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Sunday, June 18, 2017

HELP KEEP THE PHILADELPHIA WRITER'S CONFERENCE GREAT (2017)

     THE WRITERS’ CONFERENCE; UPS AND DOWNS

THOM NICKELS

 What about writers’ conferences? Are they valuable for people who want to write?
    I felt very privileged to be included in the 69th annual Philadelphia Writers’ 
Conference. My participation included a three day workshop on writing newspaper
columns. Although I also write fiction and history the newspaper column for me
 has always been a staple like devoting time each morning to yoga, meditation 
or writing a journal (which I’ve been doing since the late 1970s.)
   Overall, writers’ conferences can be a little daunting. Writers, generally, 
work in private and the process requires a lot of solitude and self discipline. 
The profession is not for those who cannot sit still or hate being alone for very
 long periods of time. You work everyday, you put in your hours and then you 
close up shop and do other things like get on with the “mundane” things of life.
   Of course, if you are a writer or want to be a writer you have to be a reader. 
You have to keep reading. Read. Read. Read. The two things go together like
 grilled cheese and tomato soup.
   All this solitude—alone in your room banging at the computer—takes its toll. 
When you emerge for a breath of fresh air, you feel freed and sometimes a sense 
of exuberance takes over. You relish your first human contact on the street whether
 that contact is a neighbor or friend.  Going to a writers’ conference where you 
suddenly meet scores of other writers, most of whom may also be emerging from
 cocoons of solitude, can be a little daunting. When you write everyday what
 often creeps in is a sense of isolation that can sometimes give you the impression 
that you are the only writer on the planet. I call this the Robinson Crusoe effect,
 and it’s real.

   
   While the obvious benefits of a writers’ conference (networking, for instance)
 far outweigh the downside, there is a slight downside to it all. From my perspective
 that downside might include a thematic emphasis at many writer’s conferences on
 writing a best seller and getting your memoir or how to do book on The New York
 Times bestseller list. Statically speaking, writing a best seller only happens to a very
 small number of people. While writers’ conferences such as PWC offer amazing
 practical advice and wisdom, they also can tap into the Great Myth that even you 
can write a best seller if you follow certain guidelines, the most important guideline
 being getting a literary agent and then following that agent’s advice to the letter.

    One of the most galvanizing events at PWC was the featured panel of literary 
agents, all of them women and the majority of them in their late twenties.

    The panel capped several hours of individual writer-agent sessions which took
 place earlier in the day. These were 5 minute talk exchanges in which the writer
 was supposed to make his or her pitch to the agent in question. You signed up
 in advance to have your 5 minutes with this or that agent and then, like speed
 dating, when your time came you went to the table where the agent was and you 
started talking. It’s much like a job interview in which you promoted your
 resume—“I am the best candidate,” etc.—and then did your best to convince 
the agent that you had the manuscript of the century.

  While the opportunity of meeting with New York literary agents was a 
great thing, (thank you, PWC) the process struck me as a little depressing, 
much like watching a job line of the desperately unemployed competing for
 a small number of job openings. After all, the vast majority of writers at the 
conference had never published a book so they’re goal was to accomplish
 this at some point.  

   During the Agent Q and A it was never specifically mentioned that writing 
a best seller is really a fluke and the result of chance. Few writers set out to 
write a best seller since there is no way that anyone can gage what the public
 will want or even find desirable at any point in time. The public is a terrifically
 fickle mistress, whimsical, unpredictable and untrustworthy.  Jack Kerouac 
wrote because he was an artist and because he had something to say not 
because he wanted to get on a best seller list. Dostoevsky wrote because
 he had a message to impart not because he wanted to be the 19th century 
Russian equivalent to sexy women’s fiction romance writers like Jackie Collins.

  This is not to say that most writers wouldn’t like a best seller but when your 
whole goal as a writer is to write a best seller, something is lost.  The agents 
were asked over and over again: What do you want? How will you pay 
attention to my manuscript? How can I get your attention? I will write
 anything you tell me to write. O powerful goddess!

