Sunday, August 09, 2015


This is something I experienced today here in Hamburg, Germany.

I was riding the bus with my girlfriend around 11 a.m. We had just bought a small piece of furniture and were transporting it back to our apartment. The bus was pretty crowded. At one stop, a man in his 60s or 70s got on. As he was walking further into the bus for a seat, I heard him grumble something that had the word "Ausländer" in it. "Ausländer" means "foreigner" in German. I didn't know exactly what the man said, but I definitely heard the word "Ausländer," and it did not sound nice.

When the man made this comment, it created a tension in the bus. Already I saw in my girlfriend's eyes that she was not happy. She looked at me and said something like, "Did you hear that?" I said, "Yeah; is he crazy or something?" But because I hadn't fully understood the man or the situation fully, I didn't feel like pursuing it too much further.

But then, I noticed this other woman. She was probably in her mid 20s and she had a baby swaddled around her chest in a sling. She turned to this guy -- she must have been max four feet away from him -- and said in German, "A little ignorant, what you just said, don't you think?" And she had a really cold and strong look in her eye. A few other people sort of snapped to attention when she said this, and my girlfriend said something like, "Yeah, exactly."

The man, who by this time was seated, did not respond to her comment. Instead, he said, "What a cute baby." But the woman wasn't having it. "Yeah," she said, "wonderful. A baby. A little stupid what you said." The man, trying to diffuse the situation or just plain oblivious asked if the baby was a boy or a girl. The women, still with this very cold and strong look in her eye, completely undeterred, said, "It doesn't matter if it's a boy or a girl. What you need to know is the baby is not a racist."

At this comment, which I initially didn't understand -- it was only later that my girlfriend translated for me -- several people on the bus laughed and nodded in agreement.

When my girlfriend and I got out at our stop, I asked her what had exactly happened in there. She said that what seemed to have happened was that there was an Indian woman sitting in one of the first few seats of the bus -- those reserved for the elderly and the disabled -- and when this man got on, he saw her in this seat and made a racist remark.

Hence, my having heard the word "Ausländer."

I gotta say, I'm sad that people still dare to make such remarks, but the reaction of that woman and the other people in the bus really impressed me.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Reflecting

A few pages from my personal journal: 

So it’s weird. I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately. Just two minutes ago, I was in the bathroom and the image of John Ritter popped into my mind. John Ritter and the sound of his voice and “Three’s Company.” The way that set looked. Watching that show on our 13-channel Zenith TV. Just me and my mom. Actually, we would never watch “Three’s Company” together.

You know, it’s funny. I remember watching all those shows from the '70s/early '80s and wondering about them. There always used to be something about them that was beyond my understanding. Those shows are ancient history now. But I suppose they were pretty much about the same things that today’s shows are: love, sex, dating, strife. But, Christ, "The Regal Beagle." I remember that the sound of that name, “The Regal Beagle,” had had a fantastic effect upon my ear. I had no idea what the name really meant or why it was funny; I simply liked the sound of it. Sort of like how I used to like the sound of the book title “The Borne Ultimatum” and the band name “Deaf Leopard” without really knowing what those things really were.  


But yeah . . . thinking about my childhood. Now that I’m in my 30s, my memory is not less clear. It’s still clear. But now things take on more of an understood significance. This was the era that I was living in. Cordless phones and shoulder pads, boom boxes and cars that looked very big and boxy. 


Tonight one of my friends and I watched “The Fly.” It’s from 1986. I remarked before the movie started how my mother didn't let me watch it when it came out. Funnily enough, while watching the movie,  I found myself nostalgic for the era in which it played and also in awe of the deep feelings the characters expressed toward each other. Here was passion. Here was lust. Here was unrequited love. All during a time when I was, what, 4 years old? People had these passions, these desires. People were actresses and were reaching a high point in their careers -- all when I was 4! 


Gina Davis was an absolute stunner in the movie: pouty lips, sexy, fit. And as I watched the film, I kept thinking, “What does Gina Davis look like today? Did she age? She must’ve aged. Maybe she didn’t age.” But of course she aged! The move was made 30 years ago! But I didn’t want her to have aged. I wanted things to be as they were. Why? 


Life is marching on, and I’m really starting to reflect, I guess. I’m starting to hear mortality click its nails on the desk. 


And so I think of my childhood. In flashes, it comes back to me: That time when my mom gave away my watch to the kid who ruined his because she thought I wouldn’t know the difference between a broken watch and a working one. Lying on the big red rug in the air-conditioned Queens apartment in the summer. The sound of the announcer on Channel 11 -- or was it Channel 9? -- when he would say, “And now back to [the Late Movie].” Watching my mom from my bedroom as she watched TV and as I tried to go to sleep. The sound of the thick rubber ball echoing off the hallway wall as I played catch with myself. 


