Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Monday, September 28, 2009

Catholic Worker Karen Lenz: a tribute

There are small, unsung purveyors of hope in Philadelphia, and some of them are right here in the neighborhood.
One unsung hero is the Sister Peter Claver Catholic Worker House at 430 W. Jefferson Street. As a house it is not much. It’s filled with books, arts and crafts for children, holy pictures, a crooked, narrow staircase, and a kitchen that has fed thousands of needy and destitute people throughout the years.
My first contact with the Jefferson Street CW occurred several years ago when I was assigned to do a story on the place and interview the overseer, Karen B. Lenz. Karen, who was confined to a wheelchair for many years prior to her death on August 6, 2009, became a sort of friend after that first meeting. We discovered that liked the same Catholic authors, mainly Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor; that we shared similar beliefs regarding the treatment of the poor—especially in the area of health care, where private insurance companies make health care coverage an impossibility for low income people. We also shared a fascination for the history of the Catholic Worker movement, how founder Dorothy Day, a one time Marxist/Greenwich Village bohemian/ atheist, converted to Catholicism, and founded the Catholic Worker, a movement devoted to peace and justice and equality for the financially underprivileged.
We got along so well that Karen invited me to the community potluck dinner that evening, where I met Peaches and Jackie, two women who lived in the CW house because they had no place to go. That first night a number of other dinner guests arrived: a woman from the affluent Main Line with bags of donated clothing, and another woman deeply involved in the women’s ordination movement.
I’d make many visits to the CW house over the next few years. A convert from Lutheranism, Karen was an avid, but not uncritical Catholic with a deep spirituality. For Karen, the Eucharist was the sacred core of Catholicism, not the actions and edicts from the hierarchy, with whom she had issues. These issues included women’s ordination as well as peace and justice concerns, notably the war in Iraq. Another subject that concerned Karen was the way the Vatican behaved during the priest abuse scandal. She objected to the Vatican’s efforts to link homosexuality and sex with minors in the minds of people. “This is a pernicious and false connection,” she wrote in Equal wRights, a Catholic feminist newsletter that she also edited. “Indeed, most pedophilia and ephebophilia is heterosexual and most same sex love is healthy, good, natural, and holy…”
Karen exuded a Mother’s love; there was something about her that made you—or me, anyway—want to wrap my arms around her and hold her for a time. Her great heart, lively intelligence and sense of humor kept even the drollest conversation percolating throughout a cold February evening. Thursday’s were potluck dinner night, and when I’d visit to say the liturgy I’d bring a Stock’s bakery vanilla pound cake. Potluck dinner guests changed from week to week, so you never knew who you were going to meet. Karen knew everybody, from canonical hermits, to nuns, to baby-cheeked students from nearby colleges, so dinners were a feast of new people and stories, maybe a shared bottle of wine, and talk that made the hands of the clock race ahead so that we were always saying, “Gee, it’s time to go home already?”
During dinner there’d almost always be knocks on the door. Sometimes it would be a woman wanting food to feed her children, or somebody dropping off a donation. There were also times when addicts or the homeless would knock for something to eat.
Throughout the evening Karen’s Rabelaisian sense of humor had us pounding our forks on the table in good natured howls. Karen may have been saintly in many ways, but she was not made of plaster.
While Karen was passionate about women’s ordination issues, I tended to be lukewarm. Karen liked the liturgical changes in Catholicism since Vatican II whereas I believed that the so called “new” Mass was about as awe-inspiring as a political stump speech, or an Info-commercial on the Fox network. Despite these differences we managed to agree to disagree, so our friendship remained intact.
When we came and went we always gave one another a kiss. Her face, like that of a great lioness, would lean out towards mine, as I’d stoop over the wheelchair and tell her, “Thank you.”
Why thank you? Because Karen B. Lenz gave and gave…. a lot….

