Monthly Archives: September 2013

Last Wish

autumn-leaves

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I lay in bed that night, listless and fatigued, when the phone rang at 10:12 P.M.  Curiously, I hadn’t turned on the answering machine, as I always did before going to bed.  But, I knew who lingered on the other end – even before I answered.  It was Linda*, the mother of one of my best friends, Daniel.

“He’s gone,” she whispered, her voice raspy and quivering.  She’d walked into his bedroom earlier that evening and found him with his eyes half-open.

We talked for quite a while, although I don’t remember all that was said.  But, I do recall telling her, “It’s over.  It’s finally over.”  Then, I went to sleep.  But, I wasn’t sad.  In fact, I was – not happy – but relieved.  Daniel had stopped suffering – and maybe so would his mother.

That night, though, I wondered why I was so sick.  Just allergies, I kept thinking; that’s all it was.  I’d realized years earlier how my allergies usually coincided with the Atlantic / Caribbean hurricane season, becoming most severe in August and September.  In reality, it’s the change from summer to autumn, when mountain cedar and ragweed blossom with impunity.  But, I have this obsession – almost a fetish – with tropical storm systems, so I make that odd comparison.  Yet, that year was different.  The infection seemed to have settled in my stomach, instead of my sinuses.

I’d felt fine the preceding weekend.  I’d visited Daniel and Linda that Monday, Labor Day.  I gave Daniel a much-needed bath and shave, trimmed his nails and put him back to bed.  I also vacuumed and mopped the kitchen floor.  I chatted with Linda for a while.  Her hands trembled, as she sat on a couch; as much from growing arthritis as dealing with Daniel.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go on,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.

“You’ll make it,” I said, trying to reassure her.  What else could I say?

I’d met Daniel at birthday party for a mutual friend four years earlier.  We were two completely different people, but had a few things in common: dogs, cars and rock n’ roll.  Like me, he also had been born and raised in the Dallas area.  He was the third of four children to parents who were mixed Irish and Cherokee Indian extraction.  He didn’t have a happy home life.  When his father wasn’t working, sometimes six days a week, he was drinking booze; occasionally, he’d burst into drunken rages, a stereotypical drunk-ass Irishman or Indian and lash out at anyone nearby.  Linda often bore the brunt of his attacks, until the night her oldest son lunged into his father.  For Linda, that was the proverbial last straw; the catalyst that prompted her to pack up the kids and leave.  By the time I met Daniel, his father had died.

As I’d planned, I took the day after Labor Day off from work.  I visited my gym to lift weights, worked on a short story and partook in a Tae Kwon Do class that evening.  The Tae Kwon Do session exhausted me, even though it wasn’t particularly intense.  I thought nothing of it until the next night, when I returned to the gym and left after less than an hour.  Fatigue settled over me like a ton of hot, wet blankets.

I awoke the next morning feeling awful; body aches and chills and a stomach that was churning like – well – like a hurricane.  My supervisor sent me home just after noon.  I sat near the building, waiting for the bus.  The late summer sun warmed me up, and I stopped shivering.  I felt well enough to stop by a fast food place on the way back to my apartment – and regurgitated the food that night.  I stayed home the next day, but returned to work on Friday.  I spent most of Saturday in bed; no energy, no strength.  Damn allergies, I kept telling myself.

On Sunday, I visited my parents for lunch as usual.  My father grilled steaks – their thick, juicy aromas wafting throughout the house, intermingling with the scent of the butter-saturated mashed potatoes my mother made.  But, I couldn’t eat.  I was still nauseous.  My dad suggested I visit their family doctor, if I didn’t feel better by the next day.  He even offered to pay, since my finances were strained at the time.

I had just purchased my truck six months earlier and was still paying off credit card bills for repairing my previous vehicle.  I had health insurance at work – with a $1,000 deductible.  I told them I’d be fine.  It was just those goddamned allergies.

I had been anticipating that call from Linda for months.  I knew somehow it would come at night.  She called me because I was one of the last friends Daniel had remaining; one who didn’t turn his back on him.  That’s just not my nature.  I didn’t have many friends back then and I still don’t.  But, the people I do consider friends mean a lot to me.

It’s amazing, though, the number of friends people lose when they fall on hard times – even when they become terminally ill.  Some time in the 1970s, my mother’s hair dresser became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized.  When my parents visited him, he mentioned they were among the few who’d made the effort.  All the people who were quick to accept his party invitations where mounds of food and alcohol would be served were curiously absent as he lay in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV.

I think Daniel had known he was HIV for at least two years, but he didn’t start getting sick until the spring of 1992.  By then, he was unemployed and uninsured; he could no longer afford his suburban Dallas apartment.  In May, I and another friend moved him back into his mother’s home in another Dallas suburb.  Daniel’s health deteriorated throughout that summer, but unexpectedly – almost miraculously – began rejuvenating by fall.  He gained weight and color returned to his face.  He actually looked pretty good when I spent Christmas Day with his family, including his two older siblings; younger sister, Andrea; sister-in-law; and a niece and nephew.  I took a photo of them as they gathered around a couch; one that Linda placed on her refrigerator, beside another picture of her beloved mother.

