July 2010

The Serendipity of Harper Lee

Imagine this: at twenty-three years old, you decide to leave Monroeville, Alabama to head off to New York City to become a writer. Imagine just how far is that distance between those two points, in the decidedly low-tech world of 1949. Imagine that one Christmas, in the apartment of a married couple on the Upper East Side who have become your best friends, the following:

“Poking out from the branches was a white envelope envelop labeled ‘Nelle.’ She opened it. The note inside read, ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’ “

Imagine. People named Joy and Michael Brown have given you enough money to pay rent, utilities and groceries for a full year, simply as an act of love and belief in you. Imagine that you fulfill that belief. Yes, it will take 11 years before you have your first book published. July 11, 1960 to be exact. But what is eleven years in comparison to say …never? Imagine that it is the first and last book you will ever publish. Imagine that the book is To Kill A Mockingbird. Imagine that you are Nelle Harper Lee. And what you have, is one of the more unimaginable stories you can imagine.


It has been said, that we all have one book in us. Each of us has at least one story to tell that could be of interest to others. Maybe so. But a story that will sell 30 million copies? More than any other 20th century novel? And that this Pulitzer Prize winner continues to sell a million copies a year even as we speak? And that it has become a fixture on required reading lists of high and junior high schools for the past 50 years? And that of course it was turned into an Academy Award winning film in 1962?


Harper Lee has been painted as a recluse. But this is not true as we first learned when we included her in a piece we wrote almost five years ago. (“Writer’s Block or… Six Authors in Search of a Character?FEBRUARY, 2006 MUSE-LETTER). Now having long since moved back to Monroeville, Nelle, as she is known to the locals, is particularly supportive of stimulating young people’s interest in reading. She often responds to requests to visit local high schools for book signings and public appearances. At age 84, she is still very much active. This as reported by Charles J. Shields in his excellent biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. It is from this book that we also learned of that wonderful Christmas moment, excerpted above.


Shields also tells us that while Nelle had been at work on a second book, it never came to pass. And it is just as well. Must there be a second book? On this the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird, a classic in modern literature, we think not. The second book, in effect, is the story of Harper Lee herself. A serendipitous one at that. And on the wings of such stories, the human spirit soars.



Once Upon A Sink

The fixtures were long and lean
with the options clear cut
in the French curves of chrome.
Life was contoured to the hand.


But when we drank, we drank deeply;
blind to any impurities
distracted perhaps by our fun house faces
reflected in the works.


It all flowed so freely— with a force of belief
that the world was ours.
We were smart and unbridled;
the water was dumb and un-bottled.

                                                                                                                                            —Ron Vazzano


                                                                          Ron Vazzano; Original drawing 1960; Computer enhanced 2010



The Big Shaggy

This is one of those things you can try at home. Go to Google Search, and type in “college grads.” Within a nanosecond of typing in that last letter “s,” ten cues will pop up as to where the smart-ass software application thinks you’re heading. (Don’t you find that annoying at times?) Anyway, more than half of those cues will be ominous to say the least. For us they read as follows:


college grads can’t find jobs
college grads without jobs
college grads outlook grim
college grads unemployed
college grads no jobs
college grads living at home

Apropos of this exercise, we came across a front page LA Times headline recently, that posed the question: Is a college degree still worth it? The article beneath it going on to note, that a government survey showed recent job gains have actually gone to those with only a high school education or less. In turn, this has cast doubt over the long held conviction that a college education is the ticket to the American Dream.


Then we came upon a David Brooks op ed piece in the New York Times that was so refreshing. For in the face of all this depressing college grad news, Brooks writes a spirited defense of the value of a Liberal Arts education. Still. And while his decidedly conservative positions on political issues invariably put us at odds with him, he is one of our favorite columnists. And we had the opportunity to tell him that personally, when were introduced by the parents of Daniel Pearl at an annual event commemorating their son’s life, in which David Brooks was a keynote speaker. And a wonderful one at that.


It turns out that he is not only bright, but a charming man with a quick wit. All this in conjunction with our having a son just graduated from Syracuse, made us particularly interested in his take on what constitutes value in higher education.


He sets up the premise for his essay, in the opening paragraph:

“When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they can’t indulge in an English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.”

He goes on to speak of a 50% drop in Liberal Arts majors over the past generation, and how the humanities are no longer the glamour studies on campus. And he very much bemoans this development.


