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Monday, December 28, 2015

The Liberal 'PC' Nanny Machine


  When ex-Mayor Nutter announced that it was his wish that he could ban Donald Trump from the City of Philadelphia, he was jumping on a bandwagon. This “stoning” brigade of numerous city mayors and prominent citizens were saying that because Trump’s views are annoying or “dangerous” he should be silenced forever. Nowhere was this boisterous campaign more evident than on Facebook, where many users announced that they would “unfriend” FB friends who find something about the man to admire.

    Okay, we know that Mayor Nutter’s wish to ban Trump from the city was just a wicked fantasy. It was also his last hurrah in terms of getting national attention. But cities, after all, are not medieval fortresses with walls. You can’t keep out people out with unpopular or outrageous views.  Philadelphia can’t even keep the homeless or repeat offender criminals outside city limits. Keeping Trump out of the city would just draw attention to his policies and win him more supporters.  

   Do I like Donald Trump? No, but that’s not the point. I would mock any mayor who made similar fantasy announcements about banning Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or filmmaker Michael Moore from their cities. Banning people, ideas—and yes, books-- have never been a good idea, not by right wingers nor by the left wing “empathetically correct” crowd.  Empathetically correct, in case you don’t know, is the new buzzword for the old term, ‘politically correct,’ meaning the Nanny State folks who want to protect us from ourselves. The Nannies want to ban horse and buggies from New York’s Central Park, Big Gulp sodas from NYC and prohibit tobacco sales to military personnel. They have even combed the English language for unacceptable words and titles. A small sample: A jailer is now a custodial artist; a housewife is a domestic engineer; a jungle is a rain forest; a trailer park is a mobile home community; a broken home has become a dysfunctional family and a shy person is now conversationally selective.  And it gets worse…

   The growing polarization of American society based on politics is a worrisome development. Polarization based on political beliefs is ultimately artificial because status quo politics never lasts but is always replaced by new politics and ideas. Politicians, however loved or hated, come and go like a flashing meteorite racing across the sky. Furthermore, no one candidate ever has all the right answers to the issues of the day.  Political candidates are like sloppily made BLT sandwiches with different parts falling out during the eating process. One can love some of Hilary Clinton (the lettuce?), parts of Bernie Sanders (the mayo?), and, yes—shockingly-- even a small segment of Donald Trump (the bacon?) but rarely is the entire sandwich a supreme delight. How many decades now have most Americans been voting for “the lesser of two evils?”

       Today’s polarized political environment encourages us to vilify a candidate if one or two of their ideas impress most people as “obnoxious.” Trump is not necessarily evil because he questions President Obama’s policies on immigration or because some in the media accuse him of Islamophobia. Because Trump may be clueless about certain issues doesn’t mean that he is evil, just as the shameless lengths that Hilary Clinton will go to acquire votes doesn’t make her evil either.

      Republican candidate Marco Rubio may be obnoxious when he promises to roll back all Obama-generated pro LGBT legislation if elected, but calling him Satan or wishing him dead because of this one position is beyond the pale. This is not the way we do “business” in America. In many ways, we have become a nation of screaming hysterics. In a war of orthodoxies, nobody ever wins.

     Some Trump vilification Facebook postings wish the candidate dead while others depict him as a pig or as a men’s room urinal.  These postings have a virtual village stoning aspect to them in which FB friends can pick up rocks and have a whack. This fever “conspiracy” to vilify assumes the frenzy of a group orgy or witch burning but in the end these attacks are boring and repetitive.

   It’s the same way with the hyper, obsessive anti-Obama folks, whose hatred of the President borders on the pathological. It doesn’t matter what the president says or does, for these people he’s always wrong, always evil and always anti-American. The personal attacks even include the First Lady and the Obama children.  How whole groups of people can live and breathe hatred like this, day in and day out, is a mystery to me. 

   In the last mayoral election—a shocking admission! -- I voted for the Republican candidate because I resented the Democratic machine control of Philadelphia. Municipal elections in the Quaker City tend to be farcical because Democrats always win, whether the Democrat’s name is Jim Kenney, Ira Einhorn, sex columnist Dan Savage, Jihad Jane or Mr. Corrupt Parking Authority. 

     The automatic canceling out of any Philadelphia Republican no matter how honorable he or she may be, decade after decade, cannot be good for the city. Obsessive one Party voting gives one political party too much power and a fat “chewing” cushion besides. I voted for the GOP candidate as a symbolic protest even though I like many of Kenney’s ideas.

        My one big “left wing” reservation is the rising tendency in that camp to be intolerant of opposing views, which brings us back to the ‘banning’ question.

