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Friday, October 24, 2014

Still True Today

The Bulletin - Philadelphia
Top of Form 1
Bottom of Form 1
Jihad In Philadelphia Says Free Library Speaker
The Bulletin
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Tom Trento, Director of the Florida Security Council, was in Philadelphia early last week to showcase the film “The Third Jihad,” and to share his thoughts on what he calls “the silent jihad in Philadelphia.”

Over two hundred people packed the main auditorium of the central branch of the Free Library to watch the controversial film that former presidential candidate Rudy Guliani calls “a wake-up call for America.” The “Third Jihad” exposes the destructive aims of radical Islam, including the subtle dangers of “peaceful” cultural jihad and its influences on western society.

Among the many people interviewed in the film were Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former member of the Dutch Parliament who made the film, “Submission,” with Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was later killed by a Muslim radical for his portrayal [in “Submission”] of the treatment of women in Islamic societies. Ali, a former Muslim, escaped to the
Netherlands to free herself from an arranged marriage in Somalia in 1992.

After the feature length film—a large part of which focuses on
Western Europe’s growing radical Islamist populations that call for the institution of Sharia Law in these countries—Mr. Trento took the podium.

A power de-surge prevented the lights in the auditorium from switching on, so Mr. Trento was framed in shadows, as was the audience, symbolic, perhaps, of the doomed nature of the subject at hand.

“Islam is a political system, primarily,” Mr. Trento said. “Serious analysts and Islamists say this also. There’s no separation of God and state in Islam. There’s no separation of mosque and state. If this is true, then the essence of its quality, Sharia, also called the pathway or Sharia law, begs the question: Can this coexist with a Constitutional Democratic Republic? Is there a way to bring these two together?”

Mr. Trento’s answer is an unqualified no.

“We are talking about a clash of civilizations here,” he said, going on to quote CIA operative Claire Lopez, who also makes an appearance in the film: “We are in the battle for the essence of the
United States of America.”

Mr. Trento, in fact, calls it “the epic battle of our lifetime” but insists that most Americans are asleep when it comes to the silent jihad happening all around them.

“You have a battle right here in
Philadelphia,” he said. “In fact, on October 28, we are going to hold a 3- or 4-hour workshop on Jihad in Philadelphia and detail all of this in an evidentiary way. For instance, you have an individual in Philadelphia who made a lot of money in the Philadelphia Soul Sound. His name is Kenny Gamble, or Luqman Abdul-Haqq.”

Mr. Trento reminded the audience that Mr. Gamble became a Muslim in the 1970s after a personal crisis and then “used his money to build a lot of companies that are working to rebuild the inner city.”

“We are seeing this sort of thing all over the United States,” Mr. Trento said, “This is what is part of the stealth jihad.”

While quick to remind the audience that his desire was not to bash Muslims, Mr. Trento said that it was his intent to confront the ideology of Islam that desires to implement Sharia Law in place of the Constitution of the
United States.

“If anyone wants to mess with the Constitution, they become an enemy of the
United States. But the issue isn’t Muslims; it’s where you stand on Sharia Law. If you’re for Sharia Law, you’re an enemy of the United States.”

Sharia Law governs every aspect of private and public life of an individual, from how one eats, dresses, grooms, and worships.

“Kenny Gamble has an operation going on,” Mr. Trento said. “Now, when U.S. Intelligence starts to look at these guys—and they’ve been looking at them for a long time—they will see that a kind of organizational flow chart is being utilized by the Islamic world through an organization called the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is the Costra Nostra of the Muslim world. So, when you look into this in
Philadelphia, and you see the guys with black berets, the new Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, all these various Islamic organizations tie into Kenny Gamble, and they all sit on boards together.”

The next question Mr. Trento asks is: What is Kenny Gamble doing?

“If Kenny Gamble desires to save the inner city, we are with him 100 percent. If he desires to use Sharia Law and establish an enclave which is separate and distinct from the American Republic Democratic Constitutional system of government as is occurring in London, then he becomes someone that needs to be stopped.

“This is why Kenny Gamble is currently under a pretty intensive microscope,” Mr. Trento said.

An additional concern, Mr. Trento feels, are Kenny Gamble’s “young shock troops… boys anywhere from the age of five to 12. Called Jawala scouts, “these young troopers are the exact duplication of the Hamas model,” Mr. Trento explains. “The psychological impetus being that if you influence a kid when they are 7 years old, you have them for life.

