Photobomb Ghosts At Penumbra

Ann Votaw’s spirit tintype by Jolene Lupo.

I have a soft spot for cemeteries.

Recently, I posted an Instagram photo of a crumbling headstone and got a like from Jolene Lupo, a stranger of the alive variety.

But upon closer inspection of her profile pic—a black and white of a marble-eyed brunette—I wondered if Lupo might not be a phantom.

My sleuthing revealed Lupo was not a hallucination but the tintype studio manager of Penumbra Foundation, a Manhattan nonprofit dedicated to historical photography. The more I scrolled through her feed, the more I became enchanted with tintypes—kind-of like metal Polaroids of the mid-1800s.

As the child of antique fanatics, I grew up going to flea markets. Yet I was familiar with tintypes of whiskered soldiers, not the bearded hipsters I saw on Penumbra’s accounts.

Penumbra’s tintype of Jake Gyllenhaal created a stunning cover for a recent edition of Deadline Magazine. A headshot of Al Roker made the newscaster seem less like a weatherman and more like a long-lost uncle.

I especially admired Penumbra’s macabre renderings. Modeled in the style of William H. Mumler, a 19th-century photographer, spirit tintypes traditionally contained a sitter and a ghost, who appeared during development. Manipulated without the client’s knowledge, these tintypes claimed to connect the living to the dead.

I wanted one.

After a few days of cyber stalking Lupo and Penumbra, I became familiar with all the ways a specter could visit a single gal like me: as a ghoul in a lantern, a thirsty vampire or a bony old lady in rags. While tintype photography is enjoying a nation-wide renaissance, Penumbra is unique in that it ventures into wraith territory.

In honor of my 43rd birthday, a boring number, I decided to splurge on a one-of-a-kind portrait. With increasing pressure to feed an online personae, I wanted a keepsake that romanticized my fine lines instead of eliminating them. My goal was to have a striking profile that illuminated my soul while leaving enough shadow to protect it.

When I arrived at Penumbra’s East 30th Street location, I recognized Lupo immediately. Small-boned and dressed in black, she reminded me of Mary Shelley re-incarnated.

The studio was spartan clean with wooden floors and white walls. Lupo led me down messier corridors to glimpse relics from a massive collection: a wooden baby holder for squirmy children, an adjustable neck brace and “Big Bertha,” a canon-shaped camera with a judgemental cyclops eye.

My attention turned to the spirit photo on the wall: a headless skeleton and a present-day gentleman in a suit and tie.

But I also appreciated a scene I saw on the website, two guys in blazers whose Ouija board session was interrupted by a transparent hand.

To modern eyes, the photos are pure kitsch, but in the 1800s, clients believed.

Lupo flipped through the studio’s copy of The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. The paperback showed Mumler’s most famous work: a trifecta of celebrities that included Mary Todd Lincoln, her dead son, Thaddeus, and the 16th President of the United States, who had recently been assassinated.

Mumler made a career off grief, particularly from women who had lost sons and husbands in the Civil War. Clients like Mrs. Lincoln might have been influenced by spiritualism, a Victorian movement—with roots in feminism—that offered peepholes into the afterlife. In 1869, Mumler was charged with fraud, but the jury couldn’t prove how he generated his apparitions.

“I don’t think it matters so much how Mumler did it, as much as the fact that he was able to pull it off at all,” Lupo mused, “and without the help of the internet.”

I wondered if I might also struggle between tech and reality. Certainly I was a sucker for folklore, and Lupo could spin a tale.

Her surname is Italian for “wolf.” She is engaged to a man named Falco, Italian for “falcon.”

This wolf-falcon watched my face as I produced my beat-up copy of Jane Eyre, a prop I wanted in the photo. “What do you like about the story?” she asked, obviously fishing. I told her I loved Charlotte Brontë’s descriptions of a mad first wife chained up in an antic.

After this fun interview, I changed into a 1940s robe, a gift from my cousin. I didn’t have to wear a costume, but I wanted to show off one of my most unique vintage pieces.

In the studio, we played with angles and attitude. I would look down with closed eyes—convenient, since I’m a blinker—and open my lips to convey surprise. I practiced my position, holding my book with my left hand while my right rested on my chest.

