Monday, June 23, 2008

In which I realize a close call

The Philadelphia Inquirer-Daily News Building ...Image via Wikipedia
(Note: requires free registration (Or bugmenot). Most of the links illustrate, but are not crucial to, my entry. The grand jury report is very long and very graphic, so note that before reading.)

A few years ago, Philadelphia had its moment in the nationwide scandal involving Catholic priests abusing their young parishioners. Reading the news, I realized how close to home it had hit.

Specifically, my grade school.

I read the first 60 or so pages of the 400+ page grand jury report. I didn't go past that for several reasons: I had mass amounts of work to do, the report was very graphic and very repetitive, there were large passages of legalese.

And I recognized a name.

I went to St. Josaphat School in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia from the fall of 1992 until the spring of 1997. Father Leonard Furmanski (the second priest listed here) was the pastor of this parish from 1995 to 1998. Even though no charges came out related to my school, the report made it clear that we cannot assume these charges are all-inclusive. Most victims of molestation never report it.

When I saw this name, my first response was not to finish reading, and not to blog, but to call my best friend, who was a classmate of mine at St. Josaphat and who, with his younger brother, served as an altar boy for several years. Neither was abused (thank the deity of your choice), and neither recalls any behavior that even bordered on suspicious. I almost felt guilty bringing this up; my friend considers his altar-boy duties to be among his few pleasant memories of middle school.

So much for full disclosure. It seems to be impossible to find a Philadelphian with any ties at all to Catholicism (I'm not Catholic; I just attended the schools) who doesn't know at least one of the 63 priests listed here.
It was Tom Ferrick Jr.'s column that showed me the ethical question involved.

The cardinal calls the report "very graphic" and, brother, is he right. Parts of it are strictly X-rated, but you couldn't call it salacious. Sickening is more like it, given that the perps were priests, the victims children, and the crime scenes were rectories and churches, even a confessional.
Ferrick then goes on to recommend those who can "stomach it" to read the full report. The 60 or so pages I read were brutal. I don't think there is any debate that the public certainly needs to know the identities of these attackers (at least, those that have been convicted) and, now, about the cover-up the Church has gone through to protect them. But do we need to hear that a priest raped an 11-year-old girl, then took her to get an abortion after getting her pregnant? And that is one of the milder stories.

How much should the public hear? How much is too much for the reader, or too insensitive to the victim? I applaud Ferrick's method. The grand jury report is not on the front page of the website. I could only get to it though his column. He duly warns his readers, and even after you click the link he provides, there are many choices: the report itself, a catalog of the offenders and their offenses, a directory of the biographical information on these priests, and so on. The reader can make the choice. The journalists just have to offer it.

The good

My friend was safe. Thank heaven for small favors. I wish more people could say the same.
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Thursday, June 12, 2008


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Monday, June 9, 2008

In which I attend a bridal shower (and drop hints in boldface)

AmericanImage via Wikipedia
I recently attended the bridal shower of a distant relative. She's a very nice woman, though I should say I don't know her especially well. There were perfectly valid reasons for me going that I won't get into here; my invitation was not a point of complaint.

This was a stereotypical shower, though. And I may not be a very nice person for saying so, but I find stereotypical showers to be inane displays of conspicuous consumerism for the sake of conspicuous consumerism.

Now, don't get me wrong. I really like the idea of having a day that's jsut about you (more so than the wedding, which is -- officially, if not in practice -- equally about him, and -- in practice, if not officially -- almost as much about the respective families). You're surrounded by the people who care most about you, who are showing they care about you by taking care of you. This I have no problem with.

But let's be both honest and blunt. A wedding shower is a gift grab. That's why, traditionally, it was considered inappropriate for a member of either immediate family to host the shower (this is no longer the case in most circles). It's one thing if your best friend arranges a party to make sure you have everything you need to start off your new life. It's another thing if your mother is doing it. Yes, it's important to think the best of people, but sadly, the mother's motives are more suspect.