We all thought – if only for a moment – he would make it.  In less than six months, however, Daniel’s health began crumbling again.  And, one by one, his gallery of friends slipped into anonymity.

I took my father up on his offer.  After a cursory exam, the doctor stepped back into the room and asked, “Have you ever had hepatitis?”

“Hepatitis?  No.”

“Well, I think that’s what you have.”

Hepatitis!  If he had told me I was pregnant, I would have believed him sooner.  Hepatitis!  Wasn’t that an old world disease – like small pox or typhoid?  No one got that shit anymore.  But, that’s what I had – Hepatitis A, the contagious kind, and a particularly vicious strain of it, too.  The doctor hospitalized me – almost against my will.  I stayed there through the following Wednesday – the day they buried Daniel.

“Where’d you go?!” Linda cried that Wednesday night on the phone, a sense of betrayal coating her voice.

I told her what happened.

Her anguish shifted to empathy.  “Why didn’t you call me?!  I would’ve come visit you!”

“But, Daniel had just died, Linda.  And, I was in the hospital.”

“But, you’re my other son!”

I had helped Daniel pick out his burial suit in the spring of 1992.  He hadn’t bought a new suit in years.  He must have scoured through a hundred of them before he latched onto that one.  He zipped it up and stored it in the back of his closet, complete with a matching tie and a new white dress shirt.  He was proud of the ensemble; he wanted to be buried in style.

“You are going to be a pallbearer,” he asked me, “aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said.  What a silly question.

Watching a loved one die and not being able to do anything about it is the most frustrating emotion anyone can ever experience.  I’d seen cancer consume my Aunt Mariana, my mother’s older sister, a few years earlier.  It just wouldn’t let her go, until one rainy Tuesday morning in June of 1989.  She’d already known tragedy.  Her first husband died in a freak car crash in 1968; practically leaving her to raise their six kids alone.  In January of 1983, one of her daughters took her own life.  Mariana had entered into a brief marriage with a man who – later on, as she fell ill – didn’t seem to understand she was in no mood for sex while undergoing chemotherapy.  What, I beseeched God, did she ever do to deserve all that?

I asked God the same of Daniel and Linda.  What did they ever do to bring this upon themselves?  God remained silent.  He / She always does.  But, it made me angry nonetheless, and I finally just blurted out, “Fuck you, God!,” into my darkened bedroom.

Daniel was especially close to Andrea who’d completed nursing school about two years before he passed away.  She had moved into an apartment complex across the street from him and became involved with a truck driver named Jimmy.  Jimmy was part Cherokee, too, and unfortunately, fed into the stereotype of the same drunk-ass Indian as Daniel’s father.  One night Jimmy returned to the apartment he shared with Andrea and attacked her.  She managed to call Daniel before Jimmy snatched the phone from her.  Daniel had been asleep, but donned a pair of exercise shorts, charged across the street and barreled into his sister’s apartment – where he beat Jimmy into a bloody, shriveling mess.  The police took both of them to jail, but released Daniel almost immediately.

Recollecting what his father did to his mother, Daniel was unrepentant about Jimmy.  “Now, he’s going to have to tell the guys in prison that an AIDS-infected fag beat his ass!”

In November of 1992, I happened upon the obituary for a guy I’d known in grade school.  He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness” – code words, a friend told me, for AIDS.  I revealed the true nature of Daniel’s death to only a select few people.  Even in the early 1990s, the affliction bore a terrifying stigma.   I told most everyone else – my parents, my colleagues – he’d succumbed to cancer.  I just didn’t want my folks to worry anymore about me than necessary.  My workplace, on the other hand, was populated with evangelical homophobes – the kind who preach forgiveness and compassion, but practice hate and bigotry.

Daniel always introduced me as a “true friend” to people he knew.  I was embarrassed, since I felt I was doing nothing extraordinary.  But, to Daniel, I was someone who gave my compassion and generosity, asking for nothing in return except trust and respect.  I promised him I would stay with him through the end.  And, I did – until the night he died.

For anyone who’s ever lost a relative or friend, there’s always something that triggers thoughts of that person; something relatively small and insignificant – a color, a sound…something that literally makes us stop and think about the better times we had together.  In 1992, a group called Snap! came out with a song entitled “Rhythm Is a Dancer.”  Both Daniel and I really liked that tune.  We’d visited a nightclub together in late 1992 where the deejay played it.  I don’t know what it is about that song, but it bridges a connection to Daniel and how good life was for me in the early 1990s.  So, I listen to it now, and all the feelings of  friendship and those carefree days flood my subconscious.  It’s just one of those things that transport me to ‘Way Back When.’

