Monthly Archives: August 2014

Nathan’s Promise


Judge Glenda Fuentes caressed her left ear. “Is he serious?” The neatly-typed words had started to blur. She really didn’t have time for this. But, she read it anyway. Nathan Hagel was already dead. Poor little bastard, she thought. He really believed in himself. He really thought he was the victim.

“I hope you all realize what you have done to me. I know if I told you this in person you’d just laugh. But, I’m not laughing. I did not kill those people. I told you over and over I had nothing to do with it. I was there, yes. But, I didn’t take part in it. I didn’t know that was going to go down like that. I had no idea my brother and sister-in-law wanted to kill anyone. I knew James was mad at his neighbors. But, I didn’t know he was that mad!  Mad enough to want to not just hurt them, but kill them. I still don’t think he planned to kill them. I seriously don’t think that. I still think he just wanted to scare the shit out of them.”

Of course, thought Fuentes. A lot of killers say that: I just wanted to scare them; teach them a lesson; make them understand whatever. But, I didn’t mean to kill them. In her nearly two decades on the bench, she’d heard that claim more times than she could count.

Nathan and his older brother, James, had a rough start in life. Their father abandoned them and their mother, when the boys were little. Nathan, in fact, never really knew his father; couldn’t recall ever talking with him. Nathan had told his defense attorney the only clear memory he had of his father was when the old man lay in his coffin. He and James had learned by chance their father had been killed in a bar fight in Arkansas. James was laid up at home after a car accident, so Nathan drove to Arkansas by himself for the funeral.

The Hagel boys’ mother provided them no greater comfort. A “paranoid alcoholic” is how Nathan described her. The boys were pretty much left to fend for themselves from a very young age. Why didn’t someone in the family take them in, wondered Fuentes. That was the question a lot of people – inside and outside of the court – asked. Tarrant County Child Protective Services failed them, too.

But, Fuentes reminded herself – and several others – at some point, the Hagel brothers knew right from wrong. If James and his wife, Sandy, had such trouble with their neighbors, why didn’t they seek legal counsel? How could a property line dispute turn so violent?

“My mother used to beat the living crap out of James,” Nathan’s letter continued. “He’d let himself get beat up, so she wouldn’t turn on me. He didn’t want me to get hurt. Even after I got grown and could care for myself, he still tried to protect me from stuff.”

According to police records, James and Sandy had dialed 911 more than twenty times to complain about their neighbors, the McFarrells. They all lived in a relatively older section of Fort Worth – not far from where they Hagel boys grew up. The McFarrells had moved into their house next door to James and Sandy less than two years before they died. Apparently, animosity developed from the start; beginning with a new fence the McFarrells built on their property. They had to tear down the old fence, which meant getting onto the Hagel’s property. That’s where the trouble started. James and Sandy had called police some twenty times. But, the McFarrells and others in the neighborhood had also called 911. There were, in total, about sixty calls to police from that one block – all related to the Hagel – McFarrell property dispute.

Where is this, mused Fuentes. West Virginia? No, it was Fort Worth, Texas, and we don’t solve property disputes with a gun.

“I think my mother was insane,” Nathan wrote. “I really do. She would do the craziest shit. We never knew what kind of mood she’d be in. She would just go off on us. And, everyone else.”

Fuentes had heard that sad story before. So, had Nathan’s court-appointed attorney, Mark Gaston. Gaston – who looked a circus side show reject – leaned heavily on Nathan’s upbringing as a reason for his behavior. “A reason,” he emphasized, “not an excuse.” Nathan understood the consequences of his actions for the most part, Gaston insisted, but he let himself get caught up in the drama of his older brother and sister-in-law. Besides, violence was all they knew growing up.

Huh? The statement perplexed everyone involved in the Hagel case. Okay, Nathan knew it was wrong to take the shotgun when his brother offered it to him. And, he knew it was wrong to follow James next door to the McFarrells’ house. Nathan knew bad blood flowed between James and Sandy and the McFarrells, like swamp water left over from a hurricane. But, somehow, he still really, in a strange sort of way, wasn’t completely and totally responsible for his actions?

“No, he wasn’t!” Gaston proclaimed during his closing arguments, answering the very question everyone had in mind.

“That neighborhood where James and Sandy lived – it was such a dump anyways. It’s like it was born dirty and rotten. But, that house was all they could afford. Then again, that’s all we knew – dirty, rotten houses and neighborhoods.”

Gaston had subpoenaed the Hagel brothers’ mother, Sheila. When she arrived in court, she was on probation for drunk driving and looked as if she was still intoxicated. Nathan didn’t even look up at her; not once. He kept his eyes down.

