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Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Philly Pops as Mood Changer

When I went to see the Philly POPS Christmas concert at the Kimmel Center with my friend Vanessa, I wasn't expecting much. I wasn't expecting much because Christmas music is in a special category. It's not classical music, rock or jazz, and it is not hip or edgy. Christmas carols have no beat and you can't dance to them. Not only that, but all too often what passes for Christmas music is played to death in supermarkets and retail stores. There's so much of it that your ears tune out after a while. How many times can one listen to Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad without wanting to jump off a cliff?

It's been a long time since I've heard a complete Christmas concert with all the songs I learned as a boy. The Kimmel Center auditorium wasn't overly crowded when we headed to our seats although there was a respectable crowd. There were a lot of parents in the audience since the program said there'd be a lot of kids on stage, not only the Philadelphia Boys Choir but an all-girls chorus from a Delaware County Christian school. We were also looking forward to hearing Opera sensation Angela Brown, as well as The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir. As it turned out, the St. Thomas choir sang Gospel music -- and yes, they had the place jumping.

I'm not one to pound my foot, clap my hands, stand up and shout 'Hallelujah!' as the sweat pours from my forehead, but there's a lot to be said for Gospel music. Many of the songs from the St. Thomas choir had members of the audience swaying their heads and clapping their hands.

Music often "gifts" the listener with an array of mental images. These images can include scenes from the past, images of loved ones, of people past and present, and yes, it can even inspire feelings of love (feelings of hate and annoyance almost never intrude). Feelings of love came over the audience when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sang "Ave Maria", a song composed in 1853. "Ave Maria" was one of my (deceased) mother's favorites, along with "The Little Drummer Boy" (1957). "Ave Maria" is one of those songs that people either love or hate, but even among those who hate it, the song almost always seems to have a quieting effect.

The other songs presented, like "Jingle Bells" (1857), brought into play many Christmas stereotypes: snowy nights, trees, gifts with red ribbons, money spent, spiked Egg Nog, coal in stockings, and Santa Claus. The song slammed me back into childhood's nadir, as did "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Seated in the row ahead of me was the mother of a girl singer in that all-girl Delaware County chorus. The forty-something woman had long strawberry blond hair, and sat quietly in her seat until her daughter's chorus was introduced, at which point she became very animated, smiling and clapping as if she'd won the lottery. The mother's happiness radiated outward like a blast of electrons. Her pride in her daughter was so huge I imagined there must have been an unusual reason for it. Perhaps her daughter had overcome some challenging handicap; maybe she had had a hard time getting into the chorus, or had recovered from a serious illness. The mother's happiness was beyond the proud parent syndrome. At this point I attempted to spot the woman's daughter in the long lineup of girls facing the stage, but the task was hopeless. There were just too many girls with strawberry blond hair.

To my right, sitting beside Vanessa, was another woman, perhaps in her sixties who sat with her husband. This woman, oddly enough, was also a strawberry blond (probably dyed) but she was far more circumspect in her applause. I say this because immediately after the St. Thomas Gospel Choir concluded its 'raise-high-the-roof beams' numbers, she leaned over in my direction me and said, "Do you suppose the rest of the people on stage were wondering when they would ever stop all that shouting?"

Why, I wondered, did she feel comfortable saying this to me?

It was a benign enough comment, proving that you can't love every song presented in a concert format, as I would soon discover when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sang Feliz Navidad. This song, for whatever reason, has made me nervous and fidgety since childhood. As a boy I'd switch dials on the radio whenever it came on and then switch back again when I thought the song was over. When I couldn't switch the dial, I'd make fun of it by dancing around the house while making faces as the singers sang, "I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas" (Repeat three times). To this day, whenever I hear "Feliz Navidad" I want to mimic the refrain in unflattering ways.

As if getting my goat for my musical intolerance, when I went to WAWA for coffee the morning after the concert, wouldn't you know that the customer ahead of me in line said "Feliz Navidad" to the cashier after paying his bill. Doubling the impact, the cashier replied in kind, so I got two "Feliz Navidad's" in a row. Talk about a double whammy with no time to switch dials -- I mean... lines.

When Philly POPS played "The Little Drummer Boy" I not only remembered my mother humming the tune in our house in Malvern, but I recalled Maurice Ravel's "Bolero", upon which "The Little Drummer Boy" is based. If you've never heard of Ravel's "Bolero", I suggest you check it out and listen, because if you even have a small amount of music appreciation you'll love the way the song intensifies and accelerates into a slow fever pitch. (Do this even if you hate classical music, because Bolero is different and generally appeals to people who have no time for Beethoven, Chopin or Bach.)

Anyway, sitting there listening to "The Little Drummer Boy", my mind drifted to "Bolero", and to the first time I heard the song at age 14 while visiting the home of a friend. At that time my friend's mother was playing the composition as she paced her living room and kitchen (with a glass of wine) while keeping step to the music that slowly built and built until the crescendo end. To this day I can't listen to "Bolero" without seeing the face of Zada, my friend's mother, doing her meditative pacing.

During the concert, Conductor David Charles Abell kept repeating how the holiday means reuniting with friends and family, forgiving slights and injuries and showing warmth towards neighbors and friends. This message, delivered with the music, was producing a lightness of feeling in the audience. Even the grandmother to my right, who had poked fun at the Gospel singers, seemed friendlier as a result.

After the concert, Vanessa and I hailed a cab and made our way to the Market Street East station, where she took the train to her East Falls apartment, and where I boarded the Market-Frankford L to Front and Girard. Stepping on the L with the vibrations of "Jingle Bells", "Silent Night", and other carols in my head, I was lost in a "feel good" mental space while looking at the city weary expressions on the faces of the people in the train. Perhaps I had the same expression on my face and just didn't know it, but somehow I don't think so. This Christmas concert, despite my skepticism about attending it at first, had worked its magic.

(From The Spirit and The Huffington Post_

Saturday, December 14, 2013

City Beat Column: Robinson Luggage, Diane Burko, Food, Henri David, Timothy Rub and Peggy King

December CITY Beat Column ICON MAGAZINE 2013

Wave your white hankies for Robinson Luggage, the Broad and Walnut superstore that kept Philadelphians happy for years. We shopped there a long time ago for a large wheelie that saw airports in Helsinki, Rome, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. The wheelie took quite a beating by rough airport (and TSA) handlers. When we headed back to Robinson’s last year for a replacement, we found that prices had doubled. Close to one thousand dollars for a new wheelie sent us straight to Macy’s where we found what we were looking for. Nancy Center, the store’s VP, told local media that the closure “was heartbreaking,” and blamed “declining sales” while posters on complained of Robinson’s exorbitant prices. Founded in 1927, Robinson’s weathered a bad storm in 2008 when Phillies fans, drunk on a World Series win, looted the place. Prices at Robinson seemed to rise after the incident, as if the family-owned business imposed a (secret) penalty tax because of the rowdy violation. What we don’t understand is why sports thugs, who aren’t generally known for their good taste, wanted stylish luggage anyway. Perhaps they wanted to bag their bad character and carry it elsewhere.

We thought of The little Engine that Could while boarding the Diane Burko (rental) bus, to make our way to the Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick to catch the artist’s latest exhibition: Freeze Frame: Art and the Cryosphere (until July 31st). A glacier-cheeked Burko presented a stunning slide show of her photographs and paintings of glaciers negativity impacted by climate change. Loyal Burkoites filled the hall and delighted in the artist’s account of her 5 week sojourn to the North Pole with husband Richard. We felt like shivering in the well heated room (pictures of glaciers do that) while enjoying the artist’s tales of how she handled downtime in the land of the lost: editing a film while her sailing ship compatriots battled an on board illness. The Zimmerli is an excellent small museum. We spotted a sculpture of Stalin as Michelangelo's David (buff totalitarianism?) as well as fascinating collection of French 18th and 19th century puppets. By the end of the night we were convinced that glaciers, like a good Baked Alaska, are indeed rare delights, especially when they are capped with (conversational) ice floes like Elizabeth Osborne, grand dame of Philly painters, and Carol Saline of Philadelphia Magazine.

Is food the new gold? The cut in SNAP benefits or food stamps and the rise in food prices in general got us thinking about the city’s free food banks, where the less fortunate go for sustenance. We headed over to the PhilAbundance food dispensary at 601 W. Lehigh Avenue, one of many such free food banks in the city, where on designated days you can see long lines of people waiting to obtain very small amounts of canned goods, meats, milk and cheese. An official there told us that just a year ago the lines outside the Lehigh Avenue outlet were moderate in comparison to the serpentine lines one finds today. Taking in the scene, we noticed that a good many people were elderly, and that many brought portable stools or fold up chairs (Diner en Blanc?) since the line moves at a snail’s pace. Volunteers stock the food bank and help guide participants through a small room packed with selections that vary from week to week. Regular freebies include canned beans, lots of corn, plantains (not bananas), crème of chicken soup and frozen pork sausage. While the PhilAbundance scene is enough to make those uppity Whole Foods Foodies hold their noses, if food prices in the future climb to the height of one of Burko’s glaciers, culinary snobbery will have to come to a screeching halt.

For this year’s Henri David Halloween Ball we dressed up as a long haired hippie journalist (circa 1971) in a jean jacket, buttons and sunglasses, and danced the night away with Roman soldiers, zombie cowboys, biker chic sluts, mermaids, female impersonators, vampire seductresses, nuns in neon habits, hobo werewolves, and people dressed as boxes of Franzia (Merlot) and macaroni and cheese. Afterwards we headed home but took the wrong El shuttle bus so that we wound up at the Frankford Terminal, where more than one person assumed we were dealing drugs. When we made it home for real (and removed the wig), we vowed, “Never again,” although days later Henri called, asking “How’d you like it?” Of course, we said “fantastic,” leaving out the terminal part, as Henri went on to inform us that for his post Ball respite he was taking his partner Paul to a B-52s concert and then later to meet former Philly Welcomat writer, Kiki Olson, now a London resident. “Kiki’s on her fifth husband,” Henri said, “and she’s as buoyant and slim and as full of life as ever!” We expected as much, despite false rumors to the contrary that had Kiki crashing the weight scales. Though we don’t know if Kiki went out for Halloween, Henri did remind us that his annual ball was helped to get its start from Rittenhouse Square society ladies who told him initially that the idea reminded them of their own Masked Balls. He also confided that when he was invited to their fancy cocktail parties he met the likes of Fernanda Wanamaker and Hope Montgomery Scott (who lost vision in one eye when she “missed” while uncorking a champagne bottle).