Daniel had two dogs when he returned to his mother’s home – a male named Alan and a female named Veronica, both Lhasa Apsos.  The male was fiercely protective of him.  The female was spoiled; Daniel had the habit of carrying her wherever they went, instead of letting her walk.  As Daniel’s health waned in the summer of 1993, he and his mother made the painful decision to turn them over to the local animal shelter.  Two years after Daniel died I seriously thought of purchasing a dog and just happened to peruse the ads of the local newspaper for animals, when I saw a blurb about an “adorable white Lhasa Apso named Alan.”  I almost fell off my easy chair.  Is it…no, it couldn’t be!  Surely, it’s not… I didn’t know what to think.  I realized, though, that I couldn’t afford a dog at the time.  I could only hope some good families adopted Alan and Veronica.

We measure the important events of our lives in the increments of time we know: one week, one year, five years, ten years.  Seven weeks after Daniel died I turned 30.  My colleagues at the bank bought me an ivy plant – which I still have – and treated me to lunch.  They also bought me a mechanical red crab emblazoned with the words ‘30 AND STILL CRABBY.’  You wind it up and it marches along the surface in the standard sideways crab walk.  I still have that crab, too, buried among my slew of possessions.  In seven weeks I’ll turn 50.  Life keeps moving, no matter who lives or dies.

I’ve always wondered why I never dreamed of Daniel.  I didn’t expect his ghostly apparition to appear before me one dark and stormy night – albeit something like that wouldn’t have frightened me.  But, I kept thinking he should at least visit me in a dream to tell me he’s alright.  Or, I hoped he would – just for my own peace.  Is he mad at me?  Did he think that I’d abandoned him at the last moment?  But then, I realized I’d never dreamed of my Aunt Mariana either.  And, we were family.  When I was a child, she’d sit me down at her dining room table and feed me.  Was she mad at me, too?

No – of course not.  I finally understood that I’ve never dreamed of them because they didn’t need me anymore; me or anyone else.  They’ve gone on to another and hopefully better life.  My job was done, as far as they’re concerned.

I did for Daniel what few people – friends or relatives – would do: I took care of him at the worst possible moments of his life.  I bathed him, I fed him, I took him shopping for that suit, I gave him all the undivided love and attention I could muster.  I even cared for his mother because her own body – racked with arthritis and emphysema – allowed her to do only so much.  Some people do good just to send a get-well card.

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now.  I did what I could for my friend – the first friend I’ve ever had who died.  My last wish for him and everyone else who has gone before me is to know that they’re safe and happy.

I’ve finally convinced myself they are.

*All names have been changed.

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“Castle of Love” in Ivory

Castle_of_Love

Ivory is one of the world’s most treasured natural resources; a substance often used for everything from furniture to medicine.  While it’s illegal to purchase and import products made of pure ivory, ancient ivory artifacts hold a unique place in cultural lore.  This piece is what’s left of a French medieval mirror case, c. 1350 A.D.  Currently housed at the Louvre, the “Castle of Love” most likely refers to a medieval religious play of the same name; one of the earliest known writings in the French language.  The scene depicts a castle coming under attack by knights and a group of women defending it, as an angel overlooks the chaos.  There are some obviously romantic, if not sexual, connotations in the design; a couple of the knights making contact with some of the women.  It’s always interesting to see so much eroticism present in religious artwork; considering how badly religious leaders tried to suppress sexual desire.

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In Memoriam – September 11, 2001

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September 11, 2001.

Image courtesy Layout Sparks.

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Old Wounds

The ancient fort of Dura-Europos in Syria – possibly the site of one of the world’s first chemical attacks.

The ancient fort of Dura-Europos in Syria – possibly the site of one of the world’s first chemical attacks.

With Syria in the news lately, the specter of chemical warfare once again rears its despicable, gassy head.  If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really did attack a select number of his own civilians with mustard gas, sarin, or another agent, it actually won’t be the first time such an event has occurred in the region.  Archaeology Magazine reports that around A.D. 256, Roman soldiers at a fort in Dura-Europos – a part of the Sasanian Empire – fell victim to a chemical attack.  There’s no written account of the battle, but recent analyses of remains unearthed in the 1920s and 1930s substantiate claims made by University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James in 2009.

Until then, scientists thought the soldiers had died when the tunnel they apparently tried to utilize to enter the fort collapsed.  Now, according to James, sulfur residue found along in a jar near several of the bodies reveals a bloodier truth.  The Sasanians had strategically placed fire pits throughout the tunnel.  As the Romans encroached, the Sasanians added sulfur crystals and bitumen to the fires.  The invaders inhaled the toxic fumes and perished alongside their armor.

Defining ancient chemical attacks is obviously difficult, if not impossible.  But, in this case, the remains of that sulfur makes it pretty clear what happened.  More importantly, it shows that while we modern folks think we’ve invented everything, history always upstages us.

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Okay, Let’s Attack Syria, But…

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President Obama has placed himself into a quandary with Syria.  As the world observes what can only be deemed a human atrocity with a chemical assault upon Syrian civilians, the United States collectively contemplates intervention.  Obama won the presidency in 2008 primarily based on his opposition to the Iraq War – the illegitimate enterprise launch by the draft-dodging George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  We now know that American oil interests used the horror of 09/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Those same entities are surely behind Obama’s sudden desire to attack Syria.

