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Monday, May 23, 2016

       DAN BERRIGAN, S.J. : The Activist as Saint? 

Thom Nickels

   Long before the Occupy movement and the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders, there was Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the fiery Jesuit who rocked the then complacent American Catholic world with its ties to government power elites. Catholics in the 1960s and ‘70s knew priests as ‘Bells of Saint Mary’s’ stereotypes, men who would no sooner join a picket line or a war protest than raise a fist against their superiors.  
    Few young people alive today have any sense of how difficult life was for young men during the Vietnam War. That war split families apart much the same way that the Civil War set brother against brother. Draft age men who opposed the war and the draft, escaped to Canada or registered as conscientious objectors were often disowned by their families. Conversely, antiwar men and women, called ‘peaceniks’ by their detractors,  sometimes returned the favor by disowning their war hawk parents or their military enlisted siblings. By the war’s end in 1975, U.S. military personnel casualties numbered 58, 220 with 1.3 million deaths overall. This was not the era of the carefree collegiate spring break in Cancun. Life for the average young male was consumed by worry about being drafted and killed.   
    Fr. Berrigan broke the priest = Bing-Crosby association like a meteorite hitting Kansas City.  With his younger brother, Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, the two made their mark as antiwar activists when they joined two other men in pouring animal and human blood on Selective Service records in Baltimore. Known as the (October 1967) Baltimore Four, this “sacrificial act” was followed six months later by another non violent raid. The Catonsville Nine involved the pouring napalm on Selective Service files in Catonsville, Maryland.
   The choice of napalm as a protest tool was significant because during the course of the war over 388,000 tons of napalm had been dropped in Vietnam.   
    In Napalm in the Vietnam War, Alan Rohn wrote that the wounds caused by napalm are too deep to heal. “When contacting human, napalm immediately clung to the skin and melt off the flesh. The only way to put it out is to smother it as trying to wipe it off only spread it around and expanding the burnt area.” Napalm became a symbol of the war’s ultimate brutality. The word was part of the general lexicon in 1970. One saw it on political posters, graffiti postings and on the cover of magazines like Time and Ramparts.

   After the Catonsville Nine raid, indictments were brought against the Berrigan brothers but the priests initially evaded prosecution when they went underground. Eventually they were apprehended and served time in prison. Philip’s total time in prison before his death in 2002 amounted to 11 years.



   The average American Catholic at that time supported the Vietnam War. The belief then was that elected public officials knew what was best for the country. Members of the so called Greatest Generation could not wrap their minds around the concept of an illegal or unjust war. Their memories of WWII were just too vivid.  The fact that the Berrigan brothers were both priests led to long stretches of silence when their names were brought up at Sunday family dinners. This was certainly true in my parents’ home. 

      Dan and Philip were two of six sons born to Thomas William and Frida Berrigan. Thomas, a railroad engineer, had an unmanageable temper that frequently erupted into violence. Dan was a sickly child with weak ankles who didn’t walk until he was four years old, a condition that kept him out of the WWII draft. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1952. A decade later he became familiar with the Catholic priest worker movement when he went to Paris on a teaching sabbatical. While working as a professor of New Testament Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY his poetry attracted the admiration of Marianne Moore while his (Gospel-based) activism irritated the American Church’s most ardent hawk, Cardinal Francis Spellman. Spellman, eager to snuff out the renegade priest and the Roman Catholic “left,” had him removed from Le Moyne before he could gain tenure.  

    Spellman blamed Berrigan for the self-immolation death of a young 22 year old New York Catholic Worker activist, Roger La Porte, an acquaintance of Berrigan’s. On the morning of November 9, 1965, La Porte, in protest of the war in Vietnam, left the NY Catholic Worker house with a large container of gasoline. Sometime after 5 am he arrived at the United Nations Plaza and set himself on fire. A priest, Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, reported that “The intensity of the heat melted the pavement.” 




    He lived in agony for several hours; and, according to the priest who administered the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the hospital he made a “profound” confession. Roger insisted that he wanted to live, that he did not strike the match in order to kill himself but to try to communicate to the American people the reality of the horror and misery they were mindlessly, callously and self-righteously pouring onto the people of Vietnam.”

   A total of 8 American set themselves on fire in public places to protest the war in Vietnam, while many more burned their draft cards, like Catholic pacifist, David Miller, who was the first person to be prosecuted for his action.  The epidemic of draft card burnings caused President Lyndon Johnson to sign a law in 1965 making it a crime to mutilate draft cards. 
   
 
    In 1980, Dan and Philip and six others entered a GE plant in King of Prussia where the group struck two missile nose cones with a hammer, in their words, “turning them into plowshares.” Throughout his years as activist, poet and author, Dan avoided the trappings of fame but dressed simply in a Beat manner of dress.  Philip left the priesthood after it was discovered that he was secretly married to Sister Elizabeth McAlister. They were excommunicated long before Philip’s death in 2002. 



    Dan, who remained a priest until the end, wrote in To Dwell in Peace, that he “had come of age in a church that, for all its shortcomings, honored vows and promises. I had examples before me in the people of the church, especially in laypeople and nuns, of those who lived to the hilt the life commended by the Gospel. Such were my people.”
   
