Monthly Archives: August 2013

1904 Standard Oil Octopus


At the beginning of the 20th century, Standard Oil was the world’s largest corporation; it was also the first multinational corporation – until the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled it in 1911, as part of anti-monopoly wave that had commenced with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.  Today’s Exxon-Mobil Corporation is a direct descendant.  In 1904, “Puck Magazine” published a cartoon by Udo J. Keppler (son of founder Joseph Keppler) showing a Standard Oil tanker as an octopus with a wicked gaze; its tentacles wrapped around various political establishments, such as the White House.  The message was clear: big oil had its grip on the halls of power.

Flash forward a century later and we have to ask – have things changed much?


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Tiny Pages

A miniature book once owned by Anne Boleyn.

A miniature book once owned by Anne Boleyn.

People are amazed at how small cell phones, personal computers and other electronic devices are becoming.  But, good old-fashioned books have a jump start on that trend.  It seems impractical, but there are such things as miniature books; tomes that measure no more than three square inches in size, with print too small to be read without a magnifying glass or a telescope.  And, they’re not the tools of “Cold War” spy games.  They’ve been around for centuries.

“They were created for reasons of practicality, curiosity and aesthetics,” says Julian Edison, whose collection of 15,000 little books includes two-inch clay tablets onto which ancient Babylonians inscribed cuneiform lettering around 2200 B.C.

Some twenty years after Johann Gutenberg developed his printing press, miniature books were being produced.  Most were religious texts.  Book-makers utilized magnifying glasses and a myriad of small tools to create books that were mirror images of their life-size counterparts, complete with leather binding and gold threading.

The Miniature Book Society, a non-profit established in Delaware, Ohio in 1983, is dedicated to the art of the littlest publications.  This past spring MBS even hosted a traveling exhibition that showcased both historic and contemporary small-scale literary works.

Don’t be fooled though.  Small books don’t necessarily mean small prices.  London-based book dealer Sam Fogg recently sold a 16th century miniature prayer book for GBP 3 million.  For GBP 15,000, Edison himself just acquired a miniature diary kept by a 13-year-old girl who survived the Titanic.  I’m sure some people will look at these Lilliputian books in the same way as they do my model cars – nice, but what purpose do they serve?  Well, that’s something only true book lovers can understand.

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Golden Books – Still Golden!

The “Little Golden Books” ‘Book Nook’ at National Museum of American History.

The “Little Golden Books” ‘Book Nook’ at National Museum of American History.

Wanting me to have opportunities they never had, my parents began reading to me before I turned one.  By the time I turned three, I was reading mostly by myself.  And, among the vast number of books they bought were the classic “Little Golden Books” – those child-centered texts with sturdy pages and gold-colored binding.  They first appeared in October 1942; the brainchild of New York publishing firm Simon & Schuster, the Artists and Writers Guild and the Western Printing and Lithographic Company of Racine, Wisconsin.  They were geared towards children ages 3 to 8 and revolutionized literature for the average American.  Before then, children generally could find books only in schools and libraries.  But, the “Little Golden Books” series changed that.  Their brightly-colored pages and bold text captured and held a child’s attention and their 25-cent price made them affordable.

Now, the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is paying homage to the series with an exhibit through January 2014.  It features a sampling of artists’ proofs from several of the first books in the series, such as “Two Little Miners,” “The Poky Little Puppy” and “The Little Red Caboose.”  At a time when education funding in the U.S. is being compromised due to partisan politics, it’s imperative to realize how crucial literacy is to a child’s welfare.

Oh, and I still have all the “Little Golden Books” my parents bought for me.  Some things are just too valuable to throw away!

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No Tears


Last month actor Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose in a hotel room in Vancouver, British Columbia.  He was 31.  Monteith, a star of the popular musical TV series “Glee,” apparently had struggled with drug addiction for some time.  I had never heard of him until his death; due mainly to the fact I’ve never watched “Glee.”  Something about cheery high school kids breaking out into song in the midst of their teenage angst is just too saccharine for me.  But, while I didn’t know Monteith even existed until after he died, I’ve heard of his sad dilemma too many times.  His circumstances are all too common: celebrity – drug addiction – rehab – dead in a hotel room.  Think Janis Joplin; think Whitney Houston.  Drug addiction and celebrity-hood are almost symbiotic.  It’s truly heartbreaking when someone becomes hooked on drugs or alcohol to the point that it rules and ultimately destroys their lives.  But, despite the tragedy, I simply can’t bring myself to cry for them.  I have the same reaction to someone who smokes for 40 years and comes down with lung cancer, or who fucks almost everybody they meet and contracts HIV.  Yes, it’s sad, but what did you think would happen?