It’s amazing how the U.S. government selects its battles.  President Bill Clinton says he didn’t interfere in the 1994 Rwandan massacre because he simply had no idea what had happened; a dubious claim at best.  Ronald Reagan sent covert military operatives into Central America allegedly to stamp out any communist insurgencies.  In reality, U.S. conglomerates like United Fruit wanted to maintain their lock on local commodities.

Chemical warfare is nothing new.  Technically, people have been using them for millennia; starting with poisoned arrows.  They gained prominence, however, at the start of the 20th century with a chlorine gas attack in Belgium in 1915.  Germany made good use of them during World War I.  Consequently, in 1925, an assemblage of nations banned chemical weapons with the Geneva Protocol.  But, things always look great on paper.

No one jumped when Saddam Hussein used mustard gas and sarin against Kurdish civilians in 1988; perhaps because the U.S. might have been involved.  Hussein may have used chemical weapons against the U.S. military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.  A decade ago the U.S. accused Hussein of stockpiling uranium, which of course, prompted the invasion.  Notice how these things are cyclical?

Now Obama wants to don the mantle of international hero by ousting Bashar al-Assad.  So far, he hasn’t convinced too many in the U.S. Congress, nor has he been able to persuade our biggest ally, Great Britain.  He plans to take his case to the American public in a televised address tomorrow night.  Good luck.

But, if the U.S. does plan to attack Syria, here are two conditions I’d like to see take place first:

  • Raise taxes on the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations to fund the war.  Our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred without the benefit of significant tax revenue, which ultimately led to the current economic crisis.  Besides, all those rich folks and oil conglomerates are the one who benefited the most from the conflicts.
  • Institute the military draft for every able-bodied person ages 18 – 25.  But, this time include women and rich men.  Yes, if women want to be treated as equals to men in business and politics, that means they have to serve alongside men on the battlefield.  In the past, sons of affluent families have been able to bypass military service.  (Mitt Romney comes to mind.)  But, if those boys can expend energy racing their million-dollar speed boats or partying all night in Cancún, then they can damn well haul rucksacks across the Syrian desert.  There also should be no exceptions for conscientious objectors, such as Mormons, Amish, or Jews.

I won’t hold my breath on passage of either.  I know it’s a long shot to expect multi-millionaires to share the tax burden (not their hard-dollar wealth), or for “Millenials” to set down their I-pods and actually do something constructive.  But, what’s life worth if you can’t dream?  Ultimately, my dream is for the Syrian people to rise up and depose al-Assad all on their own.  Regardless, war is just too ugly for only a handful of people to endure.

Image courtesy Warrior of Ideas.

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Save the Boys, Damn the Religion!

knife

Where was the outrage?

Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) reported that, between November of 2000 and December of 2011, eleven infant boys in the New York City area developed herpes infections following orthodox Jewish circumcision rituals.  In keeping with religious tradition, every infant male born into the Jewish faith undergoes a bris, or brit milah, on the 8th day of life, during which the foreskin of his penis is removed.  The cleric, a mohel, often dabs the infant’s lips with a drop of wine supposedly to numb the pain before performing the ritual.  In the rare cases when the baby is born without a foreskin – a condition called aposthia – or if he was circumcised outside of the standard bris ceremony, the mohel performs a symbolic circumcision called a hatafat dam brit in which he pricks the head of the infant’s penis to draw a drop of blood.  All of this is done in accordance with Jewish scripture, Genesis 17:10-14 and Leviticus 12:3, which Abraham, the founder of Judaism, allegedly wrote.  Orthodox Jews, like many staunchly religious people, view their faith as an unmitigated commandment that should not be questioned.

No one knows if Abraham considered the possibility of herpes infections.  But, during some of these ultra-orthodox rituals, the mohel often performs metzitzah b’peh, or oral suction, to minimize blood loss.  In other words, he sucks on the baby’s penis, while family members and others stand around in quiet observation.  I believe, in keeping with contemporary federal law, that’s called pedophilia and – regardless of one’s religious affiliations – it’s a felonious criminal offense.

Health officials have known for years that herpes infections can be detrimental to newborns.  Because of their undeveloped immune systems, babies born to women infected with genital herpes (herpes simplex type 2) can develop fevers, seizures and / or blindness.  Death is not uncommon among these infants.  Herpes simplex type 1 usually causes blisters on the mouth, lips or eyes; otherwise known as cold sores.  Of the 11 aforementioned New York cases, 10 of the babies were hospitalized; at least 2 developed brain damage, and 2 others died.

In December of 2005, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – tiptoeing through the minefield of religious sensibilities – issued a letter to the local Jewish community warning of the health risks of metzitzah b’peh and politely asked rabbis to cease the practice.  Religious leaders scoffed at the notion, insisting that the ritual was perfectly safe.  As usual, they claimed religious freedom and vowed to fight any attempts to ban it.

