The Year of the Mask
That we all wear a mask at some time or another,
is a metaphor taken at face value (pun intended). An assumptive
truism, is that the donning of a mask, is an action taken
to hide behind the truth of who we really are or appear to
We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
-We Wear the Mask, by Paul
Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)
Yet, Roberta and Peter Markman, in their book
Masks of the Spirit: Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica
(1989), see the mask as transformative and not as
a shield from behind which we can espouse lies. For them,
“the mask is a metaphor for the inner, spiritual and
indeed animal being.” For them, the mask reveals stark
I have never given much thought about this one way or the
other. Until now. For this has turned out to be for me, unexpectedly,
the year of the mask. I have literally worn four within the
last seven months, each a product of the most different of
circumstances, and each transformative in its own unique way.
The current one being the most sobering.
The first was in New Orleans this past February on Fat Tuesday.
Having been there twice previously for business conferences,
we professional-managerial types were hardly likely to take
to Bourbon Street in masks and begging for beads. We were
hardly likely to dive into a sea of humanity that apparently
had taken leave of its senses.
Yet hidden behind a suit woven in the threads of respectability,
was a reveler dying to make merry. That suit back then was
something to hide behind… but my mask this past Mardi
Gras was me. At least the indulgent side of me. The one that
likes to wade in the shallow end of the pool, to mix metaphors.
Then in May, it was the deeper end of the pool
that sent me awhirl in an intricate web of a theatrical experience,
in something called Sleep No More. I described it
at the time, (JUNE,
2012 Muse-letter) as the story of Macbeth re-imagined
in a 1930’s film noire setting, “that pushed the
envelope of ‘the play’ as we know it, to the point
where it no longer even resembled an envelope.”
For one thing, in that setting, we the audience were forced
to wear a mask, suggestive in style, of that of the traditional
Venetian carnivàle plague doctor. We were made to be
voyeurs to a tragedy, with its twisted encounters unfolding
Off to Venice for two weeks this past June,
I purchased and wore the mask of the lion on one particular
evening, as a symbol of my “Leo-ness,” and a take-no-prisoners
boldness. It now hangs on my wall almost in homage to ego;
the lion is after all, the king of the jungle. Though the
good craftsmanship of the mask is really what accounts now
for its prominent placement.
And now last month came a radiation mask.
One that is suggestive of a cross between a hockey mask and
that of Hannibal Lector’s, and is designed to constrict
any movement whatsoever when attached to the patient’s
table. This is a mask that means business.
In a reoccurrence of cancer (one lymph node this time), I
am reminded via this mask— molded to the actual contours
of my face — of humility. Why me? “Why
not you? What makes you so special?
Comedy. Tragedy. Ego. Humility.
And now I think perhaps of a fifth mask that might be worn
at some costume party this coming Halloween, in celebration
of what should by then be good health. A mask of “Boo!”
A mask that perhaps takes one back to a time of make believe,
when monsters might be lurking under the bed or hiding in
the closet. A return to that square one of child’s play.
But whatever the mask, the mask will be me. And I will be
Quote of the Month
Park Lake; photo by Ron Vazzano ©
Helen Gurly Brown: “Breaking
When Helen Gurly Brown died
last month at age 90, CNN.com made that announcement with
its signature yellow “Breaking News” banner, that
scrolls across the top of the home page. A rather pro forma
exercise. Yet, in the commentary section of that CNN website,
some took issue with the fact that Helen warranted a “Breaking
News” banner. Especially as there had been another shooting
that day. This one in Texas I believe, in the flurry of shootings
that began with “The Dark Knight Rises” massacre
on July 20th.
But it gave pause for a moment
as to what constitutes “Breaking News Worthy?”
How do some of these other yellow banner pronouncements that
would follow last month, stack up vis-à-vis, the death
of Helen Gurly Brown.
News: Three members of punk rock band Pussy Riot found
guilty on hooligan charges, Russia’s state-run RIA
Novosti news says.
News: Augusta National Golf Club admits first female
members: Condoleeza Rice and business executive Darla Moore.
News: Diana Nyad is out of the water, ending her attempt
to swim from Cuba to Florida, according to her team.
News: Comedienne Phyllis Diller, dead at age 95.
Are all of the above, none of the above, a) and b), or just
b), more or less or equally newsworthy relative to Ms. Brown’s
“Breaking News” in a 24/7 news cycle world, does
not have the same impact as in the old media days driven by
three TV networks. Back then, you held your breath in anticipation
when a soap opera was interrupted for some announcement of
no doubt considerable magnitude. (Sidebar: Yet, it was
reported at the time, that some people actually complained
to the CBS Network when Walter Cronkite interrupted a soap
opera to tell the nation that JFK had been shot.)
By the “3-Network Standard,” neither Ms. Brown’s
death, nor any of the above, would have interrupted As
The World Turns. But in a 24/7 news cycle, everything
is news. And it must be reported instantly!