Thom Nickels

The Life of Edmund White

Keys to the Kingdom of Edmund
by Thom Nickels

My Lives: An Autobiographyby Edmund WhiteEcco (HarperCollins). 356 pages, $25.

THE CELEBRATED “FATHER” of modern gay literature had Christian Science roots so entrenched that when he was a grown man he had developed an uncanny habit of forgetting to take his medicine. Still, Edmund White doesn’t forget much in this tell-all autobiography that begins by ripping into the heart of his parents, his lovers of both sexes, and the therapists who led him astray. “In the mid-1950s, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I told my mother I was homosexual: that was the word, back then, homosexual, in its full satanic majesty, cloaked in ether fumes, a combination of evil and sickness.”White’s mother, a psychologist barely five feet tall, was not shocked by the revelation. White writes that she was “almost gleeful when she told me I was a ‘borderline psychotic with strong schizophrenic tendencies’” after testing him with the popular Rorschach inkblot test. As a result of the “blotched spots,” he grew up thinking he was mentally ill, though that didn’t stop him from writing and starring in plays, or from cultivating his childhood fantasy of wanting to be a king.Kings do anything they want, and King Edmund, barely out of the precocious toddler stage, had an early lust for life: he confesses to how he became adept at auto-fellatio at summer camp (“throwing my legs over my head in the first stage of a backward somersault”); how, soon after these gymnastics, he “tasted the first penis that wasn’t my own.” That first taste unearthed a yearning for more. The author of A Boy’s Own Story, Forgetting Elena, and The Farewell Symphony began life as jailbait (“I was afire with sexual longing”) who “haunted the toilets at the Howard Street elevated station, the one that marked the frontier between Chicago and Evanston.”Sex and lots of it is the theme of this memoir, which is populated by familiar figures from the literary, artistic, and musical worlds. We read how Michel Foucault overdosed on LSD at the baths and how Edmund came and rescued him (he confesses that he considered himself to be Foucault’s dumb friend—“but I thought hey, we all need one”); how Edmund cracked the rumor that Genet had once danced for the Black Panthers when Angela Davis confirmed for him that “Genet was the original gender-bender. He’d get high on Nembutal and dance for the Panthers in a pink negligee”; how he, Edmund, has no sense of style: “I used to be careful about my looks, but now I have to remind myself to have my hair cut monthly or my teeth cleaned every six months. I wear the same sturdy, waterproof shoes every day.”At various points in the long narrative he injects recent events. There’s the portrait of his sex master in New York, a former literary fan, who comes to dominate his life for years. Details of the affair, drawn out in explicit erotic detail, call to mind Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses: degradation, humiliation, and shame in fact rule these passionate encounters, and Edmund is literally a slave, lacking only a dog collar. The reader gets very used to sentences like this: “In an instant the head of his dick would be poking up stickily over the elastic waistband. When I’d peel down the jock and release it, it would be hard as wood and smell at once sweet like sperm and bitter like urine.”In “My Women” he recounts affairs or friendships with the women in his life. In these portraits, when the relationships were sexual, he withholds erotic detail. Scant mention is made of Susan Sontag, with whom he had a long friendship in Europe and New York but with whom he had a contentious parting of the ways over his portrayal of her in Caracole. Perhaps his reminiscences of Sontag were written before her death and he feared additional censure or retribution. He does recount how Sontag’s son, David Rieff, came after him with a bullwhip at a party for Caracole (1985) but was “apprehended” before he could lash out. His views on love are cynical yet realistic:Love puzzles me so much I can scarcely say whether I think it’s good or bad. It’s good (and bad) because passion-love, unlike esteem-love, is transformative, obsessional, impractical. It can’t be fitted in with a job, errands, and homework. It pushes friendship aside and upstages family attachments. It crowds out every mild or disinterested pleasure; in fact, it has little to do with pleasure of any sort except at the very beginning of its trajectory when the poor lover still imagines he might live happily ever after with the beloved.In “My Shrinks,” White sets the stage for his youthful obsession with Freudian analysis, a system he found “too devoid of comfort to serve as a substitute for religion” with its “narrow, normative view of humanity.” White came to reject this absolutist view in his early