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Monday, December 31, 2012

Affliction, Morality, and Liberation: Edward Truth interview Thom Nickels

.Thom Nickels: Affliction, Morality, and Liberation (from LAMBDA LITERARY)

Posted on 28. Dec, 2012 by Edward Truth in Features, Interviews

“Like it or not, we live in Apocalyptic times. Most people today—if you ask them over coffee or a glass of wine—will agree that something “big” is going to happen to the world soon.”

How many of you are there? The answer used to be easy. Pre-web logic told us we had one identity, one life, and that all our actions had consequences that shaped the here, the now, and the destiny of that one identity. But life in the digital hinterland offers up brand new views of sequence, morality and mortality.

Take identity proliferation and sex. Managing web presence is a balancing act of expression and suppression—our personal and professional hats are on constant rotation. Hyperconnectivity allows us to explore desire like never before, and the ephemeral quality of online interaction lends itself to greater risk-taking and deep-rooted self-examination. We enact the sex to represent a particular identity, while at the same time the sex act constructs an identity for us. But all eyes are watching and sometimes the darker self becomes an aberration, as experienced by Dennis, the main character of SPORE (StarBooks Press), a novel by Thom Nickels [Nickels is also the spirituality editor of the Lambda Literary Review].

Intent on inhabiting all sexual worlds, Dennis unwittingly embarks on a journey through deep psychosis, forsaking his loved ones and leaving him vulnerable to the scourge that waits. The world of SPORE reflects a dystopian reality where violence and disease wage war against humanity. An insidious parasite is set loose, taking the form of a growth that disfigures the host. Those who suppress their latent sexuality are the prey. If you can afford to have it removed you live, but if you can’t you’re destined to lose your humanity forever—the ultimate punishment for skirting the status quo.

Implicit anxiety around sexuality, sacrifice, religion and reciprocity suggests an unresolved territorial dispute between the physical body and what lies within—an analysis perhaps best left for Foucault or Bataille, but one that begs the question: What makes us human and when are we more than human? Just as the spore is capable of giving rise to a new individual, the judgments, superstition and insecurities of the primitive mind invariably shape our destiny.

Thom Nickels is currently working on a book called Legendary Philadelphia and his double feature, Walking on Water & After All This, will be available in paperback early 2013. Recently Nickels and I took a short walk through the magic realism of SPORE, the apocalypse, and the changing identity of religion.

Introduce us to the main character of SPORE.

In my twenties, I used to waste a lot of time cruising the streets of Philly in the pre-dawn hours. One night I [came across] this guy. With such persistence he asked me, “What are you—a missionary for homosexuality?” His question hit a chord. We agreed to meet later for a kind of date, but when the time came he showed up with a Bible so that he could preach to me. As it turned out, he was part of an ex-gay ministry. Dennis, the main character of SPORE, assumes an evangelical manner, only he’s a real missionary for homosexuality. He becomes an “ordained” 700 Club-style street corner preacher and warns of dire consequences if those with repressed gay tendencies don’t learn to embrace same-sex experiences. The consequences of self denial and repression in this case are growths of a broccoli-like tumor, which can appear all over the body—even as protrusions from the buttocks. In a worst case scenario, victims can turn into trees. Dennis discovers his “powers” on the island of Oahu near the (Buddhist) Valley of the Temples. Since prophets are rarely listened to, Dennis’ life becomes a comedy of errors in Philadelphia, where his street mission begins.

What inspired the “magic realism” of SPORE?

The magic realism of SPORE was inspired by my early childhood love of miracle stories, the lives of the saints, mystics, hermits, Carlos Castaneda, the novels of Roland Firbank, and the non-fiction works of Jane Roberts (Seth Speaks). I like to call my novels Epics; it’s a carry-over from high school when I used to entertain classmates with monthly Epics or encyclicals that told stories about my friends and people in school, only in fantastical type situations. In addition, I’m fascinated with books written by religious figures that go on to change the world, where the text or story goes beyond epic into the scriptural. Had Joseph Smith of Mormon fame written a novel instead of a faux New Testament epic [The Book of Mormon] about early American civilizations, that novel would have been forgotten long ago.

Let’s talk spirit. We’re digging deeper than ever into the space between visible objects, grasping at faith and philosophy to answer questions about the life before and the hereafter, as well as the life right here in front of us that we can’t see. What does anything matter if we keep disconnected from the metaphysical?

Like it or not, we live in Apocalyptic times. Most people today—if you ask them over coffee or a glass of wine—will agree that something “big” is going to happen to the world soon. We don’t know what this something is, but it is coming. George Orwell was certainly a prophet; we see much of the reality he predicted coming true today, especially in the United States with the slow erosion of civil liberties. Whether it’s the new passport regulations (a friend of mine was turned away by two TSA agents when he was about to board a plane to Spain because his passport had two water stains on it, just another example of the emerging and all-encompassing National Security State), or the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), where the military can arrest or detain any US citizen it deems a terrorist threat, America is slowing slipping into fascism. This is apocalyptic.

In my novella, After All This (from Two Novellas: Walking on Water & After All This) the post-Apocalyptic world comes alive and survivors have to reconstruct a new civilization. How do they do this? They invent a new religious text, a new Joseph Campbell-style myth, to give body and vision to their struggle.

Regarding metaphysics, on some level I think all of us have a sense at times that we are much more than our bodies. There are different degrees of realization here, of course. For some this interest in “spirituality” manifests itself in safe areas like generic meditation centers (where one meditates for relaxation and to “center”), yoga or other techniques that point to a mind body connection—things that, by the way, orthodox empirical science might question. Many people inhabit this first sphere of spirituality but go no further, because to go further reaches into more narrowly defined spaces where the spirituality becomes defined and thus open to criticism from those who tell us that to narrow definitions this way is to limit intelligence. (Narrowing = a possible descent or ascent into the world of religious dogma, etc.) Whether it’s tarot, rune stones, amitara yoga, a belief in crystals, all of these things suggest that we are more than what we “are” on the outside; that we have a consciousness or soul and are far from human bodies randomly created and thrown into existence for no particular reason. The old existentialist belief that life has no reason or meaning, and that we come and go and then disappear only to make room for new generations of futile sufferers can, in the worst instances, lead to madness (Nietzsche).

Of course, this isn’t to say that “believers” don’t go mad—because they do—but generally being tied into the other reality helps. We may opt to only believe in ourselves or in some noble ideals concerning the perfection of humanity, but in the end strict beliefs like this almost always disappoint.

Most of my fiction has contained something of the metaphysical, although that has not always been the case. My short stories in The Gay Alternative, a national literary magazine published in the 1970s, were each autobiographical. I am currently writing a book about my experiences in Harvard Square during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, so I’m leaving the metaphysical behind on this one, although who knows how this story may develop.

What have we done wrong with organized religion? What’s your solution?

Very complex question—it almost depends on which religion you are talking about.

The ‘we’ I take to mean the whole of humanity. The problem is in interpretation. Most religions begin with a prophet or seer who comes with a message. That message gets recorded, translated, passed down. Inferences get lost, passages get added to. What something meant 2,000 years ago very often has a different context today. Islam is a younger religion than Christianity so you could almost say that it is going through what Christianity went through during the Inquisition. Islam then might be said to be in its spiritual adolescence.

Religion stands to lose its influence when it becomes bogged down in too many sub-rules. The Ten Commandments are straightforward and general; ditto for the Sermon on the Mount. Dietary restrictions, laws around circumcision, sexual practices—this is lawful but this is foul—tend to trivialize religion in the mind of intelligent folk, so the tendency is to walk away from the larger truth of it, dismissing that larger truth because of the bylaws. You see this all the time with Catholic-born LGBT people. They wind up throwing everything out—their belief in the divinity of Jesus, the sacraments—because of the negativity surrounding these bylaws. Saying that you left a religion and became an atheist because the religion is homophobic has nothing to do questions like “Does God exist?” That is a deeper question and cannot be answered via the social/cultural “issues” route.

It is healthy to question organized religion. It is good to think, “Am I believing these things just because my parents put them in my head as a child?” It can be a good thing to walk out and believe nothing for a while, gather experience, read, and then re-examine the issue later. I happen to believe in Christianity, and am a member—a convert—to the Orthodox Church, because of certain problems I had with Catholicism, especially the Conciliar Church after Vatican II. I saw the Catholic Church destroying its beautiful liturgy and replacing it with an abbreviated Reader’s Digest version. But that’s another story. The point is, if, as a Christian, I believe that Jesus was who he said he was, then to a certain extent I am going to put that first—ahead of anything secular or political. When I draw my last breath, I am not going to call out to the LGBT community, but to the God who was there before and who will be there after I am gone.

But organized religion loses people and creates bad press when it attempts to change or nullify advances made in the secular realm—what Jesus would call Caesar’s domain. The legalization of same sex marriage in California or New York should not be an issue for any Church or religious organization. Let the secular world do what it wants to do. That should not affect any Church, but unfortunately it does. To a large extent, the religions and Churches that thunder the loudest when it comes to these issues are often acting out frustration at their own emptiness and ineptitude. They’re mad because their pews are empty so they are going “shake” the society they think helped drain those pews, by attacking gay marriage.

