November 2017





like to think I’m a fairly intelligent person, possessing a relatively good vocabulary. At least when I’m not doing my “I-grew-up-on-the-Lower-East-Side” shtick, in a faux-Di Nero voice.


Like many people with this sense of self-aggrandizement, I admit to reading “the failing New York Times.” Yes, call me an elitist. “So’s your old man!”


I know. I’ve seen all those Tweets about “FAKE NEWS.” And who knows, maybe even their crossword puzzles are fake. They probably make up words given how disingenuous they are. Especially in their ball-breaking, hardest one of the week on Saturday. There goes my alleged good vocabulary.


A man of humble birth, and now as a means of busting out of my almost high-rise co-op— overused catch-word alert— “bubble,” I do spend some online time slumming through the tabloids. In particular, the New York Post.


How else can I start my day without reading that celebrities I’ve never heard of, have announced that they are breaking up. (But remain good friends, and have “asked for their privacy at this time for the sake of their children”). Or that someone intentionally left their baby in the subway on the L-train. Or that Harvey Weinstein once masturbated into a potted plant in a restaurant in front of a female TV reporter. (I can’t help but wonder how long that took, and how it went unnoticed by even, say, a passing busboy toting dirty dishes past dirty Harvey while en route to the kitchen).


But back to The Times, and one particular Sunday, October 8th to be exact, when I plopped in my favorite leather chair from Crate and Barrel. With cup in hand of tepid brew— via Mr. Coffee (“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio”)— I kicked back to review what had been going on in the socio-political biosphere of the past week. And more interestingly, who thinks “what” of it. And who thinks “why” about the “what.”


Yes, agreed, like an errant golf shot, the editorial and op-ed pages will tend to hook to the left. That’s no news. But to play off that analogy, I like to think of myself as just the caddy here who’s lugging a bag full of questions and not the one doing the swinging.


I walk the paper’s fairway, focusing on some sections while skimming through and avoiding the sand traps of others. Like the real estate section, which renders me apoplectic, what with its listings of Hamptons getaways that only my team of doctors, or Bernie’s “top one puhcent,” can afford. Anyway, end of golf analogy. Thank God. I hate golf.


I encounter along the way, names and words and other intriguing facts that I never knew existed, yet am oddly tickled to learn (as I don’t hunt or fish either).


I certainly didn’t know that, though Mayor de Blasio has “long identified with his Italian heritage, bequeathed by his mother’s family,” he was born Warren Wilhelm Jr.


Aaah…ha! That’s why he’s so open to deep-sixing Columbus (OCTOBER, 2017 MUSE-LETTER, “Statues of Limitations?”). That’s why he’s so tall. That’s why his son Dante was allowed to sport an excessively retro ‘fro. “Elementary, my dear Watson.” (Which Sherlock Holmes never said.).


In the same editorial, I was introduced to someone named Phillippe Pétain. Who he? None other than a WWI hero given a ticker tape parade in 1931. (What took them so long?). Oh, but on the B-side of the record, he was also a Nazi-collaborating leader of France’s Vichy government in WWII. He’s caught here (and this before cell phone cameras), making nice with the Führer. Yet, he has a plaque on Lower Broadway in the “Canyon of Heroes.” Not to be confused with the “Valley of Traitors.” No doubt Warren Wilhelm Jr.’s “symbols of hate” commission, will be looking into this.


Other names I’d run across later in the Book Review section with whom I’d had no clue, included Breece D’J Pancake (cousin of Y’I Waffle?)… Benvenuto Cellini (che bello)… Longinus (apparently singly named ala Madonna)… W.G. Sebald (at least initials with periods, and not an apostrophe).


Gleaned from a skinny dip through Wikipedia, here’s the skinny on these guys that you’ll want to tape to your refrigerator for future reference:


Breece D’J Pancake (1952 –1979): an American short story writer, frequently published in The Atlantic Monthly. He committed suicide on Palm Sunday at the age of 26 (and unfortunately didn’t rise at Easter).


Bevenuto Celline (1500 –1571): an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier, musician, artist, poet who also wrote a famous autobiography (that no one’s ever heard of).


Longinus: legendary Roman soldier who pierced Jesus in his side with a lance. He was said to have converted to Christianity and has achieved sainthood in the Roman Catholic church. (That’s one way to get there).



W.G. Sebald (1944 –2001): German writer/academic. Cited by many literary critics at the time of his death, as one of the greatest living authors. Thought to be a future Nobel Prize winner in Literature (Vegas had him at 2-to-1).


