Category Archives: Personal

R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy (1931- 2015)

I had a dire feeling when Leonard Nimoy was taken to a nearby hospital on February 19, suffering from chest pain. (He had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease several years earlier, which he attributed to smoking earlier in his life). This morning I woke up to the sad news that Mr. Nimoy had died at his home.

The character Mr. Nimoy played so well that everyone else attempting it seems like a joke to me, “Mr. Spock” was one of the heroes of my teenage years. At the time, I was struggling to find a workable and somewhat sane balance between my interests in science and rational thought on the one hand, and my passions for art and creativity drawing me into the opposite direction at the same time. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do with my life.

As a character, Spock appealed to me not only because he was fighting the same inner conflicts while inhabiting a world he found troublesome to relate to — a world populated by irrational, perplexing, immature, superfluous and barbarian humans, who were both irritating and fascinating at the same time.

Mr. Spock: “May I point out that I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts quite closely. They were brutal, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous – in every way, splendid examples of homo sapiens. I found them quite … refreshing.” Captain Kirk (to Dr. McCoy): “I’m not sure, but I think we’ve been insulted.”

Spock also inspired me to reflect deeply about the differences between the emotional and the rational mind, and on the roles both aspects play in human existence. In time, this led me to the study of existentialismbudō, pantheism and pandeism.

Eventually, I arrived at the conclusion that the conflict between reason and emotion is a vital part of human existence. It forms a system of checks and balances. Only the right, harmonious balance between these two aspects of the human mind, heart and soul form a complete and content human being reaching its full potential.

Mr. Spock: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting. It is not logical … but it is often true.”

Many years later, Mr. Nimoy graciously agreed to meet me in person. I wanted to discuss a project I had come up with for the reopening of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. (The facility was closed for renovations from 2002 to 2006, and Mr. Nimoy was a fervent supporter and donor. Today, the observatory’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater is named after him).

Our meeting took place at a synagogue in Hollywood, and I was probably as nervous as a schoolboy meeting his favorite superhero. I know Mr. Nimoy would not have appreciated my sentiments, but to me it seemed like meeting Mr. Spock in person.

Mr. Spock: “In critical moments, men sometimes see exactly what they wish to see.”

As far as I could tell, Mr. Nimoy liked the idea I was pitching, but of course he may just have been polite. In the end, it didn’t go anywhere, as it became clear that coming from an outsider without political connections, the complex hierarchies of Los Angeles city politics and its bureaucracy would have made it all but impossible to execute. (I was clearly too naive about politics back then).

What else remains there to be said? “Warp speed ahead, Mr. Spock?”. No. Rather: “Thank you, Mr. Nimoy. You did so much more than playing a fictional character on TV and in the movies.”

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R.I.P. L. Stephen Coles, M.D., PhD (1941 – 2014)

LSCWhat is the maximum human lifespan? Why do we age? What are the causes and their mechanisms? Why do humans tend to live longer than most other mammals? Do we have a built-in “expiration date” – perhaps for the benefit of the species? Can the aging mechanism be delayed or entirely deactivated leading to eternal life?

These and the related questions were what fascinated Dr. L. Stephen Coles, who in 1990 founded the  Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group, a global network of researchers and parties intrigued by the boundaries of the human life span. Among the group’s primary work is the cataloguing, tracking and studying of so-called “supercentenarians” – people who live past the age of 110. (As of this writing, there are only 76 such humans verified to be living on this planet. 74 of them are women).

I became intrigued with this subject after reading about Dr. Coles’ work in this Los Angeles Times article in 2004. So I got in touch with him and found a fascinating researcher, inspiring person and mentor.

stephen-coles-md

Subsequently, I wrote a long-form magazine article on the subject, which was published in a German science magazine. Dr. Coles was the most important and primary source for it. During the many hours we spent talking, I learned to appreciate not only his professional knowledge, but also his humor, gregarious personality and boundless enthusiasm for the hope that science would, very soon, make it possible for humans to live exceedingly longer than today.

Steve was a passionate proponent of evidence-based science and rational thought, for the prosperity of all mankind. Sadly, he didn’t get to benefit from the future scientific breakthroughs he was hoping for. I was shocked when shortly after Christmas of 2012, there came an e-mail announcing this Steve’s holidays had been rather miserable.

“I am sad to report that on Christmas Eve (two days ago), I received the
horrible diagnosis of ‘adenocarcinoma of the head of the pancreas’,” the message read. “BTW, this is the same form of cancer that Steve Jobs CEO of Apple Computer had before he passed away when money was no object. Although I knew that something was wrong with my body for the last three weeks (acute onset of symptoms with the occult tumor possibly growing subclinically for two years or more with no manifestation of its presence until it grew large enough to screw up my internal plumbing by its  sheer volume [about the size of a plum])”.

Knowing that pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of all carcinomas, the first thing that came to my mind was obvious. It was really crushing.

Of course Steve was perfectly aware of his low odds. He went on writing, “Even in the best of all possible worlds, the mortality statistics after five years of chemo therapy are not great (around 50 percent). Of course, in the event of metastases, one’s life post chemotherapy/radiotherapy are significantly shortened proportionally.”

