October 2017




Columbus: The Parade/The Voyage/The Statues



I. On This Parade, Rain Might Fall


The second Monday of the month, October 9th this year (it used to be on the 12th every year until 1970), is Columbus Day. This federal—and now controversial—holiday, was first established by FDR in 1937. And it will be celebrated, as it has for the 73rd time here in NYC, with the biggest parade in the world in his name. It is expected that once again, 35,000 marchers along 5th Avenue will be cheered on by a million spectators. So much for the numbers.


This year there will probably mark an increase in dissenting voices. And Mayor Bill di Blasio can expect to hear a Bronx cheer or three along the route. But more on that in a moment.



While commemorating the explorations of Cristoforo Columbo, the parade has long since come to be more about celebrating the Italian-American culture and its significant achievements and contributions to the United States. One of which is absolutely not, the discovery of America, as we older folks were taught in grade school. Though America did gets its name from Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator and explorer who played a prominent role in exploring the New World (where’s his parade?). I’ll leave his expeditions for another day, along with those of Verrazzano, an almost namesake. (The bridge bearing his name, by the way, is misspelled. Does the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League know about this?). Oh. Yeah. Columbus.



II. “Houston, we have a problem.”


Who can ever forget the opening line of that doggerel poem: “In fourteen hundred ninety-two/ Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” But what no one remembers, is its last lines as we apparently never quite got that far:


The first American? No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.


“Not quite” is the height of understatement. For one thing, we’d later come to hear about an interloper in our myth, some Norse guy in weird headgear named Leif Erikson (not to be confused with American film actor Leif Erickson), who was the first known European to have discovered continental North America some 500 years earlier. For another, Cristoforo was Genoese and not an American; first or otherwise. Obviously, an overreach in poetic license.


Though no doubt, Columbus was brave. You had to be when you really didn’t know where the hell you were going. Which gets to his “brightness,” as asserted in the poem.


Columbus never set foot on any land that would later become one of the 50 states. Though he did land in the Bahamas. And thereby it might be claimed that Columbus was the first to vacation there and maybe get some rays, when he finally figured out where he was.


Various sources indicate, that he believed he had reached East Asia. And then later that month… when he sighted Cuba? He thought it was mainland China. And then, oy, to quote one source, “in December the expedition landed on Hispaniola, which Columbus thought might be Japan.” It raises a serious question: How could you get so lost? The answer to which might be threefold.


First off, he greatly underestimated the size of the world in planning the expedition. This is true. No wisecrack. Which debunks that Disneyland ride claiming in that endlessly maddening song that… “It’s a small world after all.” Wisecrack.


To dispel yet another myth regarding the globe, it was not believed at the time that the world was flat and that Columbus (age 41) was out to prove otherwise.


Secondly, men hate to ask for directions.


Finally, alas, no GPS (“Bear right at 21° 30' North latitude”). In effect, he accidentally stumbled upon the Americas. (“Recalculating: In fourteen hundred ninety-two/ Columbus sailed ‘without a clue’”).


And as for those three ships that drip so trippingly off the tongue, the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria? This last and largest, ran into trouble on December 24th on the return trip home. It sank the next day. (“Merry Christmas!”). Something else I never “loined” in school.


But it’s his moral compass, not his directional one, that has now been seriously questioned for at least the last twenty-five years or so and counting. By now, all are familiar with the controversies regarding his legacy. One of the more blunt assessments I’ve come across reads:

“To celebrate Columbus is to celebrate a legacy of genocide, slavery, rape and plunder. It commemorates the violent and bloody accumulation of capital for the ruling classes of Europe and, later, the U.S. Columbus' voyage was financed by the Spanish monarchy. ... Columbus was the first European slave trader in the Americas.” (



In truth, a number of states have totally ceased celebrating Columbus Day for assorted reasons: Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont. Add to that, the whole “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” movement which is gaining steam.


While as awkward-sounding a day of an alternative celebration as you can imagine (though “Festivus, for the rest of us,” from Seinfeld may have it beat), there are now some 22 cities across the country that have jumped on this Indigenous bandwagon. One of sizeable wheels, it includes the likes of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, and just this year, Los Angeles.


Of course, Native Americans have been the most vocal and demonstrative in their protests. Most especially, in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s non-discovery.


In light of all of this, one might now be pressed to wonder what did Columbus actually Dorite?


The best takes I’ve come across might be consolidated to read:

Columbus’s voyages (there were four in all), and 1492 in particular—perhaps more than any other year in modern history—truly represented an historical watershed; a vehicle of discovery and progress, which forged a lasting link between the civilizations of the Old World and the “New

A long route to take in arriving at the statues, but let’s go there.



