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.

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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.

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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


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Rare Photo of a Good Dog

Our dog Phoebe died this past week, and all I can do is howl at the moon.

Here’s a photo of her; the only one that does her justice.

She was part of our family for more than 15 years until, after a precipitous decline in health and quality of life, she passed peacefully in the arms of our youngest daughter, Maddy.

Despite Phoebe’s regal beauty in real life, she was eerily unphotogenic.

Perhaps it was her monotone coloring… black on black, save for a white chest patch. With her head down, she was impossible to see in the darkness. My Mom accidentally stepped on her twice when they first met.

Or perhaps, like Greta Garbo, Phoebe was simply camera shy and valued her privacy. She ran from me when I approached holding any device with a lens, but Maddy managed to snap this photo during a car-ride to a local Dunkin’ Donuts in the days before Phoebe realized phones also had front-facing cameras.

As soon as this was taken, she learned to duck out of the way of all cell phones too.

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Phoebe was intelligent, but untrainable. These were two qualities she shared with my two daughters as they all grew up together. (One exception: as smart as she was, Phoebe never truly learned the concept of “screen door.”)

She was the runt of the litter, chosen by our daughters at an adoption fair at the Petco in Ramsey, NJ, in early 2003. She was a mutt or – more charitably – a “Labradollie” of “Borador,” which is part Labrador, part Border Collie. The girls had every intention of naming a pet after Joey, a character on the TV show "Friends." Since their new puppy was female, they improvised.

Phoebe became their enthusiastic playmate. She galloped when she ran, and I often imagined the background music as Miss Gulch rode her bicycle in "The Wizard of Oz" when I watched our puppy take off on her various backyard adventures.

True to her Border Collie roots, Phoebe’s favorite backyard game was herding.

Our oldest daughter, Cathy (who Phoebe once locked out of our house), used to convince Maddy and her friends to run around the yard pretending to be sheep. They’d shout, “Baa! Baa! Baa!” and Phoebe would gallop in circles to keep them together in the same place.

Phoebe herded her toys too. She’d arrange them all into one neat pile. Her favorite toys were stuffed squirrels, bears and sheep – and, grotesquely, she would mark them by chewing off their eyes.

Besides herding, she was also exceptional at guarding.

Usually even-tempered and sweet-natured (except when encountering bicyclists, other dogs, old women, babies or squirrels during her walks), Phoebe judged anyone who approached our front door using an instinctive litmus test. Most visitors and tradespeople gained her immediate approval. Our usual UPS deliveryman had witnessed the arrival of the vet at our house, and the next day he knocked at our door not to deliver a package, but because he wanted to express condolences to my wife, Nancy (Phoebe’s constant companion). “She was a good dog,” the two dog-lovers agreed, their highest compliment.

But some few callers – such as one unfortunate PSEG meter reader, and just about anyone who sought entry when the family wasn’t nearby -- feared for their lives when they approached our front door.

The girls always felt safe around Phoebe. More than safe: protected. Phoebe even protected them from me, since for years I mercilessly teased and joked at the dog’s expense, rather than at my daughters’.

In return, we accepted Phoebe for who she was – with all her quirks and allergies… the way her legs twitched when she dreamt… her love of snowfall and licking dirty dishes before we could close the dishwasher door… her primordial fear of fireworks and lightning. We treated her as family:

  • The girls took care in planning her Halloween costumes: a "bad dog" prisoner outfit from Party City; a pink Little Bo Peep costume, hand-sewn by Maddy; a hotdog.
  • We included her in our family’s made-up rap-star names: I was jogging “Run Daddy,” Nancy "Big M" (for Mom), Maddy "Little M," Cathy "Cagey C," and Phoebe was "Notorious P."
  • Maddy baked biscuits using a dog-friendly recipe, and Phoebe especially loved these. She didn’t want to eat them right away and would stuff them between sofa cushions or run around the house whimpering with a treat in her mouth when she couldn’t find a suitable hiding place.
  • Phoebe would randomly run up to Maddy excitedly, as if wanting to tell her something. "What is it, Lassie?" she’d playfully respond. "Is Timmy trapped in the well again?"

