August 2015
The Summer Issue


To Kill a Watchman?


By now of course, the whole world, including the 271 inhabitants of Tristan de Cunha (said to be the most remote inhabited place on earth), knows the truth about a beloved character of a classic work of fiction: Atticus Finch is a racist.


Word began to spill out a few days before the official July 14th release of Harper Lee’s eternally awaited second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.” Seems that Scout— now called by her real adult name of Jean Louise— whose father stood for truth, justice and the American way, now finds out 20 years later that he also stood in spirit, for the KKK: "You realize that our Negro population is backward, don't you?" he unabashedly states in his denouncement of desegregation. His brand of racism, though not a violent one, is clearly ground in the belief of white supremacy. This is almost as shocking as learning that Cliff Huxtable, while not killing women, was however drugging and raping them.


I imagined thousands (ok, hundreds) of middle and high school teachers who had “To Kill a Mockingbird” on their required reading lists this September, suddenly finding their summers, Atticus interruptus. As Jay Parini in his review on noted: “Teachers of "To Kill a Mockingbird" across the nation will now have to explain to their students what happened to Atticus in later life and how his moral compass got so terribly out of whack.”


And yet, upon actually reading the book (as opposed to just reacting to its early media disclosers), one learns that nothing about Atticus really has changed or gotten “terribly out of whack.” That in the context of his world— a pre-Civil Rights South— there is nothing inconsistent about his bigotry on one hand, and his heroic actions through which we originally got to know him, on the other. The clichéd metaphor of being “thrown a curve”? Harper Lee here, has thrown us a knuckleball.


The expectation of many, including yours truly ("The Second [Book] Coming" MARCH, 2015 MUSE-LETTER), was simply that this book could never measure up to its classic forerunner in any imaginable way. And that it would have nothing of interest to add to a narrative most knew and loved so well. Case closed. Except that the case was slightly ajar, through which emerged a whole other set of moral and sociological issues (some having to do with redefined familial relationships as well), with the publication of this “new” long lost novel. That was something no one saw coming.


That “Watchman’s” release would dovetail with the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina— which rekindled discussions and debates on issues of race and the way of life in “the old South”— only adds to the improbability of it all. Though Adam Gopnik, in his review in The New Yorker, is unequivocal about the book’s passages that attempt to put bigotry into any pardonable context:

“When the action (in ‘Watchman’) moves to these abstract arguments about civil rights, the book falls apart as art—partly because today it is impossible to find the anti—civil—rights arguments anything but creepy…”

For certain, it is now impossible to ever discuss “Mockingbird” and the movie it inspired, without acknowledging Lee’s knuckleball, i.e. the “Watchman” that would follow, and the Atticus we never knew.


The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the top movie hero of the 20th century, surpassing Han Solo and James Bond. Gregory Peck must be turning over in his crypt. (He is interred in Los Angeles Cathedral). And I wondered how Oprah was taking all of this, having just seen her in a documentary, waxing “Winfreytic,” on the impact of Harper Lee’s classic on her life. She and many others might wish it were possible to “re-set” a watchman. Or better yet, “To Kill a Watchman.” But that train has come and gone.


While this is not a great piece of literature and could not have stood on its own had “Mockingbird” not proceeded it, it is a viable book in its own right, and adds a good deal to the conversation. Teachers of “Mockingbird” might have been handed a gift after all. And already there is talk that it will be made into a movie. And won’t that be interesting. Might I suggest Sam Waterston as Atticus? Emma Stone as Jean Louise?









Word Fun Via Scalia



In offering a dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) at the end of June, Justice Anton Scalia was at it once again. From the man who brought us “argle-bargle” (a lively discussion, dispute, argument) in his 2013 dissent regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, comes “jiggery-pokery.” As in…

"The Court's next bit of interpretive jiggery-pokery involves other parts of the Act that purportedly presuppose the availability of tax credits on both federal and state exchanges,"

As an aside, and as a purported poet, I just love the alliteration of “purportedly presuppose” (not to mention the assonance in my own purportedness, what with my beginning this sentence with a half-dozen words starting with “A”).


All this “Scaliaty” sent me scurrying to a dictionary, and on-line sources, to learn more than any man-on-the-street (or woman-on-the-street…or transgender-on-the-street for that matter), would ever want to know about the meaning and etymology of jiggery-pokery:

A manipulative or slyly dishonest act – synonyms include “trickery” or “hocus-pocus” … from the Scottish phrase joukery-pawkery, jock being "cheat" or "dodge" and pawk being to "trick." (Merriam-Webster)


Jiggery-pokery as Scalia used it had previously been thought to date back to the 1890s. However Ammon Shea, author of "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation," notes that new research has discovered its earliest use dates back to 1845… (

From there, I couldn’t help wondering, that when Sarah Palin’s kid Trig stepped on top of the family dog to reach the sink —which caused quite a stink with PETA last January— whether this might not have been a case of triggery-pokery?


