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Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Christmas Tree, 2009

This is the story of my Christmas tree, a tall artificial tree with white lights.
I don’t put the tree up every year. Last year, for instance, I kept it in the basement beside the snow shovels and some old buckets, but this year something happened to make me want to give it a central place in my living room.
The tree was given me by my sister some years just before she moved to Florida with her husband. I won’t go into the ‘politics’ of that move other than to say that no one in the family wanted her to move south. She’s the sister—I have three—closest to me in age, so growing up we were almost always thought of as twins. The reason for this is that in the fifth grade I had a case of double pneumonia and this forced the nuns to hold me back a year.
Before my sister and her husband left Pennsylvania, they visited me on Mercer Street and presented me with the tree. Somehow the idea of a Christmas tree in Florida, with all its wintry connotations, didn’t sit well with them. Who needs artificial evergreens when you have real palm trees growing in your backyard? So, yes, I was happy to take this tall slender alpine specimen with its generous array of white lights and call it my own.
That first year I positioned it in front of my living room window, admiring the way it glowed out onto the street. Others commented that it was a subtle yet striking decoration
My sister has been in Florida for almost 8 years now, and during that time I’ve developed a rather ambiguous relationship with the tree. You see, there’s a part of me that is very 1960s bohemian or what they used to call anti-bourgeois. In my twenties I tried my best to eschew holidays, thinking they were anti intellectual or somehow beneath me. I’d criticize Thanksgiving as a trumped up Hallmark card fest in which turkeys were slaughtered. Traditional Columbus Day, my actual birthday, I’d categorize as Columbus’ unjust conquest (and slaughter) of the Indians. In my agnostic twenties, Christmas was more a winter solstice, a time for family and friends, but nothing more.
Most of these Scrooge-like feelings are history now that I’ve gotten older, though once in a while they “attack” me like an old virus. Perhaps this is the reason that lately I haven’t been taking care of the Christmas tree. Last year, for instance, I let it sit in a corner in my basement near a pipe with a small leak. For the longest time I’d see that water was damaging the tree’s base, but rather than move the tree I’d sweep around it as the base slowly withered away. When I noticed that half its lights had gone out, I resisted walking to the Dollar Store for new ones. The sad truth is, I allowed the Christmas tree to rot until a few weeks ago when the sister who gave it to me called to say that she had stage II cancer of the lymph nodes.
My sister is a “no BS” straightforward type, and announced the news as if she were reading something from the newspaper. She didn’t cry or preface the news with drama. She told me straight out that she would have to undergo chemotherapy and possibly radiation and that she had already gone shopping for a number of wigs in preparation for when she lost her hair. She told me she had great faith in her doctor, whom she quoted as saying, “We are going to lick this thing and put it behind you.” She seemed cheery and upbeat. Of course being her “twin” I heard the suppressed emotion underneath her words. I heard the occasional “crack,” the weak link that once activated would explode in a rush of tears.
After our conversation a stunned feeling came over me. There was, of course, a rush of childhood memories in which she, the vivacious beautiful sister with the blonde hair and magnetic personality, in short the family beauty, was suddenly vulnerable to the scary part of life.
I didn’t know what to do, but then I thought of the Christmas tree I’d neglected for so long, leaning in a “crash” position against the old oil tank.
I brought it up from the basement, cleaned off the dirty base, straightened out the crooked branches and placed ii in its rightful place on a table in front of the living room window. Then I brought up the dusty box of ornaments and placed them beside the tree. While doing these things remnants of that old anti-holiday feeling came over me, as if voicing one last pathetic protest—“Don’t celebrate! Don’t celebrate!”-- but in the end those cries didn’t stand a chance.
My sister, and her Christmas tree, won hands down.

Thom Nickels

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Port Richmond: Off Duty Cop's Preferential treatment an outrage

On this bright, crisp Sunday morning in Port Richmond the sidewalks are empty, rolled up like old patio furniture. Here and there neighbors poke their faces out front doors to see what the weather’s like. Traffic on the street is slow; the few drivers who are out have that ‘just getting awake’ looks on their faces. It’s the sort of day you imagine people sleeping in late.

But just when you think the quiet will go on forever, you hear people chanting slogans. The cries have the sound of protest, like people marching in unison for a common cause. They come from a playground near Indiana and Elkhart Streets, where a little boy about 10 years old happens to be walking along a deserted sidewalk playing with his cell phone. The boy looks around as if determining the source of the protest then walks in the direction of the noise, his gait accelerating a bit. It’s obvious he wants to find out what all the commotion is about. He skips down the street like he’s going to a country fair but then he slows considerably once he realizes there’s something serious about the noise he hears.

