But nothing hangs so long as to slow things down. Koerner’s approach and writing is solid as cement, yet it moves as quickly as a TV news crawler. (more…)

“I’m not a racist, but…”

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Don’t have the nerve to be openly racist? Don’t say racist things.

BLACKS_CAN'T_SWIM_Where Excuses Go to DieThere’s nothing surprising about life circling back on karma leper Donald Sterling. And this week, L.A. feels like when they hauled the Space Shuttle Endeavor through the city: scores of Angelenos on the same proud page, even if only briefly.

Thank you Donald Sterling, shoo-in for the 2014 Utter Lack of Character Award.

As a former recipient myself, I fully admit to being an ethically spoiled A-hole in my early 20s – so much so that it took being dropped into an environment where everything I didn’t want to be crept or assaulted its way toward me every day, on a minute-by-minute basis. And frankly, it was really the only way for me to learn. The sole advantage I had was a dark sense of humor, which meant that one or two hostile wake-up calls were met halfway.

There are, though, three things I understood right off:

  1. Don’t hang around with people who like to punch others ‘cause they have to practice on someone (it’ll eventually be you)

  2. No matter what it is, say to their face. Own it. Force the other guy to do all the work, all the reacting, and all the resenting

  3. If you don’t know what racism is (learned, practiced, and legacy), you should probably shut the fuck up about how “Blacks can’t swim”

Equally clear to me (and everyone else) was that, behind bars, sentences never begin with, “I’m not a racist, but…” (more…)

A Billboard for Brainlessness

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

No, he won’t have to answer questions like “Whad they get you for?”

MUG_SHOT_MURDER_Jeffrey Wade ChapmanJeffrey Wade Chapman is about to stand trial for First Degree Murder  –but ooh–  doesn’t want to appear before a jury with “MURDER” tattooed like a billboard for brainlessness across his throat. So the pride of Great Bend, Kansas is appealing to the Barton County District Court for help.
 
Through his attorney, Defendant Chapman has asked that what has essentially become an albatross around his neck be either removed or obscured. Never mind that he lacked the foresight to have thought twice about getting the tattoo. And forget that he’s made himself a walking, talking jury instruction. (Guilty!) Chapman is as desperate as a house cat above a tub full of water. And he should be.
 
Maybe someday he’ll be able to figure out what the hell he was thinking when he mistakenly chose “MURDER” over “MONSTER COCK.”
 
He reminds me of a guy I met at Folsom Prison’s Level-4 “Old Yard,”  a guy who’d similarly chosen to market what he brought to the table.
 
They called this guy “Fresno”…because he had “FRESNO” tattooed across his forehead in big, old English lettering. Having eaten a few meals together, I eventually got up the courage to ask him why. Fresno just shrugged and kept eating. 
 
So I have a sneaking suspicion Chapman’s answer won’t be much different. (By the way, were I to go by Fresno’s and Chapman’s logic, my own face would read, “FARTER,” but that’s another post entirely.)

(more…)

YOU are Chuck Stone

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

You’re told someone upset is waiting to speak with you on line two.

Former Daily News columnist Chuck Stone_Daily News photo by G.W. MillerHe’s alternately weeping and cursing. He’d just informed whoever answered that your office’s most experienced people don’t count for shit: it’s you or nobody.

He’s on the run, apparently, and deathly afraid of the cops learning his location. He’s a suspected murderer they’ve been after for months. He’s tired. He can’t run anymore. It was self-defense, he insists, but in police custody he knows he’s in for beatings and probably death.

Terrific. You’ve got it bad enough as it is; you don’t need more hassles. As the only black man with a desk in this white staff room, you already stick out like a sore thumb. Hell, just out in the hallway, above the restrooms, the words “COLORED” and “WHITE” are under scant few of coats of paint –and you remember when the first was applied.

THE NEWSROOMExplicit racial segregation may have been recently outlawed, but the leftovers of implicit segregation are everywhere. You know some of your colleagues are lurking, questioning why you’d even been given this job. You’re one of maybe three black journalists in America working for a major metropolitan newspaper (white owned, of course).

Not only are you lucky you’re not pushing a broom, here’s your next story being handed to you personally. No hunting down witnesses for lengthy interviews, no knocking on doors or being told to get lost. All so you can stand in the way of 20 seething badges, each of whom is banging at the starting gate for a run at your new friend. There are few things cops hate more than not controlling the narrative of an apprehension, and this won’t easily be forgotten.