It might be just a matter of time before Scalia, in quoting the Fairy Godmother from Disney’s “Cinderella,” refers to another Justice’s point of view as bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Or worse, in a fit of hyper-hyphenated hysteria, declare an opposing argument to be higgledy-piggledy-willy-nilly-jiggery-pokery-pooh. Which of course I’d have to think would be the ultimate in pokery.


In conclusion to all this tomfoolery, I offer a new word, free of charge, to those who might not be fans of Hillary Clinton: hillary-pokery. As in, say...


The claim that the deleted emails were “just personal and contained no classified information,” was pure hillary-pokery, declared Donald Trump.








"We'll always have Paris"



That classic line uttered by Rick to Ilsa in “Casablanca,” is one I suppose we’d all like to own, n'est-ce pas? But a personal one on the heels of a sprain one summer several decades ago, ran more along the lines of… “I was walking around Paris with a bad foot and a bad marriage.”


So once yet again, for a fourth time now, I return with the aim of getting it right. Don’t we all have a notion of Paris so infused with fantasy and imagination that we need to try to play it out?


For the protagonist Gil in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” it turned out to be about encounters with legendary expat writers and artists of a Jazz Age Paris. The closest I would come to any such encounter in the reality of 2015, was Roman Polanski sitting across from us at Café de Flore. (Should I notify the authorities?). Ironically, my companion knows a woman at his table, and at the conclusion of brunch, they take to chatting. Polanski, looking smaller than life, stands there off to the side itching to exit as they conclude their brief exchange.


This, “Isn’t it a small world?” theme, would continue a couple of moments later across the street from Les Deux Magots, where Olivier Franc and his son Jean-Baptiste form a jazz combo on the corner. We had just seen them two months prior at Symphony Space in New York as part of an ensemble in a tribute to Django Reinhardt. He concurs with me, “oui, petit monde.” Hardly a household name, Olivier is an eminent soprano saxophonist whose rendition of “Summertime” with the Wynton Marsalis orchestra at Lincoln Center is sublime.


As this was June 21st and the first day of summer, it was one of music and song; Fête de la Musique, also known as Make Music Day. An annual event since 1981, it takes place in the streets, cafes and bars of Paris in celebration of summer solstice. It is said to have now been adopted by 120 countries. And having never been to Paris at this time of year, it would become a highlight of the visit. One could not help notice the irony at one point, when a rock group in front of a café about twenty yards from Notre Dame began playing “Sympathy For the Devil.”


And we’d walk the streets once walked before… Rue Dauphine, Rue Vernet, and that tiny one near the Louvre with the longest name, Rue des Prêtres Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois. And we’d walk some streets never walked before… Rue de Lappe, Boulevard du Montparnasse, and a part of Boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter, to drop in at Le Petit Journal for some New Orleans jazz. A place where everyone was speaking French. A local place with nary a tourist in sight excepting us.


What’s also new to this Paris, this time, is the seemingly dominant presence of the Millennials (or Gen Yers). In Woody Allen movies, lovers promenading along the Seine under the stars, will have it all to themselves. In the reality of 2015, the quays are lined each night with young cliques in party mode, bottles of beer and wine at hand. And one night while gliding by them on a dinner cruise, we were mooned. C'est choquant! But as they show their butts, do we show our age?




Then there’s the whole “love lock” phenomenon which is causing an unfortunate alteration to the Pont des Arts. This bridge became so weighted down by this gesture in public proclamation of one’s love—the affixing of padlocks to iconic structures in this “City of Love”—that a metal grill collapsed onto a walkway not long ago. Hundreds of thousands of locks weighing 45 tons have since been removed by the authorities. And in September, plexiglass sheets will be installed to supplant the grillwork on the 210 year old Pont des Arts. (Insert head shake here.).


Perhaps not the Paris of Rick and Ilsa. But a Paris that I, Millennial moonings and all, will keep padlocked in memory and fondly recall. Yes, we’ll always have Paris. Finally.





A Gig at Federal Hall



This past July 4th, I had the honor of being one of four readers of the Declaration of Independence at Federal Hall on Wall St. This was the site of Washington’s inauguration in 1789.


In getting to read the concluding paragraph of this vibrant and provocative document, exactly as written (and note that the lower case usage of “united” in the first sentence below is not a typo), I heard a cry of “Yeah!” from one man in the crowd. No mincing of words here.






Milan and Exposition 2015



Yes, countries still do Expositions, or “Expo’s,” which once were more quaintly called World’s Fairs. Just not us. And this time around, Milan is the hosting city of Exposition 2015.