thirties, replacing it with “an interest in groups rather than individuals.” He credits psychoanalysis with leaving him with a few convictions, notably “that everyone is worthy of years and years of intense scrutiny—not a bad credo for a novelist.” He confesses that he began to feel a compulsion to betray his sexual partners, an observation that calls to mind Jean Genet’s betrayal of his lovers in The Thief’s Journal and Our Lady of the Flowers. While this identification with Genet is not specifically drawn out, Genet’s name is mentioned enough for the reader to draw parallels, fusing a kinship that places White and Genet in the same “bad boy” camp. For White, letting an older boy at summer camp “hypnotize me and press my mouth down on his penis” meant going to Mother, who was the camp psychologist, and spilling the beans. These were the Eisenhower years, when enrolling in a military school was seen as an all-purpose solution when it came to boys’ problems. White was the sort of kid who over-analyzed everything. At age fifteen, like a youthful Dr. Peabody, he confessed to a friend’s mother: “I’m very worried. I don’t seem to be moving out of the normal homosexual stage of development.”Coming out for White was anything but a polite society dance. He’d head over to Kentucky from Cincinnati and spy on the young men in white T-shirts and beltless, low-riding jeans, nursing cigarettes. “How convenient that these young Kentucky men, smelling of beer and Camels, their bodies so lean they had no hips, a T-shirt sleeve swollen because it was folded back over a cigarette pack above a tattoo—how convenient they were for hire.” He writes that he was “in a fever of desire for these hillbilly boys perched on the Fountain Square railing.” He’d cash his weekly paycheck from his job at his father’s Addressograph machine company and head over to where the boys were hanging out. “I wore nerdy Steve Allen black glasses and had a longish brush cut. I was skinny and given to tics—my neck was always stiff and bobbing and I nodded it in little spasms that were so noticeable that I hated to sit in front of anyone at the movies.” In these instances he was usually so flustered that he would go with the first man who spoke to him. During one cruising foray he encountered an out gay boy who called himself “Miss Thing,” who observed: “Mary, the joint is hopping tonight!” Not his type: the young White’s idea was to capture “a real man,” a heterosexual man. “A real man had to be primitive, angry, not too intelligent and, in conversation, a bit ludicrous, whereas we queens were clever but as sterile as eunuchs.”Years later, when living in New York and writing A Boy’s Own Story, he would call escort services (“Bottoms were a dime a dozen; real money was spent only on tops”) or pick up street kids. He was writing college textbooks at the time. Far from demanding perfection in his boys, he writes that he liked flaws, “a wound which acted as an opening to the communion of shared humanity.” He wrote A Boy’s Own Story in one of the back cubicles in the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU after nights of hard S&M play with a parade of escorts. “The heat and my hangover tempted me to put my head down on my desk and fall asleep. I was so sleepy I would write portmanteau words, which collapsed the syllables of two or three words I’d already sounded in my head. I even started to spell phonetically.”Although he never waxes sentimental, of all the portraits in the book the ones of his parents are the most powerful. His mother (“Like me she was prone to malapropisms.”) wore a Merry Widow girdle that Edmund had to help her get out of. Mother admired rich people but had a pantheistic view of God that young Ed found “unconvincing.” “I never liked God in any form, even at his most universal. To me he was like Santa Claus—a grown-up conspiracy perpetrated on children to humiliate them. Too good to be true.”Readers expecting a pristine, tasteful portrait of the author will be shaken out of their teacups. This reviewer loved its sometimes upsetting honesty, its self-effacing humor and its sensuality. There’s the story of French writer Gilles Barbedette, for instance, who wanted to translate Nocturnes for the King of Naples into French while still a skinny kid and whom White met when he was a “young-looking, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking New York sex addict of forty.” “As we talked about books I sat on the floor beside him and kept touching his leg,” White writes. “He always loved to tell the story of how he, a very young man, had approached me on a serious artistic and professional mission and I was, within minutes, kneeling on the floor before him and unzipping his fly, calling him ‘Master.’”Thom Nickels is the author of two recently published books: Out in History and Philadelphia Architecture.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

