November 2015


November 9, 1965


As we were about to sit down to an early family dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, the apartment suddenly went dark. “What the…?”


Our first thoughts were to blame it on the faulty maintenance that characterized our tenement building. Then looking out the window and seeing we were not alone, shifting the blame to our faulty neighborhood instead. But upon turning on my trusty transistor radio, we immediately realized that the likes of this (affecting 30 million people), was unprecedented and heretofore unimaginable. (I was yet to experience my first big California earthquake. Nor heretofore, had ever used the word “heretofore.”). Now coming up on its 50th anniversary this month, I’m talking of course about The Great Northeastern Blackout of 1965.


There was some initial concern that this could have been some dastardly deed by Boris Badenov. Were the Soviets about to attack? Not so farfetched, for the world as we knew it seemed to be turning upside down.


Just three autumns prior, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us as close as the world had ever been to a nuclear war. (Bond & Kennedy: 17 Days in October, OCTOBER, 2012 MUSE-LETTER). And the assassination of JFK, with its cornucopia of conspiracy theories to follow, was only two years behind us and almost to the day. (A Triptych in Remembrance on the Death of JFK, NOVEMBER, 2013 MUSE-LETTER). Context, as always, is everything. If it happened today, who would not first think— terrorists!?


But soon enough it would be attributed to human error; someone asleep at the switch on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls in Canada (“Our Neighbor to the North”). Phew. Thank God, that neither He (in “an act of God”), nor the Reds were responsible… merely mortal incompetence.


This was said to be “The Good Blackout.” The New York Times reported that:

“Despite the confusion, there were very few cases of rioting, looting or other crimes during the blackout. For the most part, New Yorkers shared flashlights and supplies, and interacted with neighbors.”

A light comedy would be made about this night three years later, starring Doris Day, “Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?” It was a godawful movie. But better, was actually walking the streets on that night under a full moon shining brightly; a scene so surreal as if out of “The Twilight Zone.”


People were in the middle of the streets directing traffic in the absence of traffic lights, and in the absence of cops in crisis mode spread too thin. The city was a scene of improvisation.


But no harm no foul. And in thirteen hours, electricity would be restored to most of the areas affecting those 30 million across seven states. And as we now understood the cause of it all, surely this was something we could correct. Surely, such a hemorrhage in the infrastructure could never happen again. But of course it did.


A dozen years later in a sweltering summer, the “Summer of Sam,” the summer when the Bronx was burning, came what came to be called the “Bad Blackout.” For the news this time, was about far less than civilized behavior. Albeit commemorative buttons— one of which I still own—noted this dubious event.


And, “Doh!” not again? But yes, in 2003— a blackout even more massive and widespread than that of 1965. (For those keeping score at home, 55 million people impacted this time around. And at 25 hours, lasting almost twice as long.). And again the explanation: stuff happens.

Being left in the dark, literally and figuratively, triggers a sense of vulnerability and fear. And that would especially be the case today in a post 9/11 world, with its increasingly “hackable” technologies. We are no longer safe. “Stuff” doesn’t just happen, it is intended.

In a recent piece in The New York Times, ominously entitled “Infrastructure Armageddon,” there were these chilling bits of news and speculation:

“Over the last four years, foreign hackers have stolen source code and blueprints to the oil and water pipelines and power grid of the United States and have infiltrated the Department of Energy’s network 150 times.”


“…former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in 2012: ‘They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.’”


“Last year, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was investigating an attack against 1,000 energy companies across Europe and North America.”


Northeast blackouts will seem like quaint inconveniences in the face of what has been referred to, as these potential “cyber-Pearl Harbor” attacks. Nothing seems too farfetched. It didn’t for a while on that night in ’65, and it most certainly doesn’t fifty years later.

But I’ll not think of these things this November 9th, when I sit down to a spaghetti and meatballs dinner by candlelight, with someone who was entrapped on the subway that night.






A 21-Quote Salute on This, the One Hundredth "Muse"



I often include a “Quote-of-the-Month” piece in these Muse-Letters, in which I play back something I might have recently heard or read by someone famous or obscure; someone alive or long since dead. The inference being, that whether or not I agree with what might be espoused within the quote, I find it interesting enough in some way as to pass it along. Sometimes within a specific context and obvious; other times just as a stand-alone, and perhaps open to interpretation.