Such cases may be rare, but I noticed no demands were made of New York’s Jewish community to stop putting their infants at risk; no threats of prosecution; no criminal charges – nothing but courteous requests to think about what they were doing.  Had those infants been girls, I realized, Bloomberg himself would have rounded up every religious leader and every parent and thrown them in jail.  But, since male circumcision has become such an insidious element of pediatric care in the U.S. and since violence against males – even infant males – is socially acceptable here, no one seemed to notice.

Religious freedom – like free speech and voting – is one of the hallmarks of American society.  It’s a critical feature of any civilized state.  But, I have to wonder how the public would react to infant females contracting genital herpes following some archaic religious ceremony.  Would the local mayor merely ask religious leaders to stop and just hope for the best?  Where, in fact, was the media outrage over the 2012 CDCP report?  Why is that people seem to think it’s okay that baby boys aren’t just being cut up in the name of religion, but dying because of it?

Male circumcision is primarily associated with Judaism, but it’s also a sacred rite among Muslims.  Unlike Jews, however, Muslims wait until their sons are older to perform the ritual – usually between the ages of 6 and 11.  But, its origins in the Islamic faith, however, are unclear.  It’s mentioned in the hadith (sayings from the profit Mohammed), but not in the Quran.  Circumcision is not considered a religious rite among Christians, even though the “Gospel of Luke” states that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.  Circumcision was also considered a rite of passage among some African and Indigenous Australian groups where it was viewed as a pathway to manhood for boys.

A purported circumcision from the Temple of Khonspekhrod in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 B.C.

A purported circumcision from the Temple of Khonspekhrod in Luxor, Egypt, c. 1360 B.C.

Male circumcision was once virtually unknown in the United States.  Early proponents were doctors who believed it would prevent male sexual deviants from committing further crimes, such as rape and pedophilia; others included homosexuality in that evil repertoire.  Circumcision was even recommended for men charged with adultery and to stop boys from masturbating.  This was during a time when physicians believed human sexuality (and its various perversions) were strictly tied to genitalia.  In 1858, for example, the European medical community urged clitoridectomies to overcome frigidity and hysteria in women.  In 1891, England’s Royal College of Surgeons published On Circumcision as Preventative of Masturbation.  Around the same time, John Harvey Kellogg, a nutritionist and self-proclaimed sexual advisor, developed his corn flakes cereal as a means to prevent children from masturbating.  Kellogg believed masturbation – then often called onanism or self-pollution – caused insanity and, if left unchecked, could be fatal.  He even suggested threading silver wire through the foreskins of young boys to prevent them from getting erections and therefore, stamp out their sexual urges.  He also came up with the idea of injecting some of his patients with yogurt enemas to cleanse their intestinal tracts.  Fortunately, neither of these latter two practices caught on with the American public.

Neither did circumcision.  That began to change, however, after World War II.  Much of it has been credited to the rapid influx of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi-riddled Europe.  But, a growing body of medical practitioners had already begun to urge circumcision of newborn boys as a means of preventing penile cancer later in life.  In 1932, Abraham Leo Wolbarst, [Circumcision and penile cancer. Lancet 1932; 1: 150-153], published a review of 1,103 cases of penile cancer in the U.S. and noted that none occurred among Jews.  He cited similar figures from Europe and pointed out that Muslim men who had been circumcised as pre-teen boys were less likely to develop penile cancer.  A 1935 report entitled “Epithelioma of the Penis,” published in the Journal of Urology, [Dean AL Jr. Epithelioma of the penis. J Urol 1935; 33: 252-283], seemed to confirm those findings with an analysis of a mere 120 penile cancer victims at New York’s Memorial Hospital: none were Jews.  Circumcision among adult males began to increase throughout the 1930s.

Detail of Friedrich Herlin’s 1466 depiction the circumcision of Jesus, “Twelve Apostles Altar.”

Detail of Friedrich Herlin’s 1466 depiction of the circumcision of Jesus, “Twelve Apostles Altar.”

Then, in 1946, various reports started coming out in the U.S. claiming that men returning home from World War II, especially those who’d served in North Africa, were suffering from penile cancer.  These men, some medical professionals supposedly observed, had gone for long periods without bathing and, for the uncircumcised ones, this culminated in a build-up of smegma; which in turn, developed into penile cancer.  It is true that many of those servicemen were uncircumcised and had gone without bathing for lengthy stretches.  But, they weren’t suddenly afflicted with penile cancer.  Instead, many of them were suffering from venereal diseases, mainly syphilis.  It’s quite plausible to assume many of them, happy that the relentless war had finally ended, celebrated by patronizing local brothels before returning home.  Yet, the unsubstantiated claims of a sudden outbreak of penile cancer nonetheless launched a movement and circumcisions of newborn males began occurring at a rapid pace.  By the mid-1950s, up to 90% of newborn American boys were circumcised; thus making it the most common surgical practice in the country.  By the early 1960s, some health insurance companies began reimbursing doctors for circumcisions, thus invoking a profit motive.  Some hospitals started performing circumcisions without the parents’ knowledge or consent – and then charging them for it.  In the early 1980s, the rate of newborn male circumcisions began to drop; albeit slowly, and continued dropping.  By 2010, the rate stood at roughly 40% in the U.S. – the first time it was below 50% in over half a century.

