Last week I was at an event celebrating National Caribbean-American Heritage Month in Los Angeles (I’m from Haiti). At one point, one of the evening’s performers, V.S. Russell, a lively and entertaining storyteller from Jamaica, encouraged guests to participate in a call and response. He entreated us to join in the fun with words to the effect of, “When I say this, you say that.” That was spoken in the patois of his native Jamaica, and was unintelligible to all but a bunch of people in the crowd, who shouted out the phrase. Laughs all around. And then he said, “And if you’re Caucasian, you can say it like this.This was spoken in English. No one made a peep. Honestly, who wants to be Caucasian?

It’s so unhip to be white! I am often loath to do it, but I occasionally have to remind my white friends that sorry, but, we can’t all be black. That’s just the way it is. I know you desperately want those cool moves down on the dance floor, but you’re stuck following your own unfortunate beat and looking like what one of my [white] friends calls a “noodle dancer.” I’m sorry. Not my fault. Take your lack of rhythm up with You Know Who up there in the sky. I know you want an afro and full lips (you can pay for those, but, warning: you may end up looking like a freak, instead of a black person); and who wouldn’t want Lester Holt‘s and Oprah Winfrey’s jobs? But let me remind you: just because black is beautiful doesn’t mean you’re not. Go write that down ten times in your journal.

Don’t tell my white husband I said this, but I think his greatest source of pride is, not his proficiency as a sculptor, furniture designer and photographer, but being christened an “honorary negro” by some of our black friends, and a “white dude, who may as well be Haitian” by some our Haitian homies. I see him puff up and try to repress a smile whenever someone speaks such words to him, and, what can I say? I understand! We’re so down with our bad selves. He was also very happy when someone told us the other day that, like many long-married couples, we’re beginning to look alike. I said, “Yes, he’s black now, and I’m white. My name is Rachel!” Sorry, Rachel. Just messin’ with you. As you say, you’re not really white.

In fact, this observation used to be lobbed at me a lot by white people. “You’re not really black!” That’s because I’m light-skinned. They meant it as a compliment, although they would never admit it. My favorite pronouncement was from a visiting Frenchie. Upon hearing me say something about being a black woman in America, he announced, “But, you’re not black.”

“Yes, I am,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” he said.

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I come from a black country,” I explained to the idiot. “Just go to Haiti and look around, and then come back and tell me what I’m not.”

“But you’re not black,” he insisted patiently, as if to a fool, who must be taught her own ethnicity.

“Ok, then. If I’m not black, what am I?” I demanded.

“You’re exotic,” He said. This too, is supposed to be a compliment.

“Oh! I didn’t know there was an ‘exotic’ race,” I said.

Clearly, you couldn’t be attractive and black.

But you know what? Nobody says that kind of thing anymore. Don’t tell all those black men being shot to death, but everybody wants to be black now. These are the kinds of conversation snippets you hear at parties nowadays: “I’m 1/16th Cherokee.” “I’ve always suspected he wasn’t wasn’t my real father. Look at my nose!” “I just had my DNA profile done, and, guess what? I have North African roots!” Let’s face it, being white is so passé that no one admits to it anymore (I totally get it, white males). Especially when you hear that by 2043, the United States will no longer be considered majority white. Gotta start blending in.

To my never-ending annoyance and eye-rolls, my husband, who is not racist, argues this “not really black” thing with me too. “Your great grandfather was white! Of course you’re not all black. My response? Who cares? I am black, period. Plus, I identify as black, not as mulatto, half and half, or anything in between. So, if we’re going to get technical about it, maybe I shouldn’t claim to be black; but since I identify as black, and I live in America, where one drop of black blood makes you black (ask Obama, he’ll tell you), I’m sticking to my story. I hear you, Rachel!