    As I heard these questions I imagined Tolstoy in the room taking
 notes—“She wants some inclusion of popular culture,” “She doesn’t
 want any mention of the paranormal,” “She wants a commercially viable topic.”
    Put Mark Twain into this room and have him ask: “Ms. Agent, how can
I even be more of a Mark Twain?” Imagine a question by an unpublished 
Thomas Merton: “Do you think a book about my conversion from atheism 
to Catholicism would ever be a best seller?”  (Answer: “Not on my watch, Tom.”)
    At times I felt that some of the writers in the room were willing to bypass 
what they intuitively felt called to write if one of the agents had a better idea, a
more commercially viable idea. 
    At the Q and A somebody asked the agents why there didn’t seem to be
 any male literary agents.  “Men don’t read,” one of the agents said. Then it
 was surmised that men don’t like the comparatively low salaries that agents
 receive, but is this true? How can these women survive in Manhattan and pay
 rent if agent salaries are so low? Do they have Hedge Fund husbands? And if
men don’t read is it  because the educational culture in this country—the reading
 assignments in middle school and high schools, for instance-—have literally
 stopped assigning books to students that are about men. As a fellow newspaper
 columnist told me at the conference: “I have three kids. They are all in middle
 school and all the books they are assigned all have women central characters. 
There are no male central characters at all.”

  If I could do one thing to make PWC better it would be to try and put a halt
 to creeping PC ideology from infecting workshop material.  At one workshop
a woman presenter/ author came down hard on Hemingway, inferring that
 because he was a sexist and a big game hunter he was no longer relevant. 
The not so subliminal suggestion was that Hemingway should be booted 
from the literary canon.” Some people in the workshop agreed—“Yes, he’s
 an awful sexist pig!”—while others insisted that moral judgments like this
 belong in a Left Progressive burn out at UC Berkeley, not at a literary conference.   

 



    

  
   





My Talk as the Featured Speaker at Walt Whitman's 198th Birthday Party, the Whitman House, Camden

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, New York and died on March 26, 1892 in the Mickel Street house. Walt called this house a “shack.”

 He went to a
Brooklyn public school but dropped out at age 11, a common thing in those one-room schoolhouse days. He didn’t write very much about his school experiences although he did manage to write a short story "Death in the School Room (A Fact).” The story detailed the frequent use of corporal punishment by teachers in those days. You might say that public school life then was the reverse of what it is today: tyranny by students.




As a young writer, Walt liked to concentrate on themes like cruel or apathetic parents and their depressed, angst-ridden sons. One of the poet’s first jobs was in the printing office of Samuel E. Clements, a Quaker who wore an enormous broad-brimmed loghorn hat in the summer months. According to one of my favorite Whitman biographers, Jerome Loving, young Walt learned how to "parse and spell” at Clements’ composing table, the same way that Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain learned to write.

The first newspapers in
America were simple operations where the reporter was also the printer. That later changed when the printing was done separately.

Young Walt worked for a variety of printers. Later, he became a school teacher but returned to printing when he started his own newspaper, The Long Islander. The best part of having your own newspaper, Walt recalled, was delivering the papers on horseback.  Walt’s earliest published poem was "Our Future Lot,” about the one common denominator that unites humankind: death. Walt also wrote essays about the evils of smoking, flogging, fashion, materialism and the stupidity of quarreling.

Walt was outside political parties and in many ways he was antagonistic towards them. He was also a poor man at least judged by modern standards. He had an immense sympathy for the lives of the poor but he enjoyed the company of the wealthy too. He was no fool. There are both mansions and shacks along the Open Road.   


As a young man he was too much of a poet to be a good newspaper or editorial writer. One has only to read Democratic Vistas (1871) to see how much of a rambling prose writer he could be. 





He opposed capital punishment and for a time was an advocate of the temperance movement, writing a novel, Franklin Evans; or The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. The book was published in 1842 as a small novel and its author listed as Walter Whitman. The story was a sensationalistic screed against the evils of alcohol. Walt later disavowed the temperance movement. In his bohemian years when he lived in Manhattan, he would frequent Pfaff’s cellar restaurant and saloon, a carousing, boisterous ”arty” place that attracted artists of all types. Even then it is said that the poet would sit back and nurse a lager or two for the longest time while his friends drank themselves under the table. After he turned 60, on the advice of his doctor, Walt began to drink native American wines and champagne.

 When he lived on Mickle Street he was plagued by the appearance of an imposter, an artist who dressed as he dressed and who looked very much like him. The artist was the opposite of a teetotaler and could be seen wobbling around town. This wasn’t good for Walt’s reputation.  People talked and gossip filled the Open Road.

Walt was, as his biographers note, a big giver of gifts because to love is to both give and receive.

 
In 1857, The Brooklyn Daily Times described Walt as "a tall, well-built man [who] wore high boots over his pants, a jacket of heavy dark blue cloth, always left open to show a woolen undershirt, and a red handkerchief tied around his brawny neck.” Once when Walt spoke at an upscale
Center City literary club the organizer, writer Agnes Repplier, feared that his talk would be as roughhewn as his farmer’s clothes but it turned out that he spoke like a prophet and a mystic. Clothes don’t make the man—or the woman—on the Open Road

This Mickle Street house was known as a quiet and grassy place in the 1890s but Walt was not a good housekeeper. Some at that time described the interior of the house as “filled with undesirable confusion.”  Walt liked to scatter his papers on the floor, sometimes mixing them with the wood that he used for his stove. The Open Road was sometimes messy but when friends tried to clean it up, Walt got annoyed. Walt did manage to have fresh flowers on the first floor window sill, however, and of course his canary was not endlessly rocking but endlessly singing.