Next, Lupo led me into the darkroom to show she had no tricks up her sleeve, other than a fumey solution containing ether and grain alcohol. “Cheers,” she said, as she poured the syrupy collodion mixture onto a 4 by 5 piece of aluminum. She placed this “wet plate” into a silver nitrate bath for three minutes. By the time Lupo stuck the prepared plate into the camera, a Super Speed Graphic, I was in position. We would get one shot. The final product would be a material object she would varnish, scan and hand to me in a cardboard jewelry box.

“Look down,” Lupo said under a red and black cape. “Look up a bit more. Now hold the book in line with your chin, so it is in the light.”

Lupo took the photo with what sounded and felt like a small explosion.


With modern lighting and electronic flash units, the exposure was instantaneous, but finding and holding the pose made my back ache.

As Lupo went into the darkroom to wrestle with my poltergeist, I got up to stretch.

“Get ready,” Lupo called, bringing out a container with my picture floating in it.

I set my phone to video mode and watched myself emerge. I thought my lanky limbs resembled those of Granny Holloway. My shadowed eyelids reminded me of Grandma Votaw or maybe Great Granny Blair.

At the last second, there was an addition above Jane Eyre.

“Oh,” I said laughing. Then “ooooooo.” To my delight, my spirit showed itself in the form of a “mourning ghost,” a veiled woman who was so sad, she had to cover her face.

No selfie has ever satisfied me as much.

Regular 4 by 5 portraits are $100. Spirit photographs are $125. Visit here to make an appointment

This article originally appeared in the Observer.

To The French On Bastille Day! We Are All The People

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


When our new president swore on two bibles he would “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” a revolution stirred in my heart.

As a New York City Democrat who loves her conservative Hoosier family, I wanted to hold him to his promise without breaking ties. First, I needed to hear my thoughts.

On Inauguration Day, I visited the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue. Desperate to quell anxiety exacerbated by fake news and social media, I entered the great hush of the Rose Main Reading Room, known to many for its role in Ghostbusters.

By chance, I discovered artist Morgan O’Hara and a few of her companions vigorously scribbling at a long table. Their sign announced they would stay until closing time to handcopy the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written and continuously used governing constitution in the world that is more than 229 years old.

Smiling, I accepted the offer of paper and a marker from O’Hara’s stash of supplies. This was exactly what I needed, a patriotic reminder of a common set of values. I settled into a heavy wooden chair, feeling goosebumps creep up my neck.

As I re-penned “We the People,” I felt calm. My 7th grade teacher made my class memorize the Preamble in the 1980s. I imagined her low voice meld each syllable into a poem. Now I sensed “the Blessings of Liberty” as a fierce, fragile organism. Warmth moved into my hands and feet. My breath deepened.

When I checked my phone, verbal warfare invaded my cell phone. I watched in horror as a New England acquaintance started a Facebook pile-on. “Wash out your uneducated hick mouth and go back to Arkansas,” he typed to the stranger. Fans lobbed onto the post, forgetting that an actual human being was being torn apart. But the Constitution grounded me with its inclination toward fairness. Without thinking, I switched from print to cursive, surprised I still knew how to form the letters. To my relief, I found no mention of political parties, so toxic during the 2016 campaign.

The next day at the New York Women’s March, fear of crowds made me a pathetic protester. I emailed O’Hara, the conceptual artist I met at the library, to understand why I preferred her impromptu gathering to a mass demonstration. “Don’t make me out to be some hero,” said O’Hara, 76, who saw her event as a visual project, a way to return to basics and protest in silence. While she did not finish after six hours—predicting 14 for the whole task—the physical effort allowed her to sense how much tension went into making our laws.

Most of the Framers were wealthy. Many owned slaves. All were white men. Yet nearly everyone played a role in the Revolutionary War with more to lose than many of us with our smartphones and double lattes. Despite privileges, they were prepared to sacrifice everything to form a republic.

Centuries later, I imagined Founding Fathers could embrace feminists like my pal Liz, a civil rights and peace activist since the 1960s. Liz reminded me that the First Amendment grants five freedoms, including “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” But she went a step further. “We have to respect our enemies,” said Liz, an admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Otherwise, it’s just a mob.”