We see this with the Catholic Church, especially as the clergy sex abuse crises widened. The attacks by the Vatican on almost anything gay have increased tenfold. This sort of deflection just makes the Church look mean and ideological, much like a political party rather an organization that is supposed to attend to human souls. By the same token, the Catholic Church is under no obligation to adopt the social/cultural advances made in that “other world.” You know, just because feminism has gone mainstream does not mean that the Pope has to allow women’s ordination.

Just as the Church has no business in Caesar’s domain, Caesar’s domain has no business telling the Church what it must do. But these things are overlapping, and it is causing a lot of hate and confusion.

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Related posts:

1.‘Liberation: Diaries, Volume Three: 1970-1983′ by Christopher Isherwood

2.‘Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation’ by Christine Stark

3.‘Spore’ by Thom Nickels

4.‘Breakfast With Thom Gunn’ by Randall Mann

5.New LGBT Books in July

About Edward Truth

Edward Truth is a New York City-based journalist and critical theorist. Follow him on Twitter@dadrt.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas, 2012

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Dec 19, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Christmas is always a time to think about friends and loved ones who are no longer with us. I’m thinking especially about relatives long gone, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and maybe even siblings. No matter how old we get I think that most of us remember the faces of relatives we knew as children. As I think back to my own deceased relatives my only regret is that I never got to know them well as people because I was either too young or too involved in my own growing pains to get a sense of who they really were.

Most of my Christmases growing up had the flavor of an old Saturday Evening Post cover. There was the traditional lap talk with Santa Claus, the decoration of the house, going out to a tree farm to select a tree and then cutting it down before tying it to the roof of the car and going home for hot chocolate. There was the experience of putting up the Manger on the living room mantle, always my mother’s favorite task because she’d surround it with boughs and ferns that filled the house with the scent of pine and holly. Then, of course, there was the planning of the mammoth Christmas dinner, which usually started in our house at 4 o’clock with cocktails, shrimp cocktail, and various cheeses, followed by a formal dinner: table centerpiece, lots of candles, white tablecloth and matching napkins, the best silverware, and name cards with fancy designs.

Growing up, on Christmas Eve we’d head out to the traditional Midnight Mass when it was a High Solemn affair, filled with chants, processions, Latin and incense. Christmas was a time of ceremony and beauty and the idea was to do everything in a big way.

Before Christmas dinner, there was usually fresh fruit cocktail as an appetizer, a variety of breads, red and white wine, and then a full course spread. Dinner began with grace and invocation by Grandfather Nickels, a retired architect who loved dressing to the nines while puffing on Cuban cigars. He’d speak in a slow and melodious voice so that his words sounded like an official address. He’d usually tell a story after saying grace, like the time he told us how as a boy he used to watch the iceman cart big blocks of ice into the kitchen icebox in his parents’ home in Manayunk.

I always felt a unique tie to Grandfather because his wife—my grandmother—and another aunt were both killed when the car they were riding in stalled on trolley tracks near Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Tragically, a trolley then hit the car, but the accident spared Grandfather, who was also a passenger. I’ve always felt a connection to this tragedy because they were coming to my parents’ house to celebrate my sixth birthday. Waiting at home for their arrival, I remember answering the incoming call from an aunt, another survivor, and hearing: "Tommy, Tommy, get your mother!"

In those days, people thought nothing of smoking indoors, so by dessert time the dining room would be filled with the aroma of cigar, pipe and cigarette smoke. Sometimes the dining room was so smoky it looked like a great cloud had descended over the table. My aunts had elaborate cigarette cases to match their small jeweled pill boxes. I used to love to watch them take their medication out after dinner, opening and shutting the boxes with a snap and then ingesting the tiny pills quickly, as if they felt a measure of guilt. It seemed to me then that all old people took pills for aliments that were rarely visible. But I never saw my grandfather take a pill. More often than not, he’d just ask for a glass of BB and light up another cigar.

By dinner’s end, the formality that marked the beginning of the meal was gone. It was a time when the family could relax in the living room, as the male French poodle owned by my father’s brother would make his leg-humping rounds. This was usually the funniest time of the evening. Christmas also meant after-dinner chocolates, fancy liqueurs and endless cups of coffee. It was really the happiest of times, when even the kids were allowed to take a wee sip of Christmas wine.

But one Christmas dinner was not so happy.

It was the Christmas my mother told Grandfather to take a hike. Needless to say, we were all shocked, but what could we do? We were children and had no say in the matter.

What upset my mother was the way Grandfather pushed my youngest brother David away from him when David ran and jumped onto his lap. David was developmentally disabled or what they used to call mentally retarded. When he died at age 31 he had the mentality of a three year old, although physically he looked like a normal guy.

David had a habit of rushing towards family members and then collapsing in their laps, a gymnastic style maneuver that tended to mess up neatly pressed clothing. Grandfather, unfortunately, had a habit of keeping my brother at arm’s length, and it took this one incident to cause my mother to lose her Tyrone County Irish temper in one Hiroshima blast that resulted in her telling Pop-Pop to take his things and go back home.

I felt bad because I liked Grandfather’s second wife, a woman we just called Nana, who was gracious to a fault although being Grandfather’s wife, what could she do?

Soon after Christmas, my mother forgave Grandfather and invited him and Nana over for a makeup meal on a Sunday. They ironed out the issue and came to a new understanding. I don’t know whether both sides took a share of the blame, but whatever was said managed to heal the hurt forever.

The lesson I took away from this is that no personal family schism has to be permanent. There is always a chance for forgiveness and a chance to start anew if both parties care enough to sit down and talk things out. In other words, holding on to a grudge and being unwilling to forgive can be a deadly thing.

Christmas the following year went on without a hitch, although I think David managed to spill Nana’s coffee towards the end of dinner. By then we had more of a sense of humor about such mishaps, and just laughed it off.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

U.S. AIRWAYS Tuna Can Shuttles

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Dec 12, 2012

By Thom Nickels

It’s good to be back home in the Riverwards after a quick trip to San Francisco and Palo Alto, California to cover an HIV-AIDS conference for another publication. I say it’s good to be home because, while I love visiting other states and countries, I don’t like what it entails to get there: flying.

Flying is not what it used to be, but then again what is? In the old days (the 1970s and early ‘80s) taking a plane was an exotic thing. Flight attendants then were a premier group with stylish uniforms; airplane seats were wider; there were free meals and booze.

Today these "freebies" have been relegated to international flights, while most domestic airlines in North America have been rated the worst in the world (the best airlines in the world are located in Asia). Airline travel in the United States began to go downhill when President Reagan deregulated the industry. With the present economic collapse, most American airlines, with the notable exception of Jet Blue, have become nothing more than aerial subway systems.

Consider U.S. Airways, called by many "the airline from hell," and rated fifth worst in the world by Zagat’s. This is the airline I used for my non-stop Philly to ‘Frisco trip. U.S. Airways has been criticized for its poor check-in service, cramped seating, bad food, rude flight attendants and its greedy insistence on charging passengers $25 for every piece of luggage checked at the front counter (it’s also practically the only airline that charges for checked luggage on international flights).

Unfortunately, things have gotten worse at U.S. Airways since the economic collapse. For one thing, the numbers of domestic flights, especially cross country, have been reduced so that the flights available are astonishingly overcrowded. These tuna-can shuttles offer nothing in the way of body comfort. If you are flying cross country, you can count on the "glued-in" experience of being joined hip-to-hip with fellow passengers in seats that are arranged so close you can hear the heartbeats of your seatmates. If you are unlucky enough to be placed in the middle seat, resolve not to be comfortable but to offer up the experience, perhaps as a "sacrifice" for the sins of the world or even your own sins. I was in the middle seat traveling both in and out of Philly and was so crammed in I could hardly move.

The U.S. Airways tuna-can shuttle has a major baggage problem, thanks to the airline’s $25 baggage check policy. As a result of the baggage fee, U.S. Airways has created a private hell for passengers and flight attendants in that most travelers, in a fever to save money, attempt to bring on larger and larger carry-on bags (still free, but watch out for a money-grubbing policy change in the future) that can be stored in the overhead bins above the aisles.

What an incredible sight it is to see passengers trying to stuff huge turkey suitcases and backpacks into these small compartments. The elaborate stuffing process often holds up the boarding line while passengers arrange and re-arrange their baggage.

Sometimes other passengers will help to get the puzzle pieces to fit. Of course, in a worst-case scenario, say a crash, one can only imagine the weight of all that baggage coming down on passengers’ heads.

The baggage-stuffing pandemonium was especially evident while waiting for takeoff at Philly International. Overly optimistic passengers with king-sized bags were forced to face reality when flight attendants told them their pieces were too big and had to be taken out and checked. Because the attendants had to send all oversized bags back into the terminal, the line of passengers on my plane looking for their seats didn’t move for a long time. An astonishing number of passengers had miscalculated the size of their suitcases and knapsacks just to save $25.

The situation was so bad an announcement was made that even passengers who had already stored their correct-sized baggage might be asked to remove them and go through the check-in process. Conversely, in the ‘Frisco airport while waiting to go home, a U.S. Airways spokesperson called for volunteers to check their baggage because overhead bin space was limited. "We have a completely full flight," the spokesperson said, "so you may be asked to check your luggage."