   His critics within the Church, included some progressive thinkers like Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in a 1968 journal entry that, “[Berrigan] is a bit theatrical these days, now he’s a malefactor—with a quasi-episcopal disarmament emblem strung around his neck like a pectoral cross.”

    Dorothy Day, whom Berrigan credited with influencing his views on pacifism and war, disapproved of some of his protests but remained united with him in spirit. “Dorothy Day taught me more than all the theologians,” Berrigan told The Nation in 2008. “She awakened me to connections I had not thought of or been instructed in—the equation of human misery and poverty with warmaking. She had a basic hope that God created the world with enough for everyone, but there was not enough for everyone and warmaking.”

    Kurt Vonnegut was moved to comment: “For me, Father Daniel Berrigan is Jesus as a poet, if this be heresy, make the most of it.”
      In the 1980s Berrigan turned his attention to the plight of gay men dying of AIDS in New York City. He would visit the sick and dying in St. Vincent’s Hospital in NYC at a time when few Catholic priests would do so.  True to his respect for all life, he angered political progressives when he made known his anti-abortion, pro-life views.  He was not going to follow a left political agenda blindly, unlike many of today’s social justice warriors.  “I have always made it clear,” he said in an America magazine interview, “that I am against everything from war to abortion to euthanasia. I have avoided being a single cause person. “ 


    Before his death in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University, Berrigan did offer his support for the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, although it’s doubtful he would have approved of “trigger warnings” and the insanity of “safe spaces” on college campuses. 
 In one poem, Berrigan writes:  
Were I God almighty, I would ordain,
rain fall lightly where old men trod,
no death in childbirth, neither infant nor mother,
ditches firm fenced against the errant blind, aircraft come to ground like any feather.
No mischance, malice, knives.
Tears dried….





 


When City Community Parks Become Gated Properties

    Cione Field in Philadelphia's Riverwards neighborhood at Lehigh and Aramingo used to be one of those special places where one could enjoy the gentle breezes of spring and summer while sitting on a bench with a chicken salad sandwich. The field (it is officially registered as a playground) with its large space capable of “hosting” team sports like soccer, lacrosse, baseball or football, was for years also used as a walker’s short cut to other parts of the neighborhood or as a place for a leisurely stroll when one felt the urge to walk on green instead of asphalt. 
    While I rarely get an urge to walk on green, I don’t necessarily want to have to walk all the way to Penn Treaty Park to do so. I shouldn’t have to hike to Penn Treaty Park for a small dose of green, especially since Cione Field is in my own neighborhood. A handy, ready-made nearby community field (as Cione Field is repeatedly called) is the perfect place for nearby residents to enjoy a bit of grass and open space. While I might visit Cione Field just five times a year, it has always been nice to know that this community field of green was always accessible, its gates open to one and all, whether they be kids playing ad hoc basketball or football, or city walkers in search of a relatively peaceful green space away from the endless noise of traffic on Aramingo Avenue and elsewhere.  



    Cione Field is on my mind because recently I had one of those green urges after buying a chicken salad sandwich at a nearby deli. It was lunchtime, the sun was out after weeks of rain, and I wanted to eat outside in a green, community space. But when I went to the field I noticed that all the gates around the field were padlocked. While one may make an argument that the field should be locked late at night (I think this community field should be open 24/7), the fact that it was locked in the middle of a glorious afternoon troubled me.
       What good is a community field if it is always closed off to neighbors? 
      What good is a community field if it is only allowed to be used by certain segments of the community, like organized sports teams from various schools?  Don’t individual neighbors count as members of the community?


      Must neighbors like me organize picnic lunch or chicken salad sandwich eating teams in order to gain admittance to the field?  
    Roman Catholic High School, for instance, wants to use the field as a practice field for their football, rugby and lacrosse teams. This sounds like a charming idea, especially if RCHS can put big bucks into improving the field, but not at the expense of community residents who would like also like access. Community residents want their piece of the field too unless of course the field’s decision makers love the idea of padlocks and a Donald Trump Wall. If indeed this is the case, then please stop calling Cione Field a community field but change it to something like The Cione Field of Intense Sports Teams Practice.     
     
     All of this begs the question: Has life in our over survillanced world gotten so bad that neighborhood residents can’t be trusted to enjoy a green space in the middle of the day? Northern Liberties has Liberty Lands, which of course is not surrounded by a fence, so it can never be locked, meaning that it is accessible to everyone, with or without a chicken salad sandwich. But the Riverwards people in Olde Richmond (though real estate agents will call this area Fishtown until the end of time), have no open free public green space at all. The fact that Cione is registered as a playground might be the real obstacle here, but if that’s the case, then the field should never be referred to as a community field. Perhaps it’s time to redefine Cione as a park. 
   
   Neighborhood open green spaces with benches are essential to the health of any community. In all of Olde Richmond there are very few public benches. Two public benches were removed recently: one in the traffic island near Cumberland and Aramingo Avenue and one on E. Thompson Street. The message here is clear: Pedestrian traffic must keep pace with automotive traffic.

