February 2018




The “Symbols of Hate” Report, Etc.



This past October, I did a piece on honoring questionable heroes with statues or monuments. It was within a larger essay on the Columbus legacy (Columbus: The Parade/The Voyage/The Statues OCTOBER, 2017 MUSE-LETTER), as he has become the poster boy in these parts for the issue of “statue-worthiness?” for want of a better term. Much as Robert E. Lee had been down South. Albeit for different reasons.


This all seemed to be a big deal at the time. A whole four months ago. So big, that Mayor Bill de Blasio, set up a Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monument and Markers (heretofore… “Macocamam”), to make recommendations as to what to do about what he calls, without flinching, “symbols of hate.” And while this concerned NYC specifically, such projects could be coming to a theater near you.


Yet given the speed of the news cycle, and the “s-hole” (or house?) issues and controversies that have since emerged, as noted by “anchor” Michael Che on a recent SNL Weekend Update, “It’s just not what we care about this week.”


On the assumption that this is something that we might “re-care” about next week, here were the range of choices given to Macocamam as to what to do about four specific statue/monuments (and in effect, one that doesn’t even exist as yet):

1. Let the monument stand as is.
2. Re-contextualize it through added signage or programming.
3. Move it to another public site such as a museum.
4. Change or expand its meaning by adding new art.
5. Removing it from view (though destroying it is not an option).

That there were only four potential culprits designated for such scrutiny, in a city that has well over 300 sculptures and innumerable plaques on its streets and in parks, is surprising. If I may throw my “hate” into the ring, what about Philip Henry Sheridan?


A Union General in the Civil War whose statue was erected in 1936, he stands right across the way from the now infinitely more famous Stonewall Inn. This despite a black mark on his resume. To quote from a Chicago Tribune piece last September:


“Applying the doctrine of ‘hard war’ to subdue the ‘hostiles,’ under his leadership, he sanctioned harsh treatment of Native American women and children, destroyed their villages and food stores, and encouraged the wanton slaughter of the buffalo on which tribes relied as part of a plan to ‘make them poor by the destruction of their stock.’” And that was just on Monday.



As far as I can tell, Sheridan has gone under the radar. But given the statue’s location, wouldn’t it would be an ironic twist of sorts, if gay Native Americans in particular, would begin clamoring for its removal?


Also within my Statues of Limitations? segment, I jokingly suggested that perhaps that Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park ought to be reconsidered, as she looked stoned sitting atop that mushroom. What kind of image is that for kids? But perhaps timelier now—vis-à-vis the Woody Allen accusation recently revisited —I can’t help but note that the story of Alice is written by Charles Dodson (aka Lewis Carroll). You know, the guy who took nude or semi-nude photos of 30 pubescent girls? (Smithsonian.com 2010). And, “It's clear, that Dodgson had a submerged erotic fascination with the nubile female form,” noted The Guardian in 2001. You think so?


Ought we stop reading that story to our kids? And wasn’t Walt Disney an “enabler” with his animated version? Down with the statue! Again, tongue is planted firmly in cheek. But it raises questions as to how far can we can wind up going with all of this. Perhaps down a rabbit hole?


But on to Macocamam’s recommendations coming after “months of closed door meetings, public hearings and an online survey that drew some 3,000 responses.” And being a baseball fan and lover of box scores and scorecard formats, not to mention grid-like summations, I offer…


Some would say, this was a “s-hole/house” project. Leave it alone. You can’t change history. Which is true. You can’t change the history as it was taught in grade school. Which was by rote, entailing memorization of a series of “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where’s.”


By all means, there are no alternative facts. But there are alternative interpretations. As Churchill once famously said, “History is written by the victors.” And, “your unlawful destructive protest, is my Boston Tea Party,” others might have said un-famously.


History constantly gets rewritten. We just can’t predict in what way. This point was made from a new and interesting perspective by Chuck Klosterman, in his excellent book, Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past...But What If We’re Wrong? Especially given a current environment where “there is no centralized information, so every idea has the same potential for distribution and acceptance.”


I personally don’t believe that something carved in stone, or made of stone, or cast in bronze, gives it license to stay in place in perpetuity. Over time, we learn about things we never knew before. Klosterman gives an entertaining example in his book, of how until Newton came along, man (and woman) was wrong about its understanding of gravity for roughly twenty centuries! If “we” could be wrong about gravity—and yes, we’re presumed to be much smarter now than those living in 1687 (though in 2018, some still don’t believe in scientific evidence)—it would seem that perceptions about who was a good guy or not, could be reconsidered. I mean, on the flip side, even Tonya Harding is making a comeback.


It will be interesting to see, when Macocamam’s recommendations are enacted (assuming they are), what the public reaction will be. Not to mention, the presidential tweets. That is, if we get our attention back to a matter that seemed so pressing only yesterday.







Quote of the Month









Behold, the Pencil



“Nobody asked me but… nobody uses a pencil anymore.”