Contrary to the Zagat’s rating, I found the U.S. Airways flight attendants to be extremely polite and accommodating. This was especially evident while boarding my flight in Philly when the attendants had to deal with an obnoxious group of twenty-something students, about seven in all, who insisted that because they were friends, they had to sit together. Apparently they had arranged their tickets through a travel agency and were promised by a travel agent that they’d be able to sit together despite the seat designation numbers on their tickets. The commotion this incident caused held up the boarding line for a good 35 minutes as the students bickered with the attendants on their right to sit with friends. "This is my first time flying," one girl bemoaned, her spoiled brat wail causing seasoned travelers, some of them elderly, to look on in disbelief as the still-congested boarding line snaked back out of the airplane.

"You’re going to have to sit in your designated seats," one attendant repeated for the fifth time. By now, many of the passengers were becoming annoyed. Complaints issued forth like steam heat in a restaurant kitchen until finally one of students went to his designated seat, which happened to be in front of me. He looked as unhappy as a boy who found coal in his Christmas stocking, and relieved his frustration by putting in earplugs and disconnecting from reality, and of course not talking—ever—to the two passengers seated beside him during the almost seven-hour flight.

So, yes, while I loved my trip, I was glad to get off U.S. Airways and head to the Market-Frankford El, which happened to just as crowded as the tuna-can air shuttle. But while the El may have been hip-to-hip standing room only (when is the El ever not crowded?), at least there were no whiners clamoring and fighting for seats so they could be with their friends.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Verizon FIOS missionaries

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Nov 21, 2012

By Thom Nickels

After a few years of turning away Verizon FIOS salespeople, both on the phone and in person, I finally buckled and signed up. In the beginning it was easy to say no to FIOS. They would say, "Okay, think about it," then not call back for several months. Then the tempo changed and things went into acceleration mode. More calls, more direct mail ads, and then the last straw: FIOS missionaries pounding on the front door. "We are from the Church of FIOS! We have news that may change your life!" While they didn’t exactly say that, they came pretty close.

The FIOS knock was not a light knock but a police-style "You are under arrest" knock, as if someone was pounding their fists on the door. This style of knocking is always guaranteed to get attention because it mimics police knocking, which—just like in the movies—is an intense, very fast series of pounds that gives the impression that the matter at hand is one of life or death. It’s annoying that salespeople have adopted panic-police-style knocking, but what can you do? Most organizations have learned that quiet, polite knocking will get you nowhere. The last time FIOS knocked it had me rushing to the door.

"No thank you," I said to the missionaries, decked out in white shirts and pocket ID badges. "If I’ve told you guys once, I’ve told you a thousand times: put me down as a permanent no."

Months later FIOS sent a clever salesman who canvassed our street for a full seven hours. I did not mean to open the door but the knock caught me off guard. He was a clean-cut missionary type who began by asking me if I would like to hear about FIOS. He was so manic he talked right over me. Since I was not in the mood to shut the door in his face, I did the polite thing but soon regretted it. His monologue was non-stop.

"You know," I interrupted, "it’s really just a phone. I really can’t spend this much time talking about a phone. If this is a new deal, can you send it to me in writing?" Before I knew it, he was writing something up, an addendum he said I should sign before the mailing of printed material could take place.

"I’m not signing anything, thank you," I offered. But he would not stop. As a former fundraising telemarketer for colleges and universities, I was taught to respect a person when they told you that they’re unable to contribute anything—anything, as in one hundred dollars or five dollars. When I kept saying I wouldn’t sign, he became angry and tore the paper in half.

I thought I was finished with FIOS, but then came the innumerable popup ads that sometimes stalled my computer. Not only did FIOS ads appear in other online activities but new offers came in the mail at least twice a month in addition to phone calls. Soon I felt I was being prodded into a corner until at last, exhausted, I would wave the white flag of retreat. "But I will never submit," I thought.

One day another FIOS postcard arrived, but this one said something extraordinary: it was offering FIOS for life at such a cheap price I knew there had to be a hook. I discarded it until a friend pulled it out of the trash and said, "Woo, are you kidding me? Check this baby out!" So, based on his enthusiasm, I did just that but was told by the Verizon person on the phone that there was no such deal. Luckily the postcard had a small ID number, although at that point I was afraid that it could still be Spam. Twenty minutes later, after a lot of checking, the customer service person said it was a valid deal.

On the appointed day, a FIOS installer came to my home, a young woman who set to work rearranging wires in my basement and installing the FIOS box. Since the installation process was long, I didn’t follow her around as some homeowners are wont to do, but allowed her space to work even though it made me nervous that she was constantly calling Verizon for advice. The length of time she spent on the phone getting these instructions was beginning to worry me. Was my house her first job ever? I breathed a sigh of relief when another Verizon truck pulled up outside. Help is on the way!

When the job seemed almost complete I went outside to talk to her, when I noticed that one of the bricks on the front of my house had fallen out, the pieces lined up on my windowsill. Instead of drilling a hole for the FIOS wire from the outside of the house in, she had followed a reverse course which is almost always a disaster because the drill literally pushes out the brick in front, sometimes crumbling it to pieces.

The brickwork on the front of my house is from the 1950s and has an unusual color. Replacing it would involve more than a trip to Home Depot. When I saw the wound where the brick had been I asked why the drilling wasn’t done from the outside in. "Because I don’t have an outside drill," she said. I stepped back and inspected the FIOS wire holes in the neighbors’ houses and saw that they were picture perfect, like little William de Kooning sculptures.

"I’ll fix it before I leave," she said. "I have special silicone glue. I have all the pieces."

If an offer appears too good to be true, it probably is. Perhaps my "too good to be true" FIOS deal came with a secret hitch: installation by an employee-in-training. Whatever the reason, when I went out to inspect the patch-up job, what I saw was a haphazard Jackson Pollack mismatch. She had stuck the pieces in upside down.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When Neighbors Rarely Talk

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Nov 14, 2012

By Thom Nickels

What does it take to make a good neighborhood? Without question, the answer is communication and openness among neighbors. While they say that "good fences" make good neighbors, what about the opposite of that? Do fences that are too high make for indifferent neighbors? Do high fences make for neighbors who never communicate, or isolate themselves and never get to know a single person on the block? Is this a good thing? Granted, we all value privacy, but can there be liabilities in a world of excess privacy?

I’m thinking especially of a nice couple that moved from our block this year to a new home in New England. They moved here a few years before I did in 2002, but circumstances prevented us from getting to know one another until a few years ago. For five years we said nothing to each other, although their house was very close to my house. In those days I never received so much as a wave or a "Good morning" from either of them. Even eye contact was minimal. I was politely ignored for no specific reason other than the fact that they didn’t seem interested in getting to know anyone on the block.

The fact that this couple seemed to have a little more money than most people here, plus two new cars and a much larger house, may have had played a part in this. Sometimes people make assumptions about others because of economic factors. We have all met people who assume that because someone doesn’t own a car or make a certain level of income they can’t possibly be considered successful. However, intelligent, talented people can be poor. They may also not care about new cars or hiring the most expensive contractors. I’m not saying that this couple thought this way; they probably just didn’t like people very much.

Later, when I got to know the couple, we’d have dinner together and I’d invite them to parties at my house. Throughout this high-contact cycle I continued to get the impression that they were unhappy with the neighborhood. While no neighborhood is perfect, to exaggerate a street’s imperfections so that those "reasons" become an excuse for self-imposed isolation is never a healthy thing.

They were always against the idea of block parties, a stance I could never quite understand even if so many block parties tend to be tacky affairs with loud (usually bad) music, burnt hot dogs, kiddie trampolines, and ear-splitting karaoke. But "tacky," in my book, can be as much fun as going to a B-movie, like The Rocky Horror Show. It’s also a chance to chat with neighbors.

This couple’s extreme isolation from everybody in the neighborhood was tested when one of their cats disappeared. Understandably, they were devastated. Together they walked the neighborhood looking for the lost kitty. The direness of the situation forced them to speak with neighbors they had never spoken to before. They had to open up because they needed help. "Did you see our cat?" they’d ask, as some neighbors replied, "Who are you? You live—where?" When the couple needed the neighborhood, they expected everybody to jump. Whether they got that response I cannot be sure, although I am certain that the incident opened a window for them: the realization that nobody, not even a couple, is an island, that neighbors need neighbors and that people on the same block should talk to one another once in a while.

One of the nice things about Philly neighborhoods is that people do talk to one another, unlike the situation in Center City, where residents of apartment buildings can go years without knowing anything about their neighbors except what can be gained during one-minute or less elevator rides. There are hermits in the Egyptian desert who must feel less lonely than many people who live in Center City apartment buildings.

People come up with a lot of strange reasons as to why they cannot get to know their neighbors: They’re not my kind of people; they’re foreign, uppity, low-class, high-class, weird, dirty, not in my league, I don’t like their friends, etc. When the first wave of gentrification hit Fishtown several years ago, there were complaints from indigenous locals that the out-of-town gentrification folks who were moving in and rehabbing houses built walls around themselves and not only wouldn’t talk but wouldn’t make eye contact either. Resentment built like funeral pyres in India because of this attitude. "They think they’re better than we are," one guy told me then. "When I say hello to them when they walk their dogs, they just stare past me into space."