Honestly, I don't expect to have a shower at all. The entire bridal party (myself included, of course) is male. I'm having "bridesmen." Unless one of them decides to throw a co-ed shower -- unless it occurs to one of them to throw a co-ed shower -- I won't be seeing one from them. Which is maybe for the best, because I'm not keen on a Eagles[link] theme, even if the team colors do match the wedding colors.

That leaves the two moms. I don't know if my mother will -- she doesn't love the gift-grab thing -- but if she does, it'll probably be low-key, which I like. If Chris's mom does it, the instinct would be to have it in New York. If it was up to me, though, I'd want it in Philadelphia. My side of the family deserves something on our turf.

Back to the shower I attended. The bride was apparently surprised, which is nice but not a deal-breaker: it's not unusual to ask a bride what she likes and who she wants invited, whcih means she'd be expecting it eventually.

She was then adorned with a plastic tiara and fake veil, which she seemed to get a kick out of but which would embarass me terribly. Not my style, plus what do I do with it afterwards? I'm all out of room for clutter.

There were games. The famous couples and "what's in your purse" games just took up time that, in a smaller group, would be spent on conversation. There was a Newlyweds Game type thing where the bride had to guess the answers the groom gave to an emailed survey, which would have been really cute except for the fact that the bride had to stuff a marshmallow in her mouth every time she got one wrong. I'm not big on showing affection through humiliation. I'm told that means I have no sense of humor. What can I say?

On game I did think was fun was Bridal Bingo. You fill a bingo grid with the presents you expect the bride will get, then mark them off when she opens them. This keeps the guests interested in the presents, so they don't get bored. That would be less practical, and less necessary, in a smaller shower, wouldn't it? Still fun, though.

And I know this is a tradition, but I've also been to showers where it wasn't done and it lacked nothing: the bridal bonnet made of gift wrap and bows. I don't want one made, and I'm not wearing one. Feel free to say, once again, that I have no sense of humor, but I'm not budging.

I also don't need a full meal, although if a lot of people are travelling, it's not the worst idea. There's nothing wrong with sandwiches, though.

As for favors, they gave out really nice ones at the shower. Frankly, though, I don't plan on paying as much for my actual wedding favors as they must have for the shower favors. Your gift is not there to pay for your plate, and your favor is not there to compensate for your gift.

The good

I got a good sense of what I might want for a shower of my own, and felt better about the prospect of not getting one. I certainly didn't have a bad time, and the food and company were 95% pleasant (and can you really expect more than that?).
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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In which I go to the museum

Jumping out of your skin in the new yearImage by Swamibu via Flickr
“Man is nothing more than what he makes of himself” – Sartre.

The exhibit entrance is hushed. The Franklin Institute proper has closed for the evening, and the night crowd hasn’t turned out just yet. A maze designed to control long lines is walked by lone visitors who hand their tickets over to a bored-looking worker and turn off their cell phones at his request.

A ramp goes up to the exhibit space of Gunther von HagensBody Worlds. Factoids about the human body – your heart stops when you sneeze – decorate the walls. A turnstile is the final obstacle.

The walls of the room are black, decorated with red cloth hangings, some plain, others featuring quotes – Kant, Psalm 8 – or pictures. Spotlights illuminate each specimen. Small fake trees in pots and white rock gardens offer a sense of not-quite-life to contrast with the not-quite-death of the specimens.

A standard, bones-only skeleton stands by the entrance. It is familiar; similar skeletons reside in biology classrooms around the country.

The gallery is still fairly empty, but the first small crowd is gathered around “Ligament Body,” a second skeleton. This one is much like the first skeleton, but its bones are connected not with wires but with cartilage, ligaments, and even some muscles. This skeleton won’t be found in your typical high school.

“Look at the expression on his face!” a woman remarks at “The Smoker,” a third skeleton. This one features still more muscles, plus a pair of blackened lungs. The Smoker’s bony fingers clutch a final cigarette. His eyes are wide. He has fingernails.

