Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Monk Thomas Merton's Great Love Affair

Recently I reread the journals of Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, author of the best selling book, The Seven Story Mountain, written shortly after Merton entered the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Louisville, Kentucky, at age 26. Merton, who was born in France and educated in England, originally wanted to be a novelist when he migrated to New York City to resume his studies at Columbia. Merton's life on Perry Street in Greenwich Village was typical of the life of many young bohemians of the era: bar hopping, cafes, women, bookstores, films and other intellectual pursuits. This life soon paled for the budding mystic. The Seven Story Mountain chronicles his conversion to Catholicism and then his decision to become a monk. Merton first applied to the Franciscan Order but the vocation director there rejected him because he admitted that he'd once gotten a girl pregnant. The Trappists, however, were willing to look the other way. Until the day he died--December 10, 1968--Merton (Father Louis) was never a sanctimonious holy roller but a man subject to all sorts of temptations. As a seasoned monk he drank beer, read Lenny Bruce, Nietzsche, and defended the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
Merton became a monk in the years before Vatican II, when Catholicism had a more traditional cast. Vatican II changed many things in Catholic life, especially the rubrics of the Mass. Merton was ambivalent about some of these changes. In his journal he notes: "Catholic Aggiornamento: A priest is amazed that some of his people continue to say the Rosary at Mass. He announces a special service. Sunday evening all are to bring Rosaries and candles...walk in procession to a spot outside the Church where they will find a hole has been dug. They are to throw their rosaries in the hole. Spirit of liberty of Vatican II." Merton, in this instance, sounds like Archbishop Lefebvre of the SSPX.
In the mid-Sixties, Merton had a major crisis involving monastic celibacy.

This life changing experience occurred when he underwent an operation in a Louisville hospital and befriended a young nurse. ("I remember being fed by a nurse at my first meal...then trying to eat one myself and picking a small piece of veal off a plate with my fingers and sticking it in my mouth."). His relationship with the nurse, known in the journals as 'M' (Margie), evolved into a romantic obsession. The world famous monk-author suddenly found himself sneaking around the monastery late at night in order to make hushed phone calls to his beloved. In May, 1966, he wrote: "The trouble is that with M. and me it is not a game....Humanly speaking the situation is impossible. We are terribly in love, and it goes very deep, perhaps more even with her than with me..." Other journal entries make him sound like a love sick adolescent: "She is the sweetest person I have ever known." At other times he comes off like a hippie at Woodstock, "We [M.] ate herring and ham (not very much eating!) and drank our wine and read poems and talked of ourselves and mostly made love and love and love for five hours."

Merton was able to spend time with M. because the Abbott, Dom James, with whom he did not get along, gave him permission to live as a hermit in a small house on monastery grounds. Flocks of visitors found their way to his door. The Berrigan brothers, poet Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry and Joan Baez came knocking while random tourists would show up uninvited. Religious fanatics sought him out to tell him their dreams or that his life was in danger. On more than one occasion Merton found himself hiding behind a tree to avoid the religious paparazzi. He was in many ways the Catholic version of the Dalai Lama. Living in the hermitage gave him freedoms denied the other monks: he could ditch his habit for work clothes and escape to downtown Louisville with friends to grab lunch (and beer) at a favorite eatery, then come back and change back into his habit again.

In June 1966, he wrote: "I realize that what is most wrong in my relationship with M. now is that I no longer trust her fully." In fact, a close friend of Merton's at this point tells him to forget M. because she is "narcissistic, selfish, and not capable of loving another human being." Their relationship continues, however.
Merton continues to think about Catholic renewal: "There is too much spite, envy, pettiness, savagery, and again too much of a brutal and arrogant spirit in this so called Catholic renewal: too much conceit and hubris, and in the end the same old authoritan and intolerant ways in a new form..." He also writes about the "incredible number" of men leaving the monastery, especially the Trappist monastery in California. All over the world, it seems, there is an exodus of monks and nuns from convents and seminaries.
Merton's eclectic reading habits at this time include writers like Faulkner, Sartre and Camus. He also becomes more interested in Zen. Intense pangs of conscience continue to torment him when it comes to M. and his battles with Dom James plunge to a new low. Merton describes the Abbot as "the very incarnation of New England middle class, efficiency loving, thrifty, crafty, operating, sanctimonious religiosity." Naturally, when Dom James eventually discovers Merton's affair with M. -this happens when a (younger) monk who drove Merton to Louisville to meet M. spills the beans--there's hell to pay.