 So many visitors came and went. The Mickle Street house became a place of pilgrimage.

  A Japanese journalist, once visited him in the garden where we are gathered here today. They talked and feasted on canned lobster and California wine. Walt talked about the American West and especially of Denver, the queen of Western cities.

His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, was very controversial during his lifetime, in some cases ending friendships and even getting him fired from his job in
Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Critics either loved or hated his work. His book was banned in Boston but his champions included many literary greats like Oscar Wilde, George Elliot and (to some degree), the cantankerous Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Walt had his literary biases. He had a distaste for so called gloomy writers like Edgar Allan Poe.

It should be noted that when Walt moved into the Mickle Street house he became a home owner for the first time in his life at age 65.

Walt gave a number of
Lincoln lectures in Philadelphia and Boston after the president’s assassination. During the Civil War he worked for a number of years as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War hospitals of Washington DC where he looked after dying and wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. Walt favored the Union but he would not take sides when it came to his hospital work. His most intimate friend, Peter Doyle, for instance, was an ex-Confederate soldier who was present in Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was assassinated.


Walt always believed that the nation’s capital would be moved from
Washington to one of the cities of the west. "Why be content to have the Government lop-sided over on the Atlantic, far, far from itself—the trunk [west], the genuine America?” he wrote.

Before moving to Mickle Street, the poet stayed with friends at 1929 North Twenty-Second Street where in the summer he would sit with his host family on the stoop or doorstep.




Whitman’s voice, according to one friend, was "full-toned, rather high [and] baritone.” This same friend said that when Whitman read books "he would tear it to pieces—literally shed it leaves…”

One of the poet’s favorite pastimes was "keeping track of his fame in the press.”

Walt was obsessed with personal cleanliness but wherever he lived he created immense disorder with papers stacked on the floor and the curtains of his room twisted in the style of ropes to let in more sunlight.

Walt also spent a lot of time in
Germantown and on the banks of the Wissahickon. He would ride the ferries on the Delaware in all kinds of weather, leaning over the boat like an old ship captain. He claimed that he once hobbled halfway across the frozen Delaware but then turned back when he sensed that the ice was getting thin. He observed, and commented on, the view of Philadelphia City Hall during its construction. He liked to hang out at the base of Market Street where he would converse with workers, roughnecks and tramps, but when evening came he would head to the opera. Before his death on March 26, 1892, he was able to purchase a wheelchair on credit from Wanamaker’s Department store.

And who knew that Bram Stoker used Walt as his character study for Dracula?

Walt grew cranky in his old age but since he had a lot of aches and pains, he can be excused for his bad moods. The Open Road is not a bed of roses. It comes with thorns, closed gas stations and occasional road blocks. Bad weather is to be expected. The thing is to keep moving and wait for the sunshine despite the road’s many irritations. Walt’s temper could be a terrible thing, but as fast as it went up, it went down. And he was always ready to forgive people. Good lesson for all Open Road travelers, I’d say.

If age 40 is the new 20, and age 60 is the new 40, then age 70 must be the new 45 or 50. But Walt at 70 was really an old man --- people did not age well in the 1890s. Walt was often sleepless and suffering…from 1888 to 1889 he was totally house bound, trapped in his Mickle Street shack, anchored to the big chair in the front room. Many critics surmise that he survived on his Open Road memories. Thinking back and remembering again.   

At the time of Walt’s death in his bed on
Mickle Street (an autopsy was preformed on the first floor of the house where there was also a viewing), he was the most famous poet in America.


The Open Road appeared to be over but in reality it was just beginning. Our Open Road graybeard is more alive today than ever.  

ICON MAGAZINE THEATER JUNE 2017

Gypsy. Often cited as the greatest American musical, this rollicking bio epic is loosely based on the life of famous striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee. It’s at the Arden stage (till June 18) with all of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics intact, including classics “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” and “Let Me Entertain You.”  Five-time Barrymore Award winner Mary Martello plays Gypsy’s mother, the tyrannical Mama Rose, who will stop at nothing to ensure that her kids succeed in show business. The great American poet Hart Crane (The Bridge) was Lee’s New York City neighbor for a while and, inspired by Lee, wrote the following lines about his favorite burlesque house: Outspoken buttocks in pink beads/Invite the necessary cloudy clinch/Of Bandy eyes. The Arden should resurrect other forgotten but equally famous musicals like Richard Rodgers’ famous 1943 Broadway hit, Oklahoma!   

