February 2012



With Valentine's Day coming up, coupled with a recent experience, we have been thinking a lot about "heart."


The heart of course is a symbol, an icon that stands for love as in...



Love itself has its own self proclaiming piece of artwork. In that sculpture by Robert Indiana, it literally spells itself out. Lovebirds cannot resist perching upon it, or taking a snapshot before it.



For them, the heart is said to skip a beat, go pitter pat, when the beloved comes into view. The heart is even said to come equipped with strings, as in...

Dear when you smiled at me, I heard a melody
It haunted me from the start
Something inside of me started a symphony
Zing! Went the strings of my heart


                                         Words and music by James F. Hanley: 1934

                                        (Judy Garland, at age 13, singing it:



A heart, strings and all, can be said to be broken when sentiments once expressed, disappear.


Heart is also courage as the Cowardly Lion knew so well.


And we are sometimes urged to "take heart." We suppose in lieu of keeping a stiff upper lip; a decidedly British approach.


Heart is compassion.


Heart is the core, the center, the crux of the matter. The very point.


A heart can be one of a suit in a deck of cards. Sometimes it even trumps diamonds.


Even some edibles have a heart. Most noteworthy being the artichoke, which comes equipped with its own metaphor. For to get to the heart of it, one must first work one's way through "coarse pinnately incised leaves." And they can only be scrapped on the surface with the teeth, rather than be chewed, or heaven help you, swallowed.


To reach the heart requires work.


And then there is this:


While it may look like the pencil scribblings of a child, it is a graphic demonstration of a human heart being "stress-tested," and—literally off the charts—failing miserably. For a heart, when all is said and done, is a pump with transmission components. It's about plumbing and electricity.


The above turned out to be an "electrical problem." A life threatening problem. A problem that "causes people to die on the street for no apparent reason," as one cardiologist bluntly stated. That graph is a Chance card saying: Check into a hospital immediately. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.


We live in a time where we tend to attribute everything to stress, anxiety, panic attacks, depression—a religion whose theology is one of psychosomatics. Sales trends for antipsychotic prescriptions will bear this out. But as the saying goes (and there is no evidence Freud ever said it) "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Sometimes it's not in your head, it's in your heart. And if that heart fails, all other meanings and usage of the word are rendered moot.


We were lucky to catch it in time last month, and have it fixed within two days of that scribbling. The "procedure" was so outrageous in concept and execution ("You're going to do what? How?!"), we will spare any details. But we left the hospital only a day after its completion. And we live to write another Muse-Letter.






Quote of the Month


"Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful. Avoid running at all times. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."


                                                                                         —Satchel Paige







Fred as Frederick



The one-man, or "one-person" show, has been a theater staple for a long time now. Hal Holbrook was doing his Mark Twain Tonight as early as 1954, and would go on to do over 2,000 performances covering a fifty year span.


Other actors playing noteworthy historical/iconic figures have included James Whitmore as Will Rogers, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir and Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson.


And then there's Fred Morsell as Frederick Douglass.


You've never heard of Fred. Not to mention, that most people are only vaguely aware of Frederick Douglass himself. This being black history month, it seems particularly appropriate to us, to consider Douglass and the actor who has been portraying him for over 25 years, in what is arguably one of the most unique one-person performances —both in concept and execution—ever undertaken. Yes, it is that compelling.


Fred Morsell is a highly talented actor whose career has spanned over 40 years. We have had the good fortune to have appeared with him in four productions, including The Music Man. We played Marcellus Washburn, a sidekick to his Harold Hill. Here he is high-stepping in that stock production of many many summers gone by.



In 1984, in a game changing moment, his life and career would go off in a decidedly different direction. There would be no more Harold Hills; there would be no more show tunes.


At the suggestion of a black clergyman friend, who asked if he might help develop alternative programs for troubled inner city youth as a means of helping them to find a belief in themselves, a light bulb went on in Fred's head.


At the time, he had been reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, and as he described it to us while he was in town last month to receive an award, he thought:

"Wouldn't it be wonderful just to read Frederick Douglass' words to a group of nine or ten year old kids, and see if they could become inspired to do with their lives what Mr. Douglass did with his?"


And so began a 27 year journey (and counting) as Fred embarked on a mission to bring Frederick Douglass to life.


And oh the places he would go!


Schools, colleges, workshops, civic groups, churches, jails, the New York stage, regional theaters, historical sites such as the Smithsonian Institute, U.S. Capital Rotunda, Gettysburg, Harper's Ferry, Women's Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, with stop offs along the way to appear on The Bill Moyers Journal and The Charlie Rose Show and other media outlets. Over 500 places in 37 states to date.


It is not only the number of roads he has travelled that impresses, but also and more importantly, the singularity and totality of his mission that makes this a one-of-a-kind "performance." Though that word doesn't even begin to describe it. For Fred doesn't just perform, he teaches. In and out of classrooms. And his message to kids—and adults for that matter— is direct and challenging and in your face. In essence: "You are special and you matter—find that in yourself!"


