Monthly Archives: January 2014

Deep Sea Diving in 1459

I’m always seeking to prove my belief that our ancestors were far more astute and prescient than we realize or sometimes want to admit.  Here’s another perfect example.  Hans Talhoffer was a 15th century Danish fencing master, best known for his “Fechtbuch (Fight Book”) published in 1459.  Fencing was the martial art of Renaissance Europe; a display of sportsmanship and athletic superiority.  But apparently, Talhoffer was as forward-thinking as many of his contemporaries, such as Leonardo da Vinci.  He studied a variety of disciplines: botany, chemistry, astronomy and – underwater technology.

The same year he first published “Fechtbuch,” Talhoffer apparently also dabbled in the possibility of diving with the help of a mechanical apparatus.  Most of Talhoffer’s works were kept by Count Otto Thott, a Danish prime minister who left his vast collection of rare manuscripts to the Royal Library of Denmark upon his death in 1785.  These three drawings show crudely-designed equipment that would allow for extensive submersion in water; a probability as unlikely in the 1400s as human flight.  Whether Talhoffer ever constructed and tested such devices, or what material he would have used, is unknown.  But, it demonstrates the kind of ingenuity that only ambitious dreamers possess.

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Drawings courtesy Royal Library of Denmark.

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Life Managing

The Muñoz family in happier times.

The Muñoz family in happier times.

In June of 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual conference in Dallas, Texas.  Aside from preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and proselytizing against the evil Bill Clinton, the organization had one other item on its agenda: boycott the Walt Disney Company because of its new policy to offer benefits to the same-sex partners of its some of its employees

The day after convention-goers officially voted on the Disney boycott, the “Dallas Morning News” placed the story on its front page – complete with a color photograph of the assemblage holding up placards; their smug, arrogant expression displaying their true contempt for the company.

In the fall of 1995, Disney had joined a growing number of companies that took the bold step of instituting non-discrimination policies for its gay and lesbian associates.  That included offering identical benefits to the same-gender partners of these employees.  Because Disney catered so much to families, the move triggered a more vociferous response from right-wing politicians and their evangelical puppet masters.  It prompted some to malign Disney as the “tragic kingdom.”

Meanwhile, buried on page 3 of the ‘Metropolitan’ section of that same “Dallas Morning News” issue was a brief story on something I found even more alarming: approximately 40% of children in Texas at the time had no health insurance.  I literally stopped when I read that.  I presumed, in my naiveté about the human condition, that all infants and children were automatically covered by some type of health insurance.  The piece – all of half a page – highlighted a family who lived in a trailer park just outside Dallas.  I can’t remember the details, but both parents worked and had two kids.  The family was just one of hundreds across the state.  I looked again at the SBC gang on the front page and wondered if they were even aware of the trailer park family; a family that could barely take care of itself, much less go on a Disney cruise with untold numbers of homosexuals allegedly lurking behind the lounge chairs.

I thought about that situation again when the bizarre case of Marlise Muñoz arose.  Last November Muñoz, a 33-year-old paramedic, suffered an apparent pulmonary embolism at her home in Haltom City, a Fort Worth suburb.  Her husband, Erick, found her on the kitchen floor after she’d gotten up in the pre-dawn hours to prepare a bottle for their toddler son.  Two days later officials at John Peter Smith hospital declared Marlise brain dead.  Her husband and parents asked that she be removed from life support.  But, the hospital refused.  Marlise was about 14 weeks pregnant at the time, and the hospital cited a little-known state law, the Texas Advance Directives Act, that forbids the cessation of life-saving measures on a pregnant woman.  Passed in 1989, “Texas Statutes – Section 166.049: Pregnant Patients” is supposedly meant to protect the lives of the unborn.  It’s an adjunct to “Texas Statutes – Section 166.046: Procedure If Not Effectuating a Directive or Treatment Decision,” which addresses life support for individuals in comatose or vegetative states.

