Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Getting Festive, PC or Not

I wonder if you could get away with calling them "Ethnic Festivals" these days.

I've kind of lost track of political correctness. I don't know what is acceptable terminology anymore.

But what I do know is that, as a high schooler and into my college years, my buddies and I would descend on Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit and partake in "ethnic" food, people watch, and maybe have a nip or two.

Yes, it was before we were of legal drinking age. Amazing how enterprising teenagers can be.

Anyhow, they called them Ethnic Festivals and they would rotate throughout the summer, on the weekends.

You know---Greek, Italian, Arab-American, etc.

The Plaza would be host to live music, vendor stands/kiosks and underneath, in the below-ground portion of the Plaza, were loads of food nooks. Imagine an underground food court, like they have at the malls.

All you needed to do to find the food vendors below was to follow your nose. The food was yummy. There was also a marvelous view of Windsor, including the iconic Canadian Club sign east of the Plaza, with its gargantuan, lighted-up letters.

But what I remember most was the people watching.

For whatever reason, the Festivals used to attract some of the most bizarre people that Detroit had to offer.

My friends and I would call these folks "characters" and to be approached by them---which happened more often than you might think---was to be "characterized."

They were mostly street bums---probably homeless. But there were also individuals who were just plain eccentric and strange looking, wandering around aimlessly. Sometimes they would stop us and ask for money or booze or just start talking gibberish.

We likely did some of that aimless wandering around too, come to think of it. Maybe even the gibberish, depending on what time of night you're talking.

But it was a fine way for teenage boys to spend a summer's evening. We didn't go there looking for girls, per se, but if there was ever communication with the fairer sex, it certainly wasn't dismissed out of hand.

Because, as I recall, there were lots of cutie pies flitting around the Plaza during those festivals as well.

I think about those Festivals now and again, because working downtown now as I do, I have the occasion to drive by Hart Plaza from time to time.

I know that the Plaza is still home to festivals and celebrations and the like---including the occasional protest---but I don't think they're called "Ethnic Festivals" anymore. In fact, I don't even think they have weekly events such as the ones I am recalling, anymore.

The newspapers, in their Friday entertainment sections, would list what the Festival was that particular weekend at Hart Plaza. Not that it mattered to us; we pretty much went down there no matter what nationality was being represented.

Ethnic Festivals---politically correct terminology or not, they were a part of my youth.

They had their time, which is all you can really ask I suppose.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

It's the Response, Stupid

There's some sad irony in the Ray Rice conundrum as far as the National Football League is concerned.

The NFL is a league that has a legacy of toughness and images of "real men" doing battle on mud-strewn gridirons, snow and other unfavorable elements.

It's a league whose players like to throw around the word "respect," whether it's not getting enough or giving too much.

"Real men" and "respect" don't fit Rice, the ex-Baltimore Ravens running back who was caught red-fisted via security camera, cold-cocking his fiancee in an elevator last February.

This blog is expressly for my non-sports rantings, but just because the first several paragraphs have been littered with NFL references, the Rice situation has nothing to do with pro football, per se.

Real men don't hit women. And that's not how you gain respect. It is, however, all about not having any of the R-word for your fellow human beings, let alone the woman to who you are now married.

Rice's wife, Janay, has publicly asked to call off the dogs when it comes to the playing of the video that shows Rice punching her so hard that she was knocked out cold from slamming her head against a metal railing inside the elevator.

She could have been killed, had she hit her head on the rail in a different way.

Janay Rice, understandably, wants us to know that her life with Ray is theirs and this horrible incident is theirs to deal with, privately.

She's right, of course, but good luck with that.

It's not for any of us to judge Janay Rice on her decision to stand by her husband despite the disgusting act of violence he perpetrated against her for all the world (it turned out) to see.

She has her reasons and they ought to be respected. There's that R-word again.

The most troublesome part of the Rice saga is not that Janay chose to stay with her fiance and marry him.

The focus right now, as it should be, is on the NFL and its handling of the Rice situation.

There have been several missteps along the way.

First was the ridiculously meager two-game suspension that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied on Rice, based (supposedly) on the original video, which showed Rice dragging an unconscious Janay out of the elevator.

Even without the much more damning second video, sitting Rice for two games based on the original video was even too lenient. A slap on the wrist for a direct punch to the face.

Then the second video emerged, courtesy of those busy beavers over at TMZ.

The second video shows the harrowing images of Rice as his fiancee approaches him in anger. He slugs her and she hits her head on the rail before collapsing, unconscious.

No one knows what goes on behind closed doors? Thanks to our "cameras are everywhere" society, not always.