It’s always been true that one definition of cool is a love for surrealist art. One of our must-do jaunts last month, aside from taking in one of The Choral Arts Society’s memorable Bach at Seven concerts at St. Mark’s church at 17th and Locust Street (where we met Artistic Director Matt Glandorf) was a visit to the Museum of Art’s The Surrealists; Work from the Collection, on display until March 2014. Here we saw familiar pieces from the museum’s holdings of Dali and Miro masterworks, a much larger display than we had anticipated. An even greater surprise was a Thomas Chimes panel portrait of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, looking as fine as it did in 2007 during PMA’s Thomas Chimes Adventures in Pataphysics exhibition, when Anne D’Harnoncourt announced, “Tom is a magician.” The exhibit reminded us that the leader of the Surrealists, Andre Breton, had a vehement dislike for one group of people. Like poet Ezra Pound’s hatred of the Jews, it may be hard to conceive of a hatred of homosexuals in so revolutionary an art environment; but in Paris, on January 27, 1928 the Surrealists under Breton met in Paris for the first session of the “Researches sur la Sexualite” where Breton exclaimed, “I accuse homosexuals of confronting human tolerance with a mental and moral deficiency which tends to turn itself into a system and to paralyze every enterprise I respect.” Salvador Dali mustache wax indeed!

From PMA, we headed to Green Street where we noticed busloads of French tourists pouring out of school buses. The well coiffed, fashionably dressed crowd seemed to be husbands and wives, all chatting amiably while being escorted by cassocked Catholic clergy into the Chapel of the Convent of Divine Love. A tall monk from Belgium (in a blue habit) informed us that the event was the beginning service of a 3-day event to celebrate a new reliquary of Therese de Lisieux (the Little Flower), universally beloved by people of all faiths. The new reliquary, designed by French sculptor, Fleur Nabert, consists of 3 bronze cylinders, an artificial rose and two lilies in a transparent case shaped like a house. A cross sporting Dali-like sun rays dominates the background. Upon discovering the reliquary, our first impulse was to contact Timothy Rub or Norman Keyes and tell them that the boundaries of the PMA exhibit had mysteriously expanded.

We ended the month swinging from the rafters listening to sultry Peggy King at an All-Star Jazz Quartet held upstairs at Square on Square, 1905 Chestnut Street. We’d been searching for real jazz for a long time, not the squiggly incomprehensible anarchy sounds that sometimes passes for jazz. The self contained piano playing style of Andy Kahn, with Bruce Klauber on drums, had us believing we were in a Manhattan film noir setting. The music made us think of a lot of things, including another delight that week: PAFA’s Bacchanal celebration, where we chatted with Heike Hass (who good humouredly chided City Beat for last month’s take on KAWS (“Did you bring your paddle tonight?” she asked, before going on to describe how she wound up on the Colbert Show). Wonders never cease, as we also discovered at an Institute for Classical Art and Architecture (ICCA) talk at the Franklin Inn Club, where we learned all about Philly architect Thomas Ustick Walter, chief assistant to the architect of City Hall and the Fourth Architect of the Capitol. The talk was anything but a suffocating convention of scholar squirrels, for Walter was as real a person as any artist: He fathered ten children and often spent periods of time without employment besides going from house to house because he couldn’t pay his bills.

Friday, December 13, 2013


Thanksgiving dinners almost always inspire conversation, so when the subject at the table this year turned to life in America, every cranberry-filled guest had an opinion. My host for the evening was an event planner for a major company in Center City Philadelphia. Rita's dinners (and parties) are legendary, partially because she's involved with setting up receptions for hundreds of people.

A subject that I brought up for discussion before dessert had to do with the current fashion of couples bringing their young babies to adult functions like dinners and cocktail parties. While I love a cute smiling baby as much as anyone else, I don't think that infants in swaddling clothes belong next to corporate buffet tables filled with sushi and gourmet cheeses. For starters, some of the babies I've seen at these functions look like they were just born. Infants are small, fragile, vulnerable human beings who need to be watched and protected. They need to be protected not only from germs but from raucous adult partygoer who may, on occasion, have too much to drink besides not looking where they are walking. Adult cocktail holiday parties can also be quite loud, which is hardly a soothing audio backdrop for small babies.

While attending a large architectural firm's Center City party recently, I noticed a small child being taken out of a stroller and placed on the floor of the reception room while party goers circled the stroller with drinks, plates of crab, blue cheese and slices of roast pig. Not only was the stroller blocking much needed room in that small space, but the daddy of the baby insisted on giving his child walking lessons in the middle of the floor, making it necessary for guests to take wide angled detours around them in order to avoid a collision.

Daddy was all smiles and not the least embarrassed about this very public display, but in fact seemed to take delight in the fact that this was his opportunity to shine and show off his child. He'd even look up at the people taking wide angled detours around the stroller to see if anyone was looking at him in an admiring way. He reminded me of a fisherman waiting for a bite only in this case he was fishing for compliments. While a few party goers did stop and say, "Oh, what a cute little baby!" most looked the other way and ignored the show, almost as if they were thinking, "Couldn't you have gotten a babysitter?"

It wasn't all that long ago when sensible-minded couples would no sooner take their infant or child to an adult party than they'd arrive at parties naked. The operative word then was babysitter. Couples who couldn't afford babysitters just didn't go out on the town. But somehow over time the social rules changed. Babies have become something like a possession to show off, like a tweed coat from Neiman Marcus, or a diamond from Tiffany's.

At another Center City reception -- again this was a party in which adults mingled while consuming food and alcohol -- I noticed a toddler running around and scampering under serving tables while helping himself to various bits of food (with his fingers). Since no parent was in sight, I assumed he was a lost child, or perhaps a ghost from that "I see dead people" movie, but that was not the case. Eventually I spotted his adoring mother watching him grab fistfuls of this and that while squeezing in between adult legs like a rabid shopper on Black Friday. At one point his mother patted him on the head, then steered him in the direction of the dessert table where he proceeded to decimate a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

One has to wonder if the mother in question imagined the party goers thinking, "Oh my -- look at that beautiful wild child, he's such a curious little devil!"

Again, we have to ask: whatever happened to the concept of a babysitter?

In many ways, the current fashion of bringing babies to inappropriate adult events has its counterpart in the pet world.

I'm thinking of pet owners who bring their oversized dogs with them when they go out to dinner at one of the city's outdoor restaurants. Some of these lounging dogs take up half the sidewalk while snacking from small bowls placed under the tables of their human owners.

The bring-your-pet-to-dinner craze started, I believe, when notable Hollywood starlets, mainly blonde bomb shells, started bringing their poodles to fancy French restaurants. Pictures of these stars and their pink poodles filled the covers of movie magazines.

The world of pet ownership has changed drastically in the last 20 years. I got a sense of this when I recently watched Sunday Bloody Sunday, an old film by John Schlesinger (starring Murray Head and Glenda Jackson), that I first saw in the 70s. The London-based story, which is about a three-way love affair, shows the death of the family dog when the dog is hit by a car while running across the street. The reaction of the characters at the death stunned me. They frown, look a little distraught, but within seconds they recompose themselves and talk about "getting another one," as if they were talking about replacement ping pong balls. In today's more pet emphatic environment, there would be considerable grief at the death, possibly even a far flung reaction that would have the mourning equal to that of a dead child.

As a toddler, I remember the supreme delight I'd experience crawling under the dining room table at home during massive Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. It was in that strange under-table world (with the family dog as my companion), where I'd inspect the variety of adult shoes, especially the strange footwear of venerable old aunts in thick stockings. It was as secure a place as any to hide. It felt safe, even if the unconventional views of trouser cuffs and the hems of dresses meant that I'd receive a parental order to come out of there immediately.

Enough is enough, after all. A wild child may be cute, but only in a very limited way.


When the sassy members of Pussy Riot entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, it was not to pray or to sit in silent meditation but to stage a sanctuary protest before the iconostasis and Royal Doors, also known as the Beautiful Gate that leads to the altar area.

In various YouTube videos of the protest one can see the women bowing and crossing themselves in the manner of ardent believers. The songs the women sing have radically different lyrics than the sung prayers that usually come from this space, and yet one clearly gets the impression that the feminist band members grew up in the Orthodox faith. In fact, there's nothing satirical in the way the women cross themselves; they cross themselves in the fervent style of old women in head scarves. The "prayer" they say also tells a different story: it was a plea to the Lord to oust Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

While Pussy Riot did not destroy or endanger church property -- there was no splattered paint, no drawn graffiti, no bombs, hand grenade explosions or tarnished icons -- the crude punk protest song delivered in the style of a prayer hit a chord with many Russians. The scene brought to mind the far more radical actions of ACT UP in December of 1989 when several dozen members of the group went into New York's Saint Patrick's cathedral and disrupted Mass with shouts of "We will not be silent" to protest the New York Archdiocese's views on AIDS and abortion. One protestor even desecrated the Eucharist as others scattered condoms about the church.

Had Pussy Riot "acted up" in a New York City or Philadelphia cathedral, it is highly likely the group would not have been arrested. Furthermore, their actions would probably not have even made the local news. To American eyes and ears, the Kremlin's reaction to the crude protest was extreme, almost as if the punk band had been involved in a plot to kill Vladimir Putin.

"It was just a song, after all," many said.

When PR members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were given prison sentences of two years for "hooliganism with religious hatred," there was considerable international protest. Many saw the punishment as outstripping the crime.

In a surprise protest, a 75 year old Orthodox priest, the Rev. Pavel Adelglim, stated publicly that the severe sentence underscored the Russian Orthodox Church's close ties with the Kremlin. Priest Adelglim wrote on his blog, "The women have unmasked the lie of the Russian Orthodox Church and its unnatural bond with the Russian Federation."

In October, 2013, it was reported that Tolokonnikova, who had been sentenced to the Gulag-style prison in Mordavia, was quietly removed to an undisclosed penal colony. The plan reportedly upset her husband, who claimed that the authorities were trying to stop the publicity surrounding his wife's prison hunger strike. Tolokonnikova herself had claimed that she had been abused by Mordovia prison guards since the first day of her imprisonment. As of mid- November this year, it was also reported that Tolokonnikova had been hospitalized for medical tests and had not yet reached her new prison destination. Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are scheduled to be released in March.