When Joan Baez visits, she and Merton picnic on the hermitage lawn. "We talked of my love for M. and I read some of the poems and Joan was ready to drive ninety miles an hour through the rain to Cincinnati so I could see M. when she got off at the hospital. " After another struggle with his conscience, Merton breaks ties with M. then changes his mind again. "Yesterday I had to go to Louisville for a bursitis shot in the elbow. M. and I had arranged with Jim Wygal that we would borrow his office and get together there, which we did with a bottle of champagne." M. and Merton talk about marriage but their plans never materialize. Merton realizes he is a monk "through and through" and that he must end the affair. When Dom James finds out about M., the boom is lowered.
Merton complains: "Meanwhile, I have to accept the punishment the Abbott is giving me. Nothing great in itself, really, only his scorn and his narrow-mindedness bearing down on me more directly, cutting off liberties and what were really privileges - so I cannot truly complain..."
M. was not Merton's first sexual temptation. John Cooney writes that in 1963, three years before Merton met M., his dormant sexuality was shaken by a beatnik tourist claiming to be a distant relative but who was really a nymphomaniac. Merton said that the woman "gave me a wild time - a real battle, at times physical, and finally when I got away alive and with most of my virtue intact (I hope) I felt shaken, sick and scared"
When the relationship was finally over, Merton burned all of M's letters although he was haunted by her memory for some time. He continued to dream about her and he was even tempted to call her while in Louisville on doctor's visits. Occasionally he found solace in Schlitz beer: "So I go and get another beer. The supply is already running out. I only had five cans. It is a hot night. Where will I be when the dark falls and the dragons come and there is no more beer?"
Cooney says that at this time of his life Merton resembled a well-fed Friar Tuck, rather than the pale, ascetic he was on ordination day. Cooney adds: "Now bald-headed, he looked like Pablo Picasso."

Merton begins to question everything. He writes about transferring to a Trappist monastery in Chile or New Mexico. His interest in Zen and Buddhism intensifies so that he begins to quote Chinese masters and non Christian scripture as often as he quotes Christian saints. He also comes down hard on his brother monks: "...The fact is that this community is full of half-sick people, immensely vulnerable, wasting their lives in petty, neurotic machinations--and one simply does not needle such people. It does no good, and it encourages their sickness."
Although he's invited to religious conferences all over the world, Dom James, says no to virtually every request.
Merton prays for strength under pressure. "I kneel down by the bed and look up at the icon of the nativity. The soft shaded light plays over the shelves of the Buddhist books in the silent bedroom." In another entry, he goes completely bawdy: "The other day I was in town. It embarrasses me. Of course, I had to see the proctologist and that is always embarrassing--with your head down and your asshole up in the air, trying to talk about Mexican Indians."
When Dom James announces his retirement and when a new Abbot is elected, Merton experiences a sense of elation. He's given a green light to travel to conferences in San Francisco and then to a series of conferences in the Far East where he will meet with the Dalai Lama, tour Buddhist monasteries and meet other Catholic clergy. It is in the Far East where his life will end suddenly.

His unexpected death was reported on page one of The New York Times.
According to Cooney, "The end, in fact, came at a conference cottage in Samutprakarn, some 20 miles from the Thai capital, on December 10th after he addressed fellow monks at 10.45am on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives. Looking stressed, he retired for a shower. That afternoon he was found lying on his back with a five-foot fan which had landed diagonally across his body."
Merton wrote more than 70 books, most of them on spirituality and social issues.

ICON City Beat February 2016

City Beat February 2016

This year’s Mummers controversy had to do with the comics’ parody of Caitlyn Jenner and the so-called stereotyping of Mexicans with brown face and dancing tacos. The protests did not come from diehard Mummers fans lining Broad Street but from a few City Hall power brokers, the new mayor, a couple of suits and ties and the Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick. The Sammar Strutters who adopted the Mexican theme with brown face probably assumed they were safe because they weren’t doing black face. And why shouldn’t they have assumed that? Mummers comics have been dressing up as wenches, colonialists, British soldiers, Frenchmen in white powder puff wigs, nuns, Arabs, Turkish sultans, Hawaiian princesses, former presidents, Lithuanian dancers and cops, so why not put on the Mexican?  A street comic’s usual role is to dress up and get noticed, not deliver nuanced comedy. Mummers comics, after all, are really the raw belly laughter of a working class city. Those City Hall Nannies want to sanitize next year’s parade by creating a reform school for the hooligan performers, most of whom are not Union League members or Harvard grads but raw Philly types who guzzle beer and (yes) cuss.  This will ensure a 2017 parade as coma-inducing as the Rose Bowl Parade.   

