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.
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 CNN.com 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…
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
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:
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)
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… (www.thedailybeast.com)
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 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,
The claim that the deleted emails
were “just personal and contained no classified
information,” was pure hillary-pokery, declared
"We'll always have
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
“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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBkF_priCUE).
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.