March 2014


Penguins and Antidepressants



How bad has this winter been? It’s been so bad, that even the penguins are depressed.


While that may sound like a line from an old Johnny Carson monologue (he of a millennium and a Leno ago), it’s apparently true. At least according to a human interest (?) story that broke last month, out of a place called the Sea Life Centre in Scarborough in the U.K.


First question: just how can you tell if a penguin is depressed? They always seem a bit lost as they wander about aimlessly in their tuxedos. All dressed up and no place to go. Making no eye contact. Indecisive. And after all, aren’t penguins about bad weather? To be a penguin, is never having to say you’re surfing.



In fact penguins can become ill in warm environments. I recall a case many many moons ago, when in a rehearsal for a Barbra Streisand special, some penguins—used as a backdrop in a musical number— became sick under the hot lights and had to be carted off to a refrigerated area backstage. And if memory serves, some animal rights activists took issue with it at the time.


But this is a penguin story of a different color, concerning a specific breed called a Humboldt. The situation was addressed by the curator at the Sea Life Centre:

“Humboldts in the wild on the coast of Peru and Chile can be subjected to some pretty wild extremes of weather…what they don’t get though is weeks of almost daily downpours and high winds.” (Which is what happened in Scarborough).


“After the first week our birds were just a bit subdued, but after over a month now, they are thoroughly fed-up and miserable, much like the rest of us…"

And the solution to the problem? The same as it would be now for any form of human depression—medicate! Immediately. Do not pass Go! Do not collect $200! So now the penguins are on antidepressants.

"They're doing the trick so far, but we are all praying for the weather to change and at least a few successive days of sunshine to give the penguins the tonic they really need," the curator went on.

I’m glad to hear that this tactic has been deemed a success, but it raised a whole host of questions and curiosities regarding the solution. Which category of antidepressants did they decide to go with? A Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitor (MAOI)? A Tricyclic Antidepressant (TCA)? Or a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI)? This last group including many of what have become household names: Lexapro, Paxil, Celexa, Prozac and Zoloft. Or none of the above, opting instead for Wellbutrin which is unlikely to cause weight gain or sexual problems. The last thing you need are penguins with sexual problems. Although then no doubt the curator would be recommending Viagra or Cialis (“If your erection should last more than four hours…”).

More questions. How does one determine the proper dosage for a penguin? Will all penguins respond in the same way to the same medication? Just how do you determine if it’s working? What about side effects? How do you later wean them off the “med?” Or do you ever? Did anyone consider the use of medical marijuana? And I wondered if Obamacare would cover this sort of thing if it had happened here? Given that penguins are notoriously slow to sign up for anything. Especially the younger ones.

Here’s an alternative solution: send them back to Peru and Chile from whence they came.


Why they were taken out of their natural habitat to begin with, is a question one might ask if one wanted to be a killjoy. And because it’s been a horrid winter, and despite claims in the previous Muse-Letter about how “bad weather builds character,” that is exactly what I want to be. At least until the first signs of spring and rebirth appear.






What Will You Be Wearing?

In basic black, death will come—
a hooded robe
so as to discourage
putting a name to a face—
no wolf in sheep’s clothing here.
But love? Love.
What will you be wearing?

I’ll be waiting at life’s grand station
where the human condition passes by.
Hail to the living who come and go
in the raiment of the daily grind.
Or the tourists in their T-shirts and corny caps
that death wouldn’t be caught alive in—
but love? Love.

How will I know it’s you when you arrive?
What will you be wearing?
And might you walk in beauty like the night?
Or appear in prose as just another traveler
scurrying to catch a train?

Cloaked in fine feathers of expectation—
the checkered threads of another day
long since frayed and discarded—
you can’t miss me.
I’ll be standing beneath that space
where the big hand and little hand
navigate the bare face of time…
what will you be wearing?


                                                          —Ron Vazzano





Great Caesar’s Ghost


With Sid Caesar’s death last month, The New York Times wrote a most definitive obituary, as only they can. You don’t die as well and as thoroughly in any other newspaper or media outlet. And what with all those who have come to praise Caesar since his passing, there is not much more to add on that score other than to agree, that especially for those of us who remember him in “real time,” they have rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.



His “Your Show of Shows” was so outrageously funny, that he was literarily responsible for people buying TV’s so as to not miss out on this phenomena—the marriage of a new form of comedy, to that of a new technology. Although, being of a lower economic strata, it wasn’t until 1954, the last year of that groundbreaking show, that we finally got our first TV, “rabbit ears” and all. Prior to that, our TV viewing took place one flight up at an aunt and uncle’s apartment in a Lower East Side tenement—a household of a few more bucks and an inclination towards gadgetry. Soon, to be without a TV set, would be akin to someone today being without a cell phone.

I thought of all of this upon reading that Times obituary, as well as recalling having seen Sid Caesar nearly five years ago at the funeral of a friend’s mother, a beautiful woman inside and out, who was the wife of the late comedian and TV host Jan Murray. I had been to Jan’s funeral as well three years earlier. A journal entry notes:

July 6, 2009

“And then Jack Carter took the podium. Though ancient himself, brought the house down. I wondered why the last time, I had not seen Sid Caesar, though I knew he was there. This time I found out. He was now a withered man reduced to a wheel chair; a shell of a man America knew from “Your Show of Shows.” Noticeable finally to me, by that little mole on his face…Is this what age has in store? There is a cruelty in it.”

From what my friend had told me, that as big and even bigger than life as he might have been on our small screens, that’s how quiet and reserved a man he was in what we call real life. He was not the one to be cutting up at a Seder, as so many of the Borsht Belt comedians that had been guests at her parents’ home were inclined to do. Or joke at funerals, as I had witnessed on these couple of occasions— an existential black humor in the face of death and dying. They were always “on”…Sid wasn’t.

Seeing him on that day—a ghost of a man still robustly alive only in memory—once again brought home just how stark can be the contrast between what once was, and what turns out to be. And his death is now the punctuation mark to that obvious, yet always somehow surprising realization.






Quote of the Month




12 Years a Slave: From the Crime to the Ridiculous


Going to see this movie was like going to the dentist: you knew you were in for pain and a rough time, and so you put it off for as long as you could. Ah, but when it was over, you would be the better for it. And you would make a promise in the future, to floss with the curiosity about stories that tended to fall in between the teeth of history. Especially those dealing with man’s gross inhumanity to his fellow man. Or woman’s gross inhumanity to her sister woman for that matter (i.e. Philomena anyone? And as a sidebar, yes, of course Pope Francis met with Philomena Lee upon whose true life story that film was based).


So there you sat, waiting for the Novocain of about 20 minutes of trailers to numb you beforehand. But all to no avail once the “12 Years” of lashings started. And continued. And continued. And continued. How could this have happened? How could slavery have happened? Which was then but a short leap to this italicized thought: how could the Founding Fathers who etched these immortal words into a Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

…have continued to be slave owners themselves? Sanctioned slavery? How? A question I never remember being posed when we were being taught American History in school. So you promise yourself to get a copy of the book upon which the film is based— a memoir of the same title written by Solomon Northrup in 1853, and a best seller at the time. And you are worn out and angry as you leave the theater, to go in search of a place to get a glass of cabernet.


Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor


But why carry on about that now — it’s Oscar time! Let bygones be bygones. Let the games begin. And at the moment, the only pain one might be experiencing relative to the movie, is pronouncing the names of two of the stars in it who are up for awards: Chiwetel Ejiofor for Best Actor and Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress. And of course, the movie itself up for Best Picture. On to the ridiculous.


Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o


The sense here is that Ms. Nyong’o is the most certain major winner connected with the film, based not only on her great performance, but given the PR effort behind her. The media is clearly smitten with this young woman, so fashionably stunning as she has been on various red carpets and magazine covers in the last month or so. And she did after all win Critic’s Choice and SAG awards earlier. Yet be forewarned before stepping into any Oscar pools, no Best Supporting award was ever gone to an actress whose last name begins with the letter “N.” And along that same line of trivia trends, no actor with a last name beginning with “E,” has ever won a Best Actor Oscar. And be aware that numbers appearing in film titles are unlucky.


Only one film with an actual Arabic numeral in the title has ever won Best Picture— “Around the World in 80 Days”— though nine such films have been nominated. The latest loser was “127 Hours” in 2010. And only two films with titles that begin with a number, Arabic or in written form, have ever taken home the Oscar out of twenty-two such nominated— “Million Dollar Baby” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”


As for Michael Fassbender, who does have an easily pronounceable name and who plays a brutal plantation owner in the film, he most likely will not win for Best Supporting Actor. Sadly, brutal slave owners have been done many times before on screen, and have become a cliché in an equally brutal chapter in history. So clearly, “12 Years” and its cast have their work cut out for them.


You won’t get this type of info anywhere else (most people have lives), and it’s as scientific as anything else in trying to handicap Oscar races. And as Larry King used to say in his newspaper column, “You’ll thank me later.”






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