The fortunate third Pussy Riot member, Katarina Samutsevich, was released earlier in a special arrangement with prosecutors.

Eager to understand the situation, I arranged to speak with Father Mark Shinn, archpriest and pastor of Saint Andrew's (Russian) Orthodox cathedral in Northern Liberties. As an Orthodox convert for little over a year and a half, it was important for me to make sense of the lengthy prison sentence for what appeared to be a rude but nevertheless benign protest. In the United States, people receive two year prison sentences for second degree manslaughter, major thefts, random felonies or domestic abuse, not for so called blasphemous acts. To the modern mind, something like a "blasphemous act" seems like one of those medieval terms taken seriously only in Islamic countries.

At some point before my visit to Father Shinn, it occurred to me what would have happened if Pussy Riot had preformed their crude act in Saint Peter's in Rome immediately after the election of Pope Francis. Given the unpredictable nature of the new pope, it is quite conceivable that, in the spirit of humility and reconciliation, he would have insisted that the band be pardoned, and then invited the women to tea or a round of vodka sharing in his Vatican office. While hundreds of Russian petitioners did send their plea to the Orthodox patriarch for a pardon, no olive branch was extended.

Arriving at Saint Andrew's, Father Shinn, who converted to Orthodoxy as a teenager, offered me a seat in the church hall. After a round of polite pleasantries, we quickly segued into Pussy Riot and the notion of what constitutes a scared space. To that end, he reminded me that in the American colonial era the first churches, namely the Congregational churches (or descendents of the Puritans), thought of the church building as having a dual purpose: they were both meeting places as well as places of prayer. The Congregational idea of a dual-purpose church building quickly filtered down into most Protestant denominations.

"Leafing through old Congregational handbooks and manuals," Father Shinn told me, "it is clear that these churches were constructed as meeting and prayer houses. This becomes clear when you watch reruns of Little House on the Prairie, where the church and school house are one and the same thing. In the 19th century and earlier, traveling magistrates held court in these combination prayer/meeting houses. There was absolutely no sense of these meeting houses as sacred space dedicated solely to the worship of God. That has been the reality for American Protestant churches for generations. The idea of a sacred space devoted solely to the worship of God did not exist."

Of course, one has only to consider how the average Hollywood film confuses the notion of what constitutes a sacred space. Very often, when Christian religious services are pictured in movies, there are glaring mismatches: a large bible on an altar while the presiding (Protestant) minister makes the sign of the cross or uses holy water. Or: a Protestant minister preaching to a congregation before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Sometimes Hollywood will even call a Protestant service a Mass, or have a decidedly southern Baptist congregation genuflect before entering a pew. These hybrid Hollywood movie religious services contain so many Catholic and Protestant cross elements it is clear that nobody knows what they're doing. Illustrating further, Father Shinn mentions a Robert Redford film, The Bear Field War, where the filmmakers had a community meeting take place in a Catholic church, but before the meeting begins a woman gets up and lights a candle as if it is the beginning of a religious service.

In both Orthodoxy and (most of) Catholicism, a church is considered a temple of God, not a place for the traveling magistrate, a puppet show, a rock band or groups of money changers. In ancient Judaism, the temple (or sacred space) had an inner court where sacrifices and cleansings were offered. There were also a series of curtains where only priests could go to offer prayers and incense, then the Holy of Holies, divided by yet another curtain (and corresponding to the average Orthodox church) where the Arks of the Covenant lay and where only the High Priest could pass.

Unfortunately, since the close of the Second Vatican Council, many modern Catholic churches reflect conventional Spartan Protestant church interiors. In some cases the interiors of these churches are devoid of sacred images and iconography so that their identification as "Catholic" seems remote at best. Many of these churches have become, at least by default, Congregational style meeting places.

The special history of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral must also be understood when gauging the anger of the average Russian at Pussy Riot's antics.

The idea to build the original cathedral came from Emperor Alexander I when he wanted to commemorate Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Father Shinn explained: "Napoleon entered Russia with 485,000 men on Christmas Day, 1812, but when he left the country he left with 43,000 men. Less than 10 percent survived the invasion. During that time, the French desecrated Russia's churches. They used Russian church sanctuaries as stables; they had parties with prostitutes on altars."

To celebrate Napoleon's retreat, the first cathedral was built by donations from the people. The state offered no support. The composer Tchaikovsky even got into the act and planned to perform his 1812 Overture when the church was completed. Work on the first church was halted because problems with the design included an emphasis on neoclassicism and Freemasonic symbols. Originally constructed on Sparrow Hill, the highest point in Moscow, Alexander's successor, Nicholas I, especially objected to the Freemasonic symbols and employed a new architect, Konstantin Thon. After the new design, construction commenced. By the time the scaffolding was removed in 1860, and the church consecrated in 1883, it was known as the tallest Orthodox Church in the world, at 338 feet.

Although the church survived the beginnings of the Russian Revolution, on orders from Joseph Stalin on December 5, 1931, it was slated for demolition but first it would be robbed of all valuable artifacts--icons, vestments, chalices, and the 20 tons of gold on the domes that authorities deemed to be of "excellent quality." It took two dynamite blasts to demolish the church and at least a year to completely clear the site of debris. The plan was to replace the cathedral with a huge tower, Palace of the Soviets, which would be topped off with a statue of Lenin, but flooding problems from the nearby Moskva River and a lack of funds prevented the completion of the memorial. Nikita Khrushev would later open a public swimming pool on the site.

"When the Soviet Union fell," Father Shinn said, "it was agreed that Russia would rebuild the church. The old Soviet economy had collapsed, replaced by robber barons, yet with the tenacity of the Jewish mayor of Moscow, work on the new building went on 24 hours a day with shifts around the clock and the use of spotlights. The result was a better church, a symbol of the rebirth of the Church after 70 years of atheism and the Revolution. "

One can almost say that the cathedral was built with blood, sweat and tears, and that its reopening after the deadly years of Communism was nothing less than a miracle. Nobody expected to see Communism fall in the 20th century or even witness the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

While Father Shinn can hardly be summed up as a heartless hard liner, during our conversation he wanted me to understand that almost everybody in Russia--he emphasized the word everybody-- was horrified at Pussy Riot's disrespectful act in such a symbolic place.

"Even to people who were not church goers," he said, pausing for emphasis, "even for these people the disrespect showed by Pussy Riot brought back horrible memories. Non-believers, or atheists, were also horrified," he adds. "They understood almost 'genetically' that this is something not acceptable. You do not desecrate holy places."

Russian non-believers and even atheists were horrified at the punk band's protest? Is this classified information? I wondered why this fact didn't make it to the copy room of The New York Times and the nation's wire services.

Shortly after Pussy Riot's cathedral stunt, a new law was instituted making it a criminal offense to offend the religious sensitivities of any Russian religion. "The penalties became more severe if the desecration takes place within as opposed to without," Father Shinn said, adding that the two cultures, American and Russian, just don't understand one another. "Americans do not understand the reverence for sacred places, while Russians cannot understand the American callousness towards houses of worship."

As to prove this point, not long after my conversation with Fr. Shinn, I researched a Sacred Space II seminar in Pasadena, California, where representatives from many Protestant denominations and liberal Jewish synagogues discussed the idea of sacred spaces. Among the many questions discussed during the conference were questions like: Do you want your scared space to feel like a home, or do you want it to be transcendent?

But Dr. William Dyrness, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller, Theological School, summed up his response at the conference, as follows: "Protestantism doesn't include a belief in sacred space, because all space is sacred."

So, there we have it. If all spaces are sacred, then Pussy Riot did nothing wrong, but, if some places are more sacred than others, then we might be said to have a real problem.

--Thom Nickels
(From The Huffington Post)

Sunday, December 8, 2013


One cannot grow up in Chester County or in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania without seeing and "feeling" Andrew Wyeth in the fields, streams and barns. Even the hawks in the sky point to Wyeth paintings and watercolors.

The association is so powerful that when people ask me where I grew up I say, "Chester County, Pennsylvania -- Andrew Wyeth country," and they immediately understand.

Growing up in Andrew Wyeth country meant that when you took a hike in the fields or woods you could easily wonder "What if we run into Andrew Wyeth?" Mr. Wyeth, after all, was known to take solitary walks in the country, and stories of people meeting the artist there were not uncommon.

Though I never met Andrew during my forays into the woods, in the mid 1970s, when I was an avid hitchhiker, Andrew Wyeth's son, Jamie, an iconic artist in his right, offered me a lift to my parents' home in Frazer, Pennsylvania. Although Jamie Wyeth and I said little during the short ride up Lancaster Pike, I remember the cans of paint, paint brushes and the blank canvasses in the back seat of his car.

In Wyeth's paintings I see some of the people of my childhood. The artist not only captured the Chester County landscape, he hit on the peculiar quirkiness of its inhabitants. I'm reminded especially of the artist's 1967 tempera painting, "Anna Christina," a portrait of a country woman who could easily have been a customer on my boyhood paper route.

"The Kuerners," a 1971 drybrush on paper portrait of an old German-descent farming couple could have been the farmer who owned the big red barn at the end of our street. This hard working Mennonite family had two sons. They owned the cows and horses that roamed the field behind our house. The barn itself was not only a cathedral of stacked haylofts for superman impersonations but the hiding place for the sons' stash of pornography.

Wyeth's portrait of the red haired "Sea Dog," could have been any of the prickly characters one met along the Lincoln Highway. These characters usually walked with a limp, had an opinion about everything, and chewed tobacco. While many of them looked like they could bite the head off a snake, when you talked to them they had the sweetness of a Grampa Walton.

Death for some artists and writers can bring a revaluation of their work, a "reanalysis" that may revise the not always accurate critical summing up that occurred during their lifetime. Death will certainly enhance Wyeth's reputation. It's almost certain that the names of those art critics who trivialized Wyeth for promoting himself rather his artistry will not be remembered.

Born July 12, 1917, Andrew Wyeth was the youngest of 5 children. Because of an early childhood illness, he received his education at home from his father, illustrator N.C. Wyeth, who died in 1945. Wyeth's had his first New York gallery show in 1936. By all accounts the show was a success. Mr. Wyeth's oeuvre includes many paintings of his wife (of 68 years), Betsy.