We took Phoebe on family vacations to Cape Cod. Since she looked just like the logo for the local “Black Dog” brand, she strutted – and was treated -- like a celebrity when we took her for walks on the streets of Chatham.

I happen to have this photo too, but truthfully I don't need a distant image to recall how Cathy and Maddy took her for a walk to a landing off Oyster Pond, and how Phoebe waded out to romp joyously in the shallow water.

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I realize, now that sweet Phoebe is gone, what she and I truly had in common: The instinct to herd and protect.

She was much better at both than I’ve ever been.

I wonder if she held on to life as long as she did simply because she didn’t trust me to do these things on my own.

Just like me, Phoebe was always at her absolute happiest when my wife, two daughters and I were all together – which, now that my daughters are grown, happens rarely. Whenever we’ve all been at home lately, we’d praise Phoebe lavishly because she had once again herded the four of us together. We’d all gather around her, pet her, and praise her for doing such a good job and for being such a good dog.

Earlier this week, when I left for work the first morning after Phoebe was gone, I realized that I no longer had to step over her as she tried to block my exit from our house.

This has long been my morning routine. Upstairs, I’d say goodbye to my wife and tell her I love her, then I’d stop at each of the two other bedroom doors and tell each of my daughters the same – whether they’re there or not.

Finally, I’d go downstairs and awkwardly step over the dog on my way out the door. “Goodbye, Phoebe,” I’d say, and pat her head, “Good Dog!”

Phoebe was always at that door, always protecting us, always trying to keep us near, always worrying about the ones who weren’t there. When I walked over that empty space where Phoebe used to sprawl, I realized she still needs me to carry on and help her protect us.

And now it’s time to say goodbye.

In this endeavor, I feel like I’m in over my head, treading water. Still, I find comfort in the image of Phoebe frolicking in a shallow boat basin. I’ll try to follow her lead and maybe blast through a screen door or two. Life is short, and we should all spend more time pretending we’re celebrities, enjoying some extra cheese, bacon and peanut butter, and playing in the snow.

In the end, Phoebe, I know I never appreciated you enough. Forgive me for teasing you, and for posting your photo.

I promise to do my best to keep our family together without you, and to try to keep our lives from being overrun by all the squirrels.

Goodbye, Phoebe. You were a good dog.



Sunday, May 6, 2018

Stumbling Into Magnificence in New Jersey


On a recent visit to Branch Brook Park in Newark to take photos of the Cherry Blossom Festival, my wife Nancy led me instead inside the nearby Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

This is how I stumbled into one of the most magnificent locations in all of New Jersey.

For me, it was like coming home.

Nancy's great-grandfather was among the many immigrants who had cut and lain the stones during the church's construction. In 1955 my parents -- through the favor of family friend, Fr. Oates, who directed the choir -- had gotten married there.

In the top photo, that's newly ordained Fr. Julian B. Varettoni (Dad's older brother), officiating at the wedding of Frances and Robert Varettoni, all with their backs to the church-goers at the Pre-Vatican II altar. In the bottom photo, 62 and a half years later, I had the same view of the same altar.

Of course, I also photographed this scene from another "artsy" angle on my iPhone. I particularly like this photo (right) -- although it hasn't turned out to be my most-liked Instagram post.

I think that has to do, somewhat, with the polarizing aspect of anything overtly religious.

This past week, I read a great autobiography written by journalist Paul LaRosa. He describes his boyhood church in The Bronx, NY, as "a macabre funhouse... jam-packed with gruesome paintings, sculptures and stained glass windows. There is a gigantic cross hanging from the rafters showing Christ in the agony of his death... There is a lot of talk about ghosts and people rising from the dead... It's easy to imagine this place being haunted."

I can appreciate and understand this view. My own view, though, is that beautiful churches and cathedrals are grand expressions of hope among people who believe there is more to life than what we can see. Sacred Heart's own website describes the cathedral basilica as "a symphony of praise" to God.