Oh, wait, the only problem with Rachel is she doesn’t even have that one drop. Unless she can prove her parents are not her real, biological parents, of course. What is wrong with people? Why hasn’t someone ponied up for her genetic profile? Such apathy in the world. This is important! So, forgive me, Rachel. Although I totally understand your identity appropriation, until that happens, we’re stuck with the way you looked before your tans and weave, and what your parents say. The unfortunate reality is that we can’t all be black. That’s just the way it is.

A nefarious disease plagues our nation. With devastating efficiency, and in plain sight, it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, yet we sit around scratching our bewildered heads at the debilitating social ills now unraveling the fabric of this nation, wondering How can this be? No need to call in experts on infectious illnesses to figure out what it is. I can tell you. It’s called I Don’t Give A Shit Disease (IDGASD). Witness just a few of the most hateful repercussions of IDGASD now blaring (or not) on a news site near you:

–More than 40 years after the Black Panthers took up arms to make the point, the issue lives on: you still can’t be black and run in this country. Why? Like the cracks, which spread through a lead-painted tenement, IDGASD has fissured the conscience of America’s power brokers. (See Stanley Nelson’s excellent new film, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.)

–Benign neglect by the LAPD of hundreds of murdered or missing black women. The cases went uninvestigated and underreported for over two decades as serial killer Lonnie Franklin continued to live in the South Central Los Angeles community, murdering, raping and torturing women. The killer’s homies, who witnessed Franklin’s sadistic treatment of multiple prostitutes, never made a peep because, well, they’re men, and besides, they were busy getting high. The women who survived encounters with Franklin didn’t tell because they knew that the cops didn’t give a shit, and they were busy getting high too. And round and round it goes as the vicious cycle feeds itself.

This horrific case of IDGASD, aimed at black women and prostitutes, is brilliantly recounted in director Nick Broomfield’s hard-hitting documentary, Tales of The Grim Sleeper, now showing on HBO. When the killer is finally arrested–by mistake–then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, flanked by Governor Jerry Brown, proudly hails the 20 plus years of “exhaustive” work by the LAPD. Makes you want to run outside and howl like a coyote.

–The strongly held view by too many men and the male-dominated power structure that women’s bodies are theirs for the taking. Think sexual assaults on university campuses, military campuses, in the military, in the Catholic church, in our homes–by friends, family and strangers–state-sanctioned in our prison system; hell, where can’t a woman get raped?

And lest we forget, 40 women later, Bill Cosby laughs at his accusers with a “Far From Finished” comedy tour, where supporters show up and give him standing ovations. IDGASD gone completely batshit.

–Closer to home, I have seen so many sleep-walking employees in their twenties, demanding paychecks as they try hard as hell to work as little as possible (with real economic consequences to my small business), “forgetting” to vote as the Earth they inherit goes bonkers.

I’ve been calling it the I Don’t Give A Shit Syndrome for years. Maybe we should elevate it from a syndrome to an actualized, red-alert disease! Maybe someone will do a study. Maybe they’ll find a cure. As one of the most underappreciated causes of this country’s afflictions, this disease deserves a better name than apathy. Because I Don’t Give A Shit, most people can get behind.

Final thought: In the interest of ending on an up note, I say thank goodness and thank you to the brave heroes among us who do give a shit. As the news cameras roll, Pacifica Radio/KPFK’s Margaret Prescod, one of the leaders of Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, can be seen in the aforementioned documentary, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, interrupting Mayor Villaraigosa’s self-congratulatory press conference by grabbing his mic and blasting him for lying about the LAPD’s supposed investigation of the serial murders. Full disclosure–I know Margaret Prescod. Yeah, Margaret!

It’s that time of the year again, when a super-packed schedule of French film premieres reigns at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, where sold-out crowds of cinemaphiles, Francophones and Frenchies delight in macarons, pissaladière and good champagne (on opening night, anyway!). The annual COLCOA French Film Festival continues, and the habitual bonhomie evident among attendees was again on full display, as is the case whenever groups of like-minded people come together. Based on my own, and overheard conversations throughout the evening, familiar topics of interest prevailed — upcoming travels, movies and the people who direct and produce them; food and wine, the arts, good writing and bad writing, the previous year’s festival, this year’s lineup of films, screening schedule comparisons, and I’m too busy to see as many as I saw last year!