Respect requires empathy. To cultivate gentleness, I copied passages before bed, moving the language through my bloodstream like a prayer. Article I, Section 8 granted powers to Congress and shared similarities to the book of Genesis. Each line was a creation: post offices, a standard of weights and measures, the production of money and the ability to declare war and to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

My jaw tightened as I thought of my new president’s executive orders. But as I spent more time with the Constitution, I thought its language modeled a level head for civil discourse. I was moved particularly by the 19th Amendment stating no one should be denied voting rights “on account of sex.” Ratified in 1920, the amendment and its gender-inclusive wording felt especially fresh.

“Copying the Constitution is different from reading it,” said my library buddy, Ana, an American citizen originally from Romania. “When you see a road from the plane, you don’t see the pebbles.”

Curious about the details, I traveled to Washington, D.C., specifically to visit founding documents at the National Archives. “Take a close look at the first page,” a guard told me as I approached the Constitution. “Can you see a mistake?” To my amazement, I found an omission, a line that had been scraped and possibly covered with candlewax. Then he pointed out a childish error on the fourth and final signature page—“Pensylvania” spelled with one “n”—scrawled out by Alexander Hamilton, the man whose name would launch a smash Broadway musical. I was in love.  

So was my father as I described my studies. Instead of arguing about Trump—an endless activity—we met up for a family vacation in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Infused with the Spirit of ‘76, we strolled through museums and chatted with costumed actors portraying Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson. At the National Constitution Center, we paused at a video of a naturalization ceremony. Like couples taking marriage vows, these brave new citizens pledged the Oath of Allegiance, swearing to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” When the camera zoomed in on individual faces, Dad and I stifled tears.

As a natural-born American, I took my freedoms for granted. But by copying my blessings each night with my right hand, I drew a pact with God—binding me to country, family and fellow patriots, however they voted.

Forty-five days into the Trump administration, I finished the last sentence of the 27th Amendment, the final law regarding congressional pay cycles. I was now a re-Framer with my own 43-page document. When stapled together end to end, the yellow legal paper trailed from my front door to my bed.

Then I started all over again with a fresh piece of paper, beginning with “We the People.”

[This article first appeared in the New York Observer.]

Your Local Samurai Guy

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

 “I have a wife,” Yoshi Amao, the instructor of Samurai Sword Fighting, says quietly the other day at Peridance Capezio Center in the East Village. “But the sword is the partner with my hand and soul.”

With his acrobatic frame and thick black bangs, the Osaka, Japan native resembles an anime character, especially in his hakama, voluminous black skirt-like pants. “People ask how I look so young because I forget my age always,” jokes Amao, who claims he can’t remember the year of his birth.

Amao, also an actor, banks on teaching the way of the Samurai as an unorthodox day job. Aside from his class, a 90-minute workout fusing martial arts with kabuki, he offers New Yorkers private lessons and hires himself out to corporations that want to convey the values of the Japanese warriors to employees, through physical instruction and storytelling with his troupe of 10 fighter-dancers.

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble…I almost think it’s the opposite of American”—Yoshi Amao

“Sometimes workers need to experience another world and forget everything what they do, what they feel and who they are,” Amao explains. “They may be able to feel parts of themselves through meditation at the beginning and end of the class, swinging swords for many times with a big kiai [yell] and acting in the fighting scenes, eventually.”

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble,” he continues, speaking slowly and considering each word. “I almost think it’s the opposite of American. Sometimes I think Americans are like this”—he throws open his arms wide and flashes a game-show-host grin. “Japanese more inner.”

In his class, beginner and advanced students (many are dancers and quick studies) perform choreographed scenes, what Amao calls “Samurai Showtime.” Newer pupils rehearse a kata that approximates movement patterns of ballet. They nimbly dart forward and back, while striking and blocking with wooden swords called bokens, as loud drumming served as the soundtrack. Next, seasoned fighters rehearse a scene with one man defending himself against multiple attackers. As the samurai twirl to face each opponent, his hair and pants flow like that of a matinée idol. Staged deaths follow realistic-looking slashes through the stomach.