When it was recently pointed out to me that this would be the 100th Muse-Letter I’ve written over the course of these last eleven years, I found myself musing on some of the things I’ve said over that course of time and space. And thus if I may be so bold as to quote myself, here’s twenty-one of them— to pick an un-round number— in rough chronological order. And if the old idiom “ a penny for your thoughts” still holds, these are worth all of 21¢. Yet, I can’t help but “put my two cents in.”

“Valentine’s Day is to love
as New Year’s Eve is to happiness.”




“You would have thought that by this time, we as a human species, the discoverers of DNA, developers of the Internet, travelers to the moon and back, cloners of sheep and masters of the universe— one of us so brilliant as to determine that E=mc² —should have once and for all found… the ultimate shave.”




“If say, some jihadist decides to hide an explosive in a tooth cavity, will we now be subject to a dental examine before boarding?”




“It seems that the general consensus on Ted Kennedy’s legacy, and one with which I would tend to concur, might best be summed up in a line— this metaphor of my own making: He brought more to the table, than he spilled on the floor.”




“That he (a Maasai tribesman here in Kenya), comes by such an ‘un-Swahili’ moniker of ‘Jackson’ —‘a school name’ he said— coupled now with his being on Facebook, we can’t help but think of Marshall McLuhan and his proclamation that the world was becoming a Global Village.”




“It’s hard to believe it has been twenty years since the retirement of Raw Umber.”




“We who write in this ethereal world we call the internet, often wonder: is anybody out there reading this stuff?”




“’Well if you would remove a few of these f------ tubes from my nose,’ especially the one I was forced to re-swallow until it had reached my stomach again—with the X-rays to prove it—‘I might be able to squeeze some air into a nostril , and perhaps have at least a small impact on those dangerously low falling digits,’ of which no one was shy about mentioning.”




“I want to shout out in capital letters: THOSE ARE NOT FRIENDS; THOSE ARE NAMES.”


“And when one reaches for the stars, the failures sometimes can’t be anything but spectacular in their own grisly way.”




“The odds on Jeter doing exactly what he did and that I would be there to witness it with my son, is about one chance in 120,000,000!”




“In the perpetuity of proverbial ‘age old questions,’ I have always found one of the more compelling ones to be: What is art? (and what is it ‘nart’?).”




“Here was Gloria Steinem, radical feminist, one of the architects of the women's movement, outspoken against the war, social injustice and so on, talking about cookie mix and hot cocoa.”








“Given that this pope certainly looks frail and moves tentatively, my tendency is to give him the ‘Benedict of the doubt.’”




“Is there any advice that could ever be given to a graduating class, that could ring truer than that of Rudyard Kipling’s If ?”




“Ultimately, it seems that the appeal of Superman, a ‘five-tool’ player who can do it all—whether played by a pajama-ed Kirk Alyn or a chiseled Henry Cavill—is that he taps into an ‘if-only’ longing within.”




“As if we don’t have enough bad behavior born of our own history and culture, we have now sanctioned the importation of that time honored foreign form of lunacy: running with the bulls.”




“With Thanksgiving coming up, and given its colorful origin of Anglican folk and Native Americans making nice in the autumn of 1621, I had been thinking of having the Redskins over for dinner. Oh, but that name. I don’t know how you dance around it, but it is rather racist.”




“Or, of a more poetic distinction, football is The Iliad
baseball is The Odyssey.”




“By now of course, the whole world, including the 271 inhabitants of Tristan de Cunha (said to be the most remote inhabited place on earth), knows the truth about a beloved character of a classic work of fiction: Atticus Finch is a racist.”







Kenyan Walkers



Mostly men
they mostly walk.
They walk the walk
beside the road.
Any road at any time.


Graveled in the morning light;
deep-ditched in the pitch of night.
Brown-grassed in the shimmering summer
pig-slopped with the rain of fall.
And they make their way past every obstacle;
past every point of no return.


Some of them might one day run
long distances under a distant sun
winning marathons in their antelope strides.
But for now who knows as to when and if
the road might end;
as to when and if
they will arrive.


Yet they put their faith in the way of the road;
that the journey will lead to their salvation.
In time. In time.
In Kenyan time.
More time than we on the bus can bear.


                                                —Ron Vazzano





The Playboy Cover Up


Over sixty years ago, a man had an insight: guys like to look at naked girls.*


Unlike you or I who might have had a blinding flash of the obvious at one time or another, he did something about it. His name is Hugh Hefner, and his “something about it,” turned out to be Playboy magazine. Which in turn, turned into a cultural touchstone; a must “read” for young men of high aspirations and even higher testosterone.