Eleven years ago, little Billy Panas was probably just like this kid, walking around the neighborhood, thinking of his mom and dad, his brothers and sisters, maybe a bicycle or a broken skateboard, his whole life stretched out before him like the infinite stretch of ocean one sees from the beach at Wildwood. Little boys, of course, cannot fully grasp the concept of death, so while this particular kid may have heard about the shooting of Billy Panas by off-duty Philadelphia police officer Sgt. Frank Tepper, his youth protects him from the horror of a life snuffed out so early in the game.

The boy disappears down a side street, unaware that life can bring on all kinds of experiences, including meeting a bully with a gun. Certainly Billy Panas, who was once 10 year old, didn’t expect to die on the evening of Saturday, November 21st, when he was allegedly shot in the chest by Tepper, a man whom neighbors describe as a bully who often took to waving his gun in the air in various confrontations with neighborhood teens. While there are different versions regarding how young Panas was shot, the fact remains that somebody, in this case Tepper, drew a gun to settle a dispute or an argument.

When Tepper allegedly fired that gun he crossed the line. And this is why the protestors—men and women as well as a mix of teens and children—are carrying signs and wearing red t-shirts asking for justice for the dead 21 year old boy.

The protestors march through the streets as neighbors offer their support. The police civil affairs unit follows the march in squad cars. Where are they marching to? They are headed to Tepper’s house, where Billy’s dad will speak through a megaphone, and where people will sign a petition to have Tepper put behind bars as quickly as possible rather than have him sit behind a plush desk answering police phones to the tune of $58,610 a year while DA Lynne Abraham (washing her hands like Pontius Pilate) hands the case over to a grand jury, a process that may take months, stretching on into spring, summer or fall of 2010.

The marchers hold a rally in front of Tepper’s house, where two uniformed police officers stand guard. The officers look a little tense as the crowd, numbering about 200, busy themselves with signing the petition, or going over to the pretzel, coffee and do-nut table for a little refreshment.
It looks like nobody’s home in Tepper’s house. Violence like this has horrible aftershocks: what must Tepper’s wife and children think, if indeed they are looking out from behind closed shades?
Billy Panas’ dad—he is a big guy with a full head of hair and a dog tag with a picture of his son on it—tells the crowd, “My wife Karen and I want to thank you. Remember one thing—there’s only one bad seed, all the other police are respectable and they’re doing their job. We have only vengeance in our hearts against the murderer of Billy Panas.” People applaud, and the two officers who had looked tense seem to relax. They even begin to smile a little bit but it’s not long before they go back to looking tense. The truth is never an easy potion to swallow. “If Tepper wasn’t a police officer he would be in jail right now. Why isn’t he in jail? This is the whole question,” Mr. Panas says. “What if he murdered somebody else’s child? It was obviously going to happen sooner or later, Tepper’s a loose cannon.”

A cannon so loose, as other news outlets have reported, he once sprayed mace at a group of children; a cannon so loose that he went for his gun when he thought his 8 year old kid was being harassed. A cannon so loose that fellow police officers refused to work with him. A cannon so loose he bypassed police procedure and didn’t call 911 the night he shot Panas.
So why wasn’t this man kicked off the force a long time ago?

“Tepper should not be on the street,” Mr. Panas told me. “We should not be paying for his food right now. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. Do I think this process is being dragged out? Yes I do. It’s because he’s a cop. That’s all there is to it. Because he wears a badge, he’s protected. It’s not fair!”

And that’s true. The bottom line is that the Philadelphia Police Department is not inclined to think that one of their own can do anything wrong. In some ways the department is reluctant to call a spade a spade. This can make getting justice for Billy Panas a little bit like climbing the Matterhorn.

Mr. Panas, brave man that he is, knows how to hide his pain. It was evident when he started to joke with the crowd. One can only guess what some of his private moments must be like, when he lets his guard down, when memories of his son flood his mind.
Still, as protests go, the rally was remarkable in its civility. Here we have the family, friends and neighbors of a boy killed by a police officer, and yet here was a Philadelphia police car being used as a desk top for the scores of petition signers seeking justice for the shooter, a Philadelphia police officer. This “merging” together brought to light the bad seed concept: there are bad seeds everywhere, in every profession, from pope to president to lifeguard to wine steward to corner cop.

But it’s time to stop the preferential treatment. It’s time for Sgt. Tepper to experience a little discomfort and inconvenience: it’s time for the law to remove him from his plush desk job and give him the treatment they’d give you or me had we been accused of shooting someone in the street.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Ugly as Sin: Catholic Church architecture since Vatican II

While on a tour of some Roman Catholic churches in Vienna recently, I was struck by the haphazard clash of styles: magnificent Romanesque- Gothic high altars, richly appointed with frescoes and images, with an oddly shaped table plunked down in front like something dropped from The Planet of the Apes: the oh-so-simple Vatican II altar table (aka Julia Child’s table). In such historic environments, the table, however expertly made, looks fairly comical. While the elaborate iconography in these splendid old churches makes Julia Child’s table seem less intrusive, that’s not the case in many new Catholic churches built since the close of Vatican II—a Council called by then Pope John XXIII to renew and invigorate the Church.

