Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Postscript: Another Look Back Home

Pardon this mid-week interruption.

After posting photos and a few words about New Jersey here Sunday, I found myself in a nostalgic mood -- especially since I wound up visiting Mom in the house where I grew up in Totowa.

Here's just a glimpse of the living room there: that lamp, the doilies, all the little decorating touches Mom calls “gingerbread.”

I also posted two more photos -- both distant view of the New York City skyline -- on my Instagram accounts related to last week's adventures.

Here, for one, is a scene from the Rockefeller Lookout in Palisades Interstate Park. The one tiny boat sailing down the river is even smaller than Henry Hudson’s... but, as Hudson said when he first saw the view, “This land may be profitable to those that will adventure it!”

The other is an uncharacteristically vivid edit of a sunrise photo after a visit to Hamilton Park in Weehawken.

Editing photos heavily like this reminds me of my former Latin teacher in college. A priest, he offered this worldly advice when assigning translation homework: “Keep in mind that translations are like women. The more beautiful they are, the less true.”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

12 Images and Stories; 1 Week in New Jersey

These are the photos I took and the stories I shared about New Jersey this past week: a six-day adventure on behalf of Jersey Collective, a collaborative Instagram account that a different photographer takes over each week.

The week, for Jersey Collective, began on Monday, July 9, 2018, and I posted two images each day.

But, of course, the actual start of the week is Sunday, so I posted this photo of the Fair Lawn Bible Church on the 8th -- as part of the #NJChurchEverySunday collection I'm toying with at a Jersey-centric Instagram account. The rest of the week follows.

July 9 - Bendix Diner and Fairy Tale Forest

What better way to begin a week in New Jersey than breakfast at a diner?

Here’s the counter at the legendary Bendix Diner, which sits alone in an island at the fork of busy Route 17 North and South in Hasbrouck Heights. I had the place to myself at 6 a.m., and the gracious longtime owner Eva didn’t mind that I took photos. She’s grown pretty used to it in the Instagram era.


Yesterday while driving up Oak Ridge Road, I saw my past flash before my eyes. So I pulled over for this: the entrance to Jersey’s iconic Fairy Tale Forest, which, according to recent news reports, will reopen later this year after seven years of restoration.

Opened in 1957 by German immigrant Paul Woehle, the Brothers Grimm theme park set behind this roadside castle and massive “wooden” shoe is a cherished childhood memory for many (myself included). Woehle’s granddaughter, Christine, is leading the restoration efforts and plans to begin the park’s reopening by launching a cleverly-named family-friendly restaurant, Fables, by the end of this summer.

July 10 - New Bridge Landing and Garret Mountain

Here’s a morning scene within walking distance from my home: No filters, just beautiful natural colors at Historic New Bridge Landing.

This is the Westervelt-Thomas Barn, built in 1889 out of timbers from an older house and a brewery. It’s not nearly as famous as the Red Mill in Clinton, but to me it’s just as photogenic.

The barn originally stood in Washington Township and was donated to the Bergen County Historical Society in 1954 and reconstructed on its current site.

It was restored as an agricultural museum in 2014, open now on special occasions and filled with agrarian artifacts and tools.

Here’s why I ❤️ New Jersey: it’s in the center of everything. Just to the north of this four-building historic park is a nature path along the Hackensack River; just to the south is a shopping mall with restaurants and a theater, across the street to the west is a commuter railroad station, and to the east is the town of Teaneck, with New York City (like Emerald City) just miles in the distance.


A favorite place: the scenic overlook of Paterson from Garret Mountain Reservation. Just off Route 80, along the drive home from work, it was nearly 7 p.m. when I stopped by and still nearly 90 degrees. The parking lot was full, and people lingered in cars and listened to music, or ventured to the stone wall to take selfies and usies.