Wondering when I’ll get to the part about writers and other human beings? Well, it was the festival’s opening film that got me ruminating on the subject! A Perfect Man (Un Homme Ideal in French), co-written and directed by Yann Gozlan, presents a story that has been told many, many times before, so I was concerned. That I already knew how it would end, that the plot points and twists would aim for originality, but fail, that I would exit the theater thinking, I could’ve waited to see it on Netflix. But my misgivings were unfounded. In fact, viewing the film gave me hope!

A Perfect Man portrays an aspiring author well-acquainted with the reviled rejection letter. He comes upon a dead man’s manuscript. Irritation and frustration at full tilt, he discards integrity, retypes it under his name, and sends it to a major publisher. The publisher professes stupefaction at the grit and power of the manuscript. The writer lands a large advance, the book comes out; our man emerges as the hottest author of the day. A gorgeous byproduct of his success comes alive in the form of his dream girl, who promptly falls in love with the great writer, making him happy happy happy until expected complications eventualize. I told you, we’ve seen this all before, right? Except that we haven’t seen it this way.

This is a tightly-drawn thriller. With the help of a score, which keeps you riveted, even though you know what’s coming, you wait to see how it will be told. You might wish a couple of plot points weren’t so telegraphed, and you spot a hole or two in the story, but you forgive the filmmaker because you’re having a good time! Which brings me to the point I wanted to make.

We all know there’s nothing new in the world, we’ve heard it a million times: there are no new story lines, they’ve been written already; only two basic plots exist (or seven, or 20 or 36, depending on whom you ask); all art is an appropriation of someone else’s art, another twist on an old idea, a tip of the hat to someone else. But is that really true? I don’t think so.

To begin with, I thought the movie, Luc Besson’s Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, was pretty damn original. Feel free to tell me it is not. I don’t care. And let’s not forget that we really like the familiar; that often, when we watch a movie or read a book, we thrill in the re-discovery of something already known to us about ourselves. Keep in mind it is in the trying that old ideas are made new; and that if we stopped trying we would be would left with nothing but recycled junk. So, if you are a writer with a genius concept for a coming-of-age story, who cares if there are a billion and ten of them already? And what does it matter if it isn’t brand new? It’s how much fun you have writing it that counts; and the enjoyment that the viewer derives from the experience of watching your words come to life as they down popcorn and Coke in a dark theater.

And, if you are a human being with a new app idea for connecting people together or a flying car or or a facial product which delivers on the promise of the fountain of youth, who cares that Facebook already exists, that your car idea would just be a permutation of an airplane, or that no one else has ever been able to transform a 58-year-old into a 38-year-old without the knife? What matters is how much fun you have developing your new product while anticipating the look on your father’s face when you tell him you’ve made it.

COLCOA stands for City of Lights, City of Angels, in acknowledgement of Paris and Los Angeles as world centers for cinema. Check it out next time April rolls around. You may come away with some new ideas. Or maybe just with renewed hope that the creative process still rules!

Originally published on Huffington Post.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a very moving and thought-provoking piece about the Brian Williams affair. I don’t usually find myself in agreement with Brooks, but there’s no reason for everything to be political, is there? He was making the case for compassion, a feeling seriously in need of a PR agent. So quaint, the idea of practicing the sympathy métier, when the business of manufactured outrage can be so lucrative; but there is sound judgment in it.

Word on the street is that Williams might not be getting his job back, and maybe that’s as it should be, if only because someone new will get the chance to earn 10 million dollars a year! Come on, Brian, be compassionate. You made a mistake, and yes, the punishment is harsh, but this is your opportunity to gracefully step aside, comfortable in the knowledge that, with very careful planning, you never have to work again if you don’t want to. Compassion is a two-way street.