It is easy to dismiss a bare skeleton as a thing. It may have been a part of a person, once, but it is not a person. The Smoker is a person.
Von Hagens' process, called plastination, replaces or reinforces natural tissue with polymers to prevent disintegration. Some bodies are sliced into slides; other are harvested for individual organs; still more are cut and posed into the statue-like specimens for which von Hagens and BodyWorlds are famous. There are four official BodyWorlds exhibits on tour, plus various imitators; von Hagens is currently a professor at New York University, where he is developing an anatomy curriculum for the school of dentistry, where, according to the school’s public relations office, the students enjoy having lifelike specimens without having to dissect cadavers.

Von Hagens has been surrounded by controversy since he invented the process in the 1970s, as people question the source of the bodies (voluntary donations) and the appropriateness of making entertainment and profit off the dead.
Couples, preteen to mature, embrace as they stare, at first in marvel, then, gradually, for support. A man points out the muscle groups in “The Basketball Player,” who is playing with an autographed 76ers ball.

The Teacher,” his nervous system visible, seems to read from a guide to this very exhibit. A few women decide to learn what he is teaching. They quiz one another in anatomy. Their voices, like the voices of most of the visitors, are hushed. The primary sound is that of the museum’s air conditioning.

Visitors peer into display cases of organs until they approach the “Blood Vessel Family.” A man, a woman, and a little child perched on the man’s shoulders. Visitors stare, intrigued, at the two adults, whose red, lacy bodies are made up of their plastinated arteries, with no other organs obstructing the view. None can look at the child for more than a few seconds before turning towards one of the adults, or the caption.

This caption explains the process. The bodies’ arteries were filled with plastic, then the bodies were treated over a long period until all but the plastic was dissolved away.

The child offers two thumbs up to the visitor who looks long enough to notice.

Visitors then leave this gallery for the next. The wall hangings here are green.

A literal deathmask rotates in a glass case. The face is covered in gold foil, but the features are distinct. Even so, a caption notes, the process leaves features unidentifiable. The plastination process, then, changes faces but not organs. A man, watching it turn, scratches his nose. Another man points out the face’s dental work, visible from the back.

The face has its original eyelashes.
A smoker’s lung is on display. Two men stare. “You have a cigarette?” one asks the other. Thanks to The Smoker, it is easy to identify each body’s lifetime tobacco habits. Most visible lungs are dark.

A woman gazes into another display case with her companion. “There’s your stomach lining,” she notes. “Well, not yours.

Another doorway, and “The Blocking Goalkeeper” stretches out his arms, trying to catch a soccer ball in one hand and his organs in the other. This is the last specimen before the midpoint.

Up a ramp, past the SkyBike, a carefully counterweighted bicycle suspended high above the museum’s lobby. Visitors familiar with the Franklin Institute are greeted with some normalcy, some familiarity. A glance over the ramp’s railing reveals the ticket booth, the gift shop, the snack bar, the line for the Imax theater.

Off to one side, curtains hide storage. Two of the exhibit’s more famous bodies, “The Swimmer” and “Rearing Horse with Rider,” are packed away, replaced by more recent creations.

Visitors whip out cell phones or chat among themselves, taking advantage of the excuse to raise their voices. The intermission is welcome; the tension lifts palpably.

At the top of the ramp is the next gallery. The cream and gold walls give the exhibit a classical feel, rather than the ethereal one of previous galleries. Pink and purple banners hang down. Three visitors talk loudly as they approach, but their voices drop immediately.

Lines of viewers, headsets pressed to their ears, listen to the official audiotour, available at $6 a piece. The crowds, which build up as the evening progresses, are at their peak around exhibits that correspond to the tour.
“3D Slice Plastinate” could probably be recognized by his loved ones, were they to see him in the museum. His many tattoos are all visible on his sliced skin; a handful of teenaged girls admire them. They then examine his rear and giggle. The tattoos, and the man’s pubic hair, remind the viewers: this was a person.
Off to one side, cordoned off by black curtains, is a section on fetal development. This is the only section of the exhibit that tells the story of the people behind the specimens.