Vatican II unleashed a virtual windstorm that not only affected how Catholics worship, but the buildings they worshipped in. The root cause, according to Michael Rose, author of ‘Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces—and How We Can Change Them Back Again,” was a duplicitous 1978 draft statement by the U.S. Bishop’s Committee on Liturgy, entitled ‘Environment and Art in Catholic Worship.’ Rose asserts that the document was “cunningly published in the name of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, implying approval from Rome.” The Vatican II document falsely used as the catalyst for such a “reformation,” Sacrosanctum Concilium, did not, however call for the wholesale slaughter of traditional Catholic Church architecture. The U.S. Bishops apparently had another agenda: the reshaping of Catholic churches into (so called) more relevant, people-oriented worship spaces.
This meant plain wooden altar tables rather than marble high altars; carpeted rooms; plain glass stained windows; potted plants in place of traditional Catholic artwork; small and nondescript Stations of the Cross that disappear into the walls; churches in the round that resemble MTV soundstages; the elimination of altar rails and sanctuary lamps. Crucifixes replaced by Baptist-style wooden crosses or geometric plus signs; traditional baptismal transformed into hot tubs. Older churches, including many cathedrals, were renovated: high altars were removed and dismantled; historic frescoes and icons painted over.

In the end, many of the new churches and the “renovated” cathedrals had the look of conference halls or inter denominational chapels. Hundreds, maybe thousands of churches worldwide were destroyed by the architectural iconoclasts.

Many Catholic churches in my Philadelphia neighborhood were altered after Vatican II. Fortunately, the three big churches on Allegheny Avenue—St. Adalbert’s, Nativity B.V.M., and Our Lady Help of Christians-- were not changed significantly. One church in Fishtown was particularly affected: Holy Name of Jesus Parish at 701 E. Gaul Street, officially founded in February 1905 in a three-story building on Frankford Avenue. Ground was broken for the present day church in the fall of 1921.

Holy Name of Jesus had an architectural makeover in 1973, when the then Dominican pastor (Father Edward L. Martin, O.P.) felt that many of the traditional trappings had to go. Like so many other pastors around the country, the good priest was a victim of the “simplifying” frenzy that followed the Council.

“They cut off the principal altar, the high altar. They put in a butcher block in the center of the church and a crucifix hanging from the ceiling. The Dominicans also took the whole altar rail out. The sanctuary was carpeted. This kind of carpeting buckles over time, so it was pretty much a mess in 1998 when a new pastor took over,” Holy Name pastor Father Francis P. Groarke told me by telephone.

The Dominicans, thankfully, did not remove the church’s side altars, and left the old wooden statues in place, a generous move considering the fate of other churches, where side altars wound up in piles on various city trash heaps. Also left untouched were devotional shrines to the Infant of Prague and Saint Jude.

“When the Dominicans left in 1998, they took everything, even the silverware,” Father Groake joked.

“The pastor who took over tried to restore the church to the way it was. He got rid of the butcher block. He had a platform built and he got an altar from a church that closed in Philadelphia in 1999. The high altar is once again visible,” Father Groake said, adding, “This pastor also had the tabernacle redone. The church was painted, and he got rid of that big hanging crucifix. Ceramic tile was added to the sanctuary, so it is pretty much a warm welcoming place now. The pastor was complimented an awful lot for what he did, although the church was not returned to the pre-1972 experience, when there was an altar rail. There’s no altar rail at Holy Name.”

Vatican II did not issue any edicts calling for the removal of church altar rails. What happened is that in many American churches this was done more or less by design consensus when communion-in-hand became a popular from of receiving the sacrament. The altar rail, traditionally, is the western version of the Eastern iconostasis (a screen of icons that frames the altar).

Holy Name was lucky that it did not go the way of Saint Leo’s parish in Tacony, where the high altar was replaced with something that Father Robert Seeney, pastor of the church, called a “wooden stand, not even a table, something that people compared to an ironing board.” The 1960s makeover also ripped out the side altars and nearly all the statues in the church. Parishioners were furious, but what could they do?

Fr. Seeney, who was made pastor of the parish in June 2009, began his own counter revolution: restoring the altars and the statues, and making the church “Catholic” again.

“The church went from being a meeting hall to a cathedral in a couple of months,” he told me.

But Father Seeney says he will never forget the sadness he felt when he was first assigned to the parish. “When you looked at the church on the outside, it’s such an old church, and then went you went inside, it was stripped of all its beauty.”

But not any more, Father.