April 2013


Habemus Papam: A Pope. A Language.



From the moment Pope Francis set foot on the balcony, he projected a man of humility. He asked the sea of people that swelled before him, to first bless the Holy See: "In silence, let us say this prayer of you for me." An inspiring gesture. Yet one, one might say, that was apt considering the problems and turmoil within the Catholic church, and how some “higher ups” have let the faithful down.


Humility in a Pope should be a given. Yet the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had virtually all the TV talking heads, swooning at the very concept, waxing “popetic” as they went on.


I may have been mistaken last month in stating, that the influence of the papacy has greatly diminished over time. That would hardly be the takeaway here, judging by the World Cup atmosphere that overtook some spots around the globe. And what with those coming out of the Catholic closet—“practicing” and “lapsed” alike—animatedly speculating on the far reaching implications of this surprising papal choice. (Cardinal Scola was a “2-1” favorite going in, according to U.K. bookmakers.).


Even those of other religious persuasions, were having trouble curbing their enthusiasm. Politicians would kill for such bipartisan fawning. Perhaps being Pope, is still big potatoes.


Yet despite all this, let’s be frank about the selection of Francis (which happens to be my middle name, and which I feel a need to point out for reasons that magnum mysterium mihi (1) —more on Latin in a moment). He seems to be a solution to a problem that the church doesn’t really have—especially relative to its many more pressing issues—and that is, one of reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised and victims of social injustice.


I would vouch for that, if the missions I was involved in with my parish taking me to places such as an orphanage in Tijuana and the slums of Kenya, are any indication.


But can Francis’s humility and record of service to the poor, translate into success in other situations? Can he go beyond the weak mea culpa (2) issued by his predecessors regarding the pedophile scandals? Or the apparent fiscal (and possibly other) improprieties within the Vatican itself?


Secundum imperator consentio (3), there is hope he’ll take a forthright approach in dealing with scandals, but given his staunch conservative positions on church teachings in the past, no one expects any ex cathedra (4) changing the church’s position on canon law and theological matters. Matters such as marriage for priests, women as priests, same-gender marriage, contraception, and that most volatile issue of all—abortion.


On that note, I turn now to something of a linguistic nature, that struck me so strongly in watching all of this. I’ve already hinted at in this text, what with the use of obscure Latin phraseology.

Latin as a language may be as dead as a doornail (or Marley’s ghost), but not so in the Vatican (or at St. Patrick’s on any Sunday, for that matter). The Cardinals chanted Ora pro nobis (5) as they made their way to the Sistine Chapel… then a prelate declared Extra omnes (6) after they had taken an oath of secrecy… and in a grand climax the following day, a proclamation of Habemus Papam! (7) was issued throughout the world.

The unabashed use of Latin in public, probably hasn’t been heard since something last uttered by William F. Buckley Jr., who wound up cum mortuis in lingua mortua (8). And of course in written form, legal documents are filled with similar incomprehension in the belief that quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur (9).

This whole papal event, fueled as it was and always has been by Latin, took me to vita ante acta (10); a church still steeped in the Middle Ages.


The fact that this was the first Pope ever to come out of a Latin American country, was upstaged for me by the ritual itself enshrouded in a language of antiquity, albeit melodious and quaint. Not to mention the white smoke/black smoke messaging from a jerry-rigged chimney, in those moments when even Latin was deemed insufficient to convey the weight (and wait) of the moment.


A shift in the wind? Vicis mos dico. (11)
(1) I am a great mystery to myself.
(2) Though my fault.
(3) According to general consensus.
(4) A formal declaration from “the chair.”
(5) Pray for us.
(6) Outside, all of you (who are not part of this enclave).
(7) We have a Pope!
(8) With the dead in a dead language.
(9) Anything said in Latin sounds profound.
(10) A life done before.
(11) Time will tell.





Quote(s) of the Month


No problem can be solved by the same consciousness
that caused it in the first place.

                                                —Albert Einstein


Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis
In errore perserseverare.*

                                                —Cicero, Philippica XII, 5.

*Anyone can err, but only the fool persists in his fault.







Some things are so ubiquitous, and yet so simultaineously innocuous, that you never think of them as having to have been invented. They’ve just sort of always have been. Crossword puzzles fit that description. Yet this year marks only the one hundreth anniversary of the invention of the crossword puzzle as we know it.


It was not some anonymous discovery found carved in a wall of some cave, or an ancient game of vague origins that evolved over a couple of millennia—ala chess— but rather the brainchild of a twentieth century man, Arthur Wynne from the U.K. He is attributed with being the first to publish a “word-cross” puzzle on December 21,1913, that incorporated most of the features in what we now know as the “crossword.” In time it would spark a craze that reached a peak in 1924.


How much of a craze? The New York Times, the most prestigious publisher of the most difficult crosswords to solve (though it didn’t publish its first puzzle until 1942), complained back then of…

“…the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words, the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.


This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport... [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development."

Then of course, leave it to The Protestant Ethic to rain on the parade of fun and games. A clergyman called the working of crossword puzzles:

"…the mark of a childish mentality"… There is no use for persons to pretend that working one of the puzzles carries any intellectual value with it.”

                                                                                      (The New York Times, December 23, 1924)

It reminds me of an exchange purported to have taken place at a dinner ceremony between a Catholic Bishop and Grouch Marx:

Bishop: “I’d like to thank you Mr. Marx for bringing so much fun into the world.”

Groucho: “And I’d like to thank you for taking so much out.”

It is estimated that there are now some 50 million Americans for whom crossword puzzles are presumably fun, and a regular part of their lives. So much for the somber predictions that this fad would quickly fade.


As a devotee, I can vouch for the rush one can get from solving TNYT’s harder weekend puzzles—in ink. Not exactly akin to running with the bulls in Pamplona, but to each his own derring-do.