Yes, there is a lot to remember. I don’t know, as I and the people around me get older, I find myself reaching for something. I can’t say exactly what it is.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Taylor Swift concert T-shirts made in Bangladesh -- a little hypocritical?

I’m not going to lie: I like Taylor Swift. I think her music is catchy and her lyrics are potent. I even like her as a person and think it was cool that she recently persuaded a huge corporation like Apple to pay artists their fair share of royalties.

So I was a little disappointed when I bought a Taylor Swift T-shirt at her concert in Amsterdam in late June and saw that the garment was made in Bangladesh.

It seemed a little hypocritical. We all know that Bangladesh’s garment workers are paid some of the lowest wages in the world. In 2013, a Bangladeshi garment factory that produced clothes for big Western labels collapsed, killing about 1,130 people.

Granted, just because catastrophes have occurred in Bangladesh’s garment industry does not mean the Bangladeshi factory used to produce Taylor Swift’s concert tees is a bad one. And since that 2013 factory collapse, a concerted effort has been made to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry.

Still, looking at the label on Taylor Swift’s concert tee and seeing “Made in Bangladesh” just didn’t sit well with me, especially because she had just won so much praise for championing the rights of the underdog.

So I decided to send out a few emails with some questions in them to see if anyone could address my consternation.

The first email I sent was to Stoked PR, which handles public relations for Swift. The founder of the firm, Kate Head, actually wrote me back. She said, “The manufacturing company responsible for the [concert] shirts operates under a global code of conduct, which is one of the highest in the industry.”

OK, fair enough. But this is what I had expected. I didn’t think that Taylor Swift’s people were going to tell me that her clothes are produced in slums. Head also said in her email that someone from the company that produces the shirts would contact me in a business day with more information.

OK, that was nice, but I didn’t want to wait a business day. So I did the practical thing. I went over to my closet, got out the T-shirt and looked at the name of the company on the label. It said “Gildan.” I then went to my computer and emailed the Montreal-based company with some questions.

In a couple hours, I had a response from Geneviève Gosselin, Gildan’s director of PR, and I must admit, I found her email very informative.

Gildan, she wrote, is a global apparel producing company of 42,000 employees. The bulk of the company’s garment factories is in Central America -- places like Nicaragua and Honduras -- but Gildan also owns facilities in the United States, and in 2010 purchased a facility in Bangladesh to boost sales in Europe and Asia.

The Bangladeshi facility, she said, employs about 2,300 workers who earn “significantly more than the basic minimum wage” (though she wouldn’t say how much more). In addition, these employees receive healthcare from a medical team that the company employs. “In Bangladesh alone, our medical team provides more than 45,000 instances of medical attention to our employees per year.”

OK, I thought. Gildan does its part. Which of course is only right. The company, after all, has an $8.2 billion market capitalization.

More interesting to me was this: When Gildan purchased the Bangladeshi factory, Gosselin said, it hired a U.S. firm to inspect the structure’s integrity. As a result of that firm’s findings, “Considerable resources were allocated to reinforce the building structures with structural steel and reinforced concrete.” In addition, Gosselin said, the factory is continually inspected to make sure it is up to code.

Gosselin then went on to give a litany of other critical safety practices that are exercised at the facility, practices that the Fair Labor Association has approved.

OK, OK. But I still didn’t understand something. After that catastrophic factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, many well known brands, trade unions and nonprofits came together and created “The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh,” a legally binding agreement to maintain basic safety standards in the Bangladeshi textile industry.

Brands must pay a significant amount of money to join the Accord -- money that’s used to fund the Accord’s various safety initiatives. Though not a panacea, the Accord is one way that brands can show that they are willing to shell out the kind of cash needed to improve safety in the country’s garment industry.

Why, I wanted to know, hadn’t Gildan joined the Accord?

Gosselin had an answer. Most of the companies that signed the Accord, she said, only outsource labor to Bangladesh. But Gildan also owns the actual factory in which the clothes are made. Therefore, “We believe we have the ability to directly implement our own strict standards."

Even so, some of Gildan’s customers signed the Accord, so Accord inspectors recently inspected Gildan’s factory in Bangladesh. Gildan will publish the findings of that undertaking in its next corporate report.

OK, I thought. Pretty good. Of course, I’m not fully satisfied. Multinational companies are still reaping mega profits from the low cost of labor in Bangladesh; the minimum wage in the Bangladeshi garment industry, $68 a month, is still, according to a 2013 Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies report, 32 percent less than the amount needed to make basic ends meet; and some of Gildan’s factories in Central America have been cited for serious workers rights abuses (though Gildan has worked to try to rectify those problems).