“Part of the plan, whenever poison is introduced anywhere, is to introduce it in a nice container of some sort,” Mr. Trento said. “The container right now is trying to rebuild the inner city. We’re going to give Mr. Gamble a chance to denounce Sharia for
U.S. principles. Right now, the effort is to clean up the neighborhood and grow young men and women in the Islamic faith. I do believe there are sincere Muslims who want to do that, but there are higher officials and they are working out a grand plan, and they are using non Sharia Muslims as useful idiots, as Karl Marx did, to help usher in hundreds of billions of state and federal dollars to protect the progress of low income housing and job finding programs.”

One audience member asked Mr. Trento’s opinion of the proposed Islamic Center two blocks from
New York’s Ground Zero.

“There’s a doctrine in the annals of the theology of Islam that allows it in wartime to deceive, to have a deceptive position,” Mr. Trento said. “It’s affirmed by the four schools of Islamist theology. It’s for real, folks. When we hear various Inman’s saying, ‘We’re building a building of love and compassion, so that Jews and Christians and everybody can get together, you can believe that if you want to. But it’s important in Islamic theology that once you conquer something or have a conquest of some sort, you claim the land, then you own it eternally. That’s why there will never, never, never be peace in
Israel because the 1.3 billion Muslims believe that they own that land because they conquered it at one point.

“Tell your friends and family about this film, tell everyone,” Mr. Trento said. “We are fighting a theocratic political system that’s an irresistible force!”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Woman Who Would be Philly's Next Mayor

Is Terry Gillen one of The Incorruptibles in Philadelphia’s race for a new Mayor?

Weekly Press
• Wed, Oct 15, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

Is it ever possible to trust a politician?

When a friend suggested that I accompany him to meet 2015 mayoral candidate Terry Gillen, I saw this as an opportunity to meet a future mayor of Philadelphia. The small Old City house party for this ‘get acquainted’ session was an intimate affair, about twelve people including two members of Gillen’s staff.

Of course, put any politician in a room full of people and you’re likely to get a polished, canned delivery. Politicians have to sell themselves. They have to be like those Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen of old who used to go door-to-door —men in meticulous suits and shiny black shoes with winning, toothy smiles.

Politicians are at their best in such settings because they have a captive, mostly friendly audience.

When I attended a Michael Nutter for Mayor "house" event years ago in Center City, the enthusiasm in the room was contagious. The room was filled with genuine true believers. I’d been brought to the event by a conservative Republican woman friend of mine, a Tea Party sympathizer and a supporter of George W. Bush. I have friends of many different stripes, and I wanted to know how and why "articulate Meredith," as I called her, was such a solid supporter of this big city liberal politician.

Meredith’s fascination with Nutter reminded me of Walt Whitman’s famous line, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." Meredith and I could have conducted workshops on how to get along really well with someone of opposing political views. We learned to listen quietly to one another, and to offer unemotional counter views. We both realized that no political issue is ever worth the loss of a friend.
This was certainly not the case with my older friend McCall, a cantankerous but usually very loveable left wing soapbox kind of guy. While I usually agreed with McCall on the issues of the day, over time he found that sometimes the tone in my writing and columns diverted from "orthodox" progressive paths.

McCall let me know how he felt about my political deviations one night after inviting me to dinner. The coupe de grace occurred when we went out for an after dinner drink.

"In your writing you’re beginning to sound like a damn Republican! What’s happened to you—you’re turning conservative… I’ve half a mind to throw you a punch right here!"

In the past, McCall had told me about his periodic tendency, while sloshed, to "let somebody have it" if the situation warranted. McCall is no knucklehead, however. Intellectually, he usually impressed people as brilliant. He has academic degrees from all over the world. Politics, however, is his Achilles heel.

"Conservative!" I said, as shocked as if I had heard him call me a closet Rosicrucian.

Of course, McCall didn’t deck me, but just the idea that he thought about doing so caused me to take another look at what politics can do to people.

From that point on our friendship seemed to deteriorate. It went from chatty dinners at his place to cursory "hellos" in the street and then to sometimes pretending we didn’t see one another when we were out. It was painful to realize that our once cozy friendship had become a skeleton of its former self. Today when I see McCall with friends at the theater or movies, I assume that that each and every one of them has passed my old friend’s political acid test.

As for Meredith, she was so in love with candidate Michael Nutter that she wanted to have a small fundraiser for him in her apartment. This is in sharp contrast to the political fundraisers she threw for Tea Party candidates, or the Republican fundraisers she’d invite me to in Old City, which always seemed far more upscale and lavish than overcrowded "cheese and crackers" Democratic events. In many ways when I went to compare the two events I thought of Marie Antoinette versus the peasants. Your heart may be with the peasants, but your love of good food and nice things will always tilt towards Marie.

