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Here’s a fun question for you to consider. Which of these most sets your teeth on edge?

  • the banking industry
  • the insurance industry
  • the pharmaceutical industry

This week my answer is… the airlines industry!

A couple of months ago, NPR’s Audie Cornish asked this question of Doug Parker, CEO of the new American Airlines (recently merged with US Airways): “Now, public perception of your industry isn’t good these days. I mean flying is not something most people really look forward to. And then we’re in this era of extra fees, packed flights, is that going to change and, you know, how? How do you see it changing?”

Changing? In this era of frenzied customer service this is the only industry that charges you for changing your mind. A business contact told me that QVC lets customers return food they’ve eaten! Retail behemoths like Macy’s and Amazon.com go out of their way to make returns easy. Corporate hotel chains allow cancelations with 24 hours notice or less. Airlines?

The Washington Post reports that for the first nine months of 2013, American Airlines charged passengers $650 million for reservation change fees.

I’d like to reserve their ass.

And can we turn now to legroom? Remember how you used to be able to take over empty seats once the last passenger was on board? Being able to sleep stretched out on an intercontinental flight was like, yessss! Which brings me to my recent episode on United Airlines.

Packed flight. Three empty seats two rows ahead. My husband and I make the move. We are happily stuffing our gear under the empty middle seat when Miss Efficiency whirrs up, well-oiled metal gears in place.

“You’ll have to go back to your seats,” she says.

Now these are not First or Business Class seats (even I know I can’t slip into the room behind the curtain); they are in a newly invented class within the main cabin called “main cabin extra,” “economy plus,” “economy comfort,” “even more legroom,” “premium economy,” or “main cabin select.” You know they squeezed all the other rows tighter together so they could charge more for these seats.

I’m sure I should be ashamed to admit this but I can’t afford the extravagant fares they charge for more legroom, free booze and better food on airplanes. I don’t have a boss who pays my expenses because my boss is me! I always fly economy. Thank you for your sympathy.

OK, back to Miss Efficiency.

“Why do we have to move?” I say. “These seats are empty?”

“Because these seats are more expensive,” she says.

“Yes, but there’s no one to occupy them,” I say.

“But it would not be fair to the people who pay more for them,” she says.

We look at each other in puzzlement and start to gather our stuff.

As she walks away, I say to my husband in a low voice, “This is bullshit.”

Her supersonic ears hear me. She stops cold, pivots and says,

“Would you like me to call the agent?”

I look at her, wondering WTF she’s talking about and carry on with the process of moving back to our seats. Twenty minutes later, Miss Efficiency is back with another woman carrying what looks to be a giant cellphone from the eighties or a black oversized antennaed brick. I’m wondering if the agent intends to strike us with it.

“I understand you’re having a problem?” she says, chirpy as hell.

“What problem?” I say. “We’re sitting in our seats, aren’t we?”

“Well, since you used the profanity,” Miss Efficiency explains.

“Profanity?” I say, turning to look at my husband.

“Yes, the profanity,” she says.

Visions of being kicked off the plane and being held for questioning arise before my eyes like a creature uglier than Miss Efficiency.

“Everything is wonderful,” I say, smiling.

They turn and walk away — efficiently.

“Profanity?” I say to my husband. “Bullshit is profanity?”

And a voice in the seat next to me says,

“In America it is.”

I turn to see a very young woman, who has decided she should explain the ways of America to me, a New Yorker since the age of eight. I say nothing, open my book and read until we deplane. And as we walk toward the baggage claim area, a voice on the loudspeaker announces:

“When going through the security area, making inappropriate remarks is forbidden. Please avoid making jokes.”

I love flying in the 21st century, don’t you? What to do when the airlines seem to have all the cards? An aggrieved populace has been known to change evil corporate behavior before. It’s a time-honored tradition. In America it is, anyway.

People, Edit Thyselves

Self-indulgence has reached epidemic proportions in the world of feature films and documentaries. I propose that filmmakers be required to get permission from a special committee for any film over 90 minutes, and that I get a seat on that committee.