When I look inside a church, I see something that transcends our life and death. I see a sanctuary for a timeless, collective consciousness that aspires to something more and something better, filled with symbols of faith and hope and longing.

The outside structures -- whose architecture is sometimes sturdy and utilitarian, and sometimes breathtaking -- are tangible reminders that, even in the midst of everyday life... in the midst of poverty of spirit or means (for the most ornate structures are often in the poorest neighborhoods)... there is a place that's haunted.

On my Instagram account devoted to all things New Jersey, I've begun posting photos of local churches every Sunday, and I wanted to post a few more of Sacred Heart here (see below) -- although, these days, you can take this virtual tour of the place.

Still, I highly recommend a visit in real life.

Sacred Heart's front doors... yesterday and today

Views of Sacred Heart in 2018, and (bottom right, Mom and Grandpa) 1955

Mom needed two red carpets to roll down the center aisle at her wedding
Dad and Mom revisited the church on their 40th anniversary...

...And renewed their wedding vows.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Military Appreciation Month: The Story Behind the Stars

Drive around my hometown -- New Milford, NJ -- and you'll notice street signs that display a gold star next to the same names that are inscribed on our Veterans’ monument in front of Borough Hall.

What are the stories behind those stars?

May is Military Appreciation Month, and the New Milford Historic Preservation Commission recently produced a presentation that provides the extraordinary details of some of these stories.

You can scroll through the entire 40-slide presentation -- produced by my wife, commission president Nancy Varettoni -- here:

 

The first few slides highlight New Milford's rich history as the first permanent settlement in Bergen County. Here's a separate Historic Commission brochure that summarizes that detail.

What especially intrigued me were the photos and profiles beginning with Slide 14: pilot Louis J. Faller, just 24 years old and New Milford's first resident to die in World War II.

Much of this source material is thanks to Teresa M. Martin, a long-time educator in New Milford's middle school, who in 1947 published a booklet about the 563 men and women in the borough who joined the Armed Forces (and the 223 citizens who volunteered as members of the local Defense Council) during World War II.

In the slides that follow, we learn that Henri Neil Reichelt, also 24, died during the sinking of the USS Juneau, after fierce fighting near Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Nancy researched this battle to learn (from a Washington Post story) that five brothers had died when the ship was torpedoed by a lurking Japanese submarine I-26. The fatal torpedo had missed the nearby USS San Francisco and struck the Juneau near the compartment where munitions were stored. The ship exploded instantaneously, broke in two and both parts sunk within 20 seconds.

We also learn about the life of Frank J. Rosse before he was killed in action in January 1945. The second lieutenant had come from a family of musicians. Before being drafted into the Army, he played guitar in a trio with his two sisters. After his death and joined by a third sister to perform as The Fontane Sisters, his siblings sang with Perry Como on several hits, including "A, You're Adorable."

We learn, later, that Richard T. Shea Jr. married Joyce Riemann of New Milford before dying in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill in July 1953. He posthumously was one of 145 Korean War veterans to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry and courage. His son, Richard III, was born two days after his death.


The last profile is that of James B. Woods Jr., just 19 years old when he died after injuries suffered when his helicopter was shot down over Vietnam in August 1969. Young Mr. Woods was the manager of the McDonald's in the neighboring town of River Edge, NJ, before enlisting in the Army. His father flew through a combat zone in Vietnam to be at the side of his comatose son when he died at an evacuation hospital in Da Nang.

The elder Mr. Woods returned home to New Milford on a plane with his son's casket -- and the caskets of six other sons, from six other towns, who had all died in the fighting in Vietnam.

May is Military Appreciation Month, and the stories behind the stars deserve to be heard and honored.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Re-Visiting Some Old Friends on World Book Day

Green light at the end of my patio
Great books evoke feelings in us that are different today than they were yesterday, and that will probably be different tomorrow.

Well, maybe not literally tomorrow, April 23 -- which happens to be World Book Day.

But what better occasion to examine the changing relationships we've had with the books in our lives?

I'll go first -- and name three, beginning with...


"Lolita"

Which -- unlike you or me -- hasn't aged very well.