      Conservatives on Facebook rarely if ever advocate unfriending ‘friends’ who advocate liberal positions or who support candidates that inspire conservative wrath.  Today the big censors of public thought and language are liberals. Witness how once common (and acceptable) terms like ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal aliens’ have been replaced by benign (and soft) labels terms like undocumented worker, or in some cases just immigrant, which leaves out the most important part: legal or illegal.
   Banning ideas and books used to come from puritanical, right wing quarters. In the modern age there was the banning of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the greatest novels ever written. At various times in the 1920s the book was banned in the United States, Ireland, Canada and England because it was thought to be obscene.

   Right wing puritans also banned Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published by Grove Press in 1961, the story of Miller’s life in Paris as a struggling scribe. Miller wrote about sexual love in explicit terms and this led to obscenity trials and police raids on bookstores.

   William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch caused a sensation when it was published by Olympia Press in 1959. The novel, about drug use and homosexuality, was banned in Boston and Los Angeles.  
   Right wing puritans challenged Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, about a Jewish family hiding from Nazis in the Netherlands, because of the book’s sexually explicit passages.

   Conservative puritans in Culver City, California banned Little Red Riding Hood from schools because some officials were irked that Mrs. Hood was shown carrying around a bottle of wine in her basket. As one Culver City educator complained, “Showing the grandmother who has consumed half a bottle of wine with a red nose is not a lesson we want to teach.”  

    In New Hampshire, conservative school puritans banned William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night because it was about a girl who disguises herself as a page (boy) and then falls in love with her male employer. The cross-dressing and the faux same sex romance in the story made school officials uneasy.
   Right wing ideologue puritans in a small California town banned Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes series because Jane and Tarzan were not married. Imagine that!

    Conservatives in one North Carolina County banned Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which deals with the ugliness of racial discrimination because one parent of a student in the County wrote a 12-page protest. The parent hated the book because of its sexual content, its “lack of innocence,” and because it was written in the first person and seemed “too real.”
   Liberal puritans banned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885, at a Quaker school in Montgomery County because a small handful of students complained that the use of the ‘N’ word throughout the text made them feel “uncomfortable.” The book is about the friendship of a young white boy with an older black man.  The use of the word ‘uncomfortable’ is interesting here. Education and learning are supposed to make students feel uncomfortable because that’s what mental growth involves. To be comfortable is to stagnate. If education and learning is too comfortable, it’s not doing its job.

   The “empathetically correct,’ go to great lengths to protect students from their own individual sensitivities. This is why speakers with controversial views can be banned from college campuses, as if the students were not mentally equipped to challenge these ideas or “process” them.  Sometimes when students threaten violence at these speaking events the college cancels the speaker out of fear and intimidation.  Ann Coulter, author of Adios America, The Left’s Plan to Turn America into a Third World Hellhole, was banned from speaking at the University of Toronto because of angry student protests that started to form. So much for engaging dialogue and an intelligent exchange of ideas!
      Novels like JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are being replaced in liberal schools by so called informational texts.” Additionally, 70 percent of the books proscribed to students now tend to be non-fiction. One educator complained that “Imaginative reading and creativity is going out of English classes.”

     Neil Postman, in citing George Orwell’s 1984, wrote, 

 Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
  If we lose the capacity to think, we’re through as a culture—and a nation.




Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Waking up Uncle Francis

   So there was my Uncle Francis lying on his stomach in his Girard Street apartment. I knew I’d gotten into his place some way though I can’t remember how. How I get from place to place sometimes can be a blur.  My father blames this on drinking… too many beers and too many beers in the wrong places so that I black out or just fall apart. Like the time I collapsed near Johnny Brenda’s  and Uncle Francis had to come and get me.  So I am used to not knowing where I am. In fact, I don’t even remember walking through Uncle Francis’ front door or even if he buzzed me in or not, but whatever happened I wound up standing in his bedroom doorway watching him sleep. How late was it? Maybe 3 or 4 in the morning, the bewitching hours, the hour of the wolf… The apartment was quiet except for the sound of passing traffic and the couple upstairs. Why are they so loud? Don’t they ever give it a rest?

   “Hello, hello, it’s Dan!”

            Why wasn’t Uncle Francis waking up? Usually when I’m here he’s walks around or sits on his sofa and reads and then he puts on a pot of coffee because he knows I love coffee. But he wasn’t budging this time and I was afraid that something was wrong. Was he sick again? Or could this be something worse?

      I thought if I relaxed in his living room for a while he would wake up in time. Because of his bad heart I didn’t want to wake him out of a deep sleep. I felt I needed to sit and rest anyway because I was having thoughts of my mother who died last month. It was Uncle Francis who broke the news of her death to me, and this must have been hard for him. He knew how close I was to mother. She’d been sick for so long. She died while I was on the Market Street El coming in from 69th Street. I was heading to Uncle Francis’ place. While I was en route mother died, so my father called Uncle Francis and told him the news so that he could tell me.