This is no way to build community. While there may be a sense of suburban comfort in hibernating in your own space and never mixing with neighbors, the downside occurs when it comes to emergencies like a lost cat or keeping criminals away. Criminals are more likely to come in if they know that the residents on a certain street are disinterested in their neighbors.

Before that distant couple moved to New England last month, I visited them to say good-bye. During our talk I could see a look of worry on their faces. Moving is a difficult task and the strain was showing. I tried to buoy their mood by remarking, "Well, just think of this move as an adventure, as a Jack Kerouac road trip…think of the new friends you will meet in your new place." At this, the husband shrugged, "Oh yeah, just like the friends we made on this block." Bingo!

I didn’t say a word, although my mind raced back to my first few years here when they opted to remain strangers, and how it took a cat emergency to open the doors of communication.

On the day of the couple’s move, I watched as the van emptied their house over the course of many hours. The house stood empty until the following day when the new buyers came on the scene, inspiring a super-friendly local to go over and say hello. But the neighborly introduction didn’t seem to have much of an effect. I may be all wet, but it seemed to me that the new folks weren’t all that interested.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Meeting the Polymath Metropolitan at Villanova University

On 31 October 2012, Metropolitan Hilarion, a Russian Orthodox theologian, composer and all round polymath lectured at Villanova University, located northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

I have several of Metropolitan Alfeyev's books, including Volume 1 of his multi-volume series, Orthodox Christianity. While it was fascinating to listen to the Metropolitan comment
on Catholic-Orthodox relations (as a convert to Orthodoxy from Catholicism, I was especially tuned in).

I do wish that the Metropolitan had clarified what he meant when he stated that (I am paraphrasing) that he cannot accept alternative lifestyle clergy among major Christian denominations. My guess is that he was referring to out clergy living with same sex partners while tending to a parish, not celibate clergy who may have a homosexual (albeit unacted on) orientation.

It was a fascinating session nonetheless. Most observers were struck by the Metropolitan's boyishness. One man near me commented, "I expected him to be big and burly, a Russian bear." Had he not been in clergy apparel but dressed in jeans, a flannel shirt and a knapsack, he could easily have mistaken for a college student.

All in all, it was fascinating to see Catholic priests and friars and Orthodox priests and bishops, both groups in black robes, mingle at the reception after the talk.   

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev's talk: “The teaching of the holy fathers of the first millennium, when the Churches of the East and the West abided in unity, although at times this unity was subjected to serious trials, is the sure foundation upon which dialogue between Christians can develop successfully and fruitfully. It is my profound conviction that fidelity to the Christian tradition, the preservation of continuity in the teaching and life of the Church is the proper means for the restoration of unity among Christ’s disciples.

“It is because of the renunciation by some Protestant denominations, as well as parts of the Anglican communion, of the ancient Christian tradition that it has become ever more difficult for the Orthodox Church to continue co-operation with them. I regret this, but the dialogues with Protestants and Anglicans which we have had for decades are now under threat because of processes taking place in the Protestant communities of the West and North. I mean the continuing liberalization in the field of theology, ecclesiology and moral teaching. Certain denominations have legitimized the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of people openly declaring their non-traditional sexual orientation.

“We are obliged to speak about this because we want to preserve the good that was achieved during the years of dialogue between Orthodox on the one hand and Protestants and Anglicans on the other. In defending the two-thousand-year-old tradition of the Church, we remain true to this dialogue, yet at the same time we see that Protestants and Anglicans are growing away from us by accepting innovations which we find unacceptable.

“I am speaking of this in the walls of a Catholic university by no means because I am afraid to criticize Anglicans and Protestants to their faces. On the contrary, every time the opportunity arises, I speak openly of our concern in direct dialogue with our brothers from the Anglican and Protestant communities. Thus, for example, in 2010 at a festive dinner at the Nicaea Club in London in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams I stated the sad fact that the ‘Orthodox and Anglican Churches are to be found on different sides of the abyss which separate Christians of a traditional direction and Christians adhering to liberal teachings’. And as recently as the day before yesterday I spoke of the same things at the old Episcopalian seminary at Nashotah House, a contemporary of your University.

“Unlike dialogue with the Protestants and Anglicans which has reached a dead end, dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church seems to have a future to it precisely because, like the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church does not think of itself outside of Tradition and strives to teach and live in accordance with the tradition of the apostles and holy fathers. In my view, the significant improvement and strengthening of relations between our Churches that can be seen in recent years is connected to an awareness that we are united by a common heritage, thanks to which both Orthodox and Catholics can and must together bear witness to the world of the eternal values of the Gospel.”

“The Orthodox and Catholics encounter the same challenges which modern times lay down to the tradition way of life. In this instance we are dealing not with theological problems but with the present and future of humanity. It is in this sphere which the Orthodox and Catholics can interact without compromising their ecclesiastical identity. In other words, while not yet being the one Church, in being separated by various theological and ecclesiological problems, we can find ways of interacting which would allow us to respond jointly to the challenges of the modern world.

“Together we can help people realize what the traditional Christian values are – the family, the worth of human life from conception to death, the upbringing of children, the integrity and indissolubility of marriage. All of these concepts in the modern secular world are subjected to a radical re-evaluation. Today in Western society the traditional family way of life has in effect been destroyed, as a result of which there has been a gradual decline in the populations of Western nations. This is a very simple and real indication of the spiritual health or spiritual disease of a particular nation. If the population of a country is increasing this means that there are in the nation healthy forces which allow this to happen; if the population decreases, this is a sign of disease. And the disease in this instance is that in society there is an absence of the traditional notion of the family.

“At the basis of this worldview there lies the destruction of the traditional family way of life and today, if we are to speak of the Christian communities, the traditional way of life of the family is preached only by the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. This does not mean that all believers follow the teaching of their Church, but on an official level it is the Orthodox and Catholic Churches which defend the integrity of marriage, believe abortion to be a sin and call for an end to it, and believe that euthanasia is unacceptable. If you compare, for example, the ‘Foundations of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church’ which speaks about very many moral and social problems with the Catechism of the Catholic Church which outlines the official teaching of the Catholic Church on these problems, then everywhere you will see that their positions are similar. This means that we can combine our endeavours in order to protect jointly traditional values such as the family, giving birth, how children are brought up and the integrity of marriage. This is the field where we can and must today interact with the Catholics.”

Here the talk gets a little strange::

“Several weeks ago the media reported that in the United States a lesbian couple began to give their eleven year-old adopted son Tommy drugs that would halt the development of his male hormones. The couple claims that since the age of three the boy has experienced problems with sexual identification and has long since believed himself to be a girl. We can only guess at what methods these two women have used to turn their adopted son into a person similar to themselves. The anti-hormonal ‘therapy’ will continue until the age of fifteen when Tommy will have to decided finally which gender he wants to be. Leaving aside the medical aspect of this, I would like to look at the ethical nature of this incident. The lesbian adopted ‘parents’ are ‘helping’ an under-age boy to change his sex. In my view this is a monstrous perversion and crime for which these two women should be held criminally responsible. However, the state has not intervened into this situation.

“In this regard I am convinced that co-operation of all Christian confessions, and first of all between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, is greatly needed for the protection of human life and its inalienable dignity as well as the family. Therefore we who are united by faith in Christ and a two-thousand-year-old Christian tradition have to bring with renewed strength the good news to the world of the family and marriage as institutions created by God. In accepting the challenge of the real world, the Christian family is to be as before the hope and pledge of a Christian civilization. It is essential to protect and support a cultural tradition which is favourable to the family, the indissolubility of marriage and the need for marital fidelity by taking an active part in the creation of legislation that favours the family and its natural foundation and by imparting to society the ideals of the majesty and perfection of the family vocation.”

“Unfortunately, in the countries of the so called Arab Spring, as well as in a whole number of other countries of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Oceania, Christians are subjected to discrimination, persecution and repression. This obvious fact is passed over in silence by the media which prefers to ignore this problem. Moreover, in planning military intervention into a particular country of the Arab world or in preparing the overthrow of the existing regime in a particular country with the help of outside force, Western strategists, it would appear, completely fail to take into account the fact that the main victims are often local Christians.

“There are many examples of this. In Iraq only a tenth of a million-and-a-half Christian population that lived there ten years ago has survived. In Egypt we are witness to a mass exodus of Christians. There are practically no Christians left in Libya. Ninety five percent of Christians have abandoned Homs in Syria. We, Orthodox and Catholics, must raise our voices jointly in defense of Christians subjected to persecution and repression in the aforementioned countries, as well as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and in a number of other countries.

“The countries of Europe have traditionally defended the interests of Christians, for example, in the Middle East or in Far Eastern Asia. In the present circumstances we hope that the resolution adopted by the European Parliament on 20 January 2011 on the position of Christians in the context of religious freedom, as well as the declaration of the Committee of Foreign Ministers of the European Union on 22 February, will have practical consequences. They were a result of active participation of the Christian Churches in this direction. We hope that the USA will join us in the defense of Christians.