"Maga's Daughters," is Mr. Wyeth's portrait of his young wife Betsy after a possible marital spat. In a Philadelphia Museum of Art catalog celebrating a 2006 retrospective of Wyeth's work, writer Christopher Crosman explains that, "She [Betsy] was reportedly furious with her husband for agreeing to serve on various government art committees that took him away from painting.... yet there is the beginning of a smile and her eyes flash as she looks toward an unseen light source..." Betsy was a powerful force in her husband's life. She titled many if not all of Mr. Wyeth's works. The ever loyal Betsy also remained at the artist's side during a particularly intense midlife crisis.

While no two marriages are the same, I admire marriages where couples remain loyal to one another through thick and thin.

Wyeth's midlife crisis caused him to produce a secret series of drawings and paintings, many of them nudes, of his friend Helga Testof. Critics say that the Helga nudes may have been Wyeth's way of (temporarily) expressing his independence from his wife.

During his lifetime Mr. Wyeth was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also a recipient (like Thomas Eakins) of the Gold Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Andrew Wyeth may be dead but his signature will always be on the Pennsylvania landscape.

URBAN MILLENNIALS on the Fishtown Party Circuit

Published • Wed, Dec 04, 2013
By Thom Nickels

Everyone is talking about the Knockout game, and the chatter is not good. It’s not good because it’s been reported that the Knockout game can occur anywhere and at anytime in so-called safe neighborhoods. Last week, for instance, a 30-year old chef from New York was attacked in Old City by a group of six to eight males, all under the age of 21, and left with a broken nose and jaw, proof that attacks of this sort aren’t necessarily confined to the post-midnight hours, or during aimless walks through the city’s more undesirable neighborhoods.

What are good citizens to make of this? In a city as large as Philadelphia, it isn’t feasible to cross the street every time you see a group of potential Knockers following you or headed your way. Doing this would only have you aping Gene Kelly’s dance maneuvers because there could just as well be another Knocker group on the other side of the street. Of course, you could always decide to minimize your city walking and concentrate on taking the subway, El or the bus even for short trips, but even this wouldn’t guarantee safety. You could, for instance, pay your fare at the El only to find another Knocker group waiting for you on the platform; or if not on the platform then just beyond the doors of the train as you enter. Fed up, you might vow to forget public transportation altogether and, if you have a car, drive everywhere you have to go. But even this plan has holes. What happens if you walk out your door to get to your car just as a bunch of Knockers are walking past?

While it’s true that the news media is sometimes prone to exaggeration—i.e., the suggestion that Knockout gangs hang on every street corner—it’s also true that becoming enslaved by fear, and having fear rule your life, is something no sensible urban person wants. You might as well go back in time and join John Travolta in the Boy in the Bubble.

Various forms of the Knockout game have been going on with some irregularity since the 1990s. I remember an experience I had when I lived in Center City in the 1980s and 90s. Walking along Market Street towards City Hall one night, I casually walked into a group of ten males, all young, who were walking in the opposite direction. Not wanting to be thought a coward by walking to the other side of the street, I maintained eye contact with the group as I walked past, but before I could blink I saw two guys close in and then I felt a hand violently grab my back pocket where my wallet was. The assaulter failed to grab my wallet on the first take; instead, he ripped my back pocket which in turn ripped off a good portion of my trousers, leaving me partially exposed right there in the heart of the city. The attacker’s clumsy maneuver still spelled doom for the wallet-- it was gone in a flash, and I had to return to my apartment looking more than a little indecent, a scenario that reminded me of those nightmares in which we find ourselves naked in the middle of the city looking for a place to hide. I was glad I was not injured and that I had managed to take the cash out of my wallet before venturing out, so the rude intruders got nothing for their effort. What I got, besides shaky nerves, was considerable hassle replacing my driver’s license and a few other cards, but other than that I was fine. Even the trousers I choose to wear that night were on my ‘way out to the trash collection’ list, so I felt lucky in many respects.

The New York Times has categorized the Knockout craze as "Nothing more than the random assaults that have always occurred." One Times journalist even concluded that the police have yet to see evidence of "an organized game spreading among teenagers online." On the other hand, the game can hardly be called an urban myth. An urban myth is something that does not exist, but nationwide reports of the Knockout game cannot be denied. Former New York City Police Department detective contradicted The Times in a devastating television interview in which he spelled out the uncomfortable reality of this game, but I won’t go into that here.

Most urban dwellers, I think, have a natural adversity to seeing large groups of people walking together on city streets. This is true whether the group walkers are Knockers, Japanese tourists with cameras, clubbing revelers, organized class trips, or historic architecture tours.

One group in particular, the clubbing revelers or the so called millennials (our twenty-something friends both in college and out) have perfected group travel to the level of a science.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a tendency, especially among urban millennials, to travel into Center City and to the bars and clubs in Fishtown, in packs of five, ten or more. I don’t know when this trend started but it is now at full tilt. Stand for a time at the El stop at Front and Girard on a weekend night and you will witness great segments of millennial armies walking in unison as they march up Girard Avenue. When I was 21, I never went out on the town with this many people. I had friends, of course, and would arrange to do things with one or two at a time, but never ten or fifteen at once. It’s difficult enough to get two or three people to agree on when and where to club and socialize, but getting fifteen people organized that way is something only party planners used to do. Seeing these millennials rush down the EL steps at Front and Girard and then head to the clubs makes me think of organized class trips.

These are not Knocker groups, of course, but they are large groups nevertheless. Large groups traveling at night have become so commonplace in the city I don’t think the average person looks at them twice. This makes it easier for young men with untoward intentions to blend in as their own group, even if those millennials return to the El after clubbing with just half their members, a phenomenon which makes me wonder where the others got to and what happened to cause the downsizing. Whatever the reason, the homebound millennials suggest the truth of a universal rule: that while it may be possible to corral fifteen people to leave together from point A, keeping them together for the duration of a pub crawl is almost always impossible. At Front and Girard, you’ll sometimes see lone stragglers, or former groupers, walking back to the El, but this is a rarity. When this happens, the straggler in question will usually hail a cab rather than wait for the El shuttle or the 15 to take them to Broad Street and beyond. Waiting curbside, alone, for a bus or train seems to be the last thing that millennials want to do. This suggests, perhaps, that most of them have been trained to be wary of walking city streets alone late at night. Another theory, of course, is that they are all stuck in group think.

While the city can be a wonderful place, and has the sleepy suburbs beat many times over, there’s always talk of danger, some of it warranted and some of it exaggerated. The people who exaggerate the dangers of the city seem to have the edge every time. Their message has saturated the suburbs, and even affected some members of my own family, who tend to eschew all trips into the city, no matter the occasion. Fortunately, city people feel no compulsion to ban the suburbs from their exploratory repertoire. Many city people, like a poem by Whitman, are broad and expansive.

With the emergence of Knockers, exaggerated or not, it’s going to be even harder to convince suburbanites that it is okay and even exciting to spend a day or two enjoying the diverse-- sometimes perverse-- delights of the city. Having come from the suburbs myself, I know how suburbanites can exaggerate their dislike of city life: how two murders becomes twenty, how every dilapidated neighborhood, even those experiencing high intensity gentrification, harbors a rapist or two, a knife wielding maniac, muggers, or homeless people ready to breathe on you with their stale fish breath. In the Teflon shopping malls of Exton or Radnor, there are no such horrors, although death by boredom is the number one killer there.

I close with this small story, which I think illustrates how times have changed.

Less than two hours after my parents brought me to Baltimore to begin my first year of college, I set out to explore the neighborhood, walking far past the four block townhouse radius of my immediate neighborhood and out into unknown territory, eager to see the sites and to get a sense of Baltimore’s gritty underbelly. I was excited to be in a new city. I had read enough writers’ biographies to know that a writer should not be afraid of new experiences. And so, with a degree of naivety maybe, I started out on this very long walk that took me to the heart of a ghetto where I encountered barefoot children sitting on stoops, women on lawn chairs peeling string beans, and men drinking bottles wrapped in paper bags. While some of the boarded up houses I passed introduced me to my first views of graffiti, I remember feeling exhilarated on that sunny day and thinking, as only a 20 year old could, that I was inhaling life and soaking up new experiences with every new street I encountered. Suddenly, and in a very unexpected way, it seemed as if the universe was agreeing with me when an old black man on a stoop, his face drawn in a world weary way, called me over and handed me a beautiful wooden box with a clasp that probably held medical instruments at one time. He gave no reason for the gift, but when I returned home and proudly showed it to my Baltimore-born roommates, I got a good dressing down because I had walked into a neighborhood where, they said, no sane person ever ventures.

"Don’t you know," they kept saying, "Don’t you know?!"

I thanked them, but in the end and to this very day, I’ve kept my own counsel.

Monday, December 2, 2013

My Sister Vs. The Breast Cancer Surgeons

My sister vs. The Breast Cancer Surgeons
Weekly Press • Wed, Nov 27, 2013
By Thom Nickels
Contributing Writer

Today I’m thinking of my youngest sister Carolyn and the struggle she’s had with breast cancer. It hasn’t been easy for her. For one thing, she had to undergo a (single) mastectomy two years ago that left her with a new body to adapt to. As a man, I cannot imagine what it must be like to have a part of your body removed, especially a part that, for women at least, can be such a focal point in their lives.

I also have another sister with cancer. Sister Susan had a form of lung cancer. A smoker for many years, her cancer was discovered seven years ago. While she didn’t have surgery, she went through a heavy cycle of chemo and radiation, forcing her to change her lifestyle to a radical degree. Always a beautiful woman (in restaurants and elsewhere, she turns heads), she decided she wasn’t going to go the "chemo bald is beautiful" route, so she went out and bought several eye-catching wigs. After all, when it comes to cancer, it’s all about choice.

I mention choice because after Carolyn’s mastectomy, she was offered chemo and radiation by a bevy of cancer specialists. While chemo and radiation worked for Susan, Carolyn smelled a rat. It just wasn’t her style. She wanted to go the natural route. And so she and her boyfriend did some research and found a safe drug (from Canada) that pretty much did what chemo did minus the harmful effects. The drug also had the approval of her oncologist. It was a controversial move, and a brave one. Carolyn was afraid of "chemo brain" as well as possible weight loss. Bald may be beautiful in old Mr. Clean commercials, but it wasn’t for her.

Two sisters with cancer is a scary thing, but because Carolyn’s cancer was visible in a way that Susan’s was not, she naturally thought of a breast implant. After some lengthy discussions with her doctor about this, she went under the plastic surgery knife for breast reconstruction surgery, or a tissue expander. Of course, the surgeon promised her a wonderfully successful implant, a problem-free end result that would very soon have her humming a happy song and shopping at Victoria’s Secret.