   Mayor Kenney’s emergence as the #1 Poo Bear pawn for Philly’s Left Wing community has received national attention.  One of the mayor’s first Executive Orders was to reinstate the city’s ‘sanctuary city’ status, which shields illegal immigrants from deportation. It also bars cops and prison officials from ratting to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about an illegal alien’s release from prison. This news was ecstasy to new City Council member Helen Gym, who raised her fist in a ‘Power to the People’ salute as Kenney signed the Order. Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, said, "We are thrilled…!” Are we really?  Kenney’s Executive Order means that Philadelphia is breaking federal law, as are a number of other scofflaw cities like San Francisco (where a woman was killed by an illegal immigrant deported 5 times), Detroit, Portland, Miami, Baltimore and Seattle. But hey: what about the thrilling, lawless role model the city is offering to its residents? If Philly can ignore federal laws, why should ordinary Philadelphians pay attention to laws against insurance fraud, mail fraud, counterfeiting, child support, arson, embezzlement and motor vehicle crimes? Will Kenney go as far as the Republican governor of Nevada, who approved the issuing of drivers licenses to illegals? How did we forget that immigration laws are there to protect the public safety? Unfortunately, politicians like Mayor Kenney are the reason why a candidate like Trump has a fighting chance to win the White House.   



 Philly’s artistic communities—theater, visual arts, poetry and literature—are separate worlds where the members of each group rarely interact with one another. Actors hang with actors; artists cultivate other artists; poets form their own social circles and journalists hide out at the Pen and Pencil Club. Actors probably have it best because almost everyone loves a good play, but Philly actors rarely show up at poetry readings or author talks, A Pulitzer Prize winning city writer could walk into any actor-filled Wilma theater reception and not be noticed at all. Fish bowls of isolation like this tend to keep Philly in a parochial orbit. What’s to be done? Look to New York, says Philly poet Jim Cory, “Where this kind of thing does not exist.” Cory says that New York artists of all types mingle at parties and other gatherings, so it’s not just painters with painters or actors with actors. Intent on bringing a little New York to Philly, Cory threw a holiday party and invited a wide range of artists: painter Bill Scott, poet Janet Mason, a TV writer, some poets and a playwright. New York, New York had finally come to a cozy apartment on S. 21st Street.

What’s not to admire about playwright Tom Stoppard? The author of Arcadia, Travesties, Jumpers and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was in town at the Wilma to celebrate the opening of “The Hard Problem,” his latest play of ideas. The play received sketchy reviews in England but at the Wilma Stoppard received a standing ovation. Wilma audiences are generous to a fault, but The Hard Problem was a problematic mishmash of vignettes dealing with questions about consciousness and God. It was almost as Stoppard had written the play stoned and then never got around to serious editing when he “sobered” up. .   

Sunday, January 24, 2016


A few years ago all hell broke loose when a group of Mummers, all Caucasian men, wore Native American headdresses. At that time I wrote, “Sometimes it’s fun to worry about inconsequential minutiae, but the fact is Native headdresses have been part of the Mummers for decades. Since the Mummers are about feathers, it should come as no surprise that some brigades would opt to use a Native headdress as part of its ensemble.”

While I don’t wish to revisit that instance in this column, I will visit this year’s Mummers controversy — the uproar surrounding the parade’s parody of Caitlyn Jenner and the ‘high crime’ of stereotyping Mexicans with brownface and other people supposed to be Mexicans dressed as dancing tacos.
There are good jokes and there are bad jokes. There are also lethal jokes that shake up nerves and sensitivities. Take Sarah Silverman, a political comedienne who in one comedy act claims that if Jesus came back from the dead, she would gladly crucify him all over again. She takes to the extreme Jonathan Swift’s maxim that “nothing is above satire,” be it abortion, religion or sex. Silverman is wise enough, however, not to say anything untoward about Mohammad because there may be unsettling consequences to that. Sometimes self interest transcends the desire to get standing ovations. I do not like Silverman, but I would never impose on another person’s cup of tea (gagging Silverman) if they happened to be a fan.
Why do I bring up Silverman? I suppose it is because the comics division of the Mummers Parade see themselves as part of this great American tradition of scandalous satire. Here’s what the very Catholic (and conservative) author G. K. Chesterton said about satire:  “A man is angry at a libel because it is false, but at a satire because it is true.” The satire we see in the Mummers Parade is not the smart, refined satire of “Gulliver’s Travels,” but satire of the most rustic sort: bargain basement parody.
Uproar over the skits performed at this year’s parade did not come from die-hard Mummers fans lining Broad Street; they came from a few City Hall power brokers, the new mayor, a couple of suits and ties who makes their living behind desks and the new Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick. They believe they have a job to do and that is to keep our city out of the business of showing disrespect.