But never mind about Brian Williams, let me get back to making my case for compassion, as my new best friend David Brooks suggested. Here are a couple of theoretical situations to illustrate its essential virtues over those of sprinting to the Ministry of Silly Outrage:

Situation #1

I walk into the bathroom and find my husband’s dirty socks sitting on top of the hamper, instead of inside it. My instinct is to storm into the next room to deliver a tirade, which usually begins with, “I work just as hard as you all day, why do I have to…” But if I, instead, open the hamper and throw the socks in, I will have saved him from my useless wrath, and spared myself the resulting anger of my silly outrage–because the dirty socks scenario, troubling as it is, has been a recurring one for the past 26 years!

Situation #2

An agent, or your own agent, sends you a nasty email telling you that the novel you submitted for consideration is a bloated wreck of asininity, and that you should go back to writing school. Rather than dash off a super polished takedown of the emissary, along with your masterfully crafted list of his/her astonishing character flaws–including but not limited to an obvious inability to spot talent–you stop to consider that the literary gatekeepers are not the luckiest people on earth. They make money off other people’s labor, while at the mercy of the indecipherable whims of the publishing giants. You, on the other hand, can thrive by doing something else with your talent, like writing songs or poetry (just kidding), or writing press releases, grant and business proposals, technical advice manuals, voice-over material for documentaries, corporate biographies and brochures, movie-plot summaries; the list goes on. Everybody needs a good writer! You also decide against sending your best friend an email consisting of what you would have said to the agent, because, 1) you realize that, thanks to Big Brother, that email can very easily find its way to unintended inboxes; and, 2) you have resisted the impulse to insult a fellow Earthling just because he/she insulted you. Upon reflection, you feel good, and you go out and spread that good feeling to everyone you encounter. Plus, the likely vituperative exchange has not been let loose upon the atmosphere and into the air we all breathe. Another round for compassion.

I could go on with the theoreticals, but I’ll stop here, and, instead, point out a fascinating bit of information recently promoted by none other than the fearless leader of this forum, Ariana Huffington. In introducing a concept called “What’s Working”, “a global HuffPost editorial initiative to double down on our coverage of what’s working,” she opted to cast a floodlight on something I’ve long known to be true: giving in to fake outrage breeds fake celebrities like Nancy Grace, Glenn Beck and Donald Trump. Actually, she didn’t say that, but I’m sure she meant to! No, what she really said is this: considering our better natures makes sense on multiple levels, and is, surprisingly, what most people organically ascribe to–a recent study of behavior on social media shows that the most oft-shared stories are positive stories, not the depressing ones about beheadings. And, I would bet that if Huffpost is launching this new section, it’s because it makes make financial sense, as well. Another knockout blow by compassion.

The propensity to bloviate seems like a natural reaction to issues and people we find offensive, like hypocritical public figures, for example. But it’s only an impression propagated by the bloviators. We are natural born shoppers; at least I am. Among other things, I go shopping for clothes, success, meaningful encounters, and because I am an author, I often go shopping for rejection, too. I think I’ll add compassion to my shopping list. I bet it’s going to make me rich.

To my mind, it is undeniable that, as a species, we have, somehow, throughout the ages, inculcated in men an idea that, when placed in a position of power, they can and should exercise their penchant for violence — like when they have a gun in their pocket, or when given the opportunity to exploit the physically weaker sex. (A 1986 UCLA survey found that 50 percent of males said they would commit rape if they knew there was no chance of being caught.)

It is true that the majority of males keeps their barbarian impulses in check. But can we agree that the minority that doesn’t fosters way too much horror, pain, angst, psychological duress and loss of life among the rest of us?