“In class, Yoshi is serious,” says one of his lieutenants, actor Saori Goda, 31, who trained for five years and fights like she’s in Kill Bill. “He really thinks of the way of the samurai: You have to respect your seniors, your teachers. In New York, it’s rare to learn this style.”

Yoshi Amao.

Yoshi Amao. Emily Assiran for Observer.

Also from Osaka, Goda stands by Amao in the lobby, her raven hair in a high bun. Having changed into jeans, Amao perches on a stool, his left leg stretched to display a floral-printed sneaker. As fighters and ballerinas mingle in the hallway, he maintains a panther’s posture, bokens sticking out of his bag.

Amao moved to New York in 1990 to become a full-time actor. With his deep voice and heavy accent, he gets consistent voice-over work, providing narration to video games (Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories) and commercials. His athleticism frequently lands him TV and film roles like Disney’s Japanizi: Going, Going, Gong! and the USA series White Collar. “Mostly, I am the face of the Cherry Blossom Festival,” he says, referring to the annual event at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

Every spring, Amao choreographs a 45-minute play for the festival. This year’s theme was “Dragon Fire,” featuring Samurai Sword Soul, his troupe.

Amao adapts excerpts from the production for up to 20 performances throughout the country. While most of his performers are male, females provide nuance. “People get bored of men fighting,” notes Amao, deferring to Goda. “In Dragon Fire, Saori’s boyfriend is totally weaker than she is. He proposes to her. She refuses.

“Say the line,” Amao requests.

“I don’t want to marry someone who is not as strong as I am,” replies Goda, smiling.

“That always gets laughs,” he says. “In the U.S., men say, ‘Ladies first.’ Macho. I think women are stronger than men.”

Then Amao reveals a secret. “She is my wife,” he says, pointing to Goda. The couple burst into giggles. Married one year after seven years of dating, Amao and Goda met in New York when they were both emcees at a social event for JaNet, a nonprofit formed after 9/11 with a mission to “cheer up and unite” the Japanese expat community.

Today, the couple lives on the Upper East Side and occasionally collaborates on fight scenes, a difficult task in their small apartment.

Amao envisions taking his samurai show on the road, ideally in Las Vegas and California. “Then I will feel like I have made it in in America.”

I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.

Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.

This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.

“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”

As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.

After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.

I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”

After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”

Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.

9/11 Stories: Rabbi Janise Poticha

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo by Rick Wenner of The Observer.

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo, Rick Wenner

“September 11 is still part of my life, but I don’t make it my life,” said Rabbi Janise Poticha, 63, the other day at a bustling diner near her Upper West Side apartment. “I expected to be a ‘pulpit rabbi’: to educate people, marry them, bury the dead and grieve with mourners,” she continued, her brown eyes a few shades darker than her cup of decaf. Her silver-streaked hair framed a tanned, youthful face. “Nobody ever thought somebody would hijack two airplanes and fly them into the most identifiable buildings in America.”

On the morning of 9/11, her doorman informed her that a plane hit the North Tower, probably a small aircraft gone off course. She thought little of it and set off for a meeting across town with the Archdiocese of New York. By the time she arrived, Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower.

For the next four days, Poticha, who had EMT training, stayed around Ground Zero organizing triage stations. She placed the dead into body bags with first responders of all faiths. When a distraught firefighter noticed her kippah and chaplain vest, he asked if she would pray with him. “I said, ‘I’m Jewish, but we can pray together.’ We simply held hands and talked.”

More than 800 clergy mobilized after the 9/11 attacks—the largest multifaith chaplaincy effort in United States history.

“I felt compelled to be there, but I had to remember the high holy days were coming,” recalled Poticha, who has served as rabbi at Temple Sinai of Massapequa since 1998. “I had to take care of my congregation. On my last night as a responding chaplain, a construction worker gave me a ride home in his truck. It was 4 a.m. The moon was so bright. Looking up, I thought, ‘Things are still right in the world.’ The sun would rise in a few hours, and the moon would set. The organic sequence was still in place.”

Today, Poticha serves as president of Disaster Chaplaincy Services (DCS), a nonprofit that provides spiritual assistance in emergencies.