Preventing penile cancer is perhaps the top myth related to male circumcision.  As with anything, the truth often gets lost amidst the rancor of popular opinion and uncertain medical advice.  Tell a lie often enough, as the saying goes, and people start to believe it.  But, here are the facts, starting with that number one lie:

Myth:  It prevents penile cancer.

Fact:  Penile cancer is one of the rarest forms of carcinoma known to humanity.  Worldwide penile cancer accounts for about 0.2% of all cancers in men.  In the U.S., it accounts for some 0.1% of all cancers in men, or about 1 man in 100,000.  Men are actually more likely to die from a rare form of male breast cancer than penile cancer.  Even in other developed nations, such as England and Japan, where male circumcision is uncommon, penile cancer is actually more rare.

After years of intense medical analyses with various groups of men, no doctor has been able to prove conclusively that intact foreskins are linked directly to penile cancer.  Doctors do know that the number one cause of penile cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is spread through unprotected and often frequent sex.  Poor diet, obesity and nicotine consumption are other contributing factors.

Myth:  It prevents cervical cancer in men’s female partners.  This is another top reason provided for male circumcision.

Fact:  As with penile cancer, HPV is the leading cause of cervical cancer, with poor diet, obesity and nicotine consumption listed as other risk factors.  Up until the mid-1950s, cervical cancer was one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among women in the U.S.  But, physicians don’t credit the increase in male circumcisions for the decline; rather, they point to the increased prevalence of pre-cancerous screenings (Pap smears) and greater attention to women’s overall gynecological health.

Circumcising males to protect females may be politically correct, but it’s morally unethical and medically impractical.  You don’t safeguard one group of people by violating the basic human rights of another.  Even if all men are circumcised, venereal diseases can still be spread through unprotected sex.  As with the number of pregnancies and births, the rates of venereal disease infections drop when women are empowered with information.  Women in developed countries, for example, have on average 2 children; while women in developing nations have as many as 5 children.

Myth:  It minimizes the risk of venereal disease transmissions.

Fact:  The term “minimize” is often substituted for the term “prevent,” but the misunderstanding can be dangerous.  Even though most males born in the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1970s were circumcised, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases increased exponentially during that same time period.  Gonorrhea was one of the biggest culprits, with 193 reported cases per 100,000 individuals in 1950; and 442 reported cases per 100,000 individuals in 1980.  Syphilis actually experienced a dramatic decrease: 642 reported cases per 100,000 individuals in 1950; and 60 reported cases per 100,000 individuals in 1980.  The key term, of course is “reported.”  Even now, though, both those ailments remain the most commonly-transmitted venereal diseases.  (Health, United States, 2010, U.S. Health and Human Services, Trend Tables: Table 44, p. 212.)

Genital herpes exploded from an average annual 5% infection rate in the late 1960s to about 30% by 1980Chlamydia, which was rare before 1990, saw 1.4 million cases in the U.S. in 2011.  Hepatitis B has also been tenuously linked to male circumcision.  Scientists identified Hepatitis B as a separate strain in 1955 and discovered it could be sexually transmitted in 1975; the same year they identified Hepatitis C, which they initially called “non-A, non-B.”  Until the 1970s, Hepatitis B had been dubbed the “druggies’ disease” because it primarily infected intravenous drug users.  In the 1980s, Hepatitis B became linked with another growing epidemic, another consequence of the sexual revolution: AIDS.  And, that in turn, has now metamorphosed into yet another ruse for circumcision.

In recent years, some epidemiologists have claimed that circumcision minimizes the spread of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections.  Much of this is based on a controlled study of 5,534 uncircumcised, HIV-positive Ugandan men, beginning in 2002.  Doctors convinced the men (all of whom identified as heterosexual) to get circumcised.  None of the physicians believed the men would be cured of HIV, but they wanted to see if the men developed higher T-cell counts once their foreskins were removed.  As often happens, things looked great on paper, but didn’t go as planned once put into action.  Many of the men – believing they’d been cured of HIV – began having unprotected sex; others disappeared from the control group, so doctors couldn’t track their activities.  Still, the doctors insisted the study showed promise; claiming that circumcision reduced a man’s risk of acquiring HIV by as much as 60%.  But, to me, the concept of a bunch of mostly White, mostly female European and American physicians urging a cluster of uneducated, basically illiterate Black men to have their penises mutilated seems as racist and sexist as it does immoral.

Myth:  It prevents urinary tract infections (UTI), especially in male children.

Fact:  The medical community can’t seem to make up its mind on this one.  On average, about 5% of girls and 2% of boys will develop a UTI.  Between 1971 and 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics published 5 policy statements on the circumcision of boys in relation to UTIs and could find no credible evidence of a direct correlation.  In other words, circumcision didn’t prevent UTIs in boys.  In 1986, however, they still noted the procedure “has potential medical benefits.”  Then, in 1999, they reversed course and didn’t recommend it.