   


 Uncle Vanya. When it comes to Russian plays, Philadelphia’s usual answer is: Chekhov! Hedgerow Theater did Uncle Vanya in February 2107, and the Lantern Theater did its own version of The Seagull in 2010. Chekov’s Seagull came up again in EgoPo Classic Theater’s amazing February production. As a short story writer, Chekhov rarely disappoints (Chekhovian wisdom: “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry”), but city theaters would do well to look into other Russian playwrights like Pushkin, Gogol and Solzhenitsm. Uncle Vanya is the story of a celebrated professor and his complicated family. Quintessence Theater Group (215-987-4450). Till June 18.  

BalletX.   Three innovative works opened BalletX’s Spring Series 2017. In Schachmatt (Cayetano Soto, choreographer) a delightful but all too short French themed, J’attendrai by Rina Ketty set the stage for a dynamite dance Peter Gunn Theme by Jack Constanzo. The less than enthralling Cuban Mambo by Perez Prado (we wanted more French numbers) was enhanced by dancers like Megan Dickinson and Gary W. Jeter II who kept all eyes glue to the stage. Often when dancers express elemental states of joy, suffering and desire there’s not much of a need for an accompanying narrative but sometimes only words can bring the abstract into focus. This was evident in segment two, the world premier of In Between the Passing (Tommie-Waheed Evans) which played into a raw, athletic sensibility while exploring expressions of time and mortality. Symphony No. 3 Op. 36 by Henryk Gorecki had this writer making up his own internal narrative to go with the dancers’ footprints. The last segment, The Last Glass (Matthew Neenan) was a slightly more complicated piece reminiscent of the drama and cacophony of Philadelphia’s streets. Throughout this BalletX opener, I kept hoping for costume changes—bicycle pants, yellow flowered vests with poka dot ties or even a procession of umbrellas and red balloons to break the monotony of the sackcloth-like dancer’s tunic.   

The White Devil.  When John Webster’s play premiered on a dreary, cold winter night in London in 1612 there was no standing ovation. The London audience was less than thrilled and Webster’s work, including The Duchess of Malfi, faded into obscurity until the 1920s. The Philadelphia Artists’ Collective production at the Broad Street Ministry was a genuine theatrical implosion.  Webster is Shakespeare unhinged. Murder, betrayal, more murder, random stabbings, a fencing match and poisoned helmets, not to mention a penitent home for whores and a liturgical fashion show (a la Fellini’s Roma) showcased the corruption and savagery of the male dominated English Court. Act I was a tangled mass of confusion as the play’s 101 plots and subplots slowly came into focus but Act II was as invigorating as the classic B film, Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill!”  Charlotte Northeast (Vittoria/Conjuror) is a natural in any Elizabethan setting; Dan Hodge (Flamineo) might as well be called a one man SNL; David Pica (Lodovico/Marcello) was almost too comfortable with the diabolical while the forceful J.J. Van Name (Cornelia) dominated the stage with her classic  authoritativeness.  Damon Bonetti’s direction showed artistic verve although if I had one wish it would be that the trend of women (Lexie Braverman as Giovanni) playing the part of boys would come to an end.  

 The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.  Pelkey, a 14 year old flamboyant gay teen is the victim of a hate crime. He wore rainbow sneakers, was a makeup artist and advised women four times his age how to dress. Written and preformed by James Lecesne and directed by Tony Speciale, at times the script has a contrived “activist” feel as if co-produced by the Human Rights Campaign. There are also moments when it veers off course as if a dramaturge advised Lecesne to “stop talking about the boy so much.” Lecesne’s immense talent makes this theatre experience worthwhile. He’s mesmerizing to watch and the 70 minutes goes fast. (Philadelphia Theatre Company until June 4)      



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Philadelphia's Plastic Club and Sketch Club Take a Nose Dive