As I've written before, I was half the age of Vladimir Nabokov's protagonist when I first read "Lolita." It enthralled me. When I last read it, I was about the age of Nabokov himself when he wrote his love letter to the English language. It repelled me.

(You can always count on a blogger from New Jersey for a fancy prose style.)

In the intervening years, my wife and I raised two daughters. This taught me two things: 1. Life is precious. 2. People aren't as smart as they think they are.

"Genius" is a word that appears many times in Nabokov's book. I get it. "Lolita," this Lolita, is a Work Of Art... as the reader is reminded with every turn of the page.

These days I view this "genius" as simply #FakeLanguage masking real-life horrors of women being beaten and demeaned. There is no great poetic love there. It's all just an artifice of pretty words about pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cries herself to sleep every night.

Still, literary genius is real, and it can sneak up on you when you least expect it, like...

"Slaughterhouse-Five"

Which has grown better with age.

Re-listening to it recently, I found myself unstuck in time.

When I first read it in college, I thought Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was trying too hard to be clever, and I simply found it silly.

Still, I gave the book another chance in Audible format, because I've lately grown to love listening to books on my workday commutes down and up Route 287 in New Jersey -- which is otherwise a soul-sucking exercise.

The actor James Franco was narrating, describing a movie about American bombers in World War II. Protagonist and time-traveler Billy Pilgrim was experiencing the movie backwards. The passage described the bombs being sucked back into the planes, and the cylinders being dismantled. Female workers separated the dangerous contents into minerals, and specialists in remote locations returned these minerals to earth, "hiding them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again."

I had to pull over to the side of the road, because I was so totally and unexpectedly touched and amazed.

Which is the way I feel every Memorial Day weekend, when I re-read...

"The Great Gatsby"

This is my true, beloved and ageless friend. This slight book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which recently turned 93 years old, never fails to renew my love for great writing and the power of imagination.

As I've also written before, it's not a plot-driven thriller. Instead, it's episodic and dream-like.

There's something uniquely American about this book... and something uniquely resonant about a tale that begins right as summer begins and ends right as summer ends.

When I used to drive my daughter back and forth from college in Washington DC, we sometimes listened to "The Great Gatsby" together during the car ride. The magic of the words seemingly dissipated traffic because we never quite made it to the end of the book by the time our journey ended.

Things often ended abruptly in the smouldering hotel suite at The Plaza -- when there was still the possibility Gatsby might end up with Daisy. My daughter and I were always just as happy that the story ended right there.

As far as we're concerned, Gatsby never went for a swim before they closed up his pool.

And as far as I'm concernced, America is still -- even after all these years -- a land where anything, even "happily ever after," is possible.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Book About a Big Company That’s Bigger Than Itself

What did it take to get the U.S. stock market up and running just days after the 9/11 attacks? What was Steve Jobs like as a business partner? How does a company close a $130 billion transaction, or choose a new CEO, or disrupt a successful business to stay successful?

“Verizon Untethered” provides an insider’s insight into these questions.

It’s a readable primer of interest to business students, technology geeks, or anyone curious about the collective impact of individuals who work together with a common purpose.

Many stories in this book are from the point of view of Ivan Seidenberg, the longest-tenured CEO in America before his retirement in 2011. The book also includes insights and stories from several dozen business leaders of Verizon and its predecessor companies, dating from 1983 up to present-day CEO Lowell McAdam. The text is interspersed with rare photos, and commentary from consultant Ram Charan about business "lessons learned" that are more relevant in 2018 than ever.

Scott McMurray is the author, but I suspect much of the book’s readability is due to the efforts of Joellen Brown, who is cited in the acknowledgements as helping to provide historical context, research materials and several reviews for accuracy.

Joellen, my friend and former colleague, recently retired as chief speechwriter for Verizon C-level executives and head of the company's executive communications team. She is a masterful editor. Based on her involvement in this project over the past two years, I asked her recently what she thought were key takeaways from this book.