The second league miscue, an unforced fumble, was Goodell's office claiming that the league never saw the second video until last week, although a law enforcement person has proof (via a voicemail) that someone within the NFL received the video five months ago---a DVD copy that the law enforcement person sent, acting on his/her own sense of obligation.

This is where the NFL is going off the rails, potentially.

Ray and Janay Rice

If it is indeed proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the league viewed the second video before metering out the feeble suspension, then this moves directly to the "cover up" category without passing GO and without collecting $200.

The NFL seems to be riding a technicality already; in other words, it seems like their defense is going to be that, yes, we may have received a video a long time ago, but that doesn't mean that anyone viewed it.

This is malarkey, of course, and it's on its way to be proven false because the voicemail in question includes this comment from a female voice who confirmed the video's receipt: "You're right/ (The video)'s terrible."

Why would you call a video terrible if you'd never viewed it?

Goodell switched Rice's suspension from two games to indefinite after the second video came to light. A cynic would tell you that Goodell switched gears only after proof of the second video's existence was revealed to everyone.

Big difference between the two sentences above this one.

In Watergate lexicon, "What did the commissioner know and when did he know it?"

That question---the one of what did a power-to-be know and when was it known---is the question that frequently is the first domino that leads to resignations or firings.

When will people of authority realize that it's not the first act of misdeed that will bring your organization to its knees; it's the attemped covering up of said act of misdeed that will do it.

Maybe the NFL is filled with real men of respect, after all. Quite a few of the league's players have taken to social media to express their anger and disgust over Rice's actions.

But let's see how the players respond if it turns out that the league was derelict in its handling of this matter.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Avoidable Tragedy the Worst Kind

In a perfect world, Derek Flemming would have been able to march up to the driver of a car that cut him off, express some anger, and get back into his own vehicle---without fear of losing his life.

The 43 year-old husband and father of two young children would have vented his anger and frustration and still lived to re-tell the story to friends, co-workers and family at every opportunity.

We do that a lot, you know---turn storyteller when we are wronged, whether it's from poor service at a restaurant to being incredulous at a retailer's return policy, among other things.

But then we get it out of our system and we move on, until someone else relates a story that fires your mental file cabinet into gear and your story gets retold yet again.

But Flemming paid the ultimate price in an act that unfortunately will have people---like yours truly---getting into "blame the victim" mode.

Flemming was gunned down at a traffic light near Howell after he allegedly complained to a driver who cut him off in traffic and who was---again, allegedly---driving recklessly. The 69 year-old man had stopped in front of Flemming's vehicle at the light. Flemming exited his vehicle and said something like, according to his wife, who was in the car with her husband, "What's your problem?"

Then Flemming was shot dead by the older driver.

I know we don't live in a perfect world. If we did, my knee jerk reaction wouldn't have been (as it was when I read of the tragic story), "Ooh...you shouldn't have gotten out of your car."

We have all been cut off in traffic. We have all been frustrated by rudeness in public. And we have all fantasized about what we would like to have done or said, if only we had thought about those reactions at the time.

You have no idea how many fictional, imagined conversations or actions I have wistfully thought of in my head in response to surliness, idiocy and the like. Usually I think of those responses when it's way too late.

Maybe that's a good thing.

Certainly Flemming, who was on his way to pick up his kids after their first day of school, would have made it to his children and would have had dinner with them that night, if he had only checked himself before exiting his vehicle.

You can call that blaming the victim all you like. You can say that a man should be able to stand up for himself. You can say that rude, reckless drivers deserve to be confronted.

You can say that Derek Flemming shouldn't have been expecting the confronted driver to have a gun so readily available and with the demented mindset to use it at a drop of a hat.

All true.

But would you rather be right, confrontational and dead, or grumble to yourself---and your wife---and live?


People gather near the area where Derek Flemming was gunned down on Tuesday

It's sad that this is the subconscious choice that we are now forced to make in this dangerous, violent world. Maybe it's not so subconscious.

So the rude and the reckless and the surly get a free pass? Not necessarily. There are other ways to throw the karma back into their court.

In Flemming's case, there is a device called a cell phone. And it accepts emergency numbers.

I walk our dog every evening and in the 10 years that I have been doing so, I have called the police some six or seven times. The reasons range from chickens appearing at a strip mall (true story) to a drunk man passed out on a sidewalk to high suspicions of domestic violence taking place at a private residence.

I call the authorities, calmly describe the situation and let the cops do their thing.

And I live to tell about it, which I have, several times.

Should Derek Flemming have gotten out of his vehicle and confronted a dangerous, reckless, rude driver? Or should he have dialed 911 and reported the reckless driver? Flemming was situated behind the older man, so a license plate number could have easily been reported as well.

