Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Day My Mother Told Me I Almost Wasn’t Born

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“I almost lost you before you were born – twice.” How do you respond to something like that from your own mother?  Especially when you’re only 9 or 10 years old?  I don’t recall what started the conversation.  My parents never held back when it came to subjects like babies and sex. I don’t know what brought us into that discussion, but my parents were incredibly forthright about such things. They figured I should find out from them, rather than from kids at school, television, or anywhere else. I certainly wouldn’t learn the truth about babies and sex from the Catholic parochial school I attended in the 1970s. Deep down inside the Catholic hierarchy knows that sex is pretty much how humans have reproduced for millennia, but openly hates it.

Once, when I was about 10 or 11, I asked my parents what happened in X-rated movies, and they told me “people run around naked” and use dirty words.  Which, if you think about it, pretty much sums up an X-rated film.  At some point, I’d asked my dad what an orgasm meant, and he flat out told me.  He’d even told me – before my teens – what a condom was and how to put on one.

So it only made sense that my mother would point out bluntly that she’d come close to losing me in utero. The first episode occurred in August of 1963, when she was about seven months pregnant and was at the funeral of her beloved maternal grandmother. My mother had become faint as she stood at the grave site, beneath the scorching Texas sun. At the time my parents lived in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment above the garage behind the house owned my father’s oldest sister, Amparo, and her husband – a place where we’d stay until my parents bought a house in suburban Dallas in 1972. Amparo had told my father that my mother didn’t look good and decided to accompany them to the funeral. Already expecting her own child, my aunt sat waiting in the limousine with a jar of cold water. After returning home, my mother began bleeding profusely. My father rushed her to the hospital where they saved her – saved both of us.

The second episode happened just two months later. One fall afternoon, my mother developed a fever, and inexplicably wondered outside into a rainstorm. Amparo was startled to see her and ordered her husband to retrieve my mother from their driveway. He brought her inside, and my aunt put her into a bed and watched over her until my father returned home from work.

Perhaps it’s because what my mother told – describing every excruciating moment of her pregnancy and my birth – that I understood, from a very young age, how fragile life is.  Aside from my seemingly inborn shyness, it may explain why I wasn’t aggressive like my parents; why I never liked to fight; why I always tried to negotiate and compromise instead.  It’s why I appreciate the smaller things in life – like the sound of rain or my dog’s breathing when he’s sleeping.

In the mid-1990s, when I worked at a major bank in downtown Dallas, one of my female colleagues, Felicia*, often lamented how her two younger sons seemed to take her for granted. Her older son was the model child: married with children and an active duty member of the U.S. Navy. But, her other sons, both teens at the time, were always doing something stupid. One day, at lunch, Felicia* mentioned that she’d almost miscarried her second son in a women’s room of that very building some seventeen years earlier. She’d become light-headed, she recalled, as I and a few others sat with rapt attention. Another woman escorted her to the ladies’ room where Felicia dropped onto a toilet and was certain she was about to lose that pregnancy; she was only about six or seven weeks along. The other woman ran out to tell their male supervisor about the dilemma. He called paramedics who rushed Felicia to a nearby hospital. Somehow, she and her unborn child – that second son who would later metamorphose into a conceited teenage brat – survived.

I asked Felicia if she’d ever told him about that. She said no; that she didn’t want to upset him with something so traumatic. I scoffed at the notion. “You need to tell him about that,” I implored. Describe how she’d collapsed in pain and managed to stagger into the women’s room; tell him that he almost ended up in the toilet of a downtown Dallas building. That, I assured her, would put his life into perspective.

A few weeks later, she pulled me aside to say she’d done just that recently; she told her son everything that happened that one afternoon; that she’d almost lost him in a women’s room of the bank – lost him before she even knew his gender, or had given him a name.  She reveled in the sight of the light bulbs going off in his eyes.

And, that’s when life comes into perspective. That’s when you understand how delicate everything is.

*Name changed.

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The Royal Family that Laid the Golden Egg

Not for scrap – this Faberge Egg is worth a few million and some change.

Not for scrap – this Faberge Egg is worth a few million and some change.

I don’t know what it is about Faberge Eggs that fascinate people – people, like viewers of “American Idol” and patrons of Botox parties, who have too much damn time on their hands.  To me, eggs are something that comes out of a bird’s ass and ultimately ends up in pancake batter or an omelet.  I mean, Faberge Eggs have to be the gayest things since “Star Trek” (come on – go-go boots; bell bottoms; perfectly-coiffed hair; phasers instead of real guns).  But, I find even this particular story intriguing.