Before you start screaming about censorship and artistic freedom, let’s just admit that 90 minutes is that sweet spot, which engenders snappy films that leave you wanting more. There is a case to be made for epic films like The Godfather (2 hours, 58 minutes), but they are surely the exception. The problem is that most filmmakers now consider their movies to be epics. Get over yourselves, will you?

I just saw American Hustle, which by today’s standards, came in at a “lean” 2 hours and 9 minutes; but I swear it needed shaving by 40 minutes. Those annoying inconsistencies—like why the Amy Adams character is always wearing plunging necklines at business meetings, especially the ones where her presence makes no sense, and no one asks the obvious Why are you here?—would conveniently disappear if the film were shorter.

In one scene, the Jennifer Lawrence character says something like, …That’s the reason I betrayed you, because I knew it would lead to you arriving at this fantastic solution to our problems. That’s why I did it. And then two minutes later, she says the exact same line all over again. If not proof of director David O. Russell’s self-indulgence it is unmasked indifference for the viewer, whose creaky knees must endure more egregious time in that movie-theater seat. Yet another reason to stay home and wait until the thing comes out on DVD.

When I saw the billboard for The Wolf of Wall Street, I thought for sure I would see it until I noticed something in the New York Times’ mostly positive review about “…scenes that drag on too long…” Desire to see the film seeped out like an insidious hiss from a hot air balloon, leaving me wilted and bummed out that I would probably skip it after all. Plus, do I really need to see 2 hours and 59 minutes of some Wall Street asshole’s exploits in excess? Nah.

And while I’m making the case for letting editors do their jobs, why don’t we all start editing ourselves. Am I wrong or has TMI (Too Much Information) become endemic?

Earth to Carine: Are you really asking that question in the Facebook era?

Right. In fact, I’ll tell you a story. I asked a friend of mine the other day if he’d read my blog on the very same subject we were discussing, and he replied: I read all your blogs. And by the way, could you do me a favor and make them shorter?

I wanted to channel philosopher Blaise Pascal and say, I would write shorter blogs if I had more time. Instead I said, “I do try, but I’ll work on it some more!” I invite you—filmmakers and all the overly verbose people of Earth—to join me.

Since 1977 my spiritual teacher and meditation practice have helped me in ways too numerous and positive to mention; which puts me in the “spiritual person” category. So, why would I declare spirituality to be meaningless

I’ve been thinking about this subject since someone forwarded to me an acquaintance’s rant on Facebook upon his return from India. In his post, he grumbled about (among other things which I look forward to discussing with him in person) the disconnect between Indians’ rich religious and spiritual culture and the polluted, trash-littered and earsplitting “cesspool” in which they live (Honk! Honk!).

The more I ruminated on the subject, the more I thought, really? Are religious people supposed to be better social citizens than the non-religious? Are “spiritual” people more conscious or mindful than those who smirk at the idea of an intelligent and creative life force?

Unfortunately I have not seen evidence of that.

I know spiritual people who are narcissists. I hope I’m not an egocentric, but I have spent many less-than-altruistic hours fixating on the indignities flung at me from my mirror on a daily basis as I age. I’ve hung out with spiritual people involved in illegal activities. I have met devout Christians who are racists. Members of the Taliban–apparently the most God-driven crew on Earth–practice unspeakable violence on their brothers and sisters. So, how does religion and spirituality help make a better world?

Most people seek an inner sense of joy, peace, love and well-being, regardless of their external circumstances. I access it through meditation. For example, someone breaks my heart, or I have to deal with a health issue, which makes me feel awful or helpless; if I meditate, just like magic, in spite of the given situation, somehow I feel better, and better able to deal with it. So, if everyone lived their lives from a calm and balanced center, joy would reign throughout the world, right?

News flash: we are not here to bring peace to the world. We are meant to find our own peace; to get through life with as little angst as possible (tears are fine, just not forever). But, finding our personal peace does not automatically transform us into kind, generous, mindful human beings (I’m guessing most kind, mindful people were born that way). It does, however, instill in us a desire to approach life from a place of love, and that can’t hurt. If you spend time sending love to or praying for a friend (or an enemy), whether or not they benefit is debatable; but it’s guaranteed to make you feel good from the inside out, where it matters. We are born alone and we die alone. And since challenges await us around every corner, it’s our job to feel as good as we can while we’re here. The number of routes from here to there is endless. Take your pick and enjoy the journey.