Before I return to the Terry Gillen part of my story, let me say that halfway through Nutter’s first term as mayor, Meredith had become so disillusioned with the mayor and the, as she put it, continual decline of the city, that she bought a house in New Jersey. At the time of her move she was complaining about the crime and the riotous late night street behavior outside her high-rise condo at 13th and Spruce Streets. Perhaps the late night racket wasn’t the city’s fault at all but had more to do with Meredith’s advancing years and a growing need within her for peace and quiet. In any case, Meredith left the city and never looked back.

Center City, of course, is hardly experiencing a serious decline. In fact, the opposite of that it true because Center City is its own city apart from that other Philadelphia: the city of neighborhoods. The city of the neighborhoods is far from anyone’s definition of a Utopian ideal.

And there are many reasons for that.

As Gillen told the assembly of twelve gathered in her honor, it’s the city’s Byzantine tax structure that causes many businesses to relocate in the suburbs. Another problem, according to Gillen, is the sad state of Philly public schools. While college grads—seduced by the glamour and fun of Center City-- may choose to live in town after graduation, the moment they marry and have their first child, they exit stage right. That’s because the city’s public schools seem to be a hybrid mix of The Blackboard Jungle (a 1950’s film starring Glenn Ford) and a National Geographic Special on untamed wild life. Gillen wants more funding for the city’s public schools so that each and every one of them, in every neighborhood, becomes "high functioning."

When someone in the room asked Gillen about the plight of teachers, she insisted that there should be no pay cuts but that this issue can be discussed later, once funding comes through. Without proper funding, nothing else can happen.
Gillen’s call for reform of the city’s Byzantine tax structure, increased public school funding and ways to help small businesses, all sound very attractive even if her Utopian goal of creating 5, 000 to 10,000 new jobs in a city seems a bit of a stretch.

The city’s possible next mayor was educated in public schools before going off to the University of Rochester and then getting an M.A. in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. The University of Chicago is generally considered to be a conservative place, spawning monsters such as economist Milton Freidman. She then went onto the University of Pennsylvania where she edited the Law Review.

In 1993, she spearheaded a campaign to challenge the Pentagon’s attempt to cut 10,500 defense jobs in the city. She’s also worked with the Rendell Administration in Harrisburg and before that as Deputy Commerce Director under then Mayor Rendell. Most of her expertise is in the financial world. Her resume is filled with words and phrases like, "developed the infrastructure for the City’s new land bank," "implemented the $64-million HUD stimulus grant program," and "directed the reorganization of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority."
She’s all about fixing the city’s financial woes.

Her financial focus can be seen in her choice of words as well as in the manner in which she conducts herself before a crowd: she uses an economy of words, gets her point across, and then frames her answers during the Q and A in tight fitting manner that reminds me of a bank teller stuffing coins into wrappers. If, for instance, you ask her more than two questions at a house event Q and A, you might find that her eyes don’t look at you but instead focus on someone else in the room. It’s as if she is sending a message that only verbal spendthrifts let themselves go with too many questions.

Of course, taking a canned political speech on the road and dressing it up with smiles also has a speed dating quality to it. A politician—in this case, Gillen—wants to win you over, so she’s going to go to the limit in exhibiting the best human qualities—patience, an ability to listen, as well as exercising a careful watch for facial expressions and grimaces that might be perceived as sardonic or condescending. Politicians on the make have to watch themselves every step of the way. One cross word, one thoughtless gesture, one statement only half thought out or uttered too casually can come back to haunt.

It’s not easy being a startup politician, but the potential rewards are many. The power rewards that await the winner of an election are very seductive. It is this power that has corrupted the most wholesome and best intended of novices.
We can only hope that this hard working public school grad is one of the incorruptibles.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Philly Flash Mob Gay Bashing

I've come to believe that only losers travel in large packs when they go bar hopping in the city. People who need a lot of people around them whenever they go out on the town strike me as people who are stuck in a high school frame of mind. They are much like wolves, who also travel in packs. Then, of course, there's the infamous pack mentality, often described as crass and animal-like.
Bar hopping packs are plentiful in Center City Philadelphia, especially on (formerly sedate) Sansom Street, which has become the city's west end version of South Street. Sansom Street on a weekend night is more crammed than the Wildwood boardwalk, with most people traveling in groups upwards of 12. Most of these alcohol-fueled packs are not dangerous. There's nothing especially wrong with a bunch of people in a happy-clappy drunk mode as long as things don't turn... violent.
Center City is a melting pot of many different groups: College students; young professionals; elderly theater goers; geeks on bicycles; homeless people holding cardboard signs; raging maniacs in white robes (and crowns) preaching death to all light-skinned people; the "happy hour" corporate executive with alcohol stains on his dress shirt; the lonely suburbanite looking for the address of a restaurant or bar; con artists; couples in love; lipstick and butch lesbians; gay couples; transgender prostitutes and regular prostitutes; an occasional Mennonite or Amish family, and an increasing number of women in burkas. This list only scratches the surface, but the message should be clear: If you cannot take Center City's diversity -- from women in burkas to transgender women in stilettos -- then you had better not come into Center City at all. By all means, stay home with your microwave popcorn and be comfortable.
But if you do happen to venture into Center City, please keep your 'editorial' disapproval of certain people in check: Don't sneer at women in burkas; don't make rude comments to elderly, barely-able-to-walk white haired couples coming out of the opera; don't eyeball hipsters in plaid shirts, dorky glasses and skinny jeans; don't sneer or shout "Get a job" at panhandlers sitting on the sidewalk. Think what you want to about these people; bitch in the car or bus on the way home -- "Why isn't the world the way I want it to be? Why isn't everyone like ME!" -- but you have no right to get in anyone's face about who or what they are. No right at all.