“On 30 November 2011 in Moscow at the initiative of the Russian Orthodox Church there was held an international conference called ‘Freedom of religious confession: the problem of discrimination and persecution of Christians’. It is a joy that the Roman Catholic Church in the person of high representatives of the Holy See, the Catholic communities of Russia, the Middle East and Pakistan took an active part in organizing it.

Today Christians are subjected to harassment not only in those countries where they comprise a minority but often in those countries with ancient and deep-rooted Christian traditions. Certain European countries are trying to limit the manifestation of Christian faith in public life by claiming that they are thereby observing the rights of adherents of other religions and atheists. This situation demands that Orthodox and Catholic show solidarity in their actions in protecting the Christian identity of Europe and America.

“In my greetings address to the thirteenth Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome on October 16, I challenged my brethren from the Catholic Church to create a united front for the defense of the Christian faith in those countries where it is persecuted and harassed. The Christian communities of Syria and other Middle Eastern countries are crying out for help at a time when the Western media ignored their pleas for aid. Politicians too are closing their eyes to this unprecedented wave of persecution. We, the Orthodox and Catholics from around the world, have to raise our voice in defense of Christians and the Christian traditions of the Middle East. It is our duty to appeal constantly to political leaders, international organizations and the media by reminding them of this humanitarian tragedy unfolding before our eyes. I have to say that my words found a lively response among the Synod fathers, especially those who represent Catholic communities in those countries where Christians are persecuted.

 “It is essential for the Orthodox and Catholics today to perceive each other not as rivals but as allies in the cause of the defense of Christians’ rights. We must develop interaction outside of the success or otherwise of theological dialogue, independent even of how relations between the Orthodox and Catholics take shape in concrete regions around the world. We must build this interaction proceeding from a common strategic task since we are dealing with the future of humanity. It is upon our joint endeavours that the future of Christianity in the third millennium will primarily depend.”

Transcript: Villanova University, founded by the Augustians in 1842.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

November 2012 CITY BEAT column, ICON Magazine


THE DEATH OF ARLEN Specter got me thinking about this time I found myself in line at

a Center City Rite Aid. The store was crowded, but when my turn came to approach the register

a customer appeared out of nowhere and threw the item he wanted to pay for on the

counter in front of me. I think it was dental floss. The cashier turned to the man and said,

“I’m sorry, sir, but this gentleman [me] was in line before you.” I looked at the man who

threw the item and saw that it was Arlen Specter, Philadelphia’s DA in 1965 and (for a while)

Ira Einhorn’s defense attorney. Specter was far smaller and frailer than his TV image. He

looked at me in a quizzical way as if he expected me to support his hijacking of the line.

I wondered then if Mr. Specter had a habit of throwing items on store counters as a

way to jump the line. Was he used to people bowing to his wishes and saying, “Oh, honored

sir of the Warren Commission Report, oh honored ex-Pennsylvania senator, please,

by all means, step ahead of me and all the people behind me. As first among equals,

please proceed.”

While I didn’t say this, I knew I had to say something, so I did the next best thing: I introduced

myself by mentioning that I’d been following his career for years and that it was a

pleasure to finally shake his hand. This was not a lie or even flattery but the God’s truth.

When we shook hands, Mr. Specter said, “I’m not worried about you, I’m worried about

her,” meaning the poor checkout girl who had had the verve to do what was right, but who

was now being given an eyeball once over by The Man. The truth, of course, is that the

cashier, being in her twenties, probably didn’t even know who Arlen Specter was. But even

if she had recognized him, she still would have stuck to the rules of the line. Rest in peace,

you old curmudgeon.

We heard Jackie Salit of the Independence Party of New York speak at the UPenn Bookstore

in University City. Salit, who could easily double as a latter day Mary Tyler Moore, is the

author of Independents Rising, a book that traces the growth of the Independent Party

movement in NYC. Salit’s book is a chatty but intelligent account of her work with New

York’s Mayor Bloomberg to “mainstream” the Independent Party movement there. The

event attracted a few diehard Philadelphia politicos who seemed to agree that New York is a

less partisan city than Philadelphia. (There’s a fluidity in New York’s political waters that allows

for the election of liberal Republican mayors, something that would never happen in

Philadelphia). We were thoroughly into Salit’s presentation when up popped Cheri Honkala

who stole the spotlight by introducing herself and telling the audience that she was the

Green Party’s vice presidential candidate. While Green Party stuff and Honkala’s history of

welfare rights activism warms our heart, microphone hijacking is always an arched eyebrow

moment. Salit, ever gracious, let Honkala go through the Green Party alphabet even as it became

apparent that much of the audience was now fixated on the interloper. Seasoned

coitus interrupters, of course, know when to apply the brakes, but in this case it took the

UPenn moderator to step in and redirect the focus. The silver lining in all this was that we

were at least encouraged to double-check the style and qualifications of Jill Stein, the Green

Party candidate for president. Later, we headed to Doc Magrogan’s at 34th and Sansom

Streets, (formerly La Terrasse) with Salit, her entourage and Save Our Sites president, John

Dowlin, for a light bite.

Who doesn’t love the Roaring Twenties, with its libertine razzle dazzle, bathing cap hats,

and beads? The Young Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art were supposed to hold

the annual event at the Rodin, but the threat of rain forced a cancellation. Instead, we headed

over to the Perelman Building with Drexel’s new Director of Development, Vanessa Bender,

for an evening of Elliot Ness and Dorothy Parker. Our fears that we’d be the only fogies

in this mainly twenty-something event were unfounded. We blended in well despite our lack

of a flapper-era costume. Some of the fedoras we spotted were of the very un-‘20s — thin

brim Northern Liberties variety, but who’s complaining? Music ranged from Al Jolson’s “Toot

Toot Tootsie (Goo’Bye)” to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and the Peerless Quartet, although

there was no Charleston to speak of and no bootleg booze either, unless you count

the bar’s delicious hybrid concoction in addition to bottled wine. As with every Museumbased

party, there were the less than celebratory looks on duty security guards’ faces making

sure that nobody brought their drinks into the exhibition area. While some guards wore

a stoic expression, others seemed to be noticeably frowning as if feeling left out of the fun.

We wish Kevin McLaughlin well in his 25-year-old dream to open Mae

Downs & Co Accessories for Home, at 1118 Pine Street. The store, which

carries a quality selection of interior decoration, antique and decorative arts

selections, had a lively opening reception that brought in many friends and

neighbors. Philadelphia Mural Art’s Brian Campbell worked the introductions

and told me that Mae Downs will donate ten percent of its profits

every month to a different charity.

Henry Miller once wrote, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my

revolver.” Miller, of course, was talking about the cultural status quo labeling

some forms of art bad and other forms of art good. He also might have

been thinking of the banning of books like Ulysses and even his own Tropic

of Cancer. He was not thinking of the Knights Arts Challenge Philadelphia,

which dispenses grants for “innovative ideas in the arts from nonprofits,

companies and individuals.” In 2011, 36 Knights Challenge winners received

some 2.7 million dollars in funding. While the money received is generally

smaller than funds from grant giants like the Pew Fellowship, the problem,

as we see it, is that individual artist applicants often get weeded out of the

KG system by organizations with the ability to generate financial support. To

wit: grant recipients in 2011 included established Philadelphia museums,

ballet companies, the Barnes Foundation, arts and cultural organizations,

the Opera Company of Philadelphia and even the City of Philadelphia’s Office

of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Individual artist winners are

almost nowhere to be seen. Based on this, is it fair to conclude that struggling,

worthy individual artists are being overlooked? Do we dare ask those

lucrative organizations with fancy Boards of Directors to try to get their

small grant money elsewhere?

What’s in a book festival? The annual fall Chestnut Hill Book Festival

(“Great Authors of Philadelphia”) hosts many readings by writers. While

hosting multiple writers at one time is often well intentioned, the mistake is

to think that festivals like this can duplicate the annual June Rittenhouse

Square clothesline art exhibit where artists line up like Wyoming cattle. The

written word, after all, is about investing time listening to individual readings.

This is why we will continue to value single or duo classic staged author/

poet reading events at places like Robin’s Books on So. 13th St., where

we recently heard Philly legendary poet Jim Cory read some new work.

What better place to hear the polyphonic singing style of ancient Constantinople

and Russia, sans Pussy Riot, than with the Choral Arts Philadelphia’s

performance of Rachmaninov’s Vespers (All Night Vigil) Op. 37 at the

Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. No instruments of any kind are

permitted in Eastern Church music, which made the voices of Mezza-soprano

Jenifer L. Smith and Tenor David Price all the more powerful. At the end

of the performance, the audience all but levitated out the door and into the

autumn evening.

The Divided United States

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Nov 07, 2012

By Thom Nickels

The election is over, and we now know who will be the next president of the United States. Whoever the winner is, 50 percent of the U.S. population is unhappy about the outcome and will soon get to work for an election upset in 2016, in effect reversing the victory cries you will hear this week.

Although many will delude themselves into thinking that America has turned a corner in either voting liberal or conservative, that’s not the case at all. The other 50 percent whose candidate did not win will more than likely see to it that the changes made in the next four years are undone or denuded after 2016. This maddening pendulum shift has become a common feature in American political life: something preventing the country from heading in a steady, secure direction. How can a nation evolve if it is split down the middle and keeps swaying back and forth between conservative and progressive?