What else can be said about Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. and now Rumain Brisbon in Phoenix, lest we forget Rodney King in Los Angeles? What else can be discussed, debated and analyzed about domestic and sexual violence against women, as in the cases of Ray Rice and Bill Cosby; assaults on campuses (nearly 5,000 in 2012), and in the military (nearly 6,000 in 2014)?* Alongside the elephantine problem of racial bias in America, what we’re dealing with is abuse of power and its spurious cousin, our culture’s shocking tolerance for violence. Is there anything left to say about these three disturbing and depressing issues?

Maybe someone’s already thought of this, but after hearing about New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that 22,000 officers will receive a three-day tutorial on “smart policing,” it occurred to me that maybe the way to address this blight upon our society is to institute a tutorial for boys at the kindergarten level. Can’t leave it to family to do the job; some of these bloodthirsty criminals masquerading as sons and brothers, often come from perfectly lovely parents. Maybe teaching all young boys how to resist their learned behavioral responses should come at the institutional level — if you’re not a racist or rapist-to-be, it won’t hurt you, and will only reinforce the desire in you to stick up for potential victims.

Johnny, you, Jane and Billy come up to the front of the class so we can playact a scene in the schoolyard.

Hire some appropriate, accredited group to produce videos, where kids in cop uniforms act out scenes with guns; birthday party scenes, where one of the girls gets beat up by one or a bunch of boys, and how the good guys react to the situation. Show, don’t tell of a black boy being picked on by an authority figure because of his ethnicity. Follow up with in-depth discussions. Hire psychologist to teach the course. Start brainwashing them in the opposite direction early on! Just like learning how to read and write, make this course part of the common, everyday curriculum. Call it what you like — an expanded Social Studies course just for boys. Yes, just for boys. And then maybe we can come up with one for girls who bully –which, in all likelihood, they picked up from watching boys.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone — even Republicans! — are horrified by recent events in our country. The conservatives’ agreement may be couched in the current discussions about our failed justice system, and how it needs to be reviewed. No shit. Yes, that’s very true. But the bigger problem lies in what we, as a society, expect and allow. Police brutality, hostility to non-whites, sexual violence against women and the treatment of sexual victims as instigators are so commonplace that, up until now, such events merited no more than a shake of the head before everyone moved on. I hope against hope that this important moment in time will not go the way of Sandy Hook Elementary, when the entire country’s momentum was on fire to pass definitive gun control legislation, only to sputter again into the arms of inconsequence.

We know that something is very, very wrong. It’s time to consider radical new approaches for creating a new standard. Have any ideas for fixing this thing? Get them out into the world! Someone with the power to enact good ideas has to be looking for answers.

* These figures only represent reported assaults.

Back when I was 15 years old, I decided that television shows were insultingly stupid, and turned off the set for good. Maybe one laugh track too many sent me over the edge, I can’t really remember. I am in my fifties now and still don’t watch TV, even though I know it is considered the ultimate medium for modern, envelope-pushing entertainment. I do try to watch the occasional cable show that trusted friends rave about and insist I sample. I’m usually disappointed. Don’t know why, maybe by now I’ve just programmed myself not to like watching the tube. This does not make me feel superior to anyone; it’s just not my thing.

Reality TV in particular has me scratching my head. I actually know people who watch Real Housewives of Atlanta, and I swear they must be high on crack. What in the world? I’m supposed to be entertained by that? I lasted about five minutes; by then the pain was too extreme!

And then a casting director friend of mine, who often works for reality TV productions, told me about a CNBC docu-series called American Made that’s coming to a TV set near you, and it actually piqued my interest! Maybe it’s because I’m a hard-working small business owner but it sounded great. The show plans to profile self-made millionaires, but not the kind you might imagine. Instead of your over-profiled, overnight tech millionaires or the white collar corporate types making fat bonuses in their sleep from intangible products like derivatives and other “financial instruments,” this series plans to feature self-made success stories from the blue-collar trenches. Some of the people they’ve already got lined up sounded like unique individuals with true, inspirational chops.