Down below is one of New Jersey’s great cities. It’s complicated and crowded and messy and beautiful. “The past above, the future below and the present pouring down: the roar.” (-- William Carlos Williams, “Paterson”)

July 11 - Weehawken and Jersey City

View of New York from New Jersey before sunrise at the site of Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr (214 years ago today). That’s the boulder where Hamilton laid his head after he was mortally wounded, covered this morning with wishing-well pennies.

This area near “death rock,” marked by the bust of Hamilton, is one of my favorite places to view the New York City skyline from New Jersey. I found it thanks to a photography meetup run by @njspots early this year. I’ve also enjoyed going to other meetups around the state, thanks to the great photographers at @blackglassgallery. (You should follow them all!) 


View of New Jersey from New York. I wanted to show the opposite of what I posted here this morning, and this was the view late this afternoon from the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building.

That’s the Jersey City waterfront skyline on the right side of the Hudson River (with the Statue of Liberty just a speck in the middle). Jersey City (larger than Fort Wayne and Buffalo) and Newark (larger than Jersey City) are the only cities in the state among the 100 largest in America. Still, 7 of the 10 most densely populated places in the country are located in New Jersey: Guttenberg, Union City, West New York, Hoboken, Cliffside Park, East Newark and Passaic.

July 12 - Paramus and Califon

I pulled over on my morning commute to explore the footbridge linking two shopping malls on either side of Route 4 in Paramus, AKA Mallville USA.

This small North Jersey borough has more square footage of mall space per capita than anywhere else in the country (and some say, the world). Because of local Bergen County “blue laws” most of the stores are closed on Sundays – and referendums to repeal these laws always fail because, at least on Sundays, the local traffic isn’t so bad.

This image faces west. The largest of the malls, Garden State Plaza, is just up the road to the left. Our local paper, The Record, recently posed this question: “As dying malls around the country are being replaced by ‘alls’ — multi-use centers that combine housing, office space, dining and entertainment with shopping — the question facing Paramus is this: Will it remain the last holdout of shopping malls? Or will it be a national model that figures out how to make brick-and-mortar retail work into the next half of the century?”


After work, I stopped to visit this sweet, forgiving, patient and majestic horse. He was thinner than this shadow 8 years ago, when he was rescued by my sweet, forgiving, patient and caring daughter.

Token of My Affection, or simply Token, is a 20-year-old Friesian from Holland. Once rescued, he enjoyed a great second life as a show horse before retiring from competition last year. Soon after I took this photo, he started to roll happily in the dirt.

July 13 - Basking Ridge and Wayne

This used to be a waterfall. Seriously.

It’s summer Friday, and for many this morning is just another working day in a suburban office park. There are quite a few in New Jersey. This campus used to be AT&T’s home until it was put up for sale in 2001, and the company removed its 16-ton gilt statue “Golden Boy” from outside this front entrance.

It was sold to Pharmacia, but never used — until Verizon bought it in 2005, gutted the buildings, took out the shag carpeting, and replaced an imposing black-stone waterfall feature in the front lobby with a graceful spiral staircase — right underneath that circular opening in the photo. I say “imposing” because I once tried to visit a girlfriend who was interning at AT&T, and thought to myself, “I’ll never work in corporate America.”

I was so wrong. Decades into a corporate career, I happily just purchased a coffee from the Starbucks in the lobby. Virtually all the private office space here has been converted to an open work environment with many great amenities. Still, there are days I miss having a traditional office. 


Date Night on Friday the 13th.

My wife and “permanent date” keeps threatening to start an Instagram account so she can post photos of me with my iPhone, trying to take atmospheric “Date Night” photos. She wants to call it, “The Ugly Side of Date Night” of “The Other Side of Date Night.” 

You can see some of these tagged #DateNight images on my @foundinnj and @bvarphotos accounts.

In the meantime, as I took this photo, a great solo musician, Jay Mickens, diligently played in the background to a sparse and listless audience in the fading sun. It was suggested that someone should start a band called Atmospheric Datenight.

July 14 - Alpine and Maplewood

This is Devil’s Tower, a haunted site in the middle of an upscale neighborhood in Alpine, NJ.