It might help to review this game of hopscotch: From liberal Jimmy Carter to conservative Ronald Reagan, "Rockefeller" GOP liberal George Bush to Republican-style liberal Democrat Bill Clinton, conservative George W. Bush to liberal Barack Obama, to… The last part, of course, is for you to fill in.

Occasionally, the two political parties come together in apparent agreement on a number of issues, causing many to exclaim that the two are really one, the only difference being window dressing. Skeptics and cynics point to the World Banking system or an invisible cabal of handlers or corporate controllers who dictate the agenda of each president. Today it’s not uncommon to hear: "It doesn’t matter who wins, the same things will continue to be problems—the economy, gas prices, unemployment, high prices. The only ones who stand to benefit will be the very rich, corporations and banks."

A lot of that is true. Take Obamacare, for instance. According to international standards, Obamacare is anything but real socialism, but American conservatives see it as a big fat red Marxist flag. Even dyed-in-the-wool real socialists have little time for Obamacare because they see it as the extreme opposite of universal free health care, something that all of Western Europe and Canada enjoys. With Obamacare, the poor will still have to pay premiums that most likely will still be too expensive for them to afford.

The two parties take divergent paths when it comes to some social issues, Medicare and Social Security for example. In last week’s Spirit, six people were asked, "What do you think is the most important issue in this election?" All six responses hit on this and other important topics like the economy and foreign affairs.

I would not think that former Vice Presidential candidate (and devout Catholic) Paul Ryan, who claims to be a devotee of Ayn Rand (an atheist who wrote a book entitled The Art of Selfishness), would do very much to protect Social Security. And after Hurricane Sandy, even though our area was spared the worst, climate change could certainly be numbered as a crucial issue, even if Mr. Romney dismisses it as witchcraft. But climate change, like the issue of gay marriage, is one of those social issues headed to the trans-partisan realm. When New York Mayor Bloomberg, once a skeptic of climate change, came out in support of Obama in light of Hurricane Sandy, he spoke for thousands of people who also saw the light: Climate change is a scientific fact.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, supported gay marriage back in 2004 during the Vice Presidential debates. Even conservative Republican leader Barry Goldwater supported gay marriage during his lifetime. It’s a known fact that Republicans have gay children just as Democrats and Independents do. This is why gay marriage will no longer be a partisan issue in the coming years. Gay marriage is inevitable, but this does not mean that religions that oppose it should be forced to act against their beliefs.

Abortion is a different issue involving complicated questions like, when does life begin? I can tell you that as a former hospital operating room orderly in my twenties, I witnessed the eerie sounds of therapeutic abortion suction machines. It was my job to transport aborted babies (called fetuses by officials) to the pathology department. Today I am of the opinion that abortion is a far more complex issue than just a "woman’s right to choose."

I have a friend who voted for Romney and who spent the last three months predicting a Romney victory, telling Obama supporters to "prepare for a great shock." I voted the opposite of my friend although I did so with little enthusiasm. I voted for the incumbent to safeguard Medicare and Social Security and to do something about climate change, but I had zero faith in either candidate to get the economy rolling again. The economy is beyond whoever is elected president. In most financial issues, Republicans and Democrats see with one eye.

My heart was really with the Green Party, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala, because these candidates spoke about ending bailouts for the financial elite, breaking up oversized banks like Bank of America, forgiving student debt, and ending the mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Unfortunately, I think the Green Party made a mistake in not creating a more mainstream team to present to America. While feminism has made inroads into every facet of daily life, America hasn’t reached the "consciousness" stage where it would be "natural" to vote for two women. In presidential politics, image is everything, so it didn’t help that the Green VP candidate was an ex-pole dancer who looks like Patti Smith. The Green Party should have realized that this would not wash in Iowa or the Kansas plain country.

Getting back to my friend who predicted a Romney win, he also agrees with me that the losing party will come back in 2016 even stronger and elect one of their own who will try to negate many of the changes made in the preceding administration. He also predicts that this eternal back and forth will not go on forever, and that one day soon the nation will be broken up into autocephalous or self-governing liberal and conservative areas. He believes that this situation will not be arrived at through violent civil war but through peaceful means. "Out of sheer exhaustion," he said, "because these differences are not going to go away."

"Let the conservatives have Texas and let the progressives have Vermont," he added. "We can all visit one another and vacation in the other place but then go home to the spot where we feel most comfortable."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Styles of Radical Convertibles

One of my favoirte clips of a young Susan Sontag
driving a convertible to meet architect Philip Johnson.

Farley Granger, Rest in Peace

Getting cozy With Farley Granger

Thom and Farley Granger
(Photo Missing)

By Thom Nickels
Contributing Editor
Weekly Press

Farley Granger and his partner Robert Calhoun sat in a small suite in Center City’s Sofitel Hotel. The couple arrived an hour ago from Manhattan, so they’ve barely had time to relax.

Granger was here to receive the Philadelphia Gay & Lesbian Film Festival’s Artistic Achievement Award, and to speak and sign copies of his book, Include Me Out, co-authored by Calhoun, at Giovanni’s Room.

Granger still resembles the handsome matinee idol in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and Rope. His eyebrows and eyes, a muted but still-alive boyish receptivity, and his long fingers suggest his younger days.

Granger looks overdressed in an autumn windbreaker, while the accountant-smart Calhoun is in a short-sleeved red shirt.

“Farley has always had this ability to not worry how it’s all going to work out, while I’m always thinking, ‘well, I better do something or I’ll be sleeping in the gutter.’ But Farley’s focus was never that,” Calhoun said.

Granger’s big career move from movies to theater was prompted by the boredom of making films—sitting on the set all day, filming the last part of a movie first, then jumping to the middle or the beginning and back again, until he felt disconnected and alienated as an actor.

After his success as a Hollywood leading man, Granger bought out his contract with Samuel Goldwyn and moved to New York, where he said he longed to live the life of a real actor, struggling and almost starving in a garret.

Granger was discovered as a17-year-old student at North Hollywood High, when an agent spotted him in a little theater production.

He was immediately signed to Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood mogul. Granger’s film star rise was meteoric, even magical. He never had to wait tables or go to open casting calls.

Despite a stint in the Army during World War II, his career in film and the theater seemed to travel at a comfortable if not always peaceful rate of ascendancy.

How was it to be gay in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, when other actors like Rock Hudson, James Dean, Tab Hunter, and Cary Grant were often “forced” to find women to be their beards?

“It was never a problem for me,” Granger said. “I didn’t hang out with the gay actor crowd but stuck to the musical theater group where people didn’t care who or what you were.”

Granger had affairs with Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck and was engaged to Shelley Winters. He also had affairs with Leonard Bernstein, French actor Jean Marais (Jean Cocteau’s lover), and screenwriter Arthur Laurents.

Calhoun and Granger became partners while working in Philadelphia at the Forrest Theater the day that John F. Kennedy was killed.

Calhoun, a former executive producer of popular soap operas like The Guiding Light and As The World Turns, almost always took the lead in the interview.

“We had a good editor [with the book] and we felt good about her. There are certain books that get so graphic or specific with their content, it turns off a section of the audience that you want to reach,” Calhoun said.

As Hollywood memoirs go, Include Me Out has it all. Dozens of actor celebrities appear and disappear during the story.

Granger and Calhoun have more Shelley Winters stories than can be bound between the covers of a book.

“She was certainly bipolar,” Granger said. “She was crazy, but I loved her just the same.”

Their engagement ended when it looked like Winters’ instability would become an emotional liability. Their friendship managed to survive.

“Shelley drove me crazy sometimes,” Granger confessed.

Calhoun laughed easily, but sometimes Granger became quiet and seemed to drift into a dense trance. Granger’s eyes are so solidly dark that it’s difficult to read him, but the effect is arresting. It is obvious that, without Calhoun, Granger would not be on the road signing books.

In Hitchcock’s Rope—a take-off on the famous Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920’s in which two intellectually gifted gay lovers go on a crime spree and murder a 12-year-old boy in their Chicago neighborhood for the fun of it—Granger emoted a supple vulnerability rare for a Hollywood leading man of the period. Much has been written about Rope’s gay subtext in an age when the word homosexual could not be said.

Granger said that Hitchcock came close to being the perfect director and that the crews loved him. He always knew what he was going to do and didn’t ask for collective input. Granger doesn’t consider many of the current Hollywood directors real directors but said they are always asking for advice, input, and help from the cast.

At one point Calhoun said there used to be a list with the names of all the men that Ava Gardner slept with. “There were at least a dozen names, and Howard Hughes’ name was on it.”

After the tour, both men said, they are going to Europe, especially London and their beloved Italy, to see old friends before they die.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hipster Joggers at Valley Green

Last week I got together with my friend Alex for a fall hike through Valley Green. Valley Green is the city’s most scenic park. Its location near Roxborough and Chestnut Hill puts it on the outskirts of the city. I’d been going to Valley Green since I was a boy, when I would hike the old bridle paths with aunts or uncles in search of the legendary statue of Tedyuscung, the last Lenni Lenape chief to leave the Delaware Valley.

