Archive | November 2014

Long Live the Black Thursday Backlash

Thanksgiving is a great holiday because anyone can participate in it. It’s a secular tradition that encourages thankfulness and humility.

No matter what your background or thoughts about the country’s origins, everyone has something to be Thankful for. Even if your life is miserable and you’re having tough times, someone somewhere has helped you and your own mind will be better off if you show gratitude.

But Thanksgiving is also the kickoff of the holiday season (“holiday” meaning Christmas and/or Chanukah), and as such it has been accompanied in recent decades by the ever-present “Black Friday” when the Christmas-fueled gluttony of commerce commences.

Every year we are treated to fresh news footage of frenzied shoppers trampling one another or rioting over merchandise as stores open their doors on “Black Friday,” the first full day of holiday season shopping. Actual deaths by trampling at some of these Black Friday events haven’t dissuaded people from standing in line for hours for the chance to surrender their dignity in return for a discount on merchandise. It would be interesting to see what percentage of fanatical Black Friday shoppers actually spend the bulk of that day’s shopping money on themselves rather than on gifts for others.

In my extended years of post-college underemployment, I worked for a time as a sales associate in a suburban department store. I remember having to wake up at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving because the store opened at 6 a.m. instead of the usual 9:30 or 10 a.m. I remember pulling my beat-up van into the parking lot at 5:30 a.m. and seeing people already standing outside the doors waiting. I remember hating each of them instantly, and finding them among most pathetic forms of life on Earth. You could always count on these early shoppers to be absolute jerks as well. They’ll argue loudly over five cents and treat you like garbage.

It is my ambition every year now to do all of my Christmas shopping online. I don’t want to have to enter a single store or post office to buy or send Christmas gifts.

But the popularity of Black Friday events has not waned.

And recently things took a deeper step into the ridiculous as some stores have been opening their Black Friday sales on Thursday, Thanksgiving.

That’s been the tipping point for a lot of people. Watching Neanderthal shoppers trample people to death or claw each other’s eyes out for a flat-screen television didn’t offend enough people for a backlash, but being open on Thanksgiving has.

And it’s right that it should. Those people who stand for hours in the cold waiting for the Friday sales to open want to be there, but asking store employees to come in on Thanksgiving is beyond a consumer’s capacity for rapacious cruelty.

People are urging one another not to reward companies that open on Thanksgiving. Some stores are even taking advantage of the backlash and advertising that they are NOT open on Thanksgiving.

There are some places that should be open on Thanksgiving. We don’t mind police and firefighters having to work; we need them all the time. We don’t need to buy televisions on Thanksgiving.

Maybe the outrage generated by attempts at having a Black Thursday will turn the tide against holiday consumer culture. If it makes even a modest dent, that would be one more thing to be thankful for.

Loss of Laughter and Singing: RIP Lizzy O’Donnell

My father is one of seven children born and raised in the Bronx. Growing up with many aunts and uncles is great. Aunts and uncles are adults who are not your parents and so they are automatically cool and interesting from the time you are a kid. Being taken to see ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ off-Broadway by my uncle Tim remains one of my happiest childhood memories.

Our family lost my aunt Liz this past week. She suffered a massive stroke one morning and never regained consciousness. She was only 55.

We are lucky to come from a very creative family. My family is saturated with musicians, writers, actors and lots of people for whom creativity is second nature.

Liz loved to sing and had a beautiful singing voice. One of my earliest memory of my Aunt Liz is going to see her play music. This was back when my grandparents and several of my aunts still lived in The Bronx. There was a street fair of some kind going on. There were rides and games, and music. Liz sang and she was great. I remember watching her sing and thinking how cool it was that a relative of mine was so loud and awesome out here in front of all these people.

Years later, she was driving me to the train after a family visit and she popped a CD of a recent recording of her singing into the car stereo. She hadn’t lost a thing in the 20+ intervening years. It was a comfort knowing that whatever else was going on in our lives, contending with the routine hassles of raising families, paying bills, staying employed, we remained true to the creativity in our blood.

Liz dealt with a lot of the usual unpleasant crap that abounds in the modern age: divorce, being a working single mother, unemployment, underemployment, illness and the like. But through it all I never remember going to a family gathering where I couldn’t share a laugh with her at some point.

She and my other aunts made a habit of playing Scrabble together whenever they could. Years ago at a family party I joined them and since I was new to the game, asked for leniency in how we judged words. Liz noted that “Fffft!” was not a word. We all had a good laugh at that, and since then whenever I play Scrabble, Words with Friends or any similar word game, I can’t help but think of Lizzy’s admonition that “Fffft!” is not a word.

Liz never lost the joy of singing and making music. A few years ago, Liz’s band, Coyote, got back together for a reunion. They played in The Bronx and the show was packed. It was wall-to-wall people and my wife and I managed to scrap our way through the crowd to be close to the stage area. Before Coyote played, Liz and my Uncle Danny (who plays guitar) did a short set. It was great to see them play together again. I remember being a very young child watching them sing and play guitar at a family party. Coyote was true to form and seeing my aunt play to a packed crowd made for another great family memory.

