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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.