“I’ve had some problems,” Sheila mumbled on the witness stand. “I almost wish I’d never met their father.”

The courtroom expelled a collective gasp, which prompted Fuentes to pound her gavel. But, she understood the shock. This wretched woman was essentially trying to say she wished James and Nathan had never been born. That’s an awful thing for a mother to say – with one son already on death row and another headed there to join him.

“I don’t believe in no god or heaven or hell or afterlife. I think that’s all bullshit and anyone who believes in that is stupid. Since I don’t believe in that, I know nothing will happen to me after I die. But, for those of you who believe in god, may he, she, it, whatever damn you and your family. But, I also hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad. I hate you. I hate every fucking one of you!”

Sandy Hagel had been given immunity in return for her testimony. She was in the house when her husband and brother-in-law decided to walk next door and confront the McFarrells. She could have easily called the police – which she did. But, not before she heard the gunshots. She mentioned how both the McFarrells had stood outside on their back porch and waved their own guns towards the Hagel household. “They called us trash,” Sandy said in court. “But, they were just as trashy.”

Prosecutor Carly Watson had no sympathy for any of them. She never showed concern for criminal defendants. She smirked in court when Gaston mentioned the Hagel brothers’ rough upbringing. “Cry me a river of spit!” she told reporters after the jury in James’ trial issued its guilty verdict. She repeated herself after Nathan’s trial – the exact same verbiage. The statement made it onto the front pages of local newspapers. It was such a typical Texas-style response from someone sworn to uphold the law. “If everybody who had a rough childhood could get away with murder, we’d have dead bodies piled up in football stadiums, instead of morgues!” she groused. “I don’t feel sorry for the Hagel boys one single bit. They knew what they were doing. No one forced them to pick up guns and head over to the neighbor’s house.”

That night, Sandy testified, the McFarrells had stood on their back porch, waving their rifles towards her and James – again. The new fence was already up and bushes were planted.

“So, what was the problem?” Watson asked her.

Sandy paused for a minute. “They kept waving their guns at us. Like they were itching for a fight. We didn’t want no more trouble from them. We just wanted them to leave us alone.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“We did!”

“But, your husband and brother-in-law went over there anyway! Didn’t they?!”

“Yes, ma’am.”


“Because they called us.”

“The McFarrells?”

“Yes. They called us three times earlier that evening. I don’t know why. Just to be mean.”

“What did they say to you?”

“Just stupid stuff.”

“Define ‘stupid stuff’ for us, would you please.”

Sandy sighed heavily. “That we were ugly and stupid. That we’d better watch our backs. We thought things were settled once the new fence was put up. But, they kept at us. Kept haggling us. We didn’t want any more to do with them.”

So, as Sandy recounted, James and Nathan grabbed a couple of James’ shotguns and marched next door to the McFarrell home. They merely planned to stand on the sidewalk out front, waving the firearms in the night air; the same way the McFarrells had waved theirs to the Hagels so many times before. Sandy didn’t know why James and Nathan decided to step onto the McFarrells’ front porch and force their way into the house.

“James always looked out for Nathan,” Gaston noted in his closing argument. “They were all they had. They had no one else. No one cared for them. No one cared about them. They had to take care of themselves. Always! And, the police had not helped much in this dispute on Warren Lane. They just told everyone to be neighborly and then went on their way.”

Even after other neighbors reported the McFarrells often marched around their front yard with guns in hand, as if they were guarding a vault filled with diamonds, the police still did nothing. The McFarrells had waved their firearms at other people on that street. Some had avoided walking in front of the house altogether. They’d step into the street and make a wide arc, far from the McFarrell home, before returning to the sidewalk. Gaston made certain these other neighbors testified in court.

“None of these people were pulled from the nearest church pew,” Watson announced after James’ trial.

That was nearly two decades ago. James was already gone. Sandy had disappeared into another life far away from Fort Worth. Now, Nathan had a date with the chamber. A week before, he penned this letter. Then, he slit his wrists and his throat with a piece of metal he’d somehow spirited into his cell.

“But, I hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad.” For some reason, Fuentes kept reading that part over and over. Suffer – that’s such a cruel word.

She finally dropped the paper onto her desk and called for her assistant, Janelle. “Can you get Ms. Watson on the line for me?” She had yet another death penalty case to discuss.

“Right away, Judge,” replied Janelle.

Fuentes returned Nathan Hagel’s letter to its envelope and wished Gaston had never wasted her time with it. “I guess he can just come pick it up,” she murmured.

Janelle stumbled into the office, sounding breathless. “Your Honor!”