And unfortunately, there was metastasis in the liver.

Various attempts were made – first surgery (the “Whipple Procedure“), then various chemotherapy, as well as some experimental procedures involving the growth of tumor-specific cells in the laboratory.

While the procedures prolonged Steve’s life to the limits of the statistical prognosis range, they failed in in the end.

When this final message on Oct. 9, 2014, we all knew this was it. “Update on Health Status,” it said. “In order to be eligible for more services, last week I was placed on hospice care at home.  Now that I have been taken off taxotere, some measures of health have improved.  However, my eligibility for the ECLIPSE clinical trial has been placed on hold pending a decrease in frailty.”

Steve passed away on December 3, 2014, a few weeks short of living for two years after his diagnosis.

But the story does not end here. A few days before his death, Steve must have gone on his life’s final journey: From Los Angeles to Scottsdale, Arizona. Located there is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation – coincidentally also an organization which intrigues me, and about which I have also reported in detail.

Alcor is the leader in “cryonics”. This is an experimental technology which seeks to preserve human bodies through a procedure resulting in suspension of human tissues in liquid nitrogen, at extremely low temperatures, in perpetuity. The hope is that one day in the future, biotechnology will exist to revive these cryogenically “suspended” human bodies, restore them to life by the use of sophisticated nanotechnology, and also deal with whatever the cause of death was.

Depending on the preferences of the customer, either the entire body, the head or just the brain may be frozen (on the theory that once biotechnology has progressed far enough, it should also be possible to either create a new body, or transfer the brain’s content into a computer system).

I am not at all surprised that Steve was also intrigued by the idea and made arrangements to implement this option as a last resort.

And so, Steve’s brain will come to rest in a dewar of liquid nitrogen. Perhaps, one day, he might live again. And he has reportedly made a reservation to attend his colleague Johnny Adams’ 100th birthday party. In the year of 2049.

I will miss him.

stephen_coles_headshot

L. Stephen Coles on Wikipedia

Gerontology Research Group

Obituary in the Los Angeles Times

 

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R.I.P. Jim Blumenthal :.

I am profoundly saddened by the death of Jim Blumenthal, who had been suffering from cancer for a while. He passed away in the morning of December 1.

I have known Jim as a most kind, sweet and caring person. Jim and I did not agree on scientific subjects and had passionate discussions about these topics. But I considered him a friend and brother. His jovial nature and warmth will be deeply missed and remembered.

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Good-bye, Hal Takier (1917 – 2012)

Portrait of Hal Takier

Unfortunately I only met Hal in his old age, but I am grateful for the time we were able to spend together. Hal was one of a few remaining witnesses of a very special time in popular culture, and American history: the Swing Era. Always gracious, supportive, friendly and willing to share from the wealth of his experience, he and his wife Marge were regular attendees and contributors to a series of public events I co-produced and directed.  I will miss him dearly and remember him fondly. Hal left behind his wife of many years, Marge Takier.

Below is the first part of a three part mini-documentary made in 2001 of legendary Southern California swing dancers Hal Takier, Jean Veloz, and Freda Angela. Interviews were filmed by Erik Robison, Tip West and Mike Mizgalski and edited by Hilary Alexander. (Provided via YouTube):

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R.I.P. Robert (“Bob”) Giel :.

March 11, 1949 to February 16, 2011. After 61 years, 11 months and 5 days, the column is broken.

The Master’s Monument:
Three steps, the broken column, the urn and evergreen,
tears shed before the open book, the hourglass, scythe, and Father Time)

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Meeting Maria Altmann

Maria Altmann Portrait
Maria Altmann in her garden. Click to enlarge. © Reinhard Kargl 2000

Maria Altmann, heiress to Gustav Klimt paintings which were later sold for $328 million, has died in Los Angeles on February 7, 2011. She was 94.

When the Austrian state TV network ORF asked me to do an in-depth interview with Maria Altmann in 2000 — after Altmann had sued the Republic of Austria — I was a little apprehensive at first. How would she react to a reporter raised in the country she was suing for the injustices she alleged were done to her family during the Nazi era?

So I phone Mrs. Altmann to test the waters. But my fears prove to be completely unfounded. On the countrary! The moment she hears I was born in Vienna (as she was), Altmann immediately falls into perfect German slightly tinged with a distinct Viennese upper-class accent: “Ach, dann können wir ja auch wienerisch reden!” And she proceeds to tell me enthusiastically of the “wonderful” youth memories she has of the old imperial city by the Danube, the delicious pastries, the architecture, and the music.

She was 84 years old at our first conversation, still very busy working as fashion consultant and designer, interested in art and classical music, well read, highly energetic and articulate. I knew then that I was about to meet a most interesting and remarkable lady.

Since then, Mrs. Altmann’s story has been well publicised. Born into a family of wealthy Jewish industrialists in 1916, she was 22 and freshly married when the First Austrian Republic (the German speaking remnant left over after the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), joined the German Third Reich in the Anschluss of 1938. Like many other Jewish residents at the time, Altmann’s (and her husband’s) family assessed the situation correctly and subsequently scattered, leaving almost their entire fortune behind.