I'm thinking of that male and female twenty-something group out on the town recently who attacked a gay male couple simply because they were gay.
This isn't something you expect to see in Philadelphia; Cheyenne, Wyoming, perhaps, or North Dakota or maybe even Alabama, but not in this city of tolerance founded by William Penn. And yet it did happen. It was doubly shocking to read that many of the attackers were Archbishop Wood grads, ideally people who should know better.
Think about it: what about the catechism lessons these Wood grads must have heard about loving your neighbor as yourself? What about the morality of physically attacking someone to such a degree that there's a risk of breaking the Sixth Commandment -- Thou Shalt Not Kill? The most important lesson any religion class should teach is the value and worth of every human person, whatever their status, orientation, unpopularity, or perceived "sinfulness."

It's hard to get into the mind of a basher. Maybe this pack of thugs was looking for an excuse to beat up anybody. Perhaps if an Asian person had crossed their path, the results would have been the same. Anti-gay prejudice used to be called the last acceptable prejudice, but that has changed in recent years. Despite societal advances, many still believe that being gay is a major sin. Although one can believe this and still be respectful of gays as persons, the concept can become twisted in the minds of rabble rousers. The quaint saying, "Hate the sin but love the sinner" may sound good on paper but the concept never quite works in reality. In real life, the "hate" part always filters down, like leaky battery acid, into the so called sinner himself. The sinner becomes the sin, despite the bad theology that tries to do otherwise.
What some self-righteous bashers don't realize is this: If you are going to hate the sin so much that there's an overflow into the "sinner," then you had better be prepared to be tested under scripture's repeated warnings against spiritual pride, considered the worst sin of all. As soon as anyone basks in feelings of spiritual superiority over others, he or she is doomed. Saint Maximos the Confessor once wrote that the spiritually advanced who, on becoming puffed up with pride in their spiritual progress, are then "rightly handed over to hardship and suffering for the express purpose of humility."
Mental health experts say that it is often the men who make a big show of their hatred of gays (by violence and use of the "F"-word) who have the most to hide. Ironically, this type of individual at times comes out of the closet years down the road because their violent reaction to everything gay actually indicated a fear of what they found within themselves.

This is why whenever I hear a younger man constantly using the "F"-word, I say to myself, "Ah, most likely he'll be hitting the gay bars in three years."
The Center City bashers did accomplish one thing: the complete ruination of their lives. Already a basketball coach has been forced to resign. One could get away with this kind of behavior in the 1970s, 80s and even the 90s. The police very often weren't very cooperative then. Many times they didn't take bashing incidents very seriously. The police in those days often assumed that the basher had a good reason to do lash out. Sometimes the police even had sympathy for the bashers, so there wasn't much of an inclination to find the perpetrators.

Years ago, at age 23, I went to a bar in West Chester, sat at the bar and ordered a beer. I'd driven over from my parents' house in Frazer, where I was visiting temporarily. As I sat at the bar, a guy sat next to me and started up a conversation. He asked what I did for a living. At the time I was writing for The Drummer, a Philadelphia underground newspaper. The guy mentioned that he had seen the latest issue of the paper that carried a feature about Center City's underground gay nightlife.
"You're part of that scene, aren't you?" he asked, a touch of hostility in his voice.
"If I said I was, would that matter?" I replied. "The Drummer is an underground paper. The editorial policy is to cover every scene in the city."
"I saw the way you were looking at me."
"Actually, dude, I was looking at that mounted stuffed moose head over your right shoulder."
When I went to leave the bar, I felt something queasy in my stomach. My stool mate had gone to the back of the bar where he talked with friends. I paid my bill and left, walking casually to the exit and out onto the sidewalk when I heard the rush of footsteps behind me, four or five guys in hot pursuit.
Luckily, I managed to get to my car in time, but while driving away I saw them cursing and raising their fists through the rearview mirror, their faces crunched up as if they'd been hit by a spray of... battery acid.