     Some time ago I wrote a column about Philadelphia’s whacky reception groupies, or people who seem to spend a lot of time trying to find art receptions in the city that offer free food and drink. While everyone enjoys the delights of an opening reception, I was writing about a core group of serious food “hunters and gatherers” who make it a point to go from reception to reception and gather up as much as free stuff as possible.
     Well, there’s another side to that coin and it’s this: what about the various art venues in the city that have traditionally always offered food and drink during their opening receptions. How are they holding up?
   They are not holding up well, according to the latest reports.
   Many of the city’s art galleries and other cultural venues have cut back drastically on giveaway food and booze during their opening receptions and in some cases the contrast to a few years ago is shocking.
   Consider The Plastic Club at 247 S. Camac Street. The Club has always been famous for its monthly Sunday afternoon group exhibitions.  For years club members would contribute various food dishes to this monthly event so that on that one Sunday a month patrons could expect a little something to eat while viewing the new exhibition. Every month was different depending on the food flow, but thick or thin there was always something to nibble on. There was also inexpensive but ample boxed wine, beer and soda. These famous Sunday art parties continued for hours, often spilling out onto club’s fantastic backyard patio.
    But just a few months ago a new administration decided that the old Plastic Club Sunday parties were too lavish and that people were coming just for the food, booze and ambience. It was also reported to me that the new president didn’t think it was appropriate that people were drinking wine or beer in the late afternoons, never mind that this had been the custom at the Club for years—and years. The Plastic Club’s new Board pulled the plug in a radical way because now the monthly events are down to stick pretzels and Donny and Marie Osmond lemonade, if that. Welcome to Salt Lake City!
   The DaVinci Art Galley at 7th and Catherine Streets used to have bountiful opening receptions but when a new and younger board took over the receptions were paired down like an onion on the chopping block. Today, the galley might offer a chip or two and maybe even a sip of wine but not much else.  Can a big bowl of Lay’s potato chips really cost that much money? And why not spring for a cheap generic red jug of red wine?
   Sometimes the most successful art galleries are the cheapest in terms of what they give back to patrons who come to their events. These big name galleries will often advertise their huge opening exhibitions, in many cases even calling these exhibitions a “party,” but without the usual party accruements.
  They are more like Mennonite picnics.
1.     Cheese is too expensive so they opt for pretzel sticks
2.     They may offer wine but if they do there will no food, not even a potato chip. The new Spartan philosophy says you can’t have both.
3.     So where’s the party? There is no party.

      The Philadelphia Sketch Club at 235 S. Camac also had Sunday afternoon opening exhibitions that included a zany variety of food and drink offerings. Like the Plastic Club, the Sketch Club was always consistent in its food and drink offerings until there was a change. Needless to say, the Sunday crowds now at both Camac institutions are much smaller. If the new boards of these two iconic Philadelphia institutions wanted a more Spartan environment, they certainly got it. 
    Theater press receptions have remained largely intact although financial difficulties have impacted the scope of receptions offered by the Philadelphia Theatre Company.   In years past PTC receptions were lavish banquets and the talk of the town. Today they are Salvation Army “thin” by comparison. Throughout the years, the Wilma Theater has remained amazingly constant in its press reception offerings, as has the Arden and Lantern Theatre. In many instances, smaller and newer theaters like the two theaters at The Drake Towers provide some of the best theater and receptions in the city.
    There have been cut backs at this year’s Arts Unleashed, the University of the Art’s annual fundraiser for student scholarships. Traditionally press was always permitted to invite a guest to this mega event but that has changed under a new administration. The Spartan new arrangement even called for tighter security measures to clamp down on student party crashers. In years past, serious party crashers could wait until Art Unleashed was almost over and then enter the building and join the party but this year the ticket process was more TSA than semi- open borders. Many of the city’s infamous party crashers were missing from this year’s Arts Unleashed, thanks to tightened security.
   What all of these art galleries and massive public fundraising events like Arts Unleashed that have cut back have in common is this: they are now being run by people in their late twenties or thirties. One could draw some interesting conclusions here perhaps.
   The Fabric Workshop is an iconic city institution that garners an intense loyalty throughout the city. Blessed with money and prestige, you’d think that opening receptions there would be occasions to remember. Well, they used to be occasions to remember but all too often success can spoil. These days a Fabric Workshop opening Reception is often a non-reception.
     The two art galleries that still offer art patrons decent or ample reception fare are CFEVA at The Barclay, 237 S. 18th Street, Suite 3A, and E-Moderne Gallerie at 2nd and Arch Streets. With their great opening receptions that usually feature great art, these two galleries are to be commended because they have not gone the way of The Plastic Club.  
     I get press releases on a weekly basis from PR firms publicizing music, jazz and Sugar House Casino events.  Sugar House Casino press events are rarely noteworthy. There might be a cash bar and some free pretzel sticks but most of what they offer are speeches, ribbon cuttings and a few words spoken by a “celebrity.” And then it’s over.  Not even a free cup of coffee. You’d think that this huge money palace on the Delaware would be far more generous when it comes to things like this.
   Sugar House is cheap. 
    Recently I went to a great event with a fellow writer and afterwards we headed off to the much talked about after party.
  After parties are usually bad if the main party has been spectacular. This after party was held at Voyeur, a Center City after hour’s gay club where a glass of red wine goes for ten dollars. There was no food at this after party but you did get a wrist band which enabled you to avoid paying the cover charge to get into the place. The experience was a total headache as the brassy chaotic and very monochromic, pounding music suggested that the only way to deal with the place was by taking some kind of drug.
   A better way to describe this so called ‘after party’ would have been something along the lines of: If you want to hang out later at Voyeur, then join us, but please bring your own party supplies
                 