This isn't second-guessing. It's not a case of hindsight being 20/20.

We live in a world where people simply aren't to be trifled with on many occasions. No one knows who's packing heat these days. Worse, no one knows the mental stability of those who are armed.

Did the 69 year-old driver feel threatened by the unarmed Flemming, who approached the older man's vehicle clearly in anger, according to witnesses?

Playing Devil's Advocate, you can say that the older man didn't know if Flemming was armed or not. Just because Flemming didn't approach with a gun drawn doesn't mean he wasn't carrying concealed.

Maybe the older driver panicked.

Regardless, Derek Flemming is dead. And he doesn't have to be.

His epitaph, of course, ought not to read "He shouldn't have gotten out of his car." Flemming was a husband and a dad, and the owner of his own landscaping business. He was much more than a man who made a split-second decision that ultimately cost him his life.

As if we need yet another reminder that things are rough out there.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Whose Class" Action

Labor Day was always my least favorite holiday. I'm sure I was hardly alone.

Of course, I'm talking about when I was a kid, and so just about every other kid likely joined me in that sentiment.

Labor Day meant the unofficial end to summer, though the calendar says that the season runs until September 21. No matter. The calendar didn't give us kids that long; classes in Livonia, where I grew up, always commenced the day after Labor Day.

It was a final three-day weekend before the baseball mitts and swimming suits were to go back into mothballs, in favor of notebooks, pencils and rulers.

There was one day of excitement, however, in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, and that was the day the class lists would be posted in the school window by the front door. This was for grade school, not beyond.

I'm not sure how we found out that the lists were posted. Probably some sort of loosely designated sentry or Paul Revere type would spread the word. This was some 20-plus years before the Internet became all the rage.

The way it worked was simple. Printed 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper were taped to the window, face out. The sheets were generally situated by grade. On the top of each sheet was the teacher's name and the grade he/she taught. The students' names were listed below. And all the kids---didn't matter where they lived, they all managed to gather---would frantically search for their names, not knowing until that very moment which teacher they had and which of their friends were in the same class.

It was some pretty intense stuff.

After you located your name, the next step was to search for your friends' and also your enemies'. Soon there would be a cacophony of sighs of relief mixed with howls of disappointment.

Maybe you got the teacher you wanted, but your best friends were in another classroom. Or, vice-versa.

Regardless, when you got the word that the class lists were ready for consumption, you couldn't hop onto your bicycle fast enough.

I recently had a drink with an old grade school and middle school pal. We compared teachers that we had in grades 1-6 and not once were we in the same class. I thought that was pretty amazing.

That "what class are you in?" excitement ended when we all shuffled off to middle school, where you didn't have just one teacher.

It was fun while it lasted, though.

As for Labor Day, I enjoy it now. It means a three-day weekend, which as an adult you treasure.

No matter what kind of class you have.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tears of a Class Clown

"I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room cry
the tears of a clown."

I don't generally like to start blog posts or columns with quotes or song lyrics. I have often looked at that sort of thing as a cheap, hackneyed stunt.

But the first thing I thought of upon hearing the news of Robin Williams' death by suicide was the iconic song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "Tears of a Clown."

So I thought it would be appropriate to lead this post with a portion of Smokey's lyrics, because how can you read them and not think of Williams and the many comedians before him who made their living making us laugh while at the same time battling inner demons?

Williams, 63, apparently hanged himself at his California home, sometime between 10:30 p.m. Sunday night and 10:30 a.m. Monday morning.

His manager said Williams was battling "severe depression" lately.

It is fascinating to me, how many tormented "funny men" have graced the stages of comedy clubs, Broadway houses and television specials practically from the time the first brave soul decided to stand in front of a crowd and crack jokes.

There must be some corollary between the thrill of getting laughs on stage and being shy, lacking of self-esteem and, frankly, sad.

Williams, of course, was more than a comedian. He started out playing an alien on a TV sitcom and turned out to be a whale of a dramatic actor who had a knack for playing lovable, vulnerable characters with a big heart.

He was also likely the most manic guest in TV talk show history.

A Williams appearance on Carson or Leno should have required the viewer to be asked to buckle up and put the tray in the upright position.

It was a six-minute exercise in non-stop tidbits, impersonations and story telling, and Williams never sat still during any of it. In fact, he usually wasn't sitting at all.

He made me nervous, truth be told, as a talk show guest but the crowd (and the host) always ate up Williams' shtick.

Williams, again like so many fellow comedians, got lost in substance abuse, which likely didn't do his depression symptoms any good.