     Port Richmond, to its credit, has wonderful parks like Campbell Square on E. Allegheny Avenue and General Pulaski Park, where there are no fences or locks and where people can eat chicken salad sandwiches, walk their dogs, ruminate, play with their I Phones, file their nails, contemplate their navels, talk to friends, or read the latest bestseller.

    Several months ago I spoke with a Cione Field neighbor who told me that the fence around the field was locked to keep homeless people out. Trouble started, he said, when the homeless started to build a cardboard tent city in the middle of the park. Homelessness is a problem in most major cities, especially with the disappearance of the middle class and the division of Americans into rich and poor. In Atlanta, for example, park bench designers have come up with benches that make it very difficult to sleep in. That city has also installed spikes on the reverse side of dumpster and trash lids to ward off homeless dumpster divers.

   As Robert Rosenberger pines in The Politics of Park Benches, “The way to deal with this problem is not through design strategies that help us to ignore it. The question of bench design for the Beltline — where homeless men and women walked and rested before trees were cleared and concrete poured — is emblematic of the larger tasks in front of us. As we expand and improve Atlanta…, we must decide what our vision is for the city. Who gets included and excluded? And how should we build those decisions into our infrastructure? “

    That Cione Field neighbor also told me that dog walkers who don’t clean up after their dogs was another reason why the field was padlocked. The piles of doggy do left in the grass proved too much for the organized sports teams, he said.  While I support organized local sports as much as anyone, this is no reason to lock a community field. It’s a little like closing a music venue like the Mann Music Center because some of the concert goers there don’t know how to dispose of their trash.




    
   As for the homeless, are people who sleep on green grass more dangerous than people who sleep on asphalt?
    Most of the homeless in the Olde Richmond area seem to be transitory. They pass through the area from various parts of Kensington and then retreat elsewhere but they are rarely stationary. They are more like vagabonds on an eternal quest. The danger of a permanent tent city in Cione Field is about as real as an alien invasion near St. Anne’s cemetery. The doggy do problem can also be managed if people who saw dog walkers not cleaning up after their dogs would issue forceful reminders. They used to call this making a “Citizen’s arrest.”
      
     I doubt whether Cione Playground’s original designers envisioned the field as a private-only lock down zone for special recreational activities. Ideally, the Cione fence needs to come down, and the area needs to be opened like Campbell Square in Port Richmond and filled with park benches. Area schools should really be responsible for their own practice fields and not impact a residential area with restrictions based on their own selfish needs. 
  
     “Beginning around 1990, many city and town councils began forcing developers to add open space to their projects,” writes Paul M. Sherec in The Benefits of Parks. “Still, these open spaces are often effectively off-limits to the general public; in the vast sprawl around Las Vegas, for example, the newer subdivisions often have open space at their centers, but these spaces are hidden inside a labyrinth of winding streets. Residents of older, low- and middle-income neighborhoods have to get in their cars (if they have one) and drive to find recreation space.”

   So, let’s remove the padlocks from Cione Field and stop living like we’re in a re-militarized zone somewhere in the Middle East.
   Let’s put the real meaning of community back into Cione Field.         



Saturday, May 7, 2016

PANCAKES

    He took the Greyhound bus to Vegas, a book by Jack Kerouac in his pocket, the bus passing through Pittsburgh then on through the Midwest as he slept in his clothes and washed his face in the tiny bus sink, eating road stop cafeteria food, beef jerky, and marveling at different cities, like Saint Louis, Kansas City and Denver, until at last the chrome plated Greyhound pulled into Vegas, where the air was dry and hot.
            “My new life is on” he thought, combing back his long hair. 


           
            “Welcome,” Master said, his six foot three lean frame emerging from a long white car, “Let’s grab some pancakes.” They shook hands, Master giving him an all knowing look as if he had been picking up his thoughts the entire time he was on the bus. Remote viewing was something Master had explained in his letters; the ability to see what family and friends were up to at great distances. Master compared it to an E-meter, and the philosophy of Scientology’s E. Ron Hubbard. From there it got complicated especially when Master talked about how the E-meter registers repressed emotions and memories and how that registration works as a guide in releasing bad energy, false teachings and…f crap.  
             The thought of talking to Master over a meal appealed to him because he hadn’t talked to anyone in days. Shyness was one of his problems that Master said he could fix.  Master drove to a little sun baked place near a filling station. It was obvious Master had been there before because he knew the waitress. “Hello Vera,” he said, as they entered the diner, “I’m here with a young writer friend from Baltimore.”
            .Vera’s hair was dyed dark and piled high on her head. She had a whiskey voice and a weathered complexion that reflected the soul of the west. She could have come from a family of gunslingers and outlaws. Her wrinkles made him think of cracks in mud after a soaking rain though he felt her tough exterior hid an enormous heart.