An analysis of 136,086 boys born at U.S. Army hospitals from 1980 to 1985 showed that 100,157 were circumcised.  Of those, 193 experienced complications related to the procedure; that apparently included UTIs.  Of the 35,929 uncircumcised infants, 88 (or .24%) developed UTIs.  It’s obvious infants develop UTIs because they can’t control their bladder and therefore, can’t clean themselves.

There is only one legitimate medical reason for circumcision: phimosis, which is the inability of the foreskin to be retracted.  The condition can lead to inflammation of the penile glans and urinary tract infections.  Occasionally, topical ointments such as hydrocortisone can relieve the tightness of the skin and subsequent inflammation.  But, more practically, removal or loosening of the foreskin is appropriate.  Still, on average, only about 1% of boys are born with or develop this condition.

Another medical reason often given for circumcision is prevention of balanitis, which is inflammation of the penile glans.  This usually occurs in uncircumcised men, but is traced to one primary cause: poor hygiene.  Severe balanitis requires more aggressive treatments, such as antibiotic pills or steroid creams.  But, it’s amazing what regular hygienic habits can accomplish.  Simple hand-washing, for example, can reduce the risk of respiratory-associated infections by up to 16% and reduce the risk of diarrheal disease-associated deaths by up to 50%.

Yet another explanation often given to justify circumcision is purely aesthetic: it allegedly makes the penis look better.  That, of course, is a personal opinion, but not enough to warrant mandatory foreskin removal.  I’ve entered into a number of debates about this one in particular; often with women who would scream if I suggested they have a surgical procedure done to meet what I think is my own definition of beauty.  Any woman who thinks the uncircumcised penis looks ugly needs to hold a mirror up to her own crotch; the female genitalia isn’t exactly a work of art either.  Human genitalia altogether isn’t built for appearance; it’s built for function.  You don’t look at it; you work with it.

Then, there’s the presence of smegma – the nasty buildup of dead skin cells beneath the foreskin.  It’s primary cause?  Once again, poor hygiene.  For most uncircumcised men, hygiene is a simple matter, like breathing – we retract the foreskin and clean ourselves.  Any uncircumcised man who doesn’t engage in this most basic of behavior has far more problems than the inability to reach for soap and water.

If circumcision truly prevented penile or cervical cancers, then perhaps we should mandate, or at least strongly recommend, that women have double mastectomies once they pass their child-bearing years to avoid breast cancer.  Despite recent medical advances and awareness, breast cancer remains the number one killer of women in the U.S.  For that matter, we should mandate adult males have prostatectomies to avoid prostate cancer, which is the third greatest cause of carcinoma-related deaths of men in the U.S.  (Lung cancer is the top killer, but I don’t think mandatory thoracotomies would be practical.)

Appendicitis is much more common than penile cancer, and since the appendix serves absolutely no purpose in the human body, appendectomies could save valuable time and money.  Tonsillitis is a common affliction in children, but doctors still don’t perform tonsillectomies as a preemptive measure.  Wisdom teeth often become impacted and necessitate removal, but again, doctors don’t seem to automatically mandate it.

Global_Map_of_Male_Circumcision_Prevalence_at_Country_Level

Unlike so-called female circumcision, calls to ban male circumcision have been met with hostility from people who suddenly develop an affection for religious freedom.  The loudest voices have come from the Jewish community; many of whom will use any excuse to play the victim.  When a handful of Muslim groups protested that banning female circumcision violated their religious freedoms, human rights activists paid no attention.  In that regard, protecting the health and safety of infant and toddler females trumped the religious ideologies of their parents.  A number of countries rightfully passed laws outlawing the practice, including the U.S.  When it comes to males, however, that religious freedom issue abruptly rears its ugly head and suddenly takes precedence over the rights of the child.

In 1996, then Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of Colorado proposed the Female Genital Mutilation Prevention Act (FGMPA) to outlaw female circumcision in the U.S.  It didn’t seem to matter that the ritual never had been practiced here, or most anywhere in the developed world.  The FGMPA passed unanimously, and then-President Bill Clinton signed it into law.  I’d never even heard of female circumcision until the early 1990’s, when human rights advocates started complaining about the thousands of girls suffering and dying in isolated parts of Africa and Asia.  For a much longer period, however, others had been complaining about the savagery of male circumcision and the fact that boys are suffering and dying as well.  The same devout Muslims who practice female circumcision in Africa and Asia also practice male circumcision – with the same level of barbarity; no anesthesia, no sterilization and no post-operative medical care.  With each child – female or male – they just cut off part of the flesh.  But, as in the developed world, the deaths and injuries suffered by males are ignored.  It is truly a gender-bias abomination.  But, in the politically correct universe of 1990’s America, that didn’t seem to matter; thus, the FGMPA became law without question and remains law, even though female circumcision was never practiced in the U.S. or any other developed nation.

In 2011, two California cities – San Francisco and Santa Monica – proposed to ban male circumcision.  In both cases, the issue reached the state legislature where Assemblyman Mike Gatto reacted by introducing a bill that would prevent any municipality in California from outlawing the procedure.  Ultimately, supporters of the ban in both cities experienced disenfranchisement.  In San Francisco, voters defeated the measure at the ballot box in November of 2011.  In Santa Monica, those who had proposed the anti-circumcision measure merely withdrew it from consideration.