She noted:

  • The development of the wireless business, almost from birth, and the parallels between wireless's early years and the current challenges in growing Oath, telematics, and other new businesses.
  • The audacity of some of the strategic choices (e.g., Fios, AirTouch, even the aborted TCI deal). Hindsight sometimes turns bold moves into sure things... worth emphasizing that risk-taking has always been part of the strategic DNA of the company.
  • The quest to make networks matter, and the longstanding belief that technological leadership would translate into competitive advantage.
  • The role of culture in the building of a company. Or (maybe this is the same point) the primacy of culture over personality/individual ego.
  • What makes a merger work? The book is full of mergers and acquisitions that work, but also plenty that didn't. What's the difference?

Joellen Brown, center, with Lauren Tilstra and me, 2017.
Finally, she asked about Verizon’s “essential character”: “If you could transport yourself back to 1984, what would you recognize as familiar to the Verizon of 2018?”

With full disclosure, let me try to answer that.

If one takeaway from this book is, “Verizon is not your father’s phone company,” I know that for a literal fact. My father worked 35 years for New York Telephone, NYNEX and then Verizon, and I have worked 33 years for NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and now Verizon. Still, it has never seemed that I have worked for the “same company,” even over the course of my own career, since whatever-the-company-is has changed so radically over that time.

“Verizon Untethered” is the story of that radical change, told from the perspective of people I’ve been honored to know and work beside.

There’s irony in this story too. Verizon has been changed by outside forces that it itself has hastened and enabled. The infrastructure and new technologies deployed by Verizon and its predecessor companies have been the prime catalysts for sweeping changes in the way we all live, work and play.

So to answer Joellen’s question, I would say simply:

Verizon, existentially, has always been a part of something bigger than itself.

The people who work there realize that – they always have, and always will. That connected-ness has added value to the world, added value to customers, and added value to our personal and professional lives.

In that spirit, all proceeds from this book are being donated to the VtoV Fund, which provides emergency assistance to Verizon employees unable to live in their primary homes after a natural disaster. There are no administrative fees; every penny goes to someone in need, and the Verizon Foundation provides a match for every dollar donated.

In the end, “Verizon Untethered” isn’t a history book about a company. If history has taught us anything, it’s that companies come and go. This book tells stories about people, and the things some people do to try to make a positive difference in the world.

---

“Verizon Untethered” (publication date: May 1, 2018) is available for pre-sale now at Amazon and other book distributors.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Baseball's Best Lesson: There's More Met Than Yankee in Every One of Us

Double rainbow over Citi Field, 2017
It happens every spring. Baseball enters our lives to teach us new lessons.

What have I learned this year?

It’s simple, but profound -- and originally expressed best by author Roger Angell: There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.

This lesson begins with my boyhood awe and wonder, when my Dad took me to my first major league baseball game. He had elaborately tipped a cigar-chewing fat man in a ticket booth on 161st Street in The Bronx, and we wound up with field-level seats.

As we emerged through the concession area to face the field — me, a little boy holding his Dad’s hand — my first view of the impossibly green, cavernous Yankee Stadium field gave me goosebumps.

It’s perhaps the closest I’ll come to ever seeing Heaven. It was perfection.

Contrast that to another day soon afterward: my second visit to a major league game. My eccentric Uncle Charlie wanted to take me to the new Shea Stadium, built on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair.

He escorted me there on the New York City subway, which I had never been on before. I saw sights and sounds on my first ride on the No. 7 train — especially on the elevated section through Queens — unlike anything I had encountered growing up in the New Jersey suburbs. Years later, at an arts film festival in college, I had a flashback to this subway ride when viewing Fellini’s “Satyricon.”

Uncle Charlie opted for the cheapest tickets available. We wound up in the top, nose-bleed section of Shea, and we climbed the steeply-pitched stairs as if we were scaling a mountain. During the game, I gripped both sides of my seat, white-knuckled, fearing I’d fall over onto the field far below. The wind howled and, not far above, giant planes made booming noises after takeoff or landing at LaGuardia.

It’s little wonder that I was a Yankee fan from that time on.