In the meantime, if Indian rulers don’t care about pollution and waste retrieval, and don’t provide their populations with the means to live a healthier, more sanitized existence, don’t blame that “pious” driver leaning on his horn, trying not to run you over as he speeds by in his black-fume-spewing vehicle, counting prayer beads while careening crazily around those sacred cows. Just put a handkerchief over your nose and move out of his way.

A few Mondays ago my husband, Pascal, informed me that a friend of ours had called to invite us over for dinner at her house that Thursday. The next day, I received an email from her confirming the soirée, and lo and behold, whose name did I notice in the group of invitees? None other than Bill Maher, at his personal email, no less.

My first thought was, Isn’t he going to be upset that she’s revealing his personal email to total strangers? Don’t celebrities guard that private contact information like King Tut’s loot? They must be really close, I decided. I then forwarded the email to my husband with a note that said, BILL MAHER??!

Pascal and I are the only two people in Los Angeles who don’t watch TV, it seems. We sit quietly while people whose opinions we respect rave about Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. We only use our television to watch movies and one other thing: Real Time with Bill Maher. So, I was very excited about hanging out with the political satirist whom I usually consider spot on; I admit to having used the terms “genius” and “brilliant” when grading his New Rules.

My second thought after seeing the email was, I’m going to wear my t-shirt!

As per my last blog, my friend S, the Canadian, and I recently founded BIG DATA WATCHDOG because we are incensed at the laissez-faire attitude of the majority when it comes to the end of privacy as we know it. We mind very much that the government has the means to follow our every move and to use it against us when we least expect. But we are even more aghast at how most people blithely hand over their most intimate information to Big Corporations that turn around and sell it ad infinitum to other companies that can and do use it to manipulate us.

“…signing up for these apps [FarmVille or Words with Friends] via Facebook will give those companies who created the apps access to your personal data – even details you specifically told Facebook to keep private.” Bernard Marr, Blogger

That’s in addition to also handing over your data to the government because, hey, since you signed on to Facebook, your personal data, preferences, photos, etc., belong to them forever (even if you take your page down)! Nevertheless, here are just some of the comments we’ve heard lately on the subject (accompanied by much eye-rolling):

“We have zero privacy. Get over it.”

“I met my husband on Facebook. I don’t care if they’re evil.”

“How are you going to fight them? We’re already so screwed.”

Um, are you telling me that concerted effort by the people has never resulted in change by the corporate sector or the government?

“Last month McDonald’s announced it will ditch its super-size portion of fries and soft drinks at British outlets by the end of the year, amid a backlash against firms blamed for a an ‘obesity epidemic.’” Danielle Gusmaroli, Daily Mail

Yes, using social media is de rigueur if you live in the 21st century, and the existence of Big Brother is a huge problem without easy answers, but we believe inaction can only exacerbate this alarming phenomenon, and that a call for mobilization is needed. BIG DATA WATCHDOG intends to become a a go-to organization for cultivating ideas on how to fight Big Data and Big Brother. We will post relevant articles in the news, start a forum for ideas and post updates on meaningful steps being taken all over the world to address the Big Creep into our lives.

How will we do it?

To spread the message, we’ve created a line of t-shirts* with provocative fuck big data-female gray-smallerslogans promoting the movement. When you become a member of BIG DATA WATCHDOG, you receive the t-shirt of your choice so that you can—simply by wearing your shirt—trigger reactions, start conversations, hatch potential solutions and remind our institutions that we are paying attention and will not allow our lives to be controlled by Big Brother.

So, where was I about my dinner with Bill Maher? Right! I was going to wear one of our t-shirts. Of course, he was going to ask me about it. I was going to dazzle him with my devastatingly informed and passionate discourse on Big Data and BIG DATA WATCHDOG; he was going to invite me on the show to talk about it, I’d wear my t-shirt…hell, he’d wear my t-shirt, and our website would be inundated with requests for membership, and the buzzing about Big Brother would snap, crackle and pop even more. Smart techies would come up with ways for us to take back our internet! I could barely sleep! Oh my goodness, what if he wanted to show the t-shirt on Real Time the very next night? I spent all day Thursday working on our nascent website, just in case.

