February 2015


Je Suis MAD


In the aftermath of the terrorist bloodbath in Paris at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, reportedly three million people took to the streets in solidarity, many holding up signs proclaiming “Je suis Charlie.” In translation, it might read something along the lines of...

Though we were not even aware of the existence of this magazine…or, while we were aware of it and even thought it crude at times in its lampooning of religious beliefs and institutions, we are at one with Charlie in the right to freedom of expression without being murdered for it.

When CBS’s Sunday Morning program asked the Editor-in-chief of MAD magazine, John Ficcara, for a commentary on this tragedy, he admitted to giving pause. He had a couple of concerns not the least of which was, that by appearing on TV denouncing terrorists and defending the rights of satirists and cartoonists, would he be endangering his own life and that of his colleagues?


He went ahead all the same and noted in his two and a half minute statement, something so obvious that we’ve always taken for granted. Yet in the lunacy of a terrorist world, it is newly appreciated and even profound in its assumption. He said in part:


“…we were merciless on the Catholic Church for covering up the child abuse scandal. And after 9/11, we went after Jerry Falwell hard for blaming the 9/11 attacks on gay feminists, abortionists and the ACLU.


We knew at the end of the day, no matter how much we lampooned Falwell or the Catholic Church, we shared a common set of rules of engagement.


The worst that could happen to us was that we got a stern letter from their lawyers—we live for those. Not once did we ever fear for our safety.”


Actually, from what I’ve heard about Charlie Hebdo, I would not have associated it in any way with MAD magazine. As a piece in The New Yorker noted, “they (Charlie) worked in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerilla war between republicans and the church and the monarchy.” Hardly the raison d'être for MAD. Yet former Chicago Seven defendant and later California state senator Tom Hayden has been quoted as saying, “My own radical journey began with MAD magazine.”


Having been a reader of MAD well over forty years ago, I loved the great caricatures of the people it was spoofing in the pop culture, its sendups of ad campaigns, its regular features of “Spy vs. Spy,” “The Lighter Side of…”, Don Martin cartoons and the Fold-in, and the like. I didn’t remember it being particularly controversial or scathing on any great political or social issues. Yet a quick Google scan of some covers over the years that jumped out at me, suggests that it has taken on the establishment and those things we hold dear. Sacrebleu, even Facebook.


The Fidel Castro cover from 1963 is particularly ironic, in that it has since been alleged, that one of the methods the CIA was considering in assassinating him, was with an exploding cigar. “Out-spying” even “Spy vs. Spy”?


From there it was but a short walk to a Barnes & Noble to pick up the current copy, to see if my remembrance of the magazine (comic book?) as being something merely mischievous, had developed into something more satirically venomous in my long absence. In two words…not really.


In its annual tribute to the year’s biggest idiots issue, “The 20 Dumbest People, Events and Things 2014,” it roasted some of the more low moments in the news of the past year. These included jabs at the “NFL’s Domestic Violence Problem,” “Ebola Hysteria,” the “Militarization of the Police Department” (though nothing on Ferguson) “Obama Caught Off Guard” (“Fail to the chief.”), “Hillary Clinton Crying Poverty,” “Chris Christie’s Traffic Scandal,” “Putin Invading the Ukraine,” “White House Security Breaches.” It also featured a cartoon spread, “A MAD look at the Old Testament,” in which for example, the pharaoh’s daughter upon finding Moses in a basket, leaves him on the Nile river bank and just takes the basket. Not the sort of stuff that is going to result in a massacre of their staff by outraged fundamentalists. It will be interesting to see if MAD addresses Charlie Hebdo, even obliquely, in their next issue.


To be Charlie means going over the top and never having to say you’re sorry. It means believing in a right to freedom of expression that doesn’t cause an endangerment to people, as say yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater would. The only danger here being to themselves. And they knew it, as their office had been fire bombed before. And that takes guts. Or some might say stupidity. But in that sense, Je ne suis pas Charlie. Je suis MAD. And I suspect most of us are.


(Note: This essay also appears at Artist of Artists Without Walls having been originally posted there 1/18/15)





Word of the Month



designed for use especially at the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question

                           —Webster’s Universal Encyclopedic Dictionary (2002 Ed.)