Thom Nickels delivers inspired reading from his latest book: Legendary Locals of Center City Philadelphia

Thom Nickels entertains audience at his most recent book reading. Photo: N.C.
Thom Nickels entertains audience at his most recent book reading. Photo: N.C.
Weekly Press
• Wed, Sep 24, 2014
By Nicole Contosta
Staff Reporter

Prolific is an apt word to describe Thom Nickels, a Philadelphia-based author, poet and journalist.

Working as a journalist, Nickels publishes and edits on an ongoing basis for periodicals like Icon Magazine, the Weekly Press, the Spirit, the Lambda Book Report and the Huffington Post.

As an author, Nickels has published over ten works including Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia, The Tropic of Libra and Spore.
Over the past few weeks, Nickels has kept up a frantic book reading schedule for his latest work: Legendary Locals of Center City Philadelphia.

And it was his reading at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch Street, that this reporter experienced Nickel’s lively delivery.

Notably, even if you have read the book, Nickels’ style of reading treats the fact-based material in his 128-page book with a comic touch. Always conversational, Nickels frames the reading as a discussion with his sister asking him questions about why he chose certain Philadelphia legends but not others. Throughout that "conversation" Nickels peppers information with personal anecdotes from both his life as well as the lives of certain subjects. If you missed Nickels readings so far---he fortunately has three remaining on the horizon--but we’ll get to those dates and times later.

Legendary Locals is Nickels fourth book from Arcadia Publishing.And the groundwork for Legendary Locals began during the planning of Out in History and Philadelphia Architecture in 2005.
An editor from Arcadia "proposed writing a book on well-known people in Philadelphia," Nickels explained. "But I chose architecture because I didn’t feel comfortable writing a book about famous Philadelphians at the time," Nickels continued, adding, "basically, I didn’t want to get into the cult of personality. So I put the book on the back burner for several years."

When Nickels first entertained the idea of actually writing it—he considered notorious Philadelphia legends like Ira Einhorn. Ultimately, however, he decided to take a "straighter" approach.

"Many of the people selected in this book are people that are under the radar," Nickels said. That doesn’t mean they weren’t known in artistic or local communities, but they weren’t household names either. At the same time, "that’s not to say that there aren’t the typical, well-known people either, because there are."

Published in a coffee-table format, Legendary Locals contains an informational page and photograph of each subject. The book, divided into three sections, includes: Early Pioneers of Politics, the Arts and Science; Modern-Age Activist and Entertainers and Today’s Athletes, Businesspersons and Spiritual Warriors.

With the lives of so many dynamic people reviewed—it is difficult to know whom to highlight. So lets just consider the woman Nickels dedicated the book to: Agnes Repplier. A contemporary of Henry James, Repplier became an essayist of international critical acclaim. This proved particularly true for Repplier in Boston. But in Philadelphia she remained, "a relatively insignificant writer living quietly west of the Schuylkill," Nickels wrote, adding, "Here she found only obscurity, the obscurity, she felt that is Philadelphia itself."

Nickels however, is anything but an obscure figure in Philadelphia. As a journalist, Nickels was able to access a lot of information from his decades worth of archives. "The facts were true and good," Nickels said, adding, "but in some cases, I had to conduct the interviews again."

Nickels will be reading at the following dates: October 11th at the Port Richmond Books, 3037 Richmond St., at 11 a.m., October 18th at the Bazemore Gallery, 4339 Main Street, 3 p.m. and the Philadelphia History Museum, 15 S. 7th St., 5:30 p.m.

For more information on the book or to order a copy:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Joan Rivers (from the Broad Street Review)

Remembering Joan Rivers (three)