And it starts with the power of words. The written word. The spoken word. And how the misuse of words, such as in rap music, as Fred believes, can be poisonous. As for example, it is not alright among African-American youth to be throwing around the word "nigger" as though it is hip and cool, and as though because they are black, they have license to do so. The history of human degradation inherent in that one word alone, is a pain that never subsides.


Does it work? This from a 6th grader after one of Fred's visits:

Positive responses such as this, have come over these many years, from kids, teens and adults of all colors, and from all economic strata.


Further, Fred will often welcome a Q & A session after a performance, in which he answers questions while still in character. Having become a scholar on Douglass, he is well versed and therefore able to do this. As far we know, this is unprecedented in the genre.


When at one point Fred turned to provide us an example of his approach—now in the resonant, powerful and logical voice of Frederick Douglass—the room was transformed into a classroom and a stage. Fred as Frederick Douglass is mesmerizing. One can understand how a 6th grader could be so moved to take pen to paper.


As for the man he portrays, a brief bio might be in order.


Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1818, and did not learn to read and write until he was twelve. His master's wife began teaching him the alphabet, thereby breaking the law which made it illegal to teach slaves how to read. From there, he continued to teach himself how to read and write, in secret. Soon, he was devouring every piece of written material he could find that exposed him to thought provoking issues. Thus started his development of his views on human rights.


After escaping from slavery, he became a leader in the abolitionist movement, in the course of which, he gave one of his most poignant speeches on July 5, 1852: "What to the slave is the 4th of July?" He also wrote a best selling autobiography about what he experienced as a slave, and he would produce many abolitionist newspapers. Among them, The North Star, which had as its motto:


"Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the father of us all, and we are all brethren."


True to that motto, he attended the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls 1848, at which he spoke eloquently in behalf of the women's suffrage movement, supporting Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments.


During the Civil War, he conferred with Lincoln on the poor treatment of black soldiers, who though fighting to end slavery did not have their own freedom. That would not come to pass until 1865, when slavery became illegal everywhere in the U.S.


At the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass became the first African-American to receive a vote for President of the United States in a major party's roll call vote. (source: CNN:All/


In short, he was an American social reformer, writer, orator and statesman extraordinaire. He died on February 20, 1895.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)


Long before Martin Luther King, there was Frederick Douglass. And though there will be no holiday for him, his legacy has begun to be acknowledged at an accelerated pace in the last dozen or so years. The latest example being the Frederick Douglass Memorial in Harlem overlooking Central Park. It was dedicated last September 20th, in the unveiling of an eight-foot bronze statue in his likeness.







Work in Chelsea



In the ghostly galleries
      of masturbatory art
the word "Work" is applied like silly putty.
Here they literally
throw things up against the wall to see what sticks.


A father tries to explain to a son
"the why" behind the butchered meat
painted in acrylics on papier-mâché


Work, as man has known it
work as in, "for a living"
is being done outside
between high numbered avenues on twenty-something streets.
A no man's land once
before the turn of industry into gallery
with its lofty visions housed beneath high ceilings


The men outside in inclement weather
       working on cars
look as if being swallowed whole
by the crocodile mouths of open hoods.
They are consumed by the search for clues
as to why a motor has been murdered.
The scene of the grime so to speak


Other men are parking cars
as if toys on lifts in open lots;
a shoehorn might be needed
to squeeze one more Chevy in.
Yankee ingenuity. They get it done

Still others in the taxi trade
with cigarettes dangling from lips that speak
       as if in tongues
sip coffee without sleeves from a local deli.
A break in their zig-zagging
to making a living


It is all about men and cars.
                                        Back inside


someone has half-painted
salvaged wood and thrown it into a corner.
Before the Apocalypse, reads the caption.
Ropes dangling from the center of the ceiling?
Urban Jungle. How obvious. Of course


Is that a mannequin manning the desk?
Paid more for sitting in some cryonic state
than the grease monkeys freezing their balls off outside?
How does one come by such




                                          —Ron Vazzano







Punxsutawney Phil



We know the drill. This overweight groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, comes out of his burrow on February 2nd each year. If he sees his shadow, that means six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't, then spring is right around the corner.


Groundhog Day, or "Candlemas Day" (the blessing of candles) as it is called in the Christian tradition, has always had an association with the weather, as personified in this 1840 English song:


Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go Winter, and come not again


Candlemas is the exact mid-point of winter, sitting between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox.


The groundhog ritual as we know it, began in 1887. According to the Stormfax Weather Almanac, which has tracked it in those 115 years since, Punxsutawney Phil's predictions have only been correct 39% of the time. Still, is this any way to treat an animal?



Note the expression of joy on Phil's face at being held aloft thusly, since of course, animals love this sort of horseplay. Are the animal rights groups aware of the goings on down there in über quaint Gobbler's Knob, a wooded knoll just outside of Punxsutawney, PA?


There, that's better. All is forgiven.



Or are we now witnessing "petophilia?"






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