     When I arrived at Uncle Francis’ he sat me down and told me that mother had died.  I called my father after that and cried and then uncle walked me back to the El. The rest of the month was a blur. I did not want to live.

   “Uncle Francis, wake up sleepy head!”

       If he can’t hear then we have a problem. “Hey lazy bones, snicklefrit, get the hell up!”  That’s what he always called me when I was a boy, snicklefrit, little snicklefrit. Crazy, huh? We do funny things in our crazy Irish family.  Like we have aunts who drink only tea and who hate alcohol and then we have uncles who hate tea and call those aunts who hate alcohol old maids. Mother liked Old Fashions and Manhattans but her sister disapproved of alcohol and drank Arctic Splash and Seltzer water. She even had a alcohol-free wedding and expected everyone to come and have a good time. “It was so Mennonite,” my mother told me. “The worst wedding I’ve ever attended. The only spicy thing about it was the onions in the salad.”
   I started to think, “I have to stop thinking about waking him up! Why don’t I just crash on his sofa and sleep till morning, when we can both go out for bacon and eggs at Paradise restaurant.”

     But I found it hard to sit still so I paced the living room until I was looking out the big window that faced Girard Avenue where you can see everything and everyone, joggers, taxis, vagrants, the methadone people, hipsters.  I noticed how messy the living room was. This was untypical of Uncle Francis. He had a book of poems lying about and there were two pictures of me propped up behind a crucifix. God, I’d never seen that before. Uncle Francis was not religious. The Philadelphia Inquirer was open on his dining room table and I could see that he had a news story circled in black.  Beside it was a small tablet and it looked as if before bed he’d been taking notes.  I could have read it if I wanted to but I was feeling impatient and didn’t want to turn on the lights.  I tried to sleep again but that didn’t work. I finally realized that the only thing to stop the restlessness was to go into uncle’s bedroom and wake him up, maybe shake his bed or even jump into it like I did when I was a kid.
                   “Hey uncle, here I come!”  I gave his mattress a tug, but nothing.  I gave it another tug and still nothing.

       I thought, “This isn’t good. He’s not moving. For a moment I was afraid that I’d given him a heart attack but then I took his right arm and moved it snug against his body. I repositioned his right arm by bending it at the elbow a bit. 

   “Uncle Snickelfrit!”

      I started thinking about how God had taken my mother away from me and now what if He had done the same thing with Uncle Francis? I’d have nobody to talk to. Two loved ones in one month! There was this sense of urgency about waking him up. I knew I had to act fast and that time was running out.

   “Uncle Francis please get up,” I said, tugging at his hair. Then I saw him move. He scratched his head where I had touched it. “Uncle,” I said again, patting him on the forehead, but with this he turned over in his sleep, snored, made a coughing noise but then opened his eyes. He looked straight at me but then went to sleep again…. One of his crazy jokes…

      I wondered if he’d been drinking, so I went into the living room and checked what he had in the refrigerator. I spotted a half empty bottle of Jamison. I went to pour myself a small glass because I knew that Uncle wouldn’t mind, but when I went to drink it I didn’t feel anything.
   The whole night was screwed up. First, I didn’t even know how I got here; second, Uncle didn’t even know I was there, and then I couldn’t even feel the booze.
       I reached for a smoke in my trouser pocket but noticed that I didn’t have any, then I checked the apartment for a cigarette, searching behind the sofa cushions because when I visit I was always plenty of lose stuff there. When I didn’t find anything, I went back to the dining room table and thought about reading The Inquirer article that Uncle had circled in black.
     I started thinking how I hated life and how life was not fair. What if Uncle Francis is getting ready to die? “This can’t be happening,” I thought, “I will dive into the bed and land on top of him and then slap his forehead to wake him up.” I did just that, slapping him lightly on the forehead and then, surprise, surprise, he did sit up in bed with a look of terror on his face. He looked around and then directly into my face but he didn’t seem to be seeing anything at all.

   “Who’s there?” he said, placing his hand over his ailing heart. 
    We looked at one another but there was still no reaction. Then he struggled to get out of bed and limped around the apartment.  He walked past me. What is wrong? I ran up to him again but he didn’t notice.
      “Uncle Francis!”
      I slipped into his bed and curled up under the covers but when he came back he laid down on top of me. He was on top of me but I feel nothing. I just slipped out from under him. He felt something and he called my name and asked me to stop.
    “Please stop!”
  He can see me but he can’t see me?
  Finally, he got out of bed and walked to the dining room table where he switched on a small lamp and began to look at the article circled in black. I read the newspaper standing over his shoulder. 