                                                                                                  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Bedbugs, a Modern Plague

     Bedbugs have invaded thousands of Philadelphia homes and institutions
 and the situation is serious. Philadelphia, in fact, is one of the worst cities in
 the nation for bedbugs. Don’t ask me why our fair city is plagued with these
 creatures. Is there something in the water here, or do Philadelphians have a
 special problem that people in other cities do not have?

  The pest-control company, Orkin, compiled a list of the 50 worst American cities for bed bugs and Philadelphia has been ranked as number nine. Orkin based its ranking on the number of bed bug treatments they performed on residences and businesses in urban areas between 2015 and 2016.
   “We have more people affected by bed bugs in the United States now than ever before. They were virtually unheard of in the U.S. 10 years ago,” Orkin’s Entomologist Ron Harrison told CBS3.  
      Bedbugs begin life as microscopic entities and then, depending on how
 much human blood they consume, they increase in size and weight until,
 in some instances, they become as large as a small or medium sized cockroach.
 Bedbugs do not fly but they climb or jump onto things, mainly wooden and
cloth surfaces where they then take great delight in laying their despicable eggs.

      If they happen to find a home in your mattress, they will bite you during
 the night. They bite in clusters of three, meaning you will notice three little
 dots or bruise like blemishes on your skin. One bite is never enough for
 these creatures although they can live off their first 3-bite meal for a long
 time before their blood lust returns. It doesn’t take all that long for them
 to grow from micro hard to see bugs into significant creepy crawlers.
   Welcome to my nightmare, as a famous rocker once intoned.  

      These athletic pests can even jump on you and hitch a ride on your
 jacket or sweater and then jump off later when you enter a new house
 or residence. More spaces to colonize, after all. When they park themselves
 in a new place they begin their cycle of destruction all over again, laying
 eggs and hiding in mattresses, woodwork, sofas and curtains until something
 or someone exposes them. Then you’re likely to see them exit en masse, often
 in large shocking streams that rival the congestion of ant farms.

      One does not have to be dirty or a lowlife sleaze to get bedbugs. Bedbugs
were common in colonial America and throughout Europe. In many cases
 people learned to live with them. Growing up, I had elderly aunts tell me
 before going to bed, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” as if bedbugs were sweet
 little things with smiley faces and antennas made of chocolate that helped
 you sleep.  I had never seen a bedbug as a kid so I had no idea what my
 aunts were talking about. Ticks, bees, spiders and moths I knew, but
 bedbugs seemed to be a Grimm’s Fairy Tale concoction. 
   Until I moved to the city…

   When my friend Sean showed me a bedbug for the first time I could
 barely make out its shape it was so small. We were moving furniture
into his new house when he went to move his bed headboard and a bed
 bug crawled out. A swarm of bugs followed, much larger in size. 
 Sean was so disgusted he went into the bathroom to wash his
 hands and exclaim loudly before the mirror: “Oh no, not bed bugs!”

  Sean is such a clean fanatic that people entering his house 

are required to take off their shoes and put on special booties 
so that they won’t dirty up his floors.  When he had a 
number of contractors working on his kitchen last spring he
 made them all take off their boots and put on these wrap
 around booties that tie up in fancy bows. 

      Shockingly, the contractors complied like little children.  
Half of Sean’s living room furniture is covered up in plastic so 
every time you sit down in his house you hear a series of crinkles.
Generally he hates having people into his house because he
 equates people with dirt. 

   So how did someone this clean get bedbugs?

       He got them from living in Philadelphia, of course, because at any point
during his travels about the city he could have touched a railing or
 banister or even brushed up against someone’s curtains or coat when
 an eager to jump bed bug leaped on him and hitched a ride back to
 his house where it then deposited its eggs.

    Sean, of course, had to throw out the bed’s headboard but this was
 only the beginning. He did a thorough house check and found small
colonies of bugs in some uncovered pieces of furniture. He waged
 an expensive, never ending war: he sprayed, vacuumed, washed and
 rewashed and then he wrapped the as yet uncontaminated pieces of
furniture in air tight plastic wrap so the bedbugs couldn’t claim it as
 their own. Some of his good furniture had to be thrown away.