The usual cacophony of pro-life voices raised themselves in self-righteous indignation in support of the unborn Muñoz child.  Muñoz supporters reacted by pointing to a simple fact: the woman was brain dead.  If someone’s heart stops, it can be resuscitated with electric shocks; if the lungs collapse, air can be pumped back into them; if the kidneys cease functioning, the individual can be hooked up to a dialysis machine.  But, you can’t perform CPR on a person’s brain.  Once a person’s brain dies, that’s it!  There’s no coming back.  It’s why the brain stem is the first part of the human embryo to form.

People often joke about brain death.  I point out that it’s a symptom of many politicians and entertainment celebrities.  In fact, it’s almost a requirement among reality TV stars.  But, brain death is a seriously finite condition.

Yet, pro-life activists lined up outside John Peter Smith demanding the hospital do everything it could to save the life of Marlise Muñoz’s unborn baby.  And, the hospital was trying to do just that – pumping oxygen into the dead woman’s corpse.  Her flesh was beginning to rot, however, and her body was developing both external and internal sores.  Moreover, examinations of the fetus showed its lower extremities were so badly deformed no one could determine its gender.

Erick Muñoz finally resorted to legal action against JPS.  On January 24, State District Judge R.H. Wallace concurred and ordered the hospital to let Marlise go.  “Mrs. Muñoz is dead,” he wrote.  “Defendants are ordered to pronounce Mrs. Muñoz dead and remove the ventilator and all other ‘life-sustaining’ treatment from the body.”

JPS chose not to fight the order and removed Marlise from life support on the 26th; what was left of her body died five minutes later.  As a token of love and affection, Erick named the unborn baby Nicole, his wife’s middle name.  No longer held captive to a ghoulish medical experiment, Marlise’s family can now bury her and moved forward with their lives as best as possible.  Erick still has a toddler son to raise.

This entire imbroglio comes less than a year after Texas State Senator Wendy Davis launched an 11-hour filibuster against a law that imposed heavy restrictions on abortion providers in Texas.  It was a move that garnered international attention and propelled Davis to launch a bid for the governorship.  The Muñoz case and the Texas abortion law are related, albeit tangentially, because of that pro-life label so many ideological conservatives here and around the nation like to claim.

Pro-life advocates really aren’t pro-life – that is, in the truest sense of the term – they’re pro-birth.  For some perverted reason, they want to control human reproduction.  They declare that it’s for the good of humanity; a desire to give all babies a chance at life.  I suppose, however, they really just want more bodies to work in the fields and the factories, or to go to war so oil and energy companies can earn more profits.  If pro-lifers truly are in favor of life, they wouldn’t stand idly by as literally millions of people, including infants and children, go to bed hungry in this country every night.  While the evangelical crowd thinks they’re doing society a favor by protesting the perceived horrors of homosexuality, they ignore the real tragedy of the uninsured, which has grown exponentially since 1997.  Conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress were eager to invade Iraq in 2003, but have been slow in providing pay increases to military personnel.  We can expect that from a pack of old lawyers whose own pay and benefits are secure.

And, we can expect pro-lifers to holler in contempt that people like Judge R.H. Wallace don’t value human life.  Some are already publicly shaming Wallace and demanding his impeachment.  But, if the U.S. values human life so much, it wouldn’t boast one of the highest homicide rates among developed countries.  It wouldn’t tolerate 49 million Americans living with food insecurity (as of 2012).  Pro-life doesn’t mean a society fights like hell to allow (or force) a pregnant woman to give birth.  It means it fights for the welfare of all its citizens.  Life may begin at conception, but it doesn’t end when the umbilical cord is cut.

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In Memoriam – Pete Seeger, 1919 – 2014

seeger

“Participation!  It’s what all my work has been about!”

Pete Seeger

Guantanamera

If I Had A Hammer

Michael Row The Boat Ashore

Turn, Turn, Turn

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

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Two

what-does-number-2-in-numerology-mean

Today marks the second anniversary of this blog.  I don’t get into numerology, but the number 2 is supposed to represent personal development and cooperation.  I developed very early in my life as a writer and I’ve always considered myself the cooperative type.  Writing has always been my primary source of inspiration and therapy and it will always be that way.  I express my true self in no other way.  I finally learned to cooperate with others only to an extent – in other words, stop being so damn nice!  But, I learned to respect and trust myself even more.  When I was a teenager, an aunt told me I’m my own best friend.