I have many fond memories of the team, culminating on Oct. 16, 2003, when my friend John Bonomo and I attended Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the hated Red Sox. Aaron Boone, the current Yankee manager, perfectly ended a perfect evening of baseball with a memorable game-winning home run.

As years went by, however, something happened — to me or to the Yankees — that changed my perspective. When I went to the games, the fans seemed… entitled… well-off… and a little self-satisfied. It was just like looking into a mirror of who I had become myself. This has always been my greatest existential fear: that I would become just like everyone else.

Yankee baseball became a science or, worse, a business… and years followed featuring “grind-it-out” at bats, with every hitter working deep into the count, and each game a four-hour marathon.

One day, I found myself sitting with my feet up in an easy chair shouting at the YES channel, “Oh for Heaven’s sake, someone just take a swing at a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate.” It was then I realized that rooting for the Yankees was turning me into a joyless old man.

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Stalking Mr. Met
Enter Mr. Met.

Mr. Met insidiously entered my life when I met my wife Nancy, a lifelong Mets fan. At a Halloween party in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, on Oct. 25, 1986, Nancy and I wore Hawaiian shirts we had purchased on our honeymoon, as we huddled to watch Game 6 of the World Series on a small TV while standing next to a stranger dressed as the Grim Reaper.

The Mets rallied for three runs to beat the hated Red Sox in the bottom of the 10th. As soon as announcer Vin Scully uttered those 12 immortal words — “Little roller up along first… BEHIND THE BAG. It gets through Buckner!” — I embraced my new wife and high-fived the Grim Reaper with pure joy.

Cue Ingmar Bergman.

So began a wonderful new chapter in my life, punctuated by the soundtrack of a Mets game on TV or radio during subsequent summers — through good times and in bad. When the Mets built their new home, Citi Field, a few years ago, Nancy purchased a memorial Fanwalk brick for her sister, a devout mother who died too young from cancer. She was also a lifelong Mets fan. There’s a replica brick displayed in our living room today, inscribed: “You gotta believe! In memory of Eileen. Love, Nancy.”



I’ve been to a few Yankees games since 2003, but many more Mets games. I was disappointed when I visited the new Yankee Stadium a few years ago and found it majestically enclosed around itself, like a museum.

In contrast, Citi Field is bright and open, filled with eccentric Uncle Charlies... happy, diverse people. The stadium has interesting nooks and crannies, fun promotional days (our living room also has an odd collection of bobble-head Mets dolls on display), and Nancy and I were once featured on the Kiss Cam. It’s like a carnival.

I love every silly thing about Mr. Met -- and I've stalked and photo-bombed him through the years. I love the song "Meet the Mets" and Citi Field's Home Run Apple. I love the team's engaging social media presence, and smart, irreverent SNY TV announcers. I love that nothing about the Mets, save for a Noah Syndergaard fastball or any pitch delivered by Jacob deGrom, can be described as majestic.

And, as a fan, because the Mets have endured more heartbreak than the Yankees, it makes celebrating with them even sweeter.

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This spring, for the first time in my life, I took off from work and went to a ballgame on Opening Day.

I took Nancy to Citi Field on the subway. We rode the MTA’s museum train, billed as “the train of many colors.” Train workers snapped photos of this No. 7 train as we started our journey at the Hudson Yards station. We sat in one of the 50-year-old trailing “redbird” cars, the same kind of car I had ridden with my Uncle Charlie.

As we traveled through Queens, a full mariachi band — including a full-size standup bass — went busking from car to car. It was still just like Fellini’s “Satyricon,” but with a better soundtrack. When we arrived at the Citi Field station, the MTA’s creaky old PA system played “Meet the Mets,” and Nancy knew all the words.

It was a joyous day. The Mets beat the Cardinals, but that was almost beside the point. The game renewed my spirit. I tweeted about it; I posted photos on Instagram. When my friend John questioned why I post items like this about the Mets, I told him I still consider that night in October 2003 a highlight of my life, and I still do root for the Yankees. There’s just something about the Mets that resonates even deeper with me these days.

Angell summed it up best in his book “The Summer Game.”