I returned here on a hot Saturday morning, thinking back to my only other visit last September, a few days after my birthday. Back then, I had posted a superstitious 13 photos of the place in a shared Google folder.

The legend is, if you drive or walk backward around the tower at least three times, you see the ghost of a woman who leapt to her death there — or find yourself face-to-face with the devil.

I didn’t temp fate either last September or on this morning in July; it was already hotter than Hell. 👻



Today (Bastille Day!) was the first of the free two-day music, art and food festival at Memorial Park in Maplewood.

How did I find out about this?

I came upon a child of God walking along the road, and he said friends and neighbors started the annual event in 2004 — in the spirit of Woodstock and 1,500 miles from Austin.

Just remember: We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon.


Adieu, and thanks for checking in on my travels this past week around New Jersey, the Garden State — a land of Dover dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Hello, Jersey Collective

Please allow me to introduce myself.

I'm Bob, and this coming week I will be contributing photos to Jersey Collective, a collaborative Instagram account that a different photographer takes over each week. Every day since March 2014, guests have posted at least one photo taken in New Jersey with a cell phone camera.

Asked to supply a bio for the site, I sent this:

Bob Varettoni has lived and worked in New Jersey FOREVER (yes, he's a vampire... and also, according to his favorite coffee mug, The World's Greatest Dad). He considers the Garden State the center of the universe, with easy access to cities and farms, beaches and forests, art and commerce -- and everything in between. His Tumblr (bvar.tumblr.com) and @foundinnj IG accounts are devoted to all things Jersey. Bob takes photos using an iPhone, which he has at his side 24/7 for work (corporate PR) and play.

So I've been around for a long, long year -- and also post many an image at @bvarphotos since Instagram is my favorite (that is, "creative" and "drama-free") social media platform.

Please join me this coming week at @jerseycollective, and get a little taste of life in New Jersey in 2018.

An example of what you might find?

Just this past week, I wandered around Paterson -- one of the most underestimated and misunderstood places in America. I have sympathy for the town, and just a few images to share:

Here's a somewhat related video -- not mine, and originally posted by Chris Pedota on www.northjersey.com -- of Paterson artist Said Elatab, who is inspired by the tragedies of his past.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Pictures at an Exhibition

What if nothing in our world was filtered?

In “Just Kids,” Patti Smith described being once inspired to draw a portrait of a portrait. It was one of many lines that intrigued me in the book – and you can read my review at the end of this post.

It made me wonder: Isn’t a portrait of a portrait more real than real life these days?

We live in a world of filters. Our photos are filtered; our news is filtered; our feelings are filtered.

With this in mind, I close June 2018 by posting a few photos I took at the Snite Museum of Art on the Notre Dame campus when the month began.

It seemed I had the museum to myself, as if in a recurring dream from childhood where I am the only person on earth, and I wander freely to explore amusement parks or city streets or walk along the center line of empty highways.

Here’s what I saw. No filters. Just art.

Two more, from a previous visit...


Just KidsJust Kids by Patti Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let me begin in the style of Patti Smith's Instagram account: This is a wonderful book.

The Audible version is quirky… read by the author, who drops her “g”s, pronounces piano as “piana,” and drawings as “drawlings.” Also, so many mentions of Arthur Rimbaud and the word Abyssinian. I found it enchanting, because it’s a world so different than my own.

I think – other than that we are both from New Jersey and she wore a shirt with my initials on it in the iconic cover photo for “Horses” – I have nothing in common with Patti Smith, or with Robert Mapplethorpe (who took the photo). But there was something universal that tugged at my heart when she read, “When I see this photo of me, I see him.”

Also, the book allowed me to time travel and be transported to New York City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. All the passing names and images, all now mostly dead or lost.

This is not, however, a memorial to a lost generation. Long before they became Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Robert encouraged Patti to sing, and Patti encouraged Robert to take photos. Am I a fan of their art? It doesn’t matter. The art they created is inconsequential to the act of its creation.