          
            He wondered if Vera was Master’s old fling because in his letters Master was always making references to sweetheart-waitresses in old cities like Dodge, Cody, Montrose, and Colorado Springs.
            He gobbled up the pancakes, the largest he’d ever seen, and felt real joy at being out of the east, with its manicured lawns, flat surface horizon, and smelly Gingko trees.
            Master asked him about his trip, then started telling him stories about his old job as a traveling salesroom that had him driving all over Wyoming.
            “Still working on The Family as Evil Entity?” Master asked, raising his left eyebrow. 
              “Yes,” he said, “I’m recording the time father came in my room and ordered me to stop reading books and how he threatened to burn them. That’s religion for you.”
            “I figure we’ll go over to Reno and meet Kay sometime tomorrow,” Master added. “We can get a reading on your life blockages, and see what needs to be worked on.  Kay’s a designated Clear and works with a lot of people. I had her clear out a whole bunch of shit ten years into my marriage. It’s not an infallible system like that old pope of yours but it’s damn good.”
             

            Vera gave him more pancakes, and piled on the coffee. This was freedom, he thought, this was intelligence and mental expansion. What did they know of Scientology E-meters back in the land of Gingko trees?
            “Well, honey, you take care now,” Vera said to him when they left. She gave him one of those western winks she must have used as a young woman when saying good-bye to boyfriends.
           
            Master’s way of driving was to lean into the steering wheel so that his back rarely touched the car seat. This is when he told his greatest stories about being a young man in the west, his days as a wild drinker, a handsome rabble rouser, and a serious seducer of women. 
 

            Kay’s house was a simple bungalow in a small sprawl of whitish houses not far from the casino district. En route he kept asking Master if E-meters hurt; if they stuck into the skin like syringes or were strapped to the wrists like watchbands. Master said it was a real meter with wires or straps connected to pulse points.
            Kay, Masters said, was an advanced Clear, somebody who had washed away all the emotional garbage in her life. She was now set on life’s path as one without a psychological history. She was a healthy blank slate minus the crap.   
            As they left the car and walked to Kay’s door, he hoped he wouldn’t appear too screwed up to her. Catholicism has screwed him up; that was Master’s message to him anyway. Catholicism had planted its repressive roots in him and was responsible for many hidden damages as well.
            Kay was a tall slender woman with brown hair that fell to her shoulders. She wore long delicate Native American earrings. Her welcoming smile suggested a new way of living. He was sure that she knew something that he didn’t know and he wanted to know what she knew. Her living room was awash in sunlight and Southwest tapestries. Kay shook his hand and stared into his eyes. He knew that Master had told Kay about him before their arrival. Kay offered them tea and there was some small talk. He looked around for the E-meter, thinking it might be in a case or box somewhere.
            “We are in endgame,” Kay announced. “What a fantastic time to be nineteen. Everything in the world is about to change.”
  He noticed a small framed portrait of Charles Manson on the wall.

He could not believe that he was sitting with a perfect woman who had gotten rid of all her personal garbage. She had triumphed over the debilitating effects of family. Master had always told him that he had so much family crap tying him down that it was like a corpse riddled with bullets.


           
   
            “This is not a magical gadget,” Kay insisted, finally revealing the cream colored E-meter that for some reason reminded him of an Edsel or his great aunt’s Chevrolet Impala.  “The meter will show you where you need to do work.” A long tube contained a Velcro-like wrist band, and there were wire ends that plugged onto your skin but held in place by suction cups and tape. It reminded him of a blood pressure pump. Other wires connected to the tips of the fingers. It connected to your pulse so that when you talked the reader could gage the responses of the needle.
            Master began the questioning.

“Can you remember the first time you expressed your natural self and then received punishment for it?”
             
                He talked about wetting the bed as a child. Wetting the bed was about retention, holding things back and then letting them go inappropriately.  His stuttering was another issue.  Someone early on had blocked his flow of words so that when he talked he sounded like he was slowly suffocating to death.
            “Relive that memory for me now,” Kay interjected. For some reason his eyes drifted to a small Mayan artifact on a bookshelf where E. Ron Hubbard’s book lay open like a bible. It seemed as if Manson was looking directly into his eyes.
            “I was ten,” he said, going back in time to a family Philly Sunday dinner with Grandma Kelly. “Grandma was seated at the head of the table. Mother had cooked a pot roast and put out her best silver.  Everyone was in high spirits when for some reason I blurted out that Grandma looked like a spider. We may have been playing some kind of game in which we were supposed to say what people at the table looked like. “
            “What made you say a spider?”
         “Grandma wore hats with netting in the front and back. The netting covered the back of her head in big swoops. She looked like a spider because the nets reminded me of a web “
             “What happened then?” 
             “Father ordered me to go to my room. Then he came upstairs and beat me. I was screaming. He kept doing it until my brother came up and told him to stop. My brother threatened to beat him up though he was just a little runt. He did eventually throw a punch, and father stopped.”
                  Master and Kay were peering at the needle like scientists. They asked more questions, very personal ones. He began to feel they were intruding. He was letting everything out; stories about Fluffy the sexual molester babysitter and how his paternal grandmother and an aunt had died in an automobile accident while on their way to his  fifth birthday party.  Kay’s ears perked up when he mentioned the car wreck.  Her facial mannerisms told him that this accident had created a deep wound in him.
            “Look at that needle,” Kay remarked. He looked at the little Mayan god and recalled what he remembered of that day: a festive mood in the house with the dining room table set before the phone call came in. The heavy black rotary phone with white dials bore his younger aunt’s frantic voice: “Get your mother! Get your Mother!”


