Category Archives: Oddity

‘Art exhibit’s visitors in a nude mood’

Gallery stages private viewing of Austin artist’s photos for a clothing-free Hill Country club

Aug. 25, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this weirdo doing here?”

The weirdo, fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women. Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by Austin artist George Krause.

Friday night at the D Berman Gallery on Guadalupe Street, a bunch of nudists came to a nude art show. The Hill Country Nudists, an informal club of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?

Gallery owner David Berman was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. Krause’s singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.

Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.

“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”

One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Lance Armstrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.

Hill Country Nudists has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.

There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.

“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”

Morgan, 55, has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.

“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”

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‘Deep 6’

Dire predictions swarm around today’s date — 6/6/06 — but we’re ready to pitchfork them all

June 6, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

In the dark art of doomsaying, everything is rooted in everything, all of it entwined in prophecy and proclamation, raving from pulpits and mountaintops, the Internet and badly lighted cable access studios: The end is nigh.

Apocalypse, now. The End Days rear up to spew biblical yuckiness across the globe, leaving a big ball of smoking gristle speckled with the remains of those not righteous enough for the pillowy penthouse of heaven.

It’s hell’s turn, and it has your number.

Well, we have its number, too. Three sibilant digits — 6-6-6 — a tidy speed-dial on fate’s mobile, with a ringtone clanging like a death knell. 666, the Number of the Beast, the Mark of the Antichrist, as introduced in rumbling prose in the book of Revelation, that merry little bedtime story that has begat no end of frothing street-corner seers and bar-code conspirators, creepy Hieronymus Bosch paintings and mullet-head tattoo art.

The number is everywhere, and while it doesn’t happen every day, it does happen today, June 6, 2006 — that is, (cue Bach’s Toccata and Fugue) 6/6/06.

Revelation 13:17-18 decrees it with sulfurous portent: The tag of the beast is a “human number,” which Satan’s followers will bear on the hand or forehead come Armageddon. Teased from an ancient Hebrew numbering system, 666 is the numerical value of the name of the Antichrist, though some biblical scholars dispute this figure as a mistranslation, opting for the totally nonevil 616, the area code of Grand Rapids, Mich.

So freighted with diabolic prestige and shivering paranoia is this trio of modest curlicues that Fox is releasing its remake of the 1976 horror movie “The Omen” today with the soothing tagline “You have been warned.” (The film, of course, chronicles the arrival of the Antichrist in the form of a cherubic child named Damien, forever ruining that name for parents worldwide.)

Other wily marketing moves on this most damned of days include the launch of devil-thrash band Slayer’s Unholy Alliance Tour and — get thee behind me, Satan! — the release of Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.”

All hell is breaking loose, and with it, a lot of screws. Y2K, anyone?

Scroll the Web and savor the bounty of 666-related predictions scheduled for today (is that Pacific or Central time?). Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, a renegade comet smashing Earth. The Antichrist will reveal himself and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will gallop forth, sporting black hoodies in place of cowboy hats. If you see a horse shooting fire from its nostrils, run.

Colorado authorities are watching for “demonstrations or violent activity,” says the Denver Post, noting that 60 global terrorist attacks have happened on June 6 since 1970. Austin police are taking no extra precautions, because “We’re not expecting anything,” says police spokeswoman Toni Chovanetz. She asks anyone who sees suspicious activity to dial 911, the number of the peace.

Most newborns, purply and scrunchy, look like spawns of Satan, but some pregnant women in Austin and beyond are trying to avoid giving birth today, lest they deliver Rosemary’s baby. Horns — never a good look on a child.

‘‘I’m going to be induced on the 4th or 5th,” expectant mother Carrie McFarland of Dallas told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. ‘‘If my doctor had offered to induce me on the 6th, I wouldn’t have done it.’’

Jittery residents in San Marcos want to change the city’s ZIP code, which is 78666. It’s a lighthearted movement, one that made the U.S. Postal Service chuckle, smile and say “no.”

Divine augur, or occult folderol?

“People can get hypersensitive and read too much into things,” says Randy Phillips, pastor of the nondenominational PromiseLand West Church in Austin. “I’ve had friends who changed their P.O. box from 666 to another number. I don’t see any significance in June 6, 2006. It’s just another day. It’s like Friday the 13th. I still show up and have a good time.”

Calls to local psychics yielded mumbled disinterest, ignored messages and a hang-up. What does Madam Ruth know that she’s not telling us?