I was reminded of this rather jerry-rigged word, which rhymes with orangutan, having come across it in a NY Times crossword puzzle last month. It also reminded me that I had once participated in a reading sponsored by Interrobang Magazine a number of years ago. Nothing much came from it. You might say…I got less interrobang for the buck






The Eloquence of Cuomo and a “Quote of the Month” Reconsidered


When Mario Cuomo died on New Year’s Day, remembrances came rolling in emphasizing his intelligence, and most especially, his eloquence. One can dispute his performance as governor—as one can of any politician, invariably shaded by one’s own ideology— but his performance at the podium was universally applauded.


Over and over, clips from his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention were played, in which he offered a passionate rebuttal to Reagan’s metaphor of America as a “The Shining City Upon A Hill.” And in which, Cuomo acknowledged Reagan’s own great oratorical flourish in a backhanded sort of way: “… in order to succeed, we must answer our opponent's polished and appealing rhetoric with a more telling reasonableness and rationality.”


Cuomo’s counterpoint “A Tale of Two Cities” address, which was at times pure poetry, put him on the map as a future presidential candidate, though he would shun that opportunity in the coming years. But it illustrates the power of words.


“There are elderly people who tremble in the basements of the houses there. And there are people who sleep in the city streets, in the gutter, where the glitter doesn't show.”


“…— wagon train after wagon train — to new frontiers of education, housing, peace; the whole family aboard, constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge that family; lifting them up into the wagon on the way…”


It is always interesting to note, how we reach for poetry and poetics at life’s magnified moments— graduations, weddings, tragedies, funerals, aspirations to higher office— while the day-to-day realities, the business of having to get things done, are about prose. Cuomo himself realized that, and in one of his more unsung yet resonating quotes, which I once used in one of my Quote of the Month features (in concert with a heroic looking sculpture I had come across in Central Park, OCTOBER, 2012 MUSE-LETTER), he said:



It is also about the contrast between the stirring rhetoric of promise, and the banality uttered at moments when it goes unfulfilled. Something pretty much every president comes to realize when confronted with the realities of the office: “I don’t remember” (Reagan, at least 124 times at the Iran-Contra hearings), “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Clinton on Lewinsky), silence (George W continuing to sit in a classroom with second graders after hearing the World Trade Center was bombed), “We don’t have a strategy yet” (Obama on combatting ISIS).


But in drilling down further, it can also be read in a broader context that illustrates the stark contrasts of life’s experiences, large and small. Perhaps a few personal translations of Cuomo’s quote will explain what I’m getting at.


You come of age in poetry. You grow old in prose.

You woo in poetry. You forget anniversaries in prose.

You marry in poetry. You divorce in prose.

You give birth in poetry. You change diapers in prose.

You walk the dog in poetry. You clean the cat’s box in prose.

You dream in poetry. You awaken in prose.

You get hired in poetry. You get fired in prose.

You make money in poetry. You go broke in prose.

You sip in poetry. You guzzle in prose.

You speed in poetry. You get a ticket in prose.

You transgress in poetry. You apologize in prose.

You go to heaven in poetry. You go to hell in prose (
excepting in Dante’s Inferno).

Feel free to jump in here… in poetry. Click to somewhere else… in prose.







Meeting at Bethesda Fountain



Don’t ever mention
not even in a whisper
that we were once immortal.
I’ll hear you and take offense.
That was all after all
so early on in the game and under
a sky confused by its very own season—
when we were still choosing up sides
and choosing our words
in the absence of a very thought.
And the clock was all too kind in its ticking.
Today it bleeds in precious seconds
as metaphors spiral and pester the air.
Can a Hail Mary pass be far behind?


Un-necessity is the mother of reinvention;
mother was appalled by our kitchen.
Which was the very point:
to go against the tile
of they who grew up in black & white—
we were Dorothy opening the door.
Or you were Dorothy and I was Hamlet.


You knew at some point a Shakespearean reference
was about to appear from the wings
to laminate this lamentation
of cause and effect
and when and where
the downhill tumble started.


Now a walk through the park in
merry-go-round weather
can make a day.
                        Easier of course
than making a play
with so many new lines to learn
and not enough time nor place to rehearse.
As the twigs have cracked underfoot in the path
          through the bramble,
let us stop to sit beneath the healing waters.