Fuentes was startled. “What?! What happened?”

“I just called Ms. Watson’s office. Her secretary said she’s been in a serious car wreck.”

“A car wreck?!”

“That’s what he said.”


“This morning – on her way to the office. She’s at JPS right now.”

John Peter Smith took the worst of the worst.

“Oh, my God!” crowed Fuentes. “That’s awful!”

“Let me make some other phone calls. I’ll see if I can found out more.” She wheeled back out towards her desk.

Fuentes sat back in her designer leather chair. “Damn! A car wreck! Good God!” She leaned forward to stand up – but her vision seemed to explode, driving her back into the chair. “Oh, God!” she screamed.

“Judge?” Janelle called out. She was already on the phone.

Fuentes stood. Another fucking migraine! She thought she’d rid herself of those years ago. She reached for her desk. This one was different, though, from what she remembered. She managed to stand.

“Judge?” Janelle repeated.

Fuentes tumbled face down. She probably didn’t feel her nose splinter when she hit the floor.

© 2014

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The Island of California

In this age of aerial photography – including satellite photos – it’s difficult to understand how our ancestors navigated the world and composed maps of their environment. But, they simply traveled across mountains, through forests and along coastlines, taking myriad notes and creating drawings of what they saw. Not surprisingly, they got a lot wrong and thereby, inspired many myths. One of the most legendary is the long-held belief by many Europeans that what is now the state of California was an island.

Much of this came from Francisco de Ulloa who explored the Bay of California in 1539. His curiosity apparently was provoked by one of the most famous Spanish explorers and conquerors, Hernán Cortés, who allegedly became entranced with tales of an island paradise called California that was ruled by a Nubian queen named Califía. (Somehow, they thought Africans had made it to the Americas before they did, which may actually be true.) In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino, another Spaniard who established the city of San Diego, sailed up the California coast, as one of his passengers, Father Antonio de la Ascension, wrote a journal about the voyage. Ascension claimed that California was separated from the American continent by the “Mediterranean Sea of California.” This ultimately led to the depiction of California as an island beginning in 1622, with a small map on the title page of Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales, a book written by Antonio de Herrera and initially published in 1601.

But, the first complete map to depict California as island appeared in 1624, courtesy of Abraham Goos, a Dutch engraver who worked on maps for various individuals. The following year Henry Briggs, a British mathematician, produced a similar map. More explorers continued to add to the California island myth over the ensuing decades. By the 18th century, however, some cartographers began to doubt this theory and – as fate would have it – they were eventually proven right. I suppose, if any of these explorers had thought to converse with California’s indigenous peoples, they might have figured out sooner that the area was actually part of the mainland. But, hindsight is always 20/20.


John Speed, one of England’s most well-known mapmakers, produced this piece, “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged” in 1626. It was first published in A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World.


Nicolas Sanson, France’s most famous cartographer, created “Amerique Septentrionale” in the 1650s. This is one of the most significant maps of North America, in part because of the California island depiction, but also because it was the first map to display the five Great Lakes.




This is a colorized version of John Speed’s “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged,” issued in the 1676 edition of his atlas.



Vincenzo Coronelli, a Franciscan monk and cartographer, produced “Mare Del Sud, detto altrimenti Mare Pacifico,” first published in Atlante Veneto in 1690. This version is particularly unique because it shows much of the Pacific Ocean, along with depictions of Australia and New Zealand.



French cartographer Alexis Hubert Jaillot continued the tradition of French mapmaking set by Nicholas Sanson, including depicting California as an island. He updated Sanson’s “Amerique Septentrionale” in 1692, which advanced French cartography and challenged the work of the Dutch.



British mapmaker Herman Moll worked in both England and Holland and, in 1715, came out with “This Map of North America according to ye Newest and most Exact observations.” It’s notable for its extraordinary detail of rivers, lakes, cities and various other features – including, of course, the “Island of California.” Notice the “Gulf of California or Red Sea” between the island and the mainland.



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Happy Birthday Bill Clinton!


President Bill Clinton was born on this day in 1946. Here are some of my favorite quotes from him:


“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”

“If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But, if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.”

“Sometimes when people are under stress, they hate to think, and it’s the time when they most need to think.”

“It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.”

“Let us all take more responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country.”

“Character is a journey, not a destination.”

“Work is about more than making a living, as vital as that is. It’s fundamental to human dignity, to our sense of self-worth as useful, independent, free people.”

“When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better. After all, nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day.”

“Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.”