            It was hard for him to dig further into his past after that.
            “Calculations are iffy,” Kay told Master. “He should not go home again.” 

             “He’s actually killing off his family as he writes his book,” Master said.  
        
            Kay undid the E-meter and replaced it in the box. Master reminded him that his task was to go on and write as if he still had the meter strapped to his wrist. That would take some time, he said, but the important thing was not to hurry. Life overhauls are not done overnight.  Although the meter was in the box he felt a pulsating in his arm and a vague tingling throughout his body. It was as if an energy form was rushing through his cells to every organ and limb. He told Kay and Master that he felt something “electrical.”
            “It’s a process,” Kay said, flinging back her long hair
            The next thing he knew he was in Master’s car traveling through the desert. They had said a quick good-bye to Kay; Kay had hugged him and wished him luck on his journey. “Remember, you are your own god,” she advised. “You have a new father now.” She pinched his cheek. But in the car all he could think of was what lay ahead, all the work it would take to undo the layers of crap his family had imposed on him.
             
            They drove for what seemed like hours, Master talking non-stop, relating experiences from his youth. In every story a similar moral prevailed: the necessity to reject what was given at birth.
            The terrain changed. They drove through a mountainous area where there were streams and rocks. The sky, a cobalt blue, brought him a sense of peace.  Master said it was Wyoming’s the Snowy Range. A magnificent cliff rose high up in front of them; it was as if a mountain had been cut in half and molded into a flat surface. Master and he got out of the car and walked over the boulders, which were spread out over a grassy surface. Together they looked at the mountains. 


          Master stood atop one boulder, he on another. It was a pivotal moment, during which something was exchanged. He had a sense of vows being exchanged, of a promise not articulated but something deep, a connection that would last.  He looked out into the rugged landscape and as he did so he made a promise to himself that he would always do what Master told him to do. He would obey Master in all things, and he would remember this landscape in times of weakness; he would recall the feeling, the sky, and especially the mountains.
He would remember it all forever, even when Master was dead, and even long after he realized that in Las Vegas at age 19 he had made one of the worst decisions in his life.  


"Proust on a Night Out!" - Maralyn Lois Polak


                                         "Proust On a Night Out!"   --  Maralyn Lois Polak

City Beat May 2016

   BalletX’s The Premier Party 2016 honoring Philadelphia arts and culture philanthropist  David Haas at the Top of the Tower was a prelude to the Company’s Spring Series at the Wilma. BalletX’s new Marketing Coordinator Josh Olmstead, greeted press and guests on the grand 50th floor space. We chatted with PAFA’s Heike Rass, writer Carol Saline, Michael Norris of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, and BalletX cofounder and executive director, Christine Cox. The marathon celebration was a cost cutter’s nightmare: lavish hors d’ oeuvres, a sumptuous sit down chicken dinner and exuberant dancing performances between mouthfuls (a Russian Cassock dance had the wait staff hopping). The live auction following the dances was better than the polished deliveries we’ve heard at the Freeman’s Auction House on Chestnut Street. The big door prize of the evening wasn’t a collection of DVD’s, season tickets or a weekend for two at The Sheraton, but an $8,000 diamond necklace. The winner: A bespectacled redhead in a black and white dress who clasped her bosom in operatic shock when her number was announced.



    Other parties that evening included Art Unleashed at U of Arts, and PGN’s 40th anniversary party at PAFA, which we almost attended thanks to Laura Krebs Miller of Cashman and Associates.  The PGN celebration toasted the newspaper’s four decades in journalism. It also honored the writers who helped to create that legacy. “City Beat” was a major PGN contributor in the 1980s and 1990’s. When we arrived for the PGN party organizers were still setting up, so we headed for Top of the Tower.



   We admire the Wilma’s Blanka Zizka and her post- Eastern European communist bloc verve, but An Octoroon, which opened March 16, and praised by The Inquirer’s Toby Zinman, failed to move us.  The heavily juxtaposed time period play about race relations on a southern plantation was at times inspiring, funny and poignant but in the end, far too preachy and too long. Why does smooth narrative always get the boot in plays earmarked as cutting edge or avant garde? The play’s “arty” timeline juxtapositions made us long for work that inspired the production, a 19th Century melodrama entitled The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault.  (Bring back melodrama!) On a positive note: Less noticeable was the Wilma’s canned laugh track, or inappropriate audience laughter.  The standing ovation at the end of the evening was no surprise: Wilma audiences give standing ovations to any play with the Wilma brand, proof that the Cult of the Wilma is gaining traction. The Millennial-heavy audience was quick to huddle in peer group cliques during the post show reception, causing older but no less ardent Wilma supporters to exclaim “I’m not feeling this reception at all!” Perhaps the real octoroons that evening was the over 35 crowd.     