This is, in the end, a story about the transformational power of love.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Totowa Under Attack: An Update on the Abandoned Asylum

Abandoned buildings in the tall grass

My Mom’s town is under attack… first by Blackhawk helicopters, and now by wall-shaking explosions every weekday around noon.

It started in mid-April when, no lie, the U.S. Department of Defense conducted secret nighttime war games on the grounds of an abandoned asylum less than a mile from the house where I grew up in an otherwise quiet neighborhood in Totowa.

During a visit today, Mom described nearly daily explosions since May at the same site. The blasts have shaken her house so hard they’ve knocked framed family photos from the walls.

Welcome to life in the New Jersey suburbs.

Blame a development project now under way at the former North Jersey Development Center. The state Department of Labor is overseeing the blasting, scheduled to occur through August to remove 450,000 yards of material in preparation to build a computer center for JP Morgan bank.

In all, 35 buildings on the 188-acre site are being demolished to make way for a 257,000-square-foot data center. This is part of a larger redevelopment project that will also include 590,000 square feet for an assisted living facility, a medical office, a research and development facility, and associated parking lots.

A little over two years ago, I wrote about the history of the Development Center, and the post has attracted a steady stream of visitors since.

Here’s the way the main building looked in April 2016:

And here’s the way it looks in June 2018. Like me, just a little worse for wear:

But the backhoes are poised to do their dirty work:

It's only a matter of time.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Reflections on God, Country, Notre Dame

With Dad on graduation day
It was my Dad’s greatest wish for me to graduate from Notre Dame. It is still, to this day, one of the greatest joys of my life to have done so… because it made him so proud.

On this Father’s Day, having recently visited my alma mater for Reunion Weekend 2018, I reflect on three of Dad’s favorite topics, in reverse order…

Notre Dame

Like Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, Notre Dame likes to amp things up to 11.

This is engrained in the school’s DNA. After a fire destroyed the campus’ main building in 1879, Notre Dame’s founder, Holy Cross Fr. Edward Sorin, walked through the ruins, gathered students into the church next door and put the blame on himself for not dreaming big enough.

“I came here to build a great university to honor Our Lady,” he said. “But I built it too small, and She had to burn it to the ground to make the point.”

Welcome home
This is how the present-day Golden Dome was born. It is the still the centerpiece of the campus, and still gives chills to anyone turning the corner on Notre Dame Avenue to see it gleam a mile away in the distance. The sight impresses visitors, and welcomes alumni home.

But it’s a very different home than I remember. In 2018, one overheard first impression of campus was, “It’s like a golf course with a starburst of buildings.”

The comment brought to mind the image of myself, standing next to my young daughter on a visit here nearly a decade ago. She took in the sweeping expanse green fields outlined by new dorms and academic buildings of Collegiate Gothic design, distinctively colored by Sorin Brick made from lime-rich marl, a mud that lines the campus’ two lakes.

“Dad, you went to school here?” My young daughter asked, with a touch of awe Fr. Sorin would have delighted in.

“I went to school HERE?” I found myself repeating, with a touch of wonder. The entire quad she was looking at didn’t exist when I went to school at Notre Dame. I couldn’t believe it either.

By 2018, the campus had expanded even further. The new law building housed an entire courtroom, suitable for full-scale mock trials. The new performance arts center was built around not one, but seven stages. The new science building encases an entire planetarium.

A new football stadium was build around the old stadium... and then, as part of a $400 million development project, geo-thermal wells were installed beneath the parking lots and even the surrounding stadium was surrounded itself by four new, adjoining buildings, including a student center with a rock-climbing wall and a two-story ballroom overlooking the 50-yard line.

It’s as if Notre Dame cocoons itself every few years, and then explodes into something bigger and brighter.


Bigger, brighter, bolder. This is, after all, Indiana, the heart of America.

The Reunion Weekend included a reception in one of the football stadium’s new concourses. It was, quite literally, an open bar the size of a football field.

