March 2009


Barbie: The Big Five-O!

On March 9 th Barbie turns 50 years old, having made her debut on that date at the American International Toy Fair in New York in 1959.

The idea for the doll had come three years prior, during a trip Ruth Handler made to Europe with her children Barbara and Kenneth. Ruth came across a German toy doll named Bild Lilli, which became the inspiration for her Barbie doll. And the world seemingly, has never been the same.

Not nearly as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, yet it is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold in over 150 countries. Though alas, no longer in Saudi Arabia, which outlawed the sale of the doll in September of 2003. (We wonder what the penalty might be for one caught violating that law? Perhaps we best not go there.)

Let’s fess up at the outset, and thus put all ensuing musings and commentary in some manly context: we are the proud owners of two “Barbie” dolls. The first, is holding a copy of our book in one hand and our pet Chihuahua in the other. It was a customized gift made and given by our wife. (“Aaaaah”) The second is actually a Ken doll (Ken Carson by the way is his full name) costumed as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. This in commemoration of our having once played that role in a summer stock production.

We have always been fascinated by Barbie, what with that outrageous body type (more on that in a bit) and especially that come hither look of the original. (Note that in ’71, the eyes were adjusted to look forwards, rather than having that demure sideways glance, that some have suggested looked a tad on the “slutty” side).

Here are a few other tidbits that we have just recently learned about Barbie to you—and pass along on this auspicious occasion. For starters, we were totally unaware of just how populous is this “Barbie universe.” There are six other siblings “born” of the parents Margaret and George Roberts from the fictional town of Willow, Wisconsin. They are: Skipper, Tutti and Todd (twins) Stacie, Kelly and Krissy.  Then there’s a couple of cousins for good measure—Francine and Jazzy—and a whopping Facebook-sized list of 70 “friends.” One of whom of course is Ken, her main squeeze. And then he’s got a brother Tommy, and 34 of his own friends, and friends of friends and other assorted hangers-on.

But back to the Barbie side of the ledger, to pick up the count of the friends of all of her siblings and cousins. And you’ve got to love some of their names. Skooter and  Fluff and Tiff. This brings the grand total to— give or take a black sheep or two—157!

Now granted, most of these are no longer in production; some having been around for as a little as a year or two before disappearing. (Dolls of course are said to be “born” but never die). But still, 157? The eyes water at the notion… “only in America.”

Ok, now about the “bod.” In the department of perhaps, “too much information,” here goes—verbatim from Wikipedia:

“One of the most common criticisms of Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic idea of body image for a young woman, leading to a risk that girls who attempt to emulate her will become anorexic. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale, Barbie's vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips). According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, she would lack the 17 to 22 percent body fat required for a woman to menstruate.”

Don’t mean to interrupt here, but do they not have more pressing matters to deal with in Helsinki hospitals?

“In 1965 Slumber Party Barbie came with a book entitled How to Lose Weight which advised: "Don't eat." The doll also came with a pink bathroom scale reading 110lb, which would be around 35lbs underweight for a woman 5 feet 9 inches tall. In 1997 Barbie's body mold was redesigned and given a wider waist, with Mattel saying that this would make the doll better suited to contemporary fashion designs.

We can all now sleep better, comforted in the knowledge that Barbie is now more anatomically balanced. In the meantime, Ken still doesn’t have a penis.

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How IWOSC Got Its Groove Back In The Grove

Recently, the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) staged a public reading hosted by yours truly at The Grove.


                                                                   Program cover design by Ron Vazzano


For the uninitiated, IWOSC is a group comprised of nearly 300 professional writers of every type. Its mission since 1982 has been: to hone the literary and business skills of its members, through continued educational programs and networking.

As part of that agenda, we have taken to doing bi-annual public readings entitled “IWOSC Reads Its Own,in which 12-15 of our writers —typifying the variety of genres within the organization, including yes, even an occasional lowly poet—showcase their talents in a popular venue. And theme parks aside, no venue seems more popular these days in Southern California, than The Grove.

The Grove, is the brainchild of Peter Caruso, a developer who has successfully brought  an artistic and esthetic sense to the business of shopping, people watching and just plain hanging out. The high traffic counts attest to the success of his concept. So to this place, we took our road show.

Given the large turnout and enthusiastic response we received, we plan to be back there this summer. In the meantime, we offer an eight minute YouTube clip of our stint at the podium, for your viewing pleasure.


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Yes We KenKen!

