Monthly Archives: February 2013

Stupid Quote of the Week #2

The usual suspects?

The usual suspects?

“You’ve got African-Americans.  You’ve got Hispanics, and you’ve got a bag full of money.  Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn’t go off in your head and say, ‘This is a drug deal?’”

– Sam L. Ponder, assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, in reference to the case of Bongani Charles Calhoun.

Calhoun, who is Black, went on a road trip with some friends who planned to purchase cocaine.  The drug dealers turned out to be undercover Drug Enforcement Agency operatives.  Calhoun was arrested along with the others, but insisted he had no knowledge of the drug buy.  Ponder questioned the validity of Calhoun’s ignorance.  Calhoun filed suit, claiming his arrest was racially motivated.

Ponder’s comment incited a strong retort from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Hispanic member.  “By suggesting that race should play a role in establishing a defendant’s criminal intent, the prosecutor here tapped into a deep and sorry vein of racial prejudice that has run through the history of criminal justice in our nation,” she said.

I suppose, if I saw a group of Caucasian folks at a shooting range (and there are plenty of them in Texas), I could reasonably assume they’re White supremacists out to assassinate President Obama.  If you know anything about Tea Party Republicans in Texas, that’s not too outlandish a scenario.  But, it’s still a racist assumption.  It’s the kind of bigoted crap Blacks and Hispanics have had to deal with for decades; that we’re criminally inclined and – if we’re groups especially – it should be assumed we’re up to no good.  It doesn’t matter that Calhoun probably knew what his friends were doing.  But, a federal prosecutor should know better than to make such a blatantly racist comment like that.  But, if he’s a Republican from Texas, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

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Stupid Quote of the Week #1

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“Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this.  I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.  It’s been written about.  Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, during oral arguments about the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the Act because of a lawsuit brought by Shelby County, Alabama.  Attorneys for Shelby County claim that the Act has essentially worn out its welcome because the nation has a biracial president and plenty of non-Caucasians in positions of power.  If it isn’t for the fact that the state of Alabama has a vitriolic history of voter suppression and intimidation, the lawsuit might have some validity.  But, the images of White police officers beating Black people protesting for their right to vote keeps swinging through my mind.  Despite the election of Obama, some Republican-dominated districts have made an attempt in recent years to reconfigure some areas that could ensure GOP wins.  Many of these areas are in the Southeastern U.S. where – if anyone has done their research – racial discrimination was more entrenched just a half century ago.  Selma, Alabama is the site of one of the most vicious attacks on unarmed citizens by police in U.S. history.

It doesn’t surprise me that Scalia would make such a statement.  As far as I know, he’s never experienced firsthand the feeling of a water hose against his face just because he wanted to be treated as a human being.  Then again, neither have I.  But, the Voting Rights Act and its predecessor, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, were meant to ensure that.  I guess Scalia – sitting up on his ivory throne – still hasn’t figured that out.

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In Memoriam – Van Cliburn, 1934 – 2013

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Renowned pianist Van Cliburn, who stunned the world in 1958 when he won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the age of 23, died yesterday at his home in Fort Worth, Texas.  He was 78.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Harvey Lavan Cliburn began studying the piano at age 3.  His family moved to Texas three years later.  When he won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, the United States and the former Soviet Union were locked in a tense “Cold War”; made even more antagonistic with the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik space probe the year before.  Cliburn’s performance earned him an 8-minute standing ovation and about $2,500.  His win earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City (the first musician to have one) and a cover on “Time” magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

Cliburn’s unimposing personality and dedication to piano-playing made him an icon of classical music.  Although he officially retired from the concert circuit in 1978, Cliburn’s foundation seeks to inspire future pianists with its quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano competition and various educational programs.  He received a Kennedy Center Honors in 2001 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.  In 2010, President Obama presented Cliburn with the National Medal of Arts.

Reflecting back on Cliburn’s 1958 win Moscow makes me realize something critical.  We artistic types – musicians, writers, dancers, poets – can always accomplish what politicians never can: unity and peace among disparate entities.  In December of 1987, Cliburn performed at the White House for then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.  The “Cold War” was still in full swing, and although the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, tensions between them and the U.S. were still high.  But, as he had done in Moscow 29 years earlier, Cliburn merely sat down at a piano and, with his nimble fingertips, made the animosity disappear.

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Epimenio

Epigmenio, c. 1924

Epimenio, c. 1924

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of my paternal grandfather, Epimenio De La Garza.  That’s a name you don’t hear too often, if not at all.  But, his moniker is as rare as the man was himself.  I was a little more than five years old when he died in February 1969, but I can still remember him rather clearly.  He had a sharply angular face with blazing green eyes and a booming voice.  He’s been gone for more than four decades now, but his memory lingers strongly and proudly in my father’s family.