It is Catholic; I renewed my marriage vows here.
Consider the scene: strobe lighting, DJs and dance floors at both entrances, a sea of people drinking heavily. Tables upon tables of free food and drink. Blue-shirted workers hustle dirty dishes and try to keep the common areas clean. At one long table, dozens of plastic cups are lined up for an epic, recently abandoned, game of beer pong.

I am approached by a member of the cleanup crew. He seems upset, and he thinks — because of my age or sports coat or skin color — that somehow I am in charge of all this.

“This is not right,” he says to me earnestly, in a thickly accented voice. “This is a Catholic college.” He pointed to the beer pong table and to trays of hardly eaten food. “Too much,” he says. “Too much beer.”

He asks me to let the other organizers know his feelings. I agree to pass his comments along, transcribing his email address from a cracked phone screen.

I consider the maids and janitors in the dorms; the people who drove the golf carts and shuttle vans to transport alumni around the sprawling campus; all the workers at the two large dining halls; the gardening, maintenance and construction crews who were working in the hot sun that day; the salespeople at the bookstore; the ushers at the arts center; the grounds crew personnel at the stadium, and the temporary help they employed to stand guard at all the entrances to the football field.

All these people — the people at the party and the people cleaning up after the party — are part of what this university has become. It reflects the heart of America today. We aren’t necessarily divided by purpose, but we are still divided by race and age and gender and economic means. Even at a Catholic college.


Which brings me to God. Here’s a joke I overheard not once but twice during my weekend visit regarding Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the university’s legendary president from 1962 to 1987 who passed away in 2015:

Q. What’s the difference between God and Fr. Ted?
A. God is everywhere. Fr. Ted is everywhere, except Notre Dame.

Fr. Ted traveled far and wide in pursuit of social justice missions and the greater glory of Norte Dame. He embodied the bigger-than-life spirit of Fr. Sorin.

He struck up friendships with popes and presidents. President Carter appointed him to the U.N. Conference of Science and Technology, to a commission to create the Holocaust Museum and to the Select Commssion for Immigration and Refugee Policy Reform.

In return for his services, airplane-loving Fr. Ted asked for a ride on an SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane in the world. When the president balked at letting a civilian do so, Fr. Ted barked: “I thought you were Commander-in-Chief!”

That’s how, on the last day of February 1979, Fr. Ted traveled 2,200 miles an hour in a top-secret airplane, setting a still-held record for the fastest any non-astronaut has ever flown.

Fr. Ted's library
Fr. Ted’s library, with the iconic “Touchdown Jesus” mural, was the tallest building between Detroit and Chicago when opened in 1963, filled with more than 3 million books – half of which are now archived in another location due to the changing nature of libraries.

Fr. Ted insisted on infusing his university with a diversity of thought despite, or because of, its Catholic roots… which he always took pride in. To this day, there’s a crucifix in every classroom, although at a lecture I attended in the new DeBartolo Hall, it seemed to be hidden behind tech equipment.

His leadership in social justice issues was his ultimate claim to fame. I was reminded of this while wandering through the former student center, the one without the rock-climbing wall. The LaFortune building now houses what’s purported to be the nation’s highest grossing Subway fast-food franchise. In the center hall between its two wings there’s a large, impressive black-and-white portrait of Fr. Ted linked arm-in-arm with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights rally at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1964.

I was in LaFortune accompanied by my wife because I wanted to show her the offices of The Observer, the daily student newspaper where I had happily volunteered countless hours as an undergraduate. However, I learned that The Observer, in a metaphor for print journalism itself these days, now occupies part of the basement in the South Dining Hall.

I told my wife that Kathy, my best friend on The Observer staff, used to put laundry soap in the fountain next door to LaFortune. She just liked to watch the bubbles. But that the fountain no longer exists.

Then I tried to show my wife the hidden sculpture garden that Kathy and I once stumbled across in a remote area of campus behind Holy Cross Hall. But the sculpture garden no longer exists either.