"I want my old body back," Carolyn told me many times. "I’m not about to be stuffing socks in my bra like a two bit drag queen."

Happily for her, she has a patient boyfriend who told her, "I love you just the way you are. You really don’t need to do this." But who can blame her? The surgeon promised Utopia and a bikini-ready body once the tissue expander "settled in." The future looked bright. Her cancer seemed to have been nipped in the bud and her remaining breast was cancer free.

After the cosmetic procedure, Carolyn appeared in her new tissue expander, not Mae West or Jayne Mansfield exactly but looking as if she never had a mastectomy at all. Periodic checkups kept her peace of mind intact until the day when she discovered that the expander-- the perfect cosmetic implant-- was causing an infection.

It was back to the surgeon, who told her, "We can fix this thing, have no fear!" And so, with a dose of antibiotics and a little bit of this and that, Utopia was once again promised her: bikini-wearing on the beach, and a future of cleavage revealing V neck sweaters.

The old Broadway musical, Promises, Promises, brings to mind a lot of broken promises along the way. The infection was getting worse, the antibiotics weren’t working, and her surgeon was now saying that the expander had to be removed. This involved another surgery (the fourth!) and a two-week recovery period involving tubes, leakages, etc., all in all a very messy post-surgical experience.

"Can you believe this?!" Carolyn told me. "On the bright side, the surgeon says that a new tissue expander will work. He doesn’t know where the infection came from. Maybe it was a staff infection. He’s not sure."

Meanwhile, in Florida, my sister Susan, who was still dealing with her own cancer, announced that during her latest checkup, she was told that her remission looked permanent. She was now working two jobs and enjoying life with her husband, having steak and Chardonnay every Saturday night and enjoying their indoor pool under a canopy of palm trees.

Carolyn prepared for the second tissue expander operation with high hopes, believing that the surgeon would watch this infection business, and that things would go as planned. After all, the good doctor assured her with a kind optimism straight out of a Disney film that this time "things would settle in," and that "she was a very good candidate for this type of thing." So, when the dreaded day arrived for yet another hospital visit involving anesthesia and the "shock" of waking up in the recovery room, she held her head high and told everyone that, "This thing is not going to defeat me."

After the second implant, Carolyn called Susan and announced, "It’s in. It feels okay. The surgeon says it looks good. I think we’re home free."

In life, I don’t think there’s anything worse than believing that something is going to get better when the opposite is true. That’s especially when battling an illness that waxes and wanes. There’s nothing quite so secure as certainty or closure (the Oprah moment), rather than bi-polar variables that leave you feeling exhausted.

During a moment of happiness with her boyfriend—a night on her apartment balcony in Roxborough with shrimp grilling nearby, a Stock’s pound cake in the refrigerator, and her dog and cat running circles around one other in the living room—Carolyn noticed another burgeoning infection. Yes, it was happening again. I can’t imagine how her emotions must have plummeted just then, all the high hopes she had for a full recovery plunging down into the darkest part of feeling.

She announced the arrival of a new infection at a dinner she was hosting for friends and family. There were no tears, at least publicly. Being family, we saw the troublesome eruption and told her that she needed answers. Why was this happening? Tomorrow, she said, she’d phone the surgeon and go through the rigmarole once again. She couldn’t stand the idea of another trip to the hospital, of falling asleep under anesthesia and then coming to in the recovery room.

Finally, however, the surgeon did admit that some women are just not able to receive tissue expanders because they’re "chronically" subject to infections. Still, he left the option open for a third go-round. The man was unstoppable. "Maybe next time," he told Carolyn. "Take six months to heal, and we can try it again if you want." But Carolyn, feeling like a high school biology frog that’s been over dissected by too many awkward sophomores, didn’t fall for the surgeon’s head ring of health insurance cash registers.

After multiple conferences with family and friends and a prolonged meditation on her balcony overlooking Fairmount Park, she decided against a third slice and dice.

"How long will these guys just cut, cut and cut? I know the answer to that," she added, "As long as you let them. Well, I’m not letting them anymore!"

And so, with a song in her heart, she did what any savvy contemporary woman would do: she shopped for "boobs" on the Internet, and found a faux breast from China. "It looks and feels like the real thing," she says. "It has become…my daily prosthetic!"

My Old Friend Todd: The Handicapped Life

The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Nov 27, 2013
By Thom Nickels

Recently I sat down with my handicapped friend, Todd, to hear what he had to say about his life. Todd and I get together every Thanksgiving, so I was eager to get an update.

I have reshaped Todd’s words to put them in story form. Here is Todd’s story:

I know what people think when they see me for the first time—he’s severely handicapped. He doesn’t have arms. He’s not a tall man, and once more, he’s confined to a wheelchair. What kind of life is that?

I’m sure their thoughts do not stop there. Other thoughts may be, "How does he do it? How does he eat, bathe, scratch himself, answer the phone, blow his nose, go to the bathroom?" If I was an able bodied man and saw my wheelchair-bound self in the street, I’d probably ask the same questions.

I have to tell you that I am not put off by people thinking these things.

Most people want to know why I don’t have arms. When I tell them I’m from Middletown, Pennsylvania, the area around Three Mile Island, many immediately think of the big nuclear accident there, and they surmise that this might have caused my disability. But no, that’s not true. I was born before the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

Some people will ask me if my mother took Thalidomide, a drug that was given to women by doctors in the early 1960s. But my mother never took Thalidomide, at least that’s what she always told me, unless she’s telling a major fib. I know my mother is being truthful. As far as I can tell, I am the way I am because of genetic factors although as far as I know nobody else in my family was born this way. Perhaps if I traced my family history back 200 years, I might find somebody who was, but I won’t be doing that much research any time soon.

So, yes, I have a number of disabilities. Looking at the bright side,

I can honestly say that at least I was not born able bodied and had to deal with an accident that made me disabled. Then I would have had the memory of a tragic loss, the loss of my arms, but since I was never able-bodied, I don’t know what it is like to have arms, or even to be tall, or to scratch myself with hands or dial a phone without using my feet.

I can be thankful for that!

My feet, you see, are my arms. They are my hands. I use them to type, to eat, to point, to open mail, to pet my cat Leo, to work the remote control for my TV.

One more thing, people think that because I am disabled, I don’t work but rather collect disability checks while watching TV all day, but that’s not the case at all. I am a full time Data Entry Clerk at Verizon in Center City Philadelphia, and I’ve had that job for over 21 years. I’m proud that I was able to find and keep a job like this, although just because I’m handicapped doesn’t mean that I have to be satisfied with the boring duties of a Data Entry Clerk. While I love getting up early and getting ready to leave the house, I don’t always love the fact that my job is among the world’s most boring jobs.

Just because I am handicapped doesn’t mean that I have to settle for a job that doesn’t completely satisfy me. Of course, in this economy, many people work jobs they are not in love with. I guess that’s why they call it work. If you can’t get what you want, you get what you need. My data entry clerk job did satisfy me for a number of years, and though that has changed in my department at work I am on record as being the 3rd most productive employee. There are some months when I register in at number one. There are 18 people in my department. There used to be 32 but because of downsizing many of my co-workers took early retirement packages, and so now there are a lot of empty desk around me.

There was a time when nobody could get me to say that I am a lot like my mother. To me for many years those were fighting words. But when you allow yourself to grow in life sometimes the truth becomes more than obvious: The fact is. I am a lot like my mother.

I am thankful that I can finally accept the truth!

When my parents went to enroll me in elementary school, for instance, school administrators said that would not work because the school was not wheel chair accessible. Those were the years when institutions could say things like that because most buildings were not wheelchair accessible. "He’ll have to be bussed over to Hummelstown," they said, and my mother took a fit.

She took a big fit, a monstrous fit. She yelled and screamed until they couldn’t take it anymore, and guess what? They made the elementary school wheelchair accessible. My mother did this because she was not afraid to speak up.

You might want to know when I first became aware of the challenges I had to face in life. It didn’t start at home, really, but when I would go out to shopping malls with family and friends. People would stare at me. I don’t mean quick, polite stares but the long drawn out kind that can stick like glue. The stares didn’t bother me so much, but they bothered the people who happened to be with me. A big change I have noticed over the years is that generally people don’t stare at me that much anymore. I really attribute this to the increased awareness and visibility of disabled people in society.

For that I am thankful!

I feel very good about this change, although I must confess that I used to be bothered by the questions and prolonged stares of little children. Now children are naturally curious beings, and they want to know why something is the way it is, and so over time I began to relax around them and comfortably answer their questions about my disability. But then I found that it was the parents who would draw the children back and tell them, "Don’t ask him that. Don’t be rude. Come here," which in the end I think is the worse thing a parent can do.

A lot of times I will tell a parent, "Let the kid ask, it is really okay. They should know. How else are they going to know? Let them hear it from me."

Throughout much of my life I’ve had to pretend to be happy, to put on a happy face for people. This is true until I get to know someone, at which point I will let my guard down and show them that I have different moods just like everyone else. Many people meeting me for the first time will say, "My God, he is always in a good mood. Given the position he’s in, he’s always in a good mood." Of course, anyone who knows me knows I am not always in a good mood.

The biggest thing about my disability is that I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. As a teenager I really felt sorry for myself, but that feeling had more to do with how women treated me. Since I have been without arms since birth, I didn’t see this treatment as happening because I was necessarily disabled, although some of it may have been connected to that. At the time I felt it was because of my acne. You see, since I was born this way, I don’t know any other way, so had my parents kept me in a locked room away from able bodied people, I would never know that I was…disabled. A lot of my insecurity in high school had to with acne….I had the kind of acne nobody should ever get…the kind of acne that is almost impossible to get rid of with over the counter crèmes and ointments. I don’t think I started to look good until my twenties…that’s when the acne cleared up. Of course, being a teenager even for able bodied people can be a very difficult time. Hormones are racing, the body is changing, and emotions are mixed and confused. It’s not an easy time for anybody. So for me accepting the fact that girls didn’t find me attractive—not even one girl—was very hard to accept.