       City Cites Pinched Wires In Man's Electrocution

Pinched wires electrified a city street light that electrocuted a pedestrian Sunday night in University City, city officials said.
Alexander L. "Pete" Hoskins, the city streets commissioner, said his department was still investigating how the wires became pinched.
He said the pole, in the 600 block of University Avenue near the University Bridge over the Schuylkill, was knocked down May 28 and repaired the next day. The pinched, or touching wires, were found near the door leading to the repair box, he said.
Hoskins said that all similar lights would be checked as a safety precaution. He said he had no reason to believe the problem went beyond the one light.
The Medical Examiner's Office said it had identified the victim as Daniel Joseph Reilly, 23, of the first block of North Maple Street in Lansdowne. Reilly was found with his neck and chin touching the light pole. He was pulled from the pole by Hoskins.
  You can imagine my dismay and shock when I realized that I had been dead for a week. While I won’t go into the particulars of my transition, I do have advice for the living: 
 Pray for a death that is not sudden, always have time to prepare, because when you die suddenly as I did on that cold rainy night in November of 1992, it took a long time before I knew what had happened to me. I was not warned; nobody took my hand and guided me upwards; I was alone; there were no angels. And my previously deceased mother did not immediately come to my side with words of comfort.

copyright@ Thom Nickels


My First Trip to Israel, Part I

There are no armed guards in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, at least not on open display. Entering Ben Gurion from the flight arrival area, it at first seems smaller than other airports until you realize that it fans out in a series of circles like a string of shopping malls. “So, here,” I reflected, suitcase in hand, “is the Promised Land of the Bible!” Just what this Promised Land had to offer would reveal itself to me over the next several days, the duration of my visit along with four other travel writers, two from Los Angeles, one from Arizona and one from Quebec City, all of us guests of the Israeli Tourist Ministry.
       Because the El Al jet ride from Newark had been less than comfortable, it was my hope that Israeli ‘land life’ would offer better things. My flight was packed tight with Hassidic Jews, men in hats and long sideburn curls who carried hat boxes of various sizes who seemed to take great delight in lounging or blocking seat entrances or pacing around the plane without letup. For this passenger it was like listening to endless renditions of Ravel’s Bolero. Everyone in our mostly Jewish press group had El Al horror stories. On both my arrival and departure flight, for instance, an Orthodox man refused to sit in his assigned middle seat because there was a woman sitting by the window. At the end of the day I felt grateful that Jewish Orthodoxy had provided me with ample leg room. 
   Once in Tel Aviv, a driver met me at Ben Gurion and drove me to the Herzelya Ritz Carlton Hotel where the traffic was five times the density of the Schuylkill Expressway. We traveled on a special toll road that got you to Herzelya in half the time. Along the way I took note of the billboards and random graffiti on buildings and reminded myself that cities the world over are the same when it comes to urban blight.  When we arrived at the Ritz the world became a Meditereanean luxury spa with a harbor of yachts, an ocean beach and blue skies. My hotel room overlooked the luxurious harbor. Management had also arranged a swag surprise: gifts of body lotions and a small plate of gourmet chocolates. I devoured the chocolates, showered, then took a walk on the beach and watched as teenagers played Frisbee and two guys in wet suits surfed in an ocean that reminded me of the surf at the Jersey shore.

    I’ve no doubt that some people go to Israel for the food, in this case, salads; salads of every variety with vegetables and ingredients you’re not likely to have heard of before. The breakfast buffet at the Ritz was beyond compare, attracting the likes of Tony Blair who rushed past our table with his security entourage.

  “It’s Tony Blair!” one of the LA writers said, even though all we saw was the back of the former UK Prime Minister’s head. Blair seemed to be in important business mode. Israel, after all, is about the size of humble New Jersey but surrounded by large monolith Arab countries, Jordan being the most peaceful of the lot unless at some point, as our tour guide indicated, “It has an Arab spring.” Naturally, fears of possible terrorist activity during our 5-day whirlwind tour of Tel Aviv, Jaffa, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem were very much on our minds.  Before signing up for this press trip, our group had done its homework: An American tourist stabbed to death in Jerusalem in 2010; an attack on taxi passengers, all U.S. citizens in 2000; in 2001 a shooting at a bus stop; October, 2015, the storming of a bus in Jerusalem (3 fatalities); in 2015 a couple and their 4 children were attacked by gunmen in the West Bank. Two days after our press trip, November 19, 2015, terrorists open fired on cars stuck in traffic; another attack in the West Bank where five people, including an 18 year old student from Boston, were killed.

   Prior to my coming here, for instance, some people had advised me to drop out. They prayed for me in my local parish church. They told me to be careful. I was even taken out to dinner and my hosts jokingly referred to it as The Last Supper.