“When I think about the world I would like to leave to my daughter and the grandchildren I hope to have, it is a world that moves away from unequal, unstable, unsustainable interdependence to integrated communities – locally, nationally and globally – that share the characteristics of all successful communities.”

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Shoot Her! Shoot Her!

Kim Kardashian Back Side View Going in the Car

In case you can’t get enough of rich celebrities engaging in brainless activities, Kim Kardashian has come to your rescue. Hoping to retain the “Queen of Vapid” label from Paris Hilton, Kimbalicious is coming out with a book of selfie photographs. Titled appropriately “Selfish,” the tome will be published by Rizzoli and will contain nearly 2,000 photos Kardashian took of herself in various settings and innumerable states of dress and undress.

“The selfie photography of Kim Kardashian, featuring many never-before-seen personal images from one of the most recognizable and iconic celebrities in the world,” is how Rizzoli describes the book. “Kim has become a true American icon,” Rizzoli continues. “With her curvaceous style, successful reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, DASH clothing store, makeup and perfume lines, she has acquired a massive fan following in the multi-millions. Through social media (Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook), Kim connects with her fans on a daily basis, sharing details of her life with her selfie photography. Widely regarded as a trailblazer of the “selfie movement” – a modern-day self-portrait of the digital age – Kim has mastered the art of taking flattering and highly personal photos of oneself.”

When I think of Kim Kardashian, the term “art” doesn’t come to mind, any more than the term “worthwhile” does. Aside from being the daughter of famed attorney Robert Kardashian and starring in her own reality TV series, I can’t think of one thing Kimberella has done to benefit society – other than ensuring paparazzi photographers keep getting a paycheck and providing online companionship to untold numbers of lonely computer nerds. But, that’s just me.

The book is due out in April 2015. Civilization, as we know it, is due to collapse by May of 2015.


Filed under Curiosities

Africans in Renaissance Art

That the United States has a long – and sometimes ignored – history of Black slavery is not news. But, what’s often not discussed – at least here in the U.S. – is the fact Europeans also maintained an African slave culture. To be fair, European countries began outlawing slavery long before the U.S. Yet, as intriguing and painful as the slavery issue may be, I find it even more fascinating that African slaves actually appeared in some Renaissance-era art.

The period known simply as the Renaissance in Europe began after the “Middle Ages,” which was the time extending roughly from the 5th century A.D. – or the collapse of the Roman Empire – to the 14th century. The Middle Ages are also often dubbed the “Dark Ages,” a term that may be more appropriate considering that the Renaissance saw an overall revival in the learnings of ancient Greece and Rome; development of new technologies, such as the printing press; increased political stability; overseas exploration; and, of course, the evolution of various art forms.

It makes sense, though, that part of the ongoing revival was realizing that Africans were humans, too. Therefore, the placement of Blacks in paintings – even if they were slaves or servants – is somewhat appropriate. While the following examples may be unsettling to many people, one has to view them within the context of their respective time frames. The bright colors and stoic poses of these delineations can’t and won’t eliminate the brutal legacy of African slavery in either Europe or the U.S. But, just like the clothing worn by the subjects, we can never look like that again.

Thank you to blogger Barbara Wells Sarudy for highlighting these artworks.


“Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages,” Paris Bordone, 1530s.

“Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages,” Paris Bordone, 1530s.

“Courtly Lady with Moor Boy,” unknown German artist, 1600s.

“Courtly Lady with Moor Boy,” unknown German artist, 1600s.

“Marchesa Elena Grimaldi,” Anthony van Dyke, 1623.

“Marchesa Elena Grimaldi,” Anthony van Dyke, 1623.

“Portrait of Two Children as Hunters in a Garden,” Nicholas van Helt, 1640s.

“Portrait of Two Children as Hunters in a Garden,” Nicholas van Helt, 1640s.

“Belgium Family Group in a Landscape,” Frans Hals, 1648.

“Belgium Family Group in a Landscape,” Frans Hals, 1648.

“Lady Elizabeth Noel Wriothesley,” Peter Lely, 1660-65.

“Lady Elizabeth Noel Wriothesley,” Peter Lely, 1660-65.

“Portrait of Maria, Princess of Oranje,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1665.

“Portrait of Maria, Princess of Oranje,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1665.

“Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1668.

“Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst,” Jan Johannes Mijtens, 1668.

“Portrait of Johan de la Faille,” Jan Verkolje, 1670s.

“Portrait of Johan de la Faille,” Jan Verkolje, 1670s.

“Portrait of Franziska Sibylla Augusta von Sachsen-Lauenburg,” Georg Adam Eberhard, 1678.

“Portrait of Franziska Sibylla Augusta von Sachsen-Lauenburg,” Georg Adam Eberhard, 1678.

“Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth,” Pierre Mignard, 1682.

“Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth,” Pierre Mignard, 1682.

“Three Musicians of the Medici Court,” Anton Domenico Gabbiani, 1687.

“Three Musicians of the Medici Court,” Anton Domenico Gabbiani, 1687.


For related reading material, please consider the following:

Allison Blakely, “Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society,” Indiana University Press, 1993.

Simon Gikandi, “Slavery and the Culture of Taste,” Princeton University Press, 2011.

Kim Hall, “Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England,” Cornell University Press, 1995.


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Now I Understand


In the mid-1970s, Freddie Prinze was leading an extraordinarily successful life. In December 1973, at the age of 19, he had come to the nation’s forefront after a stint on “The Tonight Show” in December 1973, which led to him landing the first half of the title role in “Chico and the Man,” an NBC television comedy. He appeared opposite Jack Albertson, a stage and film veteran. Despite their age and cultural differences, the two became good friends, with Albertson serving as a mentor to his younger co-star. I remember the series clearly. Prinze’s character was a breakthrough role. For the first time, American television boasted a Hispanic figure who spoke English perfectly.

By January of 1977, Prinze had a rollicking standup comedy career with sold-out gigs wherever he went and a top-selling comedy album; “Chico and the Man” remained a highly-rated show. He even performed at Jimmy Carter’s inaugural ball. He was married with a 10-month-old baby boy, Freddie, Jr.

And, he was miserable.

Things had begun to spiral out of control for Prinze. He’d become addicted to Quaaludes and cocaine and, in November 1976, was arrested for drunk driving. Then, on January 26, 1977, his wife, Kathy, startled him with a restraining order.  Two days later Prinze planted himself at the Beverly Hills Hotel and began making a series of “goodbye” calls to his mother, a few friends and his manager, Marvin Snyder. Snyder rushed to the hotel to try to stop his young client from harming himself. But, it was too late. Prinze put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He survived the initial shot, but the next day, his family authorized officials at ULCA Medical Center to remove Prinze from life support. He was 22.

The news of Prinze’s death – a suicide, no less – shocked and horrified the masses who loved him. How could someone that young with so much talent, success and money, plus a beautiful wife and baby, be so unhappy? I was 13 at the time and couldn’t understand. He was popular, right? He had lots of money, right? Why would he kill himself? It just didn’t make sense.

The recent suicide death of actor / comedian Robin Williams exposes, yet again, a miserable underside that lurks beneath a life of outwardly blissful happiness in the entertainment world. There’s a reason why the symbol of the theatre is comprised of dual masks: the comic Thalia, smiling, and the dramatic Melpomene, frowning. They’re high and low; top and bottom; the moon’s bright side and its dark side. Intertwined and – for the most part – interchangeable. All emblems of life. One can’t exist without the other.

Both Prinze and Williams had a great deal of money and a great deal of fame. It seemed everybody loved them. If someone has those two things – money and fame – then everything else is inconsequential. They should be completely and totally satisfied with their lives. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

Money may make life easier, but it really doesn’t make it completely satisfying. As cliché as it sounds, money truly does not buy happiness. No amount of money will make you like a job you hate. I love writing, for example, even though I haven’t made much money from it; a few freelance and contract technical writing gigs over the past few years. When I lost my job with an engineering firm in 2010, I was earning more money than I ever had before. Yet, in that last year, I hated the place. For some reason, tension had been building since the end of 2009, and I ultimately felt management was targeting me specifically. It was almost a relief to get laid off.

It’s difficult for people outside of artistic communities to understand. But, comics, actors, singers and other artists are people, too. We’re weird, yes, but we’re human beings first. We have the same emotional fluctuations and experience the same anxieties in life that everyone else does. We’re just a bit more expressive about it. Yet, because professional artists exist in the public realm, their lives fall under greater scrutiny. They’re magnified a thousand times for all to see. And, when someone makes a career out of telling jokes and doing impersonations, people assume they’re always happy. But, it’s difficult for most to imagine the pressure an artist must feel to perform and be “on” all the time. People expect a comedian to make them laugh – all the time. Entertain me, my little clown. I want nothing less from you.

And so, the entertainer does what they’re supposed to do – entertain. That’s why they’re paid – very well, sometimes – and thus, despite whatever agonies they’re facing, they pull the spirit of that entertainer deep from within the depths of their souls and put on a show. The writer, the singer, the dancer – all of them do what they’ve trained themselves to do; what they’ve wanted to do perhaps since childhood.