I also find hypocrisy in the mix.  Trayvon Martin, for example, only had a trace of THC in his system when he was killed by an overzealous neighborhood watchman last year, but he was branded a thug.  Monteith had been in and out of drug treatment for most of his young life, but he’s considered troubled.  The glaze of celebrity seems to upgrade one’s station in life, and thuggish behavior transmutes into personal issues.

Drug addiction costs the U.S. roughly $160 billion annually; second only to alcohol abuse, which costs us about $185 billion every year.  Those are just hard dollar figures related to various tangible things like hospitalizations and property damage.  There’s no way to put a price on the emotional toll substance abuse takes on people.  There’s no real means to assess the heartbreak parents feel as they look at their dead child in a coffin, or the fear residents of a neighborhood racked by drug violence experience every night.

I don’t feel too sorry for people like Monteith because they pretty much bring the damage upon themselves.  They’re essentially responsible for the incessant carnage along the U.S. – México border.  Since 2006, when then-Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a massive crackdown on drug trafficking, some 40,000 people have been killed.  Thousands more have disappeared.  And, not all of them are tied to the drug cartels.  Not every victim is a drug mule, or a hit man for a powerful drug lord.  Many of them are innocent people caught in the crossfire of spontaneously brutal narcotics battles.  Others victims are people who dared to refuse to bow to the cartels’ extortion tactics.  The U.S. has supplied the funding, which only makes sense, since the problem lies here.  Mexican officials like to point out that, for every Mexican who uses illegal drugs, there are up 10 Americans who do.  The other half of the problem, of course, is the gross incompetence and glaring corruption of the Mexican political system, as well as the governing bodies of other Latin American countries.  But, if people didn’t have an insatiable appetite for narcotics, the border region wouldn’t be in the vise grip of bloodshed.

Drug laws in the United States have always had a racial component.  The first – anti-opium laws passed in the 1870s – were aimed at Chinese immigrants.  The first cocaine laws, passed in the early 1900s, were designed to prevent Black men from raping White women, even though White women at the time were much more likely to use cocaine.  It’s hard to imagine now, but cocaine was once perfectly legal.  It was a common substance in many cold medicines.  And – in case you didn’t know – it was the principal element in Coca Cola.  Contemporary narcotics laws – most stemming from Richard Nixon’s self-proclaimed “War on Drugs” – have put more people in jail in the past four decades than at any time in U.S. history.

But, think how Cory Monteith obtained his drugs.  He had to go out and get it; he had to know where to get it.  Or, he had to pay someone to go out and get it.  Or, know someone who could bring it to him.  The stuff didn’t just magically appear in his hands.  No one accidentally dropped it into his luggage – a ruse some celebrities have tried before.

I can’t relate to the anguish of drug addiction, but I understand alcoholism.  I had known for a long time I had a problem.  But, it all came into focus for me back in the mid-1990s, when a young man named Byron* arrived to work in the same bank as I did.  Not much taller than me, Byron was affable and intelligent; his wire-rimmed glasses making him look especially distinguished.  And, he walked with a pronounced limp – one result of a catastrophic drunk driving wreck a few years earlier.  He was returning home from his job as a waiter, around 1:00 one weekday, a college student trying to balance school and work; when he noticed the car ahead of him suddenly veer off to the right.  Then, he saw a pair of headlights bearing down on him.  That’s the last thing he recalled before waking up in the hospital some two weeks later.  In a strange twist to the usual drunk-driving tragedies, he had survived, and the intoxicated driver had died.  But, Byron wasn’t much better.  His body was damaged as badly as his sense of security.  He spent months in recovery, which included a partial hip replacement and a prosthetic lower leg.  But, aside from being alive, he found something good amidst the tragedy: that’s how he met his wife; she was a nurse in the hospital.