On February 9th, The New York Times began a new numerical logic puzzle from Japan, which it has placed alongside its daily crossword. It’s called KenKen, which means loosely, “cleverness squared.”

We had begun to tire of the Sudoku craze, so this one arrived at a perfect time for us. Although, there is no doubt that The Times crossword will forever remain our favorite, for reasons explored in that that excellent 2006 documentary, Wordplay

While KenKen shares some similarities with Sudoku—both are pure logic challenges in which numbers must be filled in on the squares of a grid—there is a key difference which makes this puzzle more fun and challenging. Unlike Sudoku, in which the numbers act solely as symbols (letters or pictures can be used as well), KenKen requires arithmetic. Though one need not be a numbers whiz to solve it.

It was invented in 2004 by Tetsuya Miyamoto, who teaches math in Tokyo. He believes that puzzles can be a motivational tool for learning, and has found that students respond more quickly, when math concepts can be put into the form of a game.

While the motivation for adults to do puzzles might be different, we do not see it as a cheap form of entertainment to pass the time, either. The attraction for us in puzzle solving as adults, lies in the fact that it seems to be the only time when we are engaged in: a state of pure thought; absent all matter of distraction.

Further, given how life plays out, rarely is there one absolute solution to things. But in solving puzzles, there is no gray area, no spin, no “close enough”; only one right answer. And we get a rush in finding it.

KenKen is published from Monday through Saturday in The Times, and like their crosswords, it becomes progressively harder with each passing day of the week.

Without further adieu, here is a reprint from the two puzzles that appeared on that first Monday. One is a 4 x 4 grid…the other 6 x 6. (We have solved grids as large as 9 x 9 and they are a killer). The rules of the game are explained beneath the diagram.

Fill the grid with digits so as not to repeat a digit within any row or column and so that the digits within each heavily outlined box (called a cage) go together using the arithmetic operation shown to make the target number indicated.

In the 4 x 4 grid, no digit higher than a “4” can be used; in the 6 x 6 grid, no digit higher than a “6” can be used. (Solution at the end of the Muse-Letter)


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Oh, To Be Updike

With the death of author John Updike last month at age 76, we were reminded of a prose poem we had written ten years ago, that was published in a literary journal called Curious Rooms.

A “prose poem” —seemingly an oxymoronic term— is defined as a form of poetry written in prose that breaks some of the normal rules associated with prose, for heightened imagery or emotional effect.

The theme of that particular issue was “Smashing Icons,” wherein, “with love and squalor, we tease taunt, roast and toast various contemporary writers and the contemporary writing scene.” We chose to take on Updike as follows.       


You can write like the wind; words fall from you like rain. Knock
out a piece—they publish it posthaste in…The New Yorker. Don’t
knock out a piece and they call: I’ll see what I can do, you probably
say; the well has gone dry. But you whip up something anyway. Saves
the day. Just what the editor had in mind. Novels make news, the
best-seller list, a given. You can be graphic, sometimes even sopho-
moric about sex—who dares call it gratuitous? Or heaven help
us, some Falwellian zealots tagging it with the stigmata of porn—
albeit lite. Write poems. Complex. Simple. Something sparked from
the daily paper; they are harvested and placed in a two-ton volume
of offhand insight. You are Updike. And you retreat to your Olym-
pus in New England donned in tweed and print money at your
desk. And from your conic skull, cosmic thoughts. Then one of
your lesser, a Baker, pours his obsession with your talent into a
book. A Whole Entire Book About Your Genius With The Written
Word. And sometimes they shake a movie from those words;
and you’ve got that “quadrilogy” under your belt—all that rabbit
food—you can live on its sustenance in perpetuity. Once you
showed us this sepia photo of mom in Life magazine and wrote a
one-pager about what she was doing in the shot, thereby posing a
question on the truth in the homily that the worth of a picture is
one thousand words. You saw need to add a few more—what do
they pay you for these little droppings? These residue reflections
that must take, what, all of twelve minutes to jettison from your
wizard’s head? This and the requests for you to wax literary at
merely a half-million functions per annum. And what of all the
book signings? Oh, and the de rigueur appearances on Charlie
Rose. Then home you go to write some more, and when
you shed your mortal skin, your metamorphosis into a cottage industry
will be complete: the distribution of crystal lit to the clay pot masses.
All this, because you were Updike and wrote like, and on, and
through, the Godforsaken wind.

                                                                         —Ron Vazzano


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