         The instructions from the Ministry were clear: we must remain with our fellow travel writers at all times. Solitary excursions through Tel Aviv or Jerusalem were forbidden. The reality of this hit hard after our first dinner out in a Tel Aviv restaurant when we could not locate the tour bus. We were lingering on a dark Tel Aviv street.  “This cannot be happening,” a member of our group said, panic evident in her eyes. “We are standing alone on a dark street in Tel Aviv. A car could come up at any time and blow us away!” She wasn’t kidding. This was not New York or Philadelphia but we had been lulled into momentary complacency with good food and good wine. Inspired by her words of caution, we high tailed it around the block and hurried to the parked bus since moving along in a group is better than standing idle on a street corner, where anything can happen.

     Our apprehension abated somewhat during our first daylight tour: a walk through Jaffa, the ancient seaport of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, and the Crusaders. From its star-studded history—everything from Greek mythology, Jonah and the Whale to a long stay by Peter the Apostle—we listened as our guide explained how after the Jews won a local battle here with the Turks, resident Arab Christians and Muslims were given permission to remain in the city although newcomer Arabs were not allowed in.  Jaffa, the story goes, was founded by Jacob, one of the sons of Noah after the Great Flood. When Napoleon came to Jaffa to fight the Turks and the British his troops contracted the Plague and for the beleaguered emperor there was only one solution: to have his General surgeon kill the sick so that the disease would not spread. When the surgeon refused, saying he was in the business of saving lives, not killing them, Napoleon asked the Turkish sultan’s General surgeon to do the same thing but got the same answer. Although there are various stories about how the afflicted soldiers died, our guide told us that Napoleon walked away and let his troops die in agony on the vast portico outside the church of Peter the Apostle.
     The church of Peter the Apostle was built in 1654 and looks much like any cathedral in Europe although when I snuck a peek I was amazed that it was in total darkness with tourists milling confusedly about, some walking to the altar while others hung out near the back pews. It was enough to make your imagination work overtime and so it occurred to me that this would be a sinister place for terrorism. I noticed an adult man sneaking up behind a friend of his who was sitting alone in a pew and watched as he poured bottled spring water onto his friend’s head. Was this a Monty Python skit making fun of baptism? I left the church shortly after this.  

   As for Saint Peter, when the apostle came to Jaffa he stayed at the home of Simon the Tanner, a house that is still very much intact. The scriptures (Acts of the Apostles) tell us that during his stay Peter raised a woman (Tabitha) from the dead.  He also fell asleep on Simon’s flat roof whereupon he had a series of dreams in which he was told by the Lord to abolish the old Jewish dietary laws. Peter had to be told to do three times, but once he enacted the change, the new religion was able to spread among the pagans. Had the dietary laws not been abolished, Christianity could have died out as just another Jewish sect.” 
   Officially designated as a Health and Wellness press trip, we journalists were treated to a number of massages. I don’t think we were fearful of terrorism here, although body lotions could easily be replaced with poisonous substances and do strange things to the pores.  After a spin around Tel Aviv’s Sheinken Street and the Carmel open air market, each of us prepared for our 40 minute rubdown at the Ritz spa. In individual cubicles filled with sweet aromatic scents, we undressed and were lathered appropriately with oils and balms, wrapped in hot towels and then set upon by our assigned body rubbers. In my case it was a talkative Israeli girl who, because I told her I wanted a firm massage, went to extreme lengths to pummel my back with road construction drill jerks that had me bouncing off the mattress. Although she did manage to deliver some pleasant sensations, she became even more animated when I told her that during much of the rub that in my mind I kept seeing the face of an infant. Was it her child perhaps? She told m it was not her child but that when she was massaging me she was thinking of her sister’s new baby.  “Are you a medium of some sort?” she asked.  “No,” I said, “but massages send me places.” 

    There would be two other massages on the trip. At the Mitzpen Hayamim Hotel Spa and Farm, we donned white robes and slippers and took turns in the various cubicles for our Sea of Galilee rubs. My body rubber was a sturdy albeit bullish short haired woman who was coming to the end of a long day. She did not speak English but she was adept at pointing, so there was no conversation, no jerking motions just a methodical but thorough deep tissue application that was heads above the first. By this time, of course, we had heard about the killings in Paris, so our group was on high alert. The Mitzpen Hayamim tour guide, after giving us a tour of the farm, pointed to a not so distant mountain and told us that just a few weeks prior he had hiked to the top and was able to look over into Syria, “Where you can see all the carnage down below.”
     News of the Paris killings heightened our apprehension about traveling along the West Bank to the Dead Sea and into the city of Jerusalem. Our tour bus, we were told, would waver among zones A, B and C, B and C being the safe West Bank zones and A being the one to watch out for. The journalist who wanted us off that Tel Aviv street corner was now concerned about our entry into Jerusalem. She told us that she had not even informed her mother that she was taking a press trip to Israel because the news “would have given her a heart attack.”
      Our bus driver, a sturdy man with a lot experience driving buses along the West Bank, Haifa and the Jordan Valley has had stones and rocks thrown at his buses. When we entered the West Bank zones we were careful to avoid the window and sit in the aisle seats. Along the Jordan Valley the tour guide pointed out Jericho, the oldest city on earth (and home of John the Baptist) as being an especially dangerous place. Its small scale very biblical looking skyline seemed too close for comfort. Looking out the window from a safe distance, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the desolate Judean wilderness with its mountains and caves that were once populated by the Essenes, Jewish Zealots and early Christian hermits. I also took note of the abundance of abandoned tractor or military vehicle wheels that seemed to dot the landscape every few miles. Periodically we would pass an Arab settlement and what looked like the remnants of isolated, bombed out buildings. As we approached Jerusalem we were greeted with the timeless spectacle of Shepards guiding their flocks of sheep up and down the sides of mountainous hills.