Last week – and just in time for spring – a scrap metal enthusiast walked into the London shop of antique dealer Kiernan McCarthy and bought a Faberge egg for about $14,000 (EUR 10,1200); hoping to profit from its gold content.  But, a closer examination of the item made the customer think he was a rare Russian artifact.  As luck and good fortune often shines upon those not looking for them, the egg turned out to be an imperial Faberge Easter egg made for Russian royalty that’s worth millions.

The egg contains a Vacheron Constantin watch and sits on a jeweled gold stand.  It was given by Tsar Alexander III to his wife Empress Maria Feodorovna for Easter 1887.  Faberge made 50 of the imperial eggs for the Russian royal family, and eight remained missing until now.  Only three of those, however, are known to have survived the 1917 Russian Revolution.

This particular egg will be on display at London’s Wartski Antique Dealers, which specializes in Russian artifacts and Faberge Eggs.

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Exxon Valdez at 25

The usual victims: a worker tries to save a bird after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

The usual victims: a worker tries to save a bird after the Exxon Valdez disaster.

On this day in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil.  The oil spread along 1,300 miles of otherwise pristine coastline.  It remains one of the worst peacetime oil spills in world history, second only to the 1979 Ixtoc I disaster, and its effects linger to this day.  One of those effects is that Exxon never fully accepted responsibility, and the people whose lives were impacted the most never received the financial compensation they were due. We can expect that from a multinational conglomerate with trillion-dollar reserves.

In an age before the Internet and Twitter, news of the calamity still spread fast.  At first, many thought it was just a technical issue.  The crew of a gigantic oil tanker, traveling at night, misjudged the topography of the area and slammed into some rocks.  It wasn’t that simple. Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood had left the navigation bridge around 11 P.M. local time the night before the accident and returned to his stateroom.  He left two subordinates in charge of commandeering the vessel.  When the accident occurred, U.S. Coast Guard officials immediately took Hazelwood into custody and began questioning him.  They also detected the odor of alcohol on his breath and compelled him to undergo a Breathalyzer exam.  His blood alcohol level registered .061, and Hazelwood later admitted to consuming “two to three vodkas” in the hours before the ship slammed into the shoreline.  In 1990, however, a jury in Anchorage found Hazelwood not guilty of public intoxication and two other charges, but convicted him of “misdemeanor oil discharge;” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Hazelwood did lose his job, and the Coast Guard stripped him of his maritime master’s license.

But, the reaction from Exxon’s then-CEO, Lawrence G. Rawls, only intensified the anger and showed the disconnect corporate executives often have from their own company’s daily operations. Rawls remained aloof for nearly a week after the disaster and then spoke publicly only out of seeming reluctance. He refused to visit the site of the accident and even meet with then-Alaska Governor Steve Cowper who had just taken office four months earlier.

In some ways, Exxon paid the price for its almost-flippant response. Cleanup efforts alone cost the company $2.5 billion, and it paid out an additional $1.1 billion in various settlements. But, when asked how Exxon intended to pay for the mess, one executive merely said it would raise gas prices.

Aside from the livelihoods of coastal residents who depended on fishing to survive, Alaskan wildlife suffered the greatest impact. Responders estimated that as many as 3,000 otters perished within the first year after the spill and have only now seen their numbers replenished to pre-Valdez times. The population of herring also suffered, but their numbers haven’t recovered. Another species that hasn’t recovered is the pigeon guillemot. Their numbers were already in decline before the spill, but the disaster pushed them even further to the brink of extinction. The sight of a large brown bear stumbling along the rocky shoreline, trying to lick its paws clean of the sticky oil, is one particular image that remains with me. Oil-saturated birds struggling for air is another.

Exxon’s reputation suffered as well, but not nearly as much. In 1999, the company merged with Mobil; an $81 billion deal that made it one of the large oil monopolies in the world. In 1994, complicated litigation to make Exxon pay financially for the spill was settled in four phases for a total of $2.5 billion. But, the company, of course, prolonged its appeals, and in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court reduced the punitive damage award to $500 million. In the interim, Exxon (now Exxon Mobil) has reaped extraordinary profits. It hasn’t really suffered. Big corporations never really do. The effects still linger.