Beyond this, around a bend, I assured my wife, there was a cemetery.

It was getting late, nearly 9 p.m., and our home for the weekend was a dorm on the other side of campus. The dorm didn’t exist when I went to school there, and the naming rights were purchased by a classmate of mine. Still, my wife humored me because, with South Bend on Eastern time, it seemed to be the land of the midnight sun, and sunset was nowhere in sight.

Fr. Ted's grave
The cemetery I explored with Kathy decades ago was still there. It was filled with small cross headstones in neat rows. Years ago, I had simply assumed they were veterans’ graves.

No, my wife said, reading the markers in 2018, these are graves of all the brothers and priests who had lived and worked at Notre Dame. They are buried in chronological order… one right after the other, with no marker more distinct than the next, speaking to the perspective of those who offered their lives to be part of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

That made it was easy for us to find Fr. Ted Hesburgh’s grave. It was here, in a remote Indiana cemetery, marked with the same stone as all his brothers.

Everyone buried there had done his part, lived and died, to the best of his talents, for a higher purpose than individual glory.

Fr. Ted was bigger than life… just like his legacy, the Notre Dame campus, still is today. But the message I learned in my time travel to this small cemetery after so many years is that no one is bigger than death. No person is more important than another; everyone contributes to everything.

God, I believe, is the only judge of our lives. Only the passage of time reveals the true import our efforts. Our biggest heroes are buried in the most modest graves.

Dad's grave

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Summer Reading List... And Some Books to Avoid

Photo by @bvarphotos
It's Memorial Day weekend, so it's time for me to read "The Great Gatsby" again.

But what if, Old Sport, you don't want to repeat the past and would simply appreciate a few recommendations about something worthwhile to read during the summer of 2018?

For those with such tender curiosity, here are five recently-read books I would highly recommend:
  • "The Boys on the Boat," by Daniel James Brown
  • "A Higher Loyalty," by James Comey
  • "Make Your Bed," by William McRaven
  • "In Harm's Way," by Doug Stanton
  • "Dear World," by Bana Alabed
Having recently updated my privacy policy 🙂, I'll disclose that real-life friends and social-media connections have written books I can highly recommend as well. Here are five:
  • "U.S. Route One," published just this past week by Mark Marchand
  • "I Hope My Voice Doesn't Skip," available June 5 by poet Alicia Cook (a recommendation based on her previous book, "Stuff I've Been Feeling Lately")
  • "Verizon Untethered," by Ivan Seidenberg, Scott McMurray and Joellen Brown (yes, this is a shameless plug)
  • "Leaving Story Avenue," by Paul LaRosa
  • "Never a Good Time," by Jack Hoey
All 10 can be easily found and purchased on Amazon.com, and you can read reviews of all except Mark and Alicia's new books on my Goodreads feed.

In reviewing all these reviews, which are based on a scale of 5 stars, I now realize I hardly ever give less than 3, believing that any published work is a worthy effort (save for "Pride and Prejudice," which deserves a special place in Literary Hell). Still, some of my 3-star reviews are rather sarcastic, rife with Stephen King references and more entertaining than the more-positive reviews. So here's a repost of five mediocre reviews of books you may want to avoid:

My Ántonia (Great Plains Trilogy, #3)My Ántonia by Willa Cather
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Add this to the list of what I read in high school or college, thought I had loved, and then years later... upon further review... I’m overturning my call: The Sun Also Rises, Being There, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lolita (although only because of the subject matter... it’s still undeniably a work of genius).

Now, My Antonia too. It was like listening to paint dry. I kept imagining what Stephen King might do with the story buried here about the wolf attack on the wedding party in Russia.