    Bedbugs have only recently become a city plague 
because over a decade ago there was an effective killer spray
 that killed them in aPhiladelphia minute. This powerful spray
 nicked the problem in the bud and saved countless valuable
 pieces of furniture from the trash heap. Then there was the
 "awful" discovery that the killer componentin this spray
 was DDT, a cancer causing agent.  The effective, miracle
spray was then banned with nothing of any value to replace it despite
the rash of so called sprays that promise to do the job just as effectively.

   All lies, of course.

       As The Daily Caller reported, “…Why are bed bugs back?
Though they’ve been sucking humans’ blood since at least ancient
 Greece, bed bugs became virtually extinct in America following the
 invention of pesticide DDT. There were almost no bed bugs in the
United States between World War II and the mid-1990s. Around
when bed bugs started their resurgence, Congress passed a major
pesticides law in 1996 and the Clinton EPA banned several classes
of chemicals that had been effective bed bug killers.”

  Thank you, Bill Clinton.

 The new sprays, as Sean discovered, do little or nothing because
 they simply aren’t strong enough. It also doesn’t help that bedbugs
 go into winter/cold weather hibernation, a despicable deep coma
sleep in which they dream of sucking blood once the warm weather
 approaches. In the hot weather, they reemerge unless you do the heat 
ventilation route. Heat remediation requires only one treatment. It 
utilizes fans and heaters to raise the temperature of the infested 
area to 120 degrees. The temperature is maintained for hours to
 ensure that the bed bugs and the eggs are killed. This is a cumbersome 
and expensive process.
 
        Homeless shelters are notorious for bed bugs despite the fact that they
 undergo periodic exterminations.  The constant influx of new people
 in shelters all but guarantees new incarnations of jumping bugs eager
 to inhabit a fresh piece of wood in which to build their nasty nation of
 blood sucking bottom feeder vampires.
  
       The most troubling part of this story is that there’s no solution to the
 bedbug problem unless we bring back the all powerful DDT spray.
Some cities and municipalities are considering doing this because their
 bed bug problems are that great. It’s sad to think that  DDT may be
 the only real answer, especially in our hometown where bed bugs
seem to be everywhere, most notably on the coat of the person
sitting next to you on the Frankford-Market El. 

      Today, Sean is bedbug free but the experience has made him
even more of a clean fanatic. Visitors to his home, even those
 contractors I mentioned, have to go through a doubled up vetting
 process. While Sean hasn’t gone to the extreme length of asking
 people to remove their clothing or demand that they put on double
 booties and gloves, I fully expect that this will be the case if he ever
 gets bed bugs again.
                   


Mother Divine

       On March 14 of this year, The New York Times ran the following headline: Mother Divine Who Took Over Her Husband’s Cult, Dies at 71. Mother Divine actually died on March 4 but it took The Times a while to print an obit.   
       I met Mother Divine some years ago when I visited her estate at Woodmont in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. At that time I teamed up with an artist friend who wanted to set up his easel and paintbrush and paint the Woodmont mansion for a possible book project.   Mother was gracious during that visit. We were not only invited to dinner—Mother’s followers called it a Holy Communion service—but we were told that we could have a special interview with Mother after the meal.
    
              The mansion is a multi-room French Gothic masterpiece, designed by Quaker architect William Price for Philadelphia industrialist Alan J, Wood, Jr., in 1892. After the demise of the Gilded Age and the selling off of many of Philadelphia’s old mansions, it was sold to Father Divine for a relatively humble $75,000.
            Woodmont then became the headquarters for the Peace Mission Movement.
       The Peace Mission Movement began as a force for peace and goodwill between the races. The movement, as Mother Divine noted, was to make people “industrious, independent, tax-paying citizens instead of consumers of tax dollars on the welfare rolls.” 
             Since the passing of Father Divine in 1965, the Peace Mission Movement has been under the direction of Father Divine’s second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white Canadian woman he met in 1946.  
            Father Divine’s greatest contributions are probably in the area of Civil Rights. As early as 1951, he advocated for reparations for the descendents of slaves and for integrated neighborhoods. Decades before the Civil Rights Act, before the NAACP, Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, Father Divine preached peaceful non-violent social change.   Unfortunately, Father Divine’s “preaching” work on behalf of Civil Rights is a mostly understated fact.
 Father Divine’s marriage to the second Mother Divine (the first was an African American woman named Peninniah, who died shortly after the Woodmont purchase) was a celibate affair, as members, both married and unmarried, are prohibited from having sex, or using alcohol and tobacco. 