10 Worst Oil Spills in World History

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A Rebellion in Ivory

Fall of the Rebel Angels

This is one of the most extraordinary sculptures I’ve ever seen.  “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” is carved from a single piece of ivory.  Made in Italy in the early 1700s by an unknown artist, it stands nearly a foot tall and depicts the demise of Heaven’s rebellious angels into the depths of the netherworld.  Notice Adam and Eve clinging to the “Tree of Knowledge” at the bottom.  The item is currently on display at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Drugged Banking

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In 2012, HSBC Bank USA N.A. agreed to a $1.256 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department for its failure to monitor the activities of drug cartels using the bank to launder their money.  HSBC USA, which is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, and part of the international financial conglomerate known as HSBC Holdings, didn’t admit any wrongdoing (no surprise there), but agreed to the massive settlement to avoid prosecution.  According to documents released by the DOJ, HSBC essentially violated the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) by not adhering to anti-money laundering measures and by not conducting appropriate due diligence of its foreign account holders as required by U.S. banking laws.  In other words, they simply looked the other way while gladly accepting customer deposits and didn’t ask any questions.

HSBC (formerly the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company) traces its roots to the ambitions of a Thomas Sutherland, a Scotsman with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.  Realizing the need for solid banking facilities in the Orient, Sutherland founded the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Company in Hong Kong in March of 1865.  He opened its Shanghai affiliate a month later.  Within a few years, the entity grew to become the largest financial institution in Asia.  In 1992, the corporation acquired London-based Midland Bank and evolved into the present-day HSBC Holdings PLC.

Law enforcement officials in the U.S. and other nations like to talk tough when discussing the multi-national drug war.  In June of 1971, President Richard Nixon formally declared a “war on drugs,” a direct response to the increased usage of marijuana, LSD and other narcotics.  He advocated mandatory sentencing for even minor drug possession offenses and no-knock warrants.  However, in 1972, an independent commission recommended decriminalization of marijuana and allowing it for personal use.  Nixon, of course, balked at the idea.  But, between 1973 and 1977 eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession.  In October of 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize marijuana possession for anyone caught with no more than an ounce of the drug.  President Jimmy Carter tried to focus attention on treatment instead of imprisonment.  But, by the 1980s, the tide had begun to shift against such reasonable approaches.  Many parents were growing concerned about the rising rates of marijuana usage among teenagers.  Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 promising to intensify the war on drugs.  The number of people jailed for drug offenses skyrocketed from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997.  Even First Lady Nancy Reagan jumped into the fray with her quaint but laughable “Just Say No” campaign.

Today, the United States spends an average of $51,000,000,000 annually to combat illegal narcotics possession, transport and sales.  In 2012 alone, 1.55 million people were arrested in the U.S. for nonviolent drug charges.  We have more than 2.2 million incarcerated (more than any other nation), mostly on drug charges.  The U.S. – Mexican border has become highly militarized.  Both people and dogs are trained to detect illegal narcotics stored away in suitcases and vehicle glove compartments.  Traffic flows on border crossings between the U.S. and México has slowed dramatically in the past decade, due primarily to drug searches.

But, we’ve seen no improvement.  Drug usage in the U.S. remains high.  So does the violence.  The crack cocaine epidemic that exploded in the 1980s has metamorphosed into a seemingly persistent state of bloodletting.  By the turn of the century, the narcotics trade had migrated from such far-flung places as Bolivia and Columbia to México.  In 2006, Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched his own war on drugs.  And, that’s when things worsened.  The level of violence resulting from this half-hearted venture has culminated in the deaths of at least 100,000 people and the disappearance of more than 20,000 along the U.S. – Mexican border.  México already has a reputation for police corruption, but the average Mexican citizen is vulnerable to the fierceness of drug cartels.  Border towns have become especially dangerous.  Even people who aren’t involved in drug activities can fall victim to the violence.  Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, is one of the most dangerous cities on Earth.

But, this all goes back to the banks.  Mexican drug cartels are not only incredibly brutal; they’re also unbelievably wealthyJoaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, former head of the Sinaloa cartel who was captured recently in México, had the unique distinction of being on the United States’ “Most Wanted” list as well as one of the richest people in the world, according to Forbes.  In fact, Forbes estimated that the Sinaloa cartel’s annual revenue exceeds $3 billion.

People often ask where all that money originates.  But, I always wonder where it’s stored.  This isn’t digital currency, as in “bitcoin.”  They’re hard dollars.  U.S. paper currency is rectangular-shaped and measures 2.61” wide by 6.14” long with a thickness of 0.0043”.  A stack of 100 pieces of U.S. paper currency, therefore, would stand 43” (3’ x 7”) high.  If you multiply that into the billions, then it becomes obvious that the money not only weighs a lot, but it takes up a great deal of room.  Where would one keep, say, a million dollars in hard currency?