But that’s okay: you’ve got this. You are Chuck Stone. (more…)

Finding Vivian Maier

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier, her story, and her posthumous public profile.

Vivian Maier_Memorializing the images of her subjectsFor those familiar with this blog, my affection for the late street photographer Vivian Maier goes deep. She was a woman who had every reason in the world to shout from the rooftops that she’d arrived, but she opted to pursue perfection and technical excellence over fame and fortune. I think one of the reasons her story resonates with people today is that Maier represents a level of dedication and personal character we don’t often see in today’s run-of-the-mill fame whores.

Classic Vivian Maier ImageA Vivian Maier selfie, for example, is an the image I can lose myself in (though I suspect she would have hated the word). Scratch that for just about everyone else on earth.

Since I first discovered early stories of Maier in April of 2011, I’ve watched and commented on the growing awareness of her legend. I’ve even goofed on the emergence of the Vivian Maier “crowd.” (I proudly include myself.)

Now, I’m pleased to report that tonight I’ll be rubbing elbows with a subset of Maier fans once again, at a screening and filmmaker Q&A of Finding Vivian Maier. If anything ridiculous jumps off I’ll update this entry, but it’s doubtful that’ll happen. Documentary types are way more tolerable and less make-believe than dopey gallery crowds anyhow. (more…)

Why I Hate the Word “Nigger”

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

THE N-WORD_Where Excuses Go to DieI hate the word “nigger” because of what it reveals about its user.

Blue, Black, White, or Brown – you’re lazy.

How’s that, you ask?

Well for one, what have you, the N-word user, attempted to learn about the volatile word? ‘Cause it’s a shape-shifter: one that can be used rightly and wrongly, ironically and seriously, congenially and maliciously, of necessity for the sake of realism and impishly for the sake of comedy.* Do you know its etymology? Have you taken the time to read any Richard Wright or August Wilson? Who were the Little Rock Nine? Do you know why Malcolm X and Richard Pryor swore off using it?

It doesn’t matter. And regardless of who you are, you weren’t born with the right to use the word, so don’t even go there. You have a choice. If you want to debate whether or not cultural perspective should govern its meaning, you’d better find out more than what you heard someone say, sing, shout, or slur.

I hate the word because it whispers its right to be among us, forcing users to make excuses for it. It’s a chunk of broken cement that has, for too many people, disguised itself as a Fabergé egg. Which people, you ask? As Clarence Major wrote in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), “persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.”

Having been to prison and, therefore, temporarily disqualified from societal participation, you might think my learning was limited to how to survive and/or how to become a better criminal, not unlike the claim that college merely teaches one to be a better student. While there may be a basis in reality for both assertions, prison wasn’t a School of Crimethink for me: it was an ungodly wake-up call. And since the phrase “wake-up call” is grossly overused, I’ll go a little deeper.

(more…)

The Racist Tree – Part II

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

But the tree did not actually like Hitler_Where Excuses Go to DieAdditional thoughts on an entry from 2012 that has stayed with me.

The Racist Tree is a simple little poem by Onion writer Alexander Blechman that packs a punch despite the fact it was probably written in fifteen minutes for fun. Lark it or not, I remain intrigued. It’s the epitome of get character or become one.As you’ll see, the consequences of the tree’s poor choices go beyond a label when it’s deeper beliefs, latent virtues, and intentions are rendered irrelevant.

The poem rips conditional social justice, but its subject is securely tethered to the writer’s sense of humor. So on this casual Sunday, enjoy. And consider discussing with someone 20 years younger, a teen screw-up you may know, a teacher, or a parent.

(more…)

When Clarence Thomas Talks, People Groan

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

February is the wrong month to excuse American racial insensitivity

Clarence and Stephan_Where Excuses Go to Die

Speaking this week at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, African-American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas bemoaned what he believes to be today’s oversensitivity to issues of race and differences among us. Thomas may have been aiming his criticism at the deterioration of personal responsibility (as in, I’m a victim, you’re a victim, wouldn’t you like to be a victim too?), but if he was referring to entitlement and victim culture instead of mitigating racism, perhaps those are the words he should have used. ‘Cause the controversy his arguably broad statements set loose won’t be going away any time soon.

The good news is we’ve been given fresh meat dialog regarding how we process our racial differences. And when better than Black History month to offer such a gift to society (besides every other day)? (more…)