I made this rather benign statement last year, as one of twenty-nine other such one-liner ruminations on marginal matters, in homage to sportswriter/columnist Jimmy Cannon (With Apologies to Jimmy Cannon Once Again, JUNE, 2017 MUSE-LETTER). He had originated the Nobody asked me but-concept decades ago, to fill space on a slow news day.


It seems true. About the pencil. Though I guess I could have equivocated by excepting those used for artistic purposes. And further, excepting users who are of pre-teen age.


Do you use a pencil? Given all the technological options we have for conveying information, opinions, idle thoughts? Given all the time spent hunched over keyboards? Given inexpensive gel pens at our disposal, that simulate ink from real fountain pens (another anachronism), when we choose to go that way? Though nix I say on ballpoint pens, which strike me as being the black sheep in the writing-tool family. The parochial Catholic grade school I attended, actually forbade their usage.


Not the result from any papal encyclical as far as I can tell, it was a dictum enforced by the nuns. They despised ballpoints (especially Paper Mate), with much the same maniacal intensity that Joan Crawford brought to wire coat hangers. Ah, but the pencil. Who didn’t adore the pencil, on which were weaned when putting our ABC’s to paper. Though in my childhood, pencils also came with restrictions.


It was decreed that only a #2 pencil was acceptable. I guess a #1 made too light a mark on the page, suggesting uncertainty. Or excessive shyness. Conversely, a #3 was too soft in the lead and tended to smear. And “cleanliness is next to godliness,” no? And maybe in its use, one was being just a bit too bold? Lacking humility? I never dared asked the dear Sisters of St. John the Baptist for any explanation concerning pencils (nor dare I say, The Holy Trinity).


But getting back to more secular ground, did any experience at an early age (aside from masturbation maybe), beat using a hand-held sharpener on a “Ticonderoga” pencil, and watching the clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth point resulting, as curlicues of wood shavings spiraled away? For me, it was the introduction to a tool that I could take safely in hand. My handy-man capability has never gone much beyond.


I’ve assumed that the pencil is going the way of cave carvings. What company could still thrive today in the common pencil making business? So, when I picked up a recent New York Times Magazine and came across, “FINE LINES Inside one of America’s last pencil factories,” it stopped me in mid-peruse.


That referenced factory is The General Pencil Company that has stayed rooted in New Jersey since 1899. Contrast that with other pencil makers, we are told, who have chased higher profit margins overseas. I can hear it now: “We are going to bring the pencil back from China to America, where it belongs, I can tell you.” After all, write makes might.


This “Fine Lines” collaboration between a writer and a photographer who has visited General Pencil several times over the past few years to document every phase of the manufacturing process, dramatically states and illustrates, that “Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce.” Which strikes me as metaphorical and applicable to many of life experiences, if you think about it.


How many of us have ever wondered how a pencil is made? Yes, there are more grandiose constructs to contemplate. How the universe was made, comes readily to mind. Yet, this piece served as a reminder that there can be satisfaction in pausing to consider those little things born of human ingenuity. The pencil, whose history in the form of a stylus goes back to ancient Roman times, would seem to fit within that category.


Its production, as we know it today, is conveyed in the main, through a series of bold photographs of fine art quality in this article. An industrial process, is transformed into a riveting artistic expression in and of itself.



Graphite personified.


You want color? That blue pencil for editing, starts out as spaghetti. That red one, which you never wanted to see appear on a returned test paper, stands at attention awaiting its next maneuver.



And speaking of colors, we learn that most pencils receive four coats of paint! As if anything less would be noticed by a pencil pusher. As if, say only one or two coats, would undermine truth, justice and the American way.


And in case this comes up at some point…



…that little metal band that keeps the eraser in place atop the pencil, is called a ferrule. How many ferrules can you fit on the head of a pen? Nun.



As the pencil goes out of the factory and into the world, what transpires might best be summed up in paragraph embedded within the relatively scant text, that accompanied the above photographs. Rearranged to create what is referred to as a cento or “found poem,” I have entitled it …


Behold, the Pencil


In an era of infinite screens
the humble pencil feels
revolutionarily direct:


it does exactly what it does,
when it does it,
right in front of you.


Pencils eschew digital jujitsu.
They are pure analog,
absolute presence.


They help to rescue us from oblivion.
Think of how many of our finest motions
disappear, untracked—


how many eye blinks and toe twitches
and secret glances
vanish into nothing. And yet


when you hold a pencil
your quietest little hand-dances
are mapped exactly,


from the loops and slashes
to the final dot
at the very end of the sentence.


                                      —Sam Anderson/Ron Vazzano



Inspired by it all I guess, I bought a box of #2 Ticonderoga pencils.






Gig: "The Visit"



I have been asked to participate in a staged reading by the theatre company at the historical Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which has been in existence since 1808. Which predates by 70 years, St. Patrick’s Cathedral down the block.


My previous work with them has included key roles in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “My Name is Asher Lev” and this past fall, “I Remember Mama.”