Like the good pastor, we’re ready to 86 this 666. The number pops up on license plates, expiration dates, credit card bills and the lyric sheets of Iron Maiden, yet few of us feel its promised burn. It’s a stigma given its own stigma by the anxious and superstitious, who seek meaning in the cracks of old parchment and the furrows of inspired speculation.

Here’s another diabolic number: 7734. Remember as a kid punching the digits into a calculator, then turning the calculator upside down, so they spelled “hell”? We were little Damiens.

As far as real links between 666 and war and destruction, we leave that to the Scott Paper company. It notes on its Web site that the Pentagon uses about — you got it — 666 rolls of toilet paper a day. That sound you hear on this wicked day is a whole lot of flushing.

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‘Cy’s single amber eye peers deep into cyber souls, questions life’s fragility’

Jan. 17, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

Like a perfect amber marble smooshed into its forehead, the eyeball rests in the kitty’s face. With no eyelid to blink it, the eye glistens and stares, evoking a comic book Martian or, naturally, the Cyclops of Greek myth, a towering, fearsome beast that wore the largest monocle in recorded history. Wags on the Web have dubbed it the “cyclops kitten,” musing with by turns pity, laughter, skepticism and freaked-out fear about this botched job of nature. The solo orb, writes one poster, “peers deep into my SOUL.”

The kitty and its creepy eye are captured in a startling Associated Press photo, and it’s no hoax. Scientists say so, terming the facial mishap “holoprosencephaly.” Named Cy by its owner, it was born Dec. 28 in Oregon and died the next day. It was also born without a nose, making it look to some like a one-eyed monkey. Cy was one in a litter of two kittens. Its sibling came out normal and is presumably destroying furniture as we write.

With that impressive peeper, Cy was the kitten’s pajamas last week. Its image held Net surfers in the queasy thrall of morbid fascination. The photo of the pink and white feline — laying on a bed of horror and pathos, the outsize uni-eye centered in its downy head — shot through the blogosphere.

The picture was one of the most viewed and most emailed photos at Yahoo on Thursday and Friday, and “cyclops kitten” was one of the most searched keywords. Soon, a meticulous and loving painting of Cy, complete with the epigram RIP, was posted at 7deadlysinners.com. Other sites ran poems to Cy. (I bet you woulda made a great pet/woulda scared everybody at the vet.) While sympathy reigned, nasty people let loose with monikers like “devil cat.” One poster wrote, “That cyclops cat scared the bejesus out of me.”

That’s glib stuff when deeper reflection is demanded. Cy represents the crazy fragility of life, the cruel caprice of Mother Nature. And it throws into question Cy’s mother’s taste in tomcats.

Cy is gone now. A fleeting oddity that ruffled us for a moment. A sideshow distraction that made us feel and think. Cy’s owner did what anyone would do with such a gift and learning tool for humanity. She put it in the freezer.

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Home funeral services grow

Home at last: As tradition of loved ones performing funeral services grows, Austin workshop teaches them how to do it

July 26, 2009, Austin American-Statesman

No one wants to die, but Fleur Hedden goes ahead and volunteers anyway.

A tall woman, she clambers atop a long country-kitchen table in an Austin home, lies supine, closes her eyes and dies. Like that.

Becalmed onlookers place a rose-patterned sheet over Hedden’s body, leaving her face exposed. Her feet dangle off the end of the table, but she doesn’t mind. Death will do that – expose trivialities for what they are.

Hedden, still and at peace, is surrounded by caretakers who gently lift her arms and rub them with damp cloths. A mood of elegiac serenity fills the room. The air conditioner blows at a low hum, and a stately grandfather clock ticks and tocks.

And then the quiet is rent. The corpse opens her mouth and asks a question.

“Oh, my God, it’s a miracle!” Donna Belk exclaims.

“She speaks!” says someone else in the room.

The dead laughs. Everyone else does, too.

We are in Belk’s rustic home, where a workshop on home funerals is being taught on a hot June day. Home funeral advocates Belk and Sandy Booth lead the class of six, which includes Hedden, today’s volunteer dead person. Every workshop requires someone to play possum for a few hours, and the challenge for that person is to sustain a state of almost Zen-like immobility.

“It’s an active role, but that active role is to be as still as possible,” Hedden says after the class.

The Austin workshop is testimony to the small but growing popularity of the self-done, homemade funeral service, in which loved ones take funeral rites into their own hands, bestowing their own meaning on them, while rejecting the costly and more impersonal funeral home tradition that many people still believe is the only option. Though official figures aren’t available, groups such as Belk and Booth’s have sprouted in at least 20 states, according to Booth, who, with Belk, runs the home funeral sites crossingscircle.org and homefuneral.info and has helped dozens of local families put together home funerals.