He writes with conviction, that a Liberal Arts education, offers the priceless values of being able to read and write well and with creativity… being able to make analogies and how they lead to precision in thinking… being able to develop a familiarity with the ‘language of emotion.’ Finally, he gets to the crux of his argument in addressing how the humanities helps you to befriend “The Big Shaggy.” (The big what?)

He goes on:

“Let me try to explain…people have various systems to understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory and evolutionary psychology. But none completely explain behavior because deep down people have passions and drives that don’t lend themselves to systematic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside in the inner beast you could call The Big Shaggy.” (Italics, ours)

The Big Shaggy. Hmmm. Is that an expression or metaphor we had missed somewhere along the way? However, upon Googling, we learn that it is of Brooks’ own making. And that it seemed to leave many pundits, bloggers and dare we say “floggers,” puzzled and even ornery about the term and its implications. (How dare he!) But not us.


The Big Shaggy. We love it! We love it because according to Brooks, that is where music, art, literature, architecture, speech and other human expression emanate from. Often much to our surprise. As a writer of poetry, we have sometimes experienced that sensation of putting something to paper that comes from a place within, that we had not known even existed.


Brooks continues…

“there have been rare and strange people who possess the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy.”

And while he doesn’t name them, the first person that popped into our head was Steve Jobs. Subsequently, we read that: “Steve Jobs said that the most important class he ever took was a calligraphy class at Reed College, which helped him develop the thinking behind fonts at Apple.” Which set us to thinking about some of the other creative and contemporary game changers within our lifetime, both living and dead: Gates, Warhol, Disney, Picasso, Lenin and McCartney, Gehrey, JK Rowling, to name a few that readily came to mind.


So bottom line, if we are reading Brooks right: those who are open to exploring the depth of the soul and the reach of imagination, will always be needed in this world. And these people don’t just come from— to put it in our own words—a “left-brained” education, that presumes a linear path from classroom courses to financial reward.


But The Big Shaggy is not simply about trying to achieve some level of superior intellect or creative genius. We can’t all be movers and shakers. Nor revered icons. But we can all go back-packing to some far off place…run with the bulls in Pamplona…learn a foreign language… take a course in creative writing…or comparative philosophies…find new ways to assist those in need… etcetera…etcetera…etcetera.


So the next time we do something, that on the surface seems counter intuitive—especially if there appears to be no money in it—and those around us ask… Why? Now, thanks to David Brooks, we have an answer. We can shrug and simply say… “The Big Shaggy.”



“Jambo! Jackson!” Kenya a Year Later

It has been a year since Kenya: A Trip in Every Sense. (AUGUST, 2009 MUSE-LETTER). Among our many offbeat experiences on that journey, a particularly memorable one was a visit to a Masai village. “The tribe still lives in accordance with the old world African customs and ways,” we wrote in a didactical manner worthy of National Geographic.

Yet, we went on to note:

“The guide that showed us around— in his red tribal warrior dress and crude weapon—does however have access to email, through some organization not far from the village. Can Facebook and Twitter be far behind?”

We thought we were being facetious. But a year later, we introduce you to our Masai friend with whom we have communicated in the past year, including the last six months on Facebook —Jackson Naeku. Jambo! (Welcome!)






That he comes by such an “un-Swahili-like” 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.” He coined the term back in 1962, when it really hadn’t quite yet come to pass. Now it certainly has. But while the charismatic Jackson Naeku is very much a part of this new village, it is his ancestral one (ruled by his father who has two wives; his grandfather had thirteen!) that inspired this poem upon our return home last year.


The Tribe is Alive and Well

It takes a village to raise a child.
(Ora na azu nwa )

           —African proverb

It also takes a village, a Masai village
steeped in the cow dung of the everyday—
with its currency the very cow itself—
to teach us that our mint has been milked
of its worth,
and of the excess spilt
upon God’s green earth.


It takes a village to bring it all home;
home in the viscera of half-baked huts.
That those who live in low houses
sling not mud nor stone.

It takes a village to turn economics
on its over-extended ear.
That ergonomics in the form of two sticks
going at it atop a hunter’s blade
is the natural way in the birthing of fire.
The old ways still work. And yet
the old witch doctor no longer makes house calls.


It takes a village to live with oneself.
Far from restless, the natives are at peace.
They believe in all that is seen and unseen;
they believe in the land and in the Christ.
And they open up their clustered branches—
that keep them from the lion’s paw—
to the white man shelling out Kenyan Shillings
for a piece of soul and a story to take home.



                                                                           —Ron Vazzano







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