Hearing his story made me reflect on one weekend night in 1988.  I attended a party at a coworker’s place where I consumed plenty of wine and even smoked some marijuana.  I have to concede marijuana never did anything to me, except dry out my throat.  But, as I headed home, I spotted a set of headlights far off in the distance.  They were coming right at me.  I managed to steer right and return to the proper side of the road.  But, that fleeting second scared me enough to stay sober – for a while.  I can’t remember the number of times I’ve driven intoxicated.  Occasionally, I was smart enough to lie down on the front seat of my vehicle for a while; other times, I pulled off the road; on some nights, I was fortunate to have a friend drive.  I ruined entire weekends because I let Friday happy hours get out of control.  A few times I had to take a day off work because I’d imbibed too much on a week night.  I recall one Friday several years ago where a long happy hour inexplicably metamorphosed into suicidal mania.  I arrived home suddenly feeling lethargic and viciously depressed.  I don’t know what came over me or why, but I managed to calm myself down after a while.  I haven’t had any such events in years.  I’ve long since learned to control myself.  Some people never get that proverbial grip on themselves.  And, the outcomes are filled with sadness.

America’s drug policy obviously hasn’t worked out as well as its designers intended.  We saw what happened with alcohol prohibition early in the last century.  People still consumed it, and its banishment led to a long series of crime waves.  Once prohibition was repealed, alcohol was regulated and taxed.  That didn’t exactly solve the problem of alcoholism.  But, anti-drunk driving campaigns that began in the 1980s raised awareness of that particular crisis, and people take alcoholism much more seriously now.  Personally, I think the U.S. at least could legalize marijuana.  But, legalization of any narcotic is a much more complex matter.

If we could somehow track that one last drug hit Cory Monteith consumed, I doubt if he’d turn out to be the only casualty.  God only knows how many people died just so he could get a fix.  Yes, it’s tragic.  It’s never a good thing when someone that young dies, much less under those circumstances.  But, my heart doesn’t ache too much for them.  I just can’t bring myself to shed too many tears.

*Name changed.

Image courtesy Pomegranates & Pearls.

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Update: The Chief Almost Kills Himself


Not feeling sorry for myself, I nonetheless wanted to give everyone an update on my accident.  It’s been two months now since a simple trip to a refrigerator turned into a two-day hospital visit and nerve damage.  If I could somehow turn this into a reality TV show, I think I might secure my financial future.  I mean, as a bisexual / Spanish / Mexican Indian / German / recovering Catholic / former alcoholic writer, I certainly know how to create drama.

I visited a hand specialist last Tuesday, the 13th, and she laid it out for me as clearly and honestly as possible.  The bad news is that I’m in worse shape than I thought; the good news is that it’s not as bad as it could be.  Nerve damage is rated on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the worst.  I’m a borderline 3.  Normally I hate just getting halfway to something, but on this, I’m thankful.  Also, nerves regenerate at roughly one inch per month.  But on average, an injury like mine will result in permanent damage in anywhere between twelve and eighteen months, if nothing is done sooner.  Thus, with the extent of the damage I have, I won’t heal fast enough over the next ten months to salvage my hand.  She says she can repair the damage and return me to 100% functionality – or close to it – but she has to do surgery.  She only mentioned that after she’d told me everything I needed to know about nerves and how they operate, so I already feel I can trust her.  If a doctor mentions surgery within ten minutes of a conversation, I think you should get up and flee.  Any legitimate physician will explain everything in detail first and then discuss surgery.

Since I don’t have health insurance, and prostituting myself is not a viable option, I’ll have to pay for the surgery up front.  I’d mentioned previously that I had surgery scheduled at Parkland Hospital in Dallas – where I was taken after the accident.  But, they won’t treat me in part because I’m not a Dallas County resident (I live in neighboring Denton County), but also because I have no health insurance.  Usually Parkland treats the uninsured, which is why it’s not the ideal place to get medical care.  But, it’s that damn county residence thing!  Instead, Parkland referred me to Denton County’s indigent health care program.  The latter mailed me an application, which I had to fill out and snail mail back to them with reams of documentation proving that, although I’m a really nice person who uses his turn signal and loves small animals, I’m flat-ass broke.  I never thought I’d be considered a starving artist, but here I am.  Then, they’ll supposedly call me to come in for a personal review.  I couldn’t do any of that online, so hopefully, they won’t be too shocked when I pull up in my 2006 model Dodge pickup truck and not a horse and buggy.  The Affordable Care Act is supposed to kick in at the beginning of 2014, but I can’t wait until then.