It’s not that I’m especially fickle. After all, I still love The Great Gatsby. Through the years, it has never let me down. And the music of The Beatles. And the poetry of Yeats. And anything by Poe. Even my old friend, Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, imagine me reaching for a Kindle right now, searching for a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles

Wait, What?: And Life's Other Essential QuestionsWait, What?: And Life's Other Essential Questions by James E. Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Listened to this during a long drive through New Jersey on a Friday night, and thought, “Eh...” So maybe you can blame location or the darkness, but I didn’t find this as inspirational as Admiral McRaven’s “Make Your Bed” or Jonathan Fields’ “How to Live a Good Life” or, hell, even James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty.” I would have preferred the shorter, speech-as-delivered version of this book — especially if the original didn’t include the graphic childbirth stories. I get the premise about the questions, I really do. But as one of my heroes, John Prine, once sang: “A question ain't really a question, if you know the answer too.”

Kill CreekKill Creek by Scott Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I could have sworn I saw Stephen King quoted somewhere saying this book was great. Which is why I bought it. And now I can’t find any evidence of his endorsement. It’s like I’m being pranked by the malevelant spirit of Very Good Horror Fiction Writers Who Have Sucked Hours of My Life Away — And For What?

OK, this book is good. It’s actually two books in one — the psychological horror in the first half, and then “surprising” part, with psychological horror combined with graphically depicted murders and a heroic character who undergoes stultifying superhuman torment... running around with a broken ankle while cutting himself on shards of glass. Surrounded by spiders, and lots of blood. Maybe there was a deep leg wound too.

I don’t know. It’s all too much — and I listened to it for hours and hours. Why? Because Stephen King recommended it? I can’t even be sure of that anymore.

Damn you, VGHFWWHSHMLA-AFW! Damn you to Hell, all of you! Until, I suppose, the obviously talented Scott Thomas writes his next book. Will I have learned my lesson by then?

The DispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a regular crime story short story - and a fine, professionally written one at that - with a radical twist in the premise. As the online blurb states: "One day... it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back." Suicides and natural deaths don't count, so just plug this into the equation and start the plot. It's pure fantasy, with arbitrary parameters, like a story about Zombies... posing theoretical tensions and outcomes that are, well, purely theoretical and outside the realm of possibility. In fairness, this is what fantasy fiction is all about. Never expecting to encounter a Dispatcher or Zombie in real life, however... all things considered, I would rather have spent this time watching a baseball game.

The Sarah BookThe Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

[SPOILER ALERT: The following is written in the style of the book itself -- which is a sad reflection on the reviewer since, in real life, I only wish I could write as well as Scott McClanahan.]

I have a car. I was listening to this book while driving my car. My wife was with me. “What's that?” she asked. I told her it was an audio book. An audio book called The Sarah Book. My wife said, “It’s an audio book?” “Yes,” I said. “It’s called The Sarah Book.” “It sounds like it’s written by a third-grader,” my wife said. “It isn’t,” I replied. “Well, it’s the way kids in my third-grade class would tell stories,” she said. “Just one thing after another. It’s very repetitive.” “Well,” I replied, “It’s actually a very well-reviewed book. And it’s short. I’m trying to keep an open mind about it. Everyone loves it.” Everyone but my wife.

Then the author continued reading in his mesmerizing drawl. It wasn’t one of the good parts. I had heard some good parts, but this wasn’t one. This part was about an old dog, and I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to be humorous, pathetic or ironic. Or whether it mattered. I had thought some parts were poetic. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was right. Maybe my feelings are just a metaphor for life, and we’re all trapped inside this book review. All of life is just one big book review, and we don’t even know if the author is reliable or not. Did he really take his kids on a joyride while drunk? I don't think we can ever be sure.

So I need you to forgive me. Also, I know I’m using the word “I” a lot. I’m just warning you: if I were you, and I purchased this book, I would get used to it. Anyway, I know that all is lost. Everything we love will be lost. So what does it matter?


What's next? Mark Marchand's book in Kindle format, Alicia Cook's new book in soft-cover (because poetry just doesn't translate well on a Kindle) -- and, on deck in Audible format, "The Last Boy," about the life of Mickey Mantle by Jane Leavy.