Journalists, gossip writers and paparazzi flocked en masse to the much anticipated April 6 Philadelphia Festival of the Arts (PIFA) black tie opening. We avoided the official red carpet but entered through a side door and went straight to the bar.  PFIA’s inaugural 2011 celebration included a multi story Eiffel Tower in the Kimmel lobby, but this year’s Golden Calf was an IKEA invoking tree (The Kinetic Tree) done up in partial lights with moveable stick branches that had us thinking of Peggy Lee’s, Is That All There Is? The apex of the evening for many was watching the tree come alive (to the sound of a thunderstorm), but first there was cocktails and dinner. We got comfortable at a spectacular table with donors and organizers of the event when a nice woman asked to sit upstairs in the segregated press area where a number of scribes munched on hoagie bits, chips and soda. Cashman and Associates assured us that this was not their doing, so we made the best of an Upstairs/Downstairs situation.  After dinner, full equality was restored when the press was invited to join the wonderful after party, which made us forget our third floor segregation.



We headed to the offices of Cashman and Associates for a look at their new Wallsome d├ęcor. The intimate, small press event brought us face to face with Keith Leaphart’s brainchild, large format wallpaper that can be peeled off the wall for last minute design changes. Wallsome can change any image into oversized wall art, theoretically turning a blank Cashman wall space into the Grand Canyon, the Vatican Museum, a garden in Tel Aviv, or a scenic beach on the island of Hawaii.  




Friday, April 22, 2016

Great Valley Senior High School

My high school reunion is coming up in October and I’m making plans to attend. While I won’t reveal the number of years it’s been since I graduated from Great Valley High in Malvern, Pennsylvania, I will say this: it was a long time ago.  
   Some from my class have passed away; a few died in Viet Nam, and one died in a tragic motorcycle accident the summer following graduation. Other students seem to have disappeared or refuse to entertain the notion of attending a reunion.


     I can understand their reluctance. In high school you are not the person you later become in life. The high school experience can also leave deep wounds in a person, mainly because teenagers can be cruel. In a few cases the tendency to be cruel never “grows up.” I’m thinking of Janis Joplin’s return to her Texas high school for a reunion after she had become world famous. To Joplin’s shock and dismay, she found that her old classmates had not changed at all. She was still ignored and made fun of, despite her star status. 
    On my first day at GV I walked through a floor to ceiling window pane on a first floor stairway. The glass panel looked like an open thruway since much of the school was still under construction. Shards of glass rained down alongside me in all directions, the blood-letting spears narrowly missing me by centimeters. My high school years began with the crashing sound of broken glass.


  
   Were I a high school student today and experienced a similar scare, no doubt I‘d be ushered away to a safe space near the guidance counselor’s office where I’d be fed cookies and invited to watch a video of frolicking puppies. I’ve just described a real description of a so called safe space that can be found in many universities today, a lot of them designed for women who wish to retreat from the pressures of the campus “rape culture.” (The reality of that culture, of course, is grossly exaggerated.) At GV there were no safe spaces at all, just a quick check by a faculty member –“Are you okay?”—and then an acknowledgement that “You were a very lucky young man, now run along to class.”  


    High school Homeroom in those days had the appearance of a safe space but it was actually a place of occasional tension. The tension had to do with what happened after the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance.  Every morning a different student was required to read aloud a passage from the King James Bible. Catholics were excused from the readings because their version of the bible was the Douay Rheims. The Catholics refusal to assimilate in this one small instance cast them in a peculiar light. By marking themselves as “different,” many (but not all) were treated differently.  
      
     At GV there was no overt bullying but there was a subtle class system. The school was almost all white Anglo Saxon Protestant. The popular students were   cheerleaders, football players, gymnasts and members of various honor societies. GV’s cliques were unique in that a kid could be conventionally homely, fey or overweight and still be accepted as a part of the “in” crowd.  My group of friends hung out before homeroom around a large table inside a glass booth that we termed “the booth.”
    “The booth’ was not a safe space because we were not trying to run from reality or protect ourselves from students who appeared aloof to us.  If we had gone to any teacher then and complained about the presence of so many snobbish student cliques, we would have been told that Great Valley’s social class structure “mirrors the world.”  A teacher might also have told us, “If your place on the social totem pole seems low, then learn to pole climb.” 
    Today the concept of a student safe space is more of an ideological ‘no thought’ zone where students can escape reality and be protected from things that make them feel uncomfortable.  At Brown University, for instance, there’s that safe space for women when they experience too many “trigger” vibes from peers that threaten their beliefs, especially around feminist issues. The Brown room is the one with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play Doh, pillows and streaming videos of playful puppies. You might say the room is a throw back to kindergarten.   
    The hyper sensitive students of today are more indulged than they were when I was in school.  Many in the safe space world object to being exposed to people they disagree with.  Disagreements, especially in the political realm, are categorized as trigger warnings, meaning that the only way to deal with political opponents is to shut down dialogue. Social critics call this new crop of kids “grievance industry students, people who wrap themselves in the cloak of victim hood.”
   There were many times when I felt sorry for myself at GV, especially the time when a jock pushed into a swimming pool during the senior class trip, yet I never once thought of telling a faculty member that so-and-son pushed me into the pool. While the push may be seen as a form of benign bullying, the jock who pushed me also seemed to be asking that I stop isolating myself and at least make an attempt at group socialization. 