That night, I showed up wearing my killer t-shirt with another boxful in the trunk of my car. We were greeted with the sound of vacuuming. Our friend’s carefully planned evening had nearly ended in disaster when a dish she was carrying from the oven to the counter literally exploded with a warlike BOOM! Miraculously, she was unharmed, but broken glass glittered and littered the entire kitchen floor. While everyone dove in to help clean up, I kept looking at the door, waiting for Bill Maher to arrive. He never did.

Hours later, sitting at the dinner table, having my last glass of Sancerre, I turned to our friend’s husband and asked about Bill Maher, the no-show.

“Oh, Billy Mayer?” (was how he pronounced the last name) “Yeah, I guess he didn’t make it.”

“Mayer?” I said. On the email, it was spelled just like Bill Maher, so I thought it was that Bill Maher.

“Oh, I didn’t even realize how he spells his name,” he said. “I just think of him as Billy.”

I think this story is hilarious, and I’ve recounted it many times since. On the chickens-before-they-hatch spectrum, I got pretty carried away! But it is true that I live in Hollywood. I’m just a regular Joe but I recently met Angelina Jolie at a party (“Hi, I’m Angie,” she said.) Bill Maher? Why not? Could’ve happened.

So, I didn’t get to meet Bill Maher, go on his show, or watch him talk about BIG DATA WATCHDOG on HBO. But hey, the ever democratic internet allows me to air my views on important issues of the day on this modest site and other widely-read forums. And for that, I am grateful.

Check out bigdatawatchdog.org. Join the movement. Get yourself a t-shirt, keep the conversation rolling. It’s crucial, and it will make you feel better!

*BIG DATA WATCHDOG is an outgrowth of Thinkware, a line of t-shirts promoting reading, literacy and critical thinking.

I keep thinking about how the Obama administration had to publicly promise Russia that the United States would not torture Edward Snowden even though it really, really wants to. It would be hilarious, if only torture weren’t so grim. I’m positively misty-eyed for the good ole days when the U.S. inspired horror in liberals for shipping prisoners off to “black sites” for that nasty wet work. Now, we openly admit to being a black site!* Plus, the sleazy supplication gave extra oomph to our public shaming by Putin, aka pillar of human rights. That egg runneth long, sticky and stinky on Obama’s face.

In any case, that miserable failure of a pas-de-deux with Russia led me to ruminate on how we human beings unwittingly give ourselves away, or simply discover facets of our nature when cornered or desperate.

Like the time I said to a boyfriend, who was threatening to leave me:

“If you give it one more month, I won’t go to the schoolyard down the street and shoot all those kids with my AK-47.”

Just kidding. I didn’t really say that (I leave that kind of talk to White House officials). But to my everlasting shame, I probably did say something awful like, “No one will ever love you like I do!” I hope that only indicates how hopeless I was in my twenties and is not a blueprint for the person I am today–although it does point to a penchant toward dramatics, and some have accused me of going there at times. Those are my former friends.

And I thought back to that time when everyone was getting tested for HIV back in the eighties. I suggested to my new boyfriend that we get tested too.

“Why?” he said testily.

“Because you’re bisexual and you told me you used to do heroin, and that you occasionally sold yourself to guys in New York when you were broke,” I said.

“Well, you’re Haitian!” he hissed.

It is true that, back then, some were trying to blame the AIDS epidemic on Haiti because of purported visits by gay men to the island for sex. Only problem is, while it is true that I am Haitian, I was not a gay man, and had not lived in Haiti since the age of eight. This theory was invented by racists without answers to a scary puzzle, and I didn’t expect my boyfriend to embrace it! That was the day I realized he had racist leanings, and he more than proved it by the end of our liaison.