The person and the persona

I grew up with Joan Rivers. There she’d be on The Merv Griffin Showtalking about her husband Edgar as if he was a homely guy sitting at home in a pair of flannel pajamas waiting for her to give his life meaning. In those early days, Joan was always saying Edgar this and Edgar that, enough to make my boy’s mind wonder why she always made out Edgar to be so ugly and unexciting. Here she was, the undisputed Queen of Comedy — presumably she could have any man in the world — and yet the only thing she wanted when it came to love was Edgar, who by all accounts was the human version of a comfortable but ratty old shoe.
Rivers in a 1967 publicity shot
Of course, in those days I was far too young to understand the comedy of self-deprecation and put-down. All I knew is that on TV Joan Rivers didn’t look half bad. I loved her blow-dried blond hair and sparkling white teeth, a far cry from, say, the brunette Carol Burnett with her undistinguished, Vivian Vance housewife locks. Hollywood blondes like Kim Novak, Barbara Nichols, and Mamie Van Doren for me in those days were always special, although my adolescent love for Lauren Bacall came out one day when, watching Merv Griffin again with Mom, I blurted out, “I love Lauren Bacall. She is so masculine!”
 “She’s what?” my mother asked, sitting straighter on the sofa. “What did you say?”
While Joan certainly had gutsy attributes like Bacall, she was certainly not like all those early male comedians — from Don Rickles to the once hilarious Richard Pryor — who seemed to fade into unfunny obscurity long before their deaths. Joan seemed to know that living life is often hard work and that being a celebrity is no insulation against life’s slings and arrows. People may treat you like a goddess onstage, but in your personal life you are just like everybody else: a vulnerable human being.
Lies and betrayal
In an interview with a psychologist, she confesses that the life pain she’s struggled with most has to do with feelings of personal betrayal.
Her husband’s suicide — secretly well planned, but a shock to her — was a betrayal. In the interview, she says she still hasn’t gotten over her anger with Edgar for this act of duplicity. She explains how Edgar made good-bye videotapes to family members, and then, before he went off to kill himself, he told Melissa, their daughter, that he was only going away for a night and that he would see her the next day.
It was a lie, Joan tells the psychologist. He told my daughter a lie, and now I am worried for her. She will grow up thinking that every man is a liar. And when he died he left me with a fabulous mansion, but I was alone with no show and no contract, and I was miserable. I wanted to die, too, she said.
But if anybody knows Joan Rivers, it is Melissa. Melissa became the new Edgar, the caretaker, the tower of strength behind the scenes. And Joan, the talented perfectionist, was undoubtedly impossible to live with. “Imagine being under her scrutiny all the time,” a friend of mine commented a day after Rivers’s death. “Imagine the pressure and stress of that.”
Presenting a perfect face
When I first set out to write this piece, my idea was to expound on Joan’s addiction to plastic surgery. I somehow equated her plastic surgery obsession to her belief that in life there’s only the here and now. As she told the psychologist, she didn’t believe in an afterlife — “This is it!” she insisted (with theological certainty), which meant of course that she had to make “this” absolutely the best world possible — at any cost, but if that didn’t work (those unavoidable human betrayals again), she might be tempted to end it all herself.
But there’s also this: Joan was like the jester whose job it was to keep the royal court entertained, regardless of how or what she was feeling inside. The job that she had to do — conquering feelings of personal sadness so that they wouldn’t show onstage — meant that she had to continually perfect her face because that face had become the mask of comedy itself.
While there was a lot of rage and rawness in her late comedy routines — for many, Joan went into cesspool realms — that anger, I think, was always fueled by love, as well as a sense of disappointment, in life and in her perception that there’s no redemption anywhere, even in the act of comedy itself.
 How can anyone not get angry when, as Peggy Lee once sang, is that all there is?