As Milan was a city to which I had never been, and said to be a center of high fashion and savoir faire, and given that I had only attended one of these Expos in my life— the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens— I was off and running to check it out. This despite the fact that if logos and mascots are any sort of predictor of potential success, with its typeface suggestive of Peter Max-ish psychedelia, and its little guy named “Foody,” a rather grotesque amalgam of fruits and vegetables—reflecting a theme of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life"—Milan would be folding its tent.

I guess the subtext in attending, was to try to capture some sense memory of ‘64, when the world seemed simpler and on the brink of a magical future (all Cold War concerns aside), when these fairs truly served as a world gathering place. Long before of course, the internet created the global village McLuhan had predicted. And all spearheaded by the U.S. of A. showing off its big ideas.


Arguably, a lot of that magic did come to pass, epitomized at the very least for me, by our smartass phones. But alack, and even alas, Exposition 2015 left a lot to be desired. Perhaps in large part, owing to its rather unsexy theme.


In essence, “Feeding the Planet…” and in a nutritious way, is not an easy concept to showcase in a vibrant and thrilling way. Especially when compared to say the “Space Agey” technology stuff that dominated the ’64 fair. (“A Prompting of Remembrance of a World's Fair” MAY, 2014 MUSE-LETTER). And it was particularly appalling to come upon the golden arches of a McDonald’s sitting among the nations of the world as if a nation unto itself. Were the Expo planners that blind to the absurdity of this Happy Meal franchise on the premises, in light of their good food theme? And while on that subject, should there not have been real food being dispensed by vendors on the main walkway through the center of the event, rather than badly painted artificial food in faux stalls and on faux carts? Paradoxically, good food was not that easy to come by here.


Of the pavilions that I visited though, the one from Kuwait was particularly impressive. Conversely, that of the U.S., sitting alongside it (an associative reminder of “Operation Dessert Storm”) was… how to put it succinctly? We didn’t phone it in. Or mail it in. We texted it in! Where is Disney when you need them?





A series of seven one minute videos of a cartoon character interacting with real people is supposed to show the world how and what we Americans eat… at Thanksgiving… at a barbeque… at an ethnic dinner gathering featuring a Chinese-American family, etc. This was the “highlight.” The lowlight was a gift shop sponsored by Walgreen’s with their red-script logo prominently displayed behind a counter selling tchotchkes. A pathetic representation of American taste and aesthetics, especially when compared to the exquisite, artistic, quality goods sold at the ambitious Russian pavilion, reflecting their culture. (What? You don’t like nesting dolls?)


Why did Uncle Sam even bother to show up? And I wonder what Michelle Obama thought about it when she was there as an honored guest a few days prior.


However, as it’s not always about us, and in all fairness to the hosting country, the Italy Pavilion was ambitious in scope; imaginative and entertaining in the execution. In what will now be a permanent building, Palazzo Italia (6 levels… 14,398 sqm) housing their exhibition Identità Italiana (Italian identity), was well worth the lines and one hour waiting time.





So much (or so little) for the Exposition.


As for the city of Milan itself, it delivered on all expectations. One gets to check off the boxes on some of the more prominent “must-see’s” and “should-see’s” that Europe has to offer: Duomo di Milano (and the walk and view from atop its roof), Piazza del Duomo, Teatro alla Scala, (the most famous opera house in the world —we saw “Lucia di Lammermoor” there), Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” (on view at its original site to limited numbers every fifteen 15 minutes) and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (one of the world’s oldest shopping malls; glass-vaulted).


Somewhat unexpected and particularly surprising, was the rejuvenated Navigli (or Canal) District. One doesn’t readily associate Milan with canals. But given that theirs were designed by Leonardo himself (who else), ya gotta go. And what you find, is a lively setting of people doing some interesting and unusual things. One such being Flyboarding, a “water” sport that’s only been around since 2012. The young man below is rising to a height of fifty feet above the water, then while dipping and swerving, he high-fived us as he flew by the bridge from which we watched his feat.




Milan the city… sì. Milan the Exposition... no. And in conclusion, I turn in my essay on “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.”






On Turning 70



The memory of me is fading,
an outgrown fairy tale
that even I have to strain to recall.
A narrative on onion skin—


blame it on the moon,
it’s used to such howling,
as I morph into some alien creature
from a low budget sci-fi flick—


these cannot possibly be my hands!
No one calls a film a flick anymore.
No one calls anything by the old names anymore.
But I am not a “no one,”


just a someone with a name
that I inscribe in precision with a Walgreen’s pen.
Who aimed to get it right— who saw
that the shortest distance between two points


was that of a third point in tangency.
Who was never asked to make choices
yet made them all the same… and all the same.
I wonder at the crumbs that I have set behind me.


Whether birds have long since
erased my trail of daily bread
ensuring that no one will ever find me;
a low tech conceit in a digital age.


                                      Ron Vazzano




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