        When I first saw Mother Divine she was descending the grand staircase in the mansion. She was dressed in a full blown white 19th Century ball gown while being escorted by a sentry dressed in red who also wore a small red beret tilted to the side in the style of Che Guevara. The sentry was a thin black woman and Mother was white--- she had Arctic snow hair and skin much paler than the color of Dove soap. She carried herself with a confident elegance, her head erect and her eyes focused on some invisible point on the horizon. Her walk down the staircase was so slow it called to mind the walking styles of European aristocracy, namely Queen Elizabeth II of England
        Emblems of royalty were very evident in the mansion, not only in the grandiose architecture and design of the place but in the studied attentiveness and seriousness of Mother’s other sentries, who also wore cocked berets. The sentries were stationed throughout the house like Swiss Guards in the Vatican. The atmosphere definitely evoked the formality of a royal court because it was obvious that the sentries would not tolerate any foolish action, like presupposing it was okay to sit on the furniture, which of course we did not do. 
     In situations like this, the human tendency is to be formal yourself even though I longed to see just one of the sentries smile or show some warmth. ‘Feel good’ camaraderie is not in the Woodmont style book, however. The sentries, when they did smile, did it in a fixed way as if they were ready to retract it and turn it upside down at a moment’s notice. I knew this to be the case when I asked one of them, a Miss something-or-other, if I could take a photograph. My request was met with a stern “No, you may not take photographs,” as if I should have known better. I replied with a somewhat stunned “Oh… okay,” the ‘Oh’ in my reply signaling my dismay at such a silly rule, since what could possibly be wrong with taking a snapshot?
     Often the ‘secondary’ people around any high ranking leader have an inflated sense of self importance and behave in a manner that may “out-formalize” the personal style of the big boss, the very person one would expect to flaunt attitude. Mother Divine had an easy and light spirit and it was easy to see a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was quick to smile and laugh but yet she was surrounded by stiff wooden Cigar Store Indian types who were quick to scold. .

         Dinner began when Mother rang a large hand bell. A female cook in a white uniform produced the platters from a small kitchen directly behind Mother. Numerous platters of salad items, including a wide assortment of vegetables, condiments and sauces, set the pace for more complicated platters offering meats and fish, rice, potatoes, breads, more vegetables and meats until at last diners could devote their attention to the business at hand, eating, rather than the elaborate ritual of passing platters.
            When platters were passed from one diner to another, they never touched the table. Diners were not allowed to hold two platters at the same time, so the synchronization of the plates had the movements of a dance. While this was going on, diners listened to old audio tapes of Father Divine sermons. The mostly elderly crowd, men in suits and women in Peace Mission uniforms, combined eating with the singing of hymns. A few elderly white women, European by birth, clapped their hands in sing song fashion in between mouthfuls, reminding me of the antics of patients in a mental institution.

       After dinner, Mother invited my artist friend and me into her private office where she showed us old photographs of Father Divine. A sentry stood beside her as the four of us chatted. I found myself occasionally looking out of Mother’s office window at the tomb of Father, believed by followers to be God incarnate. The conversation was not profound but filled with cursory pleasantries. There were even several photo ops in which Mother snuggled up against my artist friend and I. Photographs were no longer an issue because the sentry who greeted us in the foyer was not the one standing by Mother’s side.
    By the time my friend and I left Woodmont we had the feeling that the sentries around Mother were much like a covert army. It was like the feeling you get when you visit a couple who are in a bad marriage but who put on a happy face when company comes. You can somehow feel the tension and repressed emotion coming from the couple but there’s no way you can prove that it exists.  Mother, after all, was sitting on a vast fortune and a huge empire. She was elderly and had to be helped around the mansion on her daily walks around the estate.
       While in a cab leaving the estate, we passed Mother as she began her daily walk, escorted by several dour looking sentries. During our chat with Mother she appeared strong but seeing her outdoors was a profound change. She not only looked weak and vulnerable but she seemed to be almost totally under the care and direction of the women propping her up.  
        The word ‘care’ in this sense can also be a code word for power and control. We have all heard stories of what happens to some elderly mothers when their care is relinquished to their children, and how one child can claim power of attorney and have the mother committed to a nursing home while her assets are funneled into other family bank accounts.  
      My friend and I were certain that Mother liked us and so we were very surprised when we were turned down by a secretarial sentry when we called later to schedule a follow up interview. The sentry told us that we were not permitted to visit. No reason was given but it was obvious that we were no longer welcome at Woodmont.  
        Since that time we have both felt that Mother was really a prisoner behind pearly gates and that she was not acting as a free agent.
       This is why I think it is a good thing that The New York Times called the Peace Mission a cult.