Thanks to all of you who’ve kept up with me these past couple of years.  But, you’re still trapped in the depths of my mental chaos.  So don’t think you’ll get out anytime soon!

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Civil Righting

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Back in 2002, my then-roommate, Tom,* and I got into a discussion about racial and gender equality.  I stated that all of the various civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the abolitionist movement, were necessary to instigate change and make America live up to its declaration as a truly free and inclusive nation.  Tom merely shook his head no in a condescending fashion and said, “Nah,” later adding that eventually people would have “come around” and realize discrimination was wrong.

I looked at him like the fool he was and asked him if he sincerely believed that.  He said he did.  I then recounted the story of my father’s return from Korea in the mid-1950s.  He had been drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to the front lines in the midst of the Korean War.  Among the many friends he made were a large contingent of Black soldiers.  By then, the U.S. armed forces had been forcibly integrated, so a mix of ethnic groups comprised all the various military units.  My father didn’t serve his full two-year stint, as the war ended sooner than most anyone had expected.  He and several of his fellow soldiers arrived in Seattle via ship and then boarded a train to head to their various home cities.  My father was confused when his Black team mates started walking away from.  He called out to them, asking where they were going.  One told him they were headed towards the rear caboose – where Black people had to sit.  As he watched his friends, his brothers-in-arms, saunter down the platform, my father said to himself, “Oh yea, we’re back in America – land of the free.”

Tom just sort of looked at me, not knowing what to say.  He conceded it was wrong, even then, to force Blacks to sit at the back of a bus or a train.  But, he snapped out of his brief foray into actual reasoning and reiterated that eventually White people would have realized how unfair that was.  In other words, we didn’t bus strikes or protests of any kind.  People should have just waited around, hoping for the better.

No one should have to wait for justice and fairness.  Nobody should be straddled to the rocks of oppression and brutality – hoping, praying and begging for those in positions of power and influence to see the light.  Disenfranchised groups in the U.S. had waited for centuries to be treated with dignity and respect and to be given an equal chance to succeed.

I told someone else around the same time as my conversation with Tom that the 1960s exploded with anger and rage because patience had finally run out.  They’d done everything that had been asked of them: they served in the military; they worked hard; they cleaned homes and streets; they obeyed the laws (no matter how discriminatory they were); they tried as best to keep to themselves – everything.  And, they still weren’t given a fair chance.  Blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus; women still had to change their last names when they got married and still had to have children; Indians still had to live in squalor on reservations; gays and lesbians still had to suppress their true identities.

And so, by the 1960s, everything just sort of erupted at once.  If change didn’t come through peace and hard work, then it had to be forced.  America was compelled to fulfill its proclamation as a nation of freedom and opportunity.  It no longer had a choice in the matter.  The time had come to change – whether some folks liked it or not.

It was curious to hear Tom speak of racial and gender equality and inequality.  He was a mix of German and Cherokee; from a small, nondescript community in far northeast Texas.  We discussed the plight of Indigenous Americans more than once.  He felt that Indians could have fought back against European encroachers because they also had men.  I noted that Europeans had two primary advantages: guns and horses.  Moreover, they’d adopted both gunpowder and horse-riding skills from the Chinese.  Tom wasn’t moved.  And, I told him he now had the distinction of falling into two unique groups: those who aren’t educated about a subject and those who don’t want to be educated.  That’s actually a rarity, but one that persists even now; in this second decade of the 21st century with a biracial U.S. president and a shrinking White majority.

Attitudes really are hard to change.

*Name changed.

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Happy Martin Luther King Day

martin-luther-king-jr

“I have decided to stick with love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Years of New Year’s

Welcoming the 1980s – from right to left, my father, my mother’s younger sister and my mother.  One of my aunt’s daughters is at far left.

Welcoming the 1980s – from right to left, my father, my mother’s younger sister and my mother. One of my aunt’s daughters is at far left.

