September 2012


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 be.

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 truths…not lies.

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 within.





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 the mask.





Quote of the Month




                                                                                            Central Park Lake; photo by Ron Vazzano ©








Helen Gurly Brown: “Breaking News Worthy?"



When Helen Gurly Brown died last month at age 90, 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.

a) Breaking News: Three members of punk rock band Pussy Riot found guilty on hooligan charges, Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news says.


b) Breaking News: Augusta National Golf Club admits first female members: Condoleeza Rice and business executive Darla Moore.


c) Breaking News: Diana Nyad is out of the water, ending her attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, according to her team.


d) Breaking 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 passing?

“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.







Museum Guards


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 way?
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



                                                                                              — Ron Vazzano







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 shortly.


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 for it?!


I’m just saying.





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