DCS provides pastoral support not just after tragedies but also during landmark occasions, such as the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in 2014. In the museum’s first week, volunteer chaplains worked in shifts to care for survivors, family members and first responders who had a sneak peek of the site. “One man, a construction worker, saw his hat and pick in a glass case in the historical exhibition,” she said. “He had donated the items, but he didn’t know if they would be [displayed]. He broke into tears in my arms,” she said with a sigh. “There was a lot of that.”Ann Votaw for The New York Observer

Channeling Mom, I Sewed My Own Lululemon Pants


When Bloomberg News reported the $400 yoga legging trend, my stomach convulsed into spontaneous nauli. Disgusted by this—and my reliance upon these clothes as an instructor—I developed a plan. I would learn to sew my own yoga pants. With my head full of dreams, I decided to skip beginner patterns and committed to a more outrageous venture: By September, I would recreate my favorite Lululemons. Purchased in 2007, these pants still performed gravity-defying properties on my aging backside.

For encouragement, I called my resourceful mother in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“You’ll hate what you make,” Mom said. “Trust me. It’s cheaper to buy what you want.”

I suspected she was right, but still, thanks for the encouragement Mom. She’d engineered my childhood wardrobe, from Little House dresses to Brownie uniform, until I reached high school and begged her to stop. I can still see her, pins in her mouth, draping patterns on my elongating pre-teen body. For two decades, I’ve lived in big cities, losing daily physical contact with my mother. Now I secretly wondered if my mission wasn’t just about the garment industry. Maybe it was a homage to home and to Mom.

Having re-mastered basic skills, I located a patient teacher, Rachel Blackmon, through my Inwood community Facebook page. We agreed on lessons for $40 an hour, staying within a budget of about $200.

When I met Blackmon in her sunlit apartment, I knew I found my guide. Dressed in a floral skirt of her own invention, she offered red wine while her son played in the bedroom. Like me, she competed in 4-H in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Unlike me, she continued through high school and her recent job transition, from middle school teacher to CEO of Rachel’s House of Craft.

“What’s more fulfilling?” Blackmon asked me. “Buying or making? There’s something about creating with the hands that rekindles home.”

Blackmon invited me to touch several samples of knit, one of her favorite fabrics. On her dining room table, she pinned and traced my Lulus onto pattern paper, a maneuver that resembled dissection. Before our next lesson, she recommended two places to purchase fabric: a Mom & Pop in the Bronx and Mood Fabric in the Garment District. As a die-hard Project Runway fan, my ears heard only Mood, the source of sewing porn.

Entering, I imagined the voice of Tim Gunn, warning me to “make it work.” With three levels, Mood was the Capitol. Jo-Ann Fabric was merely a colony.

Impervious to pain, I danced through aisles of notions and faux fur until I was stopped by Jonae, an “ex-con design student” with torn jeans and an Afro.

She led me into a Brothers Grimm forest of knits. My hands reached for a grayish-black material, then to a bolt of stretchy denim. “You’re not allowed to make jeggings,” she gasped. Overwhelmed, I grabbed my first choice, a gray-black ponte. A blend of rayon, polyester, and Spandex, the ponte shared qualities with my olive capris. Jonae cut a yard-and-a-half for $12. “No more murder pants for you,” she said, referring to the 2011 bludgeoning death of a Lululemon sales clerk by a fellow employee.

Jonae was a poem.

After I washed and dried the fabric, I went back to Blackmon who spread it onto her table. “I have a philosophy,” Blackmon said, smoothing wrinkles. “Sometimes we avoid what is most healing to us. It reminds you you’re a physical being with an end. We avoid the things that self-sustain because they connect us to our mortality.”

For the next three Wednesdays, Blackmon coached as I cut, ironed, and basted parts together. Then came my first fitting: a moment of truth. The pants were going to be beautiful. All we had to do was rip basted seams and re-sew with permanent stitches. Confident, I agreed to finish my project using the $10-per-hour unsupervised option. I stitched. Blackmon did laundry. When Blackmon checked on my progress, she turned pale. I had sewn the outer seams together without incorporating the gusset. In a matter of minutes, my promising pants had turned into a long-waisted pair of bootie lederhosen.