With a surge in interest in so-called green burials, which dispense with toxic embalming fluids and often opt for cremation over casket burial, home funerals, also known as family-directed funerals, are being recognized as a cheaper and eco-friendly way of putting the dead to rest.

But it’s not only about saving money and helping the environment. Many deem home funerals a more emotionally and spiritually rich experience, a way of staying close to a loved one and saying goodbye through the process of preparing the body for burial or cremation. Friends, family members or hired helpers clean and dress the deceased and place the body on dry ice for wakes that can last three days in the home. They often build their own casket or buy an inexpensive model, such as cardboard or pine, and decorate it with personal flourishes reflecting the dead’s interests and style. A musician’s casket, for instance, might be embossed with an instrument, musical notes and song lyrics.

“I call it final gifting, because it’s a last gift, the last thing that you can give to the loved one,” says Rodger Ericson, president of the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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The marvelously macabre Mütter Museum

Gross anatomy: At Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, science and the surreal combine for unforgettable experience

April 15, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

Pathologies are my thing. Twisted limbs. Fleshy protrusions. Faces swathed in nappy hair, Chewbacca-like. Conjoined twins. Horns curling from foreheads. Extra heads — those are always fun.

I don’t revel in the maladies of others; I revel in the Other. People are fascinating. People are more fascinating with three legs.

This foible of mine, this adorable morbidity, came early on, delighting my parents, who stood back, weighed adoption strategies and ever so gingerly catered to my wiggier curiosities. For my eighth birthday I requested and received the illustrated book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves and Triumphs of Human Oddities.” Since then, many have believed I belong in this book.

These outré fascinations have grown to include death and the dead, and have led me to abnormal forays in my frequent travels. There I was at the Royal London Hospital, sleuthing with the grace and aptitude of Inspector Clouseau for the skeleton of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. (Mission: failed.) At the Golders Green Crematorium in London I witnessed roaring ovens and jars of fresh ashes, some heartbreakingly labeled “baby.”

There was the blech-fest of the Meguro Parasitological Museum in Tokyo, where all squirm and squiggle of microbe-y monster were displayed in clear, fluid-filled cases, sometimes feasting on animal innards.

At the Museum of Forensic Medicine in Bangkok, medical students dissecting cadavers giggled when they saw me spying in the doorway, pointing my camera. I repaired upstairs to the musty exhibit of bottled fetuses, crumbling bones and full-length cadavers floating in dishwater liquid like humongous pickles.

My two noble efforts to see the freak show at Coney Island were thwarted by poor timing. Yanking on the bearded lady’s follicular abundance will have to wait.

Yet, for a constant traveler of my tastes and temperament, the Taj Mahal of the morbid has long been the famed Mütter Museum, a repository of anatomical horrors and shrine to primitive, rusty-tooled medicine in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is where, at last, after years gazing at its Web site, I recently visited. Disappointment was not in the cards.

Part edifying scientific journey, part powerful appetite suppressant, the Mütter is smack in Philly’s city center, a brisk walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Inside, once through the deceptively donnish foyer, the museum is cool and musty, packed with old wood and glass cases revealing the historically pertinent — Florence Nightingale’s sewing kit — and the surgically slimy — a mammary tumor afloat in liquid, resembling a buttery dessert.

Human skulls — some intact, some cracked or bullet-pocked — checker an entire wall, each tagged with the cause of death, be it hanging, suicide or disease. The brownish heads came to the Mütter from Central and Eastern Europe in 1874, a major acquisition for the medical institute, which boasts 62,000 visitors a year, many of them children on school field trips. (I want to go to their school.)

Founded in 1849 and named 10 years later for surgery professor Thomas Dent Mütter, the museum throws open in graphic, natural detail the ranging possibilities of the human body, and the havoc that can befall it from within and without. Diseases, injuries, birth defects — it’s an elaborate temple to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Much of it is not pretty. This is a given. It can be ghastly, grisly, unimaginable. (The “wet specimens” section is home to a jar labeled “Moist Gangrene of the Hand.” In it sits a human hand rotted black, the skin tattered like a torn leather glove, bones poking from the wrist.)

But to merely recoil at the exhibits is to shut out a world of contemplation, and to allow an emotional reflex to override a rare opportunity for understanding.

Not that emotions wither in the objective, secular hothouse of science and medicine. We are human, after all. And the museum unpeels the tangible layers of our humanness, down to the bones in many cases.

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