June 2013


The Virgin Mary Along the Great White Way



Sometimes the story is… that there is no story. Such was the case last month, when a potential turf clash between the religious and the secular seemed in the offing. And in of all places, Times Square.


With “religiosity” in general on the decline in the U.S.— confirmed again by “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” poll taken at the end last year— and with the emergence of the so called “New Atheists,” as epitomized by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, there seems to have been a more fervent effort to keep religion out of the public place.


Recently, that cross-shaped structure found in the 9/11 rubble was once again in the news. As it was being lowered into the Ground Zero museum due to open next year, a New Jersey-based group, American Atheists Inc., had protested on the grounds that it would in effect, be an endorsement of Christianity. A federal judge ruled otherwise.




"No reasonable observer would view the artifact is endorsing Christianity because the cross is to be accompanied by placards explaining its meaning and surrounded by secular artifacts. The Museum's purpose is to tell the history surrounding September 11th… the cross helps tell part of that history."

In this context, and upon hearing that The Church of Holy Innocents in mid-town Manhattan was going to procession through Times Square, while reciting the rosary and singing hymns in praise of the Virgin Mary, and being Catholic myself, my curiosity was piqued.


On the appointed day, out the church doors and into the streets they went: some two hundred-fifty parishioners strong— some holding makeshift banners of Mary as depicted in the over 60 countries represented in this procession. All quite beautiful in that way that religious art can invariably be. But it was not quite made clear as to the intent or goal of this rather unabashedly over-the-top public demonstration of faith. Especially, say, in contrast to those processions one would find on Via Dolorosa within the Old City of Jerusalem, as I had once experienced.


As that path is held to be the one that Jesus walked, carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion, it is “place relevant.” And the wearing of one’s faith on one’s sleeve, is something immersed in the religious culture that is characteristic of The Holy Land. But the Virgin Mary in Times Square?



In any case, there was no bang and barely a whimper. But there was some interesting takeaway from all of this all the same.


For starters, I guess it should have been obvious that the “theater” inherent in such an event, puts it at one with the Times Square experience itself.


Rather than being in stark contrast to the “secularity on steroids” atmosphere of Times Square, there was a compatibility by way of a shared theatricality. Though the event planners no doubt selected this venue in the idea that, as it has always been considered to be “the crossroads of the world,” it all ties in nicely with their theme line of “One World… One Mother.”

The expressions and reactions en route and on site, were interesting in their own way in their variety: broad smiles, soft smiles, ironic smiles, curled-lip sarcasm, eye rolls, mouths agape, puzzlement, “street face” feigned obliviousness, and one overheard crude rhetorical question: “Where the f--- are they all coming from!”


A couple of women on the sidelines, joined in song upon recognizing a “Mary hymn” from their youth (once a Catholic always a Catholic?).


Another woman and daughter complained that Canada was not represented. (Poor Canada…no respect…always underappreciated in the U.S. First the movie Argo, now this).


In a YouTube culture, cameras, iPhones, iPads, camcorders, and whatever, were in evidence every step of the way. At one point, dozens from the red grandstand in Duffy Square, as if on cue, turned to focus in unison on what appeared to be something worth capturing—some sort of “New York thing?”— to show the folks back home. (Contrast this to the day JFK was assassinated, in which only ONE camera caught that brutal moment; the legendary “Zapruder film,” all of 26.6 seconds).


When their fifteen minutes of time allotment (and “Warholian” fame?) were up, the church procession left to go back from whence it came. Seemingly unnoticed this time, as many of the onlookers had long since diverted their attention elsewhere.


Sometimes the story is, that there is no story. And that in itself, becomes the story. Given, not the one you thought you might see unfold. In this case, conflict between church and state.







Quote of the Month











Oysters Ordered in the Afternoon



Such succulence suggested to close the gap
between the planets on a chromosome map
to enable the coupling of dish and spoon
oysters ordered in the afternoon.


The élan of a magician who knows his wand
illusion and reality forming a bond
suspension of belief by both in tune
oysters ordered in the afternoon.


On a bed of ice come the naked treats:
Blue Points, Kumamotos, Malpeques and Wellfleets;
tender the inside, the exterior rough hewn
oysters ordered in the afternoon.


Savoring old tastes, played out on new tongues—
learning new words to old songs once sung
Monarch metamorphose from the marital cocoon
oysters ordered in the afternoon.


Can a door be opened through computer keys
despite misleading data in biographies?
When pigs fly— the heart would deign to presume
oysters ordered in the afternoon.


Can chemistry develop from a premise set in zinc?
From a dozen on the half shell fueled by another drink?
Or an aborted mission on the dark side of the moon?
Oysters out of order in the afternoon?