From Europe to Eurabia (The truth is never easy to Digest)

This week marks the eighth anniversary of September eleventh. Eight years is a long time in a culture like ours. While all of us can recount where we were when the twin towers in New York went up in smoke, the passage of time--and the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 2001--has lulled many of us into a sense that everything is okay--for now. But no matter how relatively peaceful those eight years have been, this is no time to forget what occurred on that fateful day, and what might occur again on a day as beautiful as that fall day in 2001.

You might remind yourself this week to remember those who lost their lives in the Towers, the Pentagon, and in a field in western Pennsylvania. The men and women who had to jump from the upper floors of the towers to avoid being burned alive--the falling men, their neckties whirling in the wind, the dozens of co-workers who jumped holding hands, the constant “thump, thump” sound of bodies hitting the ground that the news media eventually had to “black out.” The victims of 9/11 did not know why the towers were falling down around them. They may have known of a hit by a “random airplane” but they knew nothing or an organized terrorist attack. They went to their deaths not realizing that this first major attack on American soil also had a side component: the slow buildup of a radical Islamic powerbase throughout western Europe.

This buildup began in the 1970s when much of Europe agreed to trade crude oil with Arab countries in exchange for promises of “free form” immigration (Strasbourg Resolution 492, 1971). Overnight all over Europe there was a flood of immigrants camping in the streets, selling pencils and chewing gum in cathedral squares.

These were the years that Europe slept, the years when the governments of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and the Netherlands, permitted unfiltered, free-for-all immigration of radical Muslim immigrants from Morocco, North Africa and the Middle East. I say ’free-for-all’ because this was no immigration on a case by case basis but a careless open door policy that eventually led to a population explosion, or radical Muslim enclaves in which the new citizens refused to assimilate into the host country (read: they rejected the host country’s values and social mores). Rather than bow to the laws and customs of the host country, these new immigrants proposed imposing their own view of life, Sharia Law or God‘s Law, into the secular society. Today we see examples of this all over Europe (or Eurabia), where radical Muslims in Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and France stone or kill their daughters or wives for offenses against God (offenses such as not wearing the burka or chador, going to the hairdresser’s, or adultery). Meanwhile, the men are free to take more than one wife although polygamy is officially banned in the host countries. Despite this ban, these politically correct governments, afraid to prosecute the law breakers, turn the other cheek, and the result is the formation of a country within a country.

Here, then, is another form of terrorism, meaning: a form of conquest from within, and it is happening all over Europe, in heretofore progressive cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Oslo, Rome, Paris and Frankfurt. Europe is doing very little to stem the tide of this new brand of terrorism. In the politically correct name of multiculturalism, Europe is exempting the new citizens from obeying laws everybody else has to obey.


For some hours on September 11,2001 I wasn’t so sure that Philadelphia would escape the terrorist’s wrath. The September 11th scenario could have unfolded in any number of ways. Today, I live in a good neighborhood, have a nice house, and have the freedom to believe in God or not believe in God, to dress as I want and love whom I want. But if Sharia law were in place, I’d be counted among the dead. (And so would you, noble reader).
On this September 11th I will thank God that in America we have a democracy and not a theocracy, where there is freedom for all religions, and where regardless of the tenets of a church or sect, if those practices (like polygamy or stoning) go against national laws, then that religion must suffer the consequences.

Sadly, I feel for our European brothers and sisters, who today struggle with an insidious 2009 version of terrorism that includes massive attempts at changing Europe from the inside out..
This week I will remember the words of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, “…This new war does not aim at the conquest of our territory maybe, but certainly aims at the conquest of our souls and at the disappearance of our freedom.