It appears artists, in particular, are prone to severe mood swings that often lead them to substance abuse and untimely deaths. Actors, writers, painters and the like experience the best and worst that humanity has to offer. That’s why the word “troubled” often accompanies the moniker of artist.

Jackson Pollock was one of the most innovative abstract painters of the 20th century, but he battled alcoholism his entire adult life. Ernest Hemingway was a literary giant, a larger-than-life persona who was the epitome of masculinity and steadfast courage; yet injuries he incurred during his raucous life apparently took a toll on his mental and physical health, and he committed suicide in 1961.

But, it’s not that every artist is troubled; we’re not all mentally unbalanced and destined for an early grave. We merely troubled; we’re not all mentally unbalanced and destined for an early grave. We just observe life through a more acute lens; we balance things out differently. We don’t see the world strictly in terms of black and white. We watch it move in all its colorful glory; the laughter and the pain mixed up together. That’s how and why we create the art that we do. If we didn’t experience the full gamut of human emotions, then we wouldn’t be so creative. We’d be … well, just like everyone else.

Fellow blogger Gus Sanchez touched on this very subject a few weeks before Williams’ death. “On Mood Disorders and the Writing Process” jumps directly into the fire of the artist-mental illness connection. As someone who’s gone through the manic highs and lows of creativity and dry spells where I feel the entire world is out to get me, I fully comprehend the realities of depression and anxiety.

It’s a blessing to be imbued with such creative elements. We can make other people happy, or make them think. It’s a curse in that we see the ugliest sides of the world glaring back at us and challenging us to do something about it. We often take up that challenge. Many times it works out for the best; sometimes, it hurts.

The Melpomene mask doesn’t conform to our vision of life in the limelight. Everyone wants to be around Thalia; we always demand Thalia be there to make us feel good about things. But, Thalia just can’t be a part of our world unless Melpomene is also present. They’re undeniably symbiotic; conjoined twins held together by the same heart. They can’t live separately. Without cold, there can be no hot. Wherever there’s a smile, there must also be a frown.

Towards the end of my tenure at the engineering company, I had a private meeting with my immediate supervisor. I told her that everyone was on edge and just didn’t feel good about things. She shot back, accusing me and the others of “creating all this drama.”

“There’s no drama,” I quietly responded. This wasn’t a soap opera. It was the real thing. I guess she couldn’t understand it the way I did. She was looking at the situation through a narrow, gray tunnel. I saw all of the sign posts, in blazing red and yellow, warning of danger ahead.

When Freddie Prinze passed away, my young mind couldn’t fathom such horror. But, as information about Williams’ emotional problems begin to surface, his tragic death seems only slightly more comprehensible. I keep thinking Freddie Prinze and other artists who died at their own hands reached out from the netherworld, grabbed Williams’ soul as it departed his beleaguered body and said, ‘Come with us. We understand. You’re safe now.’

So, I look at all the happiness and all the tragedy that make up this wonderfully unique thing called human existence, and I understand, too.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.


Filed under Essays

In Memoriam – Lauren Bacall, 1924 – 2014


“I think your life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that.”

Lauren Bacall


“Designing Women” (1957)


“How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)


“The Big Sleep” (1946)


“The Fan” (1981)


“The Maltese Falcon” (1941)


“To Have and Have Not” (1944)

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In Memoriam – Robin Williams, 1951 – 2014


“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Robin Williams


“Dead Poets Society”


“Good Morning Vietnam”


“Good Will Hunting”


“Mrs. Doubtfire”


“Patch Adams”


At the Los Angeles Improv, HBO, 1977


With Jonathan Winters on “The Tonight Show,” October 19, 1991

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Frat Crap


Thirty years ago this month I made one of the worst decisions of my entire life: I joined a fraternity. In August of 1984, I was a shy, naïve 20-year-old; the kind of person college social groups eat up and spit out. When I started classes at what was then North Texas State University (now, the University of North Texas), I hoped to complete my education within two years and begin a career in computers – anything to do with computers – like my parents had planned for me. I also hoped to break out of my shell of insecurity, make plenty of friends and find my future wife – after losing my virginity first. I ended up suspended from school for the fall 1985 semester, addicted to alcohol, maniacally depressed – and still a virgin.

Then, as now, I blame that fucking fraternity. I know the status of “Victim” has been a coveted one in America since the 1980s. But, hear me out on this mess.