Epimenio was born in Eagle Pass, Texas (formerly El Paso de Águila); a city on the Mexican border.  He was a descendant of some of the first Spanish settlers who arrived in the 1580s.  The region was then known as Coahuila y Tejas, Nueva España, or New Spain.  By the time of Epimenio’s birth, the De La Garza clan had carved a unique place in the state’s history.  Unique, albeit separate from the traditional or accepted version of the grand saga of Texas.

The third of nine children, Epimenio left school after the second grade – only because he had the audacity to correct a math teacher in front of the class.  He was a carpenter by trade, so exacting in his craft he could draw a straight line on a sheet of paper without a ruler.  After he and my grandmother, Francisca, wed in 1924, they immediately started a family, and Epimenio developed his construction and carpentry business.  Like most men of his generation, emotional strength and personal pride were uncompromising attributes.  In the late 1920s, my grandparents and their two oldest children moved to Dallas where Epimenio quickly established a solid reputation as an extraordinary carpenter.  One day, while my grandfather and his crew built concession booths at the State Fair of Texas, an Anglo man commented on Epimenio’s heavy Spanish accent.  My grandfather – as fair-colored as the Anglo man – said he had been hired to work there and, picking up a sledgehammer, added, “What are you going to do about it, goddmanit?”

He and his crew built many of warehouses on the southern edge of downtown Dallas, an area now known as Deep Ellum; hoisting massive steel beams onto their shoulders.  Today, many of those warehouses still stand; converted to chic loft and studio apartments for the city’s artistic crowd.  He often did work on the stately mansions of Dallas’ Highland Park and Swiss Avenue neighborhoods; wealthy enclaves where Hispanics and Negroes could labor, but not live.  Shortly after World War II, Epimenio attempted to purchase a large home in Highland Park, but was denied simply because he and his family were “Mexicans.”  But, they definitely liked his carpentry skills.  In the mid-1950s, he purchased a large swath of land in North Dallas and designed and built a home for his family; a large red-brick structure where he lived out his final years.

Epimenio’s tendency towards practicality had no limits.  In the 1930s, he and another man were patching up the roof of St. Ann’s Catholic school on the edge of downtown Dallas, when the local bishop arrived.  The other man set down his hammer and knelt onto the sharply-slanted roof; bowing in blind reverence to the bishop’s presence.  Epimenio scolded him for his seeming idolatry.  “You’re going to roll off that roof and splatter onto the ground,” he said.  My grandfather also refused to kiss the hand of any Catholic official, as was the tradition back then; a response that always upset my devoutly religious grandmother.  But, Epigmenio remained undeterred.  “I’ll kiss the hand of Jesus, but I kiss the hand of no man.”

My paternal grandparents, 1941

My paternal grandparents, 1941

Epimenio began smoking as a boy, a common practice among his generation.  By his late 50s, however, he’d developed lung cancer.  Back then, such a diagnosis was a virtual death sentence.  But, he immediately quit smoking and, in 1952, he opted to have that lung removed.  At the same time, England’s King George VI had a similar surgery at the same time.  In a curious twist of fate, the doctors who operated on my grandfather in Dallas had attended medical school with the doctors who operated on King George.  George died, but Epimenio survived – and lived for another 17 years.

The day before my grandfather’s funeral, I asked my father to take me to the local grocery store.  I wanted to get something for my grandfather.  Not knowing what else to do, my father acceded and led me to the store; whereupon I led him up and down the cookie aisle, searching for a particular brand.  Finally, I found it – whatever it was – as neither my father nor I recall the product.  But, he told me later he had never seen it before – and has not seen it since.  When we visited the funeral home, I placed the package of cookies in my grandfather’s coffin and told him to enjoy them “because they don’t have these in Heaven.”

After we arrived back home, my father rushed into his bedroom and closed the door, while I remained in the front room with my mother.  She went into the bedroom after a few moments, and I could hear my parents talking.  My father had been crying; something I didn’t think, at the time, fathers did.  I still don’t know what the significance is surrounding those cookies, but I suppose it was just the mere innocence of a child coping with something new and thoroughly unknown.

I often wonder – amidst my daily struggles of dealing with personal finances and aging parents – if lessons from my grandfather’s life could impose any meaning on me.  Am I the kind of man that my grandfather was?  It’s one of those eternal questions; contemplating if your ancestors would be proud of you.

One Sunday night in April 2004, I severely sprained my left ankle while walking my dog; rotating it as far it could go without breaking it.  I lay on the cool sidewalk for a minute, excruciating pain swamping my body, before I forced myself back up.  The dog – just a puppy, really – still had to do his business.  I finally visited a local hospital early the next morning, both my ankle and foot swollen.  Then, I hobbled into work – and recalled another incident my father had told me about years earlier.