The excellent 2006 documentary film Wordplay, featuring Will Shortz the editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, gives one an entertaining sense of what drives this diversion.


The movie is also spiced by appearances of an unlikely and varied cast of celebrity puzzle solvers such as Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns and ex-Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina.


Which takes us to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament upon which the film is anchored.


Last month, the thirty-sixth annual tournament was won once again by a guy named Dan Feyer. It might not be a Super Bowl MVP award, but is it not written that the geek shall inherit the earth?




As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is acheivement. Don’t tell the 600 who gathered in the ballroom at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott to watch the nail biting finale, that Feyer’s feat was in any way inferior to Flacco’s. (Say that fast five times.).


This was their Super Bowl. And for them, it is not hard to imagine… “Hey Dan Feyer, now that you’ve won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, what are you gonna’ do next?”


“I’m going to Disneyland!”


I’m sure many of the faithful seeking “solvation,” have already penciled in XXXVII on their calendars for next year.







Kinetics on Mott Street



The click and clack of balls beneath
the low hung shade


the mattress of smoke
the green felt meadow


where worlds collided
energy transported


force and motion
working on the masses;


directions changing—
it could go


either way.
Every shot.


The laws of Physics 101
played out here between


the mahogony rails
the inlaid diamonds


in mother-of-pearl;
the geometric


reference points
for bank shots


misspent youth.


The upstart denizens
strut with their cue


massaging their tips
in a cube of chalk


calling the shots
in a blue residue


of precision, sinking
the sunny-side nine ball


running the table
their place of operation—


blood money exchanged
on the fly—


the King’s English
held for ransom


a dying language here
like Latin;


like “Nicky the Rack”
who ran into a knife:


“Joe Switch” presiding.
Conflicts of interest


in stripes and solids
assorted survival;


cops and robbers
black and blue collars


the long shot combo
of a hustler and a poet


                          —Ron Vazzano







Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day Turns 20 on April 25th


It’s hard to believe that this program—so patronizing and dripping in political correctness—is still going on, now twenty years after its inception by Gloria Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women. And at that inception, it was exclusive to daughters.


I remember it well, as our ad agency promoted and encouraged staff participation. We bought into the Foundation’s premise that, there were self-esteem issues unique to girls, and that therefore, they were in need of an assurance that read something along the lines of: “See? You can have a good job one day too, just like daddy AND mommy.”


Given this mindset, the Foundation initially resisted pressure to include boys in the program as well. In fact, according to Christina Hoff-Sommers in her book The War Against Boys, one early proposal by the Ms Foundation that would include boys, was something called Son's Day.


Son's Day would take place on a Sunday, so the boys would avoid missing a day of school. It would require boys to stay at home, to do cleaning and cooking and be educated about topics such as rape, sexism and violence against women.


Ick, sick, transit Gloria. Though I love you to death (“I Was Talking to Gloria Steinem Yesterday About Nestle’s Hot Cocoa;” DECEMBER, 2011 Muse-letter).


Finally, ten years into the program in ‘03, it was officially extended to include boys. Though thankfully, not in that convoluted “Son’s Day” proposed by Ms. And the new mission for the renamed program—according to the president of the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation—avers that:

Exposing girls and boys to what a parent or mentor in their lives do during the work day is important but…

…helping them discover the power and possibilities associated with a balanced work and family life…

providing them an opportunity to share how they envision the future and beginning steps toward their end goals in a hands-on and interactive environment…

is key to their achieving success

Holy hyperbole Batman! And wherein lies the proof and in what pudding?

First of all, the unspoken mentality here, is that all parents have essentially white collar jobs, and that what they do for a living, is something pristine, uplifting and aspirational.


Having had such an alleged position myself in the course of an essentially desk-sitting career, I’ll start there.


On that very first day of this program twenty years ago, ever the dutiful father, I took my daughter—then seven— to work to show her, presumably, what it was I did for a living.


While there, she got to experience firsthand…daddy on the phone… setting up meetings…assigning so-and-so to this-or-that…moving papers from an “In” box to an “Out” box…sending emails (daddy has a computer on his desk!)… calling clients to assure them of things, daddy was not exactly sure of…making copies of stuff at the Xerox machine… and having lunch ordered in, while working on a report that was likely to go nowhere—yes, daddy was a “professional/managerial” type.


All in all though, from a kid’s perspective, I guess it was not a bad way to spend a day out of school. (It beat having to stay home because of an earthquake).


But what if daddy worked in a coal mine? Or in a slaughterhouse? Or was an embalmer? Or an elephant sperm collector? (There is such a job…Google it.) Or worked in a toll booth? (No room for advancement).


What if daddy was a bartender on the Bowery (before it became gentrified), and was pouring cheap whiskey at 10 am for patrons who had just awakened from some nearby flop house?


But the ultimate irony in the whole concept here, is that even by the most conservative estimates, based on various surveys and polls, over 50% of the people, don’t like their jobs—regardless of collar color!


A recent report courtesy of ABC News claims:

"Even Americans who are lucky enough to have work in this economy, are becoming more unhappy with their jobs, according to a new survey that found only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work. That was the lowest level ever recorded by the Conference Board research group in more than 22 years of studying the issue."

                                                                       (The Huffington Post)


Why we don’t like what we do for a living is a whole other issue in itself. But how disingenuous would that that be? Taking your kid to work with you, to a job you hated?


The best-laid plans of mice and men (and yes, women) oft go astray. And in this case, I would venture to say, don’t have your kid take a day off from school to spend it with you on your job. Take a day off from your job to spend it with your kid. In a park. Do a turn or two on a swing. See how high you both can go.






Web Maintenance by HK Creative Design
Copyright © 2004-2012