He wrote that cheering for the Yankees’ “perfection” is “admirable but a trifle inhuman.” The Mets’ “stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming.” He concluded that “exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.”

As I've learned, those are very wise words.

If there is a Heaven and I've got a ticket, I'd happily hold my Dad's hand again -- and this time tell him how much I loved him -- and enjoy a baseball game together at the old Yankee Stadium.

But these days... with Dad gone... here on Earth... I'd rather spend my time at Citi Field.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Blue Moon, Now I'm No Longer Alone...



These days, my two daughters sleep under the same roof only once in a blue moon. Literally.

Early Saturday’s blue moon – already the second of 2018 – was the last chance to see a blue moon in New Jersey until 2020.

Early on Easter Sunday morning, I’m writing this at the dining room table as both daughters are asleep in their bedrooms upstairs. Here’s photo evidence that someone else visited in the middle of the night…


It seems even the Easter Bunny knows that my daughters have grown up to become two incredible… and very different… people.

A blue moon is technically when two full moons appear in the same calendar month.

That’s nothing.

As a dad, I appreciate that having your children together in one place – happy, dreaming, warm, fed, loved -- is a heavenly event filled with more awe, wonder and rarity than anything the moon can muster.

As the smell of breakfast bacon rises from the kitchen, our old dog has curled her body to block the front door to try to keep anyone from leaving today. I know how she feels.

Yesterday, I experienced my own version of the Harrowing of Hell, which is Christ’s descent into the underworld on Easter Saturday to bring salvation to all the righteous who had died since the beginning of time. I braved traffic on the FDR to retrieve my younger daughter.

I didn’t rescue her by driving to Manhattan. She rescued me by coming to New Jersey.

Happy Easter to all!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Remembering MLK in Paterson, 50 Years Ago


Yesterday a local newspaper feature story inspired me to visit a modest church on Auburn Street in Paterson, NJ.

It's the site where, nearly 50 years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for 20 minutes before traveling to Memphis, where he delivered his memorable, prophetic "mountaintop" speech on April 3 -- and where he was assassinated on April 4.

According to Richard Cowen's story in The Record, King's next-to-last speech on March 27, 1968, drew thousands of people who jammed the sidewalks as his motorcade, arriving from Newark, "finally turned the corner onto Auburn Street and made its way to the old wooden church where the sound of gospel music swirled through the rafters like incense."

The rest of the story about that late March night in Paterson is an outstanding example of local journalism, complete with a photo gallery, video and podcast. It reminded me of the fact-based, detailed front-page story in The Washington Post on Saturday morning before the March for Our Lives in DC (where King's 9-year-old granddaughter stirred a crowd of hundreds of thousands).

In fact, this same Saturday, some streets near Auburn Street (which has been officially renamed Freedom Boulevard, although there are no markings of this) were closed on the day of my visit because of a march to honor gun-death victims.

It was simply coincidental that this annual march in Paterson -- held on the Saturday before the Christian holiday of Palm Sunday -- was taking place on the same day as student-led protests held throughout the world to call for an end to gun violence and mass school shootings.

This is Paterson's heart-breaking reality: The modest Bethel A.M.E. church on Auburn Street/Freedom Boulevard was fenced-in and locked, and a resident quoted in Cowen's story noted that she does not feel free living here, due to the high crime rate of the area. She will not allow her son to walk to the library by himself, even though it is less than five blocks away. (Also, within a short distance from comfortable, upscale suburbs.)

Across the street from the church, a sign states that a park in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s name is "coming soon." However, this plot of land and sign have been unattended for four years.

Just last week, according to The Record, the city tried to auction one of the two lots set aside for the park -- until Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, who represents the neighborhood, put a stop to it.  

Said the Rev. Allan Boyer, the church's current pastor: "I'd like to see a park for kids, with some cherry blossom trees, and some quotations from King, so they could learn about him." 

Meanwhile, Cotton has committed to building the park.

I believe she will succeed, and I'm going to see what I can do to help. After viewing yesterday's video of King's granddaughter, I have a little hope.

I believe that next March I will return to the same corner to take photos of some cherry blossoms.