Here’s part of what Mayor Kenney said about this year’s parade: “It’s all about education and it’s all about explaining to people who might not understand that sometimes you do things that are offensive to people, whether you meant to or whether you didn’t, you still offended them.”
Every single one of us is guilty of offending people whether we mean to or not. When a man who is walking ahead of me on a sidewalk suddenly clears his throat and spits a huge glob of mucus right in front of me, I might be offended. When the well-dressed elderly woman hears a risqué joke on a city bus, she may be offended. The people waiting for the morning rush hour El at Front and Girard may be offended if they have to watch a couple engage in lusty, inappropriate public affection. You might be offended when you have to witness the antics of a two year-old child ducking under the banquet tables at an adult holiday party because the kid’s father was too lazy to hire a babysitter. We are offended everyday by offenses great and small.
The 2016 “offensive” Mummers skits, for the most part, was typical Mummery. Mummers comics, generally, are not Union League members or Harvard grads, but raw Philly-types who drink beer, have strong opinions and cuss. The comics have always been especially outrageous, so much so that a Mummers observer from 1978 wouldn’t have noticed anything peculiar about the 2016 skits.
If anything, the parade is a shadow of what it used to be. The new, sanitized, “Disney” Mummers Parade is just a little more exciting than watching a 4th of July parade in a small town in Utah. In fact, compared to what the parade was like in the 1970s, it has become a practice run for performances before TV cameras and for those special shows in the Convention Center. In prior years, the parade usually lasted until midnight. There was an exhilarating feeling on Broad Street then, an actual atmosphere of joyful revelry and personal involvement as people on the street camped out or huddled curbside, staying late into the night or until the last Mummers marched on past.

As for the Sammar Strutters who adopted a Mexican theme and performed in brownface, Mummers comics have been dressing up as wenches, colonialists, British soldiers, Frenchmen in white powder puff wigs, nuns, Arabs, Turkish sultans, Hawaiian princesses, former presidents and cops for decades. It’s all about dressing up and getting attention, not about nuance in comedy A Mummers comic routine will not have the subtle humor of a 19th century drawing room. This is the raw belly laughter of a working class city.
When the Finnegan New Year’s Brigade preformed their Jenner skit with the Wheaties and the Fruit Loops boxes they were indulging in typical working class Mummers rough comedy. If anything, use of the Fruit Loops box was out of sync because Jenner has never been gay. (The word ‘fruit’ has been used as a gay insult for ages, so the Mummers got it wrong). Bisexuality was not part of Jenner’s life as Bruce. When an interviewer asked Catilyn after her transition if she was now officially a lesbian because she still has a sexual interest in women, she refused to answer the question.
Now we have a mayor who wants to give catechism lessons or sensitivity lessons to Mummers comics. He wants to organize them into classrooms and elevate their minds so that they won’t do things like make fun of Caitlyn Jenner. Mayor Kenney wants the comics to learn that there are some subjects that their comedy routines cannot touch.
The skit was not, as the Executive Director of LGBT Affairs, Nellie Fitzpatrick said, “Transphobic and disgusting.” I believe that’s going way too far.
While some calm discussion needs to ensue regarding the Mummers use of brownface, our new mayor should not be so much of a Pooh Bear tool for the agenda of a few ideologues in City Hall.