                           —Ron Vazzano





A Return to Puerto Rico a Half-Century Later



The last time you had been to Puerto Rico, JFK was the president and touting the mission of his administration under the banner of what he called “The New Frontier.” You had turned 18 that summer in Ponce, and a few fellow travelers and locals, threw you a surprise birthday party.You’ve still got the card (making sport of JFK’s catch phrase) and the snap shot (sporting an early 60’s do) to prove it.


In three months almost to the day, JFK would be assassinated. You were a freshman at college that November and taking that next step in what is called, “coming of age.” An age which came and went at warp speed.


This time the trip is not an extended three week adventure, but rather a tactical four day escape from winter’s cold. And an unexpected snow storm as it turned out.


What would you find over fifty years later in a short return to San Juan, where once along with a group of under-aged buddies, you guzzled Cuba Libre (Rum and Coke) and Planter’s Punch (whatever that was). The concept of checking ID’s apparently had not been invented. Or at least not enforced on this fantasy island, where you all roamed around the hotel bars like the big shots you weren’t. Though yes you were impressed, by that cool fort, the snapshots of which you got around to dropping off at the drug store over four months later. (“When will they be ready?” “On Tuesday. Next August.”)



And the burning questions you had for the Puerto Ricans you had befriended? What did you think of “West Side Story” and its portrayal of you guys? That was about the extent of your references regarding Latino culture. And you still find haunting, that mangy stray dog on that pretty little lonely road you happened upon. Odd what one carries with one through the journey.



And it strikes you that of the five who came here that August, only two of you remain.


Five decades is a long time. Things change. Hardly a profound insight. Yet in Old San Juan, that “fort,” Castillo San Felipe Del Morro still stands of course, as it has since the 16th century (as does the neighboring Castillo San Cristóbal down the block since 1783). Though you note that they have moved that cannon. (Damn!). And the streets are still paved with blue cobblestones… the houses still brightly painted on these narrow streets… the Atlantic still surly in this part of the ocean.



You however, have returned a different person, with a whole new set of sensibilities. Perhaps that’s not saying much, as it would be rather pathetic after a lifetime journey, to still be stuck in first gear.


The very hotel at which you stay, speaks for one thing, of your changing sense of aesthetics. The Gallery Inn, owned by an artist and her pet cockatoos, macaws and parrots, is done up in her sculptural works and paintings strewn about the premises and surrounded by dense foliage. It is suggestive in its quirkiness, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—the 2012 British comedy-drama film.


You learn upon leaving, that the Obamas had stayed here four years ago. The President was in town to meet with some delegations, and you are reminded of the rather odd political relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Under its Commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, have representation at both major parties’ conventions, and since 1980, hold a U.S. Presidential primary election. Though unlike a state, they cannot vote in national U.S. elections. But you were talking aesthetics.


Coming upon a coffee house that sponsors live poetry readings, you read a couple of your poems, one of which is appearing in this month’s muse letter. The reaction from the bilingual audience is very warm (you and your companion are the only tourists here) though the Chihuahua who scampered across the floor in the middle of your reading, seemed unimpressed. No you are not in Barnes & Noble. And this is not an experience to be found in the guide books.



The Latino culture has become Americanized; the American culture has become Latinized. This is especially obvious in various U.S. cities on both coasts and in what might be referred to as accessible states. Miami has been referred to as the “Capital of Latin America.” So there is no problem finding in San Juan, whatever suits one's cosmopolitan tastes.


El Convento was once the “wow” in terms of defining quality life-style experience on the island. Now you find that in many great restaurants (Marmalade, for one) and bars (the one at newly opened Vanderbilt Hotel in Condada, being a particular wow), all around the city.



Soon enough the trip is over, as you joke that you will only wait forty years this time before returning. You are struck yet again, by how bittersweet are the elements of distance and time in the journey equation. And you recall once again a few line’s from Frost’s classic poem, “The Road Not Taken,” that seem particularly relevant (remember that once overused word?) from a book that you bought for that freshman lit class in ’63, and still have:


         And be one traveler, long I stood…


         Oh, I kept the first for another day!...


         Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
         I doubted if I should ever come back.



Then again, next January? When it gets cold again? Why not again?







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