The mammoth statue of Tedyuscung was created by sculptor Massey Rhind and erected on the edge of a precipice in 1902. While some of my relatives remembered spotting him on various hikes throughout the woods, nobody could remember where ut was located.

But then Alex, who lives in Chestnut Hill, told me he knew where the statue was and that he would take me to see it. So we agreed to meet one Saturday morning and begin the hike to see the statue at last.

We entered the park on the Chestnut Hill side, avoiding the ever popular Valley Green Inn area that in 1927 was a popular starting and finishing point for horse lovers. One of the most exclusive riding groups in those days was Wissahickon Farms, where member riders wore shirt and ties. The Valley Green Inn was built before the Revolution and was always a restaurant of some sort. Fishing was a very popular pastime along the Wissahickon Creek, where at the turn of the 20th century catfish were so plentiful that they blackened many sections of the creek. Gentlemen fishermen usually wore coats, ties and wide brim fedoras or bowler hats. Highly influenced by the Victorian era, men and women in the teens and 1920s saw a walk or a hike through the woods, or Valley Green, as a special experience where one could commune with Nature. It was a time when you were supposed to put your city mindset at rest. Even poet Edgar Allan Poe put his city slicker worries aside when he went rafting on the Wissahickon. In one quote, the great writer recalls how while rafting there he often recalled the time “when the red man trod alone with the elk, upon the ridges that now lowered above.”

While walking the path to the chief, Alex pointed out the number of panting, struggling joggers, some weighed down with water bottles and covered with sweat. Some of the joggers had dogs who ran in front of them in order to clear the path of hikers so that their jogger owners could enjoy an unobstructed run. A number of Lance Armstrong-like (non-doping) cyclists bounced over the foot paths littered with rocks and boulders, and seemed annoyed whenever ordinary hikers blocked the way.

This was hardly a Victorian scene. Nobody was contemplating Nature; nobody was strolling along and having a conversation. Instead, the area had become an outdoor gymnasium where lean and already in shape people, most of them in their twenties (the foodie culture age) were doing their usual competitive stints, striving for excellence as if ascending the career ladder at work. The hipsters had succeeded in turning an appreciation for Nature into a act of mortification.

Alex, who is fairly young himself, told me that he didn’t think that parks like Vallet Green should become gymnasiums. He became especially annoyed when a hipster couple sent two dogs out in front of them to help clear the path of hikers who just might be in some kind of Victorian trance. “Where are you running to?” he called out to the sweat-drenched hipsters, “Death?”

“Look,” Alex told me, “There he is.” Through a slit in the trees I could see the famous “King of the Delawares.” There was a sort of encampment around his pedestal, the remnants of a melted votive candle in one of the cornices, and a few people paying him homage. Of course, what this stately statue doesn’t tell you is how Chief Tedyuscung died: he burned to death along with some of his friends after a drunken frolic. But at least the statue was in contemplative mode, and not jogging in a competitive state of agony.

Neighborhood Delight in Port Richmond

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 24, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Not a single day goes by when I don’t find another menu in my front door. Generally these are Chinese or pizza/hoagie/cheesesteak menus where the emphasis is on predictable foods. As they might say in Kazakhstan: "It’s all the same ol’ stuff buddy, but I’m looking for a little variety!"

More than a little variety can be found at Villagio Pizza and CafĂ© at 2533 E. Clearfield Street. Don’t let the ‘Pizza’ in the restaurant’s name fool you. Villagio may look like a one horse restaurant, but it is anything but. I’ve been going to Villagio for some time now so I’ve been able to taste almost everything on the menu—I say almost because I don’t eat veal or (very rarely) chopped steak. I’m a vegetarian-in-progress and have come to appreciate what a vegetarian niece of mine says when asked what she likes in terms of food: "I don’t eat anything with a face."

While I can’t say that (if you look hard enough, even broccoli has a face), I’ve come to be fearful of the hazards of too much red meat. In fact, I took to heart a recent 60 Minutes segment on the vegetarian monks of Mount Athos who live to be 90-years old and over (with no reported cases of cancer, prostate cancer or Alzheimer’s) by sticking to a Mediterranean diet of fruits, dark veggies, olive oil, fish, rice and red wine. Of course, the monks pray a lot and get up at the crack of dawn, and I’m sure in terms of health it helps to have the Aegean Sea nearby.

While Villagio is no Mt. Athos, part-owner George Vasiliou knows what good eating is all about, and it’s not about consuming too much pizza either, despite the fact that Villagio has a booming takeout pizza business (Villagio’s six or seven delivery guys are on pizza high drive 24/7). George’s heart is with the restaurant’s dining room. As a regular diner, I can tell you that the people who pick up their takeout orders invariably peek into the dining room as if looking into another world. Many takeout customers are perhaps unaware that there’s life beyond pizza, namely crab cake, turkey, flounder, and chopped steak platters with two sides, salad, and a dessert—plus a complimentary glass of red or white wine. The price for all of this is well under nine to twelve dollars, a throwback to Center City dinner prices in the year 1959. Today in Center City, a glass of wine will cost you anywhere from five to twelve dollars.

I sat down with George Vasiliou recently to get his story and to find out how the restaurant is faring in the still-ailing economy. Villagio opened in September 2011, so the restaurant is celebrating its first anniversary.

"It took the restaurant about a month to get off the ground. You know, people were curious about the place. They would come and look around. It was okay," George says reflectively, adding that business has been slow for the last month or so. "Even deliveries have slacked, and suppliers are complaining how slow it’s been. Other restaurants also say things have been slow. People aren’t buying the way they used to buy. They say it is slow because people are waiting for the election," he adds, shaking his head.

George shrugs and says in his Greek accent, "Why do you have to wait for the election to eat?" It’s not like there are rules about fasting for your candidate. People are still shopping for food at Thriftway, after all. "I don’t know what this is all about…every time an election comes, business slows down."

George was born in northern Greece, where Mount Olympus and Mount Athos are located, and where Alexander the Great once called home. At age sixteen he joined the merchant marines. Compare this to a kid in 2012 who stays home all day and plays games purchased from GameStop until he’s in his twenties.

George traveled the globe for seven years until he had an argument with the captain of a ship that had come into the Port of Philadelphia from Sydney, Australia. It must have been a big argument because when George told the captain that he was leaving, the skipper told him in no uncertain terms that he was staying put. "You’re going nowhere," he told George.

"I got my luggage and walked out," George said. "I didn’t know anyone in the city but I started to hang out in a Greek restaurant at 2nd and South."

George eventually met some friends although his career options were limited. "I didn’t have any choice but to become a dishwasher. Then I became a busboy, then a short order cook, and then I decided to open my own place." At 34 years old in 1985 he had already brought his brother over from Greece and opened his first place at 21st and Oregon for $4,000.

Business there was so good he bought another property on Washington Avenue, sold the first place, then leased the new place while he bought yet another. "Every year we were building up another place," he says, including a small diner (The Eagle) in Princeton, New Jersey.

George met his business partner Andy about a year after he got off the boat. Andy, a quiet kind of guy, works in the Villagio kitchen.

Life took an unexpected turn when George’s brother died in an automobile accident; shortly after this his wife and then his mother died. The deaths occurred within a three year period. A devastated George attempted to soldier on but found that his heart wasn’t in the business. "I was depressed and decided, ‘What’s the use?’" For five years he says he did nothing, but then the Phoenix stirred.

He and Andy set their sights on East Clearfield Street.

George sees Villagio as his last stand. "There will be no more after this," he says. "I am getting up there. It’s too much work to rebuild and move from place to place. It’s comfortable here. It’s a nice neighborhood. People keep their houses nice here." George says his ultimate dream is to have Villagio become so successful that customers have to stand outside in a line—a long line.

"We’re doing very well in the neighborhood, but we could do better. When I got here I wanted to expand the menu because, you know, the middle class people like variety. They do not only want pizza, pizza, pizza. I like to cook, and I like people to come inside, relax and eat."

George’s philosophy is to always say hello to diners. "I tell my people to do that too. Talk with people, don’t just look at them," he says.

To that end, one of the servers, Rachel, brings me a glass of wine, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon.

In my mind, I make a solitary toast to northern Greece.

Small City Streets and Wayward Cars

The Local Lens • Wed, Oct 31, 2012
By Thom Nickels

I’ve kept a valid driver’s license for years even though the first and last car I owned was in 1978. That car, a Pontiac Bonneville, was the size of a Philly Ducks boat. When I drove through the city’s narrow streets then I had to be careful not to hit fire hydrants or street signs. When my Duck Boat developed chronic mechanical problems and became too costly to maintain, I ditched it in the streets of Germantown, offering it as a gift to whoever wanted to hot wire it and drive it away.

Okay, I wasn’t very socially responsible back then. I would never ditch a car today, but who hasn’t done a stupid thing? Since ditching the Duck Boat, I’ve never looked back, meaning, I’ve never had the urge to buy another car.

Living in the inner city and owning a car can be as incompatible as oil and water, or a Neo Nazi partnering with Elton John. Rare exceptions exist of course, especially if one works in the suburbs or needs a car to visit family far away. But if 95 percent of your life is centered in the city and public transportation is an easy option, owning a car is tantamount to "owning" a series of headaches.