I’ll say flat out that social Greek-letter organizations serve absolutely no purpose. They have only one function: party, which means getting drunk and having sex. Yes, they toss in the occasional charity function bullshit just to look good. For example, in November 1984, the frat I joined teamed up with the county to drive people to voting stations. In another self-righteous instance, we participated in a campus blood drive; where the director (a pre-med professor) walked around in a stupid vampire outfit. (Get it? Blood drive? Vampire?) Anne Rice probably would have killed him on the spot. Other than those two saccharine-laced, cringe-worthy exceptions, we just got drunk (they called it “enjoying alcohol – immensely”); tried to seduce as many unwary females as possible; engaged in quasi-macho antics; and partied at an aging two-story house on the edge of campus.

On my first day in the dorm, I saw a flyer advertising a party for the frat, which I’ll call Alpha Omega Dipshit (AOD). After I settled in – living away from home for the first time in my life, along with a flamboyantly gay roommate – I looked again at that ad for AOD and thought it must be great way to make new friends. I was desperate to meet new people. This wasn’t high school, which I hated. Life at a community college the preceding two academic years had been nice. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time with people. My social life during the my first two years out of high school revolved around whatever plans my parents had and my German shepherd. My dating life revolved around my hands and a bottle of baby oil. Things would be better now, I assured myself. North Texas was different. I wasn’t dealing with kids anymore. I was dealing men and women. I thought.

On a whim, I followed a guy I’d met and quickly befriended in the dorm to the AOD party, where beer flowed like the testosterone through my body. There were lots of beautiful people, and I tried making friends with every one of them. I really wanted people to like me. Being shy hurt and I had to break free of it.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law requiring states to raise their minimum legal alcohol consumption age to 21; otherwise, they’d lose highway funding. The law was a response to the growing anti-drunk driving movement. Before the 1980s, drunk driving was viewed with an almost humorously dismissive attitude. Despite fatal accidents involving alcohol, intoxicated driving still wasn’t considered nearly as egregious as interracial marriage or homosexuality. That all changed after the young daughter of Candy Lightner, a California woman, was struck and killed by a habitual drunk driver. She made it a national issue. Hence, the 1984 federal law.

But, then-Texas Governor Mark White essentially told Reagan to go to hell when he mandated the legal alcohol consumption rate wouldn’t be raised to 21 in the Lone Star State until 1985. Texas had enough money to fund its own highways without some former B-movie actor telling us what to do. (That anti-Washington sentiment has always sort of been part of the Texas identity. White, I might add, was a Democrat.) It really didn’t matter to me, though. I didn’t drink that much alcohol anyway at the time.

Three years earlier, 18-year-old seniors at my high school were upset because Texas planned to raise the minimum alcohol-drinking age to 19.

“They can give you a right,” one girl told me at the start of an English class, “but they can’t take it away.”

How profound. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the fuck out of that high school.

But, when I stepped into the back yard of the AOD house, I followed the crowd to the beer kegs and started partaking of Coors Light. Even now, the mere smell of Coors Light incurs bitter images of college boys behaving stupidly. I had one plastic cup of beer. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another.

And, that’s where it began.

I wanted so much to Belong. My lifelong shyness had stunted my personal growth. Aside from my dog, I felt no one liked me. But, in pursuing that friendship goal – paying money along the way – I became a punching bag for most of those guys. More importantly, my entire academic regimen collapsed, and the university placed me on academic probation for the spring 1985 semester. That prevented me from becoming a full, active member of AOD. I still had to pay monthly dues, of course. But, I remained in the netherworld of pledgeship. That’s something like a glorified time out. Can you feel the hopelessness?

Things got worst that year. We had to put our dog to sleep in April, and then, the university suspended me for the rest of 1985. My parents were outraged, and I became suicidal. I felt I’d lost everything. My dog was dead; I didn’t have any new friends; and my future looked bleak. And, I was still a virgin.

My life reached a new low that October when I got arrested for drunk driving. I showed up to my waiter job at a country club already intoxicated one weekday evening. Carl*, my openly-gay supervisor, wouldn’t let me work, even though the gaggle of mostly-Jewish members wouldn’t have given me a second look anyway. Instead, Carl made me sit in the back office where I ate a meal he had one of the cooks prepare for me and admitted he had the hots for me. Great, I thought. After all my efforts at chic one-liners and coy humor, the only person interested in me was a middle-aged man with a beer gut. After I sobered up a little, he told me to go home. But, I didn’t. I felt I had nothing to live for at the time. So, I got into my little Ford Escort and went bar-hopping. Coming off Dallas’ Greenville Avenue, I stumbled into a police trap and then into a police car. I had never felt as much humiliation as the moment I called my parents from Lew Sterrett Jail in downtown Dallas. They bailed me out early the next morning. Fortunately, my blood-alcohol level tested below what was then the legal limit of .10.