    Our final group massage occurred near the Dead Sea. In my case I was told to strip and lay face up on a small table by a tall completely bald man who reminded me of Yul Brenner. He painted me with a brush in warm Dead Sea mud and slashed it around like he was swabbing a fence then wrapped my body like a mummy in two layers of cloth. After that he left the room without a word of explanation, returning fifteen minutes later with an order to shower. I was then supposed to float in a rectangular shaped mineral swimming pool with a group of pot bellied men and their wives, the latter bobbing about in flowered bathing caps.
   Needless to say, I opted to get dressed and help myself to complimentary tea in the foyer of the spa. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Trans Issues: The hot news of the Day

The transgender issue is the hot news of the day. From the one formerly known as Bruce Jenner to the trans person next door, stories about trans people seem to be everywhere. For many it is a controversial issue. Many people, for instance, admit that they still struggle with understanding how someone can feel that they were born into the wrong body.  Gay people also struggle with understanding this concept. In fact, there’s a small movement currently within the LGBT community working to take the ‘T’ off the label LGBT so that it will read LGB, meaning lesbian, gay and bisexual.  Sexual orientation, they say, is not gender identity. They are really two very different issues.  

     I met my first trans person in the late 1970s while living in Germantown. “Bruce” was a fellow writer who I bumped into at a book event at the Germantown Free library. Over a cup of coffee after the event he asked me if I would call him “Becky.” I did a double take. Bruce had a masculine demeanor. There was nothing about him that called attention to himself. He was quiet and looked rather like a bookworm. While I had no problem calling him Becky if that’s what he wanted, I was naturally curious about what was happening to him. So he told me about the hormone shots he was taking and even indicated, by removing his sweater, his emerging breasts.

   I had never seen that before and I was shocked. I had seen drag queens in Denver perform in cowboy bars but they all had tissue stuffed in their bras.  
   As it happened, I never saw “Becky” again after that coffee but not because I disapproved of him or what was happening to him but because, as people, we had nothing in common. I wished Becky well, and that was that. But down deep I felt sorry for him. It was bad enough that in the 1970s—despite the popularity of “cross sexers” like David Bowie and Lou Reed— being gay was still a dicey proposition, but to be trans or even a transvestite from Translyvania, could be downright dangerous when you weren’t in Rocky Horror territory. 

    Twenty years later one of my good gay friends published a personal dating ad. He was hopping to meet a fellow student so when Milo, a twenty-four year old music student, answered his ad, my friend made arrangements to meet him. Milo, who described himself as being slight of build and kind of nerdy looking, expressed a similar desire to meet, and so the two met at Front and Girard because Milo would be traveling into Fishtown on the El. “At that first meeting,” my friend said, “I got the distinct impression that Milo was a ultra nerd—black glasses, spotty beard, plaid shirt, knapsack, and very pale looking. Yet there was something a little different about him that I couldn’t place, something odd but I liked him all the same.  So we headed back to my place where we watched a movie and ate popcorn and drank a little white wine. Things were going well until I got the itch to become intimate and that’s when Milo turned to me and said, “’I have to tell you something.’”

   My friend said that he thought that Milo was going to announce that he was already involved, or that he wasn’t attracted to him, but what he heard was this:
“I am a female to male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t. I’m sorry if I misled you.”

    “If you want me to leave, I will,” Milo added. “I won’t hold it against you.” My friend told Milo to stay because he wanted to hear his/her story. In fact, the two remained together for a couple of hours talking about Milo’s transition, although the hand holding had stopped. Milo, as it turned out, had worn a tight belt under her plaid shirt to flatten her breasts but the beard was real because she had already begun treatments. She was, in fact, a straight female who wanted to become a gay male. In the spirit of openness, the two of them talked about everything, including why a heterosexual female would want to become a gay male when she could meet more men as a woman since (theoretically) the majority of men are not gay despite occasional slip-ups when too many sixpacks are consumed.  Milo would tell my friend that her transition had nothing to do with sexual attraction or desire or “meeting lots of men,” but that it was an internal, gender identity thing, and that’s why it was important.  