Enter the duplicity of the banks.  Drug cartels wouldn’t be able to operate and function without seeming impunity if financial institutions actually enforced laws regarding cash deposits, which are lengthy and detailed.  Banks must notify the government if they receive $10,000 or more in a single cash deposit.  They must also report to the government any cash withdrawals of that amount.  They have to file a Form 8300 within 15 days after such a transaction.  But, the laws grow vague regarding “suspicious activity.”  If a customer suddenly starts making cash withdrawals in the thousands, for example, the bank is legally obliged to report it.  That, however, leaves it up to the institution.

When I worked for a major bank in Dallas, each associate was required to partake in a money laundering seminar every year.  We viewed videos and slide presentations of how money is surreptitiously moved through a bank to avoid detection of criminal activity.  The “know your customer” rule was hammered into us.  In retrospect, I realize my colleagues and I were on the low rung of the financial totem pole.  Technically, we were the first line of defense.  But, do the same rules apply to the executives who actually run the company?

In 2010, Wachovia Corporation, another large U.S. banking conglomerate, agreed to pay $160 million in forfeitures and fines after officials accused it of “willfully overlooking” the suspicious nature of $420 billion in transactions between the bank and Mexican currency-exchange houses.  The movement of that much money should have alerted Wachovia associate to a nefarious undercurrent.  But, it didn’t.  Or, maybe it did, and no one bothered to investigate further.  I suspect Wachovia and other banks often know exactly what’s going on with the transfer of so much money, but deliberately ignore it.  Are drug cartels that intimidating?  Or, is the lure of vast cash reserves just too great of an opportunity to pass up?  Perhaps, it’s both.

The fiascos involving both HSBC and Wachovia remind me of Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), an international banking organization established in Luxembourg in 1972 by a Pakistani financier, Agha Hasan Abedi, with offices in London and Karachi.  Within a decade, BCCI boasted more than 400 branches in 78 countries and assets over $20 billion in assets.  But, its goals were purely criminal.  BCCI deliberately avoided regulatory oversight in the countries in which operated for the express purpose of enriching its executives and shareholders.  But, it all came to an extraordinary end in 1991 as bank regulators in seven nations became fully aware of BCCI’s activities and began shutting down its operations.  It was one of the boldest and most flagrant acts of financial malfeasance the world had ever seen.  Critics joked that BCCI stood for “Bank of Crooks and Criminals International.”

Every day in America someone gets arrested for minor drug possession.  These individuals aren’t the brains behind the giant drug cartels wreaking havoc on the citizenry.  They’re usually people just trying to make some quick cash, or hoping to get relief from the traumas of their everyday lives.  Yet, they’re the ones who get caught up in the criminal justice system and are sent off to prison.  The people inciting drug-fueled violence aren’t necessarily the ones stalking dusty streets and dimly-lit back alleys.  They’re the folks in business suits, lunging in corner offices.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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“May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!”

– Irish Blessing

 

St. Patrick

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The Ark Hotel – Saving Humanity from Itself

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In 1972, a movie entitled “Silent Running” arrived in movie theatres.  Bruce Dern portrayed a scientist named Freeman Lowell, the caretaker of a greenhouse affixed to a space station.  It contains the remnants of Earth’s vegetation; a refuge for flora devastated by overpopulation and war.  The film was among a gallery of entrants into the science fiction genre that, in the 1960s, had metamorphosed from alien creatures wreaking havoc upon hapless Earthlings to a frighteningly futuristic world where we are our own worst enemy.  With Earth’s population now at 7 billion, and the planet’s resources being stretched, this is becoming more of a reality.

Against this horrifying backdrop comes the “Ark Hotel,” a joint Russo-Chinese venture designed by the International Union of Architects for a project called Architecture for Disaster Relief.  Looking something like a prehistoric sea creature, or a ‘Slinky’ on steroids, the dome-shaped structure is comprised of wooden arches, steel cables and a self-cleaning plastic layer instead of glass.  It’s adaptable to either land or water usage.  The myriad arches and cables distribute the weight evenly; thus it can stand earthquakes, tsunamis and perhaps rambunctious toddlers.

Daylight filters through the sturdy glass to reduce the need for lighting.  Its solar panels and rainwater collection system provide inhabitants with power and water.  An internal garden provides some semblance of a landscape for guests and / or inhabitants, which in turn, act as a greenhouse.  The same lighting setup might allow for vegetable gardens.

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Regardless, the Ark Hotel is either an extraordinary example of ambitious engineering or more proof that planet Earth is overpopulated.  It seems to be no coincidence that the term “ark” is part of its name.

Ark-Hotel-Futuristic

Ark-Hotel-Summer

Ark-Hotel-Winter

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