   The different arts communities in Philadelphia---theater, painting, poetry and literature—are like individual fish bowls arranged along the top of a wall. Each community is its own enclave or kingdom.  Actors hang with other actors; visual artists keep company with other visual artists, and poets and writers generally keep to their own circles unless they have to jump bowls and write about actors or the visual artists. This arrangement is confining, parochial, and limiting. It’s also a Philadelphia thing because, at least according to a poet friend of mine, the various arts communities in New York behave in a different fashion: they mix and mingle freely with one another. 
            Perhaps we should ask: what is art? I pose this question because many people today believe that art can be anything you want it to be. A fashion model, for instance, will refer to her walk down the runway or her pose before a magazine photographer as “art.” Actors call their work in the theater “art” although there was a time not too long ago when talented actors used to be referred to as good technicians capable of memorizing lines. While this may or may not be true, expressing yourself emotionally on stage is a talent that many do not possess. One thing most people will agree on is this:  actors are the most visible of all the arts communities. They are really the talking heads of the arts world, comparable to “talking head” (broadcast) journalists.

   Consider the poor painter who does not get to appear on stage night after night to standing ovations or mild applause. The painter’s face is not plastered on billboards along Broad Street. A painter works in isolation, has an opening show at a gallery where he or she meets the public, then after that it’s all about returning to work (in isolation). 

  Art in our time has come to mean anything, from the way colorful tattoos blend into human epidermis to fancy food production in hot urban kitchens where The Chef is almost certainly…an artist. Chefs started to become “artists” sometime in the mid-1990s but the sad fact is, ‘art’ is the most abused word in the English language.

The abuse of the word ‘art’ may start in progressive schools where children are taught that “everybody is an artist,” meaning, of course, that anybody can be trained to be an artist. In such schools any sort of hierarchy of talent is seen as elitist. This is why I wince when I hear dilettantes say things like, “I’m going home to make art.” You are—really? How do you know that what you are about to make will become art?  But that’s not the point, really. The point is that because the maker declares that what he/she makes is art then it is art. It becomes art because I say it is art. End of discussion.

The dribble down effect of this kind of thinking has changed the work presented in many of the city’s art galleries.

The modern art in these galleries is not only overpriced, it is incomprehensible and just plain bad, leading many people to conclude that much of modern art is a fraud. At one Center City gallery opening recently, I went to check out the work of two modern artists.  I watched as one of the artists entered the gallery with her small entourage. Dressed to the nines in a pair of patent leather New York stilettos, the artist surveyed her “art” which was displayed in the front of the gallery closest to the door. Her paintings were a mesh of pastel colored brush strokes evoking Victoria’s Secret lingerie or long squiggly lines rising upwards like swimming spermatozoa, priced around $8,000 a piece. As the evening wore on, and it became obvious that nobody was buying (or would buy) any of her work, she left the gallery in a huff. This was long before the reception was over. The squiggly spermatozoa would now have to swim downward and be packed up and sent back to her New York sperm bank.

 I’ve witnessed similar scenarios at other galleries. One Old City gallery, for instance, seems to specialize in the work of young, hot “girl” artists. At opening receptions at this gallery one can see the artists lined up like Playboy escort bunnies, all of them in heavy makeup and heels and of course killer ringlet hair cascading down their shoulders and framing exposed cleavage. Every time I go to this gallery I think I’m attending another chic Nicole Cashman party.

I may be stereotyping, but when I imagine women artists I immediately think of peasant head kerchiefs, big bracelets, flannel shirts, or dangling Georgia O’Keefe earrings.  The glamorous Hollywood celebrity look is new and raises the question:  Are these women really the bored wives of wealthy hedge fund husbands, as somebody in the art world once suggested? This hedge fund art really has no distinction yet what comes to mind is the (wallpaper patterned) “art” that real estate agents plaster on the walls of rehabbed homes and offices before they hold an open house.

“In art,” as Picasso once wrote, “the less people understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous, and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales…. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term….I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times…”

What an admission! And yet the narcissism of our times gives untoward courage to scores of anonymous Picasso wannabes who have no trouble calling themselves artists.

All of which leads me to the philistine question: Can there ever be too much art?

          There is so much new art in the world now there could never be a museum large enough to contain it all. How can we save all of this stuff? How do we catalogue it? Art is being produced everyday, every hour and at amazing speeds.  And it is coming straight at us from every strata of society, even the sidewalks of Center City where one can see street artists sitting curbside with their exhibitions lined up along Chestnut or Walnut Street. “Art for Sale,” their signs say.  At $5 a piece the pieces are relatively cheap. Buy now, because you never know when the maker of these street absurdities and puzzles may hit the Picasso jackpot. (Yes, it’s better than playing the slot machines at Sugar House).