The news of her death was a shock. Lizzy’s passing came suddenly and too soon. There were seven brothers and sisters my father’s side of the family and now there are six. Six: the number seems obscene now, unfair.

But where my family has been unlucky it has also been strong. Liz’s daughter, my cousin Kerry, is a rock. I hope I can raise my daughters as well so that they love me as much Kerry loved her mother. And if they are half as strong as my cousin, they will be set for life.

My awesome Grandmother should not have had to bury a daughter, but her resolve to comfort others in the midst of her grief proves we are made from stern stuff.

If my family has any official spokesman or representative, I’m glad it is my father. He has been the one to most eloquently voice our grief and our pride both this time and years ago when we lost my Grandfather.

My Dad recounted his happiness in seeing my aunt sing in the Bronx at the street fair and described her contagious laughter, generous spirit and her incredibly tenacious nature. When Liz caught a pickpocket trying to steal something from her bag on the subway, the police had to pry her fingers from the would-be thief’s arm.

Seeing my father and cousin speak about my departed aunt was as proud a moment as it was sad. In the midst of this tremendous loss, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have had an aunt like Liz but also how lucky I am to come from a family that produces such people.

And true to form, the last thing my father heard from my aunt was a joke that he declined to repeat in church. But anyone who asked outside of church was granted the wish of hearing it. I heard it at the restaurant later where we all gathered for lunch. It was topical and funny, and completely in line with the good humor of Aunt Liz.

No family gathering will feel the same without Lizzy’s laughter, but her passing has served as a reminder of what a great family we have.

Words on the Streets

A recent video posted by the organization Hollaback documents a women walking the streets of New York city and being harassed 100 times over 10 hours.

It’s a mark of shame on the city that someone could have no trouble filming that. Creepy men can be found in every corner of the city and they operate with impunity. It’s no crime to be a sleazy jerk.

Catcalls are the calling card of failures. They are the currency of street garbage. It is behavior lower than an animal’s and people who do that should be treated as such. There’s no excuse for that behavior, so let’s stop making it.

There’s nothing manly about it. It’s the mark of a coward to impose yourself on a woman traveling alone. Watch the same women walk around for 10 hours with a man at her side and watch people shut up.

The right thing to do is not acknowledge this at all. What annoys me is to see women smile at these people. That only encourages them. They want to get some kind of reaction.

It happens almost exclusively to women who are traveling alone. Rule of thumb: don’t say anything to a woman you wouldn’t say in front of her much larger and meaner boyfriend, husband or father. Talk to women on the street the way you would if your mother was there with you.

One criticism of the film is that it somehow holds up as negative the normal attraction men feel for women and that it is somehow a covertly radical feminist diatribe against men. This is nonsense.

There’s no gender warfare involved with this, this is an issue of behaving like a decent human being. I oppose catcalls not because I am a feminist (men by definition aren’t feminists), but because I believe in civilization.

There’s a difference between noticing a pretty woman and making it obvious that you’re staring at them. Everyone hates being stared at. If you are an adult man and you haven’t figured out how to discreetly and quietly check out a woman’s ass, you’re an imbecile. Real men learn how to do that by the time we’re 14 at the latest. Not employing this skill makes you unfit for the benefits of an adult male.

There was once a time when men who made those comments towards women were meant to pay for it by the judgment and actions of their peers; it is time for that again.

When they turn 12, I plan to buy my daughters pepper spray and stun guns. But more vital than that, is to make sure they are raised with enough sense of self that they don’t respond to catcalls or give any quarter to people who would behave that way in public. My girls are far above and beyond the kind of people who would harangue women on the street.

The most ridiculous accusation against the film is one of racial bias. There are no “racial politics” involved in the film. The Hollaback group wrongly issued an apology for the “unintended racial bias” depicted in the movie. But there’s nothing to suggest it is not an accurate portrayal of street harassment. It’s as real as real gets.

The accusations of racial bias in the film are groundless. There are indeed white street harassers depicted in the video, and I know this just by watching the short video that is about two minutes long. I have not watched all 10 hours of the video but I’m willing to wager that the racial composition of street harassers depicted over 10 hours will be largely unchanged from the two minute summary video.

The population of street hoodlums does not perfectly mirror the racial makeup of the city, and so no accurate video of New York street life will either. What activists call “racial bias” in the video most New Yorkers know as reality. If you think the video is a vehicle of racial politics you are lacking common sense and completely missing the point.

And the point is that this kind of behavior should stop. There is no excuse for it from any race of people.

Let’s resolve to stand up against inappropriate behavior. New York is rude enough without making it inhospitable to women. If you are a real man, you want all women to feel comfortable in your city. Make it so.

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