He returned to TV full-time last fall in "The Crazy Ones," playing a quirky ad agency man who works with his daughter. The series was Williams' first foray on the small screen as a lead character since his days on "Mork and Mindy" from 1978-82.

But the new series couldn't come close to shaking Williams out of the deep and irreversible funk of depression that would ultimately prompt him to take his own life.



I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.

Williams may have been lonely but he wasn't alone. He was a family man---a husband and a father three times over. His friends and colleagues described him---especially in the wake of his death---as kind, compassionate and with a huge heart.

So here we are---the man who dedicated himself to lifting the spirits of others, unable to lift his own.

When someone takes their own life, those who don't know the pain figure that there must have been a viable alternative.

But here's the punch line---the suicide victim instead thinks that the viable alternative that we espouse is a death sentence of sorts, anyway. So why keep going?

Billy Crystal, longtime friend and co-host of "Comic Relief" with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for 20 years, had maybe the most appropriate tweet after learning of the news.

"No words."

Fitting, because Robin Williams didn't need too many to make us laugh or cry.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tall, Dark and Oklahoman

James Garner was once asked if he'd ever do a nude scene on camera.

"I don't do horror movies," he said.

Rim shot.

Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.

"I got into the business to put a roof over my head," he once said. "I wasn't looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working."

And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.

The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV's Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.

If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.

He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.

Garner, left, with Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick

Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966's Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.

But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples' lips is The Rockford Files, NBC's series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner's Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.

Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.

Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.

In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.

Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too---and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956---just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.

Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that "Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you'd be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist."

And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner's hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.

Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.

"I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn't [or] looks for the easy way out. I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote."

Here's the irony in Garner's words: he may have been acting and "putting himself aside," but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.

He could have done much worse. And so could have we.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rockets' Red Blare

I'm beginning to think that the celebration of Fourth of July with fireworks is carrying on longer than the Revolutionary War itself.

In our neighborhood, the pop-pop-pop of things with fuses starts in late-June and is still going on, and this is nearly a week after the 4th.

Granted, the pace is slowing, but why are we still hearing things that go boom?

If people still possess these firework-like items, what are they waiting for?

Maybe I'm more sensitive to this because we have a dog, and he's not unlike many other canines who don't appreciate the rockets' red glare. Last night we set out for our evening stroll and just five minutes into it, something went boom and just like that, our pup was making a beeline for the house.

I'm as patriotic as the next guy, but do we need to hear the commotion (sometimes past 11:00 p.m.) for a three-week period?

I could go into the accidents, some tragic, but that's piling on. It's unfair to take pot shots because some of these mishaps are truly not the result of being careless. The highest profile ones to Detroiters---the death of a 44-year-old man and the loss of an eye of channel 7 meteorologist Dave Rexroth---appear to be nothing more than horrible accidents.

Still, this is what can go wrong when lighters are set to fuses, when those doing the lighting are not professionals.

But back to the ever-growing July 4th "season."

I understand the concept of a Christmas season, with decorations going up after Thanksgiving and staying up past New Year's Day. I get it with Halloween as well. It's fun to look at how creative people can get with their homes. Sometimes we like to pour some hot chocolate or coffee and just hop into the car and drive around, looking at the displays.

But those are nice, quiet holiday seasons. Independence Day is all about twilight's last gleaming---and it seems to be every twilight for 21 days straight, at least where we live.

As I write this, I must admit that things are quieting down quite a bit, but it's July 10th, for crying out loud, and the bombs are only just now abating.

I guess my biggest question is, if you shelled out the dough for the higher-end fireworks, why are you holding onto them well past July 4th? It's not like these things are being discovered in a basement somewhere.

I know there isn't a hard-and-fast rule here, and I don't want to come off like a sourpuss (maybe that ship has sailed), but at the risk of sounding like a prude, this does fall into the realm of disturbing the peace, does it not?

Frankly, I quite enjoyed the night of the 4th around here. The celebration lasted for several hours and it was actually pretty cool and impressive, hearing all the rapid fire booming and seeing the pretty colors of fireworks that were mini-me versions of the awesome display we saw in Madison Heights the Sunday prior.

It had really ramped up on the 3rd and carried pretty strong into the 5th. No problem; it was the weekend. I get it.

But this started the last week of June and is only now slowing down. That's about three weeks.

As for the accidents, they're going to happen every year, no matter how many safety tips are floated around. It's sad but true---and inevitable.

But while some of those are unavoidable, what isn't is the setting off of fireworks for three weeks straight.

Or maybe we just chalk this whole thing off to the grouchiness of a 50-something white male living in the suburbs.

That "season" is much longer than three weeks, by the way.