That all changed for the better in my twenties, as I said, and it would change even more as time went on when I’d eventually get a girlfriend. My teenage years taught me a lot about peoples’ reactions to me. One thing I learned is that when both men and women are over attentive or fussing over me excessively, this is a red flag. Too much fuss in my mind translates to "I feel so sorry for you." Conversely, when people are visibly nervous around me I take this as a good sign because I know that I will eventually win them over by being cheerful and happy. And after I win them over they often become my best friends.

And when they become my friends, I no longer have to pretend to always be cheerful, I can be myself. You might say I have a talent for acting. Well, I do, but I also really like people. I really value my independence, as I’ve stated. I cannot say this often enough.

When I finished high school, I knew I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, the kind of job I would get. My goal was to go to a big city, live in my own apartment, make friends, and have a regular job. I wanted to go to a trade school, and eventually I applied and was accepted at a school in Philadelphia. Now, while my parents wanted me to be independent, being that independent scared them. Philadelphia, in their minds, and in the minds of most rural people, is a hornet’s nest. They were worried about crime and about my safety. But to tell you the truth, I did not want to live in a rural environment. The city to me has always been exciting, because in the city you can go out and get coffee at 3 in the morning if that’s what you want to do.

There are also many more people to meet in the city than there are in isolated rural areas.

When I enrolled as a student, I found a place to live in University City. Later I moved to an apartment in Roxborough, which was fine for a while although I have to tell you that I did too much drinking in Roxborough. I had to learn the hard way, I suppose, and so there were many odd DUI style wheelchair accidents. These were mostly sloppy minor accidents that made me look and feel foolish. I later decided that I had to become sober. (I have been sober for over a decade now).

For that I am thankful!

A lot of my life has been spent on the road…not as a traveler to exotic places—although I did do that two years ago when I took a cruise to the Caribbean with one of my attendants—but as a wheelchair driver. Driving through the streets of the city is not always easy. In fact, I have had many, many, near misses with cars, so many in fact that I had to figure out how to get to and from my place of work from my Center City apartment. So I devised a way to get to 12th and Race via the subway concourse and as a result I more than cut in half the number of car-wheelchair near misses.

I’ll never forget my first wheelchair-car near miss. It was in University City, and I was headed out to the school cafeteria to get some food to bring back to the apartment, when a woman in a car clipped my wheelchair. She got out of the car and began to cry. She couldn’t apologize enough, she was really upset, but my mind was only on the food, and so I told her, "It’s okay Miss, it is okay." I eventually clamed her down and was able to get my food.

Another time in Center City a male driver almost hit me. He was so apologetic he handed me a twenty-dollar bill. Now, I really don’t like it when people just hand me money, but in this case I took it. But there have been times when people have just come up to me and handed me money, as if in their minds a disabled person in a wheelchair equals a homeless person in desperate straits. I’m proud to say that I have never accepted money under these circumstances.

Even though I am disabled and going through some pretty scary health problems right now---I have polycystic kidney disease and will need a liver transplant before too long---my parents would not be happy if I threw in the towel and gave up, quit my job and asked them to move home. I would never do that. I consider an action like that falling victim to loser status: a man in his forties living at home with his parents. It’s certainly not something my mother would respect, and since I am like my mother, I wouldn’t respect myself either. My big personal goal is to meet the right woman and get married and have a family. That’s what I really want, and I know I couldn’t do that if I became a dependent invalid.

Talking about marriage brings me back to women again. I met my first girlfriend when I was 23. I was in a bar with friends, and they happened to notice a beautiful girl looking at me. It was phenomenal to see that a woman was looking at me because she was attracted to me, rather than because she thought I was a freak. So we became boyfriend and girlfriend for a while but then like a lot of love stories when you’re young, the whole thing took a nosedive when she started giving her business card to men while we were out on dates.

Today my life is good in terms of peace and comfort. I love going to work everyday even if I am not in love with my job. I’ve accepted the fact that living in Center City is lonely. In CC people tend to say hello how are you, and that’s it; friendships are not easily formed as they seem to be formed in neighborhood settings. But feeling lonely has to do with the fact that I no longer drink and go to bars. Meeting people in bars is a big chunk of what happens in the city. So I’ve learned to trade a tumultuous exciting life with huge ups and downs for a more solid and quiet life with a secure center.

Yes, for all of these things I am extremely grateful!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Expulsion from the Union League

The Local Lens

Published• Wed, Apr 10, 2013

By Thom Nickels

Philadelphia is basically a "dress-down" kind of town, where it’s not unusual to see theater and concert-going patrons in casual clothes bordering on rustic. By "rustic" I mean torn or split jeans, corduroys with holes or stains, or shirts that resemble lumber yard work frocks.

I sometimes think the "dress-down" style here has something to do with the city’s Quaker heritage. The original Quakers liked plainness over ornate or showy materials. New Yorkers have often observed Philadelphia’s penchant for dress-down attire, especially when it comes to theater audiences. A long time ago I remember reading a New Yorker article about Philadelphia men wearing bib overalls to the theater. Bib overalls, of course, are what farmers in the country wear. You don’t expect to see men in bib overalls when attending opening night in one of the city’s major theaters.

When it comes to dress, Philadelphia is also a city of extremes. Consider the class of men who like to wear bow ties. These fellows can be any age; they can be prep school grads, conservative Republicans, men from old money, rich suburban families or even men who aspire to attain something of what wearing a bow tie seems to suggest: sophistication beyond the pale. In some cases, a bow tie can looked affected, although wearing the right bow tie with a nice seersucker suit is a sure way to suggest money and class.

Suspenders are another specialty dress item. They can look like the Farmer in the Dell or just downright cool, depending on what they are holding up. I wore suspenders as a boy with white shirts and a small checkered bow tie. To get my attention sometimes or to make a point, my mother would snap my suspenders. Perhaps that’s why I opted to stop wearing them, although it may also have been because suspenders were sometimes known to come undone in violent recoil that had me holding up my trousers for dear life. To this day whenever I see somebody in suspenders I experience a slight urge to go over and give them a snap. As for bowties, we wore them in parochial school as an alternative to the sometimes boring necktie.

I grew up when boys and men wore ties to school, church and work, when shirts were tucked into trousers in the classic Brooks Brother’s mode rather than left to hang over trousers like untailored drapery. Today it is fashionable among many twenty-something men to wear shirts - dress, casual or grunge - hanging over their trousers, a fashion trend started years ago by overweight designers who wanted to hide the huge expanse of their waistlines. A tucked-in shirt, after all, accentuates body image.

Many, though not all, younger men go to extreme lengths to avoid wearing sports jackets and suits. I have seen these guys underdress at social and press events where almost everyone present is wearing a jacket and tie. What amazes me is how these guys don’t seem to care that they stand out like boiler room janitors or party crashers. Don’t get me wrong: I love old, sloppy clothes. Weather-beaten clothes are fun to wear around the house and to do work in. I tend to wear one work shirt, for instance—something I bought at the local thrift store—that is starting to sport holes, but because I like the shirt I have come to regard it as my work uniform. But would I go to a museum exhibition opening in it? I don’t think so.

When I was in my twenties I began to think of wearing suits and ties as the province of old men. You know the look: oversized sheen jackets, fat clown ties, neatly pressed baggy trousers and shiny black shoes that not reflect way, way up into Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden universe. My beloved old great aunt, who once corresponded with Clare Booth Luce and knew Connie Mack, expected me to dress in a tie whenever I visited her in Cathedral Village, a retirement/nursing home in Roxborough. Sometimes I complied, although I would only put the tie on when I entered the Village, and never wore it on the bus going there or returning home. There were other times when, out of stubbornness, I would decide, "NO tie for great aunt!" so I’d visit her with an open collar.

At no time, however, did I visit her with my shirt hanging out of my pants like those hipster exhibition janitors. My great aunt, who was born in 1895, had no time for an open collar, while an open collar to me was a beautiful thing (like reading the poetry of Walt Whitman), especially in the summer. The prospect of having lunch with me and my open collar in the Cathedral Village dining room once drove her to tears. In her panic to make me look presentable, she suggested that I wear one of her broaches in place of a tie.

Of course, it not being Halloween, I did a double take. "I’m sorry I didn’t bring the tie," I said. "I will next time, if it means that much to you, but I’m going nowhere near that broach." We decided on a compromise: I would button the top button and leave it at that. Later, however, I saw that I was being unfair to her and so I made the decision that if a tie made her happy, why not wear one, especially if she’s paying for lunch?

Through the years I’ve come to realize that when it comes to dressing for events, it’s always better to be overdressed than under. In some cases it’s actually possible to do both, as hybrid dress configurations like the sports jacket/sweater/ jean combination manage to bypass any suggestion of janitorial influences. Suits and jackets today have lost the Square Bob look of yesteryear, thanks to certain European influences like shorter, tighter jackets, slimmer trousers and slim ties.

Of course, there are things I’d never wear, even if I found myself (during a terrible war with North Korea, say) crawling on all fours in the streets in a search for water and food rations. These items include: (1) sweat pants and sweat suits, which should never be worn outside a gym or the backyard. (2) Flip-flops: No self-respecting man should wear flip-flops in the city (the beach is okay). There’s no sadder sight in contemporary life than watching a grown man in flip-flops trying to descend the steps at Girard and Front after getting off the El.

Please don’t think of me as a fashion expert. I flunked a big test recently when I went to cover a Royal Oak Foundation Lecture, The Day Parliament Burned Down, in the Grant Room of the Union League. As I entered the building, I was stopped by a UL overseer who asked, "Do you have jeans on?" I might have been carrying a ziplock of weed from Colorado, judging from her full frontal lunge in the direction of my shoes. "No, ma’m," I said, respectfully. "In fact, my natural tendency is to overdress. I am wearing dress Levi’s from the Port Richmond Plaza thrift store to match this very hard-to-find Calvin Klein corduroy jacket."

"You are wearing jeans," she said, patently ignoring the Lauren sweater, Italian shoes and dress belt from Helsinki. A fashion debate then ensued at which point the overseer mused, "So far this evening we’ve had to turn away 16 people."

"Sixteen?!" I exclaimed, happening to glance over at a man on a lobby bench in the act of removing his jacket, when like a flash of lightning the overseer pointed at the culprit and said for all to hear, "Please do not remove your jacket, sir!" Two men behind me, also wanting to know how and why Parliament burned down, wore skinny peg ties (Pee Wee Herman), tight jackets and a hybrid version of hipster petite casual slacks. They were also waiting for the overseer’s green light. To my astonishment they were allowed to pass through without the overseer ever checking their trousers.