“You’re going to have to cut the seams, which means we now have less fabric,” she said. “This ponte may stretch enough to fit you. But you may need to give them to someone who is smaller than you.” I walked home close to tears.

For the final lesson, Blackmon gave me healthy discounts. We would be done in an hour, she said. We were so close.

Four hours and several thread balls later, I did indeed have a pair of pants. I tried them on in her bedroom. Fantastic! But I had mixed feelings. More flattering than the Lulus, they were also more expensive at more than $300 in cloth and instruction.

“This project was difficult,” Blackmon said. “There was an impenetrable quality to the fabric. We solved the problem by changing needles, from ballpoint to a sharp universal. Every fabric has its surprises.”

I wasn’t convinced.

“If you make them again, it would be easier,” Blackmon coaxed. “You were learning a lot at once. I suggest you take a break from knits and go with wovens because you can take out the stitches without ruining the fabric.”

We agreed to leave the pattern at her apartment. I would tackle the pants again, once I’d mastered easier projects. In the meantime, I wore my pants to Jivamukti. They held up in hanuman. They also rocked in CrossFit. Stok
ed, I walked into Lululemon on 14th Street.

“What do you think of my Lulus?” I asked, glowing. “Is there anyone I can talk to about the care and fit of a pair of pants?” A friendly clerk pointed to the manager. The manager directed me to media relations online. I tried the same dialogue at Athleta and Old Navy. I got the same results.

When I sent emails to the media departments of Gap Inc., which owns Athleta and Old

Navy, I heard nothing. When I wrote to Lululemon, I received this from a p.r. person: “Thanks for your email and for thinking of Lululemon for this opportunity. We’d like to respectfully decline . . .”

The Year In (Dead) Bodies

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1900: Medicine - Anatomy - Musculoskeletal (locomotor) system - Muscles. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my personal research on body donation, I encountered NPR reporter Fred Mogul at NYU School of Medicine’s most recent cadaver memorial in November. He was bugging the stage to collect touching speeches and songs sung by the Ketones, NYU’s medical school choir. I was representing The New York Observer for a 700-article, “The Kindest Cut.” My story centered around two second year students who lingered after the service to snack on bits of the remaining buffet. With me, they discussed the weirdness of dealing with disconnected hands and legs that looked like those of family members.

What impressed me was the admission that medical school was rewarding, but also really hard: “I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do,” said one of the future physicians. “I doubted that I was good enough to do it.”

Fred, meanwhile, had a longer-term project through NPR. He focused on a group of first year students and their relationship with donor Haig Manoukian, whom he met in a body bag on Table 4.

Haig was an Armenian-American whose parents fled the Turkish genocide of World War I. A musician, he played the oud and jammed with the New York Middle Eastern music scene before contracting prostate cancer. The choice to donate Haig’s body was his wife Michele’s. She considered many ways to remember Haig, who loved sharing his craft. Then she stumbled on body donation. “That pulled everything together for me,” she said. “I stopped crying. And I felt integrated. I felt like complete in some way. I just felt this is a real, this is the right decision.”

She said she hoped the students would make really good mistakes on him and feel all sorts of emotions, including humor.

“I didn’t want him to die, and I thought he’ll be alive in some way,” Michele said on NPR’s Only Human. “He won’t go into the dark. He’ll be in light. I didn’t care if it was fluorescent light. I wanted other people’s eyes on him. And I wanted their hands on him. I couldn’t let go. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do that. You know, it was selfish for me in a way, because I just wanted to think of him on 34 th Street. I didn’t want to think of him. I don’t know.”


Fred Mogul’s wonderful reporting has been released in sections on NPR, “Every (Dead) Body Has A Story” and “A Guide to Donating Your Body To Science.”

A Non-Catholic Salutes Hometown Bishop, Hero of ‘Spotlight’


This letter to editor appeared in my Indiana hometown paper, The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel on Feb. 28, 2016.

Fort Wayne audiences may recognize the name “John D’Arcy” in one of the most pivotal scenes of “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.