    In some safe space school circles applauding a speaker is seen as a trigger warning because the sound of applause upsets some people. Rather than applaud, students are urged to snap their fingers, which is seen as non-offensive. The safe space mentality has also morphed into the belief that putting students of marginalized identity into positions of power, regardless of their qualifications, is the correct way to right past societal wrongs.   
    New York Times writer Judith Shulevitz sums it nicely when she wrote:  “…The notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy has a way of leaking out and spreading. Once you designate some spaces as safe, you imply that the rest are unsafe. It follows that they should be made safer. “
   From the safe space of a glass booth students now want entire university campuses to be safe spaces, and so they attempt to bar speakers from campus because the speakers make them feel uncomfortable.  At Edinburgh University recently, a female student broke safe space rules when she raised her hand during a student council meeting. Raising her hand was seen as an act of aggression, and the offended (triggered) students wanted to ban the woman from the group although she managed to stay in when a vote was taken. The insanity continued when the poor female student was charged with violating another rule when she shook her head as someone was speaking.
     At Hampshire College a student group cancelled the appearance of an Afrofunk band when it was determined that there were too many white musicians in the band.
   At Yale University, the safe space student group went ballistic when their demand to ban certain Halloween costumes went unheeded by school administrators. The students were angry when one faculty member stated that “the students should be able to wear anything they want.”  Rabid protestors confronted the administrator and called him “disgusting,” insisting that he resign. The administrator kept his cool throughout the ordeal, which seemed to enrage the protestors even more. 
     
   A good university should be a battleground of competing ideas, a place where students can learn the art of civilized debate while respecting their opponents’ right to disagree, and even to have unpopular or hateful opinions. This is the purpose of education.  The purpose of education is not to ban or silencing all opposition, a la Vladimir Lenin.
  Why? Because first you ban, then you persecute, and then you liquidate. 
  

             

 

My Journalism 9/11

One of my scariest moments in journalism occurred on April 14, 2001 when I was the victim of a news tip that turned my life upside down. It was my journalistic Ides of March.  
      The tip came from a man I had known for several years. A resident of Center City, Steve’s hobby was to befriend as many Philly writers as possible. Steve and I became so friendly that he felt comfortable asking me if I would escort him home from the hospital after his various surgical procedures. An older man, Steve said he was a Hollywood screenwriter who adopted The Wonder Boys to film. He also mentioned another project, a Harry Potter film. The fact that he chose to live in Philly and not New York did not surprise me because there are creative types who like the relative quiet and comfort of smaller cities.
   . When I’d visit Steve he’d show me his film scripts and talk about the Hollywood stars he knew, such as Olivia Newton John, who gave him a big brown teddy bear that had a central place in his apartment. On one of my visits I hugged the bear and sang a few bars of, Hopelessly Devoted to You.


   Whenever Steve read a published article of mine, he’d ring me up and talk about it. This went on for several years. Then one day he called and said he had a story for me. “Are you sitting down?” he asked. He seemed a little shaken when he told me that the media had ignored the story that he was about to tell. “I’ve decided to tell it to you,” he confessed, “because your stuff reaches a wide audience.”
   The story involved the murder of a man in Washington Square.


   After Steve fleshed out the details of the story, I contacted my editor and related what I had heard. My editor agreed that an Op-Ed was in order, and so I wrote a piece that came to be titled, Painful silence makes the slaying of a gay man a double tragedy. The piece was published on Saturday, April 14, 2001, but by the following Monday all hell would break loose.
   Here’s what readers of The Inquirer read that day:
       About three weeks ago in Washington Square, just before 8 a.m., two men approached a couple walking in the park. Within view were people scurrying to
Work…What happened next would change many lives. One of the men pulled out a knife and demanded that the couple empty their pockets. The couple did as they were told; no doubt expecting the men would disappear once they got what they wanted.   
   But one of the robbers plunged the knife into one of the robbed. The victim fell, and the two criminals ran. When police and ambulance arrived, the injured party was taken to a nearby hospital where he fell into a coma. While this was happening, the victim’s friend went with police to search for the assailants.
   They caught one of them, but the man responsible for the knifing—by the following morning the charge would be murder—remains at large.




   What made the story a “double tragedy” was the fact that the victim had been so private about his life that his family, after flying out from the Midwest, was hard pressed to find out anything about their son.
 “The one of two friends remained tight lipped when the family wanted to know why their son didn’t know more people. The family had no choice but to take the body home for a private funeral.” The son of course knew many people, but because they were all gay, nobody was talking.
   