     So, yes, art is everywhere, even in hair salon shops where the owner/manager displays his art, beautifully framed because of the expensive prices of his cuts.  Or: go into a doctor’s office and see the doctor’s new hobby. It’s drawing or painting and he’s turned the walls of his waiting room into a small gallery. He’s an artist and—surprise! -- His pieces are beautifully framed because of his high patient prices.

      There’s flea market art; there’s also the grassroots art of the city’s many small artistic clubs like The Sketch Club and the Plastic Club, where members have monthly exhibits. These exhibits have a dual purpose; they present the work of new or lesser known artists, and they serve as ad hoc community centers because these gatherings are also parties with food, wine, and sweets. Art parties are always a good thing, even if they attract more non-artists than artists and bring in the city’s whacko reception addicts who track down all the free food and drink events in the city with the determination of a house detective.

      As for who is really an artist, I’ll defer to Scott Berkun, who said, “An Artist will risk many things, wealth, convenience, popularity, fame or even friends and family to protect the integrity of their ideas. If you’re not risking anything, and mostly doing what you are told, you’re probably not an artist. “

   So much for those Hedge Fund ladies. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Most of Modern Art is a Fraud; Slapstick Theater on Broad Street; Banning Donald Trump; Bad Book Politics at the Philadelphia Free Library

ICON MAGAZINE City Beat, January 2016

A Philadelphia Inquirer article chronicling the demise of art galleries in the city got us thinking. (1) Philadelphia is not New York. (2) Most of the population here is lowbrow. (3) Much of what passes for modern art stretches credibility. Are galleries closing because, as some have suggested, people are finally discovering that much of modern art is a fraud? At one opening recently we attempted to discern the “there there” of the work of a stiletto wearing New York-based artist in town to promote her abstracts. In some Center City galleries this is what the art world has become: bored wealthy Sunday lounger types taking up the brush as their Hedge Fund husbands foot the bill for a dilettante lifestyle. What do these “artists” produce? Intricate floral shower curtain designs; pink line graphics hinting at Victoria’s Secret underwear or splashy decorative pieces reminiscent of the “art” that real estate agents love to hang on rehabbed condo walls. The price tag for these gems is the cost of a week’s trip to Paris: $8,000 and up. Oh yes, the New York artist’s pieces did not sell. She left the opening early—and in a huff. 

    Magadalena Elias’ Everything is Illuminated exhibit at the 3rd Street Gallery on 45 N. 2nd Street got us thinking of the old gobelins tapestries that used to hang outside government buildings in France in the 1600s. Gobelins were hung from hooks as banner art when a dignitary was in town, and sometimes they were used to warm the walls of a room. Elias began weaving gobelins after the death of her good friend, Karen Lenz, but gobelin-making has been in her genes since childhood, inspired mostly by her grandfather. “In my mind’s eye I could visualize him sitting in his favorite chair, working on something he called gobelin.  As he worked, his peacefulness radiated outward and I wanted to share in that peacefulness, so I began work on my first piece, “The Inversion of Don Quixote.” Unlike that Hedge fund artist in stilettos, Elias sold three pieces in an hour but not at $8,000 a piece.    

 A taste for Sherlock Holmes mysteries is like a taste for liver and onions-- you either have it or you don’t. Add slapstick to the mix (The Three Stooges and all those pies thrown at high society dinners) and you have a comic book. The rocket-paced methamphetamine rush of Ken Ludwig’s Baskervulle, A Sherlock Holmes Mystery at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, had us wishing we were watching Eugene O’Neill, Tom Stoppard or Tennessee Williams. A million costume changes, men with twirling mustaches, flowers that fall from the sky and land stem first in the ground, or sound effects that recall Grofe’s The Grand Canyon Suite, cannot replace a substantive narrative. While pro-slapstick fans and assorted kiddies in the audience loved the Ludwig carnival, there was no standing ovation.  The real Holmes mystery that night however was the dangerously downsized post show reception that has us worried about the financial health of one of our favorite theaters.

Michael Nutter’s cat fight with Donald Trump originated with his wish to ban Trump from Philadelphia. But banning people (and books) because of the ideas they represent only produces underdog heroes. (Philadelphia’s Friends Central School, a venerable Quaker institution, has already banned Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn because of inappropriate language). Some say the ex-mayor had to go out with a bang, and Trump was an all too- easy target. We wonder how a Trump ban would operate. Would it include spending millions to set up barriers along the Parkway? How about armed guards, Jerusalem style, along Broad Street?  Modern cities are not medieval fortresses with walls, so if Trump wanted to break Nutter’s ban he’d have to disguise himself as a Sanctuary City illegal immigrant. Then he’d be welcomed with open arms.    