A Summit City native who lives in New York, I felt soaring pride that former Bishop D’Arcy fought against sexual abuse in his beloved Catholic Church. When visiting my hometown, I often attended D’Arcy’s Christmas Eve mass at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Raised Methodist, I respected him, even though I disagreed with his conservative politics. During the Oscars, I celebrated D’Arcy and his brief mention in “Spotlight,” the story of a Boston Globe reporting team. Gently paced, the film exploded when Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) opened sealed documents containing damning evidence against the church. Breathless, Rezendes read to fellow reporters a 1984 letter recommending the removal of a predatory priest with a “history of homosexual involvement with young boys.”

D’Arcy, then Auxiliary Bishop of Boston, was the concerned author. In this spectacular scene, Ruffalo finally lost impartiality and shouted to his editor: “We gotta nail these scum bags! We gotta to show people that nobody can get away with this. Not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope!”In real life, D’Arcy’s correspondence helped fuel the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of a corrupt system.

In the first piece on the scandal, which appeared in 2002, Rezendes asked a provocative question about Father Geoghan, accused of molesting more than 130 boys in the Boston area. Rezendes inquired: “Why did it take a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children out of Geoghan’s reach?”

After the article, more victims came forward. Secondary victims often included clergy, parents, and even lawyers stuck with the unimaginable weight of staying silent in fear of the Catholic Church.

I’m not here to single out religious organizations as tyrants. In Michigan, state officials knew that changing Flint’s water source from Lake Heron to the Flint River could be dangerous. But they did it anyway. After 9/11, the Environmental Protection Agency swore New York air was safe. Yet thousands of Ground Zero responders and others continue to be diagnosed with cancer. In such cases, it’s easy to wonder why no one took action. My guess is many of us have worked in similar demoralizing situations. In fear-based regimes, which are as numerous as the stars, shame is an art form of highly skilled leaders.That’s why D’Arcy is a hero in the movie and in real life.

But back in 1984, I imagine D’Arcy didn’t feel bold when his letters were buried. In fact, D’Arcy found himself transferred to the Midwest, where he was promoted to Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Far from his home in Massachusetts, he remained in Indiana until his death in 2013.His obituary appeared in The New York Times, hailing him as a whistleblower, unusual for an authority in his prestigious position. After viewing “Spotlight” two more times, I wondered why none of my Fort Wayne friends noticed D’Arcy’s role in the film.

One of the movie’s themes is that it takes an outsider to see the obvious. Now 41, I spent my first two decades in Fort Wayne and the last 20 years in big cities. From my distant Manhattan apartment, I am in awe of D’Arcy, Fort Wayne’s adopted son. You should be, too.

Bullying Locker Room Style: Donald Trump

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to members of the Sun City Republicans at their gated retirement community in Bluffton, South Carolina February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RTX27DNB

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to members of the Sun City Republicans at their gated retirement community in Bluffton, South Carolina February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – RTX27DNB

This story first appeared in on Feb. 21, 2016.

Donald Trump is a playground thug, said Jonathan Fast, author of “Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Shame, Bullying, and Violence” (Oxford 2016). Like many juvenile oppressors, the Donald plays to the crowd, bragging as he advocates waterboarding and walls to keep out Mexicans. In this kindergarten drama, heightened with explosive tweets and sound bites, voters cheer from the sidelines. Possibly, they’re scared of being losers.

After all, most adults have been bullied at some point in their lives, according to Fast’s vigorous research on the subject. A dry-witted social-work professor at New York’s Yeshiva University, Fast has found the bully’s secret fuel — shame — a word so awful that even therapists avoid it. In this page-turner (Fast has also written science fiction), he claims that narcissism is a common defense against shame, which makes Trump such a delicious feast.

But Fast is also a fascinating case study. Born in New York City, this soft-spoken Connecticut resident belongs to an illustrious Jewish writing clan that includes former wife Erica Jong, who penned “Fear of Flying,” and their daughter, author Molly Jong-Fast. His Communist father, Howard, wrote “Spartacus” and refused to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. While Howard possessed a strong personality, Fast said his famous dad was more negligent than controlling. Today, Fast lives with his second wife, a Unitarian minister. They raised two sons.