III. Statues of Limitations?


Unless one has been living under the proverbial rock, the controversies (and bloodshed) surrounding the removal of statues, monuments and flags of the Confederacy, has spread out across the land. So that now it seems, any statue of any stripe is subject to review. And to paraphrase that famous line of interrogation from Watergate: What do we know about a statue’s transgressions, and how long have we known it? The exception perhaps being that fantastical one of Alice in Central Park, who continues to sit on a mushroom uncontested; looking a bit stoned if you ask me (someone ought to look into that, no?).



Mayor Bill de Blasio, of Italian heritage, announced last month that a commission was being set up to make recommendations as to what to do about statues and monuments in the New York City that he has called “symbols of hate.” Of particular focus at the moment is Christopher Columbus. Ergo, the aforementioned Bronx cheers he’ll likely hear at the parade.


If Melissa Mark-Viverto, the speaker of the City Council has her way, the statue at Columbus Circle —created as part of the 400th anniversary commemoration of Columbus' landing in the Americas, by sculptor Gaetano Russo in 1892 — would be immediately removed. And presumably, the name of the location of where it has stood would also be changed? To Indigenous Peoples’ Circle? (“I’ll meet you later at ‘Ipcee.’”)



Unsurprisingly, elected officials and leaders within the Italian-American community, have railed against the removal of this statue. Even Comedian Joe Piscopo, who spoke at a recent rally chimed in —“leave our statues alone.” (Wonder if he said it in his Sinatra-impression voice?). But really, up until now, the statue was hardly noticed as it's standing 75 feet in the air and in the middle of traffic. Who in New York City ever looks up? Especially while crossing the street? Except perhaps, the mere 54 million tourists who come here each year?


And while the hyphened Ms. Mark-Viverto didn’t single out the other prominent statue of Columbus standing in Central Park, a vandal certainly did. He or she defiled it, leaving “blood”-red paint on the explorer’s hands and scrawling a warning on its pedestal. An ugly and criminal incident that certainly goes beyond the right to peaceful protest. Not to mention its threat of future violence.


Columbus-statue controversy has not been confined to New York. There was a recent protest in the eponymous Columbus Ohio, at the site of their Chris standing in front of city hall.


Statues in public places, like that of any environmental art, which I’ve addressed before (MAY, 2017 MUSE-LETTER, Charging Bull and Fearless Girl at Street Level), really should go to intent and public acceptance. And there should be no presumption of perpetuity in the matter. What goes up, can come down.


For those so passionately deposed, various questions should be asked and answered. When did the statue in question go up? Who decided? Why is this person (entity) worthy of a statue? Who cares? Why? What effect if any, has the passage of time had on it? To this last question in particular, speaking of Italian-Americans, Joe Paterno’s statue was taken down at Penn State when an FBI report revealed that he had concealed allegations of child sexual abuse by his top subordinate for several years (“Say it ain’t so, Joe”).


Ultimately, one could make the case that perhaps we shouldn’t erect statues in honor of any, alleged, figures of great achievement. Especially those who are more myth than man, so to speak.


Ancestral figures meriting statues as far as I’m concerned, are those who have played a major role in defining who we are, or who we aspire to be, and who speak (sometimes with a heavy accent), to our better angels. From a personal perspective, that would be my immigrant grandparents from Calabria— my true heroes. Who had no trouble finding their way into the new world by way of Ellis Island.


As that is not likely to happen, and speaking of “other worldly explorations,” how about a statue of Galileo? Who dealt in science? Who dealt in looking skyward, rather than in “Land, ho!” Too controversial, what with his audacious insistence that the earth revolves around the sun? For which he spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest?


Anyway, to be honest (though why start now), I really could care less about Columbus. And you might care even lesser or least, about my caring less. Which is what makes the world go ‘round.







Quote of the Month



                             Photo and Design by Ron Vazzano©






Loving Vincent



Alongside Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning,” which is incorporated into my website logo, my favorite painting is “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh. Arguably his best work, he painted it 1889 while in an asylum. As it appears on virtually any list of favorite paintings of all time, and with van Gogh considered to be one of the world’s top two or three most popular painters, I’m going to make a wild assumption that a few others share my passion for this work.


I have not only visited it several times over the years where it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art (and is the most “selfied” work according to the chief curator), I once carved its likeness into a pumpkin and entered it in an office Halloween party contest. (I won). If anyone else might be so obsessed, and with Halloween almost here, I’ve provided the pattern I concocted from the painting. If so inclined, or given to OCD tendencies, feel free to use it.