Why The Mick? Because it was highly recommended by real-life friend Paul Macchia, and because I often find myself borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Three Images of Unconditional Love

Harley, top; Molly Anne, left; and Phoenix
We are surrounded by unconditional love.

It’s often hiding in plain sight, but sometimes -- like a monster in a horror movie -- it reaches out and grabs you by the throat.

That happened to me three times this past week.

It began last Saturday, when I posted about the death of our family dog, Phoebe.

I shared the post publicly on Facebook, but soon reset the privacy settings to “friends only” due to the personal nature of the supportive comments.

Many friends shared about their own relationships with their family dogs, and the overriding theme was how much they treasured the unconditional love they had experienced.

Several posted photos of their dogs, and they shared heart-rending stories.

Pictured here are Phoenix, who my cousin described as “our destroyer of worlds”; Molly Anne, “in the winter of her years”; and Harley, a 16-year-old lab who died this past December.

“I still pretty much cry about him once a day,” wrote Harley’s owner. She went on to express something others also hinted at: “Losing a beloved dog is so hard because they've given us pure, unconditional love every day. They've never judged, hurt or disappointed us. They never rejected us or tried to fix us. They just loved us, without reservation, no strings attached.”

Another friend who recently said goodbye to a beloved dog, Marino, said her son looks up at the sky every morning and waves to his pet in Doggy Heaven. Still another friend said he lost his last dog five years ago and still looks for her face at the window whenever he pulls into his driveway.

I was so touched, and grateful, to read these comments.


The next day, Mother’s Day, I should have seen it coming.

Mothers, after all, are the personification of unconditional love, and yet I am guilty of having taken this for granted in my own life.

Planning to drive Mom to visit my late Dad’s older brother, Julian, I had prepared myself with questions to ask her while we were alone in the car.

My colleagues at Verizon had devised a Mother’s Day social media promotion -- #callmom -- designed to bring together mothers and their adult children to have a conversation they haven’t had before. I had two questions to ask Mom: What’s the single thing you would do differently if you could go back in time? What has surprised you most about how your life has unfolded?

To my surprise, Mom answered each question thoughtfully during our long drive. To my further surprise, I learned nothing new about Mom -- except that, touchingly, she is currently reading “Conversations in Heaven,” a book about five individuals who are greeted after death by their shared guardian angel.

I thought, “Ah-ha! So Mom’s been honest with me all these years!” The nerve of her; she has no great regrets, and she is filled with gratitude about her life.

Then we arrived at Julian’s, and I saw the way the two old friends -- who had shared a great love for my father -- greeted each other.

I saw PDUL. A public display of unconditional love.


The day after that, I left on a business trip to Jacksonville.

Having never been there before, I tried to soak in everything in just two days. “Soak” being the operative word, since it rained nearly non-stop. Still, I managed to get some sunrise photos at Atlantic Beach — and a bit of an education during the Lyft rides to and from the airport.

I observed that Jacksonville is humid and flat, filled with palms trees, pickup trucks… and picture-perfect sunrises. It’s a great expanse of one-level homes, restaurants, car dealership, gas stations… and churches.

So many churches, so many different denominations, in so many different styles of buildings… some even looked to be former office buildings. I was particularly struck by this because, lately, I’ve been noticing all the churches that surround my home in New Jersey too.

Why all the churches, I wondered?

Just then, a monster ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and highlighted a sign outside one of the passing buildings: “All Are Welcome Here,” it read. “Come Worship With Us,” read another sign down the road. And, “Whoever Prayed for the Rain, Please Pick Another Subject!”

Churches are filled with the promise of friendship, forgiveness and redemption. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re accepted as soon as you walk through the doors.

How often do we ignore all the welcoming signs, and all the invitations to grace that surround us?

Thank you to friends who offered condolences for Phoebe, and thanks to Mom, and thanks to the surrounding churches for reminding me this week that unconditional love is a mighty force, one that should never be taken for granted.

Like my cousin’s dog Phoenix, it is the destroyer of worlds.

Sunrise in Jacksonville