Car owners agonize about scratches, dents, and random acts of vandalism like "keying" when they park on neighborhood streets. Insurance costs, gas hikes, and the disappearance of parking spaces in the city and in the neighborhood doesn’t make owning a car worth the rare pleasure it affords when you take that once-every-three-months car trip outside the city.

When I first moved to the Riverwards my street was a pristine sleepy hollow with plenty of parking spaces, but today it could double as a crammed parking lot. In the evening, vehicles line up bumper to bumper. Furthermore, the addition of parking garages and the conversion of lots to include scores of new No Parking and Tow Away Zone signs have decreased parking options. Fishtown/Richmond has now become like Center City when it comes to finding a place to park.

Say good-bye to Sleepy Hollow.

Social theorist and writer Paul Goodman proposed banning cars from midtown Manhattan. Along with his brother, Percival, in 1961 Goodman wrote, "We propose the banning of all cars from Manhattan Island, except buses, small taxis, vehicles for essential services (doctor, police, sanitation, vans, etc.), and the trucking used in light industry."

The Goodman brothers had the right idea. When old cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston were built it was mainly with pedestrians in mind, not oversized automobiles. Why do Americans need such big cars? When I went to Europe for the first time I was shocked to see highways filled with small cars. It was as if every SUV had been pulled from the face of the earth. What Europeans are guilty of, however, is out-of-control speeding. In Austria, when I used a rental car to drive into the mountains, there were many drivers going at least 100 miles per hour. It was shocking to see these small hybrid cars zip past like flying bullets. When I lost my way and couldn’t find the hotel where I was supposed to meet my press contact, I slowed down considerably to make sure I didn’t wind up in Budapest. It was then that an angry tractor-trailer truck driver came up on my back bumper. Like the killer truck in the suspenseful film "Duel" with Dennis Weaver, the truck driver bumper-tapped my car to "push" it along. Why the truck driver didn’t just pass me is anyone’s guess, but rather than be forced to go 100 mph I took the next exit and sought help from some nice people in a farmhouse who invited me in for a stein of Austrian beer. In retrospect, the experience made me glad that there are speeding laws in the United States.

In the Riverwards, we have miniature streets like Harold and Albert Streets, two small Tom Thumb passageways that resemble Elfreth’s Alley sans the cobblestones and historic houses. Streets like this were not designed for mega vehicles, trucks, or drag racing and yet that is what they seem to attract. Albert Street, for instance, has been discovered as a handy shortcut to larger streets, despite its ad hoc use as a makeshift playground for kids who live near the block. Don Rickles might say that Albert Street is so narrow that people with weight problems have to "tuck in" their bellies when big vehicles pass through.

It goes without saying that the "speed freak" drivers who swing onto Albert from Almond and then zip along as if they were traveling Aramingo Avenue are a danger to pedestrians. Mega trucks with tires the size of small cities and blackened out windows (why aren’t these things illegal?) zoom up the tiny street like Attila the Hun bearing down on a small animal. Very often these drivers nearly hit pedestrians or kids on tricycles. Some of the drivers, in fact, seem to experience no guilt when they turn the corner from Almond onto Albert a la Daytona 500 and just miss a two year old who might be playing "Let’s chalk the sidewalk."

About six months ago I was crossing Huntingdon Street from Almond Street on my way to Wawa when a car going the wrong way appeared out of nowhere. Since Huntingdon is a one-way street, there’s no reason why anybody would check for vehicles traveling in the opposite (illegal) direction. The speeding driver in question wanted to take a shortcut to the Wawa/Rite Aid parking lot, and as a result missed hitting me by a hair.

"Holy -----"! I exclaimed, using a word I rarely use.

Yet rather than apologize for almost killing me, the driver replied, "Hey! Watch your language—I have kids in the car!"

He has kids in the car? Funny, all I saw were two headlights bearing down on me.

And if he has kids, what’s he doing driving like that and putting their lives in jeopardy?

The technique known as "transfer of guilt" is also used by drivers racing up Albert Street who just miss children by a hair. The speeding drivers’ faces seem to say, "Only a bad parent would let their kid play in the street." But what are big Army-size mega trucks doing speeding on small streets anyway?

"The advantages of our proposal are very great," the Goodman brothers wrote. "Important and immediate are the relief of tension, noise, and anxiety; purifying the air of fumes and smog; alleviating the crowding of pedestrians; providing safety for children."

We may not be able to ban traffic from Manhattan or Philadelphia, but at least drivers could learn to respect the city’s smaller streets.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Unemployment Compensation Nightmare in the State of Pennsylvania

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Oct 10, 2012
By Thom Nickels

When it comes to unemployment compensation, the state of Pennsylvania is in a state of emergency.

This will come as no surprise to the 524,547 people on the state’s unemployment rolls. A system that for years was considered already highly flawed but nominally workable has now crashed into a brick wall.

Anyone who loses their job at this time had better buckle their seatbelt because they will not believe how the "reformed" unemployment compensation process now works in Pennsylvania.

Let’s take a look at the past for some contrast.

Years ago, Philadelphia had unemployment compensation service centers where one could go for help in processing a claim. In the 1970s one could expect to stand in line for hours at these centers but at least one got to talk to a live human being at the end of the ordeal. Specific problems related to individual payments were handled by social workers in cubicles, a guarantee that nobody left with unanswered questions. These were bustling service centers that would shut down for one hour during lunch, causing the unemployed to place their yellow UC cards on the floor to save their place in line when lunch was over.

Today, the UC service centers, at least in Philadelphia, have been abolished, thanks to a cost cutting move by Governor Corbett this summer when his administration ordered the last remaining Philadelphia Center on Grant Avenue closed.

The Corbett administration blamed the closure on the slashing of a 30 million federal grant to the state, although nobody forced the governor to make up part of that federal loss by closing the center on Grant Avenue, where at least 100 people were laid off. Governor Corbett also eliminated all but two toll-free phone lines for claimants to use when processing unemployment claims.

The result of all this has been an unmitigated disaster. In the entire state of Pennsylvania there are less than 400 people to handle the questions, comments and "paperwork" of the 524,547 unemployed.

Why Governor Corbett chose only to close the Philadelphia office, and not the eight other unemployment compensation service centers in the state, has been chalked up to the state’s not being able to afford to renew the lease on the building.

Trust me, there isn’t a third grader anywhere in the city who, upon hearing this news, would not be able to suggest that if you cannot afford to renew a lease, you might consider finding a cheaper building rather than folding up your tent and leaving town.

But Governor Corbett pulled the UC center out of town, almost as if he was trying to sock it to the city for its decades-old Democratic majority and one-party rule.

For the record, let me say that I am all for breaking up Philadelphia’s one-party rule, but this is no way to go about it.

Critics of the governor’s move do not buy the lease renewal reason for one minute. If anything, why not close service centers in Allentown or Lancaster? It would be obvious to anyone, even to that third grader, that Philadelphia is where most unemployed people live.

What all this means is that if you were to lose your job tomorrow, you’d apply for Pennsylvania unemployment online and fill out an application. You would also register for something called Career Link, which would put you in a Want Ad pool for people looking for work.

Shortly after submitting your application you would receive notice of your approval for 26 weeks of unemployment. After that would come all the appropriate paperwork, including a UC debit card so you could access your UC payments. Traditionally, Pennsylvania has always been slower than most states in sending people their first UC payments, but at least before the Corbett cuts, people could find out fairly quickly what the holdup was.

That is no longer true.

With the absence of a UC service center and less staff to deal with problems, there are Philadelphians who have filed for UC benefits in mid-August who have still not received a single payment. The two toll-free 800 numbers—there used to be at least twice as many contact numbers—are chronically busy. We’re not talking twenty minutes of busy signals but more like five hours worth. No matter when you call, you will hear the busy beep. The lack of a voicemail also prevents you from leaving a message, unless you opt to skip orthodox procedure and call another Harrisburg Department, the Department of Labor and Industry, Office of Equal Opportunity, at 717-787-1182. A coordinator will answer and listen to your question and then switch you over to a live voicemail where you can leave a message.

The problem is that the number they refer you to is the same telephone number that’s always busy. If you’re lucky, the Dept. of Labor and Industry clerk may take your message, at which point you can expect a call back, but hours or days later.

I recently lost a small part-time job, and applied for benefits and was accepted for a 26 week run. Since the beginning of August I have been registering my biweekly claim but I have yet to see a single payment. When somebody from Harrisburg managed to return my call, he was as befuddled as Mary Poppins after a fall off her bicycle. "I don’t know why you’re not getting your payments," he said, ‘It seems there could be a problem with another part time job you had in 2008."

"What?" I asked. "2008?"

"I can’t be sure," he said. "Was there an overpayment then? I can’t verify this so we will have to check. I have no solid facts to tell you. You registered with Career Link, right? I’ll get back to you with the facts."

That was two weeks ago.

Naturally my only recourse was to call the 717 number and leave messages so that I could get the ball rolling. During one call the clerk confessed that the new system was in total disarray. "It is awful, yes," she said, " our hands are tied—we don’t know how to change this."

Well, how about telling the governor to put the additional phone lines back, and to find a new building for that UC service center?