More recently I was shocked, I tell you, shocked to read about a page on Facebook called “How To Violently Rape Your Friend Just For Laughs.” When the activist group, Women, Action & the Media wrote an open letter to Facebook about the page and about the preponderance of hate speech directed at women on the social media platform, this was its official response, as reported by ThinkProgress.org:

“…While it may be vulgar and offensive, distasteful content on its own does not violate our policies…”

FFB-ALL OVER AGAIN-smallerHowever! Once advertisers started pulling their ads, Facebook reversed course, pulled the page, and made a great show of vowing to do better next time by revising their hate speech policy. According to The Boston Globe here’s what Facebook said (among other things):

“While we already have rigorous review and removal policies for content against our terms, we recognize we need to do more to prevent situations where ads are displayed alongside controversial Pages and Groups.”

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that no, Facebook doesn’t give a damn about the treatment of women on their pages–a cursory glance reveals plenty of pages promoting violence against women, along with porn, pedophilia and other highly questionable content; and that yes, they care a lot more about their advertisers.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m no fan of Facebook and its BIG DATA male-smallerinsidious ways, where our privacy is concerned.** I worry just as much, if not more, about the corporations than the government on this issue. I even started a non-profit called Big Data Watchdog, a repository for 1) up-to-date information on the subject and 2) ideas on how to take back our internet. So, I wasn’t surprised at this behavior on the part of Facebook. But, for anyone who still thinks it is nothing more than a fabulous way to connect with friends and expand one’s community, this episode more than revealed Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts’ darker nature.

Ah, those pesky secrets we hope to keep hidden from public view. Even without the likes of Facebook–which sells our personal information to whomever, whenever–and Edward Snowden, they usually make their way to the light of day. And when that happens, the most important thing we can do is stop and listen up.

* About Those Black Sites (New York Times)

**Yes, I do have a [mostly inactive] Facebook page for business purposes, as anyone in the 21st century must, which is another thing that really burns my bum.

Henna dragon by Bakari Santos

Henna dragon by Bakari Santos

Now hear this! There is no such thing as a black henna plant. If someone offers you a “black henna” tattoo, you should report them to the cops. Repeat after me: Henna, good. Black henna, stupid.

I stopped watching television when I was 15 years old, and whenever I see a local news segment I remember why. Imagine, if you can, this scene on the idiot box:

Man on a stretcher being rushed into a hospital emergency room. Close-up shot of a horrific stomach-churning blister on his forearm. Accompanying voice-over in that deep and ominous, eye-rolling and exaggerated voice that’s come to be known in Hollywood as “the voice of God”: Up next–a temporary tattoo that could kill you.

After the commercial break for Zantac to treat your detestable acid reflux, a perfectly coiffed brunette looks into your eyes, and in her best, most earnest voice delivers this news meant to trigger a “note to self” that you will never again go near those nasty temporary henna tattoos:

And now, first a warning: if you are squeamish, you may not want to watch this next story. A man on vacation in Las Vegas decided to get a henna tattoo and nearly paid for it with his life!

That sound you’re hearing is the loud groans of frustration coming from people in the henna world, along with the accompanying stampede as they rush to their computers to remind people that the sensationalist news segment they just saw was not about beautiful, reddish-brown, safe, all-natural henna tattoos! They’re chirping about those dangerous, fake, so-called “black henna” tattoos we’ve been warning you against for the last 15 years!

Back in 1997, my gallery introduced henna tattoos on the West Coast and helped to jumpstart a global trend. A form of body ornamentation that safely dyes the skin for seven to ten days and used for thousands of years throughout India, Africa and the Middle East had made its way west and been promptly labeled a temporary tattoo. The media tripped over itself to report on the stunning, made-for-TV body art phenomenon. Madonna, Sting, Prince, Gwen Stefani and other celebrities started sporting them, and overnight henna tattoos were all the rage. Fifteen years later, they still are.

Along the way, others clamored for a temporary tattoo that would look like a “real”–read “black” tattoo–so the market coughed it up. Except that there’s no such thing as a “black henna tattoo.” To turn the henna black, a dangerous chemical known as p-phenylenediamine, or PPD (or other delightful agents like battery acid) must be added to the natural henna paste. Horrendous skin reactions and permanent scarring can ensue. So, on a regular basis, stories come out in the news about those dangerous henna tattoos. Yes, they mention that the additive is what makes it harmful but that comes much later, after they’ve succeeded in discrediting the safe, harmless stuff because, after all, what passes for news today is the pumped up, fear-instilling bullshit that gets the ratings. The buried truth is merely an afterthought.