Life is unfair sometimes.

It was not a good day, and I did not like being number seventeen, but out on the sidewalk, in the sunlight of truth, I could plainly see that the Levi’s on my body were in fact denim (or black jeans) and not cotton.

November ICON MAGAZINE City Beat Column 2013

November City Beat columnb> 2013

We hope that the Mural Arts Project’s October 5th The Meal, an extravaganza staged to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary, becomes an annual event. Imagine eating art off the walls “and putting it into a public space in the form of a table setting?” That’s how French artist Lucy Orta referred to The Meal. “In a sense, the murals on the wall will be found on a table runner and the plates of The Meal,” Orta said. This was Philadelphia’s first free collective dining experience but the 34th for Paris-based artists Jorge and Lucy Orta, who created The Meal as an art event. Many of the 904 guests were selected by a lottery system. The vegetarian fare was created by Chef Marc Vetri. Guests got to take home a rather spectacular Orta art plate. We ate with Amy Johnson, a Media, Pennsylvania, City Council candidate, and muralist Ben Volta and his young son Milo (Milo crawled under the table at one point and pinched our knees). Jane Golden gave a speech that had the airborne pounce of an Olympic discus throw. Onlookers beyond the perimeter of the Thomas Paine Plaza at the Municipal Services Building were surprisingly sedate when spotting so many people chewing on Black Krim, Dabinett, Celtuce, Spitzenberg and lots of cubed carrots. “What I want to know is,” Amy Johnson asked, “is who cut all of these carrots into such tiny cubes?” Since vegetables, like Chinese food, leaves the stomach fast, we headed out to a fast food restaurant afterwards for something meatier to chew on.

At Drexel University’s second TedX symposium last month we led the pack with a 9 AM presentation on how technology effects human interaction. Later, we answered questions from students about the value of cursive writing, and were taken aback when one seemingly smart woman asked, “Isn’t advocating for cursive retrograde thinking?” What? We let it be known that cursive writing is a kind of poetry, a basic skill like learning the alphabet. In addition, we told her that intelligent people who can only print block letters make most observers think of the developmentally disabled. It’s much like the argument we got into last year with a woman who announced that she was starting a movement to abolish the use of the semicolon. We love the semicolon, just like we love cursive writing-- and just like we love astronauts like Paul Richards, another TedX speaker who was part of the eighth Shuttle Mission to the International Space Station. Richards told us at lunch that astronauts who travel in space are given so much to do that they often forget to look outside at the ball of earth, or at the stars within arm’s reach.

We don’t usually attend film screenings. Philly’s film world, like the Philly poetry circuit, can be an odd feudal kingdom. We ventured to the Kimmel Center anyway to see the 2012 Susan Seidelman film, Musical Chairs, about two New Yorkers and their love for ballroom dancing (even after one becomes physically disabled), as part of a benefit for the Mayor’s Commission on People with Disabilities. The red carpet affair included “I am a camera” HighE Dillon who took posed and random shots of Mayor Nutter, Governor Ed Rendell, and Joan Bressler of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. Seidelman was also present but tracking her down at the post film reception was not easy. We wanted to ask her about her film, Desperately Seeking Susan, with the then rising star Madonna, but like Governor Rendell and the Mayor, she either skipped the reception or was being held hostage by admirers. The film had many in the Kimmel wiping their eyes. “What a tear jerker,”Dillon told us afterwards, still wiping an eye.

When you go out to lunch at a restaurant like Nineteen atop the Bellevue on Broad Street, you expect to dine in pleasant surrounding, pay your check and leave, not witness a man in his sixties get up from a neighboring table when his wife goes to the ladies room, walk over to a window and jump out onto Broad Street. That’s what a friend of ours saw weeks ago as he dined there with a friend. “I haven’t been able to sleep for 3 days,” he told us, fairly distraught. “The man just walked over to the window and jumped out, after which one of the waitresses fainted.” After the tragedy, management closed the restaurant and escorted diners out. “But there was nothing on the news,” our friend added. “A man jumps out onto Broad Street at lunch time and it goes unreported!” We researched the incident but getting the facts wasn’t easy. Nineteen had no comment while Bellevue management confirmed that someone had indeed died out on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, adding, “You’ll have to call the police for the rest of the story.” The police were “sort of” forthcoming. They took our information with a promise to call back but it took a reminder call from us two days later to get them to tell us that we had to call the City Medical Examiner’s Office. When we did that we were told to call another number and then wait for a return call. We finally received the confirmation we were looking for 5 days after the original request: a 66 year old man from Ventor, New Jersey, had indeed committed suicide from Nineteen on that fateful September afternoon.

Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist Tony Auth was on hand at the Philadelphia History Museum for a retrospective of some of his best work from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Auth was everything to political progressives during the Ronald Reagan era. An engaging, almost elfin looking man in a perfectly contoured John Steinbeck beard, Auth greeted well wishers and chatted with PHM Executive Director Charles Croce about his career and the glory days of The Inquirer. We learned, among other things, that when he lacked inspiration, he’d head to the movies for ideas and that during his tenure at the paper he only had one cartoon rejected by Inquirer bosses. While The Inquirer gave Auth complete artistic freedom, it also reminded him that it held editorial veto power. During the Q and A with Croce Auth made several inferences that the once great Philadelphia Inquirer has indeed fallen from grace. At the reception he elaborated further when he told us that a young Tony Auth looking for a newspaper venue in 2013 wouldn’t stand a chance at his alma mater.

What’s going on with PAFA, one of our favorite institutions, and its fascination with cartoon characters? We tried to get into the mouse like blow up doll, the ‘Companion’ statue by artist Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) last spring when PAFA plunked it down in 30th Street Station directly across from the Angel of the Resurrection sculpture. We know that times are tough and that people need laughter, but are blow up dolls the answer? KAWS has found a good “Red Grooms” style gimmick although the whole thing makes us think of a children’s circus. The new KAWS @ PAFA exhibit suggests to us that cartoons masquerading as art are propagating like bed bugs: from the single 30th Street blow up doll there are now three more KAWS blow up dolls, one a 9 ¾ foot tall sculpture entitled ‘Born to Bend’ as well as cartoon character portraits hung salon style in the venerable halls of PAFA. The KAWS phenomena makes us think of the time Thomas Eakins accepted an award from PAFA in red bicycle pants and then promptly had the award (a medal) melted down. Was Eakins seeing the birth of a cartoon art in the museum’s future? Since there’s no telling what might happen next in the world of art, how about an inflatable KAWS PAFA building--- the art museum as a pop-up, moveable rubber raft?

We talked shop with The Philadelphia Tribune’s Bobbi Booker during the Museum of Art’s press reception for Ledger: Modern Art and the Metropolis. The massive exhibition (October 2013-January 5, 2014) is in the Dorrance Galleries. Leger, who studied architecture, was, like Warhol and Jean Cocteau, an artist who engaged painting with the popular arts. The exhibit includes “The City,” one of the greatest works in PMS’s collection, at least according to Timothy Rub, PMA CEO. Check out the PMA gift shop for Leger goodies as well: there’s resin jewelry, ceramic kitchen and dinnerware, and more.

Marty Moss-Coane was born on Valentine’s Day, 1949. The host and executive producer of Radio Times With Marty Moss-Coane in Philadelphia, started as a volunteer at Philadelphia’s WHYY-FM studios in 1983. From her role as associate producer of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air, she became the host of Radio Times when Gross went national in 1987. Moss-Coane says that in the beginning of her career she was “terrified of making a mistake, of sounding like a fool, of not being as good as Terry Gross.” In another interview, she talked of her radio guests. “We’ve had lousy guests—the lousy guests are ponderous talkers. We’ve had hostile guests; we’ve had guests who were drunk or high. We had one guy who was as high as a kite. The truth is, that’s the rare guest. Most of them are pretty good and we’re pretty choosy who we have on.” Well, maybe not choosy enough if some of these high recognition “names” are snorting in the back aisles.


The Local Lens
Published • Wed, Nov 13, 2013
By Thom Nickels

The recent cut in SNAP benefits or food stamps has made more than a few people uneasy. Obviously, this is the beginning of the end for food stamps. The cuts will lead to more cuts until finally food stamps will be a thing of the past. As reported by The New York Times, this year’s cut is "the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964 and touches about one in every seven Americans."

Right wing Republicans (and even some Democrats who should know better) think that these cuts are good for people. "The government shouldn’t be helping people anyway," they proclaim. "One shouldn’t depend on the government for assistance."

Well, that was the general feeling in the year 1890, or the Gilded Age, when the poor literally starved in the streets or were mistreated by employers.

The SNAP cut is problematic because of what it portends for the future. Since the age of Ronald Reagan nearly every social program begun by FDR, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson has been marked for shrinkage or elimination. Assistance programs of all types are being slashed, from unemployment benefits, LIHEAP, and welfare. There are even those who still want to privatize Social Security and the Post Office.

But food, in case you haven’t noticed, is the new gold. That should be obvious to anyone who walks through the doors of the supermarket. Sometimes as I walk about the aisles there, I have to look twice at the very obvious spike of prices on many items. In fact, it’s gotten so bad at the supermarket that spending twenty dollars there will only net you a miniature (as in microscopic) bag of supplies.

Everyone is feeling the punch. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen disgruntled customers checking and rechecking the prices on receipts outside the supermarket before loading their groceries into cars. Their faces have a pale, shocked quality. They’re hoping that the huge total is the result of a mistake. But it is not a mistake. The total is as real as the cut in food stamps.

As a result of the upsurge in food costs, many people have discovered the "more for your money" pleasure of the Port Richmond Village mall’s two Dollar stores, that used to be places to buy non-food items like paper products but which are now fast becoming supermarkets because of the addition of more food aisles than ever before.

O the blessed times in which we live!

People who have never shopped at dollar stores are now packing the aisles there because, outside of blowing an entire paycheck on food, there’s simply no alternative.

"One can always eat less," as somebody once told me. Well, that’s true, but when ‘less’ spells hunger, then we have a problem.