In one of those only-in-the-old-days situations, Epimenio was working on a house across the street from the family doctor’s house, when he severely sprained an ankle.  The old doctor had witnessed the accident and told my grandfather to come into his home, which doubled as his office.  My grandfather declined the offer and ordered his men to dig a hole in the dirt roughly the size of his foot.  He then planted the injured extremity into the hole and literally wrenched it back into place.  “See!” he called out to the doctor after a few minutes.  “Saved myself three dollars!”

Three dollars is what it cost me to park in downtown Dallas nine years ago.  But, like my grandfather, I had to get to work.  And, I knew – like my grandfather, I suppose – that life must continue.

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Turkish Twilight

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Amidst all the bad news about the obesity epidemic in America and ongoing starvation in Africa, here’s finally something good to report on the medical front.  A doctor in Turkey reports that he’s cured one of his patients from “clinical vampirism,” a previously-unknown condition in which the man bore an “insatiable craving for human blood.”  I thought they were called UFC fighters, but obviously I’m not as educated as I thought.

The doctor, Direnc Sakarya, first described the case in the “Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics” in 2011:

“A 23-year-old married male (3rd of 6 siblings) presented with a 2-year history of ‘addiction’ to drinking blood.  He used to cut his arms, chest, and abdomen with razor blades to collect the blood in a cup and to drink it.  The initial interest in drinking his own blood had subsequently turned to that of others.’  These ‘crises’ were characterized by a strong urge to drink blood immediately, ‘as urgent as breathing.’  He enjoyed the smell and taste of blood despite finding this ‘foolish.’  He also enjoyed biting wounds of others to taste flesh.  He was arrested several times after attacking people by stabbing and biting them with the intention of collecting and drinking their blood.  He forced his father to obtain blood from blood banks.”

I guess I could be classified as a ‘Cuba Libre’ vampire, since I have an insatiable craving for Bacardi and will attack most anyone who looks like they’re holding a particularly delicious double.  Fortunately, I’m not married, but I do order out on occasion, which means I can get away with a lot.

This “clinical vampirism” thing must throw a kink into the “Twilight” series.  If the patient was a teenage girl, I’d just chalk it up to bad parenting.  But, this cretin left untold numbers of victims in his wake, so it’s a good thing he not only stopped but has been treated successfully.  I mean, do you think Dr. Drew could top that?  Regardless, I think the patient could earn some handsome profits off this tale.  And, what book agent (wait for it) wouldn’t want to take a bite out of that?!

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Hellacious Hooligans

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I don’t watch much reality TV, as in the “American Idol” or “Survivor” type of program.  I still think “Survivor” is one of the stupidest shows American television has ever produced.  Like “The Simpsons,” I have absolutely no idea why it’s so popular.  I generally prefer real reality TV, such as “The First 48” or “A Haunting.”  I love the former because it shows the good side of police work; when our tax dollars pay off, and law enforcement catches real criminals instead of those with expired inspection stickers.  But, I enjoy the latter series because I know now my strange visions aren’t the result of brain cells dying off after a lifetime of rum consumption.

Occasionally, though, I find myself stepping into the ‘Dark Side,’ which for me, is that part of our universe where intelligentsia has the same prevalence as a unicorn.  That’s when I catch a glimpse of such gems as “Jersey Shore,” “Mob Wives,” or “Basketball Wives.”  Watching these programs makes me feel like a Nobel laureate in economics, but it also makes me sad.  American television has come to this?  It’s been like that for a while.

I remember when MTV came out with their “Real World” series in 1992.  Of course, I can remember when the ‘M’ in MTV still meant music and not morons.  But, that show was deemed ‘reality’ and became an instant pop culture phenomenon.  It didn’t seem to matter that the network just cobbled together a batch of 20-somethings with no real aim in life and threw them into a faux household to see how quickly they didn’t get along.  If I wanted to see that, I’d just go to work.  I didn’t watch that show much either.  But, it was always for the same reason: my mind was tired and I needed something that – while entertaining – still didn’t require much energy.

A few years ago I tolerated one entire episode of “Jersey Shore,” just to see what all the hype was about; the same way I did with “Survivor” in the fall of 2000.  I came away with the same question: why?  Why is this show so popular?  Is it because most people are like me in that they need something just to make them laugh?  I hope so because, if people watch this show out of envy, I’m more eager to see that colony built on Mars than ever before.  After that one stint of “Jersey Shore,” I still didn’t know what the hell was going on.  Aside from the language barrier (I don’t speak Jersey trash), I only knew these people were pissed off at one another for some minuscule reason and had to get drunk to help them cope – which only made them madder and louder.