RJ, the homeless guy who opens doors for people at the local WAWA, looks like an Orthodox monk. I've never told him this, but this realization dawned on me a few weeks ago as I made my way along Aramingo Avenue, suitcase in hand, on my way to the bus station in Center City.
Monks were on my mind because I was on my way to my favorite monastery mountain retreat, Saint Tikhon's, for my annual three-day retreat. Saint Tikhon's is located three-plus hours outside Philadelphia, near the Scranton area. I say "near the Scranton area" because the monastery is so isolated that it takes another 40 minutes by car to get to it. When you travel there by bus, a monk usually meets you at the Scranton station and then drives you to the monastery, some 24 miles away.
But back to RJ: RJ has been holding doors at WAWA for customers for quite some time. Sometimes the police chase him away, but often they leave him alone, and why not? He's polite, intelligent, even somewhat educated (he has a military background), and he never begs for money. Because he's homeless, he sleeps near the columns of I-95 along Richmond Street, on slats of cardboard.
RJ is a survivor among the homeless who call the I-95 area home. He's slept there in the dead of winter and on scorching-hot summer nights full of insects, rats and vermin. I've seen him nearly frostbitten, sunburned, sweaty and in need of a bath. Sometimes he'll disappear for a couple of months -- for the reason, you'll have to ask him -- but he always returns. RJ is the man with nine lives, or maybe even 20.
There are times that RJ seems optimistic about getting his life together. (Without giving away the man's secrets, he knows what he has to do in order to accomplish that!) In fact, the next time you see him, you may want to ask him about that. It's not a crime to talk to a homeless person. You won't catch cooties, crabs, Ebola, a fainting episode or even HIV. In fact, you might even learn something.
When I saw RJ while on my way to the bus station, I was half-tempted to say, "RJ, I think I have the life for you. You need to leave the city for at least a year. You need to live far away from the city and all its temptations until you are really on your feet. And a monastery is the perfect place for that."
Of course, with his black beard, RJ would fit right into Saint Tikhon's. He could still hold doors, but he could switch from holding WAWA doors to holding the Royal Doors in the church during Divine Liturgy.
Although RJ may look like a monk, living the life of a monk is hard stuff. Monks don't sneak away to private beer bashes on the weekends; there are no intoxicated late nights at Johnny Brenda's, no waiting for a neon taxi cab under the El at 2 in the morning, and there are certainly no girlfriends or boyfriends to cuddle up to.
For RJ to become a monk, he would have to become another person. It would take a huge act of will. It would mean giving up all personal desires and putting his life choices and direction under the care of a father superior, in this case the abbot. For someone over 30 this can be a very difficult thing to do. "Older" men who enter the monastery often have a rough time of things, because it's difficult taking directions and "orders" from a much younger man who ends up being your superior. As one monk told me, "It's better to enter a monastery when you are really young. That way you come into formation gradually. Older men have a very tough time adjusting."
But if RJ were to have a vision like Saul of Tarsus and decide to change his life and become a monk, he'd have to spend at least six hours a day at prayer. That's a lot of church time. Most people are not that concentrated on God. Besides prayer, monks have their work assignments. Each monk has a specific job to do. Brother Basil, for instance, is Saint Tikhon's handyman and carpenter. He can build and fix anything, from bathroom sinks to roof leaks to warped wood paneling. He's also a former evangelical Protestant who found his way to Saint Tikhon's several years ago. I first met Brother Basil when he was fixing a leak in the Guest House kitchen. He was stretched out on the floor in his black robe, a massive tool belt draped over him like a prayer rope.
Then there's Father Silouan, another convert from Protestantism, who looks to be about 28. Father Silouan is not a priest, but after a while the monks at Saint Tikhon's are all called "Father." Father Silouan is an iconographer. He's a soft-spoken guy but a pretty mean driver when he gets behind the wheel of a car. It was Father Silouan who picked me up at the bus station in Scranton and then drove me the additional 24 miles to the monastery. We talked about icons during the car trip. I told him about an old Russian icon of the Last Supper I'd found in an antique shop in Center City and how I'd bargained for a fair price. Icons, even cheap icons, can be ruinously expensive, but I was able to purchase this large, late-19th-century icon for $125.
As a postulant, RJ wouldn't wear a religious habit, but he would live the life of a monk, getting up at 5 a.m. and so forth, and then in between his duties he'd find that he'd have a lot of time to think about the life he was leaving behind. I imagine that this feeling of thinking about the life you have left behind must be a lot like the feeling you get when you are 30,000 feet above the Earth in a jetliner: It's at those times that you tend to think about your life "back there" (on the ground), possibly even seeing it more objectively.
The monks at Saint Tikhon's wear their habits all the time, even when they go home to visit their families. This means they wear their black cassocks and hats when they board airlines, walk through cities, take taxis, go food shopping or visit Home Depot. There's no embarrassment about being a monk, so you won't find these guys donning blue jeans, Bermuda shorts, or a pair of Dockers. Unlike many monks in the West (those swinging Franciscans and Benedictines), Orthodox monks don't go the down-low route and dress in colorful neckties and slacks when on the road. Orthodox monks are men in black 24/7.
At Saint Tikhon's, RJ would discover that one of the challenges in a monastery is making good use of alone time, especially when there are no city temptations around to escape to -- no WAWA doors to open, and no dancing in the bright lights of Aramingo Avenue. At Saint Tikhon's, each monk has at least four or five hours of free time after the early-evening meal. Your activity choices at that time include visiting other monks, special projects, reading (the library is large), meditation or prayer, and walking through the woods, where you risk the likelihood of running into deer (safe) or a bear (not safe).
This is not the high life of the passions by any means, but for many it is a good one.
As for monastery food, RJ would discover that it is mostly delicious and vegetarian. He would also discover that there are a lot of fasts when you are an Orthodox monk. Despite the fasts, he would learn that the monastery refrigerator and kitchen are filled to capacity with a zillion yummy things, from yogurt and cakes to ice cream, but that the monk's job is to self-regulate when it comes to food consumption. As one monk confided to me, "The refrigerator here is a powerhouse of goodies, but the basic idea is self-control. This is especially true when it comes to controlling the passions."
Ah, yes, the passions! I wanted to know about this when I asked a new monk, who hails from Naples, Florida, why I saw young and healthy monks serving themselves tiny amounts of food at supper and dinner. Are they sick? Fasting? Doing penance? But the monk from Naples told me that taking little food is a way to beat the temptations of the flesh. This piece of monastic wisdom, apparently, goes back centuries.
Now, while I realize that RJ may never become one of the men in black -- few men can hope to attain this -- I do hope that he graduates soon from the WAWA School of Holding Doors.