I returned to North Texas for the spring 1986 semester and then again for the ensuing academic year. I left for good a year later; vowing to return and complete my education. I never went back. But, I finally did earn a college degree – 20 years later.

I made only two really good friends during my tenure at North Texas. One, Dean*, I had met through AOD. He was a tall, skinny guy with tousled brown hair and a penchant for short girls. We became close – like brothers. Not frat brothers. Real brothers. As an only child, that meant everything in the world to me. He became the kind of friend I’d always wanted. He was upset that I didn’t become a full member of the frat, yet he didn’t let that bother him.

But, AOD did get in the way of our friendship. In September 1986, after I’d settled in once more at North Texas, I ran into Dean in a parking lot, while headed to class. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. We traded phone numbers, and later, he invited me to drop by an AOD rush party. Against my better judgment, I took him up on his offer. I went with a guy named James* who’d just graduated from high school and who I’d met at my new job a few months earlier. There, I ran into many of the people I’d known before. It felt so strange – being in that house – with those familiar faces – and the smell of Coors Light. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

At some point, I got into a heated discussion with a guy named Kyle*. He’d been part of the same pledge class as me and Dean and now, two years later, was AOD’s president. Kyle was already kind of a strange character; someone who did a great Keith Richards impersonation, but was probably the same type to walk into his workplace with a shotgun. I didn’t realize he could be such an asshole, though. I don’t know what prompted the argument, but a short while later, Dean asked me to leave. Actually, he had been told to ask me to leave. He was the frat’s “Sergeant-at-Arms” – a glorified Boy Scout-type role – and apparently, since we’d been such good friends, he’d been given the task to let me know I was no longer welcome. Fine. I didn’t need them. So, I calmly departed with James in tow; acting is if nothing was wrong.

Deep down inside, however, I felt completely dejected. I had wanted so badly to be a part of that group. The next night I scampered about the campus, ripping down flyers advertising AOD. I guess I showed them! Regardless, Dean and I stayed in touch throughout the remainder of the academic year. We just didn’t talk about the frat.

The other friend, Robert*, had actually attended the same grade school as me. We knew each other only sparingly back then. But, on my first day in the dorm in August 1984, Robert stepped into my open doorway and introduced himself; he was in the room just across the hall. He startled me at first, but I was glad people were so friendly. Or, at least he was. After another moment, though, I thought I remembered him. It’s one thing to reconnect with people from high school. But, grade school?!

Ironically, he joined AOD – at my urging – and did well with it. He wasn’t there the night Dean asked me to leave. But, Robert has remained one of my best friends ever since. He’s tolerated my moodiness over the years. For example, I had an alcohol blackout one night in the early 1990s and unwittingly called him to tell him “this was it.” I was determined to kill myself. (I seriously don’t remember the incident, but I trust he’s telling me the truth.) Being the good real estate salesman he is, Robert stayed calm and managed to talk me into exhaustion.

When he revealed that to me a few years ago, I apologized to him for making such a scene and taking up so much of his time. It’s not his fault I couldn’t get my stuff together and heal myself from depression and alcoholism. Which I eventually did. Several years later.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been dumbfounded – angered, actually – to learn of incidents involving social Greek-letter outfits on college campuses. They almost always feature severe alcohol abuse, hazing and, quite often, sexual assault. How is it, I ask, that colleges allow these groups to exist? I guess the frat culture is embedded that strongly in the realm of America’s higher education. What a waste.

In the summer of 2003, my employer hired three young female temporaries to assist with an ongoing project. One had just graduated from high school and planned to attend a major Texas university that fall. Shortly before she resigned her position, I warned her to stay away from social fraternities – and sororities. “They’re just no good,” I told her.

I last saw Dean on South Padre Island during spring break 1987. I’ve retained my friendship with Robert, but I still often think of Dean. Not long after he had ordered me to leave the AOD house in 1986, Robert told me Dean had gone on a drinking binge. He felt he’d turned on a friend, Robert said, and couldn’t handle it. I never knew that. I can only hope Dean didn’t descend into a decades-long battle with alcohol like I did. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

It wouldn’t be fair, if I said that Dean and Robert were the only decent guys in that fraternity. In fact, most of them were great guys. It was the handful of assholes who ruined it for everybody else. Isn’t that the way it often works?

Yet, I wonder – where is Dean now? Is he okay? Did he succeed in life? I felt, if anyone deserved it, he did. I’m not so arrogant to wonder if he thinks of me, though. But, we had the kind of friendship that should have lasted a lifetime. If that damn fraternity just hadn’t thrown so much crap all over us.

*Name changed.



Filed under Essays