On December 31, 2010, I decided spontaneously to go out for New Year’s Eve.  I had been laid off nearly three months earlier from an engineering company and wondered when things would improve.  I visited my favorite bar just north of downtown Dallas and was glad to encounter a few friends and acquaintances.  As I stood near the DJ booth, surveying the eclectic crowd, I suddenly recollected the very first New Year’s party my parents had decided to throw – 1973.

We had moved into our new house in suburban Dallas a year earlier.  My parents had already made friends with several neighbors; their ebullient personalities attracting even the most staid of individuals.  As the clock struck midnight, and we welcomed 1974, I pulled back the heavy drapes against the patio door to look for my then 7-month-old German shepherd, Joshua.  His ears already beginning to triangulate, he glanced at me and jumped up.  I went outside to pet him and wish him a happy New Year.

By the time I rang in 2011, Joshua had been dead for a quarter century, and my parents had long ceased their partying ways.  Last night, I sat with some wine coolers and watched television.  My parents and my dog, Wolfgang, all had retired for the night.  I’m so glad to see 2013 go, happier than I was three years earlier.  In fact, I haven’t been this thrilled to let go of a year since 1985 – the year we put Joshua to sleep; a year I’ve always considered the single worst of my entire life.

New Year’s is my favorite holiday.  It’s not just the feverish atmosphere surrounding a fresh start.  For me, it’s always been associated with the gathering of family and friends; people who occupy our lives and make it good.  Besides, most everyone feels giddy on New Year’s Eve.  Why not celebrate?

My parents threw a number of New Year’s parties.  Ours was the fun house on the block.  It was during those raucous indoor festivals when I learned how to spin records (on a turntable), mix drinks, and show people how good I could dance.  I can still bump and grind with the best of them, but usually the lights have to be dim.

Two of our perennial guests were among my parents’ closest friends: a young couple who lived next door and were among the first people we befriended in the neighborhood.  They were both exceptionally tall.  They got me addicted to “National Geographic” by purchasing us a gift subscription in 1976.  And, they offered my parents and me one of the best bits of advice anyone could hear: always hang around people who know more than you do.

At one particular late 1970s New Year’s gathering, a neighbor got so drunk we escorted him into my parents’ bedroom to lie down for a while.  My dad took Polaroids of many of us – including the man’s wife – encircling him on the bed.  It was a while before he returned to our house for another New Year’s party.  When he did, his wife became so intoxicated she had to spend the night in my bedroom; her husband returned home (I think) alone.  I slept on the living room couch.

Some other neighbors, a couple whose kids attended the same high school I did, were also frequent visitors.  The man would often bring his guitar and sing along with his wife.  And, they really could sing.  As newlyweds in their native New México, they once entered an amateur singing contest, but lost out because the judges said they sounded too much like professionals.  That didn’t matter to us so many years later, though, as they strummed out tunes from José Feliciano and even The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

That was quite a different reaction from that of another neighbor, a housewife who lived up the street with her stony husband and three unruly children.  At one New Year’s party, she imbibed in too many of the margaritas I’d whipped up and haphazardly commented that she liked to sing.  Seeing a chance to humiliate a fat, drunk stay-at-home mom who sold decorative glassware on the side and considered herself a devout Christian, two other friends – a neighbor and a man my parents had known for several years – began escorting her around the house; telling certain individuals, ‘You gotta hear this!’  And, as the woman started to croon, sounding much like a Hereford cow going into labor, the two men merely stepped away.  They’d return a minute later to set her upon another unsuspecting partier.

My favorite New Year’s gathering took place at my parents’ home in 1979.  I was excited to bring in not just a new year, but a new decade.  If you’re old enough to recall the fashions and hair styles of the 1970s, surely you can identify with my elation in sending that decade into the history books.  It was a unique affair in that we invited both family and friends – and they all showed up!  We didn’t think this house could hold that many people and not incite calls to the police.  Even my grandmother was there – and, aside from midnight mass on Christmas Eve at her local Catholic church, she was almost never up past 9 P.M.  Above the fireplace I hung a large piece of blue poster board with the term “The ‘80s” on it.  I had spent days cutting up sheets of colored paper into tiny squares to make confetti.  I stuffed it all into a large brown paper sack and hurtled the pieces into the air at the stroke of midnight.  As we cleaned up later, my mother commented that “we’ll be picking up confetti for a year.”  And, sure enough, exactly one year later – after another New Year’s blowout – I found a single piece of confetti buried beneath a couch.