  When it came time to say good-bye, conventional gender roles took over when my friend said he felt obligated to walk Milo to the bus stop, something he may or may not have done had Milo been a biological male.

   When I published the two stories above in a gay periodical a couple of years ago, all hell broke loose. The transgender community attacked me because I “wasn’t using the right pronouns.” The attacks weren’t gentle editorial reprimands but violent rhetorical outbursts that bordered on lunacy. Real lunacy. I was called every name in the book, as one trans person after another stood in line to throw a poisoned dart. In a matter of days I was the most transphobic person on the planet because I was identifying both “Becky” and Milo by their biological gender and not the gender they identified with. As I told the editor of the publication, “Hey, who knew…. I thought I was being emphatic and sympathic and honest as well. I thought trans people officially became the gender they identify with only after their complete physical transformation.”

    I opted not to answer my critics but remain silent, which my editor admired, but it wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, overwrought political attacks because of incorrect terminology or views are a problem inherent in some leftist circles. Intolerance takes many forms but this experience taught me just how isolated the trans community is and how much pain trans individuals experience. Sometimes when people are in pain they aim at the wrong target or they throw out arrows blindly, missing their real enemies. While I admit I still don’t completely understand the concept of being trapped in the body of the opposite sex, this doesn’t mean I cannot show empathy while dismissing any impulse to judge. I may not understand how a Hindu can worship a cow, but that doesn’t mean I am going to put Hindus on my personal enemies list.   

 An interesting fact that I’ve discovered is that the trans “legacy” is essentially a very American story. Many early Native American tribes had a special place for men who identified as women. In Walter Williams’ classic overview of Native American sexuality, The Spirit and the Flesh, we learn of the existence of the berdache, or the Two Spirited-third gendered male, usually a gay man, who would often dress as a member of the opposite sex, take a husband or wife (Two Spirited persons were male or female) and live among the tribe as a shaman or holy person. Not only were they considered holy people with special powers but they were believed to be able to tap into mystical realms. In many cases the berdache was considered the most important person of a tribe outside of the chief.  

  So there you have it. Being trans is not all glamour and posing for the cover of People magazine. Sometimes it’s just an ordinary “next door” kind of thing.





Tuesday, November 24, 2015



    When the French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote, “You must change your life,” he set the tone for future poets, including Philadelphia’s Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. Born in 1940 in Oakland, California, Moore’s first book of poems, Dawn Visions, was published in 1964 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. This was the Beat Generation era, when Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, also published by City Lights, was changing the poetic landscape. In 1972, Moore followed up with another City Lights volume, Burnt Heart/Ode to the War Dead, about the human carnage in Vietnam.
       In the late 1960s he founded and directed The Floating Lotus Magic Opera Company in Berkeley, California, and later presented two major productions, The Walls Are Running Blood, and Bliss Apocalypse.  The world was changing, and for some meant a reinvention of the Self. Moore, who was then a self described Zen Buddhist whose normal routine was to get up early every morning, “sit zazen, smoke a joint, do half an hour of yoga, then read the Mathnawi of Rumi, the long mystical poem of that great Persian Sufi of the thirteenth century,” life was about to change.
   He met the man who was to be his spiritual guide, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Habib. “The man looked like an eccentric Englishman,” Moore writes. “He too had only recently come out of the English version of the Hippie Wave. He was older, refined in his manners spectacularly witty and intellectual, but of that kind prevalent then who had hobnobbed with the Beatles and knew the Tantric Art collection of Brian Jones firsthand. He had been on all the classic drug quests-peyote in the Yucatan, mescaline with Luara Huxley-but with the kif quest in Morocco he had stumbled on Islam, and then the Sufis, and the game was up. A profound change had taken place in his life that went far beyond the psychedelic experience.”
    Moore converted to Sufi Islam in 1970, riding a wave of spiritual self transformation that affected other writers and poets in the Bay area, most notably Eugene Rose, an atheist and Marxist whose devotion to Nietzcshe nearly drove him mad before his discovery of the wisdom of the early Desert Fathers. Rose, who would go on to become an Orthodox priest and co-founder of Holy Trinity monastery near Redding, California, is now considered by many to be a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. As for Moore, his spiritual transformation inspired him to travel to Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Nigeria, but finally back to California where he would publish The Desert is the Only Way Out.   
      In many ways, Philadelphia would prove to be Moore’s desert, although he did not become a Philadelphian until 1990. Before that date he lived for a while in Boston’s North End, where he remembers meeting the poet John Weiners, the shy gay Irish Catholic poet whom Allen Ginsberg once referred to as “a pure poet” and who was really the Walt Whitman of New England.