In July of 2012, the German government backed away from its sweeping proposal to ban male circumcision.  Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Jewish and Muslim groups will be allowed to circumcise their sons in accordance with their respective religious beliefs.

The 11 cases highlighted in the 2012 CDCP report aren’t really anomalies.  Every year in the U.S., about 100 infant and toddler boys die due to botched circumcision procedures, which include complications from administration of anesthesia.  Some say the number sometimes reaches 300, but actual statistics are difficult to ascertain.  I’m quite certain if 100 to 300 infant or toddler girls were dying from botched medical procedures, the practice would have been outlawed without question, no matter whose religion was offended.  If 100 to 300 adult females died annually from a botched cosmetic procedure, it definitely would have been outlawed!

It’s shocking to think that infant male circumcision is the most common surgical practice performed in the United States, but it has been for over six decades.  Even with the rash of weight reduction surgeries and face lifts in recent years, removing the foreskins of baby boys still ranks number one among cosmetic procedures.  But, the adverse effects of those circumcisions are conveniently left out of the debate.

Almost every year for nearly three decades, a bill simply titled the “Male Genital Mutilation Bill” has been presented to the U.S. Congress.  And, every year it never comes up for discussion.  It goes back to the cloak of religious freedom, and the grip it has on society.

When people make medical decisions based on religious ideology, other people – usually infants and children – often die.  In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church often punished as heretics any medical practitioner who tried to ease the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth; the Church believed women had to suffer for the sins of “Eve.”  Even now, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) forces women and girls to endure the agony of childbirth because of Eve’s alleged transgressions.  When the “Black Death” struck 14th century Europe, the Roman Catholic Church pointed to Jews as the culprits.  As we now know, of course, the “Black Death” was the bubonic plague, which is a virus transmitted by fleas that live on rats and other animals.  The lack of hygiene among medieval Europeans and the fact they often slept in the same quarters as their animals contributed to the virus’ spread.  Jews were saved mostly because they often washed their hands before preparing food and engaged in other such ghastly habits like bathing more than once a year.

Just recently, a measles outbreak in Fort Worth, Texas has been traced to an evangelical Christian church where members refused vaccinations of any kind.  When some in the congregation returned from overseas proselytizing trips infected with the highly contagious disease, leaders prescribed prayer instead of medicine.  Now, 21 people in two counties have been diagnosed with measles.

I realize it’s difficult to alter religious ardor.  People tell me Jews and Muslims should be allowed to circumcise their sons because they’ve been doing it for centuries.  Well, for centuries, slavery was considered perfectly acceptable.  Blatant racism was a factor of American life from its beginning; something that changed only in recent decades.  That, in and of itself, ties into the enslavement of the first African-Americans; their contemporary European counterparts believed slavery was mandated by the Bible.  In the 19th century, White Americans concocted the philosophy of “Manifest Destiny” to forge westward across North America, which obligated them to destroy any darkness and savagery they encountered; meaning, of course, God commanded them to kill any heathenous Indians who got in their way.

As a former Roman Catholic devotee – an altar boy at that! – I once believed in the concept of “original sin” and the story of creationism.  Then, I saw the light and divorced myself from such ludicrous ideology – a sacrilege unto itself in the Church.  The Church’s disrespectful treatment of women was the real catalyst for my departure from its ranks of the blind faithful.  Roman Catholicism – and all branches of Christianity – has always taught that women were second-class citizens; another by-product of Eve’s wickedness.  Even now, the Church forbids birth control; believing everyone should procreate whether they like it or not.  The Church naturally doesn’t feel obligated to provide financing for those procreative results.

When human rights clashes with religious freedom, religion needs to take a back seat – always and forever, no exceptions.  I don’t care about anyone’s religious affiliation – Jew, Christian, Muslim, whatever – infants have more of a right to have their bodies left intact than their parents or their communities have to practice a certain philosophy.  If all of Judaism or Islam collapse because parents won’t be able to carve up their sons’ penises, then that would be a good thing.  Religion has been a great oppressor throughout human history.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in particular, have been the worst offenders; more people have been maimed and murdered because of those three religions than any other human construct.  It’s still happening even now.

And again, with 11 newborn babies infected with herpes, I ask – where was the outrage?

Attorneys for the Rights of the Child

International Coalition for Genital Integrity

MGMbill.org

Jews Against Circumcision

Mothers Against Circumcision

Nurses for the Rights of the Child

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Happy Birthday Gloria Estefan!

pgEAdlgloria-estefan-53

Born Gloria María Milagrosa Fajardo García de Estefan in Havana, Cuba on September 1, 1957, she fled to the U.S. with her family in the early 1960s and went on to become the “Queen of Latin Pop.”  Starting with the Miami Sound Machine in the mid-1980s, she transitioned into an equally successful solo career.

“Conga”

“Don’t Wanna Lose You”

“Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”

“Turn the Beat Around”

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Filed under Birthdays