    After the piece was published I called Steve to see if he had read the Op Ed, but he seemed to have vanished.     
    Over the weekend various people called me to say how horrified they were that a murder of that magnitude had gone under the radar. In my mind, I was still “thanking” Steve for choosing me to be the one to break the story.
   The following Monday morning, as coffee brewed in my kitchen, my editor at The Inquirer called, his voice shaky as he announced that he had some bad news. He related how the Philadelphia Police had contacted the paper and reported that no murders had been committed in Washington Square area at that time, and that my Op Ed had some city detectives sweating bullets thinking that they had missed a major crime. Neither The Inquirer or your truly had called police to confirm that a murder had been committed before writing and/or running the story.
   The realization that my friend Steve had played a trick on me was devastating.   
     When my editor informed me that the newspaper had printed a retraction in the Monday edition, I ran around to the local 7/11 to get a copy. My heart sank when I saw the boxed headline on the editorial page:
                                             Murder report was a hoax
“…Reports of the crime were fabricated by a source on whom the writer relied in writing the commentary….The writer himself believed the report of the crime to be true, based on several interviews with a source who provided extensive details. …”
    I went home and headed straight for the telephone. Steve answered this time. My mood was up there with road rage drivers. .
    “There was no murder, Steve, the whole thing was a hoax,” I said as soon as he answered. “Why did you do this, Steve?”
   He kept calling me Tommy and seemed to regard the incident as humorous. “Why Tommy,” he added, “Why don’t you just tell your editor that you made the whole thing up?” I swallowed hard and reminded him of all the times I’d taken him home from the hospital, carrying his overnight bag and sitting with him in taxis then escorting him into his apartment.  Finally he told me that the story was from a new screenplay he was writing and that he just wanted to see if I would be convinced of its authenticity. “I thought I told you it was from a screen play,” he said, adding insult to injury.   
   After that conversation I never spoke to Steve again. And in the news story melee that followed, Steve would refuse to comment when reporters like Daniel Brook of City Paper and Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post called for comments. Steve literally vanished after that.       
         In the meantime, my Daily News editor called and left a message saying that he supported me and that what happened would not—not—affect my work with the DN.  I felt some relief hearing this even though he would come to break his promise. In a day or two I would need this editor’s feedback when Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz called me requesting an interview.   
     I wanted the DN’s editor’s opinion about how to deal with Kurtz, since a writer friend of mine cautioned me that Kurtz “could be a barracuda and make you look really bad in print.” The DN editor was not returning my calls, however, though I tried for a couple days before the dreaded Kurtz interview. When it became obvious that the DN editor had vanished, I went ahead with the interview. When the piece appeared in The Post, the DN editor magically surfaced but only to criticize me for me for what I had said to Kurtz. “You should have assumed full responsibility for what happened,” he said. “You never said those words,” Years later I would see this phrase over and over again repeated by seasoned politicians and others who had been caught in some kind of scandal.

                   I assume full responsibility. I assume full responsibility.

       Life was getting worse: not only had I perpetuated a hoax, but now I was seen by some as an arrogant son of a bitch who didn’t seem sorry enough.
   But I truly was sorry, and I thought I made that clear to Kurtz but somehow that sentiment never came through in his reporting.      
     
   Some months later, I was interviewed by Daniel Brook of City Paper.    

       
“These days, Thom Nickels is a busy man,” Brook wrote. “With the recent release of his new book,Manayunk (Arcadia Publishing), Nickels has been making the rounds on the local TV interview circuit. Thus far, he’s appeared on WCAU and KYW.

 “According to Nickels and another source who declined to be named, “Steve” claims to have written major Hollywood screenplays like Wonder Boys under the pen name Steve Kloves. Indeed, Steve Kloves is the big-name Oscar-nominated screenwriter who adapted Wonder Boys to film. His latest project, a movie version of Harry Potter, is due out this Thanksgiving. But according to two sources City Paper contacted, one at Warner Bros., which is producing the Harry Potter movie, and another at Creative Artists Agency, which represents Kloves, Steve Kloves isn’t a pen name. He’s a real person, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and kids…”



   Steve, meanwhile, had always told me that his wife had died in a plane crash.
    To this day I cannot hear an Olivia Newton John song without being reminded of how I was duped by a man who had a teddy bear in his living room.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

My Featured cover essay on Agnes Repplier in the American Catholic Studies Journal

    

     Her life and career spanned many important periods in the nation’s history: the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the closing of the Victorian Age, her meetings with Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton and Henry James, as well as living through two World Wars, the Korean War and witnessing the rise of the Soviet Union. Whatever the epochal event or calamity, the “Dean of American essayists” was there to write about it and her changing country.  She also managed to do so by balancing a worldly intellectual life (including sharing a toothbrush mug of whiskey with poet Walt Whitman) while remaining a devout Catholic, a fete which must have been a spiritual tightrope at times given the strict ‘disposition’ of pre-Vatican II Catholicism.





       If Repplier’s religion caused her to experience any stress within literary circles, she kept it hidden. Throughout her life the essayist whom The New York Times would call “The Jane Austen of the essay,” not only kept the faith but managed to win the praise of an acerbic wit like Dorothy Parker. By contrast, it would be difficult to imagine a devout Catholic writer doing a similar thing today, given the polarizing effect that social issues have on what it means to be devout.