The irony in all this is that henna is actually beneficial to the skin. The plant has many medicinal properties, chief among them, the ability to soothe and heal skin irritations. I remember visiting with friends in Paris one time. We’d brought a couple of henna kits as gifts and ended up applying the paste on our friends’ daughter whose leg had erupted with a nasty bout of eczema. When she woke up the next day it was gone. Furthermore, henna has been used safely by over 500 million people in India and by millions of westerners who do not want a permanent tattoo nor the risk of infection that can come with it.

Since the most recent rash (excuse the pun) of news segments following a March article in the Los Angeles Times, there has been an irrational reaction to henna and, along with it, new questions about jagua. Jagua is a fruit that grows in the Amazon. Indigenous people have used it for centuries for body ornamentation. It stains the skin black, looks like a permanent tattoo and lasts a week to ten days then fades away completely. We were elated when we found this natural way to deliver what some temporary tattoo enthusiasts had been asking for. But, for the moment, all rational thinking is out the window. No matter that jagua is not and never has been “black henna.” It’s just that the barking dogs are drowning out the real story, as usual. This too shall pass. It always does.

Jagua hand

Jagua hand

 “Contact dermatitis as a reaction to pure henna is extremely rare despite its frequent and repeated use over thousands of years all over the world.” Dermatology Online Journal

Carine Fabius is the author of Mehndi, The Art of Henna Body Painting and Jagua, A Journey into Body Art from the Amazon.

Every year in April, the City of Lights (Paris) and the City of Angels (Los Angeles) get together at the Directors Guild of America building on Sunset Boulevard and delight film-loving audiences with a week of French film premieres in Hollywood. The dizzying array of films presented includes new features, shorts, documentaries and classics of French cinema. It’s a blast. And since I’m lucky enough to live close by, my husband and I can walk (yes, here in L.A.!) to the festival known as COL COA.

On the same sad day, where the city of Boston fell victim to extreme violence, it is fitting that the first film I got to see was titled The Attack (L’Attentat in French), based on the international best-seller by Yasmina Khadra. Director and Beirut native Ziad Doueiri has crafted a powerful observation on the seemingly insoluble challenges facing even the best-intentioned players in the Israeli-Palestinian narrative.

We know this story is complex. We understand the history that all sides can’t forget. And we’ve seen the many films that have portrayed both the peace-seeking and revenge-centered characters presenting their convincing raison d’être. I am not a film critic nor a film historian, so I can’t say that the story told in this film is a “first.” Is there such a thing, anyway? Isn’t it how well the story is told, no matter how many times before?

After seeing the film, and then engaging in a Q&A with its impassioned co-writer and director, all I can say is that it is a testament to the power of the natural bonds that form when one human being takes the time to see his enemy through a personal lens — whether it be one of friendship, family, love or art.

In The Attack, a successful Palestinian surgeon, well established and surrounded by loving friends in Tel Aviv, suddenly finds his world turned upside down when his wife’s remains are found among the victims of a suicide bombing, and, impossibly, he is suspected of being an accomplice to the crime. The doctor’s journey to uncover his wife’s shocking secrets brings him face to face with the troubling nature of love and grief, loyalty and anger, and the intractable blood-stained color of passion.

To hear Ziad Doueiri tell it, his heart was changed through the making of his film, as were the hard-held beliefs of several Palestinian members of his cast and crew. And although he dares not hope for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in his lifetime, he knows it will come to pass someday if only because he recognizes that human beings yearn to connect with one another, and that meaningful cultural engagement can bring a fresh outlook on old conflicts.

Doueiri says that, according to a law in his country, it is illegal for a Lebanese citizen to enter Israel or engage in any way with Israeli citizens. In order to tell the truest story, he knew the film had to be shot in Israel, so he went anyway. He may go to jail for it, but he felt it was important to do it right. With that kind of passion, I can almost see the light through all the smoke and tears, blood and rubble. Even in Boston.

The festival ends on April 22. Many of the films are already sold out, but check it out anyway. You may get lucky! For more information, visit COL COA.

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