There are food banks, of course. The PhilAbundance depository at 601 W. Lehigh Avenue is only one of many such free food banks in the city. On certain days of the week you can see the long lines of people waiting to obtain a very small amount of free food, from canned goods, meats, milk and cheese. Just one year ago the lines outside the Lehigh Avenue outlet were moderate in length, but today they stretch on for at least a block and a half. It’s obvious that the lines will grow substantially in the future. A good many of people in line are elderly who very often bring portable stools or fold up chairs to sit out the interminable wait, since the line moves at a snail’s pace. Good-natured volunteer workers stock the Lehigh Avenue outlet’s shelves and guide participants through the small room packed with food selections that vary from week to week. Some weeks, it seems, the selections are exceedingly generous, but other weeks there’s no variety at all. But you can always count on canned beans, corn, plantains (not bananas), crème of chicken soup and frozen pork sausage. Hey, it’s food!

While the PhilAbundance scene is enough to make the uppity Whole Foods crowd hold their noses, if things get much worse the invisible food immunity granted to Whole Foods Foodies will come to an end.

Unfortunately, the variety of free food offered at PhilAbundance has suffered serious declines. A year or two ago participants could take twice as much food as they are being offered today, a downsizing that suggests the program might be in trouble because of the huge numbers of new applicants.

It’s enough to make a prophet of doom ask: are we headed for some kind of food shortage or famine? As reported by Stephen C. Smith of George Washington University, "About 925 million are currently hungry, not far from the all-time record. A family living in poverty in a low-income country may spend almost three-quarters of their income on food."

Are we, as a nation, going to suffer food shortages in the future so that we go around looking like those leading Hollywood actors who lose weight just to excel in a movie role? Careerism, not hunger, nearly destroyed the bodies and health of these actors (who should know better) when they lost 50 pounds or over to win a Golden Globe or an Academy Award. The photos of these emaciated men, available on the Web, remind us of authentic victims of hunger, or even some future scenario of what many of us would look like when, and if, there’s not enough to eat, or if food becomes so expensive that it is attainable only by a few. The results of not eating can be ghastly. Nothing can explain the absurdist antics of those careerist actors who risk death, disease and the deterioration of their looks just to sustain a role in a movie.

Actor Tom Hanks may have been having fun when he lost 55 pounds to play a FedEx employee stranded on an island in the movie Castaway’ but in the end he gave himself infections, a rapidly aged face and body, and diabetes.

Actor Christian Bale is probably the most extreme example of a careerist weight loss fanatic. When he lost weight to appear in The Machinist, not only was he barely recognizable in his new skeletal state but also many say that he came very close to death. Of course, this latest Hollywood trend among male actors is its own story, but it does serve to point out the horrific effects of going hungry and starvation.

I’m not saying that the people in the PhilaAbundance line look like Christian Bale or Tom Hanks after a self-imposed starvation diet, but the sickly images of these guys do illustrate the supreme importance of food and nutrition, and the disastrous effects of forced fasting or not being able to eat because of controlled (high) food prices, corrupt Agribusiness, or famine.

It may or may not be science fiction to imagine that during any world emergency, the availability of food would almost certainly be affected in a negative way, and that eating as one ate "before" would be the exclusive province of the rich.

Food, at that point, would have an even higher value than gold.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Miraculous Icons

I took to the road again but this time headed to visit one of my favorite places, Saint Tikhon's monastery. Saint Tikhon's is an Orthodox monastery about 40 minutes outside of Scranton. The three hour trip on Martz Trailways went without a hitch. One of the monks, Brother Stephen, was at the bus terminal waiting for me when I arrived. We chatted amiably in the car on the way to the monastery gates, and then I was left on my own at the guest house where I unpacked and read until the two-hour Vespers service at 4:30. Dinner followed at 6:30 and then there'd be free time to read, explore the grounds (and the woods) until bed.

Life in a monastery is generally serious business. There is no such thing as "monastery entertainment," no movie nights or daily happy hours. I didn't take a cell phone or a laptop but opted to go natural. It was good to get away from the city and to talk to the monks. In the car on the way from the bus, for instance, Brother Stephen told me about a group of retired Catholic nuns who love to visit St. Tikhon's. These sisters are ultra modern types who don't wear a religious habit, so it's my guess that they are drawn to the extreme traditionalism at the monastery, where the monks wear cassocks twenty-four seven. In any event, Brother Stephen had a lot of nice things to say about these nuns.

Like my first visit to the monastery a year and a half ago, I was the only one staying at the guest house. My large room had two twin beds, a desk, closet, and a bathroom across the hall. Near the bathroom was a communal kitchen of sorts that was also attached to a hermitage where a very learned priest-monk, Father Athanasay lived. Father Athanasay, Brother Stephen informed me, was a former Jesuit Catholic priest who switched to Orthodoxy around the time of the Second Vatican Council. Father Athanasay has a particular devotion to Saint Anna, the mother of Mary. As a result of that devotion he was able to donate a miraculous icon of Saint Anna to St. Tikhon's, although this icon didn't start out as miraculous at all.

Years ago Father Athanasay was approached by an elderly woman who gave him money to spend as he pleased. Father Athanasay decided he would go to an iconographer and have an icon made of Saint Anna, his patron saint. Shortly after the icon was made, it began to stream myrrh (perfumed oil). This fact attracted considerable attention, which inevitably led to numerous reports of miracles and healings after people prayed before the icon. The icon of Saint Anna is located in a small, separate chapel near the monastic dormitory. The chapel is large enough for fifteen monks and is sometimes used when the main church is over crowded due to a St. Tikhon's seminary event. Brother Stephen was kind enough to show me the icon, taking it out of its glass container so that I could get a close up view of it as well as see the gifts of jewelry, necklaces and rings draped around the perimeter of the icon. These gifts were left by people who had benefited from miracles as a result of prayers to Saint Anna.

If you're not Catholic or Orthodox, all this might sound like Halloween hocus pocus. Some people, in fact, have suggested that the miraculous effects of the icon (or any icon) are illusionary, and that the streaming part is a hoax engineered by priests or monks just to get people to donate money or come to church. "There has to be a rational explanation," one friend of mine insisted. I am at a loss to explain these things to skeptics except to shrug and say that the mysteries in the universe sometimes outweigh rationality and logic. Sometimes there isn't a rational explanation. When Brother Stephen showed me the icon of Saint Anna, I didn't smell perfume or see it stream myrrh, but I did cross myself and give it a kiss.

Two days later I would visit Saint George's Orthodox Greek Catholic church in Taylor, Pennsylvania, when the Abbott of Saint Tikhon's invited me to accompany one of the monks and his visiting parents to a service around the exposition of two weeping icons that have been attracting considerable attention.

For at least two years these icons of the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) have exuded a fragrant oil or perfume like substance that literally flows down the surface of the icon, so much so that it can be collected in a bottle or swabbed up with cotton balls. Sometimes the streaming is so intense it fogs the outer glass containers into which the icons are placed. The service, called a Moleben, is about 40 minutes of prayers and hymns during which the priest places the icons on a Tetrapod (or stand) and then anoints the congregants with the myrrh. In the past, the Moleben has attracted thousands of people, some of whom have reported healings of serious back pain and stroke related problems. Brother Stephen said that there were so many people at the service one year that the local police had to direct traffic in and out of the church parking lot.

The people who attend these services are Orthodox, Roman and Byzantine Catholic Christians. In the Catholic world, there are statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary that also weep. But this is not about seeing the face of Jesus or Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich or the swirl of a Dairy Crème ice cream cone. The media favors these frivolous stories because they tend to poke fun at crazy religious people up to their necks in superstition. There's nothing laughable about an icon that weeps.

That's why when the Abbott, Father Sergius, asked me if I'd like to accompany the monk and his parents to see these icons, I replied with curious enthusiasm. On the evening of the service, I met up with Father Silouan, the young bearded monk who converted to Orthodoxy several years ago after finding himself in a rut while attending art school. Father Silouan, who is currently an iconographer at St. Tikhon's, changed his mind about a career as a secular artist when the instructors at the art school he was attending announced that they would begin to teach students how to sell and make money from their art. The future monk, cooled by this emphasis on money, announced that he was not interested in doing art for cash. As a result, he left art school and then, through a serendipitous chain of events, happened to find himself inside an Orthodox church when one of his friends told him that he "should take a look at this place."

Father Silouan took to Orthodoxy like a fish to water and not long after entered the monastery at St. Tikhon's. But for his parents it was a slightly longer road. While traveling with Father Silouan's family, his mother told me that she was at first a little put off by her son's conversion. For many Protestant evangelicals, like Father Silouan's mom, Orthodoxy can seem like voodoo with its icons, candles, incense and blatantly un-modern vestments. Nevertheless, both she and her husband followed their son's path. For Fr. Silouan's father, who was born Catholic, the transition was easier. He told me that following his son was like going back to the Church of his childhood before Vatican II.

Fr. Silouan's mother recalled the initial reactions of her evangelical friends when she told them she was now Orthodox: "It's superstition, almost witchcraft!" some of them replied. Of course, her friends were thinking about the icons, and how they saw them as idol worship, even if they didn't realize that prayers are said to the saint the icon represents, not to the icon per se (as an idol). Icons, simply put, are not worshipped. Catholics get similar criticisms when some insist that they pray to statues, not to the saint a statue represents. Father Silouan's mother found that explaining these things to her questioning friends to be a hopelessly frustrating experience. "This is the original Christianity," she told me she told them. "Before there was scripture -- before there was a bible -- there was liturgy."

The church was crowded when we arrived. There were Greeks, non-Greeks, non-Christians, workmen who looked as though they'd just left a construction site, elderly couples, people with obvious medical conditions, families, children and curiosity seekers. The two icons, in glass containers, were placed front and center before the iconostasis. The priest, in blue vestments, chanted a prayer that elicited robust responses from the hundreds present. The energy in that small church had an upward drift, even a touch of the charismatic, but just a touch, because the Orthodox never get crazy with these things. You won't find hand waving, head rolling, or snake charming.

By the time we made our way to the icons to get anointed from the streaming myrrh, the entire church had the smell of roses. We watched as the priest would switch from one icon to another, sometimes holding one aloft but at an angled position so that the myrrh would run in a steady stream into the cupped hands of congregants. The streams of myrrh were constant. When it was my turn, my forehead was swabbed with the fragrant oil. Some people were in tears.

For a good 10 minutes or so in the car on the way back to the monastery, nobody said a word. We were all still in the perfumed environment of the church.

The tempo changed when Fr. Silouan announced that, compliments of the Abbot, we would be stopping at a Chinese restaurant for a bite to eat because we had missed dinner at the monastery.

We continued to talk about what we had experienced through dinner, feeling very good that we had witnessed a true... miracle.