The Book Launch as Info-Commercial

Philadelphia’s Dr. Mütter and his marvels

Weekly Press
• Wed, Sep 10, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

The Mutter Museum is the talk of the talk of the town these days. Although it was always on the city’s radar of extraordinary places to visit, it has never been as popular as it seems to be today.

Adding to the museum’s popularity is a new biography of Thomas Dent Mutter, by Philadelphia born Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (Gotham Books). Aptowicz, a New York University grad, has garnered a reputation as a good slam poet in the New York City slam poetry scene, although she currently lives in Austin, Texas.

Although the subculture world of the poetry slam is a mixed bag of verbal insanities, I did not expect an unorthodox lecture at the museum when I went with a friend to hear Cristin speak about Thomas Mutter. Of course, it should be noted that it was my first time in the museum in years.

In years past that I would come away from the Mutter with a strange sense of inner paralysis bordering on depression, as if some energy in those bottles and vials had reached out and caused me to feel lousy about life and people. In my more rational moments, I dismissed this all as superstition.

At the Mutter this time to hear Aptowicz, I’d forgotten about those unpleasant experiences. Guests were treated to an appetizing reception in the museum’s main hall. Clearly, much of the author’s family was present, even children, and the overall vibe was happy and enthusiastic, in stark contrast to all those hidden bottles of specimens (and death) in the museum’s back rooms.

I was looking forward to hearing about the Virginia-born Thomas Dent Mutter, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before he became a professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College. Thomas Mutter’s massive medical research specimen collection became the basis for the museum’s founding in 1863. I need not list all these medical marvels, but among them you will find the body of the soap lady; a nine foot long human colon, preserved random human organs and body parts, and the skeleton of a dwarf and a giant. And this, of course, is just the beginning.
But who was Dr. Mutter, really? What did he think and what did he believe? Was he married with children? Was he a Freemason? When and how did he die? But most importantly, how did the museum come to be established? I was hoping the lecture would be a Whitman’s Sampler of information bits.

The mostly upbeat crowd—there were lots of giggling girls although the children present did not misbehave—almost filled the strikingly attractive lecture room. Aptowicz was introduced by her husband, always a nice thing, but she wasn’t anything like I expected. I suppose I expected a tall, regal woman like Gretchen Worden (1947-2004), the museum’s curator in 1982 until her appointment as Director in 1988. Aptowicz’s likeable ham-it-up persona—one could easily imagine her talking up a Julia Child cookbook—made me understand, in a way, the chorus of gigglers I had heard earlier.
Clearly, this was not going to be a conventional talk on Dr. Mutter’s life but instead it would veer off into the unpredictable, most notably into the loose ended come-what-may world of slam poetry, with three guest readings by friends of the author, one of them a slam poet military paratrooper who, as it turned out, looked more like an accountant.
By the talk’s end, I only learned two things about Mutter, the first being that he was the first to advocate anesthesia during surgery; the second being that he was the first physician to come up with the idea of a recovery room after surgery. Aptowicz did touch very briefly on Mutter’s time in Paris (to bring back medical ideas) but after that the talk became an info-commercial on the author’s life.

The info-commercial went as follows: how a portion of the book was excerpted by The Atlantic Monthly; a report to the audience on a rave review in The Wall Street Journal; how the author obtained a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry; how she landed a 2013 Amy Clampith Residency; some references to her six books of poetry; how she was named a University of Pennsylvania Arts Edge Writer in Residence, and her being given a Francis C. Wood Institute Travel Grant to support her work on the book. The guest readers, in keeping with the surrealist come-what-may dynamics of a poetry slam, read sensationalistic excerpts from 1800 medical texts, while one reader beautifully acted out a scene of hospital gore, after which there was a round of giggly applause.

At the delightful reception, Aptowicz’s mom told me that she had great hopes that one of those Long Island wealthy simmer vacationers reading The Wall Street Journal’s review of the book were hopefully thinking of producing Aptowicz’s screenplay on Dr. Mutter, a 2003 award winner at the Philadelphia Film Festival.

"Plus, you know, Mom added, "she was on Marty Moss-Coane earlier, and she’ll be at the Free Library later this month."
"All of this is super fabulous," one might have answered. "Kudos and accolades and laurel wreaths to your wonderful daughter, but can you tell us where to go to find out something about Thomas Dent Mutter?" (It didn’t help, of course, that when I gave my card to the Texas writer—ostensibly asking to interview her—she immediately directed me to her marketing person, after first directing me to her agent, who looked like Ann Coulter.)

Out on the street, my head reeling with info commercial data, I only wanted to go home and go to bed.