Among the family’s possessions were various pictures by the still relatively unknown Gustav Klimt; among them were portraits commissioned by Altmann’s family.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil and golden and silver foil on canvas. 138 × 138 cm. Click to enlarge.

Compared to what happened to others, Altmann considered herself “very lucky”. After her husband’s arrest, his brief detention and the couple’s covert flight from Vienna, the Altmanns were able to make a new, peaceful life in America, where they also achieved financial security.

 

Anyway, so we decide to shoot the interview at Altmann’s home in Cheviot Hill, a small and neat suburbian residential area in West Los Angeles, where the widowed mother of four children has lived for a long time. We agree to shoot everything in German.

Altmann is well groomed and dressed and exudes an aura of ladylike poise and charm. As usual, I let the cameraman pick the best setting (which he finds in the backyard) and while the crew is setting up, I follow the usual ritual: engage in a little small talk with the subject in private, then go over a broad description of my questions, have the microphones attached, do a light and sound check. Not easy to endure at the age of 84.

The interview goes very well. Altmann gives long answers (luckily I’m not the one who has to edit this) and turns out to be patient and charming. We change tapes several times.

But then, we run into a problem: every home in the area has a yard. And every yard seems to be maintained by Latino “mow and blow” crews. And they all arrive at the same time with their noisy lawnmowers, power cutting tools and leafblowers.

Oh, the ruckus! My sound guy is wringing his hands (and I have secret fantasies of wringing some necks). We decide to take a little break, but to no avail. As soon as one crew of yard workers is done, another starts up a lawnmower or damn leafblower somewhere else in the neighborhood. These things aren’t even legal.

I am beginning to get nervous. We have already shot two thirds of the interview; going inside now would be a continuity problem. Besides, I am under orders to ship the tapes off right away. Meanwhile, the sunlight is beginning to fade, and so does Altmann’s ability to concentrate. Great.

I call a break again (probably the for the 5th time) and go outside to talk to the yard workers. Of course, they pretend to understand no Ingles. I know the game, so I put on my crazy gringo act and somehow convince the workers to take a break for a few minutes. I don’t know if they agree to hold the work because of the bribe I offer (for which I have no expense account, of course), because they think I am nuts (and possibly dangerous) or because they genuinely feel bad about preventing me from doing my job.

Whew! The cameraman plays some tricks with the white balance to compensate for the different light temperature as much as possible, and we hurry to continue and finish up.

Altmann is “terribly sorry” for all the trouble even though she didn’t cause it. She invites me for coffee, which she prepares herself.

I send the crew on their way. They are eager to get on the freeway, since rush hour has begun. Altmann has lots of time, enjoys the company, and the opportunity to talk about Vienna auf Deutsch. I know (and appreciate) that people from Vienna take their Kaffeejause (coffee break) very seriously.

I am amazed that Altmann, through it all, still feels connected with Austria. I recall pictures of the Alps and mementos of Austrian cities in her home. Whatever ill feelings she might have are directed at the individuals whom she believes have wronged her, but not at the entire place or German culture as a whole. Most likely, this attitude is what allowed her to cope and carry on with her life. It’s not even about the money, she insists, but about justice. Money, she says, has never meant anything to her. “At this stage in my life, I would not even know what to buy with it.”

Altmann keeps pouring coffee and brings plates of food, and it is long after darkness has fallen when I finally get on my way. She invites me to come back some other time, “zum Kaffee” (for coffee).

I am sad to say that I never took her up on the offer. Like so many times in life, I often thought about making a phone call to follow up. But then, I am always extremely busy, and something else always came up. As so often, I now deeply regret that time has run out.

The story of the Klimt pictures and Maria Altmann, the old lady who fought the Republic of Austria (and won), exploded into the global headlines. In the end, the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere released the paintings to Altmann. I was able to see them at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before they were sold off.

Altmann told me (and others) that she sincerely wished and hoped that the pictures would be visible to the public, but sadly this is only partially the case today.

The most famous of the paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) is one of several portraits of Altmann’s aunt. It was acquired by Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million in 2006. It was the highest price paid for a painting to date. Adele Bloch-Bauer I is currently at Lauder’s Neue Galerie in Manhattan, but the other pictures have disappeared from public view.

My favorite image from the group is currently in a private collection:

Birkenwald/Buchenwald (Birch Forest/Beech Forest), 1903. By Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862-1918). Oil on canvas. 110 x 110 cm. Private Collection. Click to enlarge.

I wonder what Klimt would have thought of all this. He died in 1918. I admire his words: “If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few. To please many is bad.” You see, Klimt was quite a rebel in his days.

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Merry Christmas

Christmas at my Great-Grandparents. I believe the girl with the braided hair is my grandmother to-be, which would establish the date somewhere around 1910. (Click to enlarge).

To all those celebrating Christmas near and far, have joyful and happy holidays. If you might indulge me and grant me a wish, then please consider finding ways to restore Christmas as a season of hope and promise for a better world; to be shared and enjoyed among friends and extended family — free from the impersonal tyranny of mindless consumerism, shallow commerce and kitsch.

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