The pregnant woman shown had been ill, a caption explains at the entrance. She donated her body to the program after becoming pregnant. She died in her eighth month of pregnancy, and her child could not be saved. Mother and fetus were displayed at the main focal point of this secluded room. Her existence was apparently not controversial enough; she is displayed in a classic “cheesecake” pose, propped up on her right arm, her left arm bent behind her head. The fetus is visible in her open womb.

She is surrounded by small display cases on either side, and a row of jars in the middle of the room. The embryos and fetuses shown, the caption assures the visitors, came from historical collections, some dating back more than 80 years. As far as anyone knows, the caption continues, all died in accidents or of natural causes. The unspoken conclusion is that abortion is being kept off the table.

The fetuses are draped in soft black cloth, as if they are resting in blankets. Some are healthy-looking; others have obviously fatal defects. A young man explains the different birth defects to a young woman.

A woman explains pregnancy to a little girl. “How did you know how tiny I was?” the girl asks. She is captivated by the colorless embryos, which she compares to a cheese puff.
Another doorway, into a room with wooden paneling and floors. A desk is set up with forms so that visitors can send away for information on donating their own bodies. The bodies here span the process, some years old, others brand new. It is easy to see how the plastination process developed. Early specimens were basic, standing or sitting, as in “Winged Man,” who merely stands, his musculature open wide, a white hat perched on his head. Pieces dated 2006 are more complex: a pair of figure skaters are caught mid-dance; a male gymnast hangs from rings as a female gymnast arches over a balance beam. Faces, their skin otherwise removed, have maintained their eyebrows, lips, and the skin around their nostrils. Some visitors compare what they see to pages in their anatomy textbooks.

Visitors do not express any horror, but their bodies betray discomfort. They cross their arms over their chests, or clutch their necklaces. Their hands are clenched or else stuffed into pockets.

Two women make sure the little girl with them is all right. The girl is fine. She only has one concern: “Where’s Pop-pop?”

The good

This is something I wrote for a project and never did anything with. I finally have an excuse. I hope you enjoy it.

As an update: an imitator, Bodies: The Exhibition, was recently found to have received its specimens from a suspect source. If you saw this show -- not Body Worlds -- in the US, you may be entitled to a refund.
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Monday, June 2, 2008

In which I visit a churchyard

Captain Andrew Drake (1684-1743) sandstone tombstone from the Stelton Baptist Church Cemetery in Edison, New JerseyImage via WikipediaMy church hosts a weekly book club. Tonight, my bus was running late, so instead of going home after work, I went right to the church, arriving a good ten minutes early.

I decided to kill time (so to speak) by wandering around the churchyard. I set the alarm on my phone for five minutes from the current time, then wandered off, figuring when the alarm went off I would turn around and come back.

And I wandered. I went to grade school at that church for three years, and it was not unusual for us to explore the churchyard on nice days. I know a lot of these stones. If I didn't come back for 10 years, I could still tell you exactly where Fr. L's dog is buried -- and I was recently delighted to find out Lucky had been given a proper grave marker.

As I walked past one older section, I noticed, among the worn gravestones, a grave whose marker had gone missing. There was only a stone platform there for the headstone to rest on. The grave itself was sunken, a sure sign of age, for it meant both that the casket had collapsed and that there was no vault.

I stepped over it, scanning the lawn for a decent rock or stone -- a Jewish tradition, hardly Episcopalian, but it only seemed right that this grave be marked, with some acknowledgment that someone had visited.

I searched, my foot lowering into the slight dip in the lawn, when I was hit with a startling jolt.

My phone's alarm, which had been set to vibrate, went off, scaring the heck out of me.

The good
I could make a decent ghost story out of this, with the right twists, couldn't I? Also, remind me to find a nice stone... I never did pay my respects.

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