I have to get this done.  Handwriting, for one thing, is difficult.  I’ve kept a hand-written journal for nearly thirty years, but I’ve switched to a digital journal last month; that is, a Word document on my computer.  I have boxes of spiral-bound notebooks dating back to November 1983; all filled with a lifetime of joy, sadness, strange thoughts and sexual proclivities.  If I ever decide to run for public office, I’d have to burn them.  Other manual tasks are challenging.  I can do just about anything with my left hand, though, except write.  Well, I supposed I could write left-handed if I really wanted, but it’ll come out looking like a rambunctious third-grader who’s gone two days without Ritalin.

I still consider myself fortunate.  I have great parents and an incredible little dog, plus a collection of friends, all of whom have been very supportive.  I’ve suspended my gym membership indefinitely, but my creativity remains active.  I still think of the man I shared the room at Parkland with; the one who had to have his lower right leg amputated because of sciatic nerve damage gone awry.  It’s ironic that we were both in there because of nerve injuries.  But, at least I didn’t lose my right arm.  And, aside from my ability to work a keyboard, I can still make some hellacious mix drinks!  I mean, what would I be worth as a writer if I couldn’t stir up my own cocktails?!

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Gustave Le Gray’s “Seascape”

“Seascape”, Normandy, France, by Gustave le Gray_1856

Every technological innovation boasts its gallery of pioneers; people who view the new item with wonder and see its potential.  It’s difficult to imagine now, but less than 200 years ago, photography was one such invention.  Like television sets and personal computers in the 20th century, photography in the 19th century was a medium that had few proponents and even fewer fans.  But, Gustave Le Gray was among the handful of practitioners who put photography to good use.

Born near Paris, France in 1820, Le Gray became known for his photographs of landscapes and the sky.  In 1856, he made this picture of the seashore at Normandy, France and simply called it “Seascape.”  I emphasize “made” because no one really took photographs back then.  The process was slow and arduous; the camera’s aperture had to attract enough light to burnish an image onto a glass plate.  It took several minutes, which explains why the subjects of early portraits never smiled.

Le Gray, however, often used two negatives to capture the expanse of the scenery.  He placed the negative directly on top of the photographic paper and printed in sunlight.  The prints were then toned in a solution of gold chloride in hydrochloric acid.  This resulted in a violet-purple color, with helped to stabilize the images and prevent them from fading over time.  The two-negative combination allowed Le Gray to achieve a tonal balance between the sea and the sky when the picture was printed.  The sunlight’s shimmer on the water made viewers initially think they were looking at a moonlit shoreline.  For many people the result was breathtaking and almost spiritual.

Upon seeing one of Le Gray’s seascape photographs in 1857, a critic for the “Journal of the Photographic Society” wrote:

“From the midst of this ‘pother’ of dimness falls a gush of liquid light, full and flush on the sea, where it leaves a glow of glory…It is as when Jacob’s ladder of angels was just withdrawn, and the radiance above and below, where it rested on earth and sky, had not yet melted out.”

Le Gray seemed to comprehend the practical applications of photography, when he wrote in 1856, “Since its first discovery, photography has made rapid progress, especially as regards the instruments employed in its practice.  It now remains for the artist to raise it to its proper position among the fine arts.”

Le Gray composed a set of photographs of the Normandy coast in the summer of 1856 and another set along the Mediterranean the following spring.  They were exhibited first in London and then in Paris shortly afterwards.  Le Gray quickly became a sensation.  Unfortunately, his success didn’t last long, and he was bankrupt by 1860.  He died in Egypt 1882.

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Somewhere on a couch, a long time ago…


This is for fellow blogger Alastair Forbes, but I think everyone can relate.

Courtesy Shoebox.

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