“The Starry Night” also served as an inspiration for “Vincent,” a bittersweet poetic song, written and first performed by Don McLean in 1971. It opens with the lines…

“Starry starry night
paint your palette blue and grey
look out on a summer’s day
with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.”

It is sung at the conclusion of “Loving Vincent,” an unusual new movie, which in a left-brained description by Variety reads… “a fictionalized, mystery-driven biopic.” True. But more to the point of its right-brained conception, it has been billed as “the first fully painted feature film in the world.” It premiered in New York last month (a national rollout due October 6th), and I rushed out to see it.


My review, as it were, encapsulated in six words and two exclamation points: “Beautifully mind-boggling! In concept and execution!”


Created and directed by a husband/wife team who have an obsession with van Gogh that goes light years beyond carving one of his paintings into the side of a pumpkin, they spent seven years bringing this project to life.


True to its boast, each of the 65,000 frames “all of which are derived either from the artist’s original works, like ‘The Starry Night‘ and ‘Café Terrace at Night’ (and ten others), or are heavily inspired by his distinctive thick brush strokes,” are hand-painted in oils. The goal was to enter a strange middle ground between still painting and moving image.


This Herculean task, required a recruitment of 125 painters from around the world. Given the sustained flow and nuance of movement they achieved during the course of an hour and a half movie, it would seem that it would have involved even more than 65,000 oil paintings. The triptych below, might provide a sense of what was involved in the process. And this for just a single frame.



In a sense, in transposing van Gogh’s work to the screen—though it was greatly reimagined throughout, and with extensive flashbacks in the storyline done in black and white —one might say the painters had a head start. Do not many “van Goghs” (of his approximate 850 total), seem to have movement within them already? Is not that sky in “The Starry Night,” literally swirling?


When the stunning trailer was first posted on line last year, it became an overnight sensation garnering 115 million views on Facebook. But not all film critics have been enamored with the entire 90-minute feature itself. Some have carped that the story it tells has the feel of a crime novel, leaning so heavily as it does, on the mysterious circumstances surrounding van Gogh’s suicide. Not a fan myself of such a genre, I didn’t think its plot, such as it is, would be compelling. Yet mysteriously, it was.


Still, as grudgingly conceded by one critic…

“Of course, nobody is going to watch “Loving Vincent” for its plot. The style of the film is its substance, and Kobiela and Welchman (the creator/directors) seem to recognize how oppressive and backward it is to impose logic on an artist who so vividly defied it…”

Or as another chimed in with this backhanded compliment… ”Still, there’s something ineffably beautiful about such a pure-hearted folly….”


Such criticisms would be akin to saying, “The moon is ineffably beautiful. But it’s rocky, and therefore, not really worthy of unbridled approval.”


Beyond the movie and the labor of love in its making, there is the man himself. And given his complexity and torment, one cannot help but come away with the thought, that only a thin line lies between insanity and genius. And what line judge gets to make that call?

“How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen
They did not know how”

In an ancillary way, this groundbreaking film, on top of all else it achieves, raises that question as well. Though more implicitly.








Upon a Visit to Montauk Point Lighthouse


Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse
While all others were making ships.

— Theodore Roethke



In days gone by who has not built a ship  

Cut from the wood of a backyard tree
Absent direction but bent on a trip
Through white-capped waters of identity?


The ship itself is all that is ingrained.
Lack of direction ends in errant sights.
Intoxication at the siren's refrain,
Blinds us to jetties on moonless nights.


The depths of the sea are littered with grief—
Ersatz pirates who set sail in dead prose,
Nearsighted ones who never saw the reef.
But not of prophets and poets and those


Who would dare to think inside the bottle
And avoid the rocks while going full throttle


                                        —Ron Vazzano








Gig: A Reading of I Remember Mama


I will be participating in a public reading this month, of that old chestnut of a play, “I Remember Mama.”

A story about a Norwegian immigrant family living in the 1910’s in San Francisco, it premiered on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre on October 19, 1944, and ran for 713 performances. The cast included Marlon Brando, who in a minor role as Nels, made his Broadway debut.


My role of Uncle Chris, was originally done by well-known character actor at the time, Oskar Holmolka. He would reprise it for the film version three years later, and receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.


Those of us of a certain age, will remember the popular TV series that followed and ran from 1949-1957. At the start of each episode, the eldest sister in the family would open with a narration while looking back through the pages of the family album, and conclude wistfully with…


“But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember ... Mama."


I Remember Mama


Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
7 West 55th Street


October 28, 2017 Saturday at 7pm
October 29, 2017 Sunday at 2pm

Entrance is free of charge






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