So the suspicious and reality-show-averse skeptic in me asked her why any millionaire would want to be bothered with doing a show like this? Aren’t they too busy running their businesses? “Well, for starters,” she said, “these are smart business people, and their companies are going to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in free publicity.” Duh. “And the people we’ve been talking to are eager to pass on the message that it’s okay to dream big! That if they can make it, anyone can.”

Well, that’s a message I can get behind. My husband and I started our small business 17 years ago without much cash and a lot of enthusiasm. Today, while we are not millionaires, and still confront the struggles and challenges of any small business owner, we live well. A lot of that has to do with the privilege of being self-employed, which affords us the opportunity to sketch out the quality of life we want for ourselves. And our business, which pays the bills, allows us the freedom to pursue our creative projects without stress–I’m an author, my husband is a sculptor.

Damn, now I wish we could get on that show. Have to be a millionaire first, though! The folks at American Made are looking for blue-collar success stories from the service industry, manufacturing, construction, agriculture, manual labor, infrastructure sectors and anything in between. I thought this was information worth passing along. If you’re someone who built your business from the ground up, or if you have relatives or friends who fit the bill, I say let these guys know about you! We can use some working class heroes.

As consumers we take some comfort in knowing that by using a credit card to pay for products and services, should something go wrong, we can always ask the company to reverse the charges. Typically, the credit card company will investigate the dispute and come down on one side or the other. Case closed. But what happens when certain guidelines are written by some well-meaning executive named Mr. Not That Smart? Or Miss Didn’t Think It Through? In one case, Visa’s approach seems to be “the customer is always right,” regardless of the facts.

In light of a recent experience involving a product shipped from my company to a customer who claimed she never received it, I called Visa and spoke with a manager, who explained their policy to me in this way:

When a package is delivered to a customer, the shipper is responsible for obtaining the cardholder’s signature as the ultimate and only acceptable proof that the package was delivered. Proof of delivery by the carrier is not enough. Even if a neighbor signed for the package, and even if a delivery agent from US postal Service or Fed Ex were to state that they personally delivered the package, the shipper is still liable if the package is lost or stolen after delivery.

This rule applies even if the shipper clearly states on its website that it is not responsible for packages that are lost or stolen after delivery by the carrier. This rule also applies even if the shipper makes it clear that customers should choose the “signature at delivery” option (for an extra charge) if there is any risk of the package disappearing from their property (the customer declined that option).

According to Visa, the only way for a shipper to protect itself is to require signatures for all packages–even though most customers choose regular US Postal Service, for which no signature option is available.

I can tell you that if any business owner were to require that all customers be home to sign for packages before agreeing to sell to them, they would have no customers! It’s a nonsensical policy with no basis in reality. I contacted Visa corporate headquarters to try to get the name of the person responsible for putting this policy in place (stop laughing!), and to give them an opportunity to respond. But I only got as far as their PR department. A representative emailed me back, saying, “We are investigating the specifics of our chargeback rule, and will get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks for your understanding and patience.” That was nine days ago. Zero communication since then.

I’m visualizing a bunch of “decision makers” frantically trying to figure out why they ever came up with this crazy rule. Whatever happened to common sense? Obviously stuff happens and packages occasionally disappear. And in certain cases, some people–to be nice, we’ll call them “the disingenuous”–just don’t want to pay for merchandise. They like “free” better. As far as Visa is concerned, businesses can get taken to the cleaners all day long as long as their customers are happy. But businesses pay Visa a percentage of their sales. Aren’t we customers too?

I guess I must be on a bad roll because my last post was about the anti-business practices at the California Labor Commissioner’s office. Maybe the third time will be the charm, and I’ll write about how the IRS finally saw the light and reimbursed me for a penalty I’ve been fighting with them about. Honestly, I know I’m right!


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