Another New Year’s party, with my mother clowning alongside the friends who often entertained us with a guitar and a song.  My mother just turned 81, but the couple left us more than three years ago.

Another New Year’s party, with my mother clowning alongside the friends who often entertained us with a guitar and a song. My mother just turned 81, but the couple left us more than three years ago.

Of course, we attended New Year’s parties at the homes of other friends and neighbors.  Whether at my parents’ house or somewhere else, I always made it a point to have a good time – and not just because alcohol and food were plentiful, although that adds to the fervor.  I just really enjoy New Year’s celebrations.  Regardless, there’s something unique about ringing in a new year with the people closest to you.

On New Year’s Eve 1988, I was at the apartment of a friend, working on a stage play.  Along with some other friends, her and I were trying to launch our own theatrical group and had scheduled a handful of gigs for the spring.  It was almost half past midnight before we realized it was 1989.  We hugged and clinked wine cooler bottles, then got back to work.  I did make it a point, though, to call my parents from there and wish them a Happy New Year.  I was surprised to find out they were already in bed.  “I was just thinking about all the New Year’s parties we used to throw,” my dad told me, sounding rather sad.

A year later a friend and I decided to usher in the 1990s at Dick’s Last Resort in Dallas’ West End.  For a $20 cover, we could have all the food we wanted and a variety of drink specials.  But, my friend was coming down with a cold and, around 10 P.M., asked me to take him back to his apartment.  So much for that $20!  But, I decided to join another friend at a warehouse party just south of downtown.  He was both surprised and glad to see me.  Standing 6’7”, he was almost a whole foot taller and considered me his adopted little brother.  His older brother had died of cancer shortly before Christmas 1978.  Even though a fight broke out between two guys – one who showed up high on something – I had more fun than I probably would have at the other place.

I spent New Year’s Eve 1990 with a friend, Daniel, who I wrote about recently.  He was sad because he’d just learned his former long-time boyfriend had died of AIDS a month earlier.  As we sat listening to a jazz version of “Auld Lang Syne” on a local radio station, his two Lhasa Apsos resting near the fireplace, we heard what we thought were firecrackers.  When I looked out the patio door of his second-story apartment, I realized the popping sounds were coming from a burning car on the opposite side of the highway.  “I hope they weren’t on their way to a New Year’s party,” I said.

I peruse the bevy of old photos from our various New Year’s gatherings and wonder about some of the people in them.  The tall couple eventually sold their house and moved to El Paso, Texas before I graduated from high school.  They promised to stay in touch, which they did – for a little while.  But, we haven’t seen or heard from them in over two decades.  The drunken neighbor moved away a few years ago – not long after his wife succumbed to cancer.  The guitar-playing couple died within two months of each other in the summer of 2010.  The would-be songstress and her husband also vacated the neighborhood long ago.  Strangely, I ran into their daughter in the summer of 1985 at the country club where we both worked.  My friend Daniel died in 1993, and I eventually lost touch with those other three friends.

My grandmother passed away in 2001, and most of my cousins have married and had kids of their own.  We’ve all gone on to lead our own lives, but I’ve managed to stay in touch with a few.  It’s still fun, though, as I recollect the good times and gaze at the scores of glossy photos that captured those moments.  Yes, that’s happening with greater frequency as I get older.  But, life isn’t worth the trouble if you can’t have fun with family and friends and then, remember it all.

I commandeered the bar at the home of some long-time family friends on New Year’s Eve 1983.  My jacket was faux leather, but the hair was real!  When the hostess asked what speed she should set the blender to mix margaritas, ‘whip’ or ‘puree,’ I said, “Drunk.”

I commandeered the bar at the home of some long-time family friends on New Year’s Eve 1983. My jacket was faux leather, but the hair was real! When the hostess asked what speed she should set the blender to mix margaritas, ‘whip’ or ‘puree,’ I said, “Drunk.”

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