But I will admit that the issue is complicated. So complicated, in fact, I almost forgot about Taylor Swift and how she plays into all of this.

So let’s review. Swift champions the rights of people in one sector but makes big profits by participating in a type of business scheme not beyond reproach.

It’s a criticism. And yet I wonder. Is it even fair to criticize Swift? Do we live in a world that has become so globalized and so reliant on cheap labor -- so used to seeing “Made in Bangladesh” or “Made in Cambodia” on every label -- that reproaching Swift would be unfair?

Again, a difficult question. So I thought I’d pose it to Julie Irwin, a University of Texas business school professor who specializes in consumer behavior.

Her answer was very interesting.

“Whenever someone makes an effort to be ethical in any domain,” she said, “then people look carefully for inconsistencies and do not like it when they find any.”

As a separate example, she cited that of Whole Foods. People have criticized Whole Foods for overpricing and carrying items that have been genetically modified. However, she aptly noted: “You rarely hear people making the same sorts of complaints against grocery stores that do not try to be ethical (i.e., most every other player in the market).”

She did say, however, “Holding celebrities accountable, gently, might get a little focus on pervasive human rights abuses, if they actually are taking place.” All the same, she said, “I just strongly balk at the idea of focusing on someone who is already trying to do something good for workers in one area ... because doing so could ensure no one ever speaks out about anything.”

Fair enough. I guess one main point is that after weighing all the information I received, I at least feel comfortable enough to wear the T-shirt I bought. It cost 30 euros and says “I Love Taylor Swift.”

Friday, July 03, 2015

capitals, commas and ellipses: some good examples

Sometimes it's hard to know exactly how to punctuate a sentence. For example, does a sentence in which the speaker loses his train of thought end with an ellipsis and a period or just an ellipsis?

The answer: just an ellipsis.

"I was certain I left my keys here . . ."

In any event, I came across a sheet yesterday that offers a lot of nice examples of appropriate punctuation. And sometimes it's just better to learn by example. Enjoy.

Oh, one thing. The sheet is in British English. So you are going to see some periods outside of quotations marks. But other than that, it's cool.

And one other thing. The AP Stylebook says that an ellipsis is composed of three dots surrounded by a space on each side: [ ... ] The Chicago Manuel of Style says an ellipsis should have a space around it and between the dots, too: [ . . . ]

The authors who made the sheet, however, decided to ignore both AP and Chicago style. Their ellipsis looks like this: [...] No spaces around the dots or between them.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A JOURNALISM PROFESSOR of mine once said that he thought that similes and metaphors were proof that words fail. What he meant was, that we sometimes have to employ a simile or a metaphor to convey meaning is proof that a single word does not exist for the thing we are trying to express.

I must say that words certainly do fail when considering the crash of Germanwings 9525.

I have been keeping up with the crash, and must say that any time I've discussed it or thought about it, language really has fallen short. Not only are words missing to describe the horror that was that flight, similes and metaphors don't seem to do it justice either.

In fact, one of the only ways, if not the only way, I have been able to process the incident has been by comparing it to things that have happened in the realm of fiction.

For example, when I first heard that the co-pilot of the plane, Andreas Lubitz, locked the captain out of the cockpit and then steered the aircraft and all the people in it into a mountain, one of the first things that came to my mind was Freddy Krueger. In "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2," the movie opens with students on a yellow school bus being dropped off from school. It’s a cheery, cloudless day and the students are all horsing around in their seats as the bus rolls through a leafy suburban neighborhood.

Then, a few of the students -- the ones who are to be dropped off last -- notice that the bus driver has passed their stops. Suddenly, the bus takes a sharp turn off the main drag and heads into what looks like an open, desert-like area. The bus is being driven wildly, and the sky, which moments ago had been cloudless, has turned to black.

Finally, the bus stops. The students pound at the windows, trying to get out. As they do this, though, they see that the sand all around the bus is starting to drop out, almost as if a sinkhole were opening around them.  Before they know it, the ground around the bus has completely dropped out and the vehicle is teetering treacherously at the top of what looks a 200-foot-tall stalagmite. It is then that they see who was driving the bus all along: Freddy Krueger.

As the teens cower by the emergency exit at back of the bus, Freddy slowly gets out of the driver's seat. Laughing, he brandishes his glove and begins to walk to the back of the bus. As he slowly makes his way down the aisle, he scrapes the blades of his glove against the metal ceiling. The teens are trapped and Freddy is coming for them...


THE SECOND FICTIONAL sequence that came to my mind when I read about Flight 9525, especially when I read that the captain of the plane pleaded with Lubitz to be let back in, was a sequence from Edgar Allen Poe's “Cask of Amontillado.”