We met Fast in his Yeshiva office overlooking Washington Heights in New York City. Slim and silver haired, the bespectacled professor delivered insights with a remarkably calm voice dotted with thoughtful pauses. But on his filing cabinet glared a massive statue: the head of a great ape wearing Fast’s distinguished graduation cap.

How is Donald Trump the classic bully according to Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus, whom you quote in your “Bullying In and Out Of Schools” chapter? Olweus identified risk factors, including a child’s “hot-headed” temperament.

If you think of the definition by Olweus, the gold standard of bullying research, bullies are typically larger and stronger than the other kids kids in their class. You can say that Trump is bigger and stronger in the sense that he has more money than other people, and a television show, so he has a bigger image and a stronger financial power. Bullies are opportunistic. They pick on weaker people who won’t strike back. He’s done this with minorities and women. His mentors are probably saying to him, “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s working.” People are watching.

When Trump verbally attacked Megyn Kelly, who moderated the GOP debate in August, he referred to her menstrual cycle when he said: “She gets out there and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her … wherever.” What do you make of comments like that?

He couldn’t say the word vagina, like a little kid. Bleeding from the eyes. He couldn’t say the real word. The thing is that people like fights. In high school, did you ever stand around and watch kids fight? I did. “Don’t break it up. Let’s see what happens.”

Should we take Trump seriously, or is he a performance artist using taunts to stand out among other candidates?

We shouldn’t take him seriously. He’s almost like an insult comic, like Don Rickles. Some comedians process shame through their work in a positive way. One type of human laughter is about the joy of overcoming hardship. In “Beyond Bullying,” I talk about Army Staff Sergeant Bobby Henline, whose face was disfigured after a roadside explosion outside of Baghdad in 2007. He had burns over 90 percent of his body. His therapist said, “You’re funny. You should do comedy.” He has gotten lots of support from other wounded soldiers. People are laughing with him because he has overcome a disfiguring shame.

In “Beyond Bullying,” you mentioned that you were bullied by a kid named Mark when you were 8 years old. You wrote that you finally lost control and knocked Mark down over a table at summer camp.

He just pushed me and pushed me. Then I throttled him. Then we had a session with the counselors and it stopped for awhile. Then it happened again. I was a big strong kid. I was a big fat strong kid. I was like 5-foot-10. I am about that now.

Later, in the fifth grade, a smaller kid broke my arm, which was embarrassing. But there was something really good about that. He called me up afterward and apologized because he felt bad. I said, “That’s alright.” That phone conversation was what is known as a restorative practice, with the idea of repairing relationships. It was nice between us after that, and I got to show off my cast at school.

In your book, you mentioned restorative programs like SaferSanerSchools that have reduced disciplinary referrals. You also attended a Names Can Really Hurt Us event, where “kids laid bare their adolescent souls,” from admitting the shame of ADHD to having a sister with autism. Can we ever get rid of bullying?

No, because you can’t get rid of mean people. You can reduce it. Simply positioning teachers in the hallway during changes of class can be helpful. The best idea is to create the civil school with restorative practices.

51W4PYuSbcL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Are we ashamed of shame?

We are. As long as you have a thread of doubt about your identity, then you’re susceptible to shame. When you’re in therapy, for a serious problem rather than maintenance, you get to a point in the work where it stops, like a speed bump. That’s usually when you’ve reached a shaming situation that is too toxic to talk about. It’s so horrible you feel like you’re going to die if other people know it, like with incest or a situation where your buddies got blown up and you survived. What you do at that point is what psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis did in the 1970s. You could put therapy on hold and do psycho-education on shame to demystify it for the client. The other thing is to encourage clients to keep a shame diary, which opens the way to talking about their central shaming experience that they’re scared to discuss. No one ever mentioned shame to me in therapy. The first time I went, I thought, “I hope I don’t have talk about that.” And I never talked about it.

What is Trump ashamed of?

I can’t imagine what his shame is. I know he went to military school. The only group he hasn’t viciously attacked is gay people, but he actually did say inflammatory things in a Howard Stern interview in 2008. I looked it up because I was curious at why he wasn’t bullying the LGBT community to the same degree he was everyone else. In the interview, Stern pushed him and pushed him. So it’s there, but there’s some reason why he’s not talking about that now.