Andy Kahan’s author lecture series at the Free Library has brought celebrity writers to the city with Oprah Winfrey-style pizzazz. But locally-based authors who want to jump on Kahan’s Central Library bandwagon with their new books have to swear off all other lecture circuit venues for the duration of their publicity tours. Central’s demand for promotion monogamy-- one book = one venue-- is an ingenuous way to help keep “local” authors permanently local and under the radar.   

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Philadelphia's Mayor Jim Kenney reinstates the city as a 'sanctuary city.'

Helen Gym raises a 'Power to the People' fist.  Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer photographer

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Liberal 'PC' Nanny Machine


  When ex-Mayor Nutter announced that it was his wish that he could ban Donald Trump from the City of Philadelphia, he was jumping on a bandwagon. This “stoning” brigade of numerous city mayors and prominent citizens were saying that because Trump’s views are annoying or “dangerous” he should be silenced forever. Nowhere was this boisterous campaign more evident than on Facebook, where many users announced that they would “unfriend” FB friends who find something about the man to admire.

    Okay, we know that Mayor Nutter’s wish to ban Trump from the city was just a wicked fantasy. It was also his last hurrah in terms of getting national attention. But cities, after all, are not medieval fortresses with walls. You can’t keep out people out with unpopular or outrageous views.  Philadelphia can’t even keep the homeless or repeat offender criminals outside city limits. Keeping Trump out of the city would just draw attention to his policies and win him more supporters.  

   Do I like Donald Trump? No, but that’s not the point. I would mock any mayor who made similar fantasy announcements about banning Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or filmmaker Michael Moore from their cities. Banning people, ideas—and yes, books-- have never been a good idea, not by right wingers nor by the left wing “empathetically correct” crowd.  Empathetically correct, in case you don’t know, is the new buzzword for the old term, ‘politically correct,’ meaning the Nanny State folks who want to protect us from ourselves. The Nannies want to ban horse and buggies from New York’s Central Park, Big Gulp sodas from NYC and prohibit tobacco sales to military personnel. They have even combed the English language for unacceptable words and titles. A small sample: A jailer is now a custodial artist; a housewife is a domestic engineer; a jungle is a rain forest; a trailer park is a mobile home community; a broken home has become a dysfunctional family and a shy person is now conversationally selective.  And it gets worse…

   The growing polarization of American society based on politics is a worrisome development. Polarization based on political beliefs is ultimately artificial because status quo politics never lasts but is always replaced by new politics and ideas. Politicians, however loved or hated, come and go like a flashing meteorite racing across the sky. Furthermore, no one candidate ever has all the right answers to the issues of the day.  Political candidates are like sloppily made BLT sandwiches with different parts falling out during the eating process. One can love some of Hilary Clinton (the lettuce?), parts of Bernie Sanders (the mayo?), and, yes—shockingly-- even a small segment of Donald Trump (the bacon?) but rarely is the entire sandwich a supreme delight. How many decades now have most Americans been voting for “the lesser of two evils?”

       Today’s polarized political environment encourages us to vilify a candidate if one or two of their ideas impress most people as “obnoxious.” Trump is not necessarily evil because he questions President Obama’s policies on immigration or because some in the media accuse him of Islamophobia. Because Trump may be clueless about certain issues doesn’t mean that he is evil, just as the shameless lengths that Hilary Clinton will go to acquire votes doesn’t make her evil either.

      Republican candidate Marco Rubio may be obnoxious when he promises to roll back all Obama-generated pro LGBT legislation if elected, but calling him Satan or wishing him dead because of this one position is beyond the pale. This is not the way we do “business” in America. In many ways, we have become a nation of screaming hysterics. In a war of orthodoxies, nobody ever wins.

     Some Trump vilification Facebook postings wish the candidate dead while others depict him as a pig or as a men’s room urinal.  These postings have a virtual village stoning aspect to them in which FB friends can pick up rocks and have a whack. This fever “conspiracy” to vilify assumes the frenzy of a group orgy or witch burning but in the end these attacks are boring and repetitive.