                                                      —Ron Vazzano







The School of Soft Knocks



As we enter the room, there on a Styrofoam board propped up on an easel, is a quote that perhaps is at the heart of what has led us here:




                                                             — Socrates


One might call this place the school of “soft knocks,” as there will be no homework (unless you consider getting in touch with your five senses to be homework), no tests, no right or wrong answers (though lots of questions), no term papers, no class projects, and no previous courses required. The only requirement here being, a desire to get in touch with the wisdom within, which Plato teaches us is innate. We are all smart…we just do dumb things.


Thus we have gathered at The School of Practical Philosophy to take a ten week course entitled Philosophy Works. We have come from all walks of life. Some perhaps even in need to… “get a life.”


Just off Fifth Avenue, and amidst foreign embassies and other fortresses of architectural heft, this school began fifty years ago in this building built on old money. And despite now having some 64 affiliates spread across 19 countries (8 in the U.S.) — and by virtue of the internet making it accessible the world over—I dare say few have ever heard of it. I myself happened upon it in passing, caught by a brochure display mounted outside its doors, which boldly stated: Happiness is closer than you think. (Suggesting a positive spin on that dire warning that “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”). Hmmm. OK. I’m in.


Philosophy we are told, literarily means love for Sophia, the Greek goddess of Wisdom. But the goal here is …

“…not an academic survey of great philosophical ideas as one might find in a university. Rather, the aim of the course is to invite students to put great philosophical ideas into practice in order to live compassionate, reasonable lives and thereby serve society.”

“Practical” is the operative word in the school’s name… “practice,” in the school’s mission.


The dynamic that emerges from a roomful of folk kicking around weighty questions such as what is wisdom? truth? beauty? is so stimulating given its unexpectedness. Who knew an ad exec could speak truth?


One fundamental realization that is addressed early on—and will serve as a guiding principle for all philosophical practice— is that we tend to spend much of the day in what is called a “Waking Sleep.” As opposed to the desired and productive level of… “Fully Awake.”


Once, a student asked Buddha, “Are you the messiah?”
“No,” answered Buddha.
“Then are you a healer?” “No,” Buddha replied.
“Then are you a teacher?” the student persisted.
“No, I am not a teacher.”
“Then what are you?” asked the student, exasperated.
“I am awake,” Buddha replied.


So simple yet profound, in that way that wisdom can be when firing on all cylinders.


And what is the cost of this sort of profundity one might ask? $90 for the course, which comes to $9 for each two and a half hour session. Far more is spent in Starbucks weekly in pursuit of that alternative great awakener, caffeine.


Philosophy for the masses applied to everyday life. What a concept.











                                             Snug Harbor, Staten Island, N.Y. photo by Ron Vazzano©



                                                      —Ron Vazzano








A Riff on the Zeitgeist of Modernism: George Carlin Remembered


This month marks the fifth anniversary of George Carlin’s passing. Time flies when you’re having gone.


Though he was just another garden variety standup comic early in his career— appearing often on the Ed Sullivan Show— it was his switching gears to that of satirist/social commentator, that took him to a whole other level.


His uniqueness in particular, had to do with his obvious fascination with our use (and misuse) of language and words. It is for that I suppose, he is best remembered. The most scorching example being his highly controversial "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" monolog, which first appeared on his hit album Class Clown in 1972. It became central to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices, in a 5-4 decision, affirmed the government's power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.




On the serendipitous end of the spectrum, his comparison of football vs. baseball is classic:

“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use a shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! —I hope I'll be safe at home!”

Depending on your political and religious persuasions and sensitivities to excessive use of “street vernacular,” you may have been greatly offended at one time or another by his “take no prisoners” approach to observation. But in terms of… subject matter, style (“clean”), and performance, his piece, “A Modern Man,” would probably resonate with all. This is Carlin at his absolute best, in what you might call “a riff on the zeitgeist of modernism.”

Appearing on his eighteenth album, Life is Worth Losing, which was recorded simultaneously with a live HBO special eight years ago, his riff (or maybe even “rap” is more apropos?) calls attention to how frenzied our lifestyles have become, as has the clichéd jargon we use to describe them:

I've been uplinked and downloaded,
I've been inputted and outsourced,
I know the upside of downsizing,
I know the downside of upgrading.
I'm a high-tech low-life.
A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker
and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond

If you’ve got a spare three minutes and thirty-three seconds, check out the YouTube of Carlin performing this piece in its entirety. It is the sort of thing I’d call “time-capsule worthy.” (


I will resist the temptation to conclude here with something along the lines of “Rest in peace George Carlin.” He would have a field day with such a sentiment for its being unable to draw a distinction between death… and just a nap.





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