In another part of the paper, I was intrigued by a piece entitled “Who Invented ‘Zero’?” Someone had to invent nothing? I always thought nothing always was…or never wasn’t…or, never mind. Apparently, it’s all explained in something called the Bakhshali manuscript. (a mathematical text written on birch bark, found in 1881 in the village of Bakhshali, near present-day Pakistan. It’s “the oldest extant manuscript in Indian mathematics,” with portions dated to 224–383 AD. It contains the earliest known Indian use of a zero symbol.) Yes, of course. How obvious.





I pause to catch my “breadth,” in a manner of speaking.


Suddenly, sans warning— in between a pair of em dashes— they hit me with Latin: mirabile dictu (i.e. wonderful to relate).


I reflect for a moment on William F. Buckley Jr., from whose politics I abstained, but loved his love of words. Which often included Latin ones, which he rolled about the tongue as if savoring a vintage wine... summun bonum. (i.e. the supreme good from which all others are derived). Requiesce in pace (rest in peace), Bill.


As I continue on my Sunday stroll, I encounter other words that are hardly common in everyday discourse. This linguistic obscuration has perdured (continued to exist) throughout The Times’ long history. I know there has been a predation (an act of preying or plundering) on the part of critics, who consider this as proof of elitism. But any knowledgeable man or bean feasa (“wise-woman,” in Irish Gaelic tradition), would see this is not an intent to befuddle. They assume we speak the same language, so to speak. And what are we to do, douse the text in a patchouli (an aromatic oil obtained from a Southeast Asian shrub and used in perfumery), so as to make it more sweet smelling to the masses?


In a piece by conservative Ross Douthat, “The Pigs of Liberalism” denouncing the afore-pictured Dirty Harvey, he starts one sentence by saying… “Like a knight promising a crusade against the Saracens as penance for raping and pillaging at home ….” As opposed to what? Raping and pillaging on the road, and losing the home field advantage? And while I’ve heard of Saracens, what are they all about?


The term’s meaning used to refer to people who lived in desert areas, but later become synonymous with Muslims. It’s considered a pejorative term. I guess if we were to transfer today’s political climate back to the Middle Ages, some would have been calling for a Saracen Travel Ban. With camels having to go through various checkpoints.


There actually is a Saracens Football Club; a professional English rugby team based in London right now. Sort of, akin to our Washington Redskins? Political correctness be damned.


I could go on; I won’t go on. Too much grist for the milner of martin.


The takeaway for me on just this typical Sunday reading, aside from the pleasure I get from learning something new and potentially enhancing, is that whatever one may feel about The Times, and “some of my best friends are”… not fans, . And as a personal go-to conduit, that resonates with me. Some might say, so does an echo chamber. Yes. I hear you you you you you.


But it also gives me pause to wonder in a larger sense, as I put down the paper…


When did being undereducated get to be a virtue and something to be flaunted?


So that when a political candidate exclaims “I love the poorly educated,” those of that descriptive applaud with pride, instead of seeing it for the condescension it really is. Seems that the message ought to be a firm commitment to elevate the level of education for all, as a means to seek a higher ground.


And this is going to happen by reading The Sunday New York Times? This is going to happen by knowing the meaning of the word perdure? And not confusing it, at a quick glance, with the Perdue of fresh-chickens fame? Of course not. But I suspect that if people indulged in some form of cerebral exercise on a regular basis—how about a good book for starters? — we would all be better off. Not just the “elite.” Or is that just an elitist thought?







Quote of the Month








Actuary Tables: A to B




                                                           —Ron Vazzano








Give Us This Day Our Daily Backpack



Backpacks. Backpacks. Backpacks. What in God’s name, or in anyone’s name for that matter, is everyone carrying around?


I think of the late George Carling’s riff on “stuff. ”

" Everybody's gotta have a little place for their stuff ….


That’s all your house is…
a place for your stuff ….


And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up.”

Or maybe not, George. Apparently, there is an alternative. Like a turtle, you can take your whole house, stuff and all, with you wherever you go. That can be the only explanation for this invasion of backpacks, often of humongous proportions, that literally are in my face in many a public place. And on top of this sort of intrusion, aesthetically, I find them ugly to behold. They seem as if an albatross. Though opinions on taste, I realize, are always a zero-sum game.