A show of hands… who knew of the existence
of Pussy Riot? Let alone what they might have done that was
so “hooliganistic”? But back to Brown.
The fact is, many people flat out didn’t
like her, nor what she stood for. And imagine her audacity
in espousing that women were free to have sex too, just like
the aspiring playboys of Hugh Heffner’s world.
Many others simply resented her success. Especially
as it seemed to come to someone, lacking any great depth.
Of course, she and her incarnation of that
“Cosmo Girl” are so immanently “spoofable.”
One need look no further than the cover of any issue of Cosmo,
to note the simple solutions— often broken down into
numbered lists— that awaited the reader; a single woman
presumably in dire need of help on all fronts. The current
September issue typifies that Cosmo formulaic mission.
Much has been written since HGB’s death
about the conflicted feminist legacy she leaves behind. On
one hand, she was about the empowerment of women— even
predating Gloria Steinem. On the other, according to Jennifer
Pozner, director of Women in Media & News…
“… she created one of the
most body-shaming, insecurity-provoking, long-lasting
sexist media products of the last 100 years."
But my own remembrance of Helen Gurly Brown
was neither of the above. Rather one of an astute business
person, who knew not only how to get her readers to eat out
of the palm of her hand, but marketers as well.
I got to experience this first hand many years ago, when the
Cosmopolitan ad sales force, set up a private lunch
for my media department at Spago’s. As Media Director,
it was arranged for me to be seated alongside Helen. In retrospect,
so that she could go to work on me.
Ever flirtatious and flattering, she revealed how much she
knew about me and our agency. And she was sure to introduce
me to Wolfgang Puck when he stopped by the table to make certain
that everything was to our liking.
Though you knew you were being played to (if not with) you
went along for the ride. But I had to be impressed by her
preparation for this luncheon. She had done her homework,
knew of what she spoke, and did not expect her mere presence
at the table or her celebrity status, to carry the day.
I don’t recall if that luncheon resulted ultimately
in any additional business for her magazine, but I do know
that the passing of the likes of a Helen Gurly Brown is “Breaking
News Worthy.” People who are game changers usually are.
And she was nothing if not that.
The young men and women of various ethnicities
stand guard protecting priceless paintings;
dead white guy painters who dripped on the floor
who cut off their ears and dealt in soup cans
and painted the flag in blasphemous colors.
Who painted pipes and claimed they weren’t.
Who drew melting clocks and two-sided faces
of three or more eyes, or who otherwise
took to tagging, like Haring, the passing scene.
These guards are all that stand between:
Man With Razor or Can of Spray
and a stilled life with sliced pears and spoiled apples.
These strokes of genius that hold us together—
things we stare at but can’t quite see,
yet that something that would cut to the bone if defiled.
Do they who stand guard ever look at it this
Or just at the paintings? Or neither of these?
Rather simply keeping tabs on us to see
that we keep our curious fingers to ourselves.
The Gun Yet Again
What is left to say about gun violence in
America that hasn’t already been said? Yet with so many
“high profile” shootings of late (the last near
the Empire State Building hitting particularly close to home—
I pass by there frequently), it is a phenomenon hard to ignore.
But rather than engage in hypothetical rhetoric about the
Second Amendment or about the proliferation of guns in our
society, here’s what I once experienced on a personal
level, that brought the whole issue home for me.
A few years ago while in a small town in Texas
for a wedding (ill conceived as would be proven a short time
later), I happened upon a store that sold a smattering of
bric-à-brac, novelties, and gifts. And a gun. Despite
this not being a gun store of course, here it was among the
Felix the Cat clocks, Madame Alexander dolls and greeting
cards. “Is that a real working gun?” “Yes.”
As a matter of curiosity, I inquired as to
what it cost and whether I would be able to buy it. It was
surprisingly affordable and yes, I could buy it. But it would
have to be mailed to me as some ID and background check would
need to be done. As my background is as pure as the driven
snow, and I am as upstanding a citizen as the next guy, this
would be no problem. I could be the proud owner of this gun
I have never in my life, even so much
as held a gun in my hand, let alone shoot one.
I know nothing about the proper use of a firearm.
Yet, no problem, this gun could be mine. No tests of skill
or responsibility required. In other words, none of those
procedures that the DMV puts you through, to show that you
actually know how to drive a car before they give you a license.
And how annoying is all that?
First a learner’s permit… then
somebody has to drive with you while you’re learning…
an eye test to prove you can see…a test to prove that
you know that an octagonal road sign means stop… a manual
you have to study…a written test you have to take…a
driving test (and sometimes the instructor is mean)...and
if you fail, you have to take it again? Damn. Just give me
the license! Being the conscientious person I am, trust that
I’ll learn how to drive on my own. And that I can see.
And even after getting a license, you have
to keep renewing it? And you have to drive a car at moderate
speeds? Why? I know how to drive. And aren’t bigger
engines and more power and speed better? If the speedometer
goes all the way up to 120 MPH, why am I not allowed to go
I’m just saying.