     Moore told me that he met Weiners in 1965 when Weiners was working at Filene’s Basement in Boston. He was in a “circle” of poets with David Rattray, Steve Jolas, etc. and we meet a few times at a poetry afternoon at Jola’s place… … I walked with John and [the famous poet] Denise Levertov to the train station where John took a train back home, and probably to be institutionalized for a while… I didn’t know him well, but he came to our apartment in the North End a few times and said little, wrote a poem once, and left… Once he came when we had a little room with Christmas lights on the ceiling, and he went in there, lay down, and we forgot he was there until an hour later he appeared in our little kitchen and left… He was a wraithlike soul… He died alone in the snow after a New Years party….on his way home.”

    The Milton, Massachusetts-born Weiners, who studied at Black Mountain College with Robert Creely and Robert Duncan, was part of the Beat poetry renaissance in San Francisco but always called himself a Boston poet. Boston, an elder sister city to Philadelphia (by 50 years) with many historic similarities, was dear to Weiners.     
Boston, sooty in memory, alive with a
thousand murky dreams of adolescence
still calls to youth; the wide streets, chimney tops over 
Charles River’s broad sweep to seahood buoy;
            the harbor
With dreams, too...

Slumbering city, what makes men think you sleep,
but breathe, what chants or paeans needed
            at this end, except
you stand as first town, first bank of hopes, 
            first envisioned

     While living in Philadelphia, Moore published The Ramadan Sonnets (Jusoor/City Lights), and in 2002, The Blind Beekeeper (Jusoor/Syracuse University Press).  San Francisco poet, playwright and novelist Michael McClure has written that Moore’s poems are like Frank O’Hara’s, where “there are no boundaries or limits to possible subject matter,” and where “imagination runs rampant and it glides.”  

 In his poem Great cruelty and Heartlessness, Moore writes:

We’re living in a time of great cruelty and heartlessness
where instead of a sun they’re throwing up
Instead of sunlight there’s the sound of
hammers beating
Instead of walking there’s kicking
Instead of thinking there’s talking
It’s almost as if there’ve never been times like
these before
Even shadows thrown by cartwheels on dirt roads
resemble the grimaces of armies as they
slide across rocks
In the palaces of power clocks go off but no one
Decisions are made by pouring acid down drains
or waiting for nightfall in a room lit by
neon tubes
If anyone speaks all eyes are upon them
I saw a sparrow fly over a fence
An ant stop and not go on
But laughter has turned to pebbles
falling on zinc
And children have been torn from their futures
 One might say the line “torn from their futures” refers to destroyed lives through drugs. This poem reminds me of a talented musician acquaintance of mine, “T,” who threw away a lucrative career as a Hollywood filmmaker when he turned to heroin. “T” left Philadelphia for a post-rehab life in Austin, Texas with his recovering girlfriend, but the swearing off of drugs didn’t last long. After just one month of bathing in frothy Texas streams, strumming guitars and playing with an adopted ferret, the drug demon returned to haunt “T” with a vengeance. When this happened, the girlfriend took off for parts unknown (ferret in tow), leaving my friend desolate and, as his Facebook page indicated, in a major depression. He has since dropped out of sight after a posting a disturbing October 11 Facebook message. Since then his distraught mother has contacted me and asked me to pray for him. I’m not good at praying for people, much less myself, but I will give it a try at my local Orthodox parish.  
    I profile Moore’s poetry extensively in my new book, Literary Philadelphia (The History Press).  As a believer in something beyond himself, you might say that Moore is not a poet of empty things and ideas like some modern poets. Instead, aspects of the spiritual and the divine seem to invade every word he writes. He also finds a way to say  the unsayable.  Moore, it is said, was viewed as a legend in the California of the 1960s, in part because he was able to be “spiritual” without losing his sense of humor. One could almost say that he is the spiritual poet with the comedic wink.   Others call him a surrealist of the sacred.

    In this age of ongoing dialogue among Muslims, Christians and Jews, the sacred personage known as the Virgin Mary, mentioned some thirty-four times in the Koran, stands out as important on the historical and the dogmatic plane. The sacred person concept is not lost on Moore, who writes in Five Short Meditations on the Virgin Mary:

I saw Mary board a bus at Broad and State
her head covered and her face radiant
small and held within herself
careful and preoccupied
a heaven seeming to be wrapped around her
her cheeks red her lips dry her eyes lowered
interior moisture her preferred cloister
the bus passengers sudden ghosts before her
her shoes small and tattered
her hands carrying a book
If any had spoken to her she might have become lost
If she had spoken to anyone
they might have become saved.
    Maybe my friend “T” will meet a mysterious woman wearing small and tattered shoes during his lost travels in Texas.