It’s as if we’re all on one Grand Existential Hike. Which we all bought into, except perhaps I, who is out of the Facebook loop and behind the curve. But the predominant “we,” are not in the woods, metaphorically or otherwise. There are more town mice than country mice, to coin a fable. As such, one is never too far away from one’s cheese. Therefore, I find this backpack thing to be baffling. When I’m not finding it annoying. It’s as if backpack wearers are channeling Karl Malden’s advice from those decades past American Express commercials, “Don’t leave home without it.”


The problem is most especially pronounced where people find themselves awash in a rough sea of humanity. Take rush hour in the New York City subway system. Please.





To their credit, the MTA does suggest a common-denominator type of courtesy, by way of wordless signs with fourth-grader illustrations. And they are clearly posted within view of clueless riders.   


At such times when a backpack is pressing up against me, I want to point to the above (that is assuming I have access to my hands), while respectively addressing the transgressor: “See… red guy…asshole.” “Green guy…good.” “Gray guy…me.” “Gray woman, likes Green guy. Maybe even fall in love. Get married. Have kids. All because Green Guy PUT DOWN HIS @#%$* BACKPACK!


I suppose, I can understand a need for students to have a backpack. Not that that excuses them from not taking them off in crowded places either. And nobody would want to be caught dead, walking around carrying their stuff in grandpa’s school bag, the likes of which my classmates and I once had, and has long since gone the way of fountain pens. There's enough bullying going on in the schools these days as it is.


My own daughter had a backpack as early as the first grade. I even referenced it in a poem.

A sprite with backpack 
and lunch box, she walks.
Deliberately. Each step
with purpose
with dignity.


she is at once, so small, so
big, so soon,
so sure, so six.


As to what was in her backpack at that age, I can’t recall. A pencil? Some Hello Kitty crap? Crayons? Cookies? Cookie Monster? They grow up so fast.


But for high school and college kids in 2017? With everything instantly accessible through one device or another — “I’m like, do they even have, like ya know, a need for like, books anymore?” The kind with paper and a hardcover? I wonder.


I assume a laptop or tablet is de rigueur and needs to be close at hand (or back). Though no need to pack an iPhone in there, as it’s always in hand. And given the times we live in, are they also packing heat? At least until metal detectors are required in every school? And though they don’t own a house, to be fair, they too already have lotsa’ stuff. But finally, for certain, included in that backpack must be the ubiquitous, precious, bottle of water.


A pause for a word or two about bottled water.


When did we all get so thirsty?! In that Stone Age of the 50’s and early 60’s, (the “Stoned” Age was to come later), no one was walking around with bottled water. And remarkably, people weren’t dropping dead right there in the streets from dehydration. Nor rushed to a hospital with a life-threatening case of dry mouth either, so far as I can recall.


Granted, white-collar men at work might have gathered about the water cooler. But in addition to a Dixie cup shot of H2O, it was more of a meeting place for drinking in rumors and spitting out opinions on politics, women and sports. All of which they knew little about.


It seems as if this water thing though really took off when a gift from the gods—“Perrier, the earth’s first soft drink,” as an ad tune informed us—had arrived! And suddenly it was, bottled water, bottled water, everywhere, and nary a drop from a sink.


But back to the men of business, and to return to the subject at hand, is there anything geekier than a guy in a suit wearing a backpack? I can’t image coming to a power breakfast or lunch, or meeting after work for a drink to try to close a seven-figure deal, entering the premises wearing a backpack.


Can you imagine Don Draper with a backpack? Or in another line of work, James Bond? And what ever happened to the attaché case? So sleek, so cool, so to the point.




But now it’s about utility for all. "The need to have our hands free has propelled the backpack into the forefront," as one industry analyst put it.


Statistics are not needed to back up what is so apparent to the naked eye regarding this proliferation. But being a guy who once dealt in numbers for various ad agencies, though I wasn’t even a Ron Draper, I can’t resist. This nutshell of a summation by Bruce Horovitz, marketing reporter for USA Today

“Backpacks, which began emerging as an accessory for high school students in the 1980s, have become a $2 billion business with double-digit growth. And they're everywhere: 58% of consumers own backpacks, with 61% of the packs bought on impulse…”

And what of those of us not embedded in those numbers? Who’d rather have a monkey on our backs than a backpack? I guess it’s just one more sign, that the world and all its stuff, is passing us by. But don’t even let me get started on oversized shoulder bags.







Picture a Palindrome #6




With apologies to Eric Hill






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