On a recent episode of “Mob Wives,” the title characters gathered for a Botox party.  Tupperware, I can understand.  But, Botox?  You know people have too much time and money on their hands when they get together to stick needles into one another while holding glasses of champagne.  As the pack of heifers assembled, I felt they looked like rejects from the ‘Miss (Gay) America’ pageant.  I thought at first, is this really “Mob Wives,” or ‘Home for Retired Porn Queens’?  As usual – as in “Survivor” and “Jersey Shore” – one of the fools in the crowd got pissed off at someone else, and soon everyone was arguing.  And, as usual, they were imbibing in alcohol.

I’m certain “Jersey Shore” and “Mob Wives” make most Italian-Americans think, ‘Forty years after “The Godfather” and we’re still dealing with this crap?!’  I have the same reaction when I see Geraldo Rivera discussing immigration reform as if it’s the only thing Hispanics have to worry about.  I’m just waiting for VH1 to come out with something like, ‘Latinos of East Dallas’ where the cast muddles through Tex-Mex linguistics while arguing if they should shop at Wal-Mart or splurge and head to Target.

Black women must feel the same about “Basketball Wives.”  In one episode, the cluster of perfectly-coiffed mavens met at a chic lounge to discuss – something.  I have no idea what because – as expected – they started screaming at one another.  And then, cocktail glasses and acrylic nails went airborne.  And then, big burly male security guards who surely got a good laugh (and maybe a quick orgasm) out of the feline fiasco swept in to scoop up the girls and dump their scrawny asses onto the street outside.  Their designer attire and spike heels with 6-figure price tags prove what my grandfather used to say: you can dress a donkey up as a thoroughbred horse, but it’s still a jackass.

If you’ll notice, these shows all have at least two things in common: shouting and alcohol.  Bad attitudes and prescription drugs also figure prominently into the mix, but screaming and booze are the central elements.  I guess these shows wouldn’t be popular if their subject matters weren’t intoxicated and wrapped up in a perpetual state of anger.  Maybe Americans like it so much because such antics mirror their own lives.  Hm…maybe that’s why I kind of like them, too.

Damnit!  Why don’t I realize these things before I starting writing?  Oh, well.  Time to sit down with a glass of wine and a “National Geographic.”  Hey!  At least I read!

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Timbuktu Under Siege

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The deaths of innocent civilians are always the anticipated casualties of any conflict.  But, historical artifacts are often the silent victims of war.  We’re seeing that now in the West African nation of Mali, as Al-Qaeda-backed rebels try to seize power.  Late last month, as rebel forces retreated from the city of Timbuktu, they torched two buildings that held a number of antiquitous manuscripts; some dating to the 13th century A.D.  Situated on the far southern edge of the Sahara, Timbuktu is one of the oldest, most continuously-occupied cities on the African continent.  Founded by Tuarag nomads around 1100 B.C., it rose to become a critical trading post and center of Islamic culture in the region.  Three of western Africa’s oldest mosques –Djinguereber (Djingareyber), Sankore, and Sidi Yahia – were constructed in Timbuktu in the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.  In 1988, UNESCO added Timbuktu to its “List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.”

With such an extraordinary history, you’d think even Islamic rebels would do everything to maintain Timbuktu’s dignity.  But, the hostilities racking Mali prove nothing is immune.  If warring factions don’t care about innocent people, why would they care about a batch of aged texts?

The impacted manuscripts were retained in two separate facilities: an old library and a new South African-funded research center, the Ahmad Babu Institute.  Completed in 2009 and named after a 17th century Timbuktu scholar, the latter structure utilized modern science and technology to preserve the deteriorating papers, which had been hidden in wooden trunks and boxes and found buried in caves and beneath sand.  Most of the texts were written in Arabic, while a few were composed in African languages, such as Songhai, Tamashek and Bambara.  There was even one in Hebrew.  They covered a range of topics, such as astronomy, poetry, music, medicine and women’s rights.  The oldest dated to A.D. 1204.

One long-time Ahmad Babu Institute employee, Seydou Traoré, said only a small number of the documents had been converted to digital images.   “They cover geography, history and religion,” he said.  “We had one in Turkish.  We don’t know what it said.”  The manuscripts were important, not just because of their age, but because they exploded the myth that “black Africa” had only an oral history.  Typically, the manuscripts were not numbered, Traoré said.  But, the last word of a previous page was repeated on each new one.  Scholars had painstakingly numbered several of the manuscripts under the direction of an international team of experts.

Essop Pahad, chairman of the Timbuktu manuscripts project for the South African government, said, “I’m absolutely devastated, as everybody else should be.  I can’t imagine how anybody, whatever their political or ideological leanings, could destroy some of the most precious heritage of our continent.  They could not be in their right minds.  The manuscripts gave you such a fantastic feeling of the history of this continent.  They made you proud to be African.  Especially in a context where you’re told that Africa has no history because of colonialism and all that.  Some are in private hands but the fact is these have been destroyed and it’s an absolute tragedy.”

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