   It’s the same way with the hyper, obsessive anti-Obama folks, whose hatred of the President borders on the pathological. It doesn’t matter what the president says or does, for these people he’s always wrong, always evil and always anti-American. The personal attacks even include the First Lady and the Obama children.  How whole groups of people can live and breathe hatred like this, day in and day out, is a mystery to me. 

   In the last mayoral election—a shocking admission! -- I voted for the Republican candidate because I resented the Democratic machine control of Philadelphia. Municipal elections in the Quaker City tend to be farcical because Democrats always win, whether the Democrat’s name is Jim Kenney, Ira Einhorn, sex columnist Dan Savage, Jihad Jane or Mr. Corrupt Parking Authority. 

     The automatic canceling out of any Philadelphia Republican no matter how honorable he or she may be, decade after decade, cannot be good for the city. Obsessive one Party voting gives one political party too much power and a fat “chewing” cushion besides. I voted for the GOP candidate as a symbolic protest even though I like many of Kenney’s ideas.

        My one big “left wing” reservation is the rising tendency in that camp to be intolerant of opposing views, which brings us back to the ‘banning’ question.

      Conservatives on Facebook rarely if ever advocate unfriending ‘friends’ who advocate liberal positions or who support candidates that inspire conservative wrath.  Today the big censors of public thought and language are liberals. Witness how once common (and acceptable) terms like ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal aliens’ have been replaced by benign (and soft) labels terms like undocumented worker, or in some cases just immigrant, which leaves out the most important part: legal or illegal.
   Banning ideas and books used to come from puritanical, right wing quarters. In the modern age there was the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the greatest novels ever written. At various times in the 1920s the book was banned in the United States, Ireland, Canada and England because it was thought to be obscene.

   Right wing puritans also banned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published by Grove Press in 1961, the story of Miller’s life in Paris as a struggling scribe. Miller wrote about sexual love in explicit terms and this led to obscenity trials and police raids on bookstores.

   William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch caused a sensation when it was published by Olympia Press in 1959. The novel, about drug use and homosexuality, was banned in Boston and Los Angeles.  
   Right wing puritans challenged Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, about a Jewish family hiding from Nazis in the Netherlands, because of the book’s sexually explicit passages.

   Conservative puritans in Culver City, California banned Little Red Riding Hood from schools because some officials were irked that Mrs. Hood was shown carrying around a bottle of wine in her basket. As one Culver City educator complained, “Showing the grandmother who has consumed half a bottle of wine with a red nose is not a lesson we want to teach.”  

    In New Hampshire, conservative school puritans banned William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night because it was about a girl who disguises herself as a page (boy) and then falls in love with her male employer. The cross-dressing and the faux same sex romance in the story made school officials uneasy.
   Right wing ideologue puritans in a small California town banned Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes series because Jane and Tarzan were not married. Imagine that!

    Conservatives in one North Carolina County banned Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which deals with the ugliness of racial discrimination because one parent of a student in the County wrote a 12-page protest. The parent hated the book because of its sexual content, its “lack of innocence,” and because it was written in the first person and seemed “too real.”
   Liberal puritans banned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885, at a Quaker school in Montgomery County because a small handful of students complained that the use of the ‘N’ word throughout the text made them feel “uncomfortable.” The book is about the friendship of a young white boy with an older black man.  The use of the word ‘uncomfortable’ is interesting here. Education and learning are supposed to make students feel uncomfortable because that’s what mental growth involves. To be comfortable is to stagnate. If education and learning is too comfortable, it’s not doing its job.

   The “empathetically correct,’ go to great lengths to protect students from their own individual sensitivities. This is why speakers with controversial views can be banned from college campuses, as if the students were not mentally equipped to challenge these ideas or “process” them.  Sometimes when students threaten violence at these speaking events the college cancels the speaker out of fear and intimidation.  Ann Coulter, author of Adios America, The Left’s Plan to Turn America into a Third World Hellhole, was banned from speaking at the University of Toronto because of angry student protests that started to form. So much for engaging dialogue and an intelligent exchange of ideas!
      Novels like JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are being replaced in liberal schools by so called informational texts.” Additionally, 70 percent of the books proscribed to students now tend to be non-fiction. One educator complained that “Imaginative reading and creativity is going out of English classes.”

     Neil Postman, in citing George Orwell’s 1984, wrote, 

 Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
  If we lose the capacity to think, we’re through as a culture—and a nation.