The story, which takes place during carnival season in an unnamed Italian city, perhaps Venice, opens with one character, Montresor, leading his “friend,” Fortunato, into a crypt under the city.

Fortunato is a wine lover and Montresor has promised to take him to a secret cask of rare Amontillado, which is stored underground in the city's catacombs.

Once the two men reach the bowels of the catacombs, Montresor, who has an unnamed grievance with Fortunato, tells Fortunato, who is already a little drunk, to go look inside a niche in the crypt wall -- that’s where the wine is, Montresor promises. When Fortunato walks into the niche, Montresor quickly shackles him to two thick metal staples protruding from a wall inside the niche. Fortunato is trapped. Montresor then begins to carefully brick up the hole through which Fortunato entered.

Montresor is flabbergasted. At first, he doesn't even understand what has happened to him. But as reality sets in, he frantically tries to reverse the situation any way he can: he begs, he pleads, he threatens.6

Finally, after letting out something akin to an animal-like scream, Fortunato says, "For the love of God, Montresor!"

The transcript of Flight 9525's inflight blackbox recording has not been officially released. But it has been reported that Lubitz, though he could still be heard breathing, never responded to the captain's pleas.

However, in "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor does respond to Fortunato's final plea.

"Yes," he mockingly says, "for the love of God."

Saturday, April 04, 2015

A definition of love

How can you not love YouTube? Nearly anything one wants to watch, one can watch. One thing I enjoy watching are John Lennon videos. I've loved John Lennon since I was 15 years old and purchased the album "Lennon Legend." Tonight I decided to search YouTube for covers of the Lennon song "Oh My Love," which is off the album "Imagine" (1971). After listening to several renditions of the song, I watched a video of Lennon singing it himself, at his home in Ascott, England. The video, which I think is just a clip from the movie "Imagine," shows the recording of the song and, at one point, cuts to John and Yoko talking with a journalist, discussing their definitions of love. Yoko's definition really struck me:
So, what is love then? I really think that love is something to do with relaxation, you know. When you’re guarded with somebody, you know, then you’re not relaxed. And when you’re guarded with somebody, you can’t love that person, you know. Love is when you understand it so well, that you relax finally, you know. And we have that kind of relaxation between us a lot. 
Think about it. Roll the idea over in your mind a few times. I think you'll see that it fits. Anyway, just something very positive and very nice. This is the video, if you're interested.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Call me crazy, but I recently got an urge to write about, or at least list, all the people I know who have died.

I think the source of this urge can be traced back to a conversation I had with my girlfriend a few weeks back.

We had been sitting at our kitchen table and I had made a remark about someone I knew who had died, and then I said, "I know a lot of people who have died....You also must know a lot of people who have died, right?" And she said, "No, not really actually."

And then I realized that I know more than a fair share of people who are now gone. Just as a disclaimer, I don't mean what I'm about to write to be a tribute or a memorial, even though it still sort of will be, in a way. All I'm saying with this post is this: I sometimes think about the people that I know who have died, and their deaths have made grooves in me. Some of those grooves are deeper than others, but despite that, I think about these people relatively often, and I just wanted to get this down.
Jessica, she was in my kindergarten class and she died of a heart problem during the summer of kindergarten to first grade; Eric's grandfather, Eric was a childhood friend of mine and his grandfather was run down by a car while attempting to cross 108th Street in Forest Hills, Queens; Lisette, she was a girl I knew from middle school, a girl I actually dated for just one day, believe it or not; Jason Butler, he was a super charismatic, athletically talented and really nice guy I knew in high school who was hit by a truck as he was attempting to cross a street; Christine, she was a girl who was sick with cancer when I was in high school and eventually succumbed to the disease; Billy, he was a guy who used to hang around Great Neck and I think he died of an aneurism; my ex-girlfriend's brother, Joseph; my grandmother, Anna, who died of pneumonia a few days shy of her 95th birthday; Muriel Klein, my great aunt, who had lived in Howard Beach, Queens, for many years and had loved crosswords; Peter Franzoni, a kid who I had known from middle school and high school; Jessica Mena, a friend of mine and my good friend Matt's sister; Ellen Harris, my good friend Andrew's mother and a person I saw almost every other day for years on end; Dave Fleetwood, a supervisor for Chestnuthill Township, Pa., who was killed when a disgruntled citizen went on a shooting rampage at a township meeting.
Crazy, when I look at this paragraph above, this block, if you will, of deaths and lives lived. There's just so much there -- so much compression in it all. Perhaps the the strangest part of this whole undertaking, for me at least, is that when I read the names of the people listed in the paragraph above, I can often imagine their voices as well. And when I do, when I imagine their voices, it's then that much of what I think to be true or false gets thrown into question.