This time, within the Lenten season, there will be a special one-day reading of a play entitled “The Visit.” Written in 1947 by Ladislas Fodor, a Hungarian novelist/playwright/screen writer, it’s a contemporary courtroom drama built around the Passion. A gardener is put on trial after Jesus’s body disappears from the tomb. An intriguing premise regardless of one’s religious persuasion or lack thereof.


As always, with these staged reading events, there is no charge.


“The Visit”
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
7 West 55th Street


February 25, 2018 (Sunday)
2 PM







A Winter’s Tale at Destino's


I’ll meet you any time you want
In our Italian restaurant
          Things are okay with me these days


                                             —Billy Joel

Where were you when I was sitting back there,
alabaster beauty with your spilling hair
        pipelined in as if from Central Casting?

To stoke an imagined pursuit still in play?
You should have seen me in my day.
        Never a pause in the Chianti and the tasting.

It takes passion and the equipment to make a move;
two-thousand snow plows in the groove
        to battle the bomb cyclone on this night arriving.

No tail between legs nor lamentation,
just snow adrift in poetic intimation;
        distant memories still surviving.

White man speak in forked metaphors;
do rain dance in snow; keep dry indoors.
        A lone ranger would get that, and giddy up.

Who was that masked man anyway?
With a gun that shot caps, enjoined in the fray
        then win, lose or draw come fill the cup?

Sip and sup and contemplate
the game of tag we play with fate;
        wonder where they all sleep tonight?

Summers turn into blinding snow,
forks in the roads; which way to go?
        It’s really coming down; no end in sight.


                                                                —Ron Vazzano






Destino and Dali and Disney



In considering a name for an Italian restaurant, which is the setting in the poem that preceded, and which at its core is a reflection about fate in the matters of seeking love, I wondered what was the Italian translation for “fate”? Turns out there are four: sorte, fato, fatalià and destino. But as a name for an Italian restaurant, Destino’s seemed most plausible (“I’ll meet you at eight at Destino’s”).


Curiosity then led me to check if a restaurant by that name actually exists. Especially, here in New York. Turns out one did. Once partially owned by Justin Timberlake, and just two blocks from where I now live, it closed in 2013. And three years ago, one of the owners finally “sued the insurance company over multiple floods of human waste” on the premises, as one newspaper reported. An upscale restaurant near the U.N. and frequented by celebrities? Human waste!? Talk about a cruel fate. Yuck.


By now I’m far afield (one is never “close afield”), from where I’m going which is not where I started out. Which is to a place more sublime, to say the least.


“Destino,” also has the same meaning in Spanish. And a famed Spaniard, Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí y Domènech, better known as Salvador Dali, engaged in a collaboration with Walt Disney in 1945, on a short-animated film entitled Destino. I did not know this. Two of the more unlikely geniuses of artistic expression than you could ever imagine pairing up: surrealist and creator of pop animation.



But as fate, or “Destino,” would have it, the project never saw the light of day. The Walt Disney Studio was actually undergoing financial woes at the time, and had to shelve it. But a mere 54 years later in 1999, while working on Fantasia 2000, nephew Roy E. Disney found and resurrected it. Released in 2003, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. It lost to something called Harvie Krumpet (which is a rather fascinating film in its own right).


Destino tells the tragic story of Chronos, the personification of time, falling in love with a mortal woman. To a wonderful musical score, by a Mexican composer of renown at the time, they float across the surrealist landscapes of Dali’s paintings in expressing that love.


Dali described it as “A magical display of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time.” Disney was far less existential calling it, “A simple story about a young girl in search of true love.”


Of course, you might expect Dali’s vision to be wrapped around something like “a labyrinth of time,” given his most famous painting The Persistence of Memory. (On permanent display at MoMA).


Beyond his paintings, he was equally if not better known by the masses, for his unusual grandiose behavior and attention-grabbing antics. If he were alive today, he’d be hosting Saturday Night Live for sure. So, you could see that as a free spirit, why he’d be open to, and even desirous of, working with Walt. But why Walt, with him?


As straight-laced as Disney and as his all-family animated films might appear (though lots of signs of racial and gender insensitivity lie within), his oeuvre extends miles and miles beyond Mickey, or Mortimer as he was first named. As one critic put it, “There’s an entire underworld of dark, surrealist Disney.”


He goes on…

“…some of his earlier works yields undeniable nightmare fuel… Dumbo (1941) has that visually trippy “Pink Elephants on Parade” bit… Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) features a scene where Snow White races through a forest, narrowly dodging the snapping jaws of anthropomorphized log crocodiles. And then… there’s the wordlessly terrifying Fantasia” (1940).

In Fantasia, in particular, he really stepped out of his comfort zone what with his wordless array of anthropomorphized figures, all accompanied by classical music. Which was conducted by the legendary Leopold Stokowski. Perhaps this served as a precursor to Destino, and that a venture with Dali should not be so surprising after all.



A viewing of it, taking six minutes of time— not in a labyrinth— is well spent.








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