At the height of its prominence, with a circulation consistently well over five million—the Lena Söderberg issue of November 1972 selling a record number 7.2 million copies—it was said to have been subscribed to, or bought on newsstand, by one out of every four male college students. And that doesn’t include pass-along “readers.” (More on “readers” in a moment).


But now as its circulation has plummeted to an all-time low of 800,000 copies—even in the face of greatly reduced subscription-priced deals— something drastic needed to be done. It’s a problem. At least for Playboy. (Strident moralist groups might be thrilled to know about its coming upon hard times). The solution? In effect, a “cover up.”


It was announced last month, that as of the March 2016 issue: Playboy will no longer display naked women. Indeed, the height of irony. (So much so I emboldened the font.).


This would be akin to the Wall St. Journal saying it would longer include stock market quotes… Coca Cola announcing it was changing its formula to a new and better tasting Coke (wait, they once actually did that)… Starbucks deciding to stop selling coffee and focus on tea.


The implicit wink regarding Hef’s mag, has always accompanied the feeble sounding explanation that “I buy it for the articles.” And, “Oh, yeah, the interviews.” Though seriously, the bunny has always featured the top-ranked writers of the moment, and really, the interviews were always the most unique and extensive that could be found anywhere. Going way beyond entertainment celebrities, they’ve included the likes of Martin Luther King, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, Marshall McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary. Who can forget Jimmy Carter’s admission to “lusting in his own heart” regarding other women? And I especially remember the one with Jimmy Hoffa, coming as it did so shortly before he forever disappeared. But the subject was nudity.


Nudity. Once so bold, it is now so passé. Chalk it up to the proliferation of porn, and that seemingly, everyone is dying to take off their clothes and put their naked bods on display for all of the world to see. And all so easy to access. And to boot, it’s free! Which is no small factor in the voyeur equation.


Even bare celebrities are but a click away. Whereas once, only Playboy offered “name nudes.” And at a price.


Be it celebrity, or “girl next door,” nudity in Playboy beyond personal recreation, was also often loaded with business implications. In my days as a media director at various ad agencies, I had clients who either, would not advertise in it for fear of consumer backlash and hurting their brand image, or at the other end, there were those who specifically wanted to be there as a statement of “cool,” “cutting edge,” “progressive.”


To Playboy or not to Playboy? was often the question. A question often resolved by its humongous circulation, and by comparison, the few media alternatives for reaching the elusive young male audience they sought. (They drew the line at Penthouse, considered to be too raunchy). Bottom line, Playboy in its salad days was never hurting for want of advertisers.


If putting nudity in a magazine in 1953 (with its first issue of a bare Marilyn Monroe) was zigging, taking it out in 2016, after 63 years, is zagging. But will such a change in direction matter? Will it have a positive impact on readership numbers? Ad sales? I doubt it.


Ostensibly, those running the Playboy operation (and not Hef, now 89, and presumably losing control of many things), are trying to compete with Maxim the leader in the male lifestyle magazine field. And though it too features lots of “babes,” there is no full on nudity between its covers. Yet that didn’t prevent them from rising to the head of the class. But ironically, (there’s that word again), it has its own problems that are every bit as trying as that of Playboy.


A few years ago they cut back their circulation by a half of a million, and publish now only ten times a year. And it was announced not much more than a week ago, that an acclaimed fashion editor they had brought in this past March to change Maxim’s image by way of a sweeping new design, was fired after only six months on the job. As one journalist reported in summing up her departure: “The new look, was meant to soften the beer-and-babes formula by adding more style and luxury coverage. But even with its oversize format and heavier paper, it never caught on with its target of young male readers. Newsstand sales tumbled 40%.”


Further bad news, it has also been reported that the magazine, which had a rate base of 2 million copies a month, was going to cut it down to 900,000 next year and try to attract more luxury ads and content.


This raises the question not only of Playboy’s relevancy in this changing world, but the relevancy of any form of hard copy media that seeks to capture and hold the attention of a young adult male today. For their heads, and those of young women as well actually, are so buried in their tech devices. Where there are real live bodies for either sex, again, just a click away.


In any case, look for the February 2016 issue of Playboy, with its last unadorned centerfold, to become a